I didn’t go to university, I didn’t graduate from a liberal arts programme like so many of my colleagues, and I certainly didn’t go to film school. I went to art school instead and graduated with a single marketable skill: Cire Perdu – lost wax bronze casting, the ancient art of the Greek. Other than that I had few marketable skills. I couldn’t even type, and my schooling pre-dated the age of computers and internet. Sad but true.
I started looking around at the large film production companies. I had moved to London from my native Toronto and put in application after application until I finally (phew) got a job at the BBC TV Centre in Shepherd’s Bush as a stage hand. The job I was doing really had nothing to do with my ambitions to make films, but at least it was in TV, and I was able to pay the rent.
I didn’t last long – about nine months in fact – before I realised that although the rent was covered, I wasn’t going to learn any other skills that might propel me down the filmmaker highway better able to handle upcoming challenges. My point is, I knew there was a whole bunch of stuff one needed to learn to be a filmmaker, but just because one worked at the BBC didn’t mean you were going to learn a single thing. That’s how large corporations are structured.
I started to research small film production companies, and before I knew it, personal circumstances drew me back to my native Toronto where I approached those small production companies, joined the film trade unions and started getting work as a scenic artist on sets.
Diving Head First Into Independent Film
I had no idea what I was doing. The first few jobs I did I thought I had to agree with everyone. Then I realised one day that it was rather stupid of me to say ‘yes’ when there was obviously a better, faster and cheaper way to do the same thing to get the same (or even better) result.
Now I was flavour of the month. The producer I was working for also had a couple of other side projects he was working on and before I knew it, I was outside film again, working on a software development project, a medical machine and the Canada Spacearm project – each in themselves major projects.
Turns out this was the very best decision I could have made.
You see, I took these U Turn jobs because I thought I could learn some new and marketable skills, and I thought I could sort of feel out what area of the business side of film would appeal to me. Believe it or not, painting a 400 foot long cyclorama keystone blue is a boring and arduous task.
What I didn’t reckon was how much I would learn and how valuable the experience of working for a small company was. At the BBC it was all figured out. If they needed a stuntman they called in a stunt specialist who would show up, unpack their gear, perform the task and disappear literally before you knew they were there. If you chanced a moment to observe or ask questions you were generally shoved aside as a slacker or nosey parker.
The owners of the small companies I worked for had to be masters of so many different skills if they wanted to stay in the film industry, let alone prosper.
People often say that to learn filmmaking you should go to the big film schools and then get a job at one of the big TV or film studios.
By working for a series of small companies I learned skills one could never possibly learn anywhere else:
Stamina and resourcefulness
Social media marketing
Direct mail marketing
Props and set dressing
Debt collecting (I was actually a debt collector one terrible 6 week stint in 1991)
This ever widening range of skills earned me enough money to pay the rent and to keep me out of my mother’s basement.
How Freelance Kept Me From My Parents’ Basement
I made money from the minute I left school meaning I left home vowing never to return to my mother’s basement. But I also knew that just because you had a job now didn’t guarantee that one day you couldn’t end up back in mum’s basement. A scary thought.
I was really fortunate that a series of small film production companies took a chance on me, hired me and showed me the ropes. Had I stayed on at the BBC can you imagine how many years it would have taken me to learn what I now knew? Because I was becoming a jack-of-all trades it also meant that I was reducing the chances of unemployment which would force me back to my mother’s basement.
Those years were also good, because in addition to expanding my arsenal of employable weapons, I was able to find out what I was good at and what I enjoyed.
I knew I wanted to work for myself. I knew independent film was the zone where the people with vision worked.
I also knew from my experiences that owners of small film companies are able to work so terribly hard and long because they have real passion for what they do.
The answer is staring you in the face
One day – when I least expected it – I had a lightbulb moment and knew exactly what I wanted to do. I wanted to work for myself and I wanted to start a film festival. I was naive too and knew about zero in how festivals ran. But there was something extremely valuable in the broad range of work experience I had gained.
I knew that in order to succeed I needed to have a plan – I drew one up in a mind map which I found last year when we moved offices for the first time in nearly 20 years. It was astonishing to see how little my vision has changed.
I often wonder what would have happened if I had stayed at the BBC, where advancement moves at a snail’s pace. I suppose I could have stuck it out. More likely though I would have rebelled or screwed up and got my self-pitying ass fired and headed straight back to mum’s basement.
Are you an independent filmmaker? Do you work for a small film or media company? Share your best and worst moments, and let me know if independent film saved you from your mother’s basement.