Earl Newton worked as a freelance (and self-taught) writer, director and editor for almost ten years up and down the East Coast before making the move to Los Angeles. He lives in constant fear that a film school student will one day explain that “F-stop” doesn’t really mean what he thinks it means.
His username on Twitter is @strangerthings.
Last week, I spent my thirtieth birthday as a director on a professional set in Los Angeles. Any concerns I had over turning thirty die off as I type that sentence.
Yet for the first 29 years of my life, I did literally everything I could to avoid LA and a career as a professional filmmaker. And I’m here to tell you why that hesitation — that waiting, born of reluctance — was the best thing that could have happened to me.
Young, dumb, and full of stay
By the time I entered college in my tiny Florida town, I’d already decided I wouldn’t be moving to Los Angeles. While my friends shared fantasies of $2000 two-bedroom apartments and lives made of ramen noodles, I’d been infected by the Rodriguez disease, and I felt a furious, indignant independence. I wanted to make my own path, outside of Los Angeles.
Also, it seemed expensive, and I knew I still had a lot to learn. Having been home-schooled, I was already comfortable with self-education, and struggling to survive in a major city just to learn the basics seemed like going to Harvard to take English 101.
Also, I’d been rejected from film school three times and I was terrified I’d move to Los Angeles and fail immediately.
Such is youth.
I had a bit of money to invest in my education, partially from an inheritance and partially from a loan co-signed by my parents. With it, I bought my first camera (a Sony DCR-TRV 510) and a Dell computer for editing (MotoDV Firewire card sold separately). For just about $3,100, I had the equivalent filmmaking power of an iPhone.
When you are poor and poorly connected, you exploit the only teaching resources you have available: books and practical experience. There are three books I recommend to any filmmaker: Backwards and Forwards by David Ball, On Directing Film by David Mamet, and In the Blink of an Eye by Walter Murch. I haven’t found any that speak as concisely on storytelling as those. They are all quite thin as well, which led me to theorize that the size of the film book is inversely proportionate to its usefulness.
So I read and shot everything I could afford. Much of what I shot was useless. I could feel something worthwhile buried in it, but it still felt awkward, and I couldn’t put my finger on why. Watching hours of this kind of footage made me grateful I didn’t have to undergo these growing pains while juggling P.A. jobs. Looking back at these first works, I’m still grateful.
Being without a real mentor, I went looking for one in cinema history, and I found him, in the thick of Communist Russia: Sergei Eisenstein (creator of “Battleship Potemkin”).
Long before Robert Rodriguez, here was the original writer/director/editor. Here was a man, similar to myself, far from Hollywood, figuring out movies without a film school (in his case, none existed yet). With no teachers available, he reached out to other disciplines and looked for ways to apply them to cinema. As an example: one story suggests he developed his concepts of film montage after he learned how Japanese kanji expresses meaning. (In kanji, two unrelated symbols are juxtaposed to create a third idea. The symbol for “dog” combines with the symbol for “mouth” to represent “bark,” etc)
Taking a page from Eisenstein’s book, I studied as many different crafts as drew my interest. At my local community college (and later, at a nearby university) I took classes in acting, improv, theatre directing, and scene design. I took computer science and sign language. Anything and everything seemed to hold some insight into movie storytelling. I also took care to study the roles of other departments to greater or lesser degree: sound recording, visual effects, photography, etc.
To directors: starting out, you’re going be encouraged to familiarize yourself with the jobs of other departments. I highly and humbly recommend this.
You’ll be told it’s because it makes communicating your vision easier, and that’s true. But there are two more important reasons. First, if you know how to be a sound man, you know how to make the sound man’s job easier. This has the potential to make you very popular with sound men (or editors, or cinematographers, etc), something you’ll need when your only currency is good will. Second, when you begin producing your own work, this renaissance approach to filmmaking will allow you to start before anyone else signs on. Knowing you can finish in a pinch, if you have to, will lend you a confident relentlessness that makes others want to get involved.
This went on for a number of years. I took regular jobs, but could never stay settled for long. Two years was my maximum.
I took some of my films to film festivals. I won some awards, lost a lot more, but didn’t find much use in festivals, except once, early on, when one of the festival programmers took me aside and said, “Your film was not quite good enough, but I fought for it anyway, because I think you’ve got something. It’s not there yet, but there’s something.”
Things like this made me question my disavowal of Los Angeles, but by this point, I was staying away out of sheer fear. I worried that if I went to Los Angeles, I’d be outed immediately, because of some secret knowledge all these film school students and LA professionals understood that I didn’t.
At the same time, I couldn’t let it go. So I decided to test myself, and in 2007, I started a web-series called “Stranger Things.”
Stranger Things happened
You can Google it if you want to know more. Suffice it to say, I raised enough money to buy a camera at the end of 2006 (the HVX-200, a $5,000 camera at the time), and by March of 2007, we premiered the first episode. We started with almost two thousand subscribers, and were at eighteen thousand within a few months.
We suffered from serious resource issues, but I was determined not to derail myself with thoughts of, “If we had X, we could do this better.” So we plunged ahead anyway, but running out of time, money, and experienced actors hurt the show. Our episodes became sporadic, and then came almost to a complete halt.
We were still picked up for video on-demand distribution the next year, though.
Stranger Things was my talent litmus test, and to my mind, it was inconclusive. All I could see was the “limited response.” Why not a million people?! I would think to myself.
Looking at it now, it was a good program, given what we had. The initial response was there, and the fanbase was loyal. But I was putting all my insecurity onto the show, and I don’t think anything short of a call from Steven Spielberg would have convinced me I had any right to be in the business. I wanted something explosive, something dramatic, to validate me.
So once again (do we see a pattern, friends?) I couldn’t commit myself to Los Angeles, but I still couldn’t convince myself to put filmmaking aside entirely. So I chose the middle-ground. In 2008, I left my day job and temporarily moved back with my family while I began building a client roster as a freelance director and editor. Once again, hedging my bets.
John asked, in his first email to me, if I had been worried I might settle into a “good-enough job” instead of moving to LA. At the time, it hadn’t occurred to me, and I think that’s why — when it did hit me — it did so with such force.
Fall 2009: My biological clock is half-past Orson Welles
I was now twenty-eight years old, working small freelance jobs with clients I’d slowly built up over the prior year. I’d met a girl, fallen in love, moved in. I was planning a very respectable life, one that was slowly moving away from movies. I told myself, “This is as far as it’ll go.”
I thought I was okay with that. And then we went to the grocery store.
I think there are few places more abhorrent to the ambitious than the grocery store. It’s a death march of mediocrity. The dead eyes of castrated hunter/gatherers passing from one manic-depressive box of cereal to the next. “Is this the tuna you like?” “Where’s the peanut butter?” “Do we have milk?”
As I stood in that grocery store, watching a possible future lift a ten-pack of Hungryman frozen dinners into a cart, I knew — ready or not — there would never be another time. And I realized I would rather fail at something I love than succeed at anything else.
I’m aware of how this sounds, but I am not exaggerating when I say the grocery store put me over the edge. I had panic attacks in Wal-Mart regularly. After that, I became more and more angry and impatient.
It started as a notion to my girlfriend. “I think I might have a quick job out in San Francisco.” Which became, “I think they are going to keep me for a week or two.” Which became, “I think I might swing down to L.A. afterward, just to check out the scene.” Which became, “I don’t know when I’m coming back.” Which became, “I’m not coming back.”
We broke up just before New Year’s Eve, and by the third week in January, 2010, I was sleeping on a friend’s couch in Los Angeles.
First night at the edge of the world
I’ll confess to you here: that first night in L.A. was a terror. Reality and I lost touch somewhere after crossing the Mississippi River, and it didn’t catch up with me until that night, after my friends were in bed, and I was alone in the city for the first time. I sat on the sofa, laptop open, and tried to figure out what I had just done.
I hadn’t followed any of the advice on John’s blog or places like the Artful Writer. I had no job waiting for me, no place to live, and only a few friends I could call. I had just over a thousand dollars, and most of it disappeared when my car and my computer both decided to die within weeks of each other. There was nothing romantic about this at all.
So I did the only thing I could do. I sent my resumé to twelve ads on Craigslist, said “fuck it,” and went to sleep.
In that order.
The hyphenate problem
For the first few months, survival was a daily struggle. I had a few clients back East that I still did work for, so they tided me over in tiny bits while I looked for local work. I cut two reels (a narrative and a motion graphics reel) and posted them on my website, and sent out dozens of job inquiries, 99% of which were never answered. It was a total numbers game, and the numbers were against me.
What I needed was a human connection with someone. Not a resumé and a reel, but a real chance to show what I could do in the context of someone’s project. Unfortunately, no one seemed interested in letting me.
The hyphenate problem was a major struggle for me when I arrived. In LA, the “writer/director/editor” hyphenate always includes a silent fourth: “pick one.” As in, “writer/director/editor/pick one.” Sure, people claim all three, but, as had been so pointedly put to me, “When you don’t lead with one, people pretty much assume you suck at all of them equally.”
It seemed my self-education was to my disadvantage. I learned how to make movies all at once. From the first idea until final output, I’m always working toward this ethereal fourth thing called “movie,” which isn’t quite a script, or a set of shots, or an edit decision list. It doesn’t fully exist until you’re finished. And I wanted to do all three. So how would I introduce myself to prospective clients?
Should I be a writer? With no connections, I’d most likely get jobs writing ad copy or websites. No money there.
A director? I had a decent reel but it was all things I’d shot for no money. It displayed a lot of potential, but it wasn’t a solid proof of concept for what I was capable of. Add to that, I didn’t know yet how to speak “director” to my clients (which is really just a combination of competence and confidence in your own vision).
It came down to editing (and with that, motion graphics work). Editing is still arcane enough to the uninitiated that it can command survivable day-rates, even at entry-level. A director just talks to actors and points, right? And a writer? God help the bastard, he’s just scribbling words. Right? But editors! There are codecs and frame rates and complicated programs to wrangle. Add in motion graphics, and you have video voodoo.
How did you make that swooshy-swishy-wipe thing?
Do you know what a gaussian blur is?
Then it was black magic.
All professions, as George Bernard Shaw once said, are conspiracies against the laity.
So that’s where I began, editing literally whatever people would let me, for any sum they would offer. I did not bargain. I did not tap my resumé and counter-offer. I worked exceedingly long hours for exceedingly low pay, as often as I could. But each low-pay, no-pay job I took gave me hope, because it wasn’t a lost investment, it was an audition. It was an introductory rate. It was a bet, between myself and my employer, that I could prove how valuable I actually was, and be hired back at a reasonable rate, sometime before I went broke and had to leave LA.
Success looks like failure for the first ten years
I suspect if you trace back anyone’s career long enough, each job will link together in a chain that runs all the way back to a single, innocuous opportunity. Mine came when a friend sent me a posting for an assistant editor position. They acknowledged it was very low pay, but the hours were regular, and I’d have a hand in editing a documentary-type piece for a film. I remember turning to my roommate and saying, “I want to turn this into something.”
I hit it off with the editor in charge of the project (we’ve since become great friends), and set to work. I always showed up on time, I worked hard, and stayed true to two simple rules: 1) only speak up when you have a good idea, and 2) it better be good.
By the end of the week, they were impressed enough with my work that I was promoted to editor. By the end of the month, they asked if I’d be interested in doing it again the following year, with a team of three editors underneath me.
This job (editing a series of documentary pieces about a film) led me to a job cutting the trailer for the film. That job led me to cutting a short for the film’s director. That job earned me the director’s recommendation, and within a few months a pair of screenwriters called me, asking if I’d cut a short project for them. When they liked the way I helped punch up the comedy their project, they offered to show my writing/directing samples to their agent.
This chain of jobs also broke off in another direction, with a chance to write a spec for an upcoming series. That led to a job writing scripts for an educational series, which, after meeting with the producers and pitching them my ideas, turned into a directing and editing job.
Now, I live a bit more comfortably, though none of my work has been union, yet. It’s mostly low-budget commercials, or promotional pieces. That’s fine with me. Anyone who says those don’t count has never dug ditches for a living.
I’m no overnight success. It’s taken me almost ten years just to move here, and I’ve only just begun. But it was a ten years I spent with friends and family, not starving, and focused on honing my own voice. Would I have learned faster, had I moved to LA sooner? Maybe. I know my own skill level has shot upwards just by being around so many talented people.
I can’t say I would have survived, though. And I can’t say I would’ve preserved intact my voice, my feelings about the world, and my secret naiveté, which I safeguard above all else. “Stay innocent” are not bad words to live by.
Right now, I juggle time between my writing, directing, and editing clients. How I introduce myself to you depends on what I think you need. By default, I am a director, because that’s what people respect the most. It makes no difference to me. Having watched enough of my clients deal with their clients, I’ve started packaging myself as one entity. A production pipeline. And quietly, in the background, I’m creating my own material. It’s the same as it always was, except now I live where the right people will see it.
I remember a moment during one of my last shoots for Stranger Things, dragging generators and gear up a flight of stairs, when I turned to my sound man and said, “It will never be harder than it is right now.”
At this point, it could be years before I reach the place I want to be. It could be tomorrow. What’s important to me is that I love my life. I love the work I do, no matter how big or small, and I love making it as good as I possibly can. Everything else is just the waiting. And I can wait a long time.