Friday, October 12, 2007


When I was in high school I was given the chance to be an intern (a nice word for free labor) on the production of a United Cerebral Palsy Telethon. The broadcast was produced by Allen Hall, the producer for 25 years of Bozo's Circus on WGN-TV. I only got the job because my dad met Al Hall at a cocktail party and quick to get his kid out of the house Dad volunteered me. (At this same cocktail party my dad had his picture taken with Cesar Romero and it made all the papers. I still have no idea what Dad and The Joker were doing together, but there they are forever together in print.)

I went to the studio that evening not really knowing what to expect. I had no skills or experience. I didn't know anyone, BUT I was smart enough to keep my eyes open and see what I could do. For the most part I ushered clowns- Bozo, Cookie, Whizzo- back and forth between the green room and the set and took messages and food between the control room and Al at the front of the stage.

As happens in 24-hour telethons there is a lot of downtime and that is when this internship really paid off. I was just starting to think about colleges and asked Al where he thought a young guy like me should go- Syracuse, Northwestern and Boston University, I still remember his answer. I also spent a lot of time with Jose (Joe) Cornejo who was the associate producer and was a regular member of WGN's Cub broadcast team. I asked him where he went to college and he said, "Hard Knocks."

Thinking he said Knox College I said, "In Galesburg?"

He laughed and said, "No, the school of hard knocks."

I still didn't get it, then finally it dawned on me. "You didn't go to college!" I asked as if he had two heads. Nope, and lesson learned.

I must have done something right that night because Al Hall gave me his business card (the first one I ever received) and invited me out to the station. A couple of years later he gave me a letter of recommendation for college and a year after that recommended me for an internship at an NBC affiliate. Joe Cornejo invited me to the ballpark to watch a Cubs broadcast from the booth.

This one night of experience quickly went to the top of the work experience portion of my resume- pushing aside Soda Jerk, Paper Boy and Camp Counselor. Getting in the door was the first step, but knowing how to act professionally once there was the key. Had I been bored, inattentive, less curious or fallen asleep- all very real possibilities when working all night- I would have missed out on the chance that really helped define and shape my career.

The moral of the story is obvious (it's not become drinking buddies with Cesar Romero) take every opportunity you get and make the most of it when you can.

Lesson Learned.


Tuesday, October 9, 2007

Plate Spinning

I am often asked about how I can juggle being a full-time teacher and a full-time filmmaker. Honestly, I don't give it much thought, it is just something I do and have done for a long time. Ten years ago I did all that and went to graduate school at the same time and not only survived, but was the better for it.

Multi-tasking is something I am hardwired to do. Much to my mom's displeasure (though I really think she likes getting my dad out of the house) my dad can't sit still. He is busier in "retirement" than when he worked.

To me the real key is collaboration. If you work with a bunch of trusted, good people then executing the work and time management is easy. And come on it is the film business after all. It's not as if I am juggling being a member of the bomb squad and a transplant surgeon.

Of course the main reason for doing this is that being an active filmmaker makes me a better teacher, and teaching makes me a better filmmaker. Besides, what else would I do?


Sunday, October 7, 2007

The Office

I tell students often that the hardest part of being a filmmaker is getting the job. Once you get the job you just do what you have been training to do and the work should be easy. But that's not really true, the REAL hardest part of the job is dealing with the client.

Out favorite clients are the ones that say, "Jim, Peter we want you to go to London to shoot a couple of days and then take a day or two for yourselves." This actually has happened, and when it did, I immediately hit the phone and got us a reservation at The River Cafe- our favorite restaurant.

Unfortunately for the dumb filmmaker and his business partner this is a rare occurrence. More commonly we get a agency producer or client who likes to micro-manage. On more than one occasion- see my Cozmic Crunch post- we have had to handhold someone through the process and make a ton of changes only to come back to our original vision.

It is a paradox I never seem to get my head around. We've been hired because the client has seen our work and liked it, spoken with us, agreed to a budget, and then instead of letting us do that work they get all super hands on and controlling.

I don't get it.

When I go to a restaurant I do not barge into the kitchen and ask the chef why he is braising the osso bucco like that. I choose the dish and it is delivered to me. Then, if I have questions I ask. (A little more lemon zest perhaps, but I am finicky.) Yet, in this business you find this all too frequently.

I was recently telling a friend about a project and said we padded a budget because instinctively we knew the client was going to need managing. They will spend more money because we will have to spend time massaging the client, rather than being filmmakers. I think it goes both ways: if the client is a micro-manager then we will need to manage them more. You get what you pay for but please try to stay out of our kitchen. If you need more lemon zest, we'll deliver