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A FILMMAKER'S GLAMOROUS LIFE
Esther B. Robinson learns that many of today's working filmmakers have day jobs too.

Your cell phone rings. You've been short listed for the Oscars.

So why are you taking this call in a Home Depot parking lot, surrounded by drywall and new flooring, on your way to repair a disastrously flooded apartment?

You may be a filmmaker, but you're also a landlord. This is the day job that makes your film career possible, and now the flood is your problem.

Welcome to a filmmaker's glamorous life.

In this case, the filmmaker is Ross Kauffman, director of the Academy Award-winning Born Into Brothels. But it could have been any number of famous, soon-to-be-famous, or totally unknown filmmakers across the country, most of whom have second jobs.

Landlord, editor, teacher, d.p., portrait painter, casher-of-trust fund checks — the list is crazy and unpredictable. The only constant is that most independent filmmakers have an additional, non-film form of income.

Truthfully if a trust fund isn't in your past, present or future, you've likely had to find other ways to support yourself besides film. Recognizing that in the new economy, even more people will be taking on second jobs, we decided this was the right time to look at what makes for a good one.

It was clear during our interviews that there is no "perfect job." Solutions that work for one person might not translate equally for another. Some wanted short, lucrative non-film jobs that allowed them to work in bursts. Others liked the steadiness of long-term, less well-paying jobs that provided after-hours quiet for creative work. A job that suits a 20-year-old doesn't necessarily work at 35. A gig that's perfect during preproduction doesn't necessarily fly during shooting. But each of the filmmakers' "best" jobs offered a set of component parts that could be used to parse out what job is right at any given moment.

After talking with folks, four basic organizing principles emerged: cash, flexibility, opportunities and balance. These four things seem to be the driving values behind what made a job work at any given time. But each of these were valued in different ways by different people....

 

Cash

Obviously pay is crucial. But not all pay is alike. High pay can buy you time off, but it often means high pressure and long hours, sacrificing the ability to get much creative work done while you're on a job. Lower pay and/or fewer hours can leave you the energy to work on your film consistently after hours, but you may not be able to afford to take chunks of time off to give it 100 percent of your focus.

Surprisingly many well-known filmmakers found the day-job sweet spot with reality TV: Joshua Marston, director of another Oscar-nominated movie, Maria Full of Grace, edited timeless classics like VH1's 100 Most Shocking Moments of Rock and Roll, Paramedics (The Learning Channel) and MTV's Mission Makeover. "Frankly," says Marston, "while I waited (and waited) for the financing for Maria, the pay and flexibility kept me afloat."

Sam Green, director of Academy Award-nominated The Weather Underground, worked for cooking shows until he landed a job at the History Channel editing America's Psychic Past. "It wasn't exactly a masterwork," states Green, "but it was actually a really good gig — I would crunch on a project for six or eight weeks and make what was for me a lot of money. Then I could not work for two or three months and edit my own stuff."

However these tours of duty do have their downside for some people. Filmmaker David Lowery (St. Nick) cautions, "Production is hard, no matter what the job is, and when you waste your energy and talent on productions that you don't care about, your creativity dies a bit. All those little deaths add up..." Natalia Almada, winner of the 2009 Sundance Documentary Directors Award concludes, "I really love editing as I think it makes me a better filmmaker and it is creative. But it can be all consuming for up to as much as six months so it doesn't always leave me any energy or time for my films. And sometimes, depending on where I am with my own film, the time is more important than the money." 

 

Flexibility

Every job demands some of your time. But the kind of demands varied. Award-winning filmmaker Joe Swanberg (Hannah Takes the Stairs, Alexander the Last) taught himself Web design, and for the first two years out of college worked for a Web company in Chicago. "The company was really cool about giving me days off or letting me work half-days when I needed to shoot," he says. "My boss knew I wanted to be a filmmaker and was very supportive. He even has a cameo in my second film."

Tze Chun (Children of Invention) wanted to make his own schedule. "I opted to do a bunch of short-term work rather than something that would have me in an office from 9-5," he states. "I sold abstract paintings and did portrait painting on commission. What's nice about painting is that it uses a totally different part of your brain, and you never really have to worry about getting financing or raising co-production money, etc. You just need a paintbrush and a canvas."

For Jake Mahaffy (Wellness, War) being an Associate Professor of Art & Film at Wheaton College has meant a solid job that lets him plan his year: "Stability is the main thing. Time is NOT money. Time is worth more than anything money can give.... Knowing I've got a job, a definite schedule, low stress, no travel, no sudden deadlines with overtime or other random impositions is very important for me."

Currently preparing her first feature, Liza Johnson, also a professor at an undergraduate university (Williams College), goes one step further. "Since I don't have to take risks about earning money, I feel like I can take more creative risks," she says. But, she cautions, "Being a professor can really become your whole identity... Everybody in my workplace takes our work home with us, and sometimes the intensity of our internal faculty conversations can really take up a lot of time. I had to learn to set a balance so that those parts of academic life don't take time away from making my film."

 

Opportunities

For some people, especially those at the beginning of their careers, it can be worth taking a job that provides opportunities for networking or to learn certain skills. Swanberg took a job at the Chicago International Film Festival. "It wasn't creative work," he says, "but I learned so much about the way film festivals run. I also learned the names of all the distribution and sales companies and who worked for them." Through his work at CIFF he also got repeated chances to meet Ryan Werner (now an executive at IFC films). "I don't think it's a coincidence that IFC Films took a chance on my third feature, Hannah Takes the Stairs, and has distributed my two subsequent films."

Access to technology or equipment can also make a job worthwhile. After college, writer-director Tom Quinn (The New Year Parade) spent seven years working at the local high school in Bucks County, Pa., as a technology associate while he made his first two films. This job offered him a chance, fittingly, to get caught up on new technology. "Updating the [school's] TV studio in '99 forced me to catch up on the 'new' wave of digital filmmaking, introducing me to area filmmakers like Lance Weiler (The Last Broadcast)," he says. Contacts from the school also provided surprising benefits. "Many former students have become incredible crew members, and my producer on The New Year Parade, Steve Beal, was a biology teacher." They also helped build audience: "When premiering my first project the vice principal announced the screening over the school PA, and we ended up selling out several shows thanks to student and staff support."

 

Balance

A good second job will give you something besides cash, skills or opportunities. It will help balance your life. Maybe it provides health insurance or a gym membership. Maybe it gives you a good work environment and non-film friends. Maybe, like Tze Chun's current TV-writing gig, it provides a break from the rigors of filmmaking. "In indie film, you're driving the boat. If something goes wrong, you're to blame, and so you're responsible for every little thing in the production," he says. "With TV writing, you''re a small part of something big. You're not responsible for everything. You're completely removed from the physically painful parts of the process, like being in the sun or the cold...."

Maybe your second job gives you material for your films, or the opportunity to clear your head by being around non-film people. While he was making his award-winning film Medicine for Melancholy, Barry Jenkins worked as the shipment supervisor at the largest Banana Republic in the world.  "...getting the muscles going, having a dialogue with real people and not about 'projects' was a great way to start the day," he says. "In fact, several people I worked with there are in the film, (and) another shot the still that became the poster."

Work can even be enjoyable and meaningful. "I really like teaching people about art, film and ideas. It feels like a privilege," says Johnson.

Of course, all the filmmakers we spoke to had a healthy suspicion of too much comfort from their day job. "I literally have a plot in the faculty cemetery that came with my tenure," Johnson adds. Fair warning.

So maybe you're not ready for your own cemetery plot. Maybe each of the jobs mentioned here sound terrible or maybe they

sound great, but the point is any job you take will be a mixed bag.As Mahaffy says, "It's important to decide what your priorities are in having a job, if it's status or prestige by affiliation, a bohemian lifestyle, a huge paycheck, networking your way into a higher position, geographic location... It all comes down to a balance and personality, deciding for yourself how you can manage the practical, creative schedule allowed by any given job."

Your task is to find the right mix of cash, opportunities, skills and balance that makes your film life possible. Hopefully spending time in advance thinking through the pros and the cons will help you find a job that works. It may even make you grateful for the second job you currently have. And while the goal is for your second job to support your filmmaking, it's also important to remember that the overall goal is living a good life — one filled with meaning and purpose and film. Plus keep in mind that everyone (no matter how successful) always thinks the other guy has figured it out, but honestly most people make it work by the skin of their teeth.

 

The only truism?

You may see the filmmakers you admire walking the red carpet at the Oscars, but you're just as likely to see them in their glamorous finest, gathering flood repair drywall in aisle 12 at Home Depot.



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