My time in the film industry hasn't been a straight line or an 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:
LISTEN MORE THAN YOU SPEAK
This is a good rule in any business and, frankly, in life. 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 low 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 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, it helps to learn to live frugally. 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.
MAKE YOURSELF INDISPENSABLE
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 the things I consider the most important traits in a crew member.
The third is focus. This goes along with what I already said (above) about listening more than speaking. 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.