Yin and Yang – Life and Film

“Oh, shit,” I hear you thinking, “here we go with the philosophical meanderings.”

I’m dead serious. I can hear you thinking that. Just like I know what color you’re going to think of next.

Purple.

Now that I have your undivided fucking attention, let’s get to today’s subject: Life and Film.

This is actually not so much a philosophical post as an economical one. It’s based on one of the more common problems I’ve seen with people trying to break into the film industry, which is of course money.

Money in its natural environment

What’s money made from? Paper. Where does paper come from? Trees. I rest my case.

The way I usually see people try to get into the industry is the “Starving Artist” route. They come to L.A. (note: nearly all of my stories and examples are set in L.A., since that’s where I fucking live), and they get a crummy job. Sometimes waiting tables, lots of time as a graphic designer (why the hell is that so popular among filmmakers? Seriously?), or if they can swing it, as a freelance editor. The pay is enough to get by, and the work hours are flexible so you can be on set almost any time you want. Your weekends are always free, and you can usually rearrange your weekday work schedule so you can shoot in the middle of the week if you have to.

Here’s the problem with that (coming from one who tried it for three years): as I said, you’re a starving artist. It’s hard to focus on honing your craft when you’re scrambling every week to make sure you can pay your rent, your phone bill, gas up your car and still eat reasonably well. Your hectic day-to-day life distracts you from what you should actually be doing: making films.

Overload

“Yes, I will absolutely get you that script treatment. In about ten years. Hello?”

Don’t get me wrong, it can work. You may meet someone with resources you need, like equipment or locations, who will let you use them for free. The problem with that is, usually you can only go to that well so many times. And as I’ve said previously, your first project probably won’t be what breaks you into the industry. So people with resources you need and want can be more trouble than they’re worth – that is, you have to spend a time to build a relationship with them, but can’t actually use that relationship to achieve your ultimate goal.

Or you may try to accumulate favors by working onprojects for other people. Once you’ve got enough of these favors to cash in, you’ll try to assemble your own crew (with their own equipment, of course) to make your first few projects with. I did a LOT of free work when I got started, telling everyone I wanted to be a director, and of course, I always got the line, “Well, let me know when you put something together, I’d love to work with you in the future.” And they weren’t technically lying. They did love working with me in the future – or rather, having me work for them. But working for me? Not so much. When I started doing my own projects and tried to put together a crew, nearly everyone I had ever worked for turned me down. Some of them had merely drifted off the map over time, and didn’t respond to my calls or e-mails – maybe they didn’t even remember who I was. Some of them said they were too busy. Some of them just flat out told me they weren’t interested. My very first short film crew consisted of two personal friends and two guys that I found on Craigslist.

(Note – the above doesn’t usually apply to actors. Actors will act in almost anything, and often for low/no budget. And I don’t just mean bad actors – there are good ones out there who really deserve a break! So please, when you cast your project, even if it’s for free, take the time to find good actors! Because if you take the first guys you find, and they suck, and your project is a success anyway, you’ve just helped launch the career of someone who doesn’t deserve the limelight as much as someone else).

Undeserving

“And to think, just a couple of years ago I had no life and spent my days relentlessly trolling Craigslist for roles!”

SO WHAT’S THE SOLUTION?

After three years of trying to hack it as a freelance starving artist, my wife became pregnant with our second child. All of a sudden, moving out of our small apartment wasn’t just something we wanted, it was a necessity. That meant making more money so we could rent a house. And as long as I was doing that, I figured I’d try and earn a nice, steady income. That meant a full time job.

I was heartsick, because I thought my film career was over. But my wife (a.k.a. the Patron Saint of Awesome) worked out a deal with me. I would take a nice, steady job with a friend. It would be a 9-to-5, five days a week. That would enable me to support my family like I needed to. But nights and weekends would be mine. They would be exclusively for my film projects. Of course, I would still spend a lot of time with her and the kids – It’s not like I’d be able to keep every free hour full with film work. But if an opportunity came up to write, shoot, direct or edit something, that would take precedence over my hours away from work, until the project was done. We decided to give this plan a shot.

It was the best thing that could have happened to me.

I got a nice job working for a friend, bringing home a nice enough paycheck that after covering all our expenses, some toys for the kids and a night out with the wife every once in a while, I could still put away about $100 a week, for film. All of a sudden, I actually had the means to produce my own shit. I could go rent equipment if I needed to. I could buy new hard drives to store my projects on. I still wasn’t able to pay a crew or actors yet, but I could call in favors or find people on Craigslist.

In the three years before I tried this, I directed exactly zero films. In the year since I’ve made the change, I’ve directed three.

The biggest change has been that rather than having less time (as I had feared) I actually have more. In the past, the most difficult thing had always been having enough time to plan out all of the details necessary to produce a film. When you’re freelancing or working some service job, you expend so much time and mental energy trying to make your economics work, that giving additional resources to planning a film becomes practically impossible.

Another benefit is the impression you give others. All of a sudden, you’re not a “starving artist”, you’re a writer/director who’s obviously got his shit together. Producers love that. They may deal with a director who can’t balance a checkbook if he’s got exceptional talent, but if he can’t manage his own money, they know he’ll probably be wasteful with theirs. So having your own life in good order is one of the best advertisements you can have for yourself.

So if you’re trying to get into this crazy business, I urge you to get your personal affairs in order first, starting with your personal economics. Get a job, the best one you can, and then organize your living expenses so that you can save a little bit of money every week for your film.

Then, set a goal for yourself. I call it a “quit paycheck,” and the amount is $50,000. If I ever get hired to do a project and the up-front paycheck is $50,000 or more, I get to quit my job. If I sell a feature, even a relatively low-budget one, $50,000 will be peanuts. If I get hired to direct a feature, same thing. But for anything less than that, my agreement with my wife is that I keep my job. You can pick your own amount, and it will probably be less than mine – you probably don’t have a wife and two kids if you’re just breaking into the film world.

Get your home life in order and see how fast your artistic life will take off.

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2 thoughts on “Yin and Yang – Life and Film

  1. The one caveat is, if you can marry someone who’ll work at a movie theater while you find your feet and then you find amazing friends who put you in things and help you find paying work, do that. I know I’m lucky to have you and Stina and all of WMM in my life.

    • gbrobinson says:

      Wow, you put me before Stina. That means a lot, man!

      No but seriously, you’re right – if you can find someone who loves you and can help support you, by all means, launch yourself into the work!

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