By Lauren Henderson
Wouldn’t it be nice to enter our life destinations into Google Maps and have it navigate us through the traffic and chaos of rush hour? In reality though, no map or compass has the ability to predict our paths or tell us which direction is the “right” way to go. As a flood of film school graduates enter the workforce this month, Dear Producer asked recent graduate, Lauren Henderson, to talk with her peers about which road they are taking post-graduation and how they feel it will affect their desire and ability to create.
I remember the day I arrived at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts (UNCSA) in Winston-Salem, NC, a small city in the South known for its historic involvement in the tobacco industry and home to R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company. The summer heat was unbearable that year in North Carolina and as I began loading my belongings into my small, cramped dorm room, doubt whispered in my ear asking, ‘Are you really sure you want to go to film school?’
Four years later, as I sat through a three-hour graduation ceremony (apparently I did really want to go to film school) those whispers became shouts, this time with a flurry of questions, ‘What are your plans after graduation? Do you have a job? Are you moving to Los Angeles?’ I tried to suppress my insecurities and enjoy graduation day, but, as is often the case in a life spent pursuing art, doubts inevitably flare up at the worst moments.
According to Wikipedia, there are over 100 film schools in the US alone, which means there are thousand of other graduates just like me trying to enter the industry with their own voice, style, and stories. Is there room in the world for all of us? The way I saw it, there were two options: move to Los Angeles, get a job at an established company, and work your way up the ranks with the hope to build enough relationships to eventually make your own projects, OR, live in a smaller, more affordable community and get a not-to-demanding job with the intention of making art now. With pros and cons to both, I decided to talk to a few of my classmates who had just graduated to discuss which was a better choice.
TO LOS ANGELES OR NOT TO LOS ANGELES?
Hannah Lane who graduated from the directing program at UNCSA, is choosing to stay put for the time being saying, “I chose not to move to Los Angeles right away because honestly, I’m still young. As an aspiring storyteller, I think the greatest thing I can do over these next 5, 10, or maybe even 15 years is explore this country and others. While attending the RiverRun International Film Festival this year, I heard a story from a documentarian who moved to Bosnia. He sold all of his belongings, bought a one-way ticket, and just went for it. He stuck around long enough that he fell in love with a woman and soon they married. He stuck around even longer and he found a story: a gang of motorcyclists who protect the wild horse population from poachers in an economically devastated country. To me, at least right now, the only way I see myself creating works of importance is by traveling.”
Hannah also adds, “For me, this decision was the most difficult one I’ve ever made. Upon graduating college, I became rightfully terrified of finding fulfillment and thus began my decision to forgo the trappings of expensive living in a city, and instead I began my setup of working part-time to self-fund my own projects.” Hannah is planning to work on a web series set in and around Winston-Salem during the next year, not only to continue developing her style, but to also gain more experience as a filmmaker working in the independent world.
Like Hannah, Jack McLain, a fellow directing student, also decided to forego moving to Los Angeles after graduation. “I chose not to move out to LA immediately both for financial reasons and also because my last visit to the city made me realize that it’s difficult for independent filmmakers to stake their claim in what is already a really competitive environment,” Jack said. “I am currently living in Albuquerque, New Mexico for an extended period so that I can co-produce my friend’s third feature film and take what I’ve learned in school and put it towards a feature of my own. I’m not getting paid, but every day is a new adventure and I love it. New Mexico is already proving to be a great source of inspiration, creatively speaking, and there’s nowhere else I’d rather be right now.”
On the other hand, Charlie Witosky who studied producing, was offered a job at Legendary Entertainment (known for blockbuster hits such as the JURASSIC PARK franchise) in Los Angeles and took it. “Right now, being in LA hasn’t yet negatively affected my creativity. I work a 9-5 in the film industry in an office setting. However, because so far my job is completely production and logistics focused, it doesn’t drain any of my creative energy and I’m still able to write in the evenings. So far this is the perfect set up for me. I get to write and be creative at night while during the day, I’m cultivating a network of people that will hopefully be beneficial to getting work as a writer or a producer down the road.”
The downside for Charlie though is that he had to leave Raleigh, North Carolina where he grew up most of his life. “I’ve only been gone about two months, but I miss it every day and of course imagine one day being able to have a career where I can also live back home. Right now I’m focused on enjoying one of the best food cultures in the world, soaking in the sun, and looking forward to this phase of my life.”
AT ANY COST
Of course, a big worry for all graduates is the cost of living. Shelby Adele Tyre, a graduate from the producing program who has always known she was headed to Los Angeles and who wants to become a television executive and have her own production company, shared her fears. “To be honest, I am a little worried about myself financially once I move out to LA. I am lucky, however, that I will be staying with my family for the first few months and hopefully will have a job during that time and make enough to save up. I think that creativity comes to people in different ways. The drive to survive as well as the drive to continue and keep going will inspire me to be creative once I do have money.”
Shelby also stresses about other fears in this post-grad world saying, “I stress about getting a job, or finding a place to live in LA , and finding an outside activity that can occupy my mind when I need a distraction. Further, I worry that I went into the wrong profession to be able to one day have a family. Seems like a silly thing to worry about now, but a family is something I’ve always wanted and this industry is very much an industry where it feels like we have to pick one or the other and I don’t want to have to choose between my two most important things in life.”
Hannah, who has been working two jobs the last few months before graduation, finds comfort in deciding to stay in North Carolina. “By no means am I rich, or even middle-class, but I am financially independent and pay all my own bills. Where this might seem difficult or frightening for some, I am thankful. It has taught me responsibility, frugality, and graciousness. For now this seems to be the right path for me, and I hope it remains so.”
With her sights set on becoming a network showrunner, Hannah’s short-term goals are focused on becoming a traveling waitress and collecting stories. “Right now, I’m waiting tables in downtown Winston-Salem, NC and working odd-shifts at Starbucks. Is it the most lucrative set-up? No. But does it pay my bills and allow me time to create? Yes. With no ill-will intended, I think part-time work is an artist’s greatest necessity. It is imperative for someone who needs to earn money and also have time to create once they’ve clocked out. Maybe it’s just me, but I need mindless work to fill my days. Otherwise I’d be creatively exhausted by the time I came home.”
Jack says, “Maybe I’m scared of the commitment, but my primary justification for not moving out to LA at this point in my nascent career is that the increased cost of living will essentially drain whatever income and energy I have to where I won’t have the mental capacity nor the time to do the things I know I need to do in order to grow as a director, such as improving my writing, honing my shorthand with actors, and planning the projects that I aspire to make.
“My main priority for post-grad life is to just keep creating as often as I can. If there’s anything I’m afraid of, it’s getting comfortable and complacent,” Jack shares. “Now that I’m outside of the safety of film school, it’s incumbent upon me to continue going outside my comfort zone so that I can grow as a filmmaker.”
Charlie on the other hand is finding his financial footing in Los Angeles. “Right now, I do feel financially stable living in LA, though you’ll want to ask me again after a year or so…” Charlie says. “And that’s with the caveat that my salary places me significantly below the poverty line, I do have three roommates, and I have to severely restrict my ‘fun’ spending. But, I’m not starving, I can pay all of my bills, and can eat out once or twice a week without thinking too hard about it. Like producing, living in LA is about planning for the worst and preparing for the best. Be smart about your money and you’ll be just fine.”
”I’ve met so many people in my time that truly hate what they do and they hate their lives as a whole because of it,” Charlie says. “If I’m lucky enough to get paid to do what I love, I’ll be the happiest person in the world.”
WHAT THE FUTURE HOLDS
Hannah believes that her time at film school prepared her for life after college. “College taught me many, many things. Namely, that it was a time for fuck-ups. It was a time to fail and scream in the corners of my room at the very idea of filmmaking. Though I am not within “the industry” quite yet, I do feel prepared for it more so than had I not attended school. But, I’ve got no clue. I’m 22, I’m living in a duplex, and I’m peddling falafel at a delicious Mediterranean hole-in-the-wall. Three months ago, I was directing cockroach puppets. Thus far, this has been one giant farce of a life, and I’m lucky to be at the helm of it. For now, I’ll be making minimum wage and creating a web series, but maybe a year from now, I’ll be in a Waffle House in Idaho, writing a biopic about Robert Mueller. Whatever it may be, I’ll be riding shotgun and looking forward to the future. Whatever it may hold.”
Jack muses about his time in film school, “I can’t know what’s next, but my main hope is that I can retain the passion for cinema and for filmmaking that I have right now and that whatever I’m doing, it’s something that will make me happy and allow me to be true to myself. That’s all I can ask for.”
Whether we are in Los Angeles, New York, Albuquerque, or Winston-Salem, we have the ability to create wherever we live. Thanks to the internet, we can access information, film, and resources for film from anywhere in the world. Does this sometimes pull focus away from the industry in Los Angeles? Yes. But why should art only be created by those who can afford to live and work there? By creating art that crosses all borders, and lives by its own rules, we can make films from a new generation of filmmakers with intentions of telling stories from all walk of life, bringing all groups of people together.
As for myself, while I have no immediate plans for what the future holds, I do know that I want to live in a supportive community that thrives with art and culture. Like Jack, I am producing the same feature in Albuquerque right now, but after that, who knows? I have my sights set on Austin, Texas, but I’m open to find a place where I not only become a better filmmaker, but also better person.