Marilyn Monroe once said, “Hollywood is a place where they’ll pay a thousand dollars for a kiss, and fifty cents for your soul.” Many have echoed this sentiment.
Award-winning director and writer Diane Bell offers an alternative template for making movies. Her book “Shoot From the Heart” and her online academy of the same name put heart and soul back into the process. That process is fundamentally opposite of the usual, albeit precarious, Hollywood track that can often feel heartless—more like “shooting yourself in the foot.”
Through wisdom gleaned during her career as a yoga instructor and then later as a filmmaker, Bell comes from a philosophical or even spiritual perspective of filmmaking, hence the name of her book and academy.
“All the information I share comes from a place of integrity and authenticity, meaning it comes from my own honest experiences,” she said in an interview in September.
“I don’t teach theory. I teach real-world nuts and bolts: how-to-make-it-happen-yourself information, along with a heavy dose of if-I-can-do-it-you-can-too inspiration.”
Bell emphasizes that screenwriting is an inside job, but too often writers look outward instead of trusting themselves and the process: “I absolutely believe that as a screenwriter or filmmaker, you will do your best work when you take action from your intuition and inner guidance,” she said.
Unfortunately, we’re often focused on the results we want to achieve, she said, instead of trusting the process.
Sage, Trailblazer, and Cheerleader
Bell targets those who feel disenfranchised from the filmmaking enterprise because it just wasn’t what they were exposed to growing up and so it feels out of their grasp.
Hailing originally from Scotland, far from the palm trees and movie studios of Los Angeles, Bell can identify with this feeling. She never thought that making films would be possible for her. “I didn’t believe that I could be a screenwriter or that my voice mattered,” she said.
But with much persistence, she broke through her internal obstacles and not only became a professional screenwriter but also has gone on to write and direct three features, including one that won two awards at Sundance and was nominated for two Independent Spirit Awards.
“If you had told me that would have been possible when I was in my 20s, I would have laughed at you,” she said.
“I wish someone had been there to say, ‘Yes, you can do this.’ That’s who I aspire to be in other people’s lives: the one who says,‘Yes, you can and here’s how, so quit with the excuses and do it.’”
Finding Her Mission
Bell addresses the “I can’t syndrome” by laying out a comprehensive plan for “how you can.”
She recognizes that many people feel the calling to write or direct, but they self-select out of the career because it seems too frightening or overwhelming.
“‘Who am I to make a movie?’ is a question I wrestled with,” she confessed, “and my answer for anyone who is asking it now is, ‘Who are you not to, if it’s your calling?’”
Bell’s mission crystallized in 2014, after her second feature, “Bleeding Heart,” left her feeling disheartened.
Despite the fact that the film had a much bigger budget than her first film and that it had name actors in it—Jessica Biel and Zosia Mamet—she had a very difficult time making the movie and was unhappy with the result.
She realized that many of her directorial choices had been based in fear. “I’d signed a contract … knowing the producers and I weren’t a great match, but was motivated by this thought: This is the right thing to do for my career; suck it up.”
As the dust settled, Bell came to realize that she had forgotten the most important thing when you’re making an indie film, or anything really, to “ground all your choices in love, and you can’t go wrong.”
“I realized that so many aspiring filmmakers get caught up in the same false traps—and this is why they haven’t been succeeding,” Bell said. “They were buying the lies that films have to be made a certain way. They were waiting for permission.”
If the permission came, she continued, it often compromised the filmmakers’ own integrity and vision in order to do what was right for their careers, according to “industry pros.”
For many others, the permission never comes at all and these people spend years just trying to get their movies made.
The overall result is “mediocre indie films, broken dreams, and jaded hearts.”
In response to these experiences and observations, Bell decided to create an intensive weekend workshop in which she’d share everything needed to become a successful, self-starting, indie filmmaker.
She taught workshops sporadically over the following years and honed the material, which became the basis of her book.
When she’d decided to make her first film, there were plenty of books on guerilla, or no-budget filmmaking, and many on the taking a conventional path, that is, getting a name talent and secure foreign sales. These books were not helpful.
“I wanted to raise the money myself, pay everyone who worked on my movie, including myself, and make a movie that had a real shot at standing out,” she said.
Helping Others Realize Their Missions
Bell’s passion to help others reach their goals comes from the belief that if someone feels called to make movies, it’s not a selfish or frivolous thing.
“To me, movies don’t just reflect our reality, they help create it. Your voice, your unique, once-in-eternity perspective matters. The world needs your unique voice; it’s there for a reason. Otherwise, you wouldn’t feel the calling,” she said. Helping fuel that calling, her course is appropriate for a variety of filmmakers and screenwriters—from those who have never written or made any films before to those who have already written and directed prestige movies but are looking for “support, community, and inspiration.”
As far as Bell’s calling, she used to always dream about winning an Oscar. “I still think there’s one out there with my name on it (screenwriting, FYI),” she said. But my dream just now is to see someone else up on that stage, clutching their award, and thanking me for helping them achieve the impossible. That’s my goal.”
Masha Savitz is a freelance writer and filmmaker in the Los Angeles area.