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 18, 2014


                        This goes double for those who choose the Hollywood life...

It being spring, a fresh batch of film school graduates will soon toss their mortarboards high in the air, indulge in bachanlian grad-night parties of epic proportions, then awaken the following day to face the cold gray dawn of post-collegiate reality.  That's going to be one painfully sobering experience.

Should you be among those ranks, it's possible you find this hard to believe right now.  Deep down, you may still cling to the naive assumption that you're somehow different from the rest of the film school herd -- gifted, even, and thus entitled to some degree of cinematic immunity from the struggles that plague ordinary mortals who tilt at the windmills of Hollywood. Surely the film industry will take note of your unique and extraordinary talents, then shower upon you the commensurate rewards...

Dream on, noobs -- that's not going to happen, but don't let it bother you. Every film student probably feels this way to a certain extent, indeed, maybe they have to, given the crucial role that blind ignorance and false courage play in getting so many nascent careers off the ground.  When you have no clue just how much you really don't know, anything seems possible.

But that's just it -- almost anything is possible so long as you're willing to work hard to achieve it.

Making it in the arts -- however you define that -- is ridiculously difficult.  Whatever path you choose, achieving success on your own terms or in the eyes of the artistic community to which you aspire rarely proceeds in a nice straight line, and it never comes easy.  The young painter, poet, novelist, musician, or filmmaker can expect to toil in the vineyards for quite a while before enjoying any taste of success -- and for some that sweet moment might never come at all... which means you damned well better enjoy making your art, because you’re likely to be doing it for a long time without much positive feedback from anyone beyond your own close circle of family and friends.  
But let’s assume you thrive on the process, love your art, and that your only burning desire is to get really good at it -- to be the best that you can be.  To achieve that noble goal, you'll need one more essential ingredient: persistence.
Here’s a quick video pep-talk on the subject from Ira Glass, creator of This American Life. It’s short, very cleverly done, and rings true.  As someone who pretty much created his own art form on the radio -- and in the process had the opportunity to meet successful artists from almost every discipline -- Ira knows what he’s talking about.
So do yourself a favor and check it out..

Ignorance is indeed a form of bliss, but like most states of euphoria, it won't last long.  As you emerge from the student chrysalis and begin to unfold your wings, the process of learning about the real world will bend, bruise, and inflict endless indignities upon you... but so long as you don't break, you'll be okay.  How much progress you make and how fast you'll make it depends on many things -- including the mysterious intangibles of talent, luck, timing, and opportunity -- but the most important thing is to keep at it.  The journey is a roller coaster ride all the way, with moments of soaring hope followed by soul-crushing disappointments.  That can take a toll on your psyche, which is why you just have to keep marching forward. 

It ain't easy, kids.  Never has been and never will be.  For a good example of persistence in action, take another look at last week's post about a guy who has been grinding it out in Hollywood for nearly twenty years now, learning his craft (and a whole lot more) while steadily pursuing his dream of directing a feature with a decent budget. The good news is he's getting very close to his goal, but I won't say anymore about that just yet.

Call me superstitious, but I don't want to jinx him.

It takes time to do anything worthwhile in Hollywood: time to understand how the game is played, time to learn the basics (and beyond) of whatever path lights your fire, and time to build the kind of reputation that can make it happen. That adds up to lot of time, which is why you have to be in this for the long haul. If you're planning on overnight success, you'll have better luck playing the lottery.  To make it in Hollywood on any level, in every job, you'll need to be persistent.

There's another thing to consider. Along the rocky road from ignorance to enlightenment, you may discover that the career fantasies nurtured in school aren't quite so alluring after all.  Encountering the iron fist of reality has a way of altering prospective career paths.* Maybe it'll turn out you don't really want to be a writer, director or producer after all... and if so, you'd be wise to embrace this new-found wisdom. Trying to live up to a preconceived notion that came into bloom in the hothouse of youthful ignorance can lead to a miserable life.  I've seen that happen, and it's not pretty.

Once you finally start getting work on productions, take a good look at the call sheet.  Watch what's going on while you're on set -- there are lots of jobs out there, and one of them might be right for you.  Maybe you'll find you'd rather be a cinematographer, production designer, editor, or casting agent -- people who have a huge influence on how a film or television show turns out on the screen. 

You don't want to hear any of this now, of course, so by all means shoot for the stars -- who knows, you might turn out to be that one-in-a-million Golden Child who hits the jackpot on your first pull of the lever... but don't count on it.  Take heart, though.  From what I've seen over the years, most people tend to wind up where they belong, in situations that take advantage of their positive qualities while minimizing the bad.  We all have our strengths and weaknesses -- the trick is to find the right match for your own unique personality and skill set.  

So keep your eyes and ears open, and pay attention to that quiet little voice inside -- the one so many of us ignore at our own peril.  If it tells you to stop going in one direction in favor of another, listen.  That voice may be hard to hear amid the frantic industry din, but at least it won't lie to you, which is more than I can say for a lot of people in Hollywood.  

Should an unexpected opportunity knock, don't be afraid to ignore The Plan and call an audible.  Carpe the fricken' diem, because you never know where it might lead -- maybe a whole new direction.  

But whatever you do, keep at it.  Be persistent.  

And good luck, noobs.  You're gonna need it.

* Others have walked this path before you.  Read what they have to say and maybe you'll feel a little better.

Delusions of Fresh Meat
Amy Clarke
12 pt Courier

And for the uninitiated (that would be every single one of you film students), here are some hard-earned nuggets of wisdom from a film industry veteran who knows what he's talking about.  Listen up and learn...


D said...

Another insightful and hysterically accurate post, Mike. It's been interesting and sometimes painful to watch the Hollywood Machine shift gears, reprogram its' GPS, and often switch to a weird "Hybrid" of its former self.

I wonder how the latest version of "film" production creators and crew will be used to grease the gears of this TechMedia Machine we call a career.

Michael Taylor said...

D --

Thanks -- always good to hear from you... and I hope the muse allows you to start posting again soon. Your voice has been missed.