If you can name a movie director off the top of your head, chances are it's a member of the Hollywood elite who earns massive sums of money. Yet for every Steven Spielberg or James Cameron there are hordes of lesser-known artists, happily hammering away at their craft. There are all kinds of movie makers, just as there are all kinds of movies - major motion pictures, independent films, cable movies, documentaries, sitcoms, TV dramas, and more. Some directors make excellent livings while others just scrape by, hoping for a lucky break.
In reality, making it as a director has much more to do with hard work and talent than with luck. Take George. In 1994, when he was 25 years old, he made his writing and directing debut with a dark comedy about the inner workings of Hollywood. In the movie industry, this is a monumental victory for someone so young, but while success came early for George, it didn't come easy. It took seven years slogging away in the film industry before he seized his chance to direct.
A native Californian, George caught the film bug early, and by the time he was 18 he was interning for some of the major studios in Los Angeles. "Basically I was doing full-time work for free," he said with a laugh, "but I stuck around and worked hard, so eventually they had to start paying me.
After several years of paying his dues, George became an assistant among several high-profile producers and studio executives. The connections and experience he developed there, as well as the encouragement of a fellow up-and-coming director, eventually got him behind the camera. "It was tough," he said. "No one wants to just give a first-time director a movie, but I wanted to tell this story."
Raising independent financing through various means, he got to do just that. "My first film was made with little money. I earned nothing, but it was an investment in my career. Thankfully the film turned out well." While his debut feature didn't score big at the box office, he received widespread critical acclaim which gave him the credibility he lives up to today.
Now 32, George has directed two feature films, a TV pilot, and guest spots on episodic TV shows. Which should mean he's rolling in the proverbial dough. Or maybe not. "One of the toughest parts of the job is the financial instability," George said matter-of-factly. "You don't know what you'll be making year to year." In 1998, he cleared a whopping mid-six figures. Last year, however, he only made $10,000. "It all depends. You could be making $50,000 a week on one show, then the next you're doing for free because you really want to do the project. The philosophy is, if you keep doing what you love, eventually it will pay off."
Few film directors, including George, are in the business for the money. "It's this tremendous sense of accomplishment. This thing outlives you. Long after you're gone, there will still be this piece of work people can look at and hopefully appreciate."
The majority of directors in Hollywood work outside the classic notion of big-studio filmmaking with hundred-million-dollar budgets and six months to shoot in some exotic location. A typical cable movie, for example, costs $3-$4 million. That translates into a grueling four weeks of pre-production, four weeks of shooting, and four weeks to edit the pieces together. "Actually shooting the film is the toughest," said one veteran film maker whose credits used to include big-budget feature films but now hover in the cable movie zone.
"You wake up each day knowing that there are only so many hours to cover so many scenes, and even if all the technical aspects hold up, the camera angles, the lighting, the sets, wardrobe, hair, make-up, the actors…, you can't anticipate the kind of absurd thing that could grind the entire production to a halt."
Such as? "I've had to stop shooting for anything from hurricanes, to a food-poisoned crew, to a lead actor getting hideous cold sores. The fun part is trying to explain this stuff to the executives."
From the moment a film goes into production it is the director's job to oversee all the technical, and creative details, while still holding firm to the story he or she wants to tell. For every director, seeing the finished project on screen is the ultimate high. "The best feeling in the world is sitting in the back of the movie theater and having the audience laugh at something you've created," George said, then added, "hopefully laughing with it, not at it."