I’ve worked in the movie business for over 30 years. Working on all the low-budget features I could in the beginning and tried to make my way up the ladder. Right up until the present day where I’ve been fortunate enough to work on some huge blockbusters.
It all started at a rental house and I was doing anything and everything possible to make it; I’d learn how to set grip stands, make 4×4 flags, pack grip trucks, whatever it took to make it in this business because I was starting at the absolute bottom.
Starting at the bottom gives you a sense of humbleness. If you enter at a higher level, I think you don’t respect the crew as much because you cannot identify with what it takes every day to be able to do their job.
I remember the first movie that I worked on in Los Angeles. It was called Phantasm 2. Here’s the tagline (cue the epic music and deep-voiced narrator):
“This summer, the ball is back!”
It was this horror film and we had this silver ball that had forks in it that flew out and stabbed into people’s heads and then drilled their brains out. “Tell me more, Shane”, I hear you call. Well, it all centered around a mortician and a mortuary, and the mortician was from Mars. At what point did you shout “This sounds like the greatest movie ever made”?
I would get there an hour early to unpack the truck before the crew even got there and was packing up the truck at least an hour after everyone left. Then I would drive to the next location to be able to dump the truck or drive it right in front of my house (an apartment at the time). That’s where I would park it, or I would park it in some secure parking lot and then I’d have to drive home from there.
Most of the time, I was averaging 18 to 21 hours a day with 3 to 4 hours of sleep in between. This is what you do to get started in this business. It doesn’t change. Anything that you’re trying to do to buck that system and try to do it another way is only going to end in failure. It just is. You’ve got to pay your dues.
Every time anyone says, “I’m talented and I’m an artist …” they get this look –
Pay Your Dues
You have GOT to pay your dues. I had the talent to be a director of photography, but that was not going to stop me from starting at the bottom. That only built and shaped me into the director of photography that I am now. Learning from mentors all the way up the ladder gave me the experience and the confidence to be able to jump from a gaffer to a cinematographer and keep pushing.
I look at every job I do as a cool job and I give everything I can to do the best job possible. It doesn’t matter whether I’m shooting “Jimmy Dean Sausage Links” or shooting Amanda Seyfried’s closeup in a bar where she looks stunningly beautiful and incredibly damaged at the same time. Even on 200 million dollar movies, I appreciate where I am and everything I have done to get there. Yeah, you get some bad attitudes, but that’s the movie business.
My attitude has always been that I love going to work every single day. There are cynical people, they treat it as a 9-5 job. They come in; they do their work; they go home. Sorry to Dolly Parton, but this business is not 9-5.
The Perks of Filmmaking
We get tons of food, catering from craft service, and have drinks on the ready. They take care of us, most of the time will respect hours, respect good pay, and unless you’re on the most unprofessional shoot then they have amazing conditions that everyone is under. How can that be a 9-5 job? You realize how cushy the office workers who do work 9-5 have it, but you also realize how boring their work lives must be.
So many people just love to stay in the job that they do, and it’s comfortable for them. They know when they wake up, they’re going to be doing the same job each day. They go home, they come back in, and they have that same job. I’m of the understanding that I want to challenge myself every day. Put myself in a very difficult and uncomfortable place so I can really expand my knowledge and expand the scope of how I do this and learn new ways to do everything.
On set, you always have the older, seasoned veterans. They would go about their business, not being bothered by others, often only to be seen conversing with other seasoned veterans at lunch. In the early days, I was there as this young whippersnapper trying to do whatever I could and learn from these guys as their stories were phenomenal and their advice, absolutely vital. Like they were the Mr. Miyagi to my Daniel San.
I remember my first job as a grip PA – didn’t even know they had grip PAs, but that’s what I got – on a movie called Lemon Sky.
Despite the poster, it’s not got any link to Dirty Dancing
It was the first, real production I had ever worked on in Boston. Kevin Bacon and Kyra Sedgwick were the stars and I was a “Grip PA” – so when they say in the game about six degrees of Kevin Bacon, that’s mine.
It was really funny because I had this very seasoned key grip who treated me pretty poorly a lot of the time because I really didn’t know anything. He didn’t have time for me at first, but slowly I got underneath his wing and he kind of started to show me and teach me a lot of things. It took patience and a lot of messing up to break the wall down, but once I did, it was pretty special.
Working On Movie Sets
Yes, the cynical nature happens on every movie set, no matter how low-budget – no matter how boring and uncreative, or how incredibly creative and incredibly exciting it might be. You have ascension, you have inspiration, and you just go in there and have the greatest attitude possible and just want to learn as much as you can. Try to befriend the seasoned movie-set veterans. Heck, I would get them water, I’d get stuff from the craft service table, and then bring an extra bowl of peanuts along. I’d just say, “Hey, you want any peanuts?”
Then after that, “You want some cucumbers? Hey, you want some candy?” Whatever it was, I was going to get it for them, I’d get two bowls of it and pass it around with those people. All of a sudden, they would be like, “Ah, that little kid, man, he’s got something going on there.” Then they start to let you in.
Their crowd is sometimes a really cool place to be because the stories that come out of it … “Ah, yeah, remember when we were working with that guy…” (obviously, I’m not throwing anyone under the bus here). You get these actor horror stories, director horror stories, there’s always great war stories these guys and girls will get into.
Just keep on doing your best, and staying on your game. Get fired up from the first second to the last and you’re going to move up that ladder very quickly.