When I was nineteen and working on my first film project, the director told me that Murphy’s Law applies to filmmaking. That’s to say: anything that can go wrong (and things you thought couldn’t possibly go wrong) will go wrong.
That was my first lesson in filmmaking. It can only get better from there, can’t it?
1. It will rain
So let’s discuss Murphy’s Law first, shall we?
When you schedule to shoot a sunny scene outside, there’s always the chance of rain—even in Nevada in summer. And, metaphorically speaking, it will rain on set at some point.
Maybe there will suddenly be too much wind, messing up the actors’ hair and affecting the sound.
You need to think about anything and everything that could possibly affect a shoot, from the lead actor getting mustard all over their costume to power cuts.
You need to be covered for as many situations as possible (or as many as the budget allows at any rate) and have a plan B to shoot another scene in case you simply can’t shoot the scene of choice that day.
In short, fix what can be fixed and shoot another scene if it can’t. Never waste a day as it will mess up your budget and shooting schedule to no end.
What you can learn from this: firstly, have a plan B for anything major you wish to do. Secondly, think about possible outcomes when you decide to do something and troubleshoot in advance.
Like, you know, bring the umbrella and first aid kit even on a sunny day when it feels like nothing could possibly go wrong.
Actors can act using a green screen, no props necessary (that’s to say all they have is a green screen behind them and later, in special effects (or CGI if you so like), their surroundings will be added). If actors can do that, you can use your imagination to create solutions that cut costs.
Instead of a dolly (metal slates you put on the ground to wheel the camera absolutely level), filmmakers who have no budget use a wheelchair.
Instead of a boom (the thing you attach the mic to), you can use a broomstick. If something on set doesn’t work, you fix it with gaffer tape and a hefty dose of imagination, and that’s that.
What you can learn from this: there are cheap solutions to expensive problems. Think outside the box. Use your imagination, even when you have a good budget, to lower costs.
The more you lower the costs where you can, the more you can spend on emergencies and things you forgot to think of in the first place.
Not to mention, the lower the costs, the higher the return on investment—something most artists tend to forget as they are more concerned about their art, than money.
Something will invariably happen that messes with your schedule, be it a sick actor or a thunderstorm that lasts for days. That’s why your schedule should include this so that you don’t go over schedule.
What you can learn from this: things will always take longer than you think. Leave some wriggle room.
For the same reason your film won’t be on schedule, it won’t be on budget either. Plan for it. You need wriggle room here, too. In fact, what most producers do is juggle the numbers so that they leave space for this.
What you can learn from this: always plan for more than what something costs.
5. Dysfunctional family
You are working with the best of the best. You have your dream DoP (director of photography), actors, director, set designer, etc. Half of these dream actors are doing method acting and walking around in character even off set.
The DoP refuses to work unless they’re served Starbucks triple shot lattes twice a day (and it has to be Starbucks). The head of costume is in constant disagreement with the head of makeup—and on and on it goes.
The bottom line? You have to learn to embrace, or at the very least work around, their quirks if you want to shoot your movie, otherwise there will be arguments, delays, frayed egos and so forth.
Filmmaking is an intense experience—you are on set sometimes 15 hours a day, six days a week. You need to learn to get along with the cast and crew, or at least make them do their best work, no matter how dysfunctional they are in other areas.
However, do your research. Some actors are so hard to work with that they make everyone miserable, other mess about so much that they need special insurance bonds for any company to take them on (most notorious drug addicts fall into this category).
Even if you like these actors, if you know that they haven’t cleaned up their act, are they really necessary for your production? They might either ruin the whole experience of making the movie or end up costing you millions. Literally.
What you can learn from this: if someone’s too much trouble, stay away from them. Even the good ones have quirks though. That doesn’t mean you won’t love them, or that you can’t work with them.
Rather, you need to help to bring out the good things in them (at least if you are the producer/director) and know how to best get along with them if they are worth the trouble and a lot of people are.
Often on set, you are doing five things at once, or five things in a row so it seems things go by in a blur as you are working so fast and moving from one thing to the next.
However, there’s also a lot of sitting around waiting if you are an actor or have certain tasks where you aren’t needed all the time. Ashton Kutcher notably became an entrepreneur and investor as he had time on set to research and learn about business opportunities.
What you can learn from this: simply be aware that life will sometimes be extremely busy and sometimes extremely slow. Use the slow days to do something you care about and rest. On the busy days, don’t stress too much—know that it will come to an end soon enough.
7. Name dropping
One thing you’ll learn fast in L.A. is that everyone knows someone. That does not mean that that someone will do anything for them. Name dropping is just bad style unless it’s truly valid, and asking celebrities for favors they haven’t offered without you asking might lead to you losing a friendship.
What you can learn from this: knowing someone successful doesn’t make you successful by association. Treasure the people who mean something to you and don’t misuse their name to try to gain favors.
If you want to ask for a favor from someone successful, really know that they won’t feel you are abusing their friendship by asking. Rather discuss a problem and see if they offer a solution instead of asking them to do it for you.
I always say that I got places by asking things, but there’s a time and a place for it, and a way to do it.
8. The press
The tabloids are semi-controlled by Hollywood. What they can’t control sometimes gets completely blown out of proportion and context. Often it’s not even true. In short, don’t believe a thing you read unless it’s investigative journalism and, even then, beware of biases.
Likewise, if you work in Hollywood, chances are at one point or another you will end up in the magazines. You will also get a reputation in the industry.
People will have a lot of ideas about who you are, even if they’ve never met you, and you have to let that go. You are who you are regardless of who others say. Trying to hide away just because there was a supposed scandal isn’t going to help one bit.
There’re paparazzi everywhere. If you’re nasty to the waiter, it will end up on YouTube, so think about what you do.
What you can learn from this: never believe rumors, never judge others based on what other people say about them and never let rumors about you define you.
Rather, prove who you are by showing up. And, when you show up, think about who you want to be, because someone will see you. It’s a good reminder to treat yourself and others nicely.
99%, or more, of people in L.A. don’t get famous. It’s not about the fame, it’s about doing what you love. If you come to L.A. for fame, your odds of being miserable are about 99 to 1.
The people who do get famous often don’t know how to deal with it. Either they are petrified of the paparazzi in the bushes and appalled at having their life in the tabloids, or they dreamt of being famous to cure their wounds, only to discover they don’t feel any more loved than they did before.
As a result, they often turn to drugs, parties, work or other, possibly harmful, distractions.
Fame doesn’t last either. In fact, few stars remain stars for a lifetime. Some don’t know what to do when they’re out of the limelight. They feel that they lose everything, even if they have the money to make cool indie movies for the rest of their lives.
Their ego is broken and, once again, fame can’t heal it.
What you can learn from this: it isn’t about how well-known you are; it’s about being able to do what you love. Nothing but pure self-love is going to heal your ego wounds; all the success in the world won’t make you happy unless your heart is happy.
There will be ups and downs in your life and career, and you need to heal your ego enough to be able to handle that.
There’s no business like show business, and you can learn a lot from it—so long as you don’t get caught up in the pitfalls.