I can’t tell you how many aspiring writers and directors I’ve known that just kind of wandered around aimlessly with no real plan, wasting valuable time, until they either lost interest and settled into something else, or convinced themselves they’d given it their best shot, but came up short. Don’t let this be you! If you have the desire, the proper work ethic and some basic goals in place, the opportunities are out there for you to take advantage of. They really are.
Now, there isn’t a clear cut way to begin, let alone sustain or expand, one’s career as a writer or director. If you were to ask a dozen different writers and directors how they started, or what they did to get where they are now, chances are you’d hear a dozen very different answers. That’s the world of filmmaking for you. We all have to forge our own path, but that being said, there are useful tips to keep in mind.
The following are not tips to live and die by, so don’t. Each of us have different variables to contend with, which might make these tips more or less feasible. Just use them as a guideline, something to orient yourself by when first starting out. I hope it offers you some insight.
TIP 1: MOVE TO WHERE THE ACTION IS
(Los Angeles, New York, etc).
Great writers and directors have exploded on to the scene from outside the hot spots to be sure, but it doesn’t hurt to be in a place where you’ll have maximum exposure to the tools that will help you, be it people, crew, gear, etc.
When you first start out, chances are you’ll have very little connections and contacts. You might have to lean a little more on online resources such as Craigslist.com, Mandy.com and even other (more film specific) sites. If this is the case, being in a place like LA or NY can really pay off. For instance, if you’re a director and you put a posting online looking for a director of photography, here in Los Angeles you will receive a high amount of responses, many of these people even offering to bring on their own camera crew, cameras and gear. Some will be willing to work for free on your short film, others not so much, but at least you’ve got options. If you’re a writer and you go on to the same type of sites, looking for production companies looking for scripts or staff writers, you’ll find plenty of opportunities. Actually locking down one of these gigs can be tricky, as nothing is ever as easy as it sounds, but again, at least you’ll have options. If you were to try the same postings in less cinema friendly cities and towns around the country the response won’t be quite the same. It’s a different scene when you live outside the cinematic hot spots. The opportunities are drastically reduced. I like Los Angeles, but am I here because I love the city? No. I’m here because of the opportunities the city affords me.
Some might be asking, well wait, shouldn’t film school be the number one step? Well, not necessarily. I know people who learned a ton in film school. I know others who learned next to nothing. Depends on the person and the program, and what you can afford (especially if it’s a masters program). Back in the day, the film program I was attending taught me a lot about film history, which I loved, but in terms of film production…well, let’s just say I came out to Los Angeles like a newborn baby. Totally clueless as to the mechanics and business of film PRODUCTION.
So to each their own, I say. Go. Don’t go. The important thing to note is that if you cannot afford film school or cannot attend for some other reason, don’t let it ruffle your feathers too much.
TIP 2: GET A JOB THAT FITS INTO YOUR LONG TERM PLANS.
If you’re a writer, get an internship at a production company. In fact, get several. Most people I know have two or three internships under their belt. They won’t pay, but consider it part of paying your dues. Another great option is getting a job in the mailroom of a literary agency. If you work hard and you’re lucky you’ll get bumped up to a desk, as an assistant to an agent. Most agencies have both a feature and a TV division. Steer yourself towards whichever one interests you. From here you’ll get an inside view of how the business works. You’ll learn who the players in town are, how contracts are structured and WHAT agents look for in new clients, which someday might be YOU. You’ll have access to scripts, both old and new, and will learn a ton from reading them. You can find scripts online, of course, sitting in your own home, but those are usually older scripts. It’s very telling to see what agents/producers are keen to read RIGHT NOW. Reading as much as you can is a good first step in learning how to write your OWN scripts. To top it off, you’ll have direct access to AGENTS. They are very difficult to reach nowadays, and most won’t take unsolicited material. If you’ve worked with these people for a year or two, you’ve got a good shot at slipping them your own script. Don’t abuse this privilege. Make sure the time is right and your material is as ready as it’s ever going to be. Then, who knows what might happen.
If you’re a director, an agency will teach you many of the same things, which is great, but what you really need to focus on is putting yourself in a position where you’ll have access to the production side of the business. So, a good place to consider would be a camera rental house. Get a job as a driver and move upwards. This kind of job is tailored towards aspiring cinematographers and camera assistants, but it can work just as well for a director too. Many houses, once you’ve put in your time, will allow you to use available gear for your own projects. Oh, and did I mention for FREE (aside from insurance)? This is not a privilege to abuse either, but by the time you’ve put yourself in a position to ask for gear, you’ll know what’s appropriate and what’s not appropriate. For example, you might not want to ask for the nicest, most popular, most expensive gear. Let’s be honest, you don’t need that. Start simple and small. An older camera, a few prime lenses or even just one zoom lens, basic support. Done and done. This kind of position will afford you valuable contacts and it will keep you up to speed on what’s current in the camera/lens world, what equipment is needed on set, and how it all works. This kind of knowledge is very useful to a director, in so many ways. Believe me.
The other nice thing about getting a job at places like this is that you’re working alongside the RIGHT kind of people that can help you later on down the road. At the agency, that person who’s working next to you in the mail room? He or she will be an agent or a manager or a producer one day. At the camera house, that prep tec? He or she could be shooting huge commercials in just a few years, or perhaps a big time camera operator, stead–cam operator or DIT (digital imaging technician). Important relationships. Remember, you’re planning for the long term.
What’s important here is that regardless of what it is you’re looking to do, KEEP YOUR LONG TERM GOAL IN MIND. Plan. Strategize. You don’t want to get a job just to get a job, then five years down the road realize you never had the time, the energy, the stability of schedule, the connections, etc to be able to focus on your own aspirations in your personal time.
If the aforementioned employment options aren’t available to you, such is life sometimes. It’s not the end of the world. Writers and directors who are really dedicated to their craft can make do with any job. In fact, I had an agent, and a big one at that, once tell me that if directing is what you want to do, go get a job at Subway. Something that will pay the bills but not completely overwhelm your life, and you can FOCUS on learning your craft and building your reel.
TIP 3: REMEMBER WHY YOU ARE HERE
Life can be busy, I know. Sometimes weeks or months will fly by in the blink of an eye, and you’ve been so busy with the daily grind you haven’t had a chance to work on your craft. It happens. Don’t let it happen often. Remember why you got into this to begin with. If you’ve made a tough move, away from family and friends, to a city like Los Angeles or New York in order to pursue your dreams, remember why you made that sacrifice. Don’t let it stand for nothing. You’re young and you have lots of energy. Take advantage of it.
TIP 4: CHALLENGE YOURSELF TO WORK HARDER THAN YOU EVER HAVE BEFORE
There’s working hard, then there’s working HARD. I’ve known many people over the years who think they know what hard work is, but they never pushed themselves nearly as hard as they could have. No one in the business is going to give you ANYTHING. You have to build YOURSELF up from nothing, doing whatever it takes, to put the pieces in place to make your work stand out.
There are countless examples, but I recently watched CRONOS, from writer/producer/director Guillermo Del Toro. He spent YEARS making that film. When he ran out of money production would halt. He’d find ways to raise more then start shooting again. He took out loans, went into debt, essentially putting all his eggs into one basket (financially, this is not something I’d recommend for everyone!). In short, he WILLED that film to completion, and it paid off. Someone once told me (heresy, I know I know) that he was asked if he felt lucky to be where he is today. He said “no” because no luck was involved. He worked his A*S off to be where he is today. Maybe he said it. Maybe he didn’t. Regardless, there’s a lesson to learn from the story. Being a writer/director is not a Monday thru Friday 9-5 job. You’ve got to go above and beyond the norm. No one says you have to put your entire life on the backburner in order to accomplish your goals…but be prepared to do JUST that when the occasions arise.
If you’re a writer, read as many scripts as you possibly can. Write as many scripts as you possibly can, short or long. Even if you have nothing to write about, just write. It’s a workout for your brain, and it often leads to great things. Do it before work, after work, whenever you can. The harder you work at it, the better you’ll get.
If you’re a director, get yourself on to some sets as a production assistant. I wouldn’t gun for “Assistant to Director” so much, as tempting as that might sound. You’re not looking to learn how to be a personal assistant. You need to learn how a set works. Graduate level student films or full professional sets. Whatever. Just go and learn the basics of being on set. Learn the lingo, the etiquette and watch the director when you can and see what you can learn from this. If it’s a great director, terrific. If it’s a bad director, same thing. Even a bad director will teach you useful lessons, even if it’s what to avoid doing! Start directing your own material. Don’t have money to put anything together? Who cares. Take on something simple, small and quick. I’ve shot a couple of films for a couple of hundred dollars or less. I even shot one for absolutely nothing once. Just me and two other people involved, and that includes cast AND crew. Just keep directing. Try to direct material that challenges you. Never directed kids? Shoot a script with kids. Never shot at night, and the challenges that come with it? Shoot a script with night scenes. Never dealt with a lot of dialogue? Shoot a script with lots of it. Never directed an ensemble cast? Do so. It will prove a valuable gauge as to where you stand and what you need to improve upon. Just keep learning and growing, cutting down your weaknesses and building upon your strengths.
Whether you’re a writer or a director, the harder you work at it the better you’ll get. It’s a self-motivating kind of deal. Through all this work you’ll eventually begin to develop your own unique voice/vision/style/etc. This will help you stand out all the better.
In summary, keep your focus on the endgame, get yourself as close as possible to the profession in which you’re looking to delve, maximize your time and take full advantage of the opportunities that are available to you. They are out there and you can find them!
Peter Dukes is an independent filmmaker who’s been working in Los Angeles for 12 years. He’s written, directed and produced 14 films under the banner of his company, Dream Seekers Productions.
Check out Peter’s other FilmCourage.com article
‘ASPIRING FILMMAKERS: IS INDIE FILMMAKING
THE LIFE FOR YOU?’