Saturday, December 7, 2013

Advice for a Young Filmmaker

...headlong onto a filmmaking career, I suggest you do so with as few illusions as possible about what lies ahead; with your eyes at least partially open.”

Advice given by myself a few weeks ago to a bright-eyed and bush tailed young wannabe filmmaker, foolish enough to ask me for it.

JAMES What kind of filmmaker do you want to be?
BUSHY TAILED Writer/director
JAMES Have you written a screenplay?  Made a film?
BUSHY TAILED No, but I have lots of ideas and, well, I’m sort of hoping you might be able to help me put together an application to get some funding.

Oh dear, another one! No experience, nothing to show for himself, not prepared to write a screenplay unless or until he has funding.

JAMES (paraphrased) If you think ‘Filmmaker’ will be an impressive addition to your Facebook profile, a ‘sexy’ profession, a lifestyle choice, a shot at celebrity and joining an A list of some kind, you are almost certainly thinking about becoming a filmmaker for the wrong reasons.
BUSHY TAILED No, I want to…I mean…don’t you think you are being a bit, I don’t know….cynical?
JAMES Maybe, so tell me one of your ideas. (A LONG PAUSE)   A brief description. (ANOTHER LONG PAUSE) A sentence, a paragraph? (YET ANOTHER LONG PAUSE).

And so it went.

Young filmmakers such as this appear in my life every now and then – stars in their eyes and with unrealistic expectations of what is actually involved in telling stories. The two most common questions are: “How do I get into the film school?” and “How do I get funding?” As if there is some technique, some trick, I can teach them, as if going to a film school, getting funding, is all that is required to launch their brilliant career!

As it happens Bushy Tailed did have a few ideas that might, at some point in the future, bear fruit. I did not want to dampen his enthusiasm but nor did I want him to be under any illusions about what he would be getting himself into if he embarked on a career as a filmmaker – let alone a ‘writer/director’!

For any young would-be filmmaker who might stumble upon this:

If you are counting on a high income, forget it. OK, there is a chance your first film will be so good that you will become ‘the next big thing’, courted by funding bodies, by ’Hollywood’; that you will be treated like a star and have lots of money thrown at you to produce the masterpieces you have no doubt you can make. Don’t count on it. Chances are you will struggle to survive financially for years, perhaps for your whole career.  And that’s OK if telling stories on screens big and small, drama or doco, is your passion, something you love much more than money and fame or if telling stories is an obsession you cannot rid yourself of. Bear in mind, though, that your partner, if and when you are blessed with children and a mortgage, might be less than happy if , year in, year out, you do not earn a income sufficient to support your family in pursuit of your dream.

When you are not so young, your bright eyed and bushy tailed years behind you, filmmaking is just a job Рcraft and art combined to produce a product for the marketplace. Yes, a great job, an exciting one, an inspiring one, but it requires, as do all good jobs, hard work. A lot of hard work. 95% perspiration, 5% inspiration may be a clich̩ but, as with all clich̩s, there is a good deal of truth in it.

Malcolm Gladwell, in his book OUTLIERS, estimates that 10,000 hours are required for anyone to become expert in their field. In any field. He cites enough examples in a variety of fields (including the creative) for his theory to be worthy of serious consideration. Break 10,000 hours down into 40 hour weeks and you arrive at 250 weeks. Or five years. Chances are you will not be working 40 hours a week as a filmmaker  but you get the idea. It will probably take you between 5 and 10 years of hard work to achieve mastery of your craft and art – presuming that you have a few requisite story-telling skills to begin with. Yes, story-telling skills. Anyone can write a screenplay, anyone can direct a film but neither will be any good if you do not have the skills required to tell a story in a way that engages the viewer – whether s/he be wearing 3-D glasses in an Imax theatre or peering at a mobile phone on a bus.

Is Gladwell right about his 10,000 hours? Mostly yes, I suspect, but there will be exceptions and you may be one of them. Good luck to you if you are but don’t count on it. Be prepared for a long apprenticeship, for many rejections, for the project you have worked on lovingly and totally convinced of its brilliance, to be greeted with a yawn by the very people you have convinced yourself will be impressed; to have your masterpiece, on which you have been working for years, dismissed in the most unflattering of terms. Yes, the person who thinks your screenplay is crap may be an idiot but s/he may also be your best friend – as you will discover later on when you re-read it and realize that it is, in fact, crap. This is part of the process. You need to have a skin thick enough to be able to deal with rejection and thin enough to remain sensitive to the needs, wants and desires of your characters and, just as importantly (perhaps more importantly) your audience.

Even if Gladwell’s 10,000 hour estimate strikes you as glib, even if you can think of exceptions to the rule (which of course there are) at least consider the possibility that it might take several years before you are good enough at your job to attract the kind of attention you would like to acquire overnight and feel you are deserving of.  And during this long apprenticeship, how will you support yourself? OK, given that you are brilliant you might get a little funding here and there but it will not be enough to survive. What will your second job be? The one that supports your passion?

If screenwriting is the filmmaking specialty that attracts you most, chances are, if you are less than 25 years old, that almost certainly you have not had sufficient experience of life to be in a position to know what makes people tick (understand character), to have a story worth telling or the craft skills to tell a story in a way that will appeal to audiences worldwide.  Yes, there are exceptions and you may be one of them but consider the possibility that you are not. Better to be pleasantly surprised to discover how brilliant you are than to be disappointed when your expectations of overnight success are not met.

Don’t apply for script development funding with your first screenplays. Go and get a job that brings you into contact with the people in the real (actual) world who will not only inspire your characters, bring them to life, but be the sorts of people you wish to tell stories for and to. It doesn’t really matter what the job is as long as you keep your eyes and ears open. Waiting tables may seem to be too humble a job for someone who is clearly as clever as you think you are but there is more to be learnt about story-telling as a waiter or waitress than you will learn in a film school. Yes, you can learn the craft of screenwriting in a film school but craft skills are not enough. Indeed, you can be a master of the craft of screenwriting and write very bad screenplays if you have no understanding of character and no ear for the dialogue you will hear as a waiter, as a taxi driver, working in a bank, picking fruit, in Centrelink…the list is endless.

And even when you are a successful screenwriter, ‘the team’ making the film (with director at the helm) may well have taken liberties with your brilliant writing in order to make it ‘work’ onscreen. If the film does not ‘work’ you will almost certainly blame director for having destroyed your brilliant screenplay. If the film is a critical and box office success you will probably feel inclined to take all (or as much as you can get away with) credit yourself. Screenwriters can be as prone to having as inflated view of themselves as directors are.

Sorry to belabor the point but if notions of celebrity, fame, having your name up there in lights, forms any part of your motivation in wishing to become a filmmaker, be wary. You are probably ill-suited to the profession. In the real world, the actual world of film and TV production, you will be working in a collaborative medium and will only be as good (and appear as good) as all the members of the team make it possible for you to look. If you are not a team player and you are not one of those ‘control-freak’ geniuses who can do everything themselves (yes, there are a few, but very very few!) maybe your talents would be better suited to another profession in which you can shine centre stage.

Have I put you off entirely? If I have, you are too easily swayed by bad news and do not have what it takes to throw yourself headlong into a love affair with story-telling – a description that I think much more apt than filmmaking to describe what we do.

Lastly, but not leastly, bear in mind Oscar Wilde’s observation:

"I always pass on good advice. It is the only thing to do with it. It is never of any use to oneself."

I certainly did not act, as a young man, on the advice I  am giving you now – remarkably similar, by the way, to the advice given to me by my mother when I was in my early 20’s – bright eyed and bushy tailed.

So, in the spirit of Wilde’s homily, pass this advice on to someone else and become a storyteller, but don’t complain, a decade down the track, , when your mortgage payment is due and your teenage daughter needs $3000 worth of dental work, that you were not warned!

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