Filmmaking

A Whole Lot Of Not Quitting

On Sunday, Carol Dysinger won the Oscar for her short documentary, Learning to Skateboard in a Warzone (If You’re a Girl).

It’s a delightful film that will make you both laugh and cry, but this post isn’t a film review. It’s about a life lesson that I learned from her.

In 1977, when Dysinger was twenty-two years old, she won the coveted Student Academy Award. Frank Capra, famed director of You Can’t Take it with You and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, presented the award. It was (and is) a big deal — of all the student films made around the world, only one can win. Everyone, including Dysinger, assumed her career would take off like a rocketship from there.

Of course that stuff only happens in the movies. 

Dysinger’s real story was more of a struggle. She has worked in Afghanistan for almost 20 years, making documentaries that won prizes and grants from top festivals. But nothing compared to her early win.

I met Dysinger in 2009 when I joined a grad film program where she was the editing professor. She was working on a film called One Bullet Afghanistan, which, more than twelve years later, she’s still working on.  

It was during this time that Dysinger was asked to make a film about the girls of Skateistan — a school where underprivileged kids learn basic academics and how to skate. She accepted. Then this film, this side project, just took off.

Learning to Skateboard was nominated at major festivals and won at Tribeca and the BAFTAs before winning the Oscar for Documentary Short Subject. 

43 years after Carol Dysinger won the student academy award, she won the grown-up version. 

When I was her student, Dysinger’s favorite piece of advice was that becoming a filmmaker would take “a whole lot of not quitting” — a phrase she repeated during her acceptance speech. 

A whole lot of not quitting. That’s great advice for pretty much anything. Everything takes much, much longer than we think it will. We get frustrated, upset and dejected. After six years or ten, we give up. 

Sometimes quitting is the right choice. But often, those who reach the pinnacle do so not with shortcuts or luck, but because of a whole lot of not quitting. For decades.  

I’m thrilled to see one of the good ones succeed — four long decades after her first taste of success.

Non-obvious choices

My film school classmate Heather shared this video of Henry Thomas’ audition for E.T. Take a look.

What stands out are the choices he made. Before becoming an investor, I spent some years in film. I’ve auditioned children for roles and most of them make the obvious choice – screaming, shouting, being loud. That is likely what most of the kids who auditioned for this role did, too. “NOOOO!!! You can’t take him!!” etc.

But what Henry Thomas did was so unexpected. With such little information, he decided to very quietly cry. He made the creature his friend, he asked how the agent even knows all this. He decided to be extremely vulnerable. These are the choices that got him hired.

I’ve often said that there are a ton of similarities between tech and film1. This is one small example – when you are interviewing candidates, a majority will pick the obvious answers. That’s fine. They could be journeymen in the company. But when there is a candidate who makes an entirely non-obvious choice, something that makes you sit back and think in a new and different way, those are the candidates who can change the trajectory of the company. Hire them.


  1. That’s for another post 

Your beach, in Manhattan -

Your beach, in Manhattan

The beach is always there: you just have to conceive of it. It follows that those who fail to find their beach are, in the final analysis, mentally fragile; in Manhattan terms, simply weak. Jack Donaghy’s verbal swordplay with Liz Lemon was a comic rendering of the various things many citizens of Manhattan have come to regard as fatal weakness: childlessness, obesity, poverty. To find your beach you have to be ruthless. Manhattan is for the hard-bodied, the hard-minded, the multitasker, the alpha mamas and papas. A perfect place for self-empowerment—as long as you’re pretty empowered to begin with. As long as you’re one of these people who simply do not allow anything—not even reality—to impinge upon that clear field of blue.

Zadie Smith, on Manhattan.

Such a great piece on the city, warts and all, and on creating in the city.

Finally the greatest thing about Manhattan is the worst thing about Manhattan: self-actualization. Here you will be free to stretch yourself to your limit, to find the beach that is yours alone. But sooner or later you will be sitting on that beach wondering what comes next. I can see my own beach ahead now, as the children grow, as the practical limits fade; I see afresh the huge privilege of my position; it reclarifies itself. Under the protection of a university I live on one of the most privileged strips of built-up beach in the world, among people who believe they have no limits and who push me, by their very proximity, into the same useful delusion, now and then.

It is such a good town in which to work and work. You can find your beach here, find it falsely, but convincingly, still thinking of Manhattan as an isle of writers and artists—of downtown underground wildlings and uptown intellectuals—against all evidence to the contrary. Oh, you still see them occasionally here and there, but unless they are under the protection of a university—or have sold that TV show—they are all of them, every single last one of them, in Brooklyn.