It is the disposition, not the degree, that propels ordinary filmmakers into extraordinary legends. The industry can be taxing, often demanding more than many are willing to give. Achieving greatness here requires a different set of skills, or perhaps the better term is attributes. Those that have truly made it in Hollywood can often ascribe their success to one or more of the following necessary qualities.
Most Hollywood hopefuls that chose not to attend film school had, at the very least, humility in common. Having realized that rising to the top meant starting at the bottom, many directors willingly accepted grunt positions merely for the industry exposure and unofficial education it could provide. Quentin Tarantino, for example, served as a production assistant for a Dolph Lundgren exercise video, and Stanley Kubrick started out as an apprentice photographer for Look Magazine.
I want to emphasize, however, that humility is not synonymous with resignation. I did go to college. I went to Harvard. I got my MBA and interviewed up and down Wall Street for positions I knew I didn’t want. If I had been resigned to my fate, I’d have accepted one. Instead, I moved to Los Angeles. I had interned at a relatively new network the summer before and thought maybe they’d hire me back. It didn’t matter how much money I’d make or what my title might be. I just wanted to be back in the thick of the industry. Fortunately, the network came through and I started my Hollywood career as a production staff member for Fox.
Odds are “sociable” is not one of the characteristics you’d use to describe some of the biggest behind-the-scenes names in broadcasting. In fact, many of them have promulgated an image that better suits a recluse than a socialite, which is to be expected from figures so often thrust into the limelight. But I’m not talking about the kind of sociable that accompanies celebrities to parties or throws lavish events in a Beverly Hills abode. Success in Hollywood is bred from a different kind of sociability. The kind that develops early on and stems from curiosity.
It was a curious Steven Spielberg that cleverly sneaked away from a Universal Studios tour and onto a lot where he would befriend an editor. It was also curiosity that sent Wes Anderson to the University of Texas – Austin to major in philosophy and room with Owen Wilson. If you’re not willing to make connections, if you’re not willing to put yourself out there, then the Hollywood landscape will seem tough and unnavigable.
Fear is universal. We all experience it from time to time so to say that anyone aiming for success in the film industry should be fearless would be inaccurate. But to say that they should learn to conquer fear would be dead on. It is fear that stops many of us from jumping in with both feet. It is fear that tells us to play it safe, but there’s no room for safe in this industry. Film success requires gumption and grit at every single stage in your career.
I imagine it was somewhat scary for Paul Thomas Anderson to drop out of NYU and use his tuition money to produce a short film. I know it was frightening for me to leave Fox solely for the chance to produce South Park. If we hadn’t quelled our fears, though, do you think we’d have gotten this far?
I hesitate to bring this particular quality up as many of us associate it with every generic job we’ve ever had. “How passionate are you about [fill in the blank]” is probably one of the most common interview questions out there. It’s also probably one of the most insightful. Passion is a quality that can and should be demonstrated often via work ethic, drive, and ambition. And, if you’re going to make it in Hollywood, you’ll need a healthy dose of all of the above.
The good news is there is an infinite number of ways to demonstrate passion in a Hollywood career. For most, it involves an inability to let go of the work. Kubrick’s wife once found him taking note of his latest project ideas on a much-needed vacation she’d worked hard to convince him to take. Tarantino was so passionate about acting that he began his own production company just so he’d have a shot at playing a part. For me, passion comes in the form of consumption. I take in pop culture at an insane rate, because it’s important that I remain true to the moment and pass that passion on to my viewers with every project I complete.
It is undeniably challenging to create one reality by day and return to your own, separate reality by night. Those that aren’t capable of distinguishing between the two often struggle to maintain a sense of normalcy. Those that do it well, however, are capable of creating some of the most interesting pieces of our time. Perhaps the best example of multifariousness, which refers to great variety and diversity, comes in the form of Martin Scorsese.
Scorsese is best known for films that are extremely violent, exceptionally profane, and exceedingly difficult to watch for those with weak stomachs. In real life, however, the infamous director is described as mild-mannered and polite, with ne’er a swear word in his vocabulary. The ability to create entirely new worlds without letting them affect who you are at your core is something that every film executive, myself included, must strive to master on a daily basis.
The sixth and final quality gracing the Hollywood greats is perhaps the most important. As change remains a buzzword and trends turn into fads, it’s more important than ever that filmmakers constantly search for what’s next. A single success is not enough in such a cutthroat environment. One must always lead to one more, and that’s a concept that nearly all of your favorite names are familiar with.
“Once a month the sky falls on my head, I come to and I see another movie I want to make,” says Steven Spielberg. Scorsese was slightly more specific when he voiced a similar opinion: “The most important thing is, how can I move forward towards something that I can’t articulate, that is new in storytelling with moving images and sound?” Both directors refer to the consistent desire to feed their own insatiable appetite for pop culture relevance, to keep creating regardless of what they’ve already accomplished.
They can’t teach that in film school.