My first feature film Gold Star comes out this week, and while I have always made an effort to project confidence and an aura of "knowing my stuff," the journey of getting to the moment of writing this piece has been long and difficult at times.
At the beginning of this six-year journey of writing, directing and starring in the film, I struggled with intense imposter syndrome. I was sure someone would find me out and say, "You shouldn't be doing this. You can't do this. You're not one of 'us.'"
I jumped in anyway, without so much as even directing a short film. When speaking about Gold Star during this process, I would often say, "This is my first feature, yeah," which is technically true. But what I wouldn't add was, "This is my first film." I was afraid to publicly admit my newness in the director's chair.
My imposter syndrome came in waves. At first, it hit me when I decided that I wanted to direct the film. I knew after interviewing lots of other directors that this was my story to tell, that I had to be the one to guide it through from start to finish. I had to constantly remind myself that no one could make this film like I could, that no other director would work as hard as I would, that this meant more to me than anyone else.
Why would a man with 60-plus years of experience, an Oscar nomination and an Emmy say yes to a 20-something first-timer like myself?
On the set of 'Gold Star' with 1st AC Carlos Oller, DP & executive producer Saro Varjabedian and writer/director/producer Victoria Negri.Credit: Ben Jarosch
The second big wave came when Robert Vaughn agreed to be in my film. I remember his manager asking me to send over a bio for Robert to read to get to know a bit more about me and my work before we met in person. I freaked out, looking at it on the page and feeling completely inadequate. Why would a man with 60-plus years of experience, an Oscar nomination and an Emmy say yes to a 20-something first-timer like myself? Because he believed in the film. Because we clicked when we met.
So, through tireless years of work, I came to accept that maybe I belong in this club. Yes, I directed a feature. It's getting a release. I'm a director. I love doing this.
Victoria Negri and Robert Vaughn in 'Gold Star'Credit: Courtesy of the filmmakers
There's no magic formula for overcoming imposter syndrome. I still battle feelings of "not belonging" in every aspect of my life. But here are my tips to fight it off and get your first feature made.
1. Say yes to yourself. Believe it. Repeat it.
It sounds simple, but it's huge. I've always tended to be a "yes" person, saying "yes" to other people, not wanting to let anyone down. Apply that same mindset to yourself. Don't let yourself down. If you want something, say "yes" to it. This energy and enthusiasm for your own project will bleed out into the world and draw others to your film. If you believe in your work and your ability to make the film, others will too. Energy and enthusiasm are contagious.
2. Don't be afraid to ask questions
Hire people that are good communicators. Surround yourself with team members that know this is your first feature and want to collaborate, people that believe in you as a leader, a storyteller and artist. Surround yourself with a cast and crew who will speak up when something feels off, who embrace problem solving together.
3. You have more experience than you think
You didn't just wake up wanting to make a feature film, did you? I had been acting for a decade before I started writing Gold Star. I had written screenplays, long and short. I had worked behind the camera. I picked other people's brains. I studied scripts and took classes. You have more experience than you think.
4. Remind yourself of why you can do this
Do you have a favorite filmmaker? Watch his or her films. Read about that filmmaker's career. Pump yourself up. Know things that motivate you and go back to them. I hung up a photo of myself with my father in front of my computer and kept reminding myself that making a feature film is nothing compared to what he went through during the last year of his life, after suffering the debilitating stroke that is depicted in Gold Star.
5. Be overly prepared
I spent over a year in pre-production with the most dedicated team I could ask for. I shot-listed the entire film with my cinematographer Saro Varjabedian and we were on the same page, both overly prepared for the shoot. Knowing Saro and I knew every shot freed me up to focus on working with the actors without freaking out about camera stuff on set. I knew all my lines for each scene, so when last minute scene changes came up, I was prepared. I had a notebook with every costume change written out, labeled in my closet. A director can have decades of experience, but if he or she isn't prepared, the film won't be any good.
Victoria Negri on the set of 'Gold Star'.Credit: Lora Warnick
I encourage anyone who is reading this piece, who has been thinking about directing a feature, to make the jump. Do it. You can. It will take a while. You won't feel ready, but you will never truly feel ready no matter how many other projects you work on. There will be struggles and doubt and personal anguish and personal triumphs, but in the end, you will have a feature film. You will have filmmaking battle scars and stories to tell. Trust me, it's worth it.
Gold Star will be in select theatres and on Amazon VOD on November 10.