“Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.”
A while back I discussed the importance of persistence for those hoping to forge a career in the film and television industry, but there’s one more thing every newbie knocking on the doors of Hollywood needs to know if they’re to have any hope of making their cinematic dreams come true.
No, not the four-digit numerical code to open the security gate guarding Cindy Crawford's secluded beachside home out in Malibu (which I learned -- then soon forgot -- while working on an infomercial we filmed in her house), but something much more basic and infinitely more useful:
How to work.
You’d be surprised how many newbies arrive on the shores of Hollywood burdened with the assumption that by dint of being young and earnest, some mysteriously divine process will bless them with success -- that after a few weeks of paying their dues, good things will just naturally start to happen.
It doesn't work that way... and the key word there is “work,” because in order to make your Hollywood fantasies come anywhere close to reality, you’re going to have to work very hard indeed. And if you don’t know how to work -- to really work -- you’ve got a problem.
And by “knowing how to work,” I don’t mean simply putting your head down, then grunting and sweating until someone tells you to stop. It’s a lot more than that.
I too was once a clueless young fool who didn’t know how to work. Despite growing up on the farm where doing chores (of the sort that would horrify your average urban or suburban film school graduate) was just a part of life, I didn’t really learn how to work until I was 25 years old.
Truth be told, I was a lazy kid who had to be prodded with the pitchfork of fear or the lure of a reward to do any sort of work, and even then I'd do just enough to accomplish the task. Truly unpleasant assignments (such as spending an entire week shoveling pig shit out of the barn during Spring Break or -- later in college -- writing a hopelessly lame paper on D.H. Lawrence for some god-awful Lit class I never should have taken in the first place), were performed grudgingly at best.*
I just didn't like to work.
I just didn't like to work.
Nothing in school taught me to embrace the concept or reality of work, so I remained a lazy slug in the immediate post-collegiate years while finishing up my thesis film and scraping out a living behind the counter of a local pizza parlor. I hadn’t yet learned to do a good job or take pride in my work no matter the circumstances -- which is to say, I was just skating through. After getting fired from the pizza job (a totally justified termination, I might add), then completing my thesis film, I stood before the world a 24 year old unemployed young man with no useful or salable skills at all.
By comparison, Orson Welles was preparing to make “Citizen Kane” at age 24, and was all of 25 when his legendary film hit the theaters. But Orson Welles knew how to work, and I didn’t.**
Being flat broke, I was neither financially nor emotionally prepared to mount an assault on Hollywood, so I took a job working behind the counter of a mom-and-pop deli in the hills north of town. With just one store at the time, Erik's Deli was a small family operation, but Erik had big plans that did not include tolerating a lazy, unmotivated employee accustomed to doing a half-assed job.
Erik and I got off to a rough start. He was a burly, intense man who made it clear that certain standards would be maintained in his deli come hell or high water -- and as the king of this little castle, he expected me to meet those standards. Behind this challenge lurked the unspoken threat that it was his way or the highway. Given my innately lazy nature and dismal history with any kind of work, it seemed unlikely I’d last more than a couple of weeks.
Much to my surprise, those two weeks passed without getting the boot, but I wasn't having much fun. Having deduced that I was a lazy fuck-up, Erik began busting my chops with metronomic regularity. I didn’t much like that, and at a certain point my simmering resentment at his eternally critical comments bubbled over into a powerful desire to prove him wrong.
I didn’t realize it then, but I was responding to his challenge. I began paying attention at work in a way I never had before, taking a job seriously and trying hard to do it right for the very first time. It took a few months for me to fully shape up, at which point Erik assigned me to the crew about to open his brand new deli in town, a much bigger facility at a busy outdoor shopping center. Business would be fast and furious there, and he seemed to think I could handle it.
The chops-busting continued, of course. Erik was relentless in his determination that the new deli succeed and prosper. The service would be friendly and efficient, the sandwiches would be made with care, and the store would be kept clean at all times. If this all sounds completely obvious, you're right -- it's Retail 101 -- but my previous stint at the pizza parlor had taught me every bad work habit you can imagine, along with a few that you can't.*** That kind of negative training doesn't get turned around overnight.
There were plenty of ups and downs over the next year. Erik dropped in for frequent unannounced visits, and during one of those, found a marijuana seed on the kitchen floor. He made a point of bringing that up at an employee meeting, turning to fix me with that hard, laser-beam glare of his. The irony was that of the entire night crew, I was the only one who didn’t smoke dope at work (or at home, for that matter) -- and everybody knew it but Erik.
I kept my cool, meeting his gaze with my own unflinching stare. He could think whatever he wanted. I’d learned how to work hard by then -- how to be responsible, to work with a crew as a team, and the importance of going above and beyond what was strictly required. Let the rest of the crew jockey for the soon-to-be-open assistant manager job. I was on my way to bigger and better things.
Eventually I felt ready to take my shot at Hollywood. I gave a full month’s notice at the deli, and kept working hard right up through my final day. After clocking out for the last time, Erik called me into the main office. I had no idea what to expect, but there I found a very different guy. He was all smiles now, the hard edge gone. Thanking me for all my hard work -- and for not slacking off coming down the stretch -- he wished me good luck in Hollywood, then handed me a check for a full month's severance pay, something he was under no obligation to do.
I was floored, but what I didn't realize then was that the lessons I'd learned in how to work over that year would prove far more valuable to my future than a check for five hundred dollars.
A few weeks later I threw a leg over my motorcycle and headed down U.S. Route 101 to Los Angeles with a pocket full of hope and enough in my wallet to last a few months.
Here in Hollywood, my new attitude towards work paid off. I hit the ground ready to go, and after a couple of months landed my first unpaid PA job on a feature, parlayed that into a paid assistant editing gig, then got on another feature as a PA -- paid, this time. Within a year I'd left PA-dom behind and was working my first feature as a grip, after which I moved towards set lighting.
I was on my way, but looking back now, I'm not sure any of that would have -- or could have -- happened if I hadn’t learned the hard lessons of how to work in the deli.
This isn't to paint my own fence as some wonderful Hollywood success. I've managed to survive the ebb and flow of the film industry for the better part of four decades, but lifting heavy objects for a living is a long way from the heady creative environment of the writing rooms and director's chairs of Hollywood. I'm a very small and totally replaceable cog lost amid the vast gears that keep the Industry Machine running. Still, the principle holds true, because nobody -- above or below the line -- can achieve any of their goals or Tinsel-Town dreams unless and until they know how to work.
It's something everybody has to learn sooner or later -- and in Hollywood, the sooner, the better.
* It's a good thing I went to one of those totally forgiving pass/no record schools, or else I'd never have bagged any kind of college credential. Not that a degree in "aesthetic studies" was worth a dime in the real world of post-collegiate life, but that's a tale for another time.
** He was also astonishingly talented, utterly brilliant, and boundlessly ambitious. Me? None of the above.
*** Remember these words, people: don't ever -- and I mean EVER -- piss off the kids behind the counter of any food establishment. Trust me on this.