Becoming a moviemaker seemed like an impossibly ambitious goal when I was growing up.
I was living in Brazil, watching bootleg copies of David Cronenberg films and, with typical teenage angst, pouting at the reality of my existence, which seemed too far removed from the film sets I wanted to crash. Now, years later, I’m living in L.A., writing my third feature film. I get paid to travel the world directing commercials. I get to develop projects with companies I admire, and have the support of managers and an agency behind me. I can objectively look back and share what it took to get here. I’ve been told “no” a million times, I’ve had lead actors drop out the day before shooting, projects halted for lack of funds, production partners who lied and forged documents, distributors who ghosted and didn’t pay for the movie even after it was released. It’s been beyond challenging, and in some ways it still is. And that’s how it should be.
Lots of careers have linear paths. Directing is not one of them. I’ve participated in panel discussions on “breaking into the industry.” The topic never gets old because the answers are forever changing and there is no one way to do it. Yet I’ve noticed that a lot of the time these discussions leave the audience feeling confused and deflated. The advice is often not practical and the anecdotes aren’t realistic.
When I was a fledgling director, I attended a panel where a moviemaker, in the most nonchalant way, said, “I wrote a script and sent it to a company, which financed my first feature and then it got accepted into Sundance, so I got signed by CAA and now I’m directing the next Marvel movie.” Really?! And I paid money to listen to this? I don’t believe that was the full story. If it was, then it was by sheer luck. I don’t care how talented you are—this is a highly competitive industry, and talent is just not enough.
Even though this MovieMaker article is about “making it,” from what I can tell, I don’t think anyone actually feels like they’ve “made it.” If you’re ambitious, every time you hit a goal, you tend to make a new one. And this industry fluctuates a lot. A good part of “making it” involves sticking it out for the long game, riding the lows and not letting the highs delude you. I’m going to take an honest look at what success actually takes.
And by success, I mean making a living from making movies… getting to a place where it’s no longer a hobby or occasional job, it’s a career. I’m going to share my own experience as well as those of other moviemakers, and I’ll do my best to cut through the bullshit of how we got here and offer up some truth.
The Big Picture
As for any career in the arts, the work alone is not enough. We all know someone can make a shitty film and still book the next job. So what does it take? Ry Russo-Young, director of Before I Fall (2017) and The Sun Is Also a Star (2019), shared her experiences: “Most of all, it’s surviving the moments of uncertainty,” Russo-Young says. “There have been many ups and downs in my filmmaking career. There were moments I didn’t think I’d be able to get another film financed, moments where I felt like no one cared about anything I had to say, and times where the commercial aspects of cinema felt crushing. And yet, my love of what I do kept me strong and on track, it kept me motivated. Being a moviemaker is hard and unpredictable, so a love of what you do and perseverance to keep doing it is absolutely necessary.”
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve thought about giving up—evaluating the pros and cons of other career paths I could take, debating a full life change. I’m gonna leave the city, work in a farm, dedicate my life to picking blueberries. Rejection after rejection, you start to wonder, Should I really be doing this? But doing anything else feels wrong. Moviemaking is the only job that will never feel like a job, because you love it so much. So you breathe through it and keep going. You read articles like this and remember that you are not alone. Rejection is the norm, get used to it.
For Jen McGowan, whose recent feature Rust Creek hit theaters in January 2019, the key lies in toughness, and in having a point of view. “The director’s job can be basically boiled down to figuring out and communicating what you want and what you need,” McGowan explains. “So if you don’t know either of those things, you’re pretty screwed.
Then, once you express your point of view someone’s going to tell you that you suck. It’s about resilience, and it can take an insane amount of grit to keep you going. Part of that grit must come from your own actual desire, belief in the ideas you have, and that they must get out there… now. Whether you’re writing your own stories or pitching on open directing assignments, your point of view better be specific and unique; otherwise, why are you here? You must have internal confidence, know how to convince people of your point of view, be personable, and persevere.
As you’re taking each step, riding each wave up and down, take the time to learn and grow. After I wrap a shoot, I like to write down in a separate journal what worked and what didn’t. This is my way of keeping track of where I left off in the trajectory of my growth. When I set out to make my first feature, I reached out to a bunch of other moviemakers to ask them for advice. I wanted to know what they learned, what tips they could share. This was incredibly helpful, and I encourage more of the same.
Trust Your Gut
You have a story. You put together a pitch deck, a script, or treatment. This is where you begin. You feel like the story might be ready to share with producers. But how do you know that your idea is worth spending all your free time and money, pulling in all your favors, for what may be years to come?
I get told repeatedly that my idea is too niche. I’ve tried to get projects off the ground that were turned down because someone holding the money thought there wasn’t a big enough audience for it. I had a manager once tell me that my work was “too queer” and therefore it wasn’t marketable enough, because only queer people would watch it. Still, in today’s world—when a black woman can finally be at the forefront of her own television show and a cast of all Asian leads can make the highest-grossing romantic comedy of the decade—telling diverse stories is a risk to take until someone breaks the barrier.
In the case of my 2017 feature, M.F.A., writer Leah McKendrick had spent years trying to get the story off the ground before I joined her. The film is about a college student who gets raped by her classmate and decides to seek revenge, hunting down the rapist on campus. We made the film in 2016, more than a year before the #MeToo movement began. At the time, many people didn’t get why we wanted to tell this story. It seemed unrelatable, and again, too niche. Then, coincidentally, the film was released the same month that the Harvey Weinstein accusations came out. Those same executives were biting their tongues. Suddenly our movie was mainstream and relevant.
Sometimes you have to shut out the noise and listen to your gut. Of course, you should listen to people’s comments and consider them, and if what they’re saying comes with a lot of experience, then pay attention. You want to be aware of how your film is landing for people, and more often than not, you are just too close to the material to see the big picture. Having someone whose opinion you trust is super helpful. As Sophia Takal, director of Always Shine (2016), explains, “I trust my husband. He’s sometimes annoyingly honest, but when he likes something, I know he’s telling the truth.” Moviemakers need that person who is going to give us the hard truth. Meera Menon, who directs episodes of GLOW and Fear the Walking Dead, adds, “Don’t jump on the first concept that sounds enticing. Let things marinate. I rushed myself a lot in the beginning of my career, and now am embracing the process of marination. That process—of giving it time to breathe and evolve—is actually what will allow your story to become the best thing it can become.” You can’t delete something off of your IMDb page (at least I haven’t figured out how to do it!), and people will always associate you with the thing you just completed. Deciding on which story to tell or project to take on is worth serious consideration. Be patient. It’s one of the hardest things to do in an industry that can move very slowly and have a lot of unknowns. You’re going to be spending a lot of time with whatever story you choose, so it’s important that it be endlessly fascinating to you.
Surviving the Hustle
OK, so now you know what movie you want to make and you’re ready to raise money to go out and make it. Back it up: How are you going to pay the rent while trying to make your first film? No one likes to talk about this when addressing their own career paths. I don’t know if it’s out of shame or pride or competition or what, but every time this question gets asked in a panel, people divert it. Unless you have an endless trust fund, making a living while trying to create your first projects is a big piece of the puzzle.
Everyone needs to start somewhere and you can’t call yourself a moviemaker if you are not making movies. It’s a catch-22. I didn’t go to film school. When I was starting off, this felt like a huge disadvantage. Now I’m grateful that I learned to make movies my own way. In order to get my first short films made, I pulled all the favors I could get and offered up my free time and services in return. But still, it was costly. I could convince friends to work for free, but I still had to pay for food, equipment, travel, and other things. I asked family for money. I put every dollar I could get into the film, and I had terrible stomachaches because of it. But to me, that was my investment. It’s where and how I started learning to be a director.
When I was just starting to make movies, I joined a writing group. We shared our scripts and helped one another make shorts, all with a similar goal in mind—to be working directors. Some of us, including myself, worked full-time at a production company, as a producer’s assistant or another entry-level position. We took these temporary jobs, which served as a way to get a foot in the door and keep a roof over our heads. But having a full-time job made it nearly impossible to create our own work. I’d try to find time to write on the weekends, amongst all the other basic life stuff and the fun distractions in New York. It was exhausting. I’m not the kind of person who can write 10 minutes every morning. I need a big chunk of time to get into it. And even with the support of this group, I felt like I was spinning my wheels.
One day I got fired from my assistant job. Looking back on it now, I laugh. But at the time it was a total blow to my ego. I thought, “If I can’t be good at managing someone’s office, filing papers, ordering lunches, how on Earth am I going to be good at running a film set?” This was my first lesson in perseverance.
I desperately started seeking another job. I was raised in Brazil and my working visa in the U.S. was expiring, so that put a tighter wrench on things. I ended up taking random part-time work with people who agreed to pay me under the table. At the time, I felt like everything was a mess and I was going nowhere. I didn’t know how or when I was going to become a moviemaker, if ever. Meanwhile, some of my colleagues from the writers’ group got promoted and their careers took a whole other path. They went on to become directors of development and executives within studios, leaving their craft behind. That’s not to say one choice is better than the other. It’s just not what I was meant to be doing, and I was quickly pushed out of the system as a result.
It was incredibly painful and scary to feel left behind like that. But looking back at it now, those years were fundamental to building my foundation today. I needed to work part-time in order to make time for my own work. I needed to hustle like that to get prepared for the scrappy way in which my first two films got made. And I needed to get fired to learn how to handle rejection.
My advice to people who want to become moviemakers is this: In the early stages, separate your money from your career. It’s likely that no one is going to pay you to do something you haven’t done before. You need to build a body of work before you can get there, and it’s going to take some time. Working within the industry can be a huge learning experience and is definitely valuable. But at a certain point, if you want to be a director, you have to let go of working for other people and go direct. I thought that working for directors and producers would help me get in touch with the right people who could get my film made. But for me, as long as I was in that position, I was always seen as the assistant to so-and-so, not as a moviemaker. Russo-Young says of her own early career path: “I once almost took a job working for a huge Hollywood legend director and then didn’t take it because it was apparent that I wouldn’t have time for my own movies on the side. At that moment in my burgeoning indie filmmaking career, it was a very tough decision, but ultimately I put my own work above everything else.”
So, the question becomes: How can you make the most money in the shortest amount of time, so that you can focus on building your craft? My answer to that was shooting weddings. It’s got a schlocky reputation, but I have to say, the experience was awesome. It allowed me to work part-time and make more money than I was making in my full-time assistant job. Once Airbnb came around, that became my bread and butter. I rented out my place for a full year and lived out of a suitcase, moving from home to home in exchange for pet-sitting or taking friends up on favors. It was during this time that I created a web series with friends called Be Here Nowish, acting, directing, shooting, producing… practicing all the film skills in two seasons of a show that ended up getting a lot of traction and jumpstarted my career.
To quote Suze Orman, “If we aren’t powerful with money, we aren’t powerful, period.” Take care of your livelihood first, then go pursue your dreams with confidence and agency.
So, now you’re ready to make your movie. You’ll need to raise money for it, or find producers who will. This is a big conundrum, but it doesn’t have to be. There are a million ways to get a film financed. Some people might have been lucky enough to find a company, studio, or producer to fund their picture. That was not the case on my first two features—I had to find other ways.
I’m going to leave you with this cliffhanger. In the meantime, share your thoughts on breaking into the film industry in 2019 by reaching out to me on Twitter @_natalialeite_ , or on my website, natalialeite.com. Stick around: In the next issue, we’ll continue this conversation as I interview more moviemakers with new perspectives on financing, how to get the right people to see your feature, how to find representation, what happens if your film is a flop, and more. MM
This article appears in MovieMaker’s Winter 2019 issue. Featured image photograph: Going South, Headed North: Moviemaker Natalia Leite premieres her sophomore feature M.F.A. at SXSW 2017. Courtesy of Natalia Leite.