“X” Marks the Spot: My First Job In Film – PART 1
My first job in film was working for one of the most iconic and controversial directors in Hollywood. I did everything from cooking for dailies and picking up dry cleaning to cleaning toilets and sweeping an entire street in Brooklyn. The experience was life changing, but the journey to securing my dream job was a long and arduous one filled with twists, turns, a canoe and shark infested waters. But, like every story, it’s always best to start at the beginning.
I have always loved watching television and I started collecting TV Guides at the tender age of 10. I was sort of the junior guru of programming in my hometown of Knoxville, Tennessee and many of my friends and family members would call me to see what interesting programs I suggested they watch. In addition to that, I would also share tidbits of interesting stories that I had read in that week’s TV Guide and as a result, I developed a keen sense of trends that helped me successfully predict which shows would be cancelled. Nine out of ten times, my predictions were correct, but I’m still baffled over how the sitcom, “Yes, Dear” managed to stay on for 6 seasons. I think my sinuses may have blocked my perceptions on that one. My childhood ritual of buying TV Guides and memorizing multiple networks’ programming schedules lasted well into my 20s. Needless to say, I just knew that when I grew up that I would land a job in television, but surprisingly, my break into entertainment was my first job in film.
I got married at 19 and stayed married as long as I could stand living with someone who didn’t have an appreciation for “Must See TV”. So, quite naturally, I had to take him out of my weekly line-up because he wasn’t ready for primetime (oh yeah, and he got another girl pregnant while we were married). After my divorce, I moved to Pittsburgh to live with my sister who encouraged me to take screenwriting at the University of Pittsburgh. I enrolled and it was a wonderful experience that allowed me to finally put my creativity on paper. As part of the curriculum, we studied numerous classic film scripts and critiqued their respective movies and I quickly learned that what’s written on the page isn’t always what makes it to the screen
I thrived in my course work and came to the realization that I loved film as much as I did television. So much so, that one of my professors suggested that I apply for the exclusive “Kuntu Writer’s Workshop”, founded and taught by the late great playwright August Wilson. To my surprise and utter glee, I was accepted into the class and immediately began attending workshop sessions every first and third Saturday of each month. At that time, Mr. Wilson was already an accomplished and celebrated Pulitzer Prize winning playwright and he was also one of my writing idols. But having my work critiqued by him was both painful and rewarding. He once told me that he didn’t believe a word of what I had written even though the story was an account of an event that had actually taken place in my childhood. By the time I finished polishing my story and adding all of Mr. Wilson’s great suggestions, the revised copy not only finally convinced him of its authenticity, but it also entertained him as well. I’ll never forget how he looked me squarely in the eyes and said, “The only way you’re gonna succeed in this world is if you believe in yourself more than anyone else.” Those words reverberate in my mind every time I face the world.
After Pittsburgh, I moved to Washington, DC and snagged a quite a few interesting jobs on my way to my first job in film: Copywriter for a small magazine that’s now defunct; salesperson at a mail delivery service; and ended up at Gannett/USA Today, working as a legal secretary for one of the lead entertainment attorneys. I hadn’t been working there very long when a friend told me that filmmaker Spike Lee was staffing up for his next film, “Malcolm X”. I had no production experience, but as a student, I had heard Mr. Lee speak at the University of Pittsburgh and I had also attended his entertainment seminars in Brooklyn. After those encounters with the legendary director, I can distinctly remember telling my sister Tené that I would one day be working with him. She believed me and encouraged me to pursue that notion, but of course I had no idea how to make that happen. Now, it would appear that I was getting one step closer to making that dream a reality.
I drove to Brooklyn to submit my name and resume for a Production Assistant (PA) position. But, unlike most potential jobs where you just submit your information and leave, everyone also had to complete a written exam on their knowledge of African American and Malcolm X history. There were hundreds of people in that auditorium and when the test was over, I breathed a sigh of relief but also concern that I may not have fared as well as I would have liked. After the test, I turned in my paperwork along with my resume and then headed back to D.C. A few weeks passed with no word from anyone, so I headed to Miami with my family on our yearly August vacation. I had pretty much resigned that I did not get the position at 40 Acres & A Mule Filmworks (40 Acres), so being with family was a nice distraction. We went tooling around Miami, waded on boogie boards in the ocean, and went on foodie sojourns that led us to the most delicious key lime pie that I had ever eaten.
About 3 days into our 8 day stay, my sister Shirley (who hadn’t traveled with us) called and said that I had received a call from 40 Acres and relayed that they wanted me to come to the 40 Acres office for a face-to-face interview in just 2 days from that time. I was elated, but also mortified because I knew that I couldn’t afford to fly from Miami to New York on such short notice. I called the 40 Acres office and spoke to Mr. Lee’s assistant and she was very nice, but firmly stated that if I couldn’t make the interview that I would be taken out of the running for the position. But, she also had some positive news; she relayed that I had one of the highest scores on my African American/Malcolm X history test. At the time, that was little consolation because I had reconciled that my notion of working with Spike Lee had just turned from a dream to a nightmare. I finished out my vacation and as soon as I returned to D.C., I made a last ditch effort to secure an interview with Mr. Lee. I used my creative writing skills to craft a fantastical letter that told of my efforts to travel from Miami to New York in a canoe that had top sized and exposed me to shark infested waters, ending in my near-death rescue by Cuban immigrants.
I know, it was a stretch but I was desperate and I had to say something that would make me stand out. I nervously mailed the letter, but got no immediate response. Close to 3 weeks had passed when my phone finally rung. It was Mr. Lee’s assistant and she started off the conversation by reading portions of my letter and laughing out loud. She said that she enjoyed reading my slightly embellished (okay, completely made-up) story but that unfortunately, all of the paying jobs on the “Malcolm X” film had been filled. Needless to say I was devastated, but just when I thought all hope had drifted away for my first job in film, she offered me a glimmer of hope and I was posed with one question that forever changed my life.