Chronicles of a Fledging Filmmaker: Why Me?
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A 30 year old woman with no film experience and no college degree dropped everything and moved to LA to follow her passion. Here's how she's making it work...
This is the first installation of a weekly column written by Alex Kruse.
Hi. I’m Alex, and I am an addict.
I live for the moments when long movie marathons are announced so I can spend twenty-nine hours locked in an AMC while my favorite comic book heroes take over my world. I collect movie and television paraphernalia obsessively - the heaviest thing that I own is not my pull-out couch; it’s a large, unwieldy box full of movie posters and window decals that I’ve been building since I was a kid. Involving myself in fandom takes up the majority of my free time outside of work, doing things like chatting online with people of like minds, sharing opinions and getting insights on why a character chose to perform a certain action, or why a director chose to line up a shot just that way, or what the color schemes in the background really mean, or simply to gush over an actor’s amazing talent. I get involved. I’ve hosted panels at fan conventions for years, flown myself across states so I could film interviews at and write blogs about events such as the Austin Film Festival and the Emmy’s, I’ve created forums that allow my fellow fanfiction writers to share and edit each other’s works before publishing them to the web, and even hosted what became the official weekly chat room for a television series that went on for three years, which saw frequent visits from the cast and show creators and earned the regular members of the chat a few visits to the studio to attend private shoots. And I did all of that, continue to do most of it, for no pay. It is simply for the love of my chosen art.
So why am I telling you all this? Am I searching for an intervention to save me from my crazy obsessions?
Not at all. I wouldn’t change anything about any of it. Movies, television, short films, web series, they are my passion, they are my therapy outlet, they are what I turn to when I need to just escape for awhile, and they are the venue through which I’ve chosen to leave behind my own legacy as proof that I once existed in this world. There is nothing more amazing to me than falling utterly in love with a story being played out for me on screen, and I want nothing more out of life than to be able to incite that love in somebody else. I just want to create, and, if I’m lucky and talented enough, to find someone who will appreciate my creations.
If you are a filmmaker, or (like me) are on your way to becoming a filmmaker, I imagine you feel the exact same way; and it’s that passion for creation that you need to hold onto for dear life, because without it, you’ll never make it. Every aspect of filmmaking is hard, and it’s not something you’re going to master over the course of some summer film boot camp (though that wouldn’t be a bad place to start). Unless you’re some sort of prodigy born with a camera in one hand (which most of us aren’t), you’re going to struggle, you’re going to fall, you’re going to have nights where you cry yourself to sleep thinking you’re just not cut out for this, after which you might take a break for a while to pursue something else “more practical;” and then, if you’re stubborn and determined like me, you’re going to come back to it. Because you love it.
So this, my own little weekly column in a pocket of the filmmaking world, is being written for the stubborn and determined ones who love the idea of filmmaking as much as I do. This is for the ones who gave up potential careers as doctors or lawyers or the next big astrophysicist to flail along in a world of starving artists until they find their big break. This is for the ones who had parents who told them they would never make it in the creative field, but left home, alone, to prove them wrong. This is for the small-town girl or guy moving out to the big city for the first time to chase down their dreams. This is for the ones who face down failure time and time again until they get it right. This column, this weekly account of stumbling success, of lessons learned, of advice received and thus to give, of moments to be proud of and moments to want to bury, this is being written for all of you, because I am one of you; and maybe by going on this journey together, we can all come out victorious on the other side.
The author on an indie set
FIRST COLUMN: WHY ME?
I’m going to go out on a limb here and assume you’re probably wondering why, of all the wannabe filmmakers out there, did I get chosen to spearhead this particular column. Or maybe you don’t really care, but I’m going to tell you, anyway, because you might actually find it interesting.
To be perfectly honest, I’m writing this column because I am what you would consider to be your token underdog, and people love underdogs, plain and simple. Basically, it boils down to this: if I can succeed in this field via a lot of hard work and a lot of tripping up the right ladders, then I believe anybody else could if they’re determined enough. If my stories are helpful to anyone in doing the same, great! Or if I’m just here for general entertainment, also great! I’ll take either one.
That being said, allow me to tell you why I should be the last person to be doing as well as I currently am in a relatively short period of time (I’ve only been pursuing this career for about three years now). First, I’m going to disregard the fact that I’m a woman - I know it’s a hot button issue, the whole women being treated unfairly in the industry thing, but I haven’t personally experienced that for myself. Maybe I’ve been lucky, or maybe it’s because I’m kind of a super tomboy who was raised by a Navy SEAL, so the general idea of not being able to do something just because I’m a girl has never really been a thing for me. I can shoot a target at 400 yards and bake a cake inside an orange peel in a campfire. Yeah. The gender issue is so not an issue in my mind.
Age, however, is definitely a factor. I did not actually decide I was going to dedicate myself to becoming a filmmaker until I was thirty. When you’re entering into a field where you’re up against kids who’ve won film festivals at, like, nineteen, it’s a little nerve wracking. Of course, I do realize that it isn’t unusual anymore for people to make career changes at the age of thirty (it’s an insanely common age for people to decide they want to become police officers, for example), but in this industry, I may as well have been Robert De Niro’s character in The Intern. I’m ancient. So, knowing that, I basically had to do whatever I could to step up my game so I wouldn’t be left in the dust.
...which brings me to my next setback. It was kind of hard to play catchup when I was coming into this thing with no relevant education. I have no formal training in film or media production. In fact, I don’t even have a college degree. Everything I learned about the film process was from reading books, researching online, talking to people in the industry, and eventually just watching as I wormed my way into set visits or doing grunt work as a PA wherever I could find it. Oh, and then there were the times I ran around with an old VHS camcorder in high school (yes, kids, VHS!) when I was first thinking about becoming a filmmaker, but I put that old baby away when I allowed the parental types to convince me that I’d be “wasting my intelligence” in that sort of field. Yep, I was supposed to go be a doctor or engineer or some other such “smart person” thing, and it took me a decade of struggling with where I fit into that world before I ultimately decided that I never really could. I’m smart, but I feel like I was born to be a creative, one who loves telling stories on paper and in film, so eventually I threw up my hands and said, “To hell with it, I’m going for this. I’ll learn it as I go.”
So there I was, a thirty-year old individual with no training at all, moving down to Los Angeles after having spent the past twelve years of my life in the crappiest little drug town in musical history (Longview, WA - you know, that town that Green Day decided to name a song after, a song about boredom and getting high and jerking off - yeah, that one), and knowing absolutely no one that could even attempt to find me work in the field. So, I did what everybody does in this town - got myself what I call a “Clark Kent” job so I could pay the rent (in a roach-infested, office-turned-loft space right at the end of Skid Row) while I applied for film gigs on Craigslist in hopes of one day landing the “Superman” job (ie, the cool job that we all want to be doing, but can’t afford to do full time because it doesn’t pay worth crap until we get lucky and hit it big). The problem was, I had nothing to really put on a resume besides a little bit of film journalism I did for a random blog.
I got turned down. A lot. But, here’s the thing about LA (and I imagine it’s true for whatever city you’ve decided to set up camp in for your career in filmmaking): while there are a ton of people who’ll laugh at you and brush you aside like you’re not worth the time of day, there’s also the people who remember what it was like to be you, who are willing to take a chance on someone fresh in the field, who have a lot of room to grow and be molded into the type of person who can fill the role of whatever is lacking on the set. I found those people, and did free work for them. A stupid amount of it. But that didn’t mean I didn’t get anything out of it. I gained quite a bit of valuable experience from every gig I took. For instance, I learned how to storyboard. I learned how to operate a 5D camera. I learned how to scout locations. I learned about lighting and sound. I learned about slating. I learned how to “cheat the system” so films don’t cost so much to produce (a super valuable lesson!). I absorbed everything, and on top of gaining all that experience, I was also gaining things to add to my resume.
That all seems pretty standard, right? Work hard and it pays off in the end? Which it completely did insofar as giving me the personal experience to make me feel confident enough to shoot my own film (the details of which will be coming in a later column), but let’s put a little twist in the story, shall we? After about a year and a half of working just for the sake of filling out my resume and learning new things, you want to know what actually got me the big break, what opened the door to the internship that lead to the part-time job that evolved into the promotion that planted me in the spot I’m in today? It was my fangeek work. It was the hobby, the skillset I already came with, that’s what got my foot in the door. Instead of the hours learning film things on sets, it was all the hours of my life revolving around fan chats and character role play and writing fan fiction, all those hobbies that most people would shove under a rug and never tell anybody about - that stuff is what set me on a solid path to making that Superman job my career.
And, that my friends, is why I’m the one writing this article. It’s because I didn’t go through the normal channels, I didn’t have the training, I didn’t have anybody to walk me through a door, I started off old as dirt as far as industry people are concerned, but I got somewhere for no other reason than because I was (and still am) a passionate film fan. So I’m telling you right now that it doesn’t matter where you come from, who you know, how old you are, or what your talents are, if you stick with it long enough and dig deep enough, you will find a way to get your foot in the same door, because somehow despite all my setbacks, I sure as hell did. Now it’s just a matter of seeing how long we can stay in it and what we can accomplish along the way (preferably before we die of our “old age”).