Filmmaking: A lesson in perseverance

It’s 5 o’clock in the evening, and I’ve been editing for six hours. I’ve watched an interview 15 times trying to dissect it and see how it can become a through-line throughout the film. I have five hours left to edit before I allow myself to sleep. My eyes ache, my head hurts, my tan has disappeared and all I want is to be back on the road living the adventure rather than trying to tell the story of it. Between the cat knocking over the external hard drive, the endless rendering and the feeling of inadequacy, I’m about ready to throw in the towel.

The Highway Walkers” was my first experience editing a feature length film. For 30 days, Josiah and I documented our hitchhiking trip from Iowa to Oregon. On average we filmed for 5 hours a day, which comes out to a minimum of 150-hours of video. That is six and a quarter days of footage! We were inexperienced and eager to film, but didn’t have the wisdom to know what footage was better off deleted on the road. This led me to sitting in front of the computer watching days and days of footage, the majority of which would never see light. We had a great resource in JJ Kelley of Dudes on Media who passed along insight about the filming process and who told us to have an idea of the story we wanted to tell. Little did we know how little we knew.

Darrell Johnston and Josiah Laubenstein hitchhike from Iowa to Oregon in the film, "The Highway Walkers"

Darrell Johnston and Josiah Laubenstein hitchhike from Iowa to Oregon in the film, “The Highway Walkers”

I would sit in front of the computer and become immediately intimidated by the mountain of material I had to trim down to 1:11 minutes. I had to learn to see the film in stages rather than in it’s entirety. I started breaking it down into chapters and beats and moments, chipping away at the mountain, shrinking it into a much more manageable and less intimidating size. The experience was pretty much a reiteration of everything I had learned in Sunday school, boy scouts and every other religious or goal oriented organization.

Not to get overtly spiritual, but there is something transcendental about seeing a project from start to finish. The book, ‘One Man’s Wilderness’ is a collection of journal entries collected from Dick Proenneke as he builds his cabin in the wilderness of Alaska from nothing but tools he made himself. He writes:

“I do think a man has missed a very deep feeling of satisfaction if he has never created or at least completed something with his own two hands. We have grown accustomed to work on pieces of things instead of wholes. It is a way of life with us now. The emphasis is on teamwork. I believe this trend bears much of the blame for the loss of pride in one’s work, the kind of pride the old craftsman felt when he started a job and finished it and stood back and admire it. How does a man on an assembly line feel any pride in the final product that rolls out at the other end?”


The experience of completing the project was laid out before me like a timeline. As I freelance as an actor as my day job, I was doing a fair amount of traveling in those 8 months of editing. I started in a cabin in northern Minnesota where I learned to see the film piece by piece, traveled to Wisconsin where I started to find the voice of the film. It was on the llama farm in Wisconsin that the pieces started to fit together with our new musical score. Then in New York City, Josiah and I learned how to let go. By the time I was in NYC the movie had been cut to 1:50 minutes and I had no idea how 39 minutes of footage was going to be removed. A friend of mine who works in the arts affectionately calls the process of editing your own work as ‘killing your babies’. NYC is where I learned how to kill my babies and trust that the story would still be told. In Olive Hill, TN is where the film had it’s first audience and where the first DVD was burned.

Spontaneous spelunking in Idaho. "The Highway Walkers"

Spontaneous spelunking in Idaho. “The Highway Walkers”

This timeline of locations and memories of toting external hard drives around the country are my scars and calluses that I will carry with me for future editing projects. They are my sense of completion and my link to the journey that is seeing a project through to the end.

All of this to say that while editing a film is no more toilsome that writing a novel, reading all of Shakespeare’s collected works, running everyday or completing a diet. It’s all about enjoying the journey of completion, of being able to look back over the timeline of the project and bask in the sense of accomplishment. I hope that as I grow in the field and have more projects and adventures that I become better skilled at articulating what it means to see a goal to completion. Best of luck to you whatever your journey may be.

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