I grew up in Los Angeles, around Universal Studios, Disneyland—all the places where you can soak up movie-making magic. I especially liked Universal Studios; while everyone else wanted to go to Disneyland, I wanted to go to Universal Studios, to the backlot. Jurassic Park was life-changing for me. I thought I wanted to be a paleontologist, but later I realized I liked the movie because of the movie, not because of the science.
Before joining the team at Belief Agency, I spent several years as a one-man show doing promotional work for small businesses, travel documentary filmmaking, band photography, tour documentaries, and putting my toes into music videos. At Belief Agency I’m surrounded by filmmakers more experienced than me. The last year has seen me going back to square one with filmmaking and turning a magnifying glass on all the things I've learned so far in my career. These are five of the most important things I've learned.
1. Use a Contract
There's a fine line between taking an opportunity and being taken advantage of. Being a professional is applying the wisdom of where to jump.
Fresh out of college, I was driven by fear of not maximizing opportunities. That led to lots of burnout and working for a lot less than I was worth. But at that point in my life, I didn’t know my worth. Now I’m a little more able to evaluate an opportunity to decide if it’s right to take. As I do that, I’m turning down projects I would have jumped to take a few years ago. Sometimes I still fight the old demon of worrying I’m not maximizing an opportunity. But it’s OK to not maximize every opportunity.
The lesson is that knowing your worth always leads to self-advocacy. Contracts are something I didn’t do for years, because I was naive and I thought people would just treat me the way I treated them. I’ll never take another job without a contract. You need to know when a project ends, and you need to ensure you’re going to get paid. A contract protects both parties. It holds people accountable.
2. Learn from Other People’s Mistakes
It's testing when I meet people who have the portfolio I really want; it's extremely tempting to want to copy everything they did to get to that point. But I've seen so many "successful" filmmakers trample on other people to get their gig and get their shot. This can get you a sexy website in the short game, but it won't serve you in the long run. Pretty soon no one will want to work with you. Pride is really dangerous to our work.
Choosing your portfolio over people leaves you alone—and, eventually, with no portfolio. I want to be a person others want to work with. Observe what the people alienating clients are doing, and do the opposite. I don't have the sexiest portfolio yet—but I'd rather get there humbly, eventually.
"It’s OK to not maximize every opportunity."
3. Everyone Just Wants to Be Fulfilled
Watching a movie like the The Wolf of Wall Street will conjure up one of three sentiments:
- Superiority: People default toward this. It occurs when, while watching the film, you think, Sure, I daydream about cheating on my wife, but at least I’m not that guy in the movie who’s actually doing it. People get a superiority complex from observing other people. You have everyone in the room pegged—and they're all a couple notches down the moral ladder from you.
- Apathy: A lack of reaction. Artists aren’t allowed this one—at least, filmmakers aren’t. I don’t think it’s possible for a filmmaker to watch a movie and take nothing away from it.
- Sympathy: People unify because of sympathy; realizing a character is looking for the same thing you’re looking for—fulfillment—but they may just be looking for it in the wrong place.
Sympathy is the only helpful response. Everyone wants the same thing: they want to be fully known, fully loved, and to justify their existence. People just go about it in very different ways. Realizing everyone wants to be fulfilled has been the key for me in relating to all types of people in my work. Once you realize someone is trying for the same thing you’re trying for, you can be sympathetic, and that breaks down barriers.
4. Being a People-Person is Difficult, but Worth It
I am a social introvert. I get my energy from being by myself, and I get my purpose from being around other people. It’s always a give and take.
The flip side of that—in terms of my career—is that filmmaking has placed me around people I never would have met, and my world is so much larger because of it. There is a cost to it, because we can only have so many people in our lives. But ultimately, I’m thankful for it.
"Choosing your portfolio over people leaves you alone—and, eventually, with no portfolio."
5. Patience, Patience, Patience
I’m at a frustrating turning point in my filmmaking career because my taste is so much greater than my ability and experience. Through the growing gap—I thought my work was good, and then my taste grew—the exposure grows and the knowledge grows. I’m trying to catch up with abilities and experience. Watching an amazing music video can feel a little crushing instead of inspiring, but I’m learning right now to be patient.