I’ll never forget the moment.
I was toughing my way through another long week in a windowless office at the small New York advertising agency where I had been working for four arduous years. My phone rang. Someone was calling to let me know that I had been accepted to the graduate Dramatic Writing Program at NYU. As soon as I hung up, I began to cry. I was so relieved that for at least a while, I would be able to take a break from trying to balance the pressures of a day job with the pursuit of my screenwriting dreams.
The challenge of achieving that balance is something that most independent moviemakers face every day—even those with multiple feature film credits. So how do people find the time to pursue something as intense and all-consuming as moviemaking while maintaining another job, or even a “career?” It’s no easy feat. Accordingly, I was excited to find out more about the different strategies and techniques that three American moviemakers use to juggle paying posts with pure passion.
Balancing Passions for Business, Film and Causes
Gayle Ferraro has directed and produced four powerful documentaries, including Anonymously Yours, which won the MTV Inspiration Award, and To Catch a Dollar: Muhammad Yunas Banks on America, which played at Sundance in 2010. Her movies are known for their unflinching look at important social topics. “Art and filmmaking is about passion,” said Ferraro. “You really need to express something deep inside and get it out somehow.”
One of Ferraro’s less artistic passions has helped support her moviemaking endeavors. “I own a location of Gymnastics Academy of Boston in Cambridge, Massachusetts, a family business,” said Ferraro. “My parents owned several locations and I worked for them while I was in grad school, studying communications and film. I did their PR, advertising (and) promotions—that was a good experience for me.”
Eventually—after a “starving artist” stint as “a single mom raising two children and going to school—I don’t know how much my kids enjoyed our circumstances at the time”—Ferraro opened her own gym. And after almost 20 years of running it, she credits the business with providing a welcome balance to the intense topics she explores in her movies. “I really love gymnastics, my gym and the people who work there,” said Ferraro. “We have a great energy, and it actually helps me to balance from the material I immerse myself in with my movies: aspects of reality that are tough to deal with, like sex trafficking, death, poverty.”
Ferraro also appreciates the more pragmatic benefits of being a successful business owner. “It really helps to provide financial stability for me and to give me a normal balance in my life from the hectic schedule in filmmaking,” said Ferraro. On the other hand, being her own boss gives Ferraro the flexibility to fully devote herself to her moviemaking whenever that need arises.
“Basically, when I find a project, I move everything else out of the way in a matter of weeks or maybe a couple of months. Mentally, I completely commit to making a film. And before I know it, I am deep into the process,” said Ferraro. “Everything else has to go on autopilot, which can be tricky since my last film, To Catch a Dollar, took three years to complete. I was working seven days a week shooting, editing and traveling all over the world.” Ferraro balances out those phases of production by working hard at her business the rest of time. “When I am not working on film, I work hard to keep the gym thriving. I really work to keep the business on track so I can devote my attention to getting a film done when I find a new project.”
Despite her tremendous work ethic, Ferraro has learned that the only way for her to healthily sustain both sides of her working life is by taking care of herself. “I guard and regulate judiciously. I have to get a minimum of eight hours of sleep,” she said. “I stay off email after 5 p.m. and on the weekend.” And she eats a very healthy diet and exercises regularly. Moviemakers as connected to their work as Ferraro might find her willingness to disconnect and restore herself one of the most useful strategies to adopt.
Building Dreams on Land and on the Screen
The power of connection is an integral part of Jeff Jackson’s perspective on the different parts of his work. “I like to call myself the Grand Poobah of the Taos Land & Film Company,” he said. Jackson is also the writer and director of several shot-on-film shorts, a feature length documentary entitled Death & Taxes, and the feature films Postal Worker and the newly released thriller, Ghost Phone. His unique business directly connects real estate to moviemaking.
“I develop raw land in Taos, New Mexico along the Rio Grande Gorge as a means of funding my filmmaking,” said Jackson. He also owns a self-storage business and has further fostered an indie film community in the Taos area by founding the soon-to-be-resurrected Taos Talking Pictures Festival. During the festival’s original run from 1994 to 2003, its signature feature was an Innovation Award of five acres of land in Taos.
“I see the things I do as a holistic endeavor, each entity feeding into the other entities,” said Jackson. “The reality is that the storage business gives us daily functioning cash flow which has helped us survive the last five years of economic depression in this country.” While Jackson admits that “It would be great to be working full time in filmmaking,” he is also fiercely independent and has vigorously applied his business acumen to his moviemaking.
“My problem has been an obstinacy to go through the Hollywood fundraising process, having chosen, instead, to break the Hollywood rule of OPM—Other People’s Money,” said Jackson. “But I’m at the point where I need to adhere to the OPM rule, because each film I’ve funded has always brought me to the brink of bankruptcy. As my stepfather has said many times, ‘Jeff, you could have been really wealthy if you hadn’t funded all those films.’”
Nonetheless, Jackson’s entrepreneurial skills and experience with past businesses have enriched him in other ways by enabling him to get his movies made his way. “My ancient history of being a car salesman in Southern California about 25 years ago, while torturous at the time, was the equivalent of getting a PhD in life and deal-making,” said Jackson. “I’ve chosen to approach my film career as an artist rather than a commercial entity. While I’ve had one film bought by HBO [Postal Worker, otherwise known as Going Postal], I seem to be adamant about having final cut on my films.” Of course, that adamancy is often what defines the soul of a true independent moviemaker.
Making Sure Moviemaking is the Full-Time Job
“I am a full-time filmmaker!” said James Westby of Portland, Oregon. It would be hard to argue with that statement, given that Westby has written, directed and edited six feature films and is currently in production on his seventh. His two most recent titles, The Auteur and Rid of Me, had their premieres at the Tribeca Film Festival. And Rid of Me won the Best Fiction Feature award at Michael Moore’s Traverse City Film Festival.
But while Westby’s success in moviemaking has been growing, he still needs to supplement his income in order to keep up the momentum. Most recently, that has meant working as a freelance film and video editor, which he appreciates as a step up from some of his previous occupations. “Before that, I worked at video stores. Eventually, the eight bucks an hour just didn’t cut it. So around 2002, I started getting work as a commercial editor while continuing to make feature films.”
Westby approaches his editing gigs with an eye toward keeping his overall work balance tipped in favor of filmmaking pursuits. “Making the relatively good money that comes with being in the commercial editing world certainly makes it easier to continue making movies,” he said. Nonetheless, he doesn’t fall into the trap of letting the financial benefits of the work pull too much of his focus. “I don’t tap my soul into advertising. But I create things that people like and continue to pay me for. It is parallel [to my own moviemaking] in that I use the exact same tools, but the intention and motivation are completely different.”
By keeping that focus, Westby is beginning to enjoy some financial benefits from his moviemaking. “My most recent feature got a legitimate distributor and we even got a mid-five-figure advance,” he said. “So it seems I am slowly stepping it up, as it were.” That kind of progress has only increased his desire to make more movies, though it heightens the frustration he often feels when working his day job. “When I have an edit job or am creating a web video for someone, it is extremely hard to do when I know that my feature film is just sitting there waiting to be worked on. Boo hoo, I know.”
In order to further support his consistent mental focus on making movies, Westby has adopted some practical strategies that help him get the job done. “I move around a lot. As in, I edit from my laptop and I literally move around my house to edit in different spots,” he said. “Currently, I am working on the new film from my kitchen. It is cozy and the access to food is very conducive to getting work done.” All kidding aside, Westby has also discovered another key to helping him succeed. “I stopped drinking a while back, which I highly recommend for saving money and getting things done, not to mention making somewhat smarter decisions.” Perhaps, one speculates, he has also reduced his desire to drink by not allowing his other jobs to take over his life.
Moving From Creative Director to Writer-Director
In my own case, on a regular basis I question whether or not I’ve allowed my advertising career to be too big a part of my life. Despite my emotional reaction to the idea of a respite all those years ago, I ended up continuing to freelance as a copywriter through most of grad school. It simply didn’t make sense for me to turn my back on a job that a lot of people would be envious of, especially since I made hundreds of dollars a day doing it, and minimized the need for student loans while at NYU.
At the end of grad school, I moved to Los Angeles and took a full-time job in advertising. For the past several years, I’ve been a Creative Director for global advertising agencies, overseeing work on major brands. Along the way, I’ve had a few close calls and nearly made a big spec screenplay sale that might have allowed me to leave advertising behind for good, but the stars have yet to completely align.
Still, I’ve never given up on the dream. In fact, I’ve expanded it and added director, editor and producer to my moviemaking pursuits. And whenever possible, I’ve leveraged my advertising career to help me with my moviemaking goals. As a result, I’ve been able to direct and edit commercials. I even met my wife while directing a commercial that she starred in. A year after we were married, she co-produced and starred in the feature film that I wrote and directed. (Jason’s Big Problem, a crass indie comedy, is now available on iTunes, Amazon and Vimeo On Demand.) Our production company has since created video content for major global brands, as well as a soon-to-be-released short film. Our next feature is also in development.
Of course, advertising work has cut into time that I would rather spend writing screenplays or directing more films. But at the same time, the income I’m lucky enough to get from my career has financed my moviemaking projects—not to mention, reduced the level of stress I might otherwise feel if I were always worried about making ends meet.
Beyond those obvious things, living two working lives has helped me in a lot of unexpected ways. The deadline-driven nature of the ad business has taught me how to be creative on demand, while giving me the discipline needed to get my own projects done. It has also taught me to not be too precious about my work. Given that close to two-thirds of any advertising creative work never gets produced, I’ve grown used to killing my darlings. That has made it easier for me to take script notes from producers, and to be honest with myself about what’s not working in a project I’m developing.
Simply put, I can find both positives and negatives in the work I have to do to support the pursuit of my true passions. It all comes down to focus—maintaining focus on the work you want to be doing, while also focusing on the good things that your other work can bring to it. And once you’ve mastered this balancing act, you really can get all your jobs done. MM
This article appeared in MovieMaker‘s Winter 2014 issue.