A Filmmaker’s “Positive” Thoughts on Stress – Part 2

Apr 22, 2015 | Industry

This is the second part of our excerpt from Pen Densham’s bestselling book Riding the Alligator (strategies for a career in screenwriting and not getting eaten), about how to manage stress as a creative artist. Read part one here.

So what’s the cure for stress as an artist?

It doesn’t have to be that way. Slow down. Be kind to yourself. Stop being critical of yourself and indulge in some personal forgiveness. Find the right time and place, somewhere comfortable, where you can do some undisturbed thinking. You are going to do the one thing that will catch the Imaginary Bear at its own game. You are going to de-condition your fear loop and imagine it attacking you.

When you invite in the ideas that frighten you, two things happen: (1) You are choosing and controlling the battle; and (2) You are teaching your body not to react. No matter how awful, ugly, embarrassing, and foul that Bear idea is, it is imaginary. And believe me, our minds are capable of evolving some thoughts that make some juicy, darn repugnant, antisocial, and horrifying Bears. But, when you focus and use your mental resources to embrace that Bear, pulling into yourself all its contaminating ideas and horrible consequences, it soon starts to become obvious that the Bear isn’t real. No real Bear, no real risk from which to run away. The Imaginary Bear evaporates by being invited in as you are creating a non-flight-or-fight reaction to your fear. Dorothy, your witch is melting!

Inviting Bears to attack you with all the color and imagination you have wears away at the conditioning. You bring that Imaginary Bear out of its cave. No power, no fangs: A pompously powerful creature can become ridiculous in the light of being embraced.

Keep doing this, accepting and reveling in the thoughts that scared you. What if you did run out of the room, did get rejected by your boss, did run down the street naked? Killing Bears with kindness can be quiet fun. Many are the time I have finally thought, “What the hell have I been worrying about that for?”


Stress makes you more empathetic to others. Admit to it; share it. A stiff upper lip might work on a battlefield, but in the arts sometimes it is healthier to wear your heart on your sleeve and discover kindred spirits.

Stress can give you the gift of insight. It can make you more poetic, more aware of the human condition; it is a dark gift, but a gift nevertheless. Some of the greatest men, from Churchill to Lincoln, struggled with their regular, darker moments. Churchill called it his “Black Dog.” But they did not get disabled by their depressive times. They learned coping skills to dig themselves out or learned to watch and mitigate their symptoms. It is recorded that Lincoln, during the darkest days of the Civil War, read humor books at his cabinet meetings. He read until everyone was laughing so much tears ran. Then, when they had changed their mood, they got down to business. Both men were creative, as well as pretty damn good writers.

Success is the ability to go from one failure to another with no loss of enthusiasm.

— Winston Churchill

Life can be shockingly tough. Sometimes we take a real blow. Fate sneaks up and steals something from us. Remember, though, what you feel today is not a permanent state of mind. Time will change things. This is just some stormy weather, so put up your mental umbrella. And if you are feeling a little out of balance, there is no shame whatsoever in seeking a counselor to help organize your thoughts or help balance your chemistry. Do what feels right to you. Don’t let others tell you to buck up out of it. Find your own time table and navigate on intuition and feelings until your strengths return. They mostly do return, maybe not the same as before, but shaped by the experience. We humans are resilient, creative, and problem-solving. Time heals, humor heals, love heals.

That’s how I see it. How am I with my stress? Brilliant some days, a little blue others, like everyone. But better than I used to be, thanks.


Accept that there is no off switch for stress in our body. But you can live with it, wear it down, mold it, take charge of it. Use it.

Decide to be yourself. Be authentic; don’t try to be who you are not. Each time you present the real you, your personality, confidence, and drives get stronger. The real you is always there and can be relied on.

Be human. Don’t fear mistakes. Being perfect is impossible. Let out your sense of humor, laugh at your foibles, don’t be so serious.

Don’t be overprotective of your ideas. Don’t let worrying about being cheated stop you from sharing your creativity. Out of my whole career I can only think of one or two instances where my efforts were purloined or I was damaged. And, after a brief spell of anger, I decided the best outcome was to pity the jackass and move on rather than waste my time going backwards to take revenge. I know I will have more ideas!

Take the time to pre-visualize. Just like before you fall asleep, train your mind to imagine a positive path. This works in sports and it works in life. Envision your goals as vividly as you can mentally draw them. I like to think of myself with an Oscar in my hand. Rehearse pitches and important situations with friends and co-conspirators.

Believe passionately in what you sell. Remember, you chose this career. There is a salesman’s axiom that you should believe enough in your product that you are sorry for those that don’t buy it.

When you are ready, invite and look forward to critiques and discussion about your project. Every obstacle raised is a chance for you to eliminate an objection to the sale. Each time you find a solution, the buyer — be it an actor, director, financier — gets more deeply committed. You are joining them to your project by overcoming their doubts.

Be prepared for rejections. We chose a competitive business. Many people out there are trying to get to the same budgets and opportunities. Expect it to take time. Look at your job as collecting rejections and collect as many as you can. Have as many projects out there that you believe in, because it increases your odds. In his book, a study of randomness and statistical distribution called The Drunkards Walk, Leonard Mlodinow states that a bad product and a good product have an equal statistical random chance of succeeding. We are not good judges of success — look at lottery players! Randomness plays a giant factor in our lives, outside of our ability to observe or measure. In other words, getting your work exposed could be the most vital thing you do so that luck can help you. On my Houdini script I kept a wall chart to see if I could get to one thousand rejections! It was a coping strategy to make the hundred or so I did get, before the movie sold, seem less important. But it kept me exposing my material to the God of Randomness.  And, TNT finally gave me total creative freedom to make the movie for them.

We tend to think that others are traveling an easier, straight line, and we are the ones with the tough road. NOT TRUE! They are probably hitting as many bumps as you are, just not the same ones and not at the same time, and not necessarily publicly.

Some of your buyers may be more stressed than you are. One studio head we knew, a great guy, was famous for barely speaking in meetings. A long meeting could pass with him having only uttered a word or two. It would really throw us. But he seemed to cope with his immense shyness. His staff would fill in the gaps, and he was a tremendously successful film executive for many years.

We all live our lives in our bodies like captains of sailing ships, constantly tacking and tucking to reach our goals. Emotional weather changes or mood currents can lead us astray… this is normal. Frequently we have no idea why our brain feels cloudy and rainy or why some days the sun comes out in our head. Don’t berate yourself for feeling blue occasionally. And when you feel on top of things, use the good times to make your hard calls.

When emotions seem overwhelming, talk to someone caring. I had trouble admitting my problems. I was embarrassed to intrude on others. But I found that really caring people value your trust. Verbalizing your nervous feelings crystallizes your swirling stress-mess into clearer mental images. It helps you pick apart the reasons for your mood and accelerate your process of working through it.

I don’t mean to be a nag, but avoid excessive drugs or drinking. Exercise drains excess adrenalin from your body. Try to sleep regularly; it is amazingly recuperative. Give yourself permission to take naps, too. And take breaks or vacations, a time-out for yourself to recharge. Frequently, I come back from a break to discover that my problem-solving skills seem turbo-charged. I realize on my return — by observing the ease with which powerful, solution-finding measures come to me on a fresh start — how burned-out I was before the break.

Don’t defeat yourself. There is a painful little behavior called “The Imposter Syndrome.” I have struggled so much to make a project coherent and successful that it made me question my abilities. I felt guilty when others praised the work. I have also experienced the opposite, when something came so easily, I felt guilty for charging for it! We are strange creatures.

As I have noted, my biggest defeats have come when I failed to go forward with something out of doubt. My failed attempts at pursuing my goals have never bugged me as much as the ones I never undertook. They guaranteed me 100% failure. Better to be a little scared now, rather than live a life of regret. If your project impassions you, there must be someone out there who will feel the same way.

Treat yourself like your own best friend would. Encourage yourself, have a healthy ego about when you have been praised, what you have succeeded with. Take the time to remember and visualize when you have been winning. That doesn’t mean be obnoxious; it means be confident.

Let me give you one example of how you never know how close you are to success. When John and I started Insight Productions in Toronto, we asked nine children each to use our company to write and direct one-minute commercials selling “life” as if it were a commercial product. It was our mission to prove how imaginative and visually literate children were, a kick back at the educational film companies that we each worked for, which created dispiriting, uninspiring films, purely for profit.

Our kids, ranging in age from 11 to 15, made commercials in which chess pieces bickered mightily about their positions on the board, until they were put in the box; in which a manic car salesman sold a military tank and the slaughter it could bring; in which a couple in their 80s just showed their love for each other. Even John Watson was roped in to be the actor who plunged out of a giant peanut to the slogan: “Don’t be a nut. Break out of your shell and live!” We called the final short film that combined all the commercials Life Times Nine, a joyous anthology of optimism, humor, and touching emotions.

And… WE COULDN’T GIVE THE MOVIE AWAY. We held a big premier; no press came. The kids were disappointed. One of them said to me, “Why not get us an Oscar?” I just laughed.

But that night — literally in my bathtub — I thought, what a nitwit I was! The film and the kids’ work was break-out. It deserved to be seen. I should at least find out what it took to enter a short film for an Academy Award. The following day, I called the Academy from Toronto, feeling like I was intruding on the Vatican of the film world, and was informed that only films that played in a paying theater in Los Angeles for a week were eligible. I had no idea how to accomplish this.

But I decided to phone the manager of an independent Toronto movie theater for advice. His response, in colorfully vulgar language, was to forget it. The whole thing would be too much trouble for any Hollywood theater, especially for a bunch of unknowns from Canada.

I almost quit there, feeling I was on a self-made fool’s errand.

But I hung in for one more call to Mitch Woolrich, the man who sold our films to schools in Canada. I knew he represented a couple of California-based short films.

He was sorry, but knew his contacts never dealt with theatrical situations. Mitch said the only living person he knew in Los Angeles was an old buddy whose dad ran a limousine rental service. We were about to give up, when he said, “Ah, what the heck.”

Five minutes later, Mitch called back, “You are in L.A. You have a movie theater!”

Amazingly, the limo service’s offices were right next door to a theater (today, the WGA’s screening facility). The limo guys took in the movie theater’s deliveries all day before it opened. Screening our short was its way to return the goodwill.

Life Times Nine ran for its week. It was one of three live-action shorts nominated for an Oscar that year. And with the help of many caring people, we were able to fly all nine children to the Awards ceremony, a trip of a lifetime. We didn’t win an Oscar, but the film was now accepted; it won more than a dozen awards around the world and put our company, and the visual creativity of our young people, firmly on the map.

The Life Times Nine experience taught me to keep going no matter how foolish I felt. All through my career, I have taken chances and fought for the things I’ve believed in and have seen myself occasionally, surprisingly rewarded by the Gods of Randomness. Keep trying. Great things can happen.