How does a person succeed in Hollywood? Many of us, if not most of us, are on this site because we’re looking for some generally agreed upon, at least somewhat proven strategy for navigating our bewildering, often dehumanizing career path. Doing theater back in high school and college, breaking in was a pretty reliable, pretty straightforward process with a single, very frustrating twist thrown in:
Trying to get involved in the productions upper-classmen are working on seems like an obvious path to success, but you very quickly discover that those kids already have people they like working with. Step two, then, is to find some people you like working with and to start producing shows of your own. Because you’re not using all that much of the school’s time and money, and because everyone in charge more or less expects you to fail, nobody’s all that worried about what you’re actually producing. Taking those limited resources, you start pushing your creative boundaries.
When you finally put up a production that everyone thinks is cool, that’s when people start asking you why you didn’t just call them in the first place. Being a part of your community is what makes people want to work with you. Finding success in high school and college was really just a matter of making yourself necessary and relevant to the people you admire.
My first few years in Los Angeles were a crash course in cold sales, and in the excesses of the film development process. My own work revolved around cold-calling people with presumably well-developed investment portfolios, explaining the process of making a film successful and explaining the risks involved, and then asking them to invest in our movies. When I wasn’t coaching inherently suspicious people through their first film deal, I was either writing, trying to sell my screenplays, or hanging out with my film finance colleagues and playing stupid, misogynistic, often abusive sales games.
Everything was a hustle. All my life, I’d been taught that success in showbusiness was a simple matter of taking care of the people around me - namely, my colleagues and my audience - and of constantly achieving excellence in my craft. Now, people are literally teaching me that success is all about maintaining an image.
In the upper echelons of indie Hollywood, I saw people on a constant hunt for financial, legal, and ethical loopholes. Drugs, fraud, and betrayal were both expected and forgiven as an everyday part of the film industry grind. Bottom-feeders like managers and casting directors, on the other hand, were busy shaking down aspiring actors and writers for every penny they can get their hands on.
How is this even showbusiness? What would Uncle Bill Shakes have to say about all this? My focus and my desire to succeed was strong enough to keep me working… but it certainly did not protect the joy I felt for my work and for my showpeople. Slowly, painfully, my belief in the promise of Hollywood began to die.
Fleeing a mounting storm of cocaine, alleged fraud (I cannot confirm that a yacht purchased with investment capital was sunk for the insurance money off the coast of Catalina), and the kind of late-night corporate restructuring it takes to divest one’s partners of their equity without consent, my boss and his partner packed up the finance team, packed up our production department, and moved everybody to the Valley for a fresh start. Renting a warehouse, making plans to renovate the space into a sound and post-studio with a modest sound stage on hand and a bunch of offices, we moved into the front office and went to work on finding production money. Because our friend was producing the film, and because we definitely didn’t have the cash for renovations yet, my boss let David Lynch’s production of Inland Empire move into the back of the warehouse for a few months while they finished principal photography.
Over the next six months, I would spend every day after work in the back of that warehouse. If anyone remembers the movie, we had the rabbit house back there. We had the suburban home with the dancers. On that set, I got to know Bill Macy, and Laura Dern - two of my favorite actors. Both of them were magnificent human beings, and both of them brought their complete focus and effort to the work. Special effects artist Duke Cullen, who is something of a celebrity in his own right, was there almost every single day. His kindness and generosity on that set is an example to which I still aspire.
Something about this production was starting to feel very familiar to me...
Late one afternoon, the producer of Inland Empire gets a call from David: “Jeremy! I need a monkey, a lumberjack, and a woman with a peg leg by six o’clock!” Click.
One of the two partners leading our production company was a Second City alum, and he loves taking cameo roles in the films he’s involved with. Knowing him well enough to anticipate his enthusiasm, Jeremy asked him if he’d like to be a lumberjack in a David Lynch film - so long as he can find three extra production assistants by call time. By the time I got Keith’s call, I’d bicycled halfway across the Valley… but I was happy to get cleaned up and get to set as fast as possible. Where I come from, the needs of the show always come first.
When I arrived on set, I discovered that the whole night was built around a one-take Steadicam shot moving through an ornate, super fancy ballroom, with all kinds of bizarre characters (monkey, lumberjack, woman with peg leg included) performing all kinds of eclectic tasks. Because this shot was going to accompany the closing credits, there wasn’t any sound… and David wanted people striking things and blocking actors behind the camera. When he turned around, you see, the room would be different and the audience was constantly disoriented. In the middle of the room, sitting on a park bench and conversing with one another, Laura Dern and Laura Herring (Mulholland Drive) provide a centerpiece to all the chaos.
Standing to the side of this scene, our lumberjack is sawing a log in half in a seeming homage to “Twin Peaks.” Myself and the other PA’s are there to move this log and sweep up the sawdust once the camera has moved on and everything is out of frame… and Duke, of course, is one of the two people helping me move this log.
At that moment in time, Duke was working as the make-up artist on Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest. Between the size of that cast, the extent of the bluescreen prosthetics in that film, and the wear and tear that comes with working on a water set. Duke must have been pulling sixteen-hour days. Here he is, on a Friday night, moving this enormous log with me. Speaking purely on a medical basis, Duke should be sleeping. He’s not.
Sweeping the floor behind myself and Duke is a director by the name of Mike Mitchell. For just a moment, let’s talk about what a shithead I am for ever doubting the value of Mike Mitchell:
My feet were clad in black tanker’s boots. My black trenchcoat had a $1 Whopper in each pocket, I was wearing welding goggles on my forehead for purely aesthetic reasons, and I was buying my ninth ticket to The Matrix from a super cheap movie theater about five miles from UMASS Amherst. On the way to my seat, I pass a smiling cardboard lobby standup advertising Deuce Bigalow: American Gigolo.
Right then, and for the very first time in my life, my shitty little stuck-up, classically-trained, theater kid brain starts taking this movie’s advertising apart - a movie I hadn’t even watched, mind you - taking this movie’s advertising apart as some kind of microcosm for Hollywood’s patronizing attitude towards their audience.
For two weeks, Mike Mitchell’s high school superhero comedy Sky High was number one at the box office. That Friday night was the beginning of that second weekend. Right then, this man was the number one director in America… and Mike Mitchell was SWEEPING DAVID LYNCH’S FLOOR. For free, by the way. All night long, Mike was telling Duke and I about all the movies he wanted to make now that he was finding success.
This man loves his work, he loves his cast, he loves his fellow showpeople, and he loves his audience. If you’re making a silly, fun comedy for younger audiences, not hiring Mike Mitchell is the dumbest move you can possibly make. Here it is, sweeping the floor on one of the biggest nights of his life.
Why? Why isn’t he in the back of a limousine, right now? Why isn’t he celebrating with his family?
Because not having the floor swept is one of the things that could ruin David’s movie, and Mike wasn’t willing to let that happen. Why is Mike Mitchell on David Lynch’s set? This man is a showperson, and showing up for each other is what we do.
Standing there, listening to Mike tell me about a movie he wanted to make with Bruce Campbell, watching everybody hustle to get the shot, watching Laura Dern and Laura Herring chat politely in the middle of the room, it hit me: I know these people! These are exactly the same people I went to high school and college with. These people are my family. This was the showbusiness I’d been missing!
In this town, there are two very separate and very distinct film industries. One of these film industries is all about making movies. The other film industry is about the business of breaking into the business of making movies. In one of these industries, we make movies with our family and friends for an audience we love. In the other industry, life is a list of commodities to be bought and sold for the profit of other people.
Stop trying to break into Hollywood. Stop auditioning for the senior project, and put on a show. Perform. Write. Direct. Make a movie, and share it with your audience. Do work you can be proud of, and the people around you will want to share in your pride and success. In time, you’ll be writing, directing, and performing on the mainstage.
Success in Hollywood isn’t about building an image. Success isn’t even about “who you know,” really. Sustainable success, lasting success, comes from the strength of your craft and the strength of your community.
Labor to become the best at what you do. Constantly. Relentlessly. During those times when you’re not sweating over the development of your craft, show up for people you admire. Maybe, right now, your friend’s show doesn’t need your help as an actor, or as a writer, or as a composer, or whatever… but I guarantee there’s a broom with your name on it.
If you think for one moment that pushing a broom on someone else’s set won’t make a difference, let me offer one last piece of perspective. If Michael hadn’t picked up that broom, I wouldn’t be here today. Fighting through my brain injury and the years that followed is something I’ve done pretty much exclusively because I have a show, an audience, a cast and a crew that needs me - and the show must go on. On one of the most successful nights of his career, Mike Mitchell was sweeping David Lynch’s floor. By picking up that broom, that man saved my life.
If you’re looking for a way to break in, stop worrying about your image and your brand and just pitch in any which way you can. Pick up a broom. Make your Uncle Billy proud.
Writer, director, and producer Tennyson E. Stead is an emerging leader in New Hollywood with a lifetime of stagework, a successful film development and finance career, and a body of screenwriting encompassing more than 30 projects - recently including the upcoming Emagine Content sci-fi tentpole Atlas Uprising, as well as a scathing film industry satire called Making the GAMP with director and newfound colleague Michael Wohl. In collaboration with producer Lucinda Bruce, Stead is writing and directing a sci-fi heist feature with his company 8 Sided Films entitled Quantum Theory. When Stead is not writing and directing feature films, he’s working in the theater, he’s developing content for gaming and transmedia, or he’s volunteering work and experience to help strengthen the content and community defining indie Hollywood.
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