Commercial, documentary, and feature filmmaker for 23 years. Author of 'Freemasons For Dummies,' 'Solomon's Builders' and others.
I went to three LA film school college programs taken over five years with zero concern about a diploma. I wanted the knowledge, not the paper. And the best advice I got was get the hell out of LA. So I went back home to the Midwest, where there was a thriving hub of regional/national commercial production at the time. My town of less than a million people had six good sized film production companies all shooting 16 and 35mm commercials and documentaries, plus a slew of smaller video houses.
I started freelancing as anything anyone would hire me for - usually as a grip. I had no reputation or much real experience at the time. So I got hired as a grip one day by the house that was the most successful one in town and the one most folks here really wanted to work for. (He was a gruff guy, tough to work for, but he paid faster than anyone in town!). He actually had very few words to say to me the whole day, and I was sure I barely registered on his radar at the time. He was the director/cameraman and I figured if he recalled anything even resembling my first name, I was probably lucky.
The shoot ran about 10 hours. At the end of the day, we were packing up the grip/electric truck, and he walked up to me and offhandedly said, "You interested in full time?" I almost fell over.
The following Monday, I went into his office and he asked lots of questions about my life, my past, and a little about my film school experience. He never asked to see my big deal demo reel or a resume or my great student film or a diploma. And he finally offered me a full time position, to do a little bit of everything. Eventually, as the years rolled on, I wound up as DP, film and later video editor, negative cutter, production manager, studio manager, set designer/builder, and directed a few projects. I spent 23 years with him.
About six months after I was hired on, I casually asked him one afternoon why he hired me in the first place. He replied that on that first day as a grip, he noticed two things that stood out: when someone asked me to do something or get something, I ran to do it; and when lunch was called, I insisted on being the last guy through the lunch line. He said that in all of his years at that time, he had never seen a freelance crew member do those two things. He also noticed that on set, I never had a cup of coffee in my hand that had to be put down every time someone needed something, or a donut hanging out of my mouth.
You never, ever know what will stand out to someone, on set or in ANY job. That's why, even in the lowliest position you may have, you always need to recognize that especially on a production, there is a LOT of money being spent by someone else and a lot of very expensive and delicate equipment involved that you need to pretend for the day is YOURS for safekeeping, even in the tiniest of ways. Your job (and everybody else's) is to remove or solve problems and obstacles, large and small. And when the folks doing the hiring look around and see that YOU are one who is actually making others' jobs go smoother or easier for the day, you will standout and be someone they ask for again.
Read two classic books: 'Adventures In The Screen Trade' by the great William Goldman, and 'When The Shooting Stops, The Cutting Begins' by Ralph Rosenblum. Both books are short on "theories" and long on actual bareknuckle experience, from two guys who have decades of exploits and successes (and their share of failures - which teach vital lessons, too).
Goldman talked a lot about how he approached screenplay structure, how he put character development onscreen, and much more. Sounds basic, but it's not.
Rosenblum was Woody Allen's longtime editor in the early days, and he dealt with making a pile of often disconnected sequences into an actual film. While that sounds on the surface like it's just about a cutter's job, it really teaches lessons about story structure. He wasn't just splicing film, he was creating onscreen stories without a real screenplay by assembling the pieces. He truly understood effective storytelling, and he did it without typing a word.
These two books taught me some of the wisest lessons about storytelling. Two of the most vital ones:
1. When stuck for an ending, return to your beginning.
2. Regardless of everything else you hang on it, what is the real story you're trying to tell?