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  How Handmade Signs Can Change
  the Course of a Film

1. Making Mean Creek wasn't easy. It took seven years between the time I wrote the first draft of the script and the first day of production. In between, I optioned the script twice, rewrote it probably a hundred times, went to film school, wrote four other scripts, won a couple screenwriting contests, made three short films, ran my credit rating into the dirt and nearly gave up on a career in film at least fifty-five times. Of course, there were a lot of disappointments along the route that would eventually lead to Sundance, Cannes and Worldwide distribution. Disappointment comes with the territory. However, to find the promised land, there had to be something more than disappointment, some other unifying theme that kept Mean Creek on course. For me, that theme is encapsulated by the strange yellow sign that is placed at the center of this text.

2. The unifying theme I'm talking about is generosity of spirit, which is hard to come by, and which is represented here in the form of a handmade sign that was created by Mean Creek's location manager Simon Hill, who (in the spirit of many other incredible people who made their imprint on Mean Creek before and after him) labored all night 24 hours before our first day of production to create probably thirty duplicate handmade signs, so that the production drivers could easily navigate their way from the hotels to the river where we were shooting. What so impressed me about these signs (when I saw the first one at 5am on route to the river on Day One of the shoot) was the care and creativity Simon had put into the creation of each individual sign, so that the production would have something unique and beautiful to look for when lost or when confused about which way to go. Of course, Simon could have taken the path of least resistance and made fully functional signs on a computer to have them printed at Kinko's in half-an-hour, but Simon chose instead to express through the creation of these signs his exuberance for his job, his art and therefore life itself. For me, his signs were more than signs. For me, his signs were at once an indication of the spirit of generosity that existed amongst my crew, and also a reminder that I too should do my job with enthusiasm and joy.

3. Although some on our production team may have seen these signs and thought Simon a whack-job, after I saw them, I thought Simon had done us all a service. And now when I look at this sign, which by the way hangs in my living room by my desk where I write, I think of the continuous theme of generosity that allowed me to make Mean Creek. There were friends who read the script, mentors who helped me shape it, optimistically conceived contests I won that helped amp the movie's profile, film professors who encouraged me to continue with my pursuits, a cinematographer who refused to settle for a bad idea, thirteen-year-old actors who took mature risks on set in front of skeptical eyes, an editor who refused to settle for a bad moment, a story board artist who made such beautiful drawings that several people asked me if they could have one to frame, and so on and so forth. What makes all this amazing, is the fact that most of this energy and product was created by people who never got paid a dime. Or who were paid the equivalent of a dime.

4. As I said at the start of this little missive, making Mean Creek wasn't easy, you certainly couldn't buy your way out of a problem and you couldn't pay people anything remotely equivalent to the effort they had to exert. Simply put, if not for a continual stream of generosity from the people who I collaborated with, who kept each other afloat and motivated by their handmade signs, by their homegrown and downright inspiring passion, making Mean Creek literally would not have been possible.


Writer/director Jacob Aaron Estes’ debut feature turns the classic tale of an American bully on its head. When a group of teenage boys and one bold young girl seek playful revenge on the kid who has tormented them, nothing turns out the way they expected. What begins as a trip down a river and a childish prank soon turns into an eye-opening encounter with the enemy—a harrowing journey into wilderness and an event that will force them to grapple with the very meaning of friendship and responsibility. Winner of the Humanitis Prize at the 2004 Sundance Film Festival.