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My Conversation With Filmmakers About Brain Surgery

When I teach filmmakers or speak at conferences, I invariably get one person who tells me that their passion is to produce a movie, and want my advice. Great. I couldn’t be more thrilled. But then I ask the big question:

“What training do you have?”
The answer? “None.”

So I follow up:

“Are you going to attend film school?”
“No – that takes too long.”

“Are you planning to move to Hollywood or New York?”
“I don’t want to move.”

“Are you working on an internship, or working as a filmmaker’s assistant?”
“No. I need a paid job.”

“Have you taken an online course?”
“No, they’re too expensive.”

“Have you written, or have you acquired a script?”
“No.”

“Do you have a plan?”
“No. That’s why I need your advice.”

At that point I get exasperated, wish them well, and walk away. To show you how frustrated it makes me, let me frame it a different way:

“Phil, I really feel passionate about becoming a brain surgeon.”
“Great, what training to you have?”

“None. I’ve been selling insurance, but I really feel that God has called me into brain surgery, and I’m very passionate about it. However, the thing is, I don’t have time to go to medical school, and then do that whole residency thing. It would take too long, and it’s really expensive.”
“So what’s your plan?”

“I don’t know. That’s why I need your advice.”

Get it? So if you’re one of those people who are convinced that you have a rare gift, remarkable talent, the greatest idea ever, or you’re on a mission from God, here’s my answer:

To be a success in today’s entertainment business, you need to be disciplined, ready to work, and make more than a few sacrifices. Honestly, I don’t have any advice for someone who believes they’re a rare gem who will breakthrough without any problems. It doesn’t happen to brain surgeons, and it won’t happen to you.

Now, leave me alone and get on with it.

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48 Comments

  1. i honestly don’t encounter folks with that many excuses, but i do see many who still think coming to Hollywood is the answer and want a job in LA. i am fairly consistent that they should blossom where they are, since that “local voice” might have more resonance in the market. i have not worked in LA in 17 years.

    the exception to your discussion above are folks who are willing to work hard and apprentice. most annoying are those who want to direct or produce with the above excuses.

    telling stories is hard work; there are no magic shortcuts. thanks for the article

  2. Great points Phil. Maybe a part of your mission in life is to always be approached so you can tell people they won’t make it unless you put the time and hard work in. Ha.

    It’s true though, and especially in a younger generation where it’s easy to see those who are 30 years down the line where it can be perceived as looking easy, and assume that anyone can do it tomorrow.

  3. When I look back on what is now a rather long career in this industry, I realize that it was the hours and hours of watching, listening and doing that gave me the skill set I possess. I agree with you Phil, you won’t be a success in any field without putting in the time. On the other side of your story I am inspired when I meet young people who ask me, “How can I volunteer to be involved?’ or ‘Can I observe what you do? I just want to learn the process from the ground up”. Success in filmaking or television production is in gathering layers of knowledge, a ladder to be climbed rung by rung. The hardest part may be stepping on the first rung but the next decision is deciding how many rungs you will climb.

  4. I run into the same conversation regularly. I work diligently at speaking the truth and challenging them to do the work, put in the time and trudge the road. With today’s technology (in your pocket) there is ample opportunity to shoot something in order to see whether you understand cinematography, story, character and editing.

    It’s funny to me how today’s you-tube mentality is simply about likes or shares not story. Sadly, I think quality of production will be forgiven in the future with the sheer volume of outlets for content. But story, structure and character should never be sacrificed. I believe story tellers should study the masters and work exceptionally hard at mastering that craft. The fact that so many “think” they understand or deserve a shot with zero preparation or dues paid is unfathomable, but not entirely given our instantaneous media culture.

    I started as an extra thirty-eight years ago. Worked in the art-dept for over five years in order to understand the difficulties of production and now schedule and manage some notable projects. I would not change a step of my path. I am still far from my fantasy of producing and directing. But I work on huge projects and am paid to learn my craft.

  5. I agree, Phil. I was telling my wife the other day that some folks wanting to ‘break in’ to Hollywood treat it more like winning the lottery than building a craft/career out of education & experience…that if they just express their desire, they’ll get picked by the universe and everything will happen for them instead of them having to make it happen. The more I study story and screenwriting, the more I realize I need to know. The more I’m on set, the more challenging directing appears. The more contracts I negotiate, the more I marvel at producers who deal with all the guilds, locations, etc. in trying to make a movie. Most jobs on a movie require great effort, education and experience. My advice? Pick one and get as much of it as you can. I chose experience, moving out to LA after college, and I still wish I could pick up the education part.

  6. Oh man, did you hit the nail on the head. Yes, sacrifice. Yes, cost. Yes, being willing to move out of your comfort zone in location and in plain old who you are or think you are. It’s all necessary and worth it if you have a purpose and a plan. If I can add a personal note, my passion is Jesus. Bottom line. My history is mission work and full-time ministry and serving God in whatever way I could alongside my husband and with my family in tow. This has evolved into the film and television industry where the possibilities of sharing hope and life are multiplied a million times over. After numerous trips to LA from the midwest for seminars and workshops, a bookshelf full of industry-related books, and post-grad work at UCLA for their Professional Program in Producing, we finally made the move to LA to continue to hone our craft and grow in this industry. We do not take this lightly and we are here on purpose.

    1. Highly inspiring. Purpose not known, abuse is inevitable.
      I have learned a lot from your comment. Thanks for sharing, Laura Woodwork.

  7. I thought for sure that when God told me at age 9 that I’d work in the “Entertainment Industry” that I’d be in Hollywood by 11 and running a studio Doogie Howser-style by 14 or 15 tops. Fast forward 33 years and I finally arrived on Hollywood’s doorstep. After hundreds, perhaps thousands of wedding videos, recital videos, retirement videos, corporate videos and film school; thousands of pages of writing and script courses — well here I am! Just like that, an Editor at Disney/ABC TV. Just another one of those overnight successes you always read about! Ha.

  8. You honestly couldn’t have worded it better, Phil. Living for a dream is putting the work in for the dream. Whether its putting in 3 years of work into a micro-budget film, or 14 drafts on a script to get it ready for a professional read, those who succeed are grinders. Heard a quote the other day that “making it” in this business takes 10% talent, 90% hard work and discipline. Could not be more true.

  9. I get asked all the time to do brain surgery. The pay stinks most of the time. But I do it because I love brains… especially smart ones… which I don’t often encounter in the film business––the smartest people do dumb things when they get a whiff of seeing their name in lights (credits) and potential fortunes (money). Thanks for hosting the conversations Phil. I tell people to go out and raise their own money for their film if they want to get into making movies. Learn by doing. Nothing better than having skin in the game and a lot of pressure to get it right. If a person can’t articulate why they have to make a movie, why should I, as an investor, invest in them?

  10. Hi Phil! Interesting conversation you have started here. Sometimes people wonder how they can get into that circle of people who are creating movies. They stand at the outside jumping up and down shouting “put me in your movie, “make my movie, “pick me!” and hoping that you will. I had someone submit for a small project with their writing sample only to tell me that they weren’t interested in writing the project I had posted a need for. They wanted me to help them get their script made instead. So when there was another opportunity to recommend a writer for hire on a larger project – actually a feature, I wasn’t able to recommend them because it needed to be someone who understood the need to serve and collaborate with a team. Somehow we have gotten away from the idea that becoming great at our craft requires hard work, a servant heart and being humble helps too. No matter what stage we are in our careers we can always learn from others and that does mean serving and even volunteering to learn to become better… even if we worked hard to get through film school. I love the dialogue here that you created.

  11. After 22 years in the biz, I want to give back and teach but I am told I can’t because I don’t have a masters degree in the field. I now say school takes too long, it costs too much and I need a paid job.

  12. What an amazing post. It is interesting, inspiring and empowering.
    Very much appreciated.
    Thanks Phil.

  13. Hey Phil, I’ve got a great idea for a film. If you’ll just write the script and produce it, we could both be rich and famous…Phil, why are you walking away…Phil…

  14. When I saw the photo, I thought you were going to say that there will be a lot of standing around and maybe even someone sleeping in the corner.

  15. Well said, Phil. Brain surgeon analogy is spot on. Over & again – my wheelhouse is international workshops – young participants repeatedly want someone to teach them to be a famous filmmaker…for free. Maximum results for minimum resources or effort. And the coordinators want to ride the coat tails of the professional speakers too. Come teach our people, pay your own expenses, no honorarium for you. But we’ll keep all the gate receipts for ourselves. Not true for everyone; Some groups really do struggle and have big hearts w/ vision working in tough countries. But when I tell groups that filmmaking, tv, media is a CRAFT to be learned and mastered (and you can NEVER know it all) their eyes glisten over. That’s not what they wanted to hear. They wanted Easy Street.

    (In 2004 I went back to film school to get a Masters. Intentionally chose a really hard famous secular school. They kicked my butt in 3 years. Made me better. I worked harder than ever before. I still have a huge school loan. Best money I ever spent.)

    Too many Christians who want to become “famous filmmakers” are delusional. That’s your excellent point. Nothing really worth it comes without sacrifice, dedication and sweat. And RISK. Even when you believe God gave you the perfect script.

  16. Great points Phil. Maybe a part of your mission in life is to always be approached so you can tell people they won’t make it unless you put the time and hard work in. Ha.

    It’s true though, and especially in a younger generation where it’s easy to see those who are 30 years down the line where it can be perceived as looking easy, and assume that anyone can do it tomorrow.

  17. I get asked all the time to do brain surgery. The pay stinks most of the time. But I do it because I love brains… especially smart ones… which I don’t often encounter in the film business––the smartest people do dumb things when they get a whiff of seeing their name in lights (credits) and potential fortunes (money). Thanks for hosting the conversations Phil. I tell people to go out and raise their own money for their film if they want to get into making movies. Learn by doing. Nothing better than having skin in the game and a lot of pressure to get it right. If a person can’t articulate why they have to make a movie, why should I, as an investor, invest in them?

  18. Well said, Phil. Brain surgeon analogy is spot on. Over & again – my wheelhouse is international workshops – young participants repeatedly want someone to teach them to be a famous filmmaker…for free. Maximum results for minimum resources or effort. And the coordinators want to ride the coat tails of the professional speakers too. Come teach our people, pay your own expenses, no honorarium for you. But we’ll keep all the gate receipts for ourselves. Not true for everyone; Some groups really do struggle and have big hearts w/ vision working in tough countries. But when I tell groups that filmmaking, tv, media is a CRAFT to be learned and mastered (and you can NEVER know it all) their eyes glisten over. That’s not what they wanted to hear. They wanted Easy Street.

    (In 2004 I went back to film school to get a Masters. Intentionally chose a really hard famous secular school. They kicked my butt in 3 years. Made me better. I worked harder than ever before. I still have a huge school loan. Best money I ever spent.)

    Too many Christians who want to become “famous filmmakers” are delusional. That’s your excellent point. Nothing really worth it comes without sacrifice, dedication and sweat. And RISK. Even when you believe God gave you the perfect script.

  19. I agree, Phil. I was telling my wife the other day that some folks wanting to ‘break in’ to Hollywood treat it more like winning the lottery than building a craft/career out of education & experience…that if they just express their desire, they’ll get picked by the universe and everything will happen for them instead of them having to make it happen. The more I study story and screenwriting, the more I realize I need to know. The more I’m on set, the more challenging directing appears. The more contracts I negotiate, the more I marvel at producers who deal with all the guilds, locations, etc. in trying to make a movie. Most jobs on a movie require great effort, education and experience. My advice? Pick one and get as much of it as you can. I chose experience, moving out to LA after college, and I still wish I could pick up the education part.

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