How Do You Make a Living, Documentary Filmmaker?

Calvan Fowler talks about the power of naps, the benefits of being too busy, and what his former boss Spike Lee taught him about money.
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Calvan Fowler. (Photo: Brooke Baldeschwiler)

Calvan Fowler. (Photo: Brooke Baldeschwiler)

Calvan Fowler divides his days between shooting music videos and fashion spots, putting the finishing touches on a documentary about people obsessed with Air Jordans, and running a store that sells the famous shoes and everything associated with them. He's an occupied guy. He talked about the power of naps, the benefits of being too busy, and what his former boss Spike Lee taught him about money.

What's a typical week like?

I get no sleep. There's really no sleep. Power naps. Whether I'm working on a video, shooting for Essence magazine, working on the store, it's a circus act. But you have to find a medium where you can find some balance. You try to keep things under control, but there's an ebb and flow. Things cool off every now and then, but then they heat up and you have to deal.

Has it become easier as you've grown a little bit more established?

I don't want to make it sound like things get worse, but your time is less available than it was. People around you don't understand your time constraints. Sometimes they don't respect them. But that's the nature of the business. It kind of gets easier, but it also gets difficult because of all that comes with it. It really is that Spiderman saying: With great power comes great responsibility. It's so true. It's a lot going on.

At the end of the day, you're working for yourself. That's key. When you're working for someone else, busting your ass, putting all these hours in, and not getting much reward, it's daunting. Now, when you do work for yourself, there's less of a reward at the beginning but you start slowly seeing the fruits of your labor. Then it really makes sense. There's a reward for all that you're doing.

How many projects are you working on right now?

I'm working on the film, Jordan Heads. I'm also working on a video piece for Essence magazine. It's for their Best in Beauty 2015. I had to step back from doing a lot of video work because of the store and the film. You can only give so much at a time. I didn't want to be a jack of all trades. When I hear people say, "I do this and I do this and this," I wonder. The reality is that you can't do it all. You have to focus on what you're truly talented at and what brings you joy. That way, it won't be work. You're making money doing it, but it's what you want to do too.

There's another saying: "Be careful what you ask for because you just might get it." That happened to me. I prayed to god, please give me something to do. Sure enough, my prayers were answered, and I have no time to sleep.

How long ago were you praying?

About a year ago. I'm working like crazy right now, but I feel like it's totally worth it because people who have a desire to do something and a passion to do something, if their brain is not being stimulated, they can fall into a depression. When you fall into that, it's kind of hard to get out. I feel for those who are in that space. I hope they get out of it. I was almost in that space. It was very scary. But now I'm very busy, and I have no time to even think about depression.

Where did you get the money for the documentary?

I was working a nine to five, ironically. Paying for the film was pretty much check to check. I asked family and friends. My wife chipped in. A lot went into helping to finance the film. I had a very understanding boss who allowed me to travel. He saw the vision as well. It was having a good nine to five that paid well, a boss who was understanding and family members who were giving.

There definitely was adversity, and money played a big part. I was creative with my budget. And I am still continuing to invest in myself. It's never ending.

What is the budget for the film?

You know, I really don't know. It's been years of constantly putting money into it. Traveling. Production. Crew. Equipment. I can't put a finger on what I spent. I know it will pay off big-time, and that's what I look forward to.

Do you hope it will pay off financially or as in a calling card that will get you more work?

It's a combination of both. Because of the subject matter, I hope to get my name out there and also get paid handsomely for my labor. I don't prefer one over the other. I'll take both equally.

What did you learn from Spike Lee about finances?

I learned that you have to work hard. There's very little room for mistakes in this business because everything costs. That's true in every business, but in film, it's very important that you get it right the first time. Re-shooting and re-takes waste people's time and cost money. I try to apply that to everything I am doing going forward, whether it's retail or the film business.

How's the store? How much did that cost to get going?

You can do a lot with almost nothing. It's a very interesting story because at the time there was a cafe in the spot I was looking at. I knew the owner. I talked it up with him, and he allowed me to take over the space for the store. I got a friend involved. It came together. I think I raised roughly $50,000 to open the store.

I've learned that you need a whole lot more. You need a lot of working capital to open and maintain. You need at least two years of rent up front. You need to have working capital for marketing, products, inventory. It's been an interesting process. I won't go any further, but I've learned a lot. I refuse to go back. I'm starting from scratch, revamping the store. We'll have a re-launch, and things will be new again.

How Do You Make a Living? is an ongoing Q&A series. 

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