Hey, welcome back! If you haven't already, please read Part 1 to learn how I became interested in filmmaking, as well as my first entry into the film world. The background information provided really helps me shape this journey, and I thank you for your patience, since you still don't know why I went to film school. Read on.
So yeah, about that internship...
For the record, I grew up comfortably with all of my basic needs met, plus some spoils like summer day camp and Catholic school. But working elbow-to-elbow with wealthy kids whose handbags cost quadruple my rent left a chip on my shoulder the size of a bowling ball (ditto for when I learned an 18-year-old niece of a producer scored the paid PA gig I gunned for). I was offered the unpaid internship because I didn't have enough experience; she received the paid job and didn't have any. See how the system can be rigged? It's considered a faux pas to address the prevalent classism in entertainment, though it's important to acknowledge you can't help the class you're born into. To clarify, you shouldn't scorn or act hostile toward someone who was granted more than you; it's just poor form and never does anyone good. I firmly believe that all anyone will ever remember is how that PA treated people, not their coffee making skills. Besides, with an attitude like that you'll lose sight of all the wonderful things some of the 1% are responsible for.
I've made disparaging "trustafarian" remarks over the years, but they only made me look bad, ya dig? It was insensitive of me to openly remark on an entire class of people, many of whom are scattered about film sets (know your audience). Some of you may have a "boo-hoo-for-the-rich" attitude and think I was well within my right to have such complaints. I sort of see that point, but wouldn't you rather be remembered as someone who was compassionate and professional? I should note it was deemed perfectly acceptable for these elite kids to openly mock my Queens accent, or goof on me because I couldn't relate to their socialite lifestyles. No hard feelings, I guess it goes both ways!
Regardless, I couldn’t stand seeing paid entry-level jobs being given to outside people. Interns can get promoted from within, but it was disheartening to witness how often they were stonewalled by nepotism. Perfectly capable interns were passed over for someone already connected, and after a while it’s hard not to feel like the butt of some joke. The rampant inequality for employment in this industry is egregious to the point of absurdity. It's insulting that I was considered good enough to scrub shit off a toilet for free but not worthy enough for an actual paycheck.
Aaaaand this is where I get real...I have no poker face, and while this makes me an entertaining storyteller, it also advertises my moods. I admit this, and I'm downright positive (no pun!) that my raincloud attitude was a significant factor for my not moving ahead in the production world. Personality goes a looong way, people. I spent a few years kicking myself over "what ifs," but now I realize these were signs to remove myself from the production track. In fact, many pros like Werner Herzog actually advise against a production or desk job if you're a writer-director. How are you going to have the time to work on anything when you're away 16 hours a day? What are you going to write about if all you do is make copies and run errands? In my humble opinion, people like that tend to write stories that imitate life, while others write about the time they took a job fishing bicycles out of the Amsterdam canals. I don't mean to put a value judgment on someone's job choice, for a good story is a good story no matter where it comes from. I just tend have more interest in someone who explores outside of their comfort zone. It allows for a deeper connection somehow, like their writing offers a glimpse into their soul.
But Liz, you haven't told us WHY you went to film school! TELL US!!
(I will, just indulge me a little longer as I finish illustrating this picture!)
I wouldn't take Werner Herzog's advice on film industry employment lightly. When you're a "nobody" like I was on set, people are much more likely to drop the pretense with you. Most of the crew members desired positions other than the one they had, with more than a few admitting to feeling "trapped," especially if they were union. I was grateful for their honesty and candor: while a PA can work their way up to a unit production manager, there isn't as structured a path for writer-directors. This is actually a good thing, as it allows you to create your own, and that's just what I did.
I stopped seeking film work. Period.
Instead I worked in nightlife, hotels, retail—you name it. I had to work multiple jobs just to survive in New York City, leaving me no time for a decent night's sleep, let alone hours blocked for writing. When I fell ill, I'd lose wages and have to pay out of pocket for healthcare services. My life plan would have to be amended in order to get anything done, and this is when I entered grad school in 2006 to teach (haha, betcha thought I was gonna say "film"). For the first time in my life I actually had job stability, benefits, and vacation time...I was in a union! Being a teacher turned out to be the most challenging job of my life, but that's a story for another time.
My obligatory copy of Syd Field's Screenplay taught me the fundamentals. My first feature script How I Saved Summer was a finalist in a 2005 writing mentorship, where I lost out to film graduates of Columbia University, USC, NYU, and UCLA. I rewrote that same script and ended up at the 2008 IFP Market Week during a time where even seasoned writers couldn't get a script sold. I was aware of that in advance and just used the time to practice pitching and getting to know people; it was a great experience!
I decided to write and shoot a short based on that feature, and it definitely looks like a first film. Haha, it was great, but you know what I mean ;) There was a certain promise in it, and I would advise you to consider doing the same: dive in and make a film. It will probably be awful, but you'll learn a ton, especially if you're honest with yourself. Be sure to practice with the least expensive means possible, for there are countless stories of people in severe personal debt because they made a film before they were really ready to. I hate to burst your bubble, but you're probably not a film genius. Almost all of those "overnight success stories" are largely marketed bullshit; most people take many years honing their craft before anyone notices.
Here's the thing: people hear you're a teacher and think you have nothing but leisure time. I taught summers, nights, and weekends to finance my short, often working every day of my "vacation" just to catch up on paperwork. Teaching takes many more hours than you would think, and when you combine side projects like filmmaking you can end up running yourself ragged. My day started at 4:45am and ended around midnight. I became so exhausted trying to balance it all that everything seemed to suffer. My students didn't have an ever-present teacher, and my artistic work was disjointed. One day I found myself so sleep-deprived that I was unable to recall students' names, the period I taught them, the day of the week, etc. That scared the hell out of me. Shortly after I began falling ill, which was unusual for someone who prided herself on a healthy immune system. In less than a year I battled a few colds, a virus, pneumonia, and an antibiotic-resistant throat infection. The fatigue that followed weighed me down even more.
This was not sustainable.
I read a book on how 20 directors got their start in the business, noting filmmaker Kimberly Peirce's interview detailed the MFA program at Columbia. I never forgot how desirable that program seemed to me, so when it came down to applying to grad school, Columbia was the only one I thought worth the financial risk. I recalled that 2005 mentorship where I lost out to a grad of this program: if I was able to go neck-and-neck with him without any formal education, mentorship, or even emotional support, then maybe I had a shot.
I was shopping in CVS when Eric Mendelsohn called to inform me I was accepted. The day the application was mailed I thought,"If you were meant to be in film school, you'll be accepted. If not, at least you know this was not your path." So even though I had a good feeling either way, I was nonetheless elated! I couldn't wait to learn about all the film words I was coming across: throughline, directionality, point of view, earned moments, visual architecture, etc. Once Columbia cleared my deposit I told my principal that I would be resigning after teaching summer school. She was a great boss to me, and she knew that this was something I wanted more than anything. I packed up my things on that last day in July of 2010 and left Bushwick Community High School, feeling grateful for the experience but ready to pursue my true passion.
HERE IT COMES...
...I WENT TO FILM SCHOOL TO "BUY TIME" TO LEARN MY CRAFT.
Yup, it's that plain and simple. It is my hope that someone reading this might take my experiences into consideration; this is why I detailed my life until this point. For a long time I thought I was a failure for not having the same indie film success I read about: working for others didn't advance me, and self-teaching only got me so far...but look at where it all led me! While the gatekeepers at Columbia saw writing talent in me, I firmly believe my self-motivation and experiences presented me as someone worth educating. In the previous post I made it a point to say nothing happens by accident. If I had gotten an undergrad degree in film, I'm not sure I'd have all these cool experiences to write about, or perhaps I would be stuck with one of those dead-end desk jobs. I believe this was all part of a higher-minded design. Can you backtrack and do the same with important moments in your life? I bet you can!
There was a lot that I didn't know when I was in my 20s, mainly that everyone has their own journeys, and even if they appear to be the same as yours, they have nothing to do with you. Really. I was never a Howard Roark and as a result spent more time focusing on what I didn't have, perpetuating my circumstances without realizing it. Maybe you do this, and I get it—it's become much more difficult to maintain an independent vision without comparing yourself to your neighbor (CAN YOU SAY SOCIAL MEDIA?!). Don't let it get to you; people only show you what they want you to see. Besides, the unknown writer who walks around full of fear and insecurity would be shocked to find that the millionaire writer walking behind them feels the exact same way.
You may have read this and know dozens of people who took the same early steps I did and found "success." Well, good for fucking them! Most people I come across mirror my experience, and many of them have completely given up.
I HAVE NOT.