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Monday, 22 October 2012

Essential Advice from 17 Inspirational Film Industry Professionals

"Every time I finish something I think I'm never going to be able to write anything else. And every time I start something I think that this is the one where I'm going to get found out as a fraud." That's what Aaron Sorkin told me two years ago. You mean Academy Award Winner Aaron Sorkin is just like the rest of us? Totally. "Remember that nothing you write, no matter how good, is going to make everyone in the world like you."

Did you hear the story this summer about screenwriter Scott Rosenberg selling a pitch to Disney for a seven figure deal a few months ago? It was easy, right? After all, he's the guy who wrote 'Con Air' and 'Gone in Sixty Seconds'. But wait! What about all the work he did before that? "I wrote ten scripts before I got an agent. 14 before one was made. If I look back at those old scripts, sure there were some decent parts. But most of it was crap. How could it not be?" - You mean that Scott Rosenberg was once a struggling writer just like me and you? That's right. 

So what is Scott's advice? WRITE A GREAT SCRIPT! "When you think you have a great script - if it really is great - they will find you. The town is starving for great scripts. It sounds awful and pat and overly simplistic: but if you want to succeed as a screenwriter, write a dope script." 

So you have to write and write and write. And you have to deal with that inner criticism that Sorkin was talking about. Sound familiar, writers? It sounds familiar for all artists, right? What if you're an actor, is it the same? 

"It is very hard. I mean, you've got to have self-belief. And you do have to take risks. If you find yourself going 'oh that person would never see me' don't- don't eliminate yourself from the casting process. let them eliminate you. Send that email that doesn't get replied to. I think part of the battle for any creative person is um, not to reject themselves." That's what British comedian David Schneider says

Jeeez. Seems like most of working in the film industry is about stopping yourself from going crazy. Here's how actor William Duffy does it; "I NEVER dwell on the “W’s”: “Why didn’t they cast me?”, “What did I do wrong?”, “What were they looking for?”, “What did they think of me”, and of course, “Was I any good?” and “Will I ever work again?”."

So instead of focusing on those, what does William think you should do? "My advice is to realistically define “success”, and what “making a living as an actor” means to you. Why are you an actor?" - Oh, and you need to surround yourself with good people: "The important thing I try to do is have a good support system around me – comprised of both industry and non-industry people. It keeps me sane. I’m fortunate: My immediate family is fantastic. They always support me. Do they actually approve of my choice of profession ? … Don’t know. But they support my decision 100%. And that’s more important. Same with my non-industry friends: couldn’t be more proud of me and supportive. They love that I’m doing what I want to do. Can’t ask for anything better."

Having a good support system, that keeps coming up again and again. You need your own confidence, but you also need people around you, which is just like what 'Glee' editor Joe Leonard told me "Being self-motivated, and believing in yourself -- you can get far on those fumes. It's worth noting that actual encouragement (from teachers, friends, parents, film organizations, festivals) is still the actual fuel. Mom, dad, thank you! My list is actually quite endless."

And what about those negative people? Let's go back to William Duffy for a minute, because I love this viewpoint: "I don’t try to 'fend off the naysayers and negative people'. I just nod and accept them. Hell, they’re right! What I do IS crazy! But I love it."

So; you need to keep working and working on your craft. You need a support system. And you need to not let the inner-critic get to you. These same themes come up again and again in my interviews. I remember having a conversation about all this with 'Bring It On' screenwriter Jessica Bendinger; she said, "You need talent, but you still have to know what lights you up and what will get your butt in front of the computer whether there’s a paycheck involved or not. I do know the more I write, the easier it is to write. The less I write, the longer it can take to start the car. I mess up all the time, I fall into patterns and struggle to stay conscious, integrated and connected, but I've learned to relish the harder stuff for the clarity that follows."

You have to keep doing the work. And you need to keep sane. When you're not getting the work, see the good side. Here's Peter James Smith, who worked alongside William Duffy in 'The West Wing' for seven years, "It's funny. I don't think of how I deal with it. I just live my life in the every day and take what life does bring me--whether it's a heap of offers or a free day to go walking on the beach. It hasn't gotten easier. There is a certain level of acceptance... but there are also moments of panic when thinking about money or about making enough as a union actor to qualify for health benefits."

Is there some extra something that helps us be successful? Melanie Mayron has been acting for over forty years (older readers will remember her as a series regular on 'thirtysomething', and younger people may have caught the film she recently directed, 'Mean Girls 2':  " There are just so many very gifted people that come to Hollywood to try to realize their dreams, that the reality is it is luck, karma, destiny, whatever you believe.  But you do have to be motivated. And passionate about what you want to do and say."

Karma? Destiny? Are we getting a bit crazy now? But hold on; a lot of people have views like this. What, even Scott Rosenberg, you ask? "A Zen approach is a good one. Don't do a mass mailing introducing yourself to every agent in town. Don't foist your script on the guy at the next table in the diner, who happens to be reading "THE HOLLYWOOD REPORTER". Just know that they will find you. It sounds strange. It's not. L.A. is a city fueled by the frantic frenzy to find the next great script. The key is write it. And then watch them tumble..."

A Zen approach? Karma? Interesting. So these actors work their asses off, constantly writing, acting, practising their craft-- and they work on themselves to make sure they don't get swallowed up by rejection and inner criticism.  

And sure, luck is involved. Even TV actor Joshua Malina admits, "there is a huge amount of luck involved. There just is. Subtract my relationship with Aaron Sorkin and I don't know whether I'd be a professional actor." -- But what else accounts for Malina's success? "One really important character trait is confidence. So many actors lack it, but if you don't think you're good, why would you expect someone else to be taken with you? You have to believe in your own talent, and let that belief carry you through the avalanche of rejection that comes with pursuing a career in this field."

Luck? Confidence? Knowing Aaron Sorkin? Who knows. Can you really go from being a nobody to achieving your dreams in the movie making industry?

Garden State. The Hangover. The Hangover 2. Paul. Due Date. The Dictator. You heard of any of those movies? All of them? Imagine wanting to be a Director of Photography, working on projects like those. Wouldn't that be amazing? How did Lawrence Sher do it? 

"The main advice I have for anybody is: I never had a back up plan, and I think that’s kind of the only advice I can give. I moved out to LA half-way through college. I got super into film and then because I always had an interest in stills photography I got really interested in camera work and I just decided I really want to do this for a living. I wanted to be a cinematographer. I had the benefit of knowing what specifically in the film industry I was interested in, which certainly helps and not everybody has that. Some people really need to figure out exactly what it is. I moved out to LA with no real contacts or anything, but I also didn’t have a plan to do anything else. I tried as best as I could to stay away from the Joe jobs. I still needed to make a living but I would do things still related to film as best as I could. That’s not to say I didn’t have one or two Joe jobs, but I read scripts that would allow me to earn a living and I obviously had the benefit that I could work as a camera assistant. But everything I did as a camera assistant, whenever I earned enough money to make rent I would go try and shoot stuff on my own. So I was really disciplined about not getting too stuck into working as an assistant. I was constantly trying to shoot. I think if you want to shoot then go shoot, that’s the best thing I could say, and find any way to make a living but continue to do it and everything you do will provide experience that will allow you to get jobs. It just takes time. The year that I made 'Kissing Jessica Stein' was one of the first years where I decided I would not do any more camera assisting even though that was basically how I was earning a living. What a miserable year, it was my only job all year and I think I made $7,000 on the whole movie. So, here I was, a 30 year old guy and I made $7,000 that year."

A 30 year old guy who only made $7,000 in a year? What a loser! What a failure! That Lawrence Sher is pathetic! Isn't that what you tell yourself when you're failing? But hold on-- isn't he now one of the best DOP's in Hollywood? 

Oh and did you know that Joe Leonard doesn't only edit 'Glee'? He also directs films."Pick up the camera, of if you're working that survival job, keep a notepad with you. Movies start within you -- unless you're using heavy machinery, let your mind wander. Look for the people you want to work with. It's easier to make a feature with a die-hard collective of ten filmmakers than it used to be. Support each other -- you can't do it on your own. And don't ask for permission... unless it involves fireworks."

Look for the people you want to work with. You don't just need a support system, you need to find talented and like-minded people to collaborate with! 

So how do you find people to collaborate with? Hollywood Editor Jake Pushinsky says, "Do whatever you can to get your foot in the door. Go to film schools (enrolled or not) and find student directors who need editors for their projects - anything. I imagine getting in to film school is great. You probably learn a ton and you also make endless connections to people that are heading in to the business. You just have to put yourself out there to anybody and everybody that you can. It's a really really hard business to get in to. I'm probably not the best example because I got lucky and sort of fell in to it."

But Jake IS the best example. He's a perfect example.  Everyone I've interviewed talks about luck. 

But is it luck? These are the hardest working people I know. Why does Shawn Clement have nearly 200 composer credits on IMDB?  "For me the work is 24/7. I'm a work-aholic. I do try to shut certain things off at night. Lately I've been doing that. As it gets to eleven o'clock, midnight, I'll chill and watch some TV or whatever; or spend some time with the dogs or horses and stuff. It's really hard, because you're always on. Even if I go to an event or a party, you're schmoozing looking for work. It's like a never ending job." 

So this luck that people keep talking about. How do you make it work for you? Take action. How did Scott Prendergast get 'FRIENDS' star Lisa Kudrow to be in his movie?. He asked. "We sent her the script - she read it - and she called me and said yes. It was kind of a crazy miracle. I really respect her for being so adventurous and doing this tiny movie."

Have patience. Martina Niland produced indie hit 'Once' -- but the process is long, "It can take 2-4 years at a minimum to get something ready enough to begin looking for production finance and if you have 20/25 features on a slate at any given time and in various stages of development etc, that’s a lot of balls to keep in the air. A lot of meetings to keep having week in, week out. But it’s fun."

2-4 years? A long time right? That's why you need passion. 

Who is the most passionate actor I know? John Wesley Shipp (Dawson's Creek, One Life To Live). He explains things pretty bluntly: "If you can be happy doing anything else, go do it;  the statistics are NOT in your favor. But if you have the fire in your belly, then you really have no other choice than to commit."

"People I know who are really successful are pretty much the hardest working people," says Greg Mottola (Director of Adventureland, Superbad, The Newsroom). "Like you, I do love personal movies and writer-directors. I do believe in auteurs, people telling their own stories or stories that are important to them. I can feel the difference. With this technology, there are going to be a lot of people who want to get into movies just because it's such a great job, an interesting job. And there'll be a lot of competent people. But to rise above and be the next Woody or something -- it's really hard."

It IS really hard. But the key is to get out there and WRITE A SCRIPT, MAKE A FILM, DO THE WORK! Scott Rosenberg says write ten scripts, write fifteen. Joe Leonard says make a film a day. Jake Pushinsky says go down to the nearest film school, even if you're not a student there, and meet people. 

Adam Rifkin wrote 'Mousehunt', and 'Small Soldiers'. He directed 'Detroit Rock City' and his new project, 'Reality Show' is due on TV soon. His advice is always great-- surely he knows the golden rule of being a success in this industry. "If you want to be a filmmaker, there's no set path, no rules. You make up your own rules as you go along. Everybody does it different, and everybody blazes their own path. One of the things I like about the people who succeed in the movie business, or anybody pursuing a career in the arts of any kind, is that they just innately know that their way is the right way, for them. It might not be the right way for someone else, but it's the right way for them. And if it isn't working one way, you can shift gears and try it another way. The people who succeed at it are the people who know, 'yeah this is the way for me, this is the way I'm going to pursue this career for myself, and to hell with everyone else and the way they did it, I'm going to do it my way.'"

Care to share?


  1. Astounding yet amazingly simple tips. Thank you so much for compiling this together.

  2. Sometimes I get mired in wallowing in self pity because the day job gets in the way of having the time to write, so this is a nice reminder for me to shut up, stop whining and just write, whatever it takes.

  3. Encouraging as always. Thanks, Kid!