Monday, April 18, 2011

How to break into the business

Last week a director friend of mine and I exchanged stories of how we ended up in the film industry. It's a question I often get, "how did you break in". And as with all answers; it's a little bit of luck, a lot of motivation and more determination.

And even that doesn't help most of the time.

My friend Paul Lynch broke into directing after he quit school in Grade 9 after he failed French. He began drawing cartoons which led to a few jobs in Toronto and finally a magazine. Then he made a short film that led to a job at the CBC, the Canadian national network. And that led to a feature and he was off.

The big thing here was that it was in the late 60's and jobs were available. In fact the CBC advertised for 3 people to become directors. Only Paul and another guy applies. Imagine doing that now? You'd have a thousand at the door.

For me, it was a little different. I loved TV and movies, watched them as much as my parents would let me. I graduated high school and went to college in Dearborn, a suburb of Detroit. In my second year, I was looking for a summer job and at the government job listings, a clerk offered me several jobs. One of them was for a mailroom person at the local TV station.

At that moment, I could have gone a few ways; the job was permanent, which meant I would be lying when they asked me if I was indeed going to stay there forever. Yet there was something about that job. It was show business, okay, delivering mail, but the closest I had been to show business since I interviewed a Disc Jockey at the same station.

I decided to try the job out. I lied and said I would stay and I got the job. Monday morning I arrived at 8am and walked into the studio. The cameras were silent, nobody was there and I was alone.  It took all of five minutes.

I was never going to leave. Ever.

I stayed there for 4 years, moving to film editing, to radio, and finally to the newsfilm department where I learned how to shoot 16mm film. I even got married.

Then a newscamera job came up in Toronto, the big time in Canada. I worked in Detroit in news and thought it would be nice to work in Toronto, neat, clean, safe Canada. I lasted 4 months. They fired me.

So I had a choice, go back to Windsor/Detroit, or go to Vancouver where a friend I met at a film course, had always encouraged me to go west. My marriage eventually broke up and I made a few shorts in Vancouver, got a job writing, producing and directing corporate films in Saskatchewan and commercials in Calgary.

I made friends in Calgary with a fast-talking producer and when both of us decided to leave to make movies, it wasn't a suprise to anyone. It took a year for us to raise the $650,000 for Ghostkeeper, a supernatural thriller, it was the first local feature made in Calgary by Calgary people.

After that I never got a real another real film gig for 9 years.

So much for success. Why not? Well, I was in Calgary which in the mid 80's was hardly a movie town. A few American movies filmed there, and there were no tax incentives and very few features were made locally again.

I ended up in Toronto, a city I never liked and apparently it didn't like me. But the one thing I always did was write. I wrote a half dozen screenplays in that time and directed two of them on ridiculous budgets of around $40,000 each. Ideas were great but execution was pretty bad.

Then I got another break. A green card. America.

It came in a lottery that the US holds every year for certain countries. You wrote a letter saying you wanted to go to America and you waited. Thousands applied. Some wrote dozens of letters, some wrote hundreds.  I wrote one.

And I got it.

Paul, my director friend also got me an agent in LA. So in February 1990, I arrived, excited, ready to go. My agent got me a handful of meetings -- over a period of 2 years. So much for the magic of having an agent.

I left him for another, who was pretty good and during that time I got a job on a series. Back in Canada. Go figure.

That series led to another and another in Canada and it was obviously ironic that the country that never hired me before now wanted me because I lived in LA. It led to some TV  movies and I had a good run of around 12 years, even doing American films although I was mostly hired because I was Canadian and being that qualified for the ever-precious "Canadian Content".

And now, after 30 years,I'm working on making another film in Canada. A remake of the first film I ever made. How's that for a circle? Dramatic irony?