If you dedicate your life to perfecting your craft, and I mean really obsessing over it, the money will naturally follow.
I’ve always been into visual arts and drawing, and when I was in junior high I thought I was going to be a comic book artist, so I spent a lot of time in comic book shops. Then in high school my passion shifted towards graphic design, and I started making a little bit of money putting together flyers and t-shirts for local businesses and school parties. I couldn’t exactly pay the rent off of $20 flyer designs, but it was the first time I saw how people would pay me for my art if I really did a good job.
Near the end of high school I did an internship at a Toronto-based music station called Much Music—basically Canada’s version of MTV—and fell in love with the film industry. After that I was fortunate enough to land another internship with Hype Williams, one of the greatest hip-hop directors of all time. When I started out I was doing things like getting coffee and running packages for him in the rain. I wasn’t getting paid and I was surviving on ramen noodles, but that’s what you’re supposed to do when you’re 19 and still finding your way.
Eventually I started doing things on my own, making my own storyboards, putting together a reel and showing it to anybody I could, hoping they would give me a shot. The first music video I directed was for Tracey Lee, featuring Busta Rhymes and Pirate MC, and it couldn’t have gone much worse. I honestly had no idea what I was doing, and after a pep talk from Hype Williams I realized that I had to study up.
I still have no guarantees, no salary, and no contract.
This was before you could just Google it all, so instead I went to the bookstore and bought every book I could on cinematography, hair, makeup, equipment, directing, anything I thought would help me. I’d go and buy it, read it, study it, make notes and read it again. I didn’t go to film school, so I had to teach myself.
I never took a step back and questioned what I was doing, or whether there would be enough money in it, or what my future might be like if I kept going; it just felt right. It was never a debate, I loved doing what I was doing, so I kept doing it.
Even now, having directed countless films and music videos for some of the biggest artists in the industry, I still have no guarantees, no salary, and no contract. I just do the best job I can, and trust that if the work is up to my standards the next job will come.
Sometimes that means waiving my fee in order to put that money back into the production budget, but if that’s what it takes to make something I’m proud to put my name on then to me it’s absolutely worth it. It might not make good business sense on the surface, but when you’re an artist it’s the work that gets you more work, and so the quality of the work always has to come first.
Of course films need to make money, and there’s a lot of talk about money behind the scenes, but when I’m sitting behind the camera or talking to an actor, that’s the last thing I’m worried about. The quality of the art has to come first.
When I started out it I was by myself, so I felt like I had to be the expert in everything, but as things evolved I was able to build a team of people around me. There’s now a whole squad looking out for me, letting me focus even more deeply on finding inspiration and making art, at least when I’m not reading or in meetings.
What they don’t tell you is that directing involves a lot of both, so if you want to get into this business some of the things you should be focusing on are your reading ability, your reading speed, and your social abilities. Go get the book How to Make Friends and Influence People, read it, then read it again, then read it one more time. These are important things you need to know, because you’re going to be in a lot of meetings.
And if the meetings go well, they’re going to send you something to read, and if you like what you read, you’re going to have to take another meeting, and probably read something again. If you want to be a director, get used to it.
Whatever your path is there will probably be parts of it that aren’t exactly what you thought they would be, but if you’re really passionate about it that won’t matter. What’s important is that you follow your interests, and find a way to match those interests with your skills.
Once you figure out what that looks like you have to do whatever it takes to perfect your craft. That could mean spending time in the library or in front of a computer screen, or living off of ramen noodles in order to do an unpaid internship. To some that might sound gruelling, but if you really love what you’re doing it won’t feel like work; it will just feel right.
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More stories in this series:
- Chip Wilson, Founder of lululemon
- Lyndon Cormack, Cofounder of Herschel Supply Co.
- Payal Kadakia, Founder of ClassPass
- Brian Scudamore, CEO of 1-800-GOT-JUNK?
- Charles Chang, Cofounder of Vega
- David Cohen, Cofounder of Techstars