Cheap Film School

When I got my first movie job, It was like my own private film school. Our million dollar film starring Gary Busey set up shop in a residential rental house. We painted the walls and packed it full of desks to create our own low-budget indie production office. But the thing that fascinated me the most was the division of labor.

Below The Line

Most of us were below the line, meaning that we had non-creative jobs and our credits would show at the end of the movie. We were given the living room, and jobs included office workers, location scouts, transportation crew, and runners.

Most of the below the line workers had film degrees and a few years’ experience working in film. During pre-production, we would show up at 9am sharp and work our butts off until 5, 6, 7, 8, or later.

Above the Line

The room across the kitchen to the back of the house was reserved for above the line workers. There were three desks: 1 for the director, 1 for the producer/lead actor, and 1 for the executive producer. This office was never occupied before the hour of noon and when it was, the preferred form of productivity was playing offshore online video poker.

Being Naive to the process, I couldn’t stop thinking about this phenomenon. I spent a lot of time getting to know all the people in the office to learn how they got started in film.

My research produced some striking results: Almost all of the office workers below the line had college degrees and multiple movie credits, while every single above the line worker was a college dropout with less than a couple credits.

Wow, this was getting interesting.

My first reaction was resentment. “Those spoiled brats: never had to work for anything in their lives. Grrr!” But then I decided that wasn’t going to get me anywhere. What I really wanted was to get above the line on my own project.

The Professor

I got to know the line producer really well and he sort of became the professor of my own private film school (I had a business degree). A line producer is someone who manages below the line workers. That put him sort of on the line, or maybe slightly above.

Over a beer and maybe some nachos after a hard day of work, I’d pick his brain about the process. “All those hard-working people below the line… don’t they want to get above the line some day?”

“Yeah,” he’d say. “But their actions don’t reflect that.”

Career Paths

According to his logic, the job hierarchy below the line goes like this:

office assistant leads to production assistant,
production assistant leads to key set production assistant,
key set production assistant leads to second second assistant director,
second second leads to second assistant,
second assistant leads to first assistant,
and then it stops.

This particular career path culminates in becoming the first assistant director, not the director. While some people might think that they are on the path to becoming a director, they’re actually on the path to becoming the director’s assistant.

Wow, that was quite a shock for me.

“So is there any value at all in working below the line if you want to be above?” I asked.

“Of course. It’s valuable to gain a broad knowledge of how a movie is made. The key is working several different jobs, in several different departments; not getting stuck on one particular career path, unless that’s the career you want.

Just don’t forget to create somewhere along the way.”

The Most Valuable Lesson

“So how does anyone become a director?”

“Directors Direct. If you want to become a director, direct. Start writing, find a camera and shoot something.”

Those words have stuck with me over the years. They apply not only to people who want to become directors, but anyone who has creative talent.

There’s no clear career path for creative people, but it’s easy to get stuck on someone else’s path. I see it all the time: actors that get stuck in restaurant management, artists that get stuck selling other people’s art, and writers that get stuck editing other people’s writing.

It’s simple. If you’re creative, and you want a career in your field: create. Thinking about it won’t help. Making contacts won’t help. Just do it.

Creative people create.