We’ve all felt it; we all know its inescapable pull. That moment when we are struck with that unquenchable passion to tell the tale. We’re filmmakers, we’re artists, and we’re story tellers. We seek understanding, we seek deeper explanations, and so we set out to tell a story as much to ourselves as we do to others. We immerse ourselves in their themes, learning their key points, becoming their champions, becoming their experts. We become clowns, magicians, professors; we become philosophers, scientists and surgeons. We don’t concern ourselves with whether art imitates life or life imitates art because quite frankly the point is moot to us, art is life. We tell our stories, whether they are quick forays into what it means to laugh at ourselves, at each other, at the absurd, whether they are quick jaunts into fear and the macabre, easy reminders of love and passion, or challenging insights into the norms and taboos of our time. We share what we think is right, what is wrong, what is changing, what needs to, what we fear, what we love, who are mentors are, our enemies, our heroes.
They say to best understand a concept you must teach it. We know this instinctually, it is etched into our DNA. Our fears, loves, faults, insights, confusions, wants, needs, hopes, dreams… all a matter of public record. We are like toddlers that refuse to keep their clothes on, we just feel better and more comfortable and free when we are exposed… whether we are in front of or behind the camera.
Never has this been as clear to me as it is with my latest documentary project, TREE, the story of one man seeking an existential understanding of himself, the world, and everyone in it. The story is a culmination of every deep question I have ever asked or explored. It is this same self-exploration that has driven me to read countless books, to write and perform for the camera and onstage, to sell all my possessions to live on the most isolated island chain in the world, and to be ever changing in the way I think and act.
Metamorphoses, change, and self-evolution in the form of personal journeys are some of the most familiar and common themes of mankind. Aristotle touches upon them in his Poetics. Joseph Campbell reveals them as the Hero’s Myth. They have been re-tooled and fashioned into countless scenarios for us to identify with which we will tell time and time again until, is no one else left to hear them. We each, in our own way, help tell this story; as artists, we learn from and add our own voices to it.
My Current Journey/Film
I had been seeking a way to powerfully illustrate the importance of personal internal journeys for some time when I learned what Neil Crummett, who would soon become our subject, had chosen to do. Neil had chosen to do something that was immense, larger than life, and maybe even a little crazy. He was going to sit underneath a tree and fast for 49 days while seeking answers to the existential questions that had plagued him his whole life. Neil was going to sit with powerful teachers under this tree to aid him in the search for himself. It was a jarring, frightening proposition and it instantly brought me on board as the producer. There’s nothing safe about asking the really deep questions about existence, they threaten to unravel the comfortable blankets we’ve wrapped ourselves in our whole lives, and for Neil to push himself to the brink, to put everything on the line to learn large personal truths seemed powerfully appropriate.
The same evening that I committed to this project, I met our first teacher through happenchance. He was a motivational speaker who “coincidentally” had done a 49 (a seemingly arbitrary number at the time) day fast himself and was now using that experience and what he learned to help people realize their potentials all around the world. This was the beginning of a series of “coincidences” in my journey developing this film. It has, thus far, been a strange trip, and it has become hard not to think of words like kismet and fate.
Careful What You Wish For
As artists, we begin to eat, breathe, and drink the world of our film. We become inextricably part of it; we nurture it and begin to see its themes emerge in our own lives. We become a channel for them… and we start to change. Often our hang-ups and true feeling begin to emerge and we are forced to face some pretty heavy stuff. In some cases we have to learn to get out of our own way, to let go of limiting ideas, and to let the true story birth itself. If we don’t, we risk holding our film back from its potential. We are the voices from which the stories emerge, and we must allow them to flow freely through us.
In college I performed in a stage production of Sam Shepard’s True West, a dark tale of two estranged brothers reconnecting in very violent, dysfunctional ways. The other actor and I, a very close and dear friend of mine (almost a brother) had our real-life relationship challenged during the rehearsal process. We were very often at ends with each other. It was as if the challenges the two brothers faced in the play magnified any subtle strains in our real relationship. They were unearthed and we had to deal with them for us to move on in the process. We were forced to deal with the same themes we asked our audiences to deal with, only in larger, more direct, and more intimate ways. If we had not faced them, if instead we had hid from or buried them, our performances would have lost an important dimension and in some ways we would have failed the piece.
And so it is with the development of TREE that I find myself wading through the hang-ups, cynicism, and limiting ideas that create a divide in myself between “where I am” and “where I want to be.” I find myself becoming an expert of both “being aimless” and “finding grounding”. I am being introduced to a plethora of ideas and concepts surrounding the human condition, spirituality and consciousness. I’m learning to let go and trust, to sift through doubt, and to identify the patterns and beliefs, whether they serve me or not, that have developed in my life. I’m learning to humble myself before others wiser than me and to kneel before the “crowd-funding gods” as I call upon the masses to take this journey with me. It’s a tough row to hoe, but it is all part of the journey. If I’m going to expect our subject to put himself through the fire to find his own inner truth, I had better have some idea of where he is going. If I haven’t found or inspired change in myself, I can hardly expect to inspire it in others.
It is the filmmaker’s journey and it’s one of the ways we’ve chosen to personally navigate through life’s biggest questions. We immerse ourselves in them. We put ourselves in other people’s lives, we adopt new or different perspectives, we suspend judgments and we actively listen. We learn and teach empathy, point of view, dissention, and deconstruction. We point our finger at something and ask the world to “look at this”, but only after we have stared the longest and hardest at it first. And after all this, at the end of the day, the lives we’ve touched and inspired the most, most frequently are our own.
ABOUT MARK MATTHEWS:
For more than a decade, Mark Matthews has been bringing stories and narratives to life on both the stage and screen as a producer, director, writer, and performer. In addition to his degrees in Theater Arts and broadcasting, Mark was awarded Best Student Director of the southwest United States including Utah, Nevada, Southern California, Arizona and Hawaii by the Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival. Since then Mark has gone on to produce and direct original local television content for such markets as Chicago and Hawaii, live comedic stage productions that toured the mid-west, highly conscious documentaries about sustainability and community, and viral online videos featured on AOL News, Ebaum’s World, and Break.com. Some of his recent clients include the CW, ABC, the Golf Channel, Kashi Cereal, Hyundai, Sony Pictures, Warner Bros and Disney.