by Brendan Foley
History does not record if Otto Von Bismark was twirling his waxed Prussian moustache when he declared “Politics is the art of the possible”. He meant that dreams and ideals are nothing if we don’t grapple with the real world, and work through real problems to get from where we are to somewhere closer to where we want to be.
For those trying to make their way in the film or TV world in the 21st Century, I would say movie making is the art of the possible. For every thousand people who like the idea of making their living as a writer, producer, director or actor, there is one actually making a living at it. Yet every day, people succeed. They go to work on a set, they sell a script, they persuade a financier to cough up, and a thousand other little victories.
Here are a few guidelines that may be useful to those trying to break in to the business.
1. Overnight success is horse-sh*t
Just because someone wins the lottery, it does not mean buying a scratch-card is a viable strategy. Very few people write and sell their first spec script. Very few actors turn up at their first audition and get a big role. Employing new people is a risk. Give employers a reason to give you the gig. It might be that you can show how good your work is through past writing or a great showreel. Plus it might be that someone with a good reputation is willing to endorse you. Plus you might be very good “in the room”. Plus, plus, plus. You should constantly be looking at ways to whittle the odds down from a thousand to one to 100-1. It might then take 100 chances to ‘get lucky’ but when you succeed it will be because you have followed the advice of auto racer Bobby Unser: “success is where preparation meets opportunity”. Every time you hear of an overnight success, scratch the surface. You usually find a lot of time and work has gone into the victory.
2. You want it? Earn it.
I feel very sorry for some of the current generation just emerging into the work market. There is a lot of talent out there but also a lot of people who have been fed on a diet of celebrity, of talent shows, and people being famous for being famous. I’ve met some who want to be writers or actors in order to become rich and famous. Ha. Writing and acting are rarely routes to financial security, and most of the greatest and most successful have spent years just scraping by at some point in their careers. If you want to be a writer for example, do it because you love writing and you love it so much that financial security or buying shiny things is secondary. That’s not a small ask, but then no one asked you. It is your choice and the results are your responsibility.
Yet the flip side is also true. If you go into it for the right reasons, then the work you produce tends to come from the heart. That’s not to say that you should spend your time in an attic writing obscure tracts, or refuse to go to any audition that isn’t for Hamlet. Do anything to pay the bills, but pay the bills in order to do what you love. That means that when you get a good gig, don’t blow the money or immediately start living large. Use that money as a war chest to see you through lean times. One minute you’re a rooster, next you’re a feather duster, and so make sure you can stay the course.
Success is cumulative, incremental, gradual. Lots of people who win the top prize in big screenwriting contests never get a script sale or a movie made. Others, who may have only placed in the same contests, carve themselves a career. That’s because they know that their broad skill set might include writing, pitching, self-marketing, communications skills and generally being a positive and amiable human being. Which leads me to:
3. Don’t be a dick.
Entry jobs are often less than glamorous. If you are a runner, be the best runner. Don’t sigh and roll your eyes about being sent for the donuts when anyone with an eye can see that your considerable genius should be employed running the set. If you are working as an assistant, make yourself indispensable by making your boss’s life easier. Very soon you go from being a gopher to something more solid. And be nice to people who are on the way up. We are not in some reality show where you have to screw colleagues over to advance.
You can learn a huge amount in these jobs, particularly ones where you get an overview of different skills and departments. Do that, and when you have proven your worth, enquire from some of the people you have helped by doing your job well about the next steps. You can even afford a few sideways moves at this stage in your career – so if something other than your original objectives becomes interesting the more you learn of it, don’t be afraid to take a detour. Some of the best casting agents in the business started out as average actors, but found their true calling along the way.
Give smart suggestions if asked, and occasionally offer them if you know it will help whatever collective effort is going on, be it a TV show, movie or webisode. But don’t try to do other people’s jobs for them. They have their jobs because someone decided to pay them. There are few things funnier or sadder than listening to first jobbers giving sage unrequested advice to someone who has worked for years to burnish their skills and experience. Good ideas can come from anywhere, but unless you are the child reincarnation of the Dalai Lama, probably best to limit your advice to the best bits, available on request.
On the other hand, don’t be too self deprecating or as Dickens’ character Uriah Heep described himself as “Ever so ‘umble”. People want to know that you have confidence in what you are selling, be it your own writing skill or acting ability. It’s better not to get the odd job because they don’t like your take on something than to not get any jobs because you don’t seem to believe in your own ‘product’.
And try not to bitch and moan about people, even when they deserve it. Worst of all, do not become the person who “Smiles up but snarls down”. Karma will catch up with ass-hats soon enough, and people who get a reputation for being snide or bitchy in the shadows rarely make the sort of friends who take the time to give them a boost when the need it.
4. Be very good at what you do.
Malcolm Gladwell, in his book Outliers suggested it takes 10,000 hours to become good at any one activity. He suggests The Beatles were just another band until they went to Germany and played endless sets in tiny clubs for months on end, while also finding themselves a new look and sound. Go and do likewise. If you are making short movies, make half a dozen, each better than the last. If you are a writer, have at least three or four varied feature and TV scripts in your arsenal for when you get an agent who likes your script and says, “What else you got?” This means time, learning from people who are already good and who may not have much free time because they are in demand. You get better by learning from mistakes, so if you find someone willing to give you the time, be grateful, and don’t go all red and crinkly if he or she suggests that your work needs work and that perhaps you didn’t hatch from a golden egg as a perfectly formed genius.
5. Be able to change horses in midstream
In the past it was enough to be very good at one thing, wait for a lucky break and then do some variation on that one thing for the rest of your career. When I started in print journalism there were armies of sub editors and fact checkers. There were people who spent years becoming proficient as laying our pages with a scalpel and cow gum. All gone. But the smart ones adapted their skill set and learned the advantages of onscreen design. The guys who used to spend days cutting strips of film and holding them to the light could either adapt to computers or head for the hills. This process is endless. So recognize that what you love is the core activity – editing pictures or designing pages, acting or writing. Stay up on changing technology and never think that it is your friend. The world will not care if you spent ten years using one program. If a better one, or even a worse one becomes industry standard, you better be able to be better with it than anyone else.
6. Be prepared to pay for the ticket
On their deathbed, very few people ever say, “I wish I’d spent more time at work”. Even when working incredibly hard, you have to find room for home life, and to spend real time with those you like and love. The macho culture of measuring someone’s success by how long they can stay at work is an idiotic hangover from the 1980s. Successful people want to work with people who deliver good work quickly and reliably over time. If you have no outside life or interests your work as a writer, director or actor gets dull from lack of stimulus. You end up rehashing the same tired ideas. This is where your relations with your work colleagues come into their own. If you need something in a hurry, you are more likely to be able to call in favors from those who like and respect you, so you are able to deliver on time thanks to other people’s help.
On the other hand, you have to give it 100%. TV and film is not a world that is forgiving of laziness or of an employee mentality. There are always 100 young, smart keen-beans on the other side of the door, waiting for their big break.
Sometimes the price of the ticket to work in this business is emotional – having to balance domestic and work life. At other times it is purely financial. I have met graduates so shocked at the idea of living on a small income for years that they simply can’t believe that is a possibility. They should change direction now, as they will not survive in this business and some may not even deserve to. At other times the price of the ticket may be time – time not spent doing other things, be they social or other work. At such times you have to be committed to whatever work you have chosen. In the words of Hyman Roth in Godfather II, “This is the business we have chosen.” In short, own your decisions.
7. Enjoy the journey
A very common trait I see among aspiring media people is to regard what ever they are doing as a necessary evil along the path to where they want to be. If it is a short it is only as a calling card for their magnum opus feature. If it is a commercial screenplay it is only because “it will sell” thus allowing them to do their ‘real’ work. News Flash: work like that never sells. People can smell cynicism even through a laptop screen. Even if you are making a 2-minute short with an I-phone, take your time and make it the greatest short you can.
Even though it is not always what people setting out on a journey want to hear, the destination is an illusion. There is no ‘over there’, just places along the way. The good news is some of the places along the way are amazing. Now that we have the flexibility to work in film, TV, print and online, and in different genres and different formats, the world is your oyster. Enjoy the journey and if you are lucky, as I continue to be, you’ll find that the journey is the destination.
Brendan Foley is an award-winning writer, producer and director who works internationally out of the UK. LB wants everybody to know that Brendan is married to another one of LB’s favorite writers, the fantastical Shelly Goldstein. This article originally appeared at Stage 32