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Avast, Matey! The Blue Sheet is for everyone in the industry, not just actors. We just write more about actors because, well, you know. They're actors. That explains it all. Anyway, here's a little something for those who work behind the camera.
10 Things Technicals Can Do to Screw Up A Career
If you look elsewhere in this estimable web site, you'll read the 10 things Talent can do to screw up their careers. But talent are not unique. If you are in the technical end of the business, there are also 10 things that you can do to assure that you won't be able to pay your student loan or get that cool Alpha Romeo Julietta Spider you've got your eye on. Here are what I believe to be the ten worst things off camera people can do the foul up their progress in the business. Now I know, some of you hate the term Techncials, which encompasses directors, producers, sound mavens, lighting geniuses, PAs, wardrobe wonders -- indeed everybody above and below the line who don't happen to be actors. I use that term because it saves a lot of typing. So here's my Technical's list:
#10: Always badmouth others on the same crew with you. This is sure to make you a whole lot of friends who wouldn't hire you again if their lives depended on it. The only people who can successfully and seriously badmouth one another are the stunt players. Badmouthing other stuntplayers is just part of the stunt business. The fact is there is no segment of the industry that is more obsessed with safety & the comfort of all production people than the stunt community. (Theirs is also the hardest job in the business, & they don't get nearly enough appreciation or pay for what they do.) So stunt people get a pass. Everyone else needs to think courtesy, patience and mutual support (though most of the stunt folks I know actually do think in those terms). Florida has the best crews in the country. Our A-Crews are clearly superior to those of California or New York, mostly because they've had a broader base of experience. We don't have as many A-Crews as California, but we will in time if we all pull together. After all, California's been building for 90 years. But when it comes to quality, no one can touch us. If you aren't being sought out when a big shoot comes to town, pal, it just may be that you've made yourself so unpleasant on the set that the others don't want to work with you. I know a guy, a line producer, who moved here from Holly wood with great credentials and an attitude. He works in a bar. He worked all the time at first; but convinced that everything in Hollywood was better than everything in Florida, he rode roughshod over those he worked with. What goes around etc. He's going to have a difficult job mending the fences he battered down without regard for his own professional future.
#9: Never network. Never promote yourself to anyone but fellow techies. I've have been connected off & on with the Florida Motion Picture & Television Association (FMPTA) for more than 18 years. The FMPTA has had its organizational & political problems in the past, much like any other organization. But there is no finer mechanism in the state for promoting yourself. I hear over and over tech people say, "no one goes to their meetings but wannabes." It's not true. Many professionals are involved whose competence covers all areas of the industry. What is true is that actors are more vigorous in pursuing their careers than Technicals, and, therefore, are more likely to show up. Over the years few gaffers or best boys showed up, even fewer line producers & UPMs. What a mistake! Networking is the most important function of any group; and today's actor is often tomorrow's producer or director. Strother Martin was a struggling student when we were in acting classes together at the Univ of Mich. Rue McClannahan was only the wife of my friend Norman Hartweg when I first met her. Will Geer was a down on his luck, Hollywood blacklisted actor, when we met. One of the best jobs I ever had, producing documentaries for the Dept of Defense, the Coast & Geodetic Service, & Vice President Hubert H Humphrey, I got it because I went to an organ recital at the request of a friend. (I knew it would be boring and it was.) I sat next to my friend's boss. Between chukkers he told me of a project he'd been asked to put together concerning an underground nuclear explosion in Nevada. I mentioned that I was getting a PhD in film and TV, and he asked me to come see him the next day. 42 films and more than half a million bucks later, I was firmly ensconced as a documentary filmmaker of national standing. This is an extreme example, but learn from it. Go where anyone in the industry gathers including ITVA, FMPTA, WOMPI, WIF, AWRT -- anywhere film & TV folks may be found. Think as the Japanese do, not just for what happens today or this week, but what your contacts may mean to you in 10 years.
#8: Never go to Trade shows. I know a guy who's a pretty good shooter, but who avoids trade shows like the plague. "I know I can't afford the kind of equipment I see there," he told me once, "so what's the point in going?" You go, of course, because there's no easier and no more interesting way to keep abreast of the business than trade shows and conventions. Everyone with a booth has something to teach you. No matter what you do, from gripping to producing, a trade show is like a rich gold mine where you need only stick a shovel in the soil and come away with nuggets the size of hens' eggs.
#7. Set a rate people have to pay to get you, and if they don't agree to it, don't work for them. O.K., you spent a lot of time learning to do what you do well enough so people will pay you to do it and even more on equipment and/or supplies (especially that fancy truck with all your top-of-the-line goodies.) You look at your Arri 35, and you think about that Sony HDW-700pdq you just gotta have, and your palms start sweating. We all know, a workman is worth his hire -- if he's good he's worth a lot; if he's not so good, he's worth a lot less. Maybe that principle works with guys who fix plumbing; it doesn't work in the creative arts, mostly because of money. See, finances are the trickiest part of production. Indie filmmakers spend at least 70% of their time trying to find money, only 30% at most making films. And it's true for folks who make TV programs or produce plays or write music or books. Creative people spend much of their lives in emotional pain over money. They aren't comfortable with what raising money requires of them. Creative types don't generally deal effectively with immovable objects; usually, they just go around them. Does that mean, if you're a $500/day guy, sometimes you have to work for $100? You bet it does! The business skill you have to learn is telling the guy who can only pay you $100/day from the guy who only wants to pay you $100/day but could pay more. But if you are inflexible, you'll never have the opportunity to learn that skill.
#6. ANOTHER POV: Never do anything for free or deferred. While this is a notion widely held in our industry, it ranks right up there with the Phlogiston Theory (look it up); namely, it's one of dumbest ideas ever to hit River City & points west. The fact is, outside of a small Southern California enclave where civility & the Golden Rule do not apply, there is no successful entertainment production company or professional who does not work to some extent with good people in need of some help but who can't afford to pay for it. I remember a UCF student a few years back who enlisted unpaid help to make his student film. When he graduated, he started a production company in Miami; the first people he hired were those who had helped him for free at UCF. Not counting porno people, may they all rot in hell, indie producers are for the most part decent people, worthy of trust & respect. Often their ideas are a lot bigger than their bank accounts, which leads at times to dicey situations; but don't forsake them. They are your future. Help them to move forward when you can, and you will prosper! It's wise to think "free" when someone says "deferred," but it's unwise to equate either one with exploitation. That's almost never the case. This may be an apocraphal story, but I'm told that when the late Jamie Uys began his $280,000 The Gods Must Be Crazy in 1985, he knew he didn't have enough money to finish, so he asked 28 crew people to defer in favor of a hunk of the profits. Five years after the film was released in 1989 (it's grossed more than $125 million to date), these crew people I'm told, split a pot of $20 million dollars. Not bad for a few weeks work. There are thousands of stories around, most of them true, of those who worked for free or deferred, who gained far more than it cost them. So, you can remain an intransigent fool, smug with your FSU film school education (admittedly well worth a fortune), waiting for Selznik to offer you The Big One. Or, you can blend in inconspicuously with those whose text books were written by guys named Scmidt or Stern (buy their books), who learned their craft from an Arkoff, a Corman, a Grefé or a Romero, and who scrounged their equipment at garage sales. Learn to work with producers in pain, and they'll remember you. It's been true since the beginning. It'll be true till the end.
#5. Waffle. Never let your client know up front and immediately what you think you're worth. Wait a minute. What about #7 above? Not the same thing at all! Your client comes to you because you're important to him. Make it easy for him to hire you without devaluing yourself, without undercutting your professional standing, without making it look like you are a professional whore who'll do anything for money. Two scenarios: (1) "Normally, I get $500/day, but I'll work for less if you can't afford that." WRONG! It's one thing to demonstrate a willingness to negotiate, but you should never discount your worth, and you should never initiate negotiations. (2) "Look I get $500/day and that's not negotiable. I've worked with other producers on some creative ways of meeting my fee, back end points, for example, or a limited partnership interest or stock in the company or extended payments over time." RIGHT! You let him know you have a fair understanding of your professional worth. At the same time you leave him some degrees of freedom so he can initiate negotiations. He has a clear understanding of what it'll take to get you; and you'll show up in his budget at $500/day, whatever your private arrangement is with him. Your fee is unchallenged. Your integrity is whole.
#4. Endear yourself to the major players on the set: the director, the UPM, the First AD, and all the Keys. Point out to them when they do something wrong. Don't hesitate to make suggestions to the Director when he obviously doesn't know what he's doing. He'll appreciate it a lot. So will the UPM and the 1st AD when you point out that so -and-so hasn't shown up for the call, and if they had asked you in the first place, you could have made sure so- and-so was there, because you only live a block away. Be sure you let the lighting Director know when key lights are incorrectly set; let wardrobe know that the buttons on that 17th century doublet weren't made until the late 18th century. When the Set Director has finished his work, let him know that you'll inspect it to make sure everything is as it ought to be. You're sure to make a lot of friends. All of these people will really appreciate your help. And, on your drive to Toronto where you'll have to go in hopes of finding your next job, be sure you stop by Ann Arbor and pay proper homage to the University of Michigan and wish you had been smart enough to go there.
#3. Convince yourself that no one can do what you do as well as you. If you're a Key grip, for example, or a Line Producer or UPM or Stage Manager, there are 10,000 yapping, snarling puppies out there after your job. You hold them at bay only because you share none of your knowledge with them. If they want to know something, let 'em find it out for themselves, just like you did. After all, as you grew in the business, nobody gave you a hand, did they. Nobody. Rookies & Wannabes have no place on a film set. They just get in the way, and they add nothing to the production. Oh, really?
John Jimpson, film editor supreme, who edited A Fish Called Wanda and all my favorite action movies, including Kelly's Heros, told me he got the idea for cutting the cable car scenes in Where Eagles Dare from watching a badly edited student film that was rife with jump cuts. "I realized," he said, "that jump cuts, under the right circumstances, can be enormously effective. Hutton [Brian G, The Director] loved it." The professional looks everywhere to improve himself; he rejects nothing on the basis of it's coming from the wrong sort of people. He learns from everyone. I once walked through an art museum with a rather good lighting man who spent more time looking at the lighting arrays than at the art work. Until we reached a particular picture. I don't remember the artist, except that the painting was very dark and very somber. He stood transfixed in front of it. "You really like that painting," I said. "No," he replied, "I don't like pictures like that. But look at the lighting. It's all wrong. The wattage is too high and the angle of the light causes the picture to wash out. But if you step over here where I'm standing, you'll see how, at this angle, the picture seems to be sliding off the canvas right into the light source." The waking life of the professional should be engaged in an ongoing process of evaluating everything in his environment with view to incorporating it into his experience base. And if you saw Ken Burns Civil War documentary, you saw repeatedly the lighting technique my friend invented that day at the art institute.
#2. Pick the right role models for you. Let your heros and role models be people like Harry Cohn, the loveable head of Columbia Pictures for so many years, or Erich von Stroheim, the grand old gentleman of The Merry Widow and The Last Squadron, the man you love to hate. Take perverse delight in the peccadilloes of local production people who manage to rip off their fellow production brothers and sisters. There's not a shooter in Florida or anywhere else for that matter, who can't tell you horror stories about jobs they poured their souls into and did not get as much as a thank you. Your role models have a profound influence on how you develop as a professional. If the people you pattern your behavior after are kind and generous with their help and support, you will be also. If they are mean, spiteful, and paranoid, or even crooked, you know what's in store for you. My current heros are easy: Bill Grefé, Socrates Ballis, Randy Baker, Bill Neveras, Jimmy Best, Robert Wise, and Gregory Peck. Each for a different reason. And there are others, all of whom had a profound influence on my professional existence. Want to make it big? List every person you know who can or has helped you in some way. Circle a dozen people on that list and live your life as you think each of them would. You can't miss!
And now stand by for the All-Encompassing, Career Shattering BIG ONE!
If you have already read the things an Actor can do to screw up a career, this #1 Thing will sound very familiar. Heck! It'll sound exactly the same, because it is exactly the same:
The #1 thing you do to wreck your career and your life
Here it is. To absolutely destroy yourself, to ruin everything you would like to work for, to fail to achieve the high level of success you know you deserve -- whether you function in front of a camera, behind a camera, or in an office somewhere, wheeling and dealing, just do this: Take advice from the wrong people.
My dad was about as smart a guy as I've ever known. He was an electrical engineer who spent his entire working life with the Michigan Bell Telephone Company. Ma Bell frequently loaned him out to companies & government agencies who had communication related problems they couldn't solve. In his field, his accomplishments were legion. Much as I admired him, much as I loved him, I never asked him for advice about my career in the entertainment industry. He didn't know anything about it. For that I turned to Harry Graves Miller, a superb Director, Actor, & Writer. (Besides being the last basso profundo successfully to play Lady Macbeth on Broadway -- NY reviewers loved the "lady" with the beautiful, rich voice; besides coaching his friend Laurence Olivier on how to play Hamlet in Olivier's 1948 film; besides co-authoring plays with the likes of Helen Kellar, he was also a fine teacher.) I went to the best to learn. I like to think I learned relatively well.
The best set designer I've ever known was a guy studying in the theater department at the University of Michigan. His teachers were excellent (as you would expect from Michigan -- people like Ralph Duckwall, Clairabelle Baird, & so on), but Rick decided he wanted to learn from the best. He took a couple of years off, travelled all over the world, & did just that, becoming eventually the only Set Designer/Art Director viewed by film industry bankers ever as a bankable element (Norman Bel Geddes was his own bank, & Busby Berkeley was bankable but for his staging, not his set design).
It's probably not necessary for you to go to Rick's extremes, but you should never seek guidance or advice from anyone who knows less than you do. Like they say about gunfighters: There is always someone faster & a better shot than you are. If you've got a brain in your head you'll search them out!
Everyone who is better than you has something to teach you -- & there is always somebody better than you.
When Lawrence Kasdan decided he wanted to be a Hollywood screenwriter & director & producer, he made his way to California (from the real U of M, I might add) & sought out folks like George Lucas. He just wasn't satisfied with lesser lights. When he left, almost everyone he knew told him he was crazy & didn't have a chance. I was one of them. What did we know? He virtually forced the cream of the crop to teach him. And wouldn't you like to be Larry Kasdan today?
When John Carradine decided he wanted to be an actor (David, Keith & Robert's dad, you Phillistine -- he appeared in more films than any actor who ever lived), he hitch hiked to L.A., took a bus tour that showed him where John Barrymore lived. Then he went to Barrymore's house, rang his bell, got no answer, & walked around to the back. He found Barrymore sitting by his pool, sipping strong waters. Carradine introduced himself, said he wanted to be an actor, & asked what he had to do. Barrymore was so intrigued by Carradine's chutzpah, that he picked up a phone & arranged for his "new best friend" to work the following day. That was 1936. For the next 50+ years, John Carradine was never out of work. Amateurs will give you amateur advice. Professionals will give you professional help -- even if you have to pay for it -- and never hesitate to pay but only if they are more of a professional than you are.
You can learn editing technique at any number of film schools & film departments; but you won't become an editing genius, winner of multiple Academy awards without starting to learn just some of the stuff John Jimpson has forgotten.
You can learn the basics of acting in an acting class or even by doing lots of theater & emulating other actors. You'll never be regarded as a great actor without significant contact with great actors. Everyone you know has a stupid opinion about everything having to do with the entertainment industry. Unless they are better than you, unless they are faster guns than you, unless they know more than you know, their opinions are worthless. Ignore them.
- Gersh Morningstar
Reprinted from The Florida Blue Sheet