I spent six days in Austin enjoying the 2015 SXSW Film program. Like any conference that’s also a nonstop party, this year’s lineup was inspiring, informative, and over too soon. Here are six takeaways that stuck with me.
Sound depressing? Well, wait a second.
In his heartfelt keynote, writer-actor-director-producer Mark Duplass (Safety Not Guaranteed, Togetherness, The League) shared his step-by-step strategy for breaking into the movie business. It involves passion, practice, tenacity, and community. And if you do it well, you’ll craft a career in which you’re surrounded by people that you love to work with, telling singular stories that resonate deeply with your audience.
But he also cautioned that Hollywood will keep enticing you, and you’ll always think you’re one deal away from making it big… only for that latest deal to fall apart. And you’ll get frustrated, and you may even think about quitting, because here you are, doing your best work, and no one’s coming along to deliver you to the promised land of money and fame.
“When will the cavalry come for me?” you’ll ask yourself.
And then one day you’ll look in the mirror and you’ll realize you are the cavalry.
Because when you take the time to hone your voice, and build your community, and establish your reputation, you’re developing the power to achieve your vision without needing someone else’s validation.
Kind of reconfigures your whole plan, doesn’t it?
Director Gina Prince-Bythewood (Love & Basketball, Beyond the Lights) applied to UCLA film school… but she didn’t get in. She thought they made a mistake, so she wrote a letter and made her case for admission.
She got in.
Later, she applied for a job on the sitcom A Different World… but didn’t get hired. When the guy who was hired instead of her didn’t pan out, she got back in touch with the powers that be and called and called and called and called them until they finally gave her a shot. She took it, and it launched her career.
The lesson? Just because one door closes, that doesn’t mean it’s locked.
Likewise, not every path to success is a straight line from A to B.
“If you want to work in narrative film, and someone offers you a job in documentary, take it.” That’s the advice of producer Christine Vachon (Boys Don’t Cry, I Shot Andy Warhol, Velvet Goldmine), who knows a thing or two about launching the careers of outsider voices.
So why take a seemingly counter-intuitive opportunity? Because once you’re “in,” your network expands and you’ll have more options — and you never know where those new options will lead. But if you don’t take that chance, you stay right where you are, waiting for the “perfect” opportunity… which may never come.
High Maintenance creators Ben Sinclair and Katja Blichfeld turned their DIY series into a critical hit. Vimeo was so impressed, they made the show their first flagship series. And yet, because Ben is a working actor, his fans wonder if his dedication to the series is holding him back from “bigger things.”
“We love the people we make this show with so much, we always say we want to go off and start a commune with them.” That’s Sinclair’s summary of the working conditions on High Maintenance, a labor of love that he and Blichfeld have complete creative control over.
“Honestly,” says Sinclair, “unless I get a script that’s amazing, why would I spend time doing another project when I could be doing what I love?”
In other words: if you’re chasing a goal, make sure it’s one you want to reach.
Beau Willimon, the showrunner for Netflix’s House of Cards, was asked about the benefits of having a diverse writer’s room. He was quick to clarify that “diversity” isn’t about checking boxes; it’s about finding authentic voices with a variety of POVs.
“I look for people who can write stories I wouldn’t even be capable of imagining,” Willimon says. “And that’s because their backgrounds and their visions are so different from mine.”
Yes, the quality of the work is what ultimately matters. But the more memorable your individual voice becomes, the more likely you are to be heard.
It’s been a long and varied career for RZA, whose love of rap music and martial arts films inspired him to found the legendary Wu-Tang Clan… which led to him composing film scores for Jim Jarmusch… which introduced him to Quentin Tarantino… which inspired him to become a director himself.
During the Q&A from his keynote, a fan asked him, “Given all your various influences, what’s next for you?”
“I’m studying Woody Allen,” said RZA.
The audience burst out laughing, but RZA was serious.
“Always be learning from genres and sources that have nothing to do with what you’re interested in, because you never know what you might learn that you can use. If you want to make a movie about New York gangs, go watch some French films. I just had my daughter watch Yentl. That’s a Barbra Streisand movie. But there’s something in there that she can use.”