Who are YOUR creative heroes? Do they seem to succeed effortlessly, and without much strategy? Do they walk on sparkly clouds of cinematic grandeur, arriving at their red carpet destination with nary a hair out of place? Are they mystifyingly perfect?
If so, I’m here to mess you up a little bit. ‘Cause guess what: this business is tough on everyone.
Today we’re going to look at a few household names in entertainment, and learn more about the tooth-and-nail grit it took these three creative gurus to hit their stride, find their tribe, and climb to the top in this competitive industry.
Entertainment maven Shonda Rhimes entered the workforce at 16, scooping ice cream at Baskin-Robbins. She then famously worked as a candy striper, which led to many ideas for Grey’s Anatomy years later. After graduating from Dartmouth (where she worked as an office assistant), she interned for a law firm, then an advertising company.
23 years later, Shonda gave the 2014 commencement address at her alma mater:
“The real world sucks… every day you can feel like you might be failing at work or at your home life… And yet, you can still wake up one day and find yourself living a life you never even imagined dreaming of.”
In grad school at USC’s School of Cinematic Arts she developed a love of screenwriting and honed her craft. While pursuing her MFA, she did the usual LA day jobs—interning for production companies, and working the embarrassing assistant job.
Then Will Smith produced her short film, Blossoms and Veils starring Jada Pinkett Smith. That paved the way for Shonda’s first feature, When Willows Touch. But just three weeks before production the film fell apart and she found herself back at square one. Undeterred, she worked for HBO doing research on a Hank Aaron documentary. During nights and weekends she wrote Human Seeking Same, eventually selling it to New Line. That script was never produced, but it officially launched Shonda Rhimes’ career as a writer.
The lesson here? Even if you have all the talent in the world, be ready to grind. It doesn’t come easy, and you might need to bounce back from some close calls and disappointments before you break through.
If you get a job in the industry, making someone coffee, making someone copies, running someone’s errands, you better make the best coffee they’ve ever had. And it better be with a smile… The entitled, sort of ‘I can’t believe I’m doing this’ thing gets very old, very fast.
Auteur Christopher Nolan couldn’t even get into film school after completing his undergrad at University College London. Thankfully, he took full advantage of his four years at UCL, which he chose for its filmmaking facilities. Upon graduating, he had already made two short films.
An admirer of Stanley Kubrick, Chris took his advice to learn filmmaking by making films; he wrote, directed, shot, and edited his first feature, Following on the weekends while directing corporate training videos. His wife, Emma, got hired by Working Title Films as his edit was nearing completion.
So the Nolans moved to LA, and Chris held down a script reader gig while finishing his film. It was three years before the project was finally ready to visit film festivals.
“When I look back, the key thing for me when we started to get traction for Following on the festival circuit was that I had already finished the script for Memento. So, as soon as we’d got any credibility for Following and people asked what I wanted to do next, I was able to go: ‘Here’s a script.’ And it was a script that was related, in structural terms, to Following.”
So what did we learn? Don’t wait for some gatekeeper to let you in, just go out and create your own opportunities. And when they pay off and doors start opening for you, be prepared to take advantage.
The Emmy-, Grammy-, and Tony-award-winner worked at McDonald’s in his teens (when minimum wage was $4.25, can you dig it?). He started writing In the Heights while attending Wesleyan University; on the strength of that title and one song, he applied to have the school’s ’92 Theater mount it.
His request was granted, with roughly five months until showtime. Writing nonstop, Lin-Manuel presented his first show on the theater stage in April of his sophomore year.
“Two remarkable things happened. One, we broke box-office records for the ’92 Theater that year—it was insanity. Two, I was approached by John Buffalo Mailer son of Norman, a senior at the time. He loved the show and said, “My friends and I are starting a production company when we graduate, and we want to help you bring it to New York.” I said, “That sounds awesome,” went to the cast party and promptly forgot about his offer.”
After graduation, Lin-Manuel went to work for his high school, teaching 7th grade English, but eventually he reconnected with John Buffalo Mailer, who had indeed started a production company. It took five more years of intense development to bring In the Heights to its first Off-Broadway stage. But when it got there, it took off. And took Lin-Manuel Miranda with it.
Our big takeaway? Well, an impossible deadline can be a great motivator to jumpstart your creative process! But you still might have to do some grinding to take your film from good to great.
So if you’re making coffee or walking dogs while creating worlds in your imagination, I hope this both bolsters your hope and kicks your butt. What are you waiting for? There’s no one stopping you but you!
For more inspiration, check out this #1st7jobs tag on Twitter. Comment below with your first job! Mine was making copies at an independent print shop.