There are a lot of people who think the film industry is full of selfish, double-crossing phonies. Their impression of the film business is that it’s dirty.
In other words, they think it’s evil — fundamentally flawed on some moral and ethical level.
Some of the stories you hear are true: Like any walk of life, the film industry has its fair share of hacks, setting out to make a quick buck and some fame, all while abusing those standing in their way. Don’t let the shiny golden statues fool you — filmmaking isn’t always full of glam.
But there are other types of filmmakers. If one type is full of greed and malevolence, the other is full of merit and virtue.
The A**holes Never Last
In an industry so heavily dependent on reputation, you hope the assholes and jerks get weeded out eventually through a natural process of nobody ever liking them.
If you haven’t yet encountered a jerk on set, then you probably haven’t been working long enough. They’re there, propped up by friends who drag them to shoots or a rare piece of equipment they rent and cornered the market on.
Let us realize the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice
– Martin Luther King, Jr.
But, it’s hard to last in this business when you’re an asshole. Because if you’re a jerk to everyone, you better be really good at what you do. If you’re an asshole and have no skills to back it up… Well, how do you politely tell somebody to get the f*@! out?
Unfortunately, if you are good at what you do, you can get away with being grumpy, selfish and impolite. People will tolerate you because they need you (never underestimate that need, whatever it is).
That means that if you a) fill a need and b) fill it exceptionally, then you are not required to be nice. Still, if you qualify as c) being a decent person, then you are in a rare group of people — the right people.
I like to think I fall into this category of crew members, within that hopeful realm of being good at what I do while being nice about it. I go out of my way to introduce myself to people, to show production assistants (PAs) equipment if they’re interested, and to be as forgiving of honest mistakes as possible.
When I walked onto my first set, I was lucky to work with others who felt this way as well, but I was warned it was a fluke.
It only took a few more weeks, as a quick wake-up call, to heed the warning. I found myself standing in a group of crew talking shop outside a small-town location in the late afternoon when a grip turned to one of the PAs and asked, “So what’d you want to do?”
“Me? What’d you mean?” said the hesitant PA.
“Yeah, you know, grip? Art department? What?”
And like most of us who came into the industry wanted to do, he answered, “I want to do some directing.”
The grip bursted out laughing and made fun of him for a few moments before walking away. Meanwhile I was deeply offended by his reaction. Partly because directing is why I got into the industry (I quickly tempered my expectations), but also because it wasn’t fair.
Who is he to say this kid couldn’t direct? Or wasn’t cut out for it?
Even though I had only a few jobs up on the guy, I said, “Don’t listen to him. If that’s your dream, I say follow it. He has no right to take that away from you.”
Everyday there are jerks like that grip getting paid to work in this industry.
It’s not always below the line crew. It can be the higher-ups as well — directors, producers, writers. Look no further than the story of the executive producer George, who battled me for no apparent reason about my job.
Whether through word of mouth or a lack of networking possibilities (you can only burn so many bridges), I like to think these people get weeded out in the industry. Or at least plateau at a certain level, never quite achieving the success they so ruthlessly sought.
Maybe that’s a cruel thought, but there’s only so much room at the top and I’d like to save it for another type of person.
The Right People Push You to Do Better Work
For every George in the industry, there are a few more of the “right people.” My prime example is Eric Espejo of 19th and Wilson.
When I worked with Eric on Ghosts Don’t Exist, it happened to be both my first feature film and his first major production as director. Perhaps it was the marriage of firsts that made me connect with him.
At the end of everyday, Eric went up to every crew member, shook their hand, and thanked them. He also made everybody else grab lunch before he would ever get his own plate. Both were small gestures — but we noticed. It showed us that Eric truly appreciated our hard work and understood that, without a solid crew, he wouldn’t have his movie.
Nobody I’ve worked with since has been as gracious as Eric.
Eric also had passion for his project. He cared deeply about the movie he was making and wanted to deliver it the best he could.
Without directors like Eric in this industry, you would hate your job. You’d show up to set working for someone who cares less than you about the production.
And it can’t be that way.
Working for the right people is crucial, because those people will guide you when you want to give up, when you are unsure of something, and when you feel like you’re just limping by from scene to scene.
Working for the right people gives you the room to maximize your own efforts on set. You do a better job because they push you to. You are more successful because they need you to be. You work to impress them because you hunger for their approval.
And, most importantly, you enjoy working for them because, in some way, they give your job purpose no matter what it is.
Three Intangibles of the Right People
These are the signs you’re working with the right people. They go out of their way to push the project beyond its original scope, both in creativity and logistics. Much of the time they are able to do this because they’ve convinced their crew it’s worth working hard for.
So how do you know beforehand when somebody is one of those right people? Well, you just have a feeling. You won’t judge accurately everytime, but there’s always a leap of faith on each job you take.
To help you calculate those leaps of faith better, here are some consistent intangibles all the people I’ve loved working with have shared.
1. Creative Talent
You can be a cynic and claim money drives this industry or be an optimist and say the people do, but both are slaves to what is truly fleeting in film: raw creativity.
That’s why when you find somebody you connect with creatively, you have to latch on and never let go.
You don’t even have to be doing a creative job to appreciate this talent, you just have to believe in what they, as a filmmaker, are trying to achieve. If you do this, your job becomes infinitely more fun, easier to do, and satisfying.
You’ll find consistently that passion will drive creativity for most people. Their enthusiasm and drive pushes them to develop imaginative solutions to basic problems of storytelling, character, and even logistics.
But don’t be fooled thinking passion only exists in some ethereal realm waiting to be plucked on by the directors of narrative masterpieces.
Passion exists in all arms of the industry from fiction to commercials to industrials to training videos. It bleeds through because it promises something — a future.
Directors, even on boring commercials, will be passionate about getting it right because they know it promises more creative freedom later. These people are ones you want to be friends with. They realize putting in the time now is worth it for the rewards they will reap eventually — and you will reap along with them.
Respect from the right people trickles from the top all the way to the bottom, wherever they fall in line. If it’s a camera operator you are working for, they appreciate the camera assistants as well as the loader and PAs.
The right people know how to stay respectful while also being demanding. They can tactfully acknowledge when you’ve done something wrong, but help you understand how to do it right.
It’s hard to see in some of them — they’ll seem arrogant and immodest — but don’t ever mistake being pushed as being disrespected. There’s a fine line there and the best filmmakers know how to tip toe it.
You Can Help One of These Filmmakers — Today
The best way to keep the best people in this industry is to show them your support. That could mean you help them on future projects, you give them honest critiques of their work, or you share their films with everyone you know.
You can also show your support with small donations through platforms like Kickstarter.
That’s exactly what I did when I donated money to an independent film called Man-Child.
And you should donate too.
Why? Because the man who is writing and directing the film is one of those right people. His name is Ryan Koo and you may have been to his website — NoFilmSchool.com — which I’ve constantly shared with my readers, even writing a guest post on the site.
It doesn’t take long while watching Koo’s excellent pitch video to realize he is committed to not just making any movie, but making this movie — one he cares about — and making it great.
The reason I donated to Koo’s campaign is because I connected with his story and his dream. Koo is one of those directors I would love to work for because I know he will work 100% harder than anyone else on set.
As I wrote in my guest post on his site: “If you can get someone to trust you and believe in your creativity, they won’t be able to resist your project.”
He also shares so much information at his website that I consider my donation payment for his free DSLR Cinematography Guide — and I’m still coming out with the better deal.
So head over to the Man-Child Kickstarter page and give Koo a chunk of change (the minimum donation is $5) and help keep one of the right peoples in this industry.