Q + A: Writer + Filmmaker Garfield Lindsay Miller on Motivation, Filming the Dalai Lama, and What Scares Him
After taking a History of World Cinema class at Wesleyan—a small liberal arts college in Conneticut—when he was 20, Garfield Lindsay Miller began to experience film as an art form. This discovery led him to Sweden, England, and Morocco, where he worked on student films assisting with everything from moving equipment to shooting and production management.
Later torn between the pursuit of a law degree or becoming a storyteller (a decision he considers one of the most difficult of his life), Garfield chose film—a path that has brought him a Gemini nomination and the Wilber and Silver Chris Awards for the documentary The Fires That Burn, a TIFF premiere and AIFF award for the feature film A Stone’s Throw, a meeting with the Dalai Lama at his compound in Dharamsala, and most recently, a stint in the Writer’s room for Bitten—an upcoming werewolf-themed TV series. He still wonders if he made the right choice.
I’ve had the pleasure of knowing Garfield for the last decade, and was thrilled to interview him.
You can contact Garfield at Storyfield Productions
1. You were in your early twenties starting on this path. I remember you leaving parties long before everyone else because you planned to be up early, working on scripts or other projects the next day. When doing self-guided work, how do you maintain the motivation and discipline necessary to succeed?
I remember a lot of that. It was the narrative that I told myself, if I wanted to be successful I would have to make those sacrifices. It’s a combination of a desire to be successful and actually be able to do this work professionally, and the fear that if I don’t make those sacrifices then I won’t be successful, and I’ll have to do something I really don’t want to do.
I find usually when I’m working at my best it’s whatever just feels natural. I don’t know that leaving parties early was necessarily the best thing. I’ve learned that a really important part of the process is getting outside and letting loose and socializing and having a good time. The last three days I’ve gone out every night and also had some really productive work days. So, I’m not sure that that was the best way to go. But I don’t have rituals. I know that certain writers like Stephen King–he gets up at the same time very morning and he writes x amount of words and he won’t leave his office until the words are finished, and I admire that. That doesn’t seem to work for me. I think if I force myself to do that, either the work I create isn’t as good, or I just sit there and surf the internet. I think the pressure to write builds up and then you sit down and you release it, and then it builds up again. That’s the process for me.
2. What do you worry about?
On a personal level, I worry about paying the bills and having a roof over my head and feeding myself. And that’s directly related to the work, obviously. There’s family stuff. There’s worries there. But on a larger social scale, I have this pessimistic view that society will be crumbling in the next ten years or so. So I worry about that, like “What’s going to happen when the water stops coming out of the taps and there’s no more food to eat, what am I going to do?” And the fact that I’ve been worrying about if for as long as I have and yet have done absolutely nothing to prepare for it worries me too. That’s probably my biggest one. But as a writer, I’m definitely, in part, motivated by fear. Sitting down when I really don’t want to, to do the work, is usually motivated by the fact that if I don’t I’ll be doing something I really don’t want to do. There’s a lot of those moments.
3. What do you turn to for inspiration to keep the creative tap flowing?
I watch a ton of stuff. If you want to work in this industry you have to know what the references are and what’s being done. But I don’t really think that’s where my inspiration comes from. For me the initial inspiration often comes from my own life, and it always comes when I kind of don’t expect it to come. I usually will read as a form of research, so once I have an idea, I’ll start reading to sort of bolster it, and find ways to make it more interesting and more dynamic and more complex, or to figure out how to pull it off. But the initial idea usually comes from life, some sort of life experience. I do go to a lot of music concerts. That definitely I find inspiring–kind of gets me out of this mindset which I think is important.
4. In 2009 you directed a documentary called The Hero’s Classroom which featured spiritual leaders including the Dalai Lama. There’s a picture of the two of you looking into each other’s eyes. What was the experience of meeting him like?
He’s an amazing figure. You mentioned my looking into his eyes–that was a pretty cool moment. He definitely has a certain aura about him that is powerful. I wasn’t talking with him, it was the kids [a group of 11th and 12th grade students] that were talking with him, I was just documenting. So my goal there that day was just to get everything. There was a lot of pressure because his time frame is so short, you have to set it up very quickly, he comes in, you don’t want anything to go awry when he’s there, so you’ re really kind of stressed. It’s ironic that you’re most stressed with this person who’s the most unstressful figure, all about peace and well being.
One of the great things about doing documentary work is getting to meet some amazing people, and get to know them, and learn about their lives. There’s a lot of people out there doing amazing things around the world that you never hear about until you start looking and talking to them. That and the opportunity to go to some great places are the best parts about being a documentary filmmaker. It’s definitely not the pay, and it’s definitely not the fame or the accolades. You can make a really powerful film, and five people will see it, so I think the best part is meeting incredible people and going to some amazing places. Like–that was in Dharamsala, in the mountains of India, in the Dalai Lama’s compound. We were in his living room.
5. What’s the biggest thing that surprised you about writing for television?
I think the organic, nebulous nature of the process. Some writing rooms are very well mapped out and others aren’t. But that doesn’t necessarily equate to better or worse shows, it’s just, that’s the process. And, the constant reworking and rewriting. I’ve learned that I work very slowly–before moving into television and seeing how fast they write the scripts, and how fast they rewrite them. We’ll have a story meeting about a script that was written, and then two days later we’ll have a story meeting about the next draft. And you’re like, how did they even write another draft in that period of time? It’s so fast. But it has to be, because a TV show is this huge mechanism. So, that was very surprising to me. And I think that’s the biggest challenge, is how do you write that quickly and still make it good.
6. Money woes are one of the major obstacles that prevent people from pursuing their creative passions. What’s your advice for people who want to delve into a creative field, but are afraid to let go of job security?
My first response is I would say don’t. If you’re afraid to let go of security, don’t do it. I’m at a point where I don’t really have any other choice. All I know how to do is this. So, I’ve kind of painted myself into this corner where that’s my only choice. But I’ve been fortunate because there’s always been just that twinkle of hope or moment of success, just a taste of it, that’s kept me going. A little bit of something to hold onto that says this is real.
To be honest, anyone that’s ever come to me for advice on how to pursue things or how to move forward–I’ve never said “don’t”. It just depends on what you really want to do. The bottom line is you just have to do it. If it’s writing you just have to keep writing. You have to write scripts, you have to just keep doing the work, and also that’s never enough You have to manage the business side of things. And if you need to take other work or jobs, ideally they’re going to be ones that, in at least some way, lead you in the right direction. Whether that means they provide you with enough free time that you can pursue it, or if they actually are directly related to what you want to do. As long as you’re constantly moving towards your dream or whatever it is you want to achieve, then that’s the key.
7. When do you feel the most fulfilled?
Part of it is coming up with an idea and getting it out. That’s extremely fulfilling–the process of writing it. I also think that when you get feedback–positive feedback–that’s also very fulfilling. And then, obviously seeing your stuff on a screen, in front of an audience, is extremely fulfilling. But also terrifying. Like gutwrenching. I’m a bit of an introvert so I prefer the more introverted aspects of it which is the writing and the response to the writing.
8. You’ve worked on documentaries, fictional films, and are now exploring television. What would your dream project be for your company, Storyfield Productions?
I’ll always want to do stuff that’s socially relevant, and telling stories that are socially relevant yet first entertaining is, I think, the ideal. But specifically–and this doesn’t necessarily fall into the socially relevant part–I have a show I’ve developed called Rollin which is about an Indie rock band on the road. I think it could be a huge, huge, huge hit, but it’s a really tough sell because it’s so far outside the normal structures of what television does. It’s almost like a road TV series which you just don’t necessarily see, but at the same time I think it could be fantastic. But everything I’m developing, everything I have scripts for–I would love to see any of this stuff get made.
9. What does the notion of succes look like to you?
I think it’s doing what you love and being able to do that for a living. I think that’s success. At least, right now, that’s my view of success. Just being able to write.
Readers: I’d love to hear your thoughts! What is one thing you worry about in regards to your life or creative work? What do you turn to for inspiration?