“Talking about movies often means talking about everything,” Meredith Borders, the editorial director of Birth.Movies.Death., told me as we talked about the site’s hilarious, insightful, sometimes intense think pieces.
I can’t think of any better phrase to explain what makes Birth.Movies.Death. one of my favorite places to visit on the internet. “Art is about life and everything that goes into it,” Meredith continued, “and sometimes it’s vital context to discuss politics or matters of social import, because these are the events that are going to be influencing our art for years to come.” It’s this big-picture mentality, this ability to bring to life the ways that art, movies and culture both reflect and shape our world, this willingness to pause and meditate on what something truly means, why we are so touched by a scene, a line, a song or a character—all of that is what makes Birth.Movies.Death. so compelling. Plus, the writers are freakin’ hilarious. They’re true movie and comic book nerds who let it all hang out when it comes to what they love, no matter how niche or “geeky.”
But perhaps the best part of Birth.Movies.Death. (BMD as shorthand from here on out) is the kind of beautiful online—sometimes off-line—community that has organically grown around the site.
Some of the best reading you can do on BMD is in the comments section, as the passions of the BMD staff light up something in each person that reads and engages with it. You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, you’ll read something you never thought about before. You’ll get the craziest ideas for fan fiction, alternative casting, and conspiracy theories. You’ll be up on all the latest memes. The comments section, bro—it’s incredible! And as strange as it may seem to take lessons from comments on a movie review website, I think there’s something to learn here about how to bring people together to talk, disagree, discuss, and ultimately learn to love and respect each other and the space they enjoy together.
Which brings me to Meredith, the one who helps make it all happen every day. We connected earlier this year, at first over e-mail, then over the phone, to talk about everything BMD and to learn a little bit more about her writing and her process. When I asked her how she first got started with BMD, then called Badass Digest, she said, “I sent some writing samples and crossed my fingers. I started writing The Walking Dead reviews every week, and then I was just writing about everything. I did it for free until they could pay me, then hire me, and then eventually promote me. I wormed my way in and never left!”
As we talked more about writing, identifying yourself as a writer, and the challenges that come with relying on just your own ideas and motivation to get something on the page, it turns out that this tenacity, this “just keep swimming” attitude is not just what got Meredith started with BMD. It’s a huge part of what gets her started on anything. And it’s something she had to learn. Read on for more on how to be audacious, balancing creative work with your day job, building a meaningful community online, and, oh yeah, movies!
What first got you into movies and writing? Did a path from one lead you to the other?
My father’s a writer and career newspaper editor, and I’ve wanted to be on a similar path as long as I can remember. Even before I could physically write, I was making up stories, recording them on my little kid tape deck or having my Barbies act out my narratives. I can never remember a time that I didn’t think of myself as a writer. But I’ve always been a lifelong bookworm, and it wasn’t until high school that I realized I’m a film lover, as well. I took a film history elective, and at my small town high school, it definitely wasn’t a class anyone took seriously. But the teacher – who did it on the side, for fun – truly loved film, and once he realized he had a student who actually cared, he took me under his wing a bit. That’s where I saw Star Wars, Citizen Kane, Gone with the Wind, and Sunset Blvd. It’s where I learned to think critically about film and apply all of the careful analysis I usually reserved for literature to cinema. I was hooked.
What did you do as a day job before BMD?
Before BMD, I was in arts administration. My first job out of college was as the assistant to the chairman of the Theatre and Dance department at the University of Texas at Austin, and then I worked as the assistant to the director of the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, for six years. Both jobs were hugely instrumental in my present career. They taught me about deadlines, organization, budgeting, and how best to keep artists to a schedule. I could have been tempted to work in that field forever…and in many ways, I feel like I still am. I’m a creative person, but more than that, I’m an organized, responsible person, and I love wrangling creative geniuses. I think I’m good at it, and it helps me grow creatively, as well, to work with these talented visionaries. But I pushed myself to try for a job that used my creative skills as well as my administrative ones. It was super scary, and still is sometimes, but I’m glad I went out on that limb.
That’s really interesting! I feel like I’m constantly asking myself, should I try to do what I’m passionate about for money? Or do I have a formulaic job that makes me get up in the morning and hit a deadline and do something productive every day and then have a creative outlet on the side? Does make something into work ruin it? Does making something a side thing make you not do it as much? I’m always fighting those lines in my mind. What do you think are the good and bad parts of putting those things together or keeping them separate?
It’s definitely an endless struggle for me. I always think that sort of the ultimate irony about getting a job where I’m paid to write sometimes is that I have less time to write than I ever have before in my life. [Laughs] You know, when you have these day jobs, at 5pm, you go home and then your time is yours and you can do whatever you want with it. This job is never over. There’s no 5 o’clock. It’s never done. But at the same time, I have an audience, which I never really had before. I mean, I had some people reading my little tiny blog that I kept for myself, but when I carve out that time to write something now, people read it, which is so huge to me. I mean that can never, ever been undervalued.
So that’s the push and pull with this. I love my position [at BMD]. I would love it even if I never had time to write because, like I said, I love the administrative part of it. I’m working for this cool company, and I’m doing something that I believe in. But, when I force myself to write, which I always put on my to-do list every week, and I make sure I do it, even if it’s just a little post here or there…I’m like, “Okay, I wrote this week. I did it. I made the time to write.” And then I’ll get this response, and it’s like, “Oh right!” Every time I do that, somebody is reading it. People are responding to it, commenting…it turns into a discussion. That’s a really exciting privilege that, even though I’ve had it for five years now, I’m not used to. [Laughs] I’m still not taking that for granted.
I do miss having a job that was over at 5pm, and then I just threw myself into my writing in my free time. But I also think that I’m better at it now that I’m being held to this standard. Also, because I have less time to do it, I’m choosier about what I write. I make sure it’s something I’m really passionate about that’s going to be good enough for the audience.
Well, that’s the best thing about BMD! The audience, the community. I really love the site because of how deeply all of the writers think about movies, the connections you guys make to our culture and our world beyond the screen, and how amazing your comments section is! Which sounds like such a silly thing to say, but on BMD, it’s really not. Can you talk a bit about the community behind BMD and the people that read and comment? Why do you think the site attracts such a thoughtful and caring audience?
I still sometimes pinch myself when I think about how great our community is. It started, I believe, out of vigorous moderating. We’re not afraid to permanently ban anyone who has posted a cruel, intolerant or even just an unnecessarily rude or snarky comment. But soon, our commenters started moderating each other. It became self-perpetuating. We got a reputation as a thoughtful, healthy community, and that brought better people to our site while discouraging the trolls.
And, I think, it’s because our writers are so great. Our commenters are responding to informed, intelligent writing that is both passionate and compassionate, and it inspires better discussion in the comment sections. I want our writers to come from, first and foremost, a place of information. If they’re best informed and most passionate about Tyler Perry or James Bond or ‘70s sleaze or Shakespeare (and we have writers who are experts on all of those subjects and more), that’s what they should be writing about. Nobody has to write about Star Wars or superheroes just because that’s what gets hits – but thankfully, we also have writers who are informed and passionate about Star Wars and superheroes. [Laughs]
We’ve been doing this for seven years now, and in many ways, the community is its own part of BIRTH.MOVIES.DEATH. Our commenters are friends online and in real life now. Many of our best writers started in the comment section. Someone will say something in the comments, and it’s like, “Wow, that’s such an amazing perspective…you should be writing for our site!” [Laughs] Share this perspective with more people!
Our readers feel such ownership of the site, and that keeps us honest and good. If we ever slip, we’ll hear about it from the people who have spent every day on our site for years. It’s as much theirs as it is ours, and that keeps us from getting lazy.
Who started in the comments?
Several did. FILM CRIT HULK started in the comments. Siddhant Adlakha and La Donna Pietra started in the comments. Our most recent one, his comment handle is Drive By Commenter, but he his name is Jof Gurd, and his first piece was a review of Trainspotting that was so good! Actually, my boss emailed me after he read it and was like, “Who is this guy? Where did he come from?” The comments! [Laughs] Which is so cool. And I don’t know how often that happens on other sites—I can’t really speak to it—but I love how often it happens on BMD.
That is awesome! It sort of makes sense with how your writers present their content, too. It’s almost like the start of a discussion, and both sides are going to be just as interesting—the piece and the reactions to the piece. You know? The writers often engage and seem to grow from it, too, and even change their minds or acknowledge something they didn’t see before. Which is so cool!
Yeah, absolutely. I think for some of our newer freelancers, the comment section can also be a little intimidating. Because not all of the comments are going to be, “THIS IS BRILLIANT, THANK YOU SO MUCH!” Some of them are going to challenge you. Some of them are going to just be mean, but there’s not very much of that at our site. But I’m a better writer because of comments that were really harsh to read in the past. I always try and tell freelancers that, but I know it’s not easy. Sometimes the safest thing in the world is to put something out there and nobody responds because you have no idea if they liked it or not. You can tell yourself that they loved it and walk away. [Laughs] But the goal is to engage readers, and sometimes that is super, super rough on a writer, but I think it’s important. And it kind of helps you toughen up. Like, I’m much tougher now than I used to be when it comes to negative feedback. [Laughs] When I first started, I got some pretty harsh comments that were just like—ugh—like a bullet to the heart. And I’m glad now. I look back, and some of the distinct improvements I’ve made to my writing were because this person called me out on this dumb thing I was doing.
Totally! I’m curious if you have any stories about your favorite moments from the comments, from the community. I feel like there have to be some hilarious or profound standouts.
Let me think…hilarious happens a lot. The BMD staff will be talking amongst ourselves after reading some of these comments, like, “Did you see that!” We’re all just like, “Ah! That’s such a good joke! I wish I thought of it!” [Laughs] But I think my favorite commenter moments are actually when I see these commenters engaging with each other online outside of BMD. Because, you know, they’ll follow me on Twitter and I follow them back and then I realize that they’re building their own community that is not even on the site at all. There have even been real-life romances that have sprung out of the BMD comment community! [Laughs] A lot of our readers come to Fantastic Fest, and they do these BMD hangouts, and none of it’s officially sanctioned. I think that’s what’s cool about it because once we start hosting them, it becomes kind of corporate and lame, but the fact that they’re just doing it on their own time and it’s this like spontaneous thing that’s springing up…I think it’s so special. It makes the entire site and community feel tangible, instead of this everyone’s-sitting-at-their-computer-across-the-country kind of thing. It’s really becoming, it feels like, a family.
I think so many communities, on and off-line, could learn a lot from what you guys have done together, even with these difficult topics. But I wanted to ask you, too, about your own writing for the site! What are some of the pieces that you’re most proud of?
Sure! I wrote a piece recently about the Buffy pilot on its twentieth anniversary. It was really fun. I treated it like a research paper. I, of course, watched the pilot, but then I watched it with commentary and read several interviews and essays about it and read the shooting script and watched the on-air pilot. I was, like, taking notes and had a highlighter. [Laughs] I loved it! It was so fun. I was really happy with the way it turned out, and it made me realize that I wish I took the time to do stuff like that more often because, of course, it took forever, but at the end it turns out well, and I really enjoyed it.
One of my first posts that I was really proud of at, at the time, Badass Digest, was a defense of Jennifer’s Body. It was the first time I really allowed myself to be opinionated about something that I thought people were really going to hate. Because Jennifer’s Body has been widely derided, and I think pretty unfairly so.
I’m pretty sure I watched that movie because I read your piece. And I really liked your post and the movie!
Oh really? Thank you! It took a little bit of courage for me at the time because I was one of the only girls writing for a site that all of these dudes read, and dudes universally seem to hate Jennifer’s Body. [Laughs] I was like, “Oh man, they’re going to ream me in the comments, but this is important to me! I’m going to do it.” And then the comments were so great. Everyone was like, “I like that movie too! Thank you!” It really gave me a lot of extra courage for the future. It was like, okay, you can say opinions that you think might be unpopular and, even if they are, it’s okay to do that, as long as you truly believe them and stand behind them. I’m just so glad that panned out the way it did because it really informed the writer I became later. It’s like, “Hey, you know what? You like all sorts of stuff people don’t like!” [Laughs] “Like Smallville. No one likes Smallville! Write about that.” [Laughs] I was really relieved and pleased with the response to that one.
I guess that brings us to the tough questions. Was there ever a moment where you really had a crushing, intense sense of self-doubt that almost prevented you from achieving what you have today?
Yeah, definitely. Constantly. [Laughs] But specifically, when I first graduated college, it was the first time I didn’t have anyone telling me to write. I didn’t have any assignments, and I didn’t write for years. I’d always categorized myself as a writer. I’d always seen myself as a writer, but I didn’t realize how much of that was just people telling me, “You should write!” Being an English major in English class, you’re constantly given these writing assignments. I was writing all of the time, but never for myself, and I didn’t realize there was a difference there until I no longer had someone telling me to do it.
I was just really unhappy and I didn’t understand why. Couldn’t figure out what was going on. I kept telling myself, “You know, you’d be happier if you’d write. You have to write.” But I couldn’t make myself do it. I just did not know how to make myself do it. That went on for years, and I finally just stopped thinking of myself as a writer. I was advancing in arts administration and doing well there. Everything else in my life was great, so like, I started thinking, “That was a fun thing for you in school, but that’s not going to be who you are as an adult.” And then I read the book The Artist’s Way on a friend’s recommendation, and it just blew the doors wide open for me. The thing the book tells you that I quote all the time is that the difference between successful people and unsuccessful people is often not talent. Because tons of untalented people are successful and tons of talented people are not successful. The difference is audacity. Just doing the thing. Just do the thing, just get out there and do it.
After reading that, I was like, “Okay, I’m just going to start a blog, and I’ll write on it every day, and I’ll make my own assignments. I’ll be the person telling myself, ‘You have to do this. Follow these deadlines.’ And no one’s going to read it, and if they do, they’re probably going to hate it, and that is okay. I’m going to do the thing. I’m going to do the thing.” And I did it for a couple of years, every single day, and I got a little braver about trying to write for other outlets—there were a couple of local outlets and stuff that I wrote for—got a little braver, a little braver, but I was still terrified every day and doubting every word and thinking I was no good at it. But I told myself to just keep trying it, and I think in the back of my mind, I was thinking, “I’ll do this for a couple of years, and when nothing comes of it, I’ll quit again,” you know? But then, something came of it! [Laughs] I started writing for Badass Digest, and that turned into an actual job. It’s so funny that this tiny, tiny piece of advice—be audacious—made such a difference. It was just about trying the one thing and keeping to it for a little while, seeing what happens. And what happened was that it snowballed and turned into a career. It’s pretty great!
My god, I relate to all of that so much. Because it’s so hard when you don’t have anyone telling you what to do. Keeping even this site alive is, for me, a struggle for that very reason. Plus, I feel like when you’re passionate more about the medium or mode—like writing, drawing, playing guitar, etc.—than the message, you have to really find the message, find your subject, to actually be able to sustain anything. I imagine some people start with a message and find the medium—like the other way around—but I relate to what you’re saying…and Jesus, I have to read that book!
Yeah, oh my god, I recommend it constantly. I’ve given it as a gift to SO many people! [Laughs]
You just have a shelf in your house. [Laughs]
[Laughs] Yeah, exactly.
The whole idea of audacity probably relates a lot to my final question, actually, which is: how do you define success, and do you consider yourself successful by your definition?
I define success as doing a thing that you enjoy, whether or not it’s for money. Just making sure that you do it. So, I think, even before I got this job, when I had the blog and the day job…and it was a day job that was not at all dehumanizing and did not make me feel bad about myself and allowed me time to write and do the thing I cared about…I think I was successful then. I could have gone on that way forever and still would have been successful by that measure, which I think is an important one.
As long as you’re carving out the time and doing what you love and you don’t, like, absolutely despise your day job. [Laughs] As long as your day job is not taking so much out of you that you don’t have the energy to do what you love afterward, that’s success. I mean, the reality is, I’m not getting paid to write, even here. I’m getting paid to do the other stuff, the administrative stuff and running the department. In its own way, this is both a day job and a creative passion all in one. Before that, I used to have two jobs to fulfill that and now I have one. But, either way, as long as you’re just making the time to do the things…just do the thing, and you’re successful.
Visit Birth.Movies.Death. right now! You can find Meredith’s writing there by following this link. This badass babe also contributes to the lady-centric pop culture blog Forever Young Adult, a sister site to BMD run by her bestie and BMD parent company Alamo Drafthouse’s senior director of programming, Sarah Pitre. Plus, she owns a brewpub in Houston called City Acre Brewing with her husband. While she downplays what she does there, Meredith assures Babe Squad, “I definitely taste-test all of the beer!”