Life is so precious.
And when we lose someone who blazes bright, igniting a long tail of inspiration and accomplishment, one cannot help but pause in gratitude and loss.
Yesterday, Graham Leggat, the Executive Director of the San Francisco Film Society, passed away after an long battle with cancer. He resigned last month, as his illness resurfaced and reached the stage of no return.
It hit me like a ton of bricks for many reasons. He has a young son (I too lost a parent when I was a child) and he was my secret idol of successful -- and cool -- film community leadership. In his six years as ED at SFFS, he had transformed the organization. And despite being the head of the preeminent film organization in the region, he always had time for a hello and idle chitchat at events.
Who was I, but a scrappy no-name DIY filmmaker? He treated me with the respect and kindness one dreams of receiving for doing any craft or art.
He was a class act that made me feel appreciated as a filmmaker.
And not because I had anything to offer him or the organization (no hot film, no fame, no money, no connections), but because he was an honorable, democratic guy who lived the essense of the SFFS mission: film appreciation (as opposed to celebrity worship: I'm looking at you Sundance).
His financial and audience accomplishments were many. When he took the reins, the SFFS was known only for the renowned San Francisco International Film Festival which took place two weeks each year.
Today, it's a year-round organization and, despite a cratering economy, he was responsible for huge growth measured by every metric: doubled the number of members, increased annual budget by a factor of three (each year balanced too), increased grants, and much more, including a recently-opened theater that shows SFFS-programmed films daily. His year-round programming includes my personal favorites: new small festivals in the fall focused on contemporary Italian, French and Taiwanese films (plus three other new small fests each fall).
Above all, the most important thing he did from a DIY filmmaking perspective -- and the reason why I fell into his orbit and got so involved in the SFFS -- was taking responsibility for the filmmaker services programs of the Film Arts Foundation.
I was one of the many refugees from the financial imposion of the scrappy Film Arts Foundation, the long-suffering, anemically-funded, vital organization dedicated to supporting local Bay Area filmmakers through classes, events, a magazine, fiscal sponsorship, gear rental and more. Looking back on it, who in their right mind would start an organization whose funding was based on fees and tickets sold to wannabe indie filmmakers? By definition, these are filmmakers with no money, with films no one has heard of.
But that's where so many of us started. And it was a hugely important support structure for our local filmmaking community.
And that's why Graham picked up the pieces and gave us shelter at SFFS.
For years, there was a low art/high art chasm between FAF and the SFFS: FAF was dedicated to support the local filmmaker community, a ragtag dysfunctional family making weird film art of debatable quality and limited audience appeal (basically, it was film school for people no longer in college), while the SFFS was dedicated to bringing highly acclaimed films and legendary filmmakers from around the world to San Francisco audiences.
And never (or very rarely) did the two missions cross paths....mostly because the SFFS took limited (some would so say no) interest in local films. (Yes, I'm still bitter they refused to show Quality of Life at the San Francisco International Film Festival-- despite that we were one of only two American films to win a Jury award at Berlin that year. Graham was hired a year later.)
When FAF finally went belly-up, the SFFS stepped in and took over these vital functions. The two halves of the Bay Area film community -- filmmaker support and film appreciation -- were finally joined under one roof, as it should be. Graham was key in seeing the connection and making it happen.
And my life, my new film In-World War, and my involvement in the fimmmaker community have all been so much richer for it.
All the while I've watched Graham do his magic: introduce films, work the room, stop to say hello and generally do it all with the calm panache and easy cool of a Scottish secret agent.
So basically I knew his days were numbered.
I fully expected to one day hear that he was leaving us, scooped up by some bigger razzle-dazzle festival or national arts organization. His trajectory was unmistakable. He was a catch.
Then one day last month, I got the email: Graham was leaving.
But through the door I least expected.
He was resigning because his cancer had returned (I didn't even know he had fought it off a year and a half ago) and it had spread too far, too fast. He had known through the recent San Francisco International Film Festival but kept it to himself, to avoid making the festival about him and keeping the spotlight on the films and the filmmakers.
I was devestated. Graham was not a good friend -- he wasn't even a friend at all. He was more of someone I looked up to immensely and knew in passing well enough to say hello with a moment of recognition. And of course it hurt evenmoreso knowing of his young son and remembering (as I do every day) the loss of my mother to cancer far, far too early.
I reached out to him via email, sharing my gratitude for his work and envy for his seemingly effortless skill and success. As a student of leadership, I told him of my own selfish sense of loss, for I wanted to learn more from watching him do his thing. He replied that he loves to share his thoughts on management, being a favorite subject of his.
So the last time I saw him, at an overflowing "small" gathering in his honor at Tosca a few weeks ago, I took a moment to ask him if he had any bon mots of management advice. He responded immediately:
"If you're going to be hung -- and if you're in management, you will eventually be hung -- you might as well be hung for who you are than who you're not."
Graham's secret of course, is that this isn't about management.
For all the advice I've tried to collect here on this site on how to get your film funded, how to write a great script, how to make a movie that people want to see and how to get people to buy it and see it, I can think of no better admonishment for myself or my fellow DIY filmmakers.
We must make the films that are true to each of us. We must be ourselves and not that which we think others want.
Because at the end of the day, we all leave this tired Earth eventually (some long from now and some far too soon) and that what we touched leaves the only marks that we passed this way. Best that we be true to ourselves, no matter what others say or think or do.
Thank you for that Graham Leggat (and thank you for all the rest too).