Monday, November 19, 2012

Breaking into the film business.

So, recently I've been gaining a little modest traction in this oh-so-fickle business.  And as I try to figure out what the next phase of my career will hold, I've been finding myself reflecting on the long and strange path that has led me here.

My time in the film industry hasn't been a straight line or a overnight phenomenon.  I received my MFA in film production over a decade ago.  A quick glance at my IMDb page will illustrate that it took me a while to find myself solidly in the director's chair.  I've held a lot of different roles on a lot of different productions, almost entirely within the burgeoning independent film scene in Seattle.

During this period I learned.  And learned and learned.  From my own mistakes, from other people's mistakes, from our occasional successes.  Did I want to be making my own films?  Hell yes.  Desperately.  The whole time.  But looking back now, I am incredibly grateful for the years I spent working on other people's films.  I am a better filmmaker because of the time I spent waiting, watching and learning.

People occasionally ask me my advice on breaking into this business, and rather than repeating myself ad nauseum, I thought maybe I should just write down my thoughts somewhere.  Here, actually.  So here you go...some tried and true, hard-earned lessons, from this cinechick to you:

This is a good rule in any business and, frankly, in life in general.  Be an observer.  If you want to direct (or write, or act), observation of human behavior is a super important skill.  But whatever you want to do, it never hurts to understand people.  And you will always learn more by listening to others than you will by listening to yourself.  

There are very few people who work in film who did not start off working for free.  I personally spent about five years working a day job and volunteering my nights and weekends on small indies before I was able to get paid to be on a set.  Five years is a long time.  Granted I was starting off at a time when there were fewer films being shot in Seattle and most had much lower budgets.  I also think my case is a bit unique because I was focused from the outset on key positions on set.  I had the opportunity to pursue paid PA work much earlier, but I chose to act as a DP (and eventually AD) on smaller films instead because I knew that would be more creatively fulfilling to me.  The point is, you don't just decide to work in film and then automatically get paid to do it.  Working for free in those early years was a huge part of my development as a filmmaker.  You have to pay your dues--it humbles you, it teaches you, and it makes you very grateful when your time finally comes.  So unless you've got a trust fund laying around somewhere, it helps to learn to live frugally.  I never grew accustomed to a high standard of living--I kept my expenses as low as possible so I could retain the freedom to stay focused on independent film.  To be honest I'm still trying to figure out how to make a sustainable living in this business.  But I chose this path and I love what I do.  I regret nothing.  

As someone who has been on the hiring end of several films, I can tell you without question that skill is only one of many factors that I consider.  When presented with two people of equal talent, I will always, every time, go with the person who has the better attitude.  Actually, sometimes I'll hire the person with less experience just because I think they have the right disposition for the work.  You can train people out of inexperience, but you can't train them out of perpetual grumpiness.  People who show up to set on time, ready to work and with a smile on their face, whether they are an intern or a union professional, will always get hired again.  Positivity and enthusiasm are two of what I consider the most important traits in a crew member.  The third is focus.  This goes along with that thing I already said about listening more than you speak.  If you are focused and paying attention on set, you will always know what's happening now, what's happening next, and how you can be a part of making it all happen more quickly.  For a shining example of someone who exemplifies all of the above, see Garrett Cantrell, who I will have on every set forever if I have my way.  I met Garrett when he was an unpaid art intern. First chance I got, I hired him as a key PA.  Next thing you know, he's one of the most sought-after key grips in the region.  Yes, he's excellent at his job, but he honed his skills by getting on a lot of sets, and he got on those sets because he has a kickass attitude.  Watch and learn, everyone.

When I started AD'ing, I immediately encountered the resentment of crews who had been too often burned by "production" and the frustration of producers who felt crews expected more from them than the budget allowed.  This disconnect is far from uncommon in the film industry, but it's something I think we have made great strides to overcome here in Seattle.  Over the past decade, I've seen what was once a random assortment of fairly embittered individuals evolve into a strong and mutually-respectful community.  That didn't happen all by itself--those of us making our living in this industry manifested that change.  And as a more coalesced unit, Seattle has yielded fantastic films.  When people ask me why I want to make my films in Seattle, I always tell them it's because of the amazing, hilarious, passionate, and highly skilled crews.  I'm proud of what we created here, and I want to see it continue to grow.  But listen, I realize that it's not a candy-covered wonderland all the time.  While we're all striving for crewtopia (I made that word up), it is still a rare gift to find yourself on a set that is completely devoid of difficulties.  You may still have bad experiences.  The worst thing you can do about this is get angry.  The best thing you can do is learn and help others learn by communicating what your issues are.  Don't yell and insult.  Don't sulk or grumble or be passive aggressive.  Reason with and educate those who you believe are causing your problem and try to help create the community you want to work in.  Give others the benefit of the doubt--chances are they (like you) are only trying to make the best film possible.

Common courtesy is incredibly underrated in this business.  Because of time constraints, budget constraints, and general stress levels, people tend to develop bad attitudes.  Fight this urge.  Just like they say in ROADHOUSE, be nice.  (Also, when in doubt, trust Swayze.)  Relationships are literally everything in this business, so nurture them.  Rebuilding burnt up bridges is hard work, especially when you didn't have to set fire to them in the first place.

Yes, I am thrilled that I was a part of so many crews over the past decade.  But I would have gone insane if I wasn't also working on my own projects on the side.  The whole reason I began writing my film THE OFF HOURS is that I realized how necessary it was to me to have a creative outlet.  The film is about people who don't have that--who get stuck in routine and stasis and boredom.  It's also about breaking those cycles and living the life you really want.  Find something that stimulates you and then do it every chance you get.  And yes, I realize that last sentence sounds dirty.

As you go through life, you will face choices every day.  Factors such as money, time and obligation might influence those decisions.  But don't forget to listen to your instincts.  Your brain will tell you what you "should" do, your gut will tell you what will make you happiest.  I have faced decisions in my life where my brain said one thing and my gut said the other, and I have never regretted going with my gut.

Okay, stepping off my little soapbox for now.  I hope there might be some little nuggets of usefulness for others within these ramblings.  Please feel free to comment and disagree or back me up and keep the conversation going.


  1. Thank you for sharing your wisdom. Lovely nuggets!

    ~ David

  2. Your travels have made you a wise, thoughtful and gifted auteur. Best of luck!

  3. I'm passing this on to my students--they're always asking about what the life is like, and I think this will help them a great deal.

  4. This is a great post. Thanks for putting your thoughts together!

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  6. Wonderful post! I'm unexpectedly getting into the film industry after a 12 year break from doing anything in the performing arts. I really want to learn as much as I can and I know I need to be humble, patient, and kind if I want to make it in this business. Thank you!

  7. Some of my students read your post, and they want to know where to work for free? In other words, where do you find the local film industry so that you can volunteer? (One student added that he is willing to move to Seattle and be your slave.)

    1. Well, they have one great thing going for them, which is that they are students. In Washington, you have to be matriculated in order to get internships on set--it's the law.

      I'm not sure about Utah, but here in Seattle we have callboards where people post looking for crew, like this one: People also still use Craigslist for this, I think. There may be Utah-specific ones though--there's actually a decent amount of production happening there I believe.

      You should also tell them to go to screenings at Sundance and stay for Q&A's to learn that way, since it's right at their fingertips.

      And for the record, I am anti-slavery. :)

  8. i just wanna say this is lovely piece o' bloggin' for the noggin. intelligently spoken (typed). wonderfully expressed. sprinklings of awesomeness abound. wisdom for the ages. 18 in dexterity. 19 in charisma (rare). you rolled a 20 whilst wielding a vorpal sword. words to live by while traversing the magical realm that is independent cinema.

  9. Thank you for sharing your thoughts and experience, and so eloquently, to boot : )

  10. I really enjoyed this. Thanks for sharing your wisdom. More please!

  11. Thank you! Your words on this topic are the most caring and grounded I've read. I'm speechless.

  12. "Rebuilding burnt up bridges is hard work, especially when you didn't have to set fire to them in the first place." Absolute truth. Creative hearts are tender; it's always best to give people a chance to understand where you are coming from. One of "The Four Agreements" is never take anything personal.

    Thank you, Megan, for sharing your journey. You make Seattle proud.

  13. Thank you so much for putting your thoughts down. I've had this bookmarked for a while but only just got around to reading it today, and it couldn't have come at a better time. I've been extremely stressed out recently about work, and the reminder about the value of working for free really hit me, both by putting my mind at peace and serving as inspiration for why we do what we do.

    Among the above mentioned were many other useful points (or nuggets) to constantly be reminded of. I'm sure I'll be looking at this again :)

    Thank you for sharing!

  14. This is a fabulous post, truthful and life-enhancing! So happy to discover your blog (via cross-post on Women & Hollywood)