Movies for Artists - Somewhere in the Middle -
Dan McCaw painting in Somewhere in the Middle, Dir. Nathan Ives ; Image courtesy of Mule Films.

Movies for Artists > Director Nathan Ives takes us behind the scenes of “Somewhere in the Middle,” which asks what it means to be a “successful” artist.

“Somewhere in the Middle” is a documentary that begins by exploring the childhoods of five very different people — two musicians, Aaron and Griffin; an actor, Jasika; a sculptor, Jeff; and a painter, Dan — before delving into their adult lives as full-fledged working artists. It was the hard times, struggling to succeed, that often defined them later in their careers.

Movies for Artists: Somewhere in the Middle (Watch the trailer here)

The film examines the joys of being an artist, including the high of one’s work being appreciated, critically acclaimed and, perhaps most importantly, paid for by fans. As a young artist, meeting your idols — from jamming with Bruce Springsteen to ballroom dancing with Antonio Banderas to smoking pot with Willie Nelson — begins to elicit a real “pinch yourself” feeling. Like, “Wow, I’m doing this!”

The film then shifts to an exploration of art as a business: the struggle of being your own personal assistant, accountant, marketing manager, et cetera — all while simultaneously trying to create the art you love; the absolute craziness of sacrificing a steady income for an unpredictable roller coaster, where a big money-making year might be followed by three years of scrapping.

In the end, these five artists share advice and wisdom with young people who are thinking about following their passions. While it becomes evident that an artist’s life is not for everyone, Dan offers up a succinct bit of encouragement for those with no quit in them: “Get in the fight.”

Movies for Artists >>> The Origin and Making of “Somewhere in the Middle: The Lives of Five Working Artists”

By Nathan Ives, Director

The first time I heard it, the song “River City Lights” by Griffin House blew me away. The song is simple, beautiful, heart-wrenching, and, to me, a perfect song. To this day I’m mesmerized when I listen to it or hear Griffin House play it live. For a few minutes, I escape the craziness and drift into a melancholy oasis. There are a handful of songs in my life that have this effect on me; most I discovered in my teens, a few precious ones, more recently.

In 2016 I was directing “A Christmas in New York” and needed a song for the closing credits. I reached out to Griffin, having met him at a few of his shows, and he was gracious enough to write one for the film.

We developed what I would call a professional friendship. We’re not on one another’s holiday card list, but when he’s in town, we’ll chat before or after his show about music, films, and getting by as an artist.

On one such occasion, I made a comment about how impressed I was that he’d found a balance between staying true to his art and making a legitimate living. Griffin replied with one of his humble, sheepish grins, and a “thanks, man.”

Then he continued and said, “But you know, I was playing at the New York City Winery a few weeks ago, it was a sold out, like three hundred people or something. Really fun show. Afterwards this couple comes up to me and, this happens all the time, they said, ‘We really love your music and we just know you’re going to make it someday!’”

Griffin House - Somewhere in the Middle - movies for artists
Griffin House performs in Somewhere in the Middle, Dir. Nathan Ives; Image courtesy of Griffin House and Mule Films.

Griffin owns a house in Nashville and his music is the primary source of income for his family. He spends a couple of weeks on the road playing shows followed by a couple of weeks at home spending time with his family and working on new material. Sounds like a miserable life that no one would want to live … or, wait, does it sound like a life many people would dream of living?

Movies for Artists – What is Success?

Our conversation got me thinking about what it means to be a “successful” artist. Over the next couple of months the question kept drifting into my psyche at traffic lights, in the shower, and other random places. Eventually it occurred to me that it was something I wanted to explore further.

Around that time, I had just completed a horror film called “The Basement,” and my wife and I had our second child. I needed a project smaller in scope than a full feature film, that I could do in my free time, in and around changing diapers. At which point the seed of the idea for “Somewhere in the Middle” was born.

I reached out to Griffin first, since the idea originated with him, and he agreed to be interviewed. One of my favorite people on this big planet was next, the actor, Jasika Nicole, who I had worked with previously on a film. My friend Paul is Matt Nathanson’s tour manager and recommended I interview Aaron Tap, Matt’s longtime guitar player. I was introduced to paper sculptor Jeff Nishinaka through the cinematographer I’ve worked with through the years, Ken Stipe, and Jeff, in turn, introduced me to the painter, Dan McCaw.

Jasika Nicole in Somewhere in the Middle movie
Jasika Nicole in Somewhere in the Middle, Dir. Nathan Ives; Image courtesy of Mule Films.

All five met my criteria of not being household names, but who made a legitimate living solely through their art.

There, I had my subjects. All that was left to do was to interview them all, write all of the moments and ideas I loved on index cards, lay the index cards on our dining room table, and stand over them, sipping a cup of Earl Grey tea, nibbling on cookies, until I figured out exactly what this film would be.

Once I had a general structure, it was off to sit for many hours in a dark room with the editor, Brady, and cut the pieces together. Once that was done and we had a rough cut of the film, I decided, without question, it was the worst thing, perhaps, that I had ever seen.

I then went home to my wife, talked about what a failure I was, and moped around the house like Eeyore for a few days. At first, she was sympathetic and did her best to console me, but given that she’d just given birth to a ten-pound child, understandably, it didn’t last long.

Aaron Tapp in Somewhere in the Middle movie
Aaron Tapp in Somewhere in the Middle, Dir. Nathan Ives; Image courtesy of Mule Films.

A few days and ideas later, I went back in with Brady and we re-cut the film. It was much better; it suddenly felt again like a project that just might be worth finishing. As we began laying in the score from Pat O’Brien, it really started to come to life and I was beginning to think that this might actually be a film I’d be proud of.

From there, it was off to The Garrison, both my producing partner on the project and the post-production facility. There we did the sound and color and animated the titles. To be clear that’s the equivalent of saying, we just painted the house, put on the roof, and did the landscaping. It’s a lot of work and took about six weeks.

In the end, “Somewhere in the Middle” is a film I’m very proud of. What strikes me most about it is the honesty and vulnerability of the subjects. They really pull no punches and give us a window into their lives, the good, the bad, and the ugly. They are hard-working, flawed, kind, extraordinarily talented human beings who have chosen a path that many choose, but on which only a fortunate few flourish.

Movies for Artists - Jeff Nishinaka working in Somewhere in the Middle
Jeff Nishinaka working in Somewhere in the Middle, Dir. Nathan Ives; Image courtesy of Mule Films.

I hope the film will serve as an inspiration and education for those considering a career in the arts. For parents of a child considering such a path, I hope it offers a different perspective. For those who are working artists, I hope it offers that “thank God I’m not alone” feeling.

There are moments in the film that will resonate with anyone in the arts, but many of those moments are as much about life as they are about art. I’ll leave you with the one from the seventy-six-year-old painter, Dan McCaw, who said, “In the end, we’re only what we’ve allowed ourselves to be.”

Related Article > Can Music Inspire Your Paintings?

From the Editor: Have you watched this film yet? What are your favorite movies for artists? Share with us in the comments below! (Watch “Somewhere in the Middle” here on Amazon)

This article was originally published in 2019

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