Seek the things that will humble you.
That’s the biggest lesson I’ve learned from my years of working my way to the bottom of the top of the film industry (not porn, Mom!).
If you went to film school, you will come out with an ego. Good for you! Shelve her and never let her see the light of day until someone asks about your art, and then, when they give you the ol’ nod and smile, be humbled by their apathy. You’ll be better for it, and so will your work.
If you didn’t go to film school, good for you! You have $250,000 more than the rest of us, but you probably still have an ego. The same rules apply.
I happened to go to film school. A no-brainer for a kid who snuck out of bed every night in elementary school to catch The Sopranos or Die Hard or Austin Powers or whatever else my white suburban dad happened to be watching. Movies informed everything about me. And it wasn’t the fantasy of it—it was the possibility. I held close the idea that anything can happen, that nothing is permanent.
Around that time, I also became obsessed and somewhat overwhelmed by the fact that, physically, we’ll never be in the same position twice. I remember being in a Japanese Zen garden (in some yenta’s backyard on Long Island, no doubt) looking at the statues and suddenly having the crushing realization that time steals our permanence. I didn’t have the vocabulary for that then, so I chalked it up to: even if I sit perfectly still, this moment will never be exactly the same as the next. A piece of hair would move or my eye would wander. This thought consumed me. Terrified me, almost as bad as when I found out about space. The only option, it seemed to me, was to be able to freeze time. To record it.
So I went to film school to grapple with this melancholy towards transience and a desperation to extricate something beautiful out of it. Noble enough, I thought, but Jesus … people were judgy. Nobody I knew and nobody they knew worked in the movies, and so Hollywood felt impossibly far away. Before I even applied to college, I was petrified I’d end up on my ass after. Which, I suppose, is fair, given the narrative that surrounds a creative education. Not only from the Doctors-and-Lawyers strata, but oddly enough, from the graduates themselves. Like me, preaching to you, right now. Always something cheeky and apologetic about it, like Hollywood is this secret high-society of stoners who got lucky. Which, I mean … maybe a little.
And on my ass I went! Right after graduation, I was insufferable. Boy, oh man. Not only did I not get that amazing first job we all think we’re entitled to just by showing up for four years, but to make matters worse, I was an artist. I devoured Kurosawa and Cassavetes, I read Truffaut’s letters, I wrote fan mail to Liv Ullmann. I spent a whole summer color-coding and making bar graphs of my favorite screenplays to study structure. A real peach to be around, I’m sure. And while I did truly enjoy these things, I think I also relied on them to elevate me. To impress people and get them to “launch my career.” But that never happened. Nobody fell from the sky into my office (parents’ shed) and handed me an Oscar.
I got to work. I stopped applying to jobs way outside my abilities and I went on Facebook. And Craigslist. I joined every PA forum I could, and I said yes to any gig. And sure, okay, I had to sit in a 104º tent in Tompkins Square Park guarding the Muppets for three days straight. And I had to clear seventy-thousand spider eggs out of the rec room of an abandoned insane asylum. And that one time an anvil dropped on top of me and I almost lost my leg. But … I was doing it. I was working in the industry. And even though the work sucked, I began to enjoy it, even revel in how shitty it was. Art is labor. The most original minds I’ve ever met are on their feet 14-hours a day, 6-days a week, laboring.
That’s it! That’s the big secret we spent a quarter million and a few bouts of crabs on! (Just a few.)
The only thing your heroes all have in common is that they work really fucking hard. And it’s only through doing this work, quietly and in the background, that you can ever hope to have a respected career.
Which brings me back to humbling yourself.
In order to live as a freelancer, you must be hirable. Don’t be a dick. I have gotten way more jobs from just being a good hang than I ever have from my knowledge of film. If you’re eager and kind, you’ll make it. If you abandon the idea that you need to be cool or artistic or know the most, and you just let yourself get excited, the right people will take notice.
Currently, I’m a full-time Production Assistant in a costume shop on a major television show. It’s not difficult to be a PA. As in, it’s not challenging. I suppose it’s “hard work” as you have to stand for a minimum of 12-hours a day, sometimes double-walkied which makes your ears cry. It’s a time-suck—the weekends are for sleeping and laundry and maybe a shower. I mean, as I write this, I’m hiding in a rack of clothes behind some jaunty hats, pretending I’m in the bathroom. But it ain’t rocket science. And it’s a pretty good gig once you’re at the big-budget level.
Would I love to be in a union so I can get some goddamn insurance already? Of course. But the money is more than livable, the people are interesting, and above all, it’s fun. And although the way things seem and the way they feel are seldom the same, you’re working in the movies like you said you would. You did it.
I was a theatre kid. I remember the giddy days. Hold on to that. Even though life gets complicated and things happen all at once and it seems as if the world is out to personally take the piss out of you … stay excitable.
The best advice I ever read is: “So many people lack passion in their lives. If you have it, somebody somewhere will pay big to be a part of it.”
Keep your dreams, close and always, but recognize that a job is just a job. And it might take 50 years before the dream and the job intersect. But honestly? That’s so much better than hitting it big at 21. Why hurry up and wait, and then, when you’re teetering at the top, realize you have no perspective to look around and enjoy it?
What a gift that I’ve been stuck at the bottom for all these years.
Of course, if you met me, you’d never know I contain so much grace, since complaining is my all-time favorite activity. But it’s true. I have been granted the time to meet and work with hundreds of people, to observe them and figure out who I want to be like and who I definitely don’t. How I want to behave if I’m ever someone’s boss, or how to negotiate both a creative career and a personal life.
But mostly because when I do make it, in 50 years or less, I’ll feel I’ve earned it. I’ll feel, for once, like I’m right on time.
*Feature Photo: Sommer Rusinski