Life in Hollywood, below-the-line

Life in Hollywood, below-the-line
Work gloves at the end of the 2006/2007 television season (photo by Richard Blair)

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Chasing the Dream...

... and paying your dues.

                                   Pomp and Circumstances

Film students on the cusp of graduation all across the country will doubtless resonate with the last paragraph of Benjamin Puleo's recent offering at "Delusions of Fresh Meat," a post titled Job Hunting.

"It feels shitty to not be qualified for much more than script coverage or running errands.  I know I could write for something or work on a crew, but for now I'm just trying to get past the initiation  -- what everyone calls "paying your dues."  There's a little comfort in knowing that everyone has to start at the bottom.  Everyone was in my position at some point and in that way I know I just have to work with what I've got and stifle the panic.  Fingers crossed."

Most graduating film students probably feel the same way, but trust me on this: no soon-to-be-ex-student should take it for granted that he or she has what it takes to "write for something or work on a crew."  Not for money, anyway.  Sure, you can write for and crew on a student film, where neither the stakes nor the standards are particularly high, but the film and television industry is another world altogether.  Until you've been there, you have no idea what it's like.

Remember, all those producing, writing, directing, and crew jobs in Hollywood are currently filled by professionals who've spent years learning their craft, making and maintaining contacts, and earning their place in the industry.  Graduation Day signifies that you've acquired a basic education in the cinematic arts, but that's all.  Any freshly minted grad who thinks he/she is now equipped to sashay into Hollywood and land a job on a professional crew or in a writer's room has been smoking something much too strong.

I'm not being critical here. Ignorance is neither a crime nor a personal failing, but a state of being -- and we've all been there.  You can't know what you don't yet know, and at the moment, the vast majority of film students desperate to break into the industry have no earthly clue just how much they don't know about the reality -- the good, the bad, and the ugly -- of working in the professional arena. 

The good news is that it's neither brain science nor rocket surgery.  All will become clear as you hack your way through the Hollywood jungle... so in the spirit of reaching out, I'll offer a few words of encouragement to all you students about to be forcibly expelled from the warm comfort of the collegiate womb into a cold, uncaring world.

"Life's a bitch, and then you die."

This cheerful message was inscribed on a coffee cup given to me by one of my juicers while we were slaving on a low-budget feature down in Mississippi some twenty-five years ago.  Like all those lost years between then and now, that coffee cup is long gone with the wind, but the bitter truth of the inscription lives on.  Whatever path you follow through this troubled world, life really will be a bitch at times, and in the end, your reward for all that hard work fighting the good fight is the eternal void of death.  

Such is the unspeakably cruel nature of life -- and all the more reason not to settle for a grim, dead-man-walking existence of quiet desperation under the pale fluorescent glow of some soulless corporate cube farm.  Given that we all end up rotting in the grave anyway, what's the point of playing it safe?  You might as well chase a dream while you're still young, because if not now, when?  Dream-chasing is a lot harder to do once you hit 40.  Maybe it'll work out and maybe it won't, but pursuing that dream will teach you a lot about life and your place in the world.  Besides, if push finally does come to shove on the Dream Chase, you can always back off the throttle to find a more financially stable groove. That's a tough decision, but there's no shame in it -- life is an inherently unpredictable endeavor during which your internal and external circumstances can change on a dime.  

In the end, life will teach you all you really need to know -- but you have to pay attention and listen.

Just have some fun chasing your dream first.  With enough talent, drive, and a little luck, you might catch it... but if in the end that dream eludes your grasp, at least you gave it a shot.  That alone is worthy of respect, and will minimize your regrets later on down the line -- and believe me, we all accumulate our share of regrets as the years pile on.  You'll make plenty of mistakes, but that's unavoidable.  The trick is to learn from those mistakes and keep moving forward.

So once the ceremony concludes on that fine Spring day in the very near future, toss your mortarboard in the air and cast the graduation gown aside.  Go out and enjoy a kick-ass party to celebrate, then when you wake up the next morning with your stomach doing back-flips and head pounding like the Devil's own pile-driver, understand that the sun has risen over a very different landscape.  The prelims are over, and it's time for the main event that will be your life.

It's a brand new day.

And now a tip from the trenches. The dirty little secret of Hollywood is that "paying your dues" has never been a one-time expenditure of sweat, groveling, and humiliation.  You can't just pay your dues like an initiation fee and be done with it -- the world doesn't work that way.  The hard truth is, you'll be making regular payments toward your industry dues for as long as your career lasts.  "Paying your dues" is just a catch-phrase to describe the arduous task of proving yourself worthy, and if there will be occasional pauses in the flogging -- during which you can relax to enjoy the view ever so briefly -- never forget that there's always another beating waiting around the next corner.  You'll have to prove yourself worthy over and over again on the way up and on the way back down the slippery slope of Hollywood suck-cess.  

The struggle never stops.  Ever.  Whatever path you choose to follow, the moment you stop making a serious, committed effort in this business is the day your career begins the fade to black.  Above and below-the-line, Hollywood is a dog-eat-dog zero-sum world where there's always someone younger, smarter, stronger, and cheaper straining at the leash to take your job ... and if you let them, they will.

The first thing you should do (if you haven't already) is read this piece from  The Anonymous Production Assistant posted a link to it several months ago, and the lessons therein are invaluable for every young person dreaming of a career in the film and television industry.  And once you read it, read it again, because it's true.  Just remember, there's a reason TAPA called it "either the most inspiring or most depressing thing you will read all year."

It's a little of both.

The truth is powerful stuff, and although sometimes it hurts (this being one of those times), it will serve you well, because the sooner you wise up to the reality of this world, the better off you'll be.  Like every scared puppy, you don't like having your nose rubbed in this shit right now, but five years from now you'll be glad it happened.

Or not.  Either way, I'll be dead or retired by then, with this blog a ghost drifting on the digital wind through the unfathomable void of cyberspace.  If you want a career in the film/television world -- above or below the line -- you'll have to carve it out for yourself.  Nobody else can do it for you, so get your idealistic young asses in gear and make it happen.  

Take Ben's words to heart: "Everyone was in my position at some point, and in that way I know I just have to work with what I've got and stifle the panic."

Those are apt marching orders.  Given that you've all got plenty to work with -- you're young, smart, and (hopefully) willing to work very hard -- it's time to stifle the panic and start chasing that dream.  

Good luck.


Anonymous said...

One of my profs told us we should watch "Overnight", the 'documentary' about Troy Duffy. A great graduation gift about what NOT to do if you do have an opportunity/break in the biz. I really think it's important for a lot of film students to remember that even though they went from the bottom (freshman year) to the top (senior) of the pecking order in school, to remember you're starting over (like you mentioned), and attitude is a big thing when you're starting out. People seriously judge you by it. You don't want the first thing out of a person's mouth to be "that kid is a tool!".

A person once told me that your personality usually dictates a great deal where you'll end up (career-wise) in life. I met a lady who had worked on great shows and ended up in the DGA, and she said that 'most of her experiences (in the biz) had been accidents', but I remember she had a GREAT attitude and seemed genuinely happy.

Many people would like to be directors but they scoff at and don't like working with actors (!!). Sometimes someone with a little less talent but with a better attitude gets more breaks..sometimes it just takes more time for some people. It's important not to compare in this town (although it's hard not to) and to just keep going and following your own path, and to realize that you really don't know where you may end up...Hollywood is ridding itself of job descriptions and creating new ones every year.

Michael Taylor said...

Anonymous --

Although I haven't seen "Overnight," I can say from personal experience that there's a lot of truth in what you said here -- maybe enough to warrant addressing the issue in a future post.

Thanks for tuning in...

Unknown said...

You keep hinting that you'll retire soon and for some reason it makes me sad.

Michael Taylor said...

Victor --

Me too, because for all my bitching and moaning about Hollywood, I've had a pretty good time over my decades in the biz. I view The End looming in the distance with mixed emotions... but it won't happen anytime soon.

That depends on your definition of the word "soon," of course, but unless I get fried by a piece of faulty lighting equipment or fall out of a man-lift, I've got a few years left on set -- and by then, you'll probably be bored silly by this blog.

Thanks for tuning in...