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FOR WHAT IT’S WORTH, MY ADVICE…

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January 30, 2011

A friend used to say to me–free advice is worth exactly what you pay for it, which is nothing. However, that doesn’t seem to stop people from asking and I find that I say the same things over and over. So here goes: my advice here on my blog, where I can direct people to read it when they come knocking…
 
These are some random thoughts–some specific, some more general–but hopefully some of you will find some of it helpful.  
 
I think the most important advice I can give is this:  be clear about what you want to achieve, ask yourself who has achieved that, then look for opportunities to politely approach that person or persons (in the proper context — AND IT’S NOT TWITTER,) tell them your goal, and ask him or her to point you in a direction. I always tell my students–people are busy, so you want to make your request brief and something the person can accomplish for you immediately and with little effort. Therefore, in my mind, the best request is to ask for the name of one or two other people who you might talk to–most everybody can deliver on that request (and if they can’t or won’t, then you don’t want to be talking to them anyway). Next, follow up with the two people suggested to you and ask the same thing–before you know it you will have a large network of people. Somewhere along the way there will be someone who will know somebody who is looking for a person just like you, or they’ll be interested in you themselves. (This assumes, of course, that you have the proper training for whatever job you’re pursuing. Don’t waste someone’s time if you are not prepared for the job you’re looking for. Use the internet to look for educational opportunities. Any good university these days offers extension classes for any number of types of training.) 
 
I cannot answer all requests on Twitter and Facebook–but I’m a big believer in the social media and I like the way it democratizes access. But don’t abuse the access and have respect for the context. If you are asking for information from people you don’t know, then ask for information that is appropriate, and in such a way that might benefit others in the social network. For instance, this would be a good question:  “Can you recommend a good website for someone who wants to get into acting?” But this question is not: “Can you get me a part on your show?” (By the way, my typical response to this latter request is to gently point out that casting directors are listed each week in Daily Variety. There is a process in the business–learn the process and respect it. Stop looking for shortcuts. Also, a good website to check out for those interested in learning about acting, both actors and directors: http://judithweston.com. She’s a wonderful acting teacher and writer of books that are helpful. Start there.)
 
I receive a lot of calls and requests from people who are very vague about their goal. Specificity is the most important thing. And secondarily, brevity. I think it is very important to be clear about what you want to achieve–for instance, if you were to say you want to work in TV or movies–that’s great, but doing what? Are you saying you’re willing to assist someone or do you only want to be a star?Do you want to start at the bottom, or do you expect to begin at the top? It’s an important distinction, because if you’re not willing to start at the bottom, then don’t bother calling people. You should just wait for lightning to strike. Certainly, there are situations where people move up quickly, but I’m a big believer in the tortoise approach (it worked for me). Proceed step by step, without discouragement or judgement of your current position. Play full-out where you are.  
 
Also, I have never appreciated when someone pursues one type of job, actually hoping for a stepping-stone to another type of job. If you want to be an actor, then pursue that, and jobs that support that, and will allow you off for auditions and such. For instance, there is no shame in waiting tables–it’s a good, honorable job that allows a would-be actor the time he needs to effectively pursue that goal. Or a part-time job with flexible hours would be good as well.
 
But there are other jobs that are perhaps not as conducive to that pursuit. I remember hiring an intern when I was an editor (and we quickly put him on full-time payroll), only to find that his goal had nothing to do with learning editorial and everything to do with pursuing an acting career. While I do believe there is much to learn about acting from studying editing, that did not seem to be what he had in mind–he wanted access that the job didn’t appropriately provide. The job would have been better offered to someone who had a desire to pursue an editing career.
 
As far as how I built my own career, I moved slowly and I always did the best job I could, wherever I was. I was, and am, forthright about my own talents. I make it a point to never be self-deprecating, but I also avoid over-selling myself. I remain confident as to my ability to do the work as well as anyone else, if i’m indeed prepared, and I don’t apologize for what I don’t know–I just admit to it, without self-judgement. I never try to bluff people or act like I know more than I do (though that’s not entirely true–I did tell a post supervisor, back in the day, that I’d done a film on the AVID in order to get my first AVID job as an editor. But you’d better be able to back up the lie or you’ll be shooting yourself in the foot–I had trained on the AVID, so at least I was ready.)
 
Elsewhere on this blog, I have suggested several books that are excellent resources about directing, and some of them are also about developing an aesthetic. As a director, I have a strong aesthetic point of view, and I make clear to my collaborators what I believe, but I’m also willing to change my mind if someone has a better idea. I want and desirethat my collaborators tell me honestly what they think. But the worst kind of feedback is when someone says, “it’s not working for me,” without being able to articulate why. So I encourage everyone to hone their own personal aesthetic and be able to explain it–if something is not working for you and you don’t know why, then best keep it to yourself. I think it is very important to have a point of view, whatever your job. Sometimes that point of view will be welcomed, and sometimes it won’t–it’s important to learn to read a room, and know when to speak and when not to. When asked, be honest as to your opinions–but also be kind. Everyone is doing the best they can with the material they have. Never dismiss another’s point of view in a rude manner, in order to prove yourself. (In my younger days I wasn’t always kind. Those moments, when I wasn’t, haunt me.)
 
Never condescend or be dismissive of anything that you are working on. I always tell my assistants to find what they love about a job and focus on that. Being dismissive of the material, or the talent, is unacceptable. Negativity breeds inferior work. Every endeavor has its value.  
 
I think it’s important to always look for opportunities to learn more. Read a variety of books, go to museums, watch foreign films, see theatre, listen to music, watch everything and most of all, watch people. Be more interested in being the thing that watches and not that which is watched. Ask people what they do and what they love about their job. Be willing to learn more about that thing that doesn’t interest you–just a little more anyway. If it’s interesting to somebody, it’s worth learning about.
 
I try to keep my focus always on the work, the task at hand, and never on my own position or ego. I take all criticism as constructive–but if the criticism doesn’t resonate within my own soul, then I ignore it–within myself, if not in the actual workplace. Sometimes, in this business, everyone has to do what they’re told. When I am working for others, and they make a demand, I gracefully (hopefully) give way to their demand, in as much as it’s necessary. But it’s important to hold to one’s own ideas of what’s right, to continue to develop one’s own artistic point of view. If you’re asked to do something you think is completely unacceptable, then you should be willing to leave the job.
 
My partner Davyd likes to say–everything is a yes/no proposition. Ask the question and don’t be disappointed if the answer isn’t always yes, just go to the next thing. But participate in life by asking the questions.  
 
The final most important thing to say is this: don’t get discouraged and don’t give up. People admire persistence and courage–they can’t help but pick up on energy that is positive. And if a dream is worth having, it’s worth pursuing in the face of rejection and opposition. There are many great people who are willing to encourage you along the way. Look for those people and surround yourself with them.
 
I sincerely hope this helps those of you who are looking for it. And remember this quote:
Unless you have prepared yourself to profit by your chance, the opportunity will only make you ridiculous. A great occasion is valuable to you just in proportion as you have educated yourself to make use of it. — Orison Swett Marden
 
I welcome comments from others who might have advice to share on looking for work, or websites and educational opportunities that might be useful for people to check out.

Comments(1)

  • July 24, 2017, 8:18 pm  Reply

    Fantastic piece. I’m really finding this blog to be a wonderful resource as I make my way through the various essays and recommendations.

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