So, recently I’ve been gaining a little modest traction in this oh-so-fickle business. And as I try to figure out what the next phase of my career will hold, I’ve been finding myself reflecting on the long and strange path that has led me here.
My time in the film industry hasn’t been a straight line or an overnight phenomenon. I received my MFA in film production over a decade ago. A quick glance at my IMDb page will illustrate that it took me a while to find myself solidly in the director’s chair. I’ve held a lot of different roles on a lot of different productions, almost entirely within the burgeoning independent film scene in Seattle.
During this period I learned and learned and learned. From my own mistakes, from other people’s mistakes, from our occasional successes. Did I want to be making my own films? Hell yes. Desperately. The whole time. But looking back now, I am incredibly grateful for the years I spent working on other people’s films. I am a better filmmaker because of the time I spent waiting, watching and learning.
People occasionally ask me my advice on breaking into this business, and rather than repeating myself ad nauseum, I thought maybe I should just write down my thoughts somewhere. Here, actually. So here you go…some tried and true, hard-earned lessons, from this cinechick to you:
LISTEN MORE THAN YOU SPEAK
This is a good rule in any business and, frankly, in life. Be an observer. If you want to direct (or write, or act), observation of human behavior is a super important skill. But whatever you want to do, it never hurts to understand people. And you will always learn more by listening to others than you will by listening to yourself.
There are very few people who work in film who did not start off working for free. I personally spent about five years working a day job and volunteering my nights and weekends on small indies before I was able to get paid to be on a set. Five years is a long time. Granted I was starting off at a time when there were fewer films being shot in Seattle and most had much low budgets. I also think my case is a bit unique because I was focused from the outset on key positions on set. I had the opportunity to pursue paid PA work earlier, but I chose to act as a DP (and eventually AD) on smaller films instead because I knew that would be more creatively fulfilling to me.
The point is, you don’t just decide to work in film and then automatically get paid to do it. Working for free in those early years was a huge part of my development as a filmmaker. You have to pay your dues–it humbles you, it teaches you, and it makes you very grateful when your time finally comes. So unless you’ve got a trust fund, it helps to learn to live frugally. I kept my expenses as low as possible so I could retain the freedom to stay focused on independent film. To be honest, I’m still trying to figure out how to make a sustainable living in this business. But I chose this path and I love what I do. I regret nothing.
MAKE YOURSELF INDISPENSABLE
As someone who has been on the hiring end of several films, I can tell you without question that skill is only one of many factors that I consider. When presented with two people of equal talent, I will always, every time, go with the person who has the better attitude. Actually, sometimes I’ll hire the person with less experience just because I think they have the right disposition for the work. You can train people out of inexperience, but you can’t train them out of perpetual grumpiness. People who show up to set on time, ready to work and with a smile on their face, whether they are an intern or a union professional, will always get hired again. Positivity and enthusiasm are two of the things I consider the most important traits in a crew member.
The third is focus. This goes along with what I already said (above) about listening more than speaking. If you are focused and paying attention on set, you will always know what’s happening now, what’s happening next, and how you can be a part of making it all happen more quickly. For a shining example of someone who exemplifies all of the above, see Garrett Cantrell, who I will have on every set forever if I have my way. I met Garrett when he was an unpaid art intern. First chance I got, I hired him as a key PA. Next thing you know, he’s one of the most sought-after key grips in the region. Yes, he’s excellent at his job, but he honed his skills by getting on a lot of sets, and he got on those sets because he has a kickass attitude. Watch and learn, everyone.
HELP CREATE THE COMMUNITY YOU WANT TO WORK IN
When I started working as an assistant director, I immediately encountered the resentment of crews who had been too often burned by “production” and the frustration of producers who felt crews expected more from them than the budget allowed. This disconnect is far from uncommon in the film industry, but it’s something I think we have made great strides to overcome here in Seattle. Over the past decade, I’ve seen what was once a random assortment of fairly embittered individuals evolve into a strong and mutually respectful community. That didn’t happen all by itself–those of us making our living in this industry manifested that change. And as a more coalesced unit, Seattle has yielded fantastic films. When people ask me why I want to make my films in Seattle, I always tell them it’s because of the amazing, hilarious, passionate, and highly skilled crews. I’m proud of what we created here, and I want to see it continue to grow. But listen, I realize that it’s not a candy-covered wonderland all the time. While we’re all striving for crewtopia (I made that word up), it is still a rare gift to find yourself on a set that is completely devoid of difficulties. You may still have bad experiences. The worst thing you can do about this is get angry. The best thing you can do is learn and help others learn by communicating what your issues are. Don’t yell and insult. Don’t sulk or grumble or be passive aggressive. Reason with and educate those who you believe are causing your problem and try to help create the community you want to work in. Give others the benefit of the doubt, chances are they (like you) are only trying to make the best film possible.
TREAT EVERYONE WELL ALL THE TIME FOREVER
Common courtesy is incredibly underrated in this business. Because of time constraints, budget constraints, and general stress levels, people tend to develop bad attitudes. Fight this urge. Just like they say in ROADHOUSE, be nice. (Also, when in doubt, trust Swayze.) Relationships are literally everything in this business, so nurture them. Rebuilding burned bridges is hard work, especially when you didn’t have to set fire to them in the first place.
ALWAYS HAVE A CREATIVE OUTLET
Yes, I am thrilled that I was a part of so many crews over the past decade. But I would have gone insane if I wasn’t also working on my own projects on the side. The whole reason I began writing my film THE OFF HOURS is that I realized how necessary it was to me to have a creative outlet. The film is about people who don’t have that–who get stuck in routine and stasis and boredom. It’s also about breaking those cycles and living the life you really want. Find something that stimulates you and then do it every chance you get. And yes, I realize that last sentence sounds dirty.
TRUST YOUR INSTINCTS
As you go through life, you will face choices every day. Factors such as money, time and obligation might influence those decisions. But don’t forget to listen to your instincts. Your brain will tell you what you “should” do, your gut will tell you what will make you happiest. I have faced decisions in my life where my brain said one thing and my gut said the other, and I have never regretted going with my gut.
Megan Griffiths has been a director, writer and producer in the independent film community for over a decade. Her two most recent films, THE OFF HOURS and EDEN, have played at festivals worldwide and received awards for directing, cinematography and performance. Megan was the recipient of the 2012 Stranger Genius Award for Film.
Republished with permission.