I’m a Filmmaker, and always wanted to be. Rather, I should say that I make a living as a Filmmaker, which was not always the case. This is the unlikely tale of how a kid from Mineola, Long Island, who grew up in a basement apartment with no connection to the industry eventually got to do what he loves.
I was always telling stories in one way or another, first in writing, then photography, then through moving image. I never really had to think of what I wanted to do, despite that brief moment when I was 12 and wanted to be Indiana Jones, I just was always a storyteller.
Getting paid to do what you naturally love is a dream I think that most young people expect on some level. I grew up in a very supportive house that always encouraged me to go after my dreams, for better or worse. So, when in college, deciding what I was going to do with the next 60 years of my life, I decided to study Film Theory, mainly because I figured that film was the only industry that combined all the art forms, from writing, to fashion, to acting, and photography into one. How could I ever get bored, and for the most part, this was a smart choice.
Unfortunately a 21-year-old with a degree in Film Theory is unhirable.
I had zero skills in my chosen profession. I didn’t know the first thing about loading a camera, working on set, or directing a crew. I could tell you where Bazin and Eisenstein disagreed in the potential effect of memory recall through the use of editing in film, but that wasn’t going to help me carry C-stands around a set as a PA. So I did what any passionate novice filmmaker did, I got a day job.
I worked in hotels for nearly 10 years out of college, for the simple reason that the only job experience I had was in hospitality, since I worked as the desk attendant in my dorm to help pay the bills. My first job was at the Mondrian hotel on Sunset Blvd in Los Angeles, which was more of a nightclub with beds then a hotel. Almost immediately I was promoted to Front Office Manager because I had a college degree (at least good for something) and I didn’t quit after 6 months.
Working in the hotel would eventually prove to be excellent training in order to become a director. Every day I would have to solve a wide range of urgent problems, and stay completely calm the entire time. Dealing with the public taught me how to communicate efficiently, and, to some degree, sell people ideas that they originally were against, which if you work in advertising is a large part of your job to convince people that something is a good idea. Beyond this the Mondrian was a very unique type of hotel that was seemingly made for budding filmmakers. It was the policy of the hotel to not hire staff that were particularly interested in working in hospitality. Instead they wanted people with charisma (and good looks, as most of the staff were hired by a talent agency) which naturally offered an employee base that had ambition to be in the film industry. So I found myself not surrounded by desk attendants and PBX operators, but budding screenwriters, actors and Cinematographers. It was perfect.
During the day, in between checking guests in, we would constantly be working on films together, scripting, discussing, and storyboarding, sometimes even editing them on cracked software we illegally loaded up on the computers. It was perhaps one of the most prolific production studios I’ve ever worked in. After work we would put our ideas into practice, filming shorts on MiniDV camera’s like the ZR10, having to log and capture them in realtime over firewire 400. This was where I was getting most of my film education that I never received in college, and it couldn’t have been a better time. While I was shooting as much as I could, something became quite clear; no one wanted to edit my shitty movies.
Digital film had been around for long enough, as was the internet, that there was basically a tutorial about anything you wanted to learn, which is exactly how I got into editing, which would be the second most important foundation to my directing career. Learning how to edit wasn’t a choice; I hated to edit, as it was so slow, boring, and had nothing cool associated like talking to actors or holding a camera. It was a lonely job, laborious, and frustrating as hell given the quality of computers and software in the early 2000s. I was able to get my hands on a cracked copy of Pinnacle Systems Editing Software which at least gave me the ability to start to put my films together. I remember the first film I shot I was alone in my apartment, and was so excited to be able to do absolutely everything by myself, from shooting, to acting, to editing. I wont say it was good, but it was good enough to get me hooked.
I had a good group of friends that I made at the hotel that became my core filmmaking family, much like Scorsese, Di Palma and Coppola but never to be that famous. Regardless besides the minimal time we needed to dedicate to our day jobs, the rest of our time was filled with becoming filmmakers, with the dream to quit our jobs one day and never look back. I want to mention that while I completely hated working in a hotel at the time, it was that disgust that in part fueled my desire to become a better filmmaker. Watching tutorials, spending money I didn’t have on gear, all came from a fiery hatred to serving the masses of mostly ungrateful public. However I look back at the time know and realize that not only was it such an important tool to learn, from doing something you really hated in order to do something you really loved, but also I miss from time to time that feeling of having to do something to get out of my current situation. The motivation that comes from hating your station in life is a powerful force and you should welcome it if you are unfortunately to have it.
We used that force to push us to do timed contests, which was really where my career started as a filmmaker. Timed contests were these type of film festivals that would give you a few key elements, like a line of dialogue, a prop or a theme, and then you would have a certain amount of time to make a film, sometimes two weeks, some times two days, sometimes just 10 hours. I fell in love with them for a few reasons. One, it forced you to make something. At the end of the contest you had a film, and those films were important because it not only proved to yourself you could make a film, but to others that would eventually give you a job. Second it motivated everyone to finish something. Lots of times we would talk about starting a project and it would fizzle out because life just happens. Timed contests were a fantastic fire under our asses that got results.
Another benefit was I was really good at them.
For whatever reason, I was made to do timed contest. The extreme pressure made ideas come fast and quick, and the ability to run and gun was my specialty since I learned filmmaking on the streets and not in a classroom. In the 5 years that my hotel born film crew and I worked together we entered 13 contest and won 12 of them. Each time getting better, faster, and more daring with what we could produce.
At this point the hotel I called home started to change. Managers left, people went on to do their things, and the conditions went from acceptable to pure pain. I was eventually fired for insubordination, and floated around to a few other properties before deciding to move back to NYC where I welcomed the cold, frank city dwellers and no-nonsense take on life.
I got a job at the Parker Meridien hotel on 56th street as a Front Office Manager. After my introductory tour of the property I found myself in the back office surrounded by my new staff. I was excited to meet everyone and find my new film crew.
“So, Nancy, what do you do?”
“I work at the front desk…” she said confused, and rightly so, as I was her boss.
“No, Im sorry, like what do you do like outside of work? Are you a writer, an actress… singer?”
“Uh … no. I just work here.”
It then hit me. LA is a very special place in the sense that everyone living in LA works, or wants to work, in the industry. You could go to a law office and probably find a lawyer with a headshot. NYC was the real world. If you worked in a hotel, then that is exactly what you did.
I was defeated. No one really tells you how very alone you can feel in NYC. I thought that because there are so many people everywhere, if anything you welcomed personal space. No. Being surrounded by 9 million people you don’t know is a reminder 9 million times over how many people you truly don’t know. It is like being bombarded with a lonely power beam.
My desperate answer was to turn to Craigslist, a website where I have been able to furnish my apartment, find a job, get a hand job, and hopefully now, find a film crew to work with. I put a simple post up to the effect of “filmmaker looking for like-minded filmmakers in NYC, going to make lasagna if you wanna come over and talk film.”
On a Friday night at 8pm, in a 6 story walk up on Columbus and 71st street, three dudes showed up for lasagna and to rap about film. They couldn’t have been more different. Kurt, a tall lanky burner from Jersey, Tom, an older guy from Rochester that worked at Dino BBQ, and Russel a nice gay guy from Astoria. This was nearly 15 years ago, and each one of these people are still my best friends, which is remarkable by any standard.
So, I had my little crew and we started making films. I realized however I could no longer work in a hotel as it was an actual profession here and would take actual mental capacity to do. I started applying for anything in the film world, as a PA, in an office or, as an assistant editor.
One day a guy named Dave Herman called me. He worked at a post-house named V2. He needed an assistant.
I had never been in a post-house, and V2 was the daddy of them all. On the west side off of the river, it was in the Starrett Lehigh building and was the entire city block long. It was a palace of black granite and expensive equipment. Each day a catered spread from Balthazar would grace the communal table for anyone that wanted it. The liquor cabinet was larger than any bar I had been in. This place was money. Herman hired me not because I had any experience, I didn’t. He hired me because he was making a film called Able Danger and saw I had a made a lot of short films, which I had. If I agreed to help him on the film, he would take me on as an assistant editor.
“You know how to run an Avid right?
“of course” I said which was a complete lie. What the hell was an Avid?
That night I hid in the storage closed and when everyone was gone started up the computer, which was, the Avid. I had my first clients in the morning and I had to teach myself how to use this new software, which wasn’t the most intuitive. Somehow, by the grace of Saint Thelma, patron saint of editing, I figured out enough to squeak by. I was finally in the industry.
I remember very distinctly thinking to myself “well, how long will this last before I have to go back to hotels”. It was such a specific feeling I had about not trusting I had made an actual career shift. I no longer had to say “I’m a filmmaker that works in hotels”, but was rather “an editor”. It was years, maybe 6 or 7 before I felt like I had actually made it, that I was secure in this new occupation. From V2 I jumped over to jumP, another post-house run by Michael Saia. There my editor Dave Herman eventually left, and I stayed, being a general assistant to anyone that needed me. I had time to work on my own stuff which was great, and even took on a few client jobs as a lead editor while I was there. Eventually I left and went to The Lab, where I would meet Neil Gust who taught me the art of editing. It was by far the most important moment in my career.
Neil Gust was a musician from Portland of moderate fame, but as an editor, no one was better. He had done the Jaguar XS campaign which won every award known to man. I was working on a large 50 person team under the creative direction of Jonson and Wolverton doing a huge 5 million dollar campaign for Cadillac. This was the big time.
Neil taught me exactly how he wanted things which in the end became exactly how I want things as an editor as well. Every editor has a different method to how they work, which is key to their effectiveness. Neil’s brand of magic was different from anything I had seen before; he was almost analog in the way he ordered his material. He did everything manually, and knew very little about shortcuts or even the potential of the software. Everything he did, the magic he created was forged onto the screen from very simple. almost brute force techniques, and the result was stunning. It is a style of editing that is so specific that if you weren’t his assistant you’d be hard pressed to figure out how he does what he does.
Neil taught me some fundamentals that became editing law to me in my own life. The constant relationship to music and motion being one, the potential of finding a perfect match on action. We would edit the image as if it were music, then massage it to the audio bed afterwards. The result is fluidity and impact. It was a grueling learning curve, but by far the greatest set of tools I was ever given.
Eventually the project concluded and the lab, no longer having their client, was letting people go to find their next project. One by one everyone from the motion department of the lab left, until it was just me. They kept me on because I was a bit of a swiss army tool; I could shoot and edit, was a good photographer and retoucher, and knew my way (or knew how to find my way) around any piece of software. I had a pimp office with a globe bar, and fine art on the wall. I wore suits to work and drank scotch in the afternoon. Mad Men was in full swing on TV and I was literally living it.
This is when I stopped thinking I’d have to go back to hotels.
Since then, about 5 years ago, I’ve been out of the lab and on my own. I partnered with two of my best friends who had a production company called No Frames and they took over my office in the lab, becoming their production arm. I also signed with a rep and started directing commercials and branded content full-time. I wont give you exact numbers, but I make in a week what I use to make in a year. It is kind of amazing to look back at the beginning of all this, to see all the unknowing fear, the strange trajectory, and fortunate accidents that brought me to this point. It’s a good time to reflect, as it’s really just the beginning of my career as a director, and a very exciting time.
Just over the past 3 years I’ve directed spots for Nike, Adidas, Google, Apple, I mean some of the biggest brands with the biggest names, and am so grateful to have had the opportunity to do so. Coming from a proletariat background I think gave me an extreme humility and strong work ethic that is hard to find in this advertising age. I love the work I do, mainly because I know what it’s like not to be able to do it, or to do it and not get paid for it.
If you’re looking for a concise take away, I would say it is this. Succeeding in doing what you love requires two elements; perseverance and talent. Perseverance comes from drive, and that drive can be fueled by lots of things like hating your day job, desire to be a better person, or just a pure inner fire of being destined to do something. Talent comes from practice, listening, and experimenting. We are all born with some level of talent, some people need to do very little and are fortunate that way. For me, I watched every film I could, every tutorial online, and then absorbed as much as I could from the people around me. I think if you take care of these two governing forces, then you have the best chance of doing what you love, and, getting paid for it. Oh, one other thing, you got to be nice. No one likes an asshole, so be fun, and remember, it’s the journey not the destination that is the goal. If you can find joy in the process, then you’ve already won the game.