I’d always been interested in working in film, but I really had no sense of what it was like. I had a kind of fantasy about it, though, instructed in part from my younger brother, Jordan, who I knew worked gruelling hours on projects that seemed crippling in their dysfunction, and yet yielded a sizable income. He drives a nice car and wears nice clothes, and so do all his film industry friends. For a guy like me—toiling away in the trenches of the modern-day media industry—this seemed kind of appealing.
“Get me in, man!” I’d bug him, every time I felt like my chosen profession had got the best of me. “Get me in!” He’d decline, for a few reasons. One: he had no real pull at the time, still climbing the ranks like a good soldier. Two, and more pertinently, he figured I wouldn’t like it.
“This is a service industry,” he said once. “There’s nothing creative about it.”
But fantasies are persistent. And so was the Covid-19 pandemic which, by September 2021, had done an admirable job wreaking complete havoc on my life: my career had all but evaporated and my marriage was on its way there, too. Couple that with a mortgage and two young daughters to feed, plus a dollop of extreme isolation from having moved to a new community the year before, and I felt cast out in an abyss, tethered by some rope that no one seemed to be on the other end of.
Then Jordan called and said he had a film gig for me.
“What is it?” I asked.
“Covid testing,” he said.
Not ideal, but I was without a choice. And again, fantasies persist. I figured I could work on my long-gestating novel, about 100 pages of which were already written, in the downtime while on set.
The movie would become It Lives Inside, the directorial debut of Bishal Dutta (and produced by QC Entertainment, perhaps best known for producing Jordan Peele’s Get Out, and Brightlight Pictures). At the time it was still called The Pishach (pronounced pish-ash), named after a demon in Hindu and Buddhist mythologies and the monster of the film. Dutta, who also wrote the script, pulled from his experiences growing up in America with Indian heritage, and that sense of alienation permeated the story.
Making a film has three phases: pre-production (aka, prep, when the producers assemble the crew and most of the actors, and when all planning for the shoot happens), principal photography (aka, actually shooting the thing), and post-production (aka, post: editing, sound design, etc., when the film takes its final form). I was one of the first people hired during prep and watched the whole production unfold, like a giant circus tent built piece by piece.
I’d watch Dutta and the producers map out the film, and in doing so, my fantasy became more vivid. I decided I’d shelve the novel and complete a screenplay in my downtime instead. I’d make inroads with the producers. I’d sell the screenplay. New career activated.
Except that downtime on set never materialized. Set life is simultaneously exceedingly busy and stupefyingly boring. Always waiting, always needed at a second’s notice.
Film sets are also lessons in collective action in pursuit of a shared vision. The director is the monarch, the producers are his advisors (and also, his bosses). The rest of us, his subjects. There’s an unreality involved with filmmaking. Time stretches. Natural rhythms of sleep and rush hour are obliterated in favor of the machine, military-like in its execution. The individual self is obliterated. You must give yourself over to the mission. On the crew, no one is unique—a hard thing to bear when I’d dedicated my life to a career based on individuality, perspective, and creativity. None of that was important here. My previous professional successes mattered not one little bit. My isolation became more acute—the abyss darker, heavier, more remote.
My job was to literally test every single person on set for Covid on a twice-weekly cadence, which, like set life in general, was both complex and monotonous. During my second week on set, I developed a cold that mutated into a massive ear infection. It pulsed and throbbed with such intensity I could feel it in my teeth. Delirious with a fever, I spilled water on my laptop, frying it and losing all 100-or-so pages of my novel (always use the cloud, kids).
I spent what little downtime there was feasting on generous helpings of humble pie. I was a nothing, a nobody, a headcount, and that was about it. I was coming unglued—not in a psychiatric sense, but more like my image of myself was becoming dismantled. I could tell there was something useful in this knowledge, even if it was far too painful in the moment to figure out what it was.
On the flip side, filming was going well. Dutta was effective on set, and congenial. He treated me, lowly Covid guy, like an old friend—something they surely must teach young aspiring filmmakers working their way through the Hollywood machine. Megan Suri, the film’s star, was charming and sweet. Jordan, working as the production manager, and Jameson Parker, working as executive producer, ran the set far smoother than I thought was possible, given the war stories he’d shared of past experiences.
“It’s one of those things where I can’t imagine a better experience making a first movie—physically making it,” Dutta tells me, two years later, during a media blitz leading to the film’s Vancouver release.
“How do you create value for an audience, specifically on the screen, whether it’s the use of extras, the locations, the camera movements? It’s all this stuff that we’re constantly thinking about. How do we get this to feel lived-in and feel like a real world to an audience? I thought the way the production was structured in this case allowed for a lot of flexibility and allowed me to say, ‘These are the things that I need.’ ”
I felt this, too. There is, somewhere amidst the long hours and dull tasks, a magic to filmmaking.
Then, in week three, my best friend died at the age of 41. A day later I was back on set, handing out stickers to actors and crew for their Covid tests. Someone asked me, “Should you even be working right now?”
What choice did I have? I was a functioning cog in the great machinery. Bailing would throw the whole system out of whack. By that point, I had no illusions about my future in the film industry—hint: there would be none—but I wasn’t going to upset the balance, either. I had a job to do. Grief or pain (emotional or otherwise) had no place. For about a week, I wandered the set in a state of shock, untethered now in that abyss, that set life unreality even more acute.
I didn’t shed a single tear for my friend until I received the invite for his funeral. I was alone in an unused building on set and I collapsed in a fit of grief—crying finally, but not just for him. I was so far out and I had no idea how to get back.
But I managed to anyway.
Two years go by. The pandemic ebbs and the career’s back on track. Family life: stable. Grief: you never really get over it, honestly, but it’s far less acute.
I’m sitting in the theatre watching the Vancouver premiere of It Lives Inside with a smattering of people who helped make it. It’s hard to judge a movie you witnessed the creation of, but I was impressed by the sheer amount of labour and teamwork that went in—that always goes in—to creating 90 minutes of one person’s vision.
But watching the finished product, all this time later, is a little like revisiting my own personal horror movie. Each sequence of the film feels like a snapshot of my acute personal turmoil, albeit cut up and assembled out of sequence. Still, there was no pain in it. If there was a feeling at all, it was glory—that I’d made it through that hell.
As I drove home, it occurred to me that I was never really lost in the abyss. I was just visiting, letting it work its lessons on me. I needed it. We all do, I suppose, now and then.