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ADVICE BLOG 1: Do you REALLY want to be in the film industry?

I get dozens of emails a week asking for advice on how to become a screenwriter, director, or actor.  Usually, I try to encourage people with their hopes and dreams and goals, but I’m often unsure of what to say.  The truth is, most people SHOULDN’T be in the film industry.  This crap isn’t for everybody.

My hope for this blog is to encourage the few who really belong here to take that risk.  But, just as importantly, I’d like to persuade the rest of you to enjoy a richer life in some field besides film.  It’s like convincing a buddy not to marry his alcoholic childhood sweetheart who’s been fucking his friends for years.  Because, honestly, we’re a bunch of sick fucks out here in Hollywood, and very few of us, not even the rich and successful ones, are happy.

So before I give any advice on how to be a screenwriter, director, or actor, I think it’s important that you have a serious conversation with yourself about whether you REALLY want to be in the film industry. 

I request that you ask yourself the following questions:

 

 

1)     Do you love to write or act or direct?

Some people want to be screenwriters because they like the idea of being screenwriters, but they really don’t write.  Screenwriters WRITE.  A lot.  Most every day.  Same thing with actors or directors.  Directors make short films on micro-budgets, actors act in local theater.  People who love to write, direct, or act create opportunities for themselves when none exist. 

Everyone enjoys imagining themselves as movie stars up on the screen, or as directors leading a crew of a couple hundred people.  But this is a hell of a lot different than actually enjoying the craft of acting or directing.

You have to be willing to do these jobs even if you’re never especially rich or famous.  In the end, the people who stay in this industry, and enjoy it, are the people who appreciate the process as opposed to just the results. 

Los Angeles is littered with fifty-year old busboys with sad, soulless eyes who wanted the results of fame and riches but didn’t actually enjoy what it took to get there.

 

2)     Do you think you have talent?

As I said above, I often encourage people to follow their dreams, and take risks. However, DESIRE IS NOT ENOUGH TO MAKE A CAREER.

For instance, I played in rock bands for years and was a mildly talented musician.  And if I wanted to be a composer or a pop songwriter, perhaps that’s a field I could have investigated.  But I didn’t.  I wanted to be a famous rock singer.  But my singing voice simply wasn’t good enough or original enough to validate a career in that field.  And although it’s great to tell people, “You can do anything you want to do,” I was limited by my actual God-given physical abilities.  Prince Randian, the armless-legless wonder, was never going to be a professional hockey player no matter how much he wanted to be, or how much he believed in himself.  And, frankly, it’s cruel to tell him he can do whatever he wants to do, because he can’t.  And neither can we.

I’m not saying we don’t make who we are.  I believe we can create our own lives and we are to a great degree self-determined.  But part of creating our own lives is being aware of our limitations, physically, spiritually, and mentally.  By knowing who we are and the limits of our capabilities, we become truly free. 

I wanted to be Eddie Veder, and I wasn’t.  I wasn’t crazy.  I wasn’t one of these deluded gender-benders who goes on American Idol and truly thinks he/she is the greatest vocal talent since Pavarotti (we’ll get to those people in a moment).  But, when I was brutally honest with myself, and asked myself if singing was what I was best at in the world, I knew the answer was no.  Not by a long shot.  I had a lot of other gifts in life I was just ignoring because they weren’t what I “wanted.” 

In many ways, I was going through what I needed to go through as a young man, in becoming conscious of my limitations.  So my foray into rock and roll was hardly useless.  (In fact, I still use my musical training to find rhythm in everything I do from dialogue to editing – not to mention the easier time I have communicating with film composers).

I’ll also add that I believe, in general, what we “want” has very little to do with what makes us happy.  When we want something, that means it’s something we don’t have: it’s necessarily something outside of ourselves.  When choosing a career, I think it’s more important to determine what we have and how we can utilize it more fully.

 

3)     Does the world think you have talent?

This one may take some time, because beginners almost always suck.  So if you think you have talent, you should work on your craft a bit.  See where you get.  See if you can find hints of talent within yourself.  It shouldn’t be too long before other people around you start to notice your potential as well.  I believe if people are truly following what they are meant to be doing, the world does rise to meet us in some ways.  We’re given at least the crumbs we need to keep going. 

I started writing seriously not too long after I quit playing music, and I immediately received a lot of positive reinforcement: from fellow students, teachers, the community, etc.  I got pieces published in small journals and magazines, and was accepted into the Columbia University writing program.  While still in school, I was working for Troma and making a living as a filmmaker.  I knew I wasn’t completely deluding myself about my talents because I had some objective, external signs that what I did was of some use to the world.  Considering I also loved writing and making movies, this made me think it might be a pretty good place to build a career.

This isn’t to say your self-worth should depend on the assessment of others.  But when we’re talking about creating a practical life in the film industry, I think it’s important to be honest with ourselves about where our gifts work best.

The journey of my ex-wife, Jenna Fischer, was a bit more hazardous.  She moved out to L.A. when she was twenty-two, and it was nearly ten years later when she scored the role of Pam on THE OFFICE.  She had to be rejected countless times in auditions, and looked at with pity at parties every time she said she was an aspiring actress.  Jenna needed a healthy dose of self-applause to keep her going through the rough patches.  She had a “never-give-up” attitude which helped her greatly.

But Jenna also had external signs from time to time letting her know she wasn’t completely crazy:  She was here in L.A. less than a year when she scored a crappy movie with Dan Haggerty.  A year after that she was cast in a small role in my movie, THE SPECIALS (before we were together, folks).  A year later, she got a good agent who saw her in an avant-garde play (which she did purely out of a love for acting).  Then she got a one-line role in SPIN CITY.  She started scoring guest shots and pilots, and, eventually, she was an overnight success when she was cast on THE OFFICE.  For Jenna, it was an uphill battle; but it was UPHILL.

There is a big difference, though, between self-confidence and self-delusion.  There are a lot of people out here committing years of their lives to careers for which they aren’t at all suited.  They work off of blind confidence without a corresponding objectivity.  I think of these folks as career stalkers; they treat their chosen professions as stalkers do their objects of romance.  Despite all evidence to the contrary, they hold onto hope that the unloving object they love will return their affections.  I have nothing against these people, as I was kinda sorta one myself.

I talked about career stalkers once to a woman who was trying for years to be an actress and getting nowhere.  She said, “Yeah, but Joseph Campbell said to follow your bliss!”  To which I responded that her life didn’t seem very blissful at all.  To follow one’s bliss, one must experience the bliss in the here and now as well as what one may think might happen in the future.

How do you know if you’re one of these people?  Well, I think if you’re rigorously honest with yourself, and you ask yourself if you are, you’ll know the answer.  If you’re okay with the answer being “yes”, then you’ll find out.

My advice here, though, is LISTEN TO THE WORLD.  Be open.  Where do your talents lie?  What do people appreciate about you?  Where are you truly called to be?  I wanted to be a rock star more than anything in the world, but, again, desire doesn’t make a career.  It was when I finally became open to something other than my narrow view of what was acceptable in my life, that I found what I loved to do even more than music – writing and filmmaking.  I didn’t necessarily love the idea of being a writer or a director.  But I love to write and direct and the experiences they bring into my life.

Maybe you want to be a screenwriter, but in your first job on a film set you discover you have an amazing knack for costume design, and you love doing it.

“But I don’t want to give up on my dreams,” you may say.

Fuck your dreams, I’d say.  Do what you love and what loves you.  Sometimes “giving up” isn’t really giving up – it’s simply surrendering to who you truly are.

And I’m honestly not meaning to dash anyone’s dreams here.  What I really want is for people whose dreams aren’t working to discover new dreams that do.

And, finally, I think there are many self-rewarding reasons to write, act, or direct, even if you suck or no one appreciates what you do.  Nearly everyone needs a creative outlet.  Just don’t expect to earn a living from it.


4) Are you willing to persevere?

All right.  So you know you love to write, or act, or direct – or, heck, maybe you’ve been substituting “accounting” into these questions all along (which makes you fucking weird, but, you know, that’s cool).  You believe you have talent, and you think the rest of the world thinks you do as well. 

It’s still not fucking easy.  You still have to persevere.  If you really are talking about accounting, it may not be above and beyond what other careers expect of you, but if we’re still talking about screenwriting, acting, or directing here, they simply aren’t normal occupations.

When embarking on a career in the film industry, you will face seemingly insurmountable obstacles.  The successful folks are the ones who surmount them anyway.

Perseverance requires: a) Time, b) ignoring negative influences, and c) a lot of damn hard work.

Let me explain.

 

a) Time

Get ready to take a good ten years or more waiting tables and practicing your craft as a second full time job before you’re able to make a living.  There are of course many exceptions to this, but the surest way not to be an exception is to expect to be one.

Doctors go through eight years of medical school before they can become an M.D.  Why would you expect less from a writer, director, or actor?  There are a lot more doctors and a lot less people who want to be them than want to be in the entertainment industry.  “Acting isn’t brain surgery” is true.  IT’S HARDER.  All right, maybe that’s an over-statement.  But it IS more competitive and can require an equal amount of craft and knowledge.  A studio doesn’t want to hire an actor without experience as the lead in their new film just like you don’t want to hire a pre-med student to perform your laser eye surgery.

 

b) Ignoring negative influences.

Perhaps because film industry occupations are so coveted, and because they are truly risky endeavors, there are incredible societal and emotional blocks to pursuing them.

The negative influences start with ourselves.  Being a sensitive artist type, my own fears can sometimes seem overwhelming – whether it be the fear of the blank page, taking a chance, or of what people might think of me.  I can go through periods of enormous disappointment and doubt.  This is part and parcel of being an artist.  Today, I treat these feelings like leprosy-ridden bums with whom I ride on the bus to work every morning.  They yell at me and tell me I suck.  Occasionally they get to me and I stupidly get sucked into fighting back.  But usually I realize their ranting has very little to do with me and very much to do with them being crazy, leprotic bums.  They get on and off the bus a lot, and I try to be grateful when they’re not there, and ignore them when they are.

And, if our own insecurities aren’t enough, we have to deal with everyone else’s as well.  As I said above, I was lucky that the world met me with positive feedback from the get-go.  But a lot of people I met in writing classes still told me I was sick, vulgar, or just shitty.  I once wrote a story about a fat, cursing woman who started giving birth to animals and birds, and was met by a virtual rebellion of women in my class who “had had it up to here with the misogynistic ramblings” of guys like me (No, I still don’t get it).  I had numerous people tell me I was one of a million guys with big dreams who could never make money as an artist.

And when you become successful, this shit gets WORSE. With the spotlight comes negative feedback on a much wider, more public scale.  Your life and work are fodder for the general population to judge.  What was once said behind your back is now a headline in Newsweek.  But, as creators, we have to open ourselves up to the world, which means taking the dark along with the light.

 

c) A lot of damn hard work.

If you aren’t willing to work your fingers to the bone, forget it.  Even if you’re talented, there are other talented people out there who are willing to put in the effort.  I have many gifted friends who don’t make their living as artists simply because they aren’t willing to put in the tremendous amount of work necessary.  The entertainment industry is one of the hardest industries to break into in the world.  More people want to be actors than any other profession.  And becoming screenwriters and directors is even more difficult in some ways, because there are many fewer slots to fill.  So it takes self-starting and hard work to make a living at it.

And, again, with success it gets worse, because the career demands it of you.  As an actress, Jenna works twelve-hour days five days a week.  Her nights are often taken up by talk shows, dinners, or award shows (all of which get old real, real quick).  Her weekends get crowded quickly with photo-shoots and interviews.  And, in the off-season, she makes movies.

And me?  When I write, I write all day, every day, while trying to balance in similar necessary social interactions of meetings, dinners, shows, interviews, Rooker’s thrice-daily calls, and whatnot. 

And when I direct, it’s by far the most time-consuming of all.  Even on a smaller film, it’s a good five months of planning and shooting and meeting, with almost no time for anything else.  Days are often fifteen to eighteen hours long – and you don’t spend hours hanging out in your trailer like you might as an actor or a writer – that’s fifteen to eighteen hours of WORK.  Maybe you’ll get a free Saturday night or a Sunday afternoon.  But, basically, you have no life other than directing while in pre-production and production.  Sound like fun? 

Then maybe the film industry is for you after all, you sick fuck.

Despite all the hard work and bullshit in the entertainment industry, I love what I do, and I love the people in it. If you really ARE serious about getting into the industry, and the above doesn’t scare you off, then, by all means, take that leap.  Maybe you don’t agree with what I said above, or you find yourself drawn a different way.  That’s cool too.  I believe everyone’s path is different.  The deepest truths are the ones we find ourselves, and the above are merely mine.

© 2006 – 2011, Just Linda. All rights reserved.

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  • Jeannie

    I received this link from someone I follow on twitter.  I’ll have to thank him. 
    Even now, I have friends and coworkers who tell me I should write.  Books.  I’ve always wondered if I should, but have always felt it’s one thing to be a story teller and another to write stories. 
    I work in health care.  I’ve wondered if this field which I fell into was the right one for me.  I’ve seen so much pain, up close and personal.  I’ve seen even more joy. 
    I’ve had the opportunity to help people feel better and not just their health.  The hugs you give you never regret, especially in this work.  The 28 mentally handicapped man who was frightened by a thunderstorm one night.  The woman with cancer whose family refused to allow her to tell them what she needed them to know because they couldn’t handle her possibly being gone.  The 3 year old who scared ten years off my life when he snuck up on me at midnight and whispered in my ear that he didn’t like it “when it’s dark and fooky outside”.
    I don’t know if I’ll ever put a single word on paper, but I know I’ve been where I should be.

  • Garrychalk

    good advice . I have been a professional actor for 34 years. Sometimes tough sometimes not but everyday is an adventure and everyday I go to work on a gig is like winning the lottery. Sometimes I pinch myself to see if I am dreaming all this up. it’s not all roses and fun. I think I have had about two real vacations in about ten years. Not that I was working but waiting for the job that might come or not. I wouldn’t trade it for anything

  • Great article thanks! Puts things into perspective definitely. I’ve been a writer/TV producer/director for the last decade in Singapore and I feel I’ve come to a crossroad. Although I’ve done the full-time TV thing, I feel like a teen with no idea what’s next. I only know like you, I had a musical/artistic upbringing and that no matter what, I have the need to tell a story. I just haven’t found the medium to really tell it. While directing is fun, I never have enjoyed the clashes of personality and the fallouts that happen during/after the project. I also never ventured to LA because while I was there, I never liked the place. It felt fake to me and I can’t work in a fake environment unfortunately.

  • Guest

    This is brilliant. Thanks.

  • DP from NYC

    This is a wonderful, no bullshit overview of what it takes. I am a DP in New York City. In this business for over 40 years. For the first 10 years I kept wondering if I made the right choice, but I really, really wanted to succeed as a DP. Perserverance, some success along the way, and faith in your own ability.

  • AWESOME write up!

  • really informative! Im a senior in highschool and am wanting to move to LA when I grad! I understand the hardship and hard work that comes along acting!!!! and im willing to do it cause ive thought to myself and i said “yeah I can handle working that long you know why?…. cause I like it”

    – Arman Parker

  • Tppk me 30 years to get my first international DVD release. Worth every damn minute.

  • Fantastic advice. No matter what career a person chooses, if they don’t love it, they’ll suck at it. Bravo for the raw honesty! 

  • And that’s why your a rocker, straight dropper!!!

  • JP

    I think this advice applies to excellingin ANY career field.  You only really see actors who are success stories and who are excelling in their fields of expertise.  Replace “actor” or “director” or “screenwriter” with “doctor,” “bank executive,” or “director of garbage collectors” to get relevant advice about any career you want.  I think the most true statement in all of this is, “People who love to _____ make opportunities for themselves when none exist.”  Fill in the blank with your dream, and put in the work needed to make it happen.

  • This is very cool. Good advice for aspiring entertainment industry hopefuls. 

  • Afilmjunky

    What would you tell a screenwriter (ME) who thinks he is cursed with creating stories the world needs to see.

    •  Read the above and

    •  Ignore what I just wrote – accidental posting – I’d say read the above and see if you really have what it takes.  What YOU think is important, but it’s not the whole thing.

  • still better than grad school

  • Chance Kelley

    James,
    THANK YOU for writing this and reposting.  I’ve always enjoyed reading your blog (love your work) especially for the vile sense of humor and no bullshit honesty. This post nailed it. I was toying with writing an article tackling this subject, but you put it so succinctly… just spot on, I’m simply going to refer people to this post.  Thanks again and looking forward to what’s next.
    ~ (AnotherFreshFuckingActor In LA)

  • Miksva44

    Reminds me of my father’s bumper sticker, “Since I gave up hope I feel much better”.

  • David Lew

    Gonna make it happen. Hoping I can work with you one day Mr. Gunn

  • Tremendous! One of the most honest and accurate articles I’ve ever read on the subject.

  • Giovannie

    My favorite line: “the deepest truths are the ones we find ourselves”

    Who woulda thought you had a squishy zen teddy bear underneath the bad ass twisted shit.

    Much thanks for the article Mr. Gunn.

    And not to sound creepy, I’ve met you a long time ago in passing at the wine and cheese Sunday at your bros house. I’m mac’s buddy.

  • Littleman1229

    You’re awesome Mr. Gunn

  • Doesn’t scare me one bit, I’m going for it.

  • I know this blog was written years ago but I think it’s a freaking public service–thanks.

    Should be required reading for all those drama majors in college; I knew a million of ’em.

    Anyway, this is all great advice, I think.

  • This is definitely my favorite of your blogs. No offense to the others, they’re great as well!

  • I did a 10 hour job in a movie called The Box Collector as background extra. They used me for pretty much the whole day, and I did managed to show up on screen woot, but the conditions were terrible and suffered a weak heat stroke yet I would go back and do it again in a heart beat.

  • Pingback: For any aspiring filmmakers out there…READ THIS « The Wrong Stuff()

  • You’re welcome, Jules.

  • love this, i’m passing it along to my incredible sister (hi Shannon, i love you!) who i think will take heart from some of this advice.

    also, i think most of this can apply to pretty much any career, and although i have no interest in becoming an actor, director, or screenwriter (or anything that would put me in the public eye, honestly), i too take heart from this post. thanks for taking the time. :)
    xo



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