It’s tempting to believe that ultra-successful filmmakers got to where they are by some preferential treatment – either because they were born into a well-connected family, or had enough means to buy their way into a Hollywood break. And while that may be true for a small subsection of Hollywood stars, it’s certainly not the only way people get their start in Hollywood.
The entertainment industry is like any other industry – it pulls people in from a diverse range of interests and backgrounds. Some writers find it by way of journalism. Some actors find it by way of stand-up comedy. Some directors find it because they’re just huge movie buffs and want to try creating in the medium they love so much.
Lists like this one don’t just exercise in celebrity gossip. They’re meant to illustrate that anyone – including you – can work your way up in a place like Hollywood. With enough drive, enough talent, and enough learning, you can be like the following six filmmakers, each of whom got their start in – shall we say – interesting ways.
Will Smith Started as a Hip-Hop MC
Older readers will probably already know this one, but if you’ve recently become a Will Smith fan via his recent roles in Gemini Man, Aladdin, or Bad Boys for Life, you might be surprised to learn that he was once known primarily for his musicianship.
Smith started as one half of the hip-hop duo DJ Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince, turning out songs in the mid-80s such as “Girls Ain’t Nothing But Trouble” and “Parents Just Don’t Understand”. In the late-80s, however, Smith started to struggle financially and decided to leverage his hip-hop persona to develop a TV show: The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.
The show’s success vaulted Smith into renewed stardom, opening the door for the kinds of leading man roles he continues to perform today. Now, Smith, along with his wife Jada Pinkett-Smith, runs an organization that offers mentorship to aspiring filmmakers – the Will and Jada Smith Family Foundation, or WJSFF.org is their own way of illustrating that you can be successful in Hollywood regardless of your upbringing.
David O. Russell Got in by Way of Political Activism
The Director of Silver Linings Playbook, American Hustle and Three Kings is so fluent in filmmaking, with such effortless flair, that you might naturally assume he went to school for it. But he didn’t.
As an activist particularly interested in the treatment of Latin Americans, Russell decided to make a documentary about Panamanian immigrants in New York. This caught the eye, apparently, of PBS who hired him as a PA. There, he got a behind-the-scenes education of how filming works, which he used to create movies of his own.
Quentin Tarantino Worked at a Video Rental Store
Quentin Tarantino, perhaps the most well-known director of the past 30 years, didn’t have a conventional start in Hollywood. Having grown up primarily in Los Angeles, Tarantino worked a number of odd jobs in and around the film industry: he was an extra, an adult movie theatre usher and a recruiter in the aerospace industry.
But the odd job that pointed his career toward the silver screen was working at a video rental store. There, Tarantino would watch countless movies, absorbing all the tropes, dialogue, stylistic techniques and geekdom that would inform his later career output. He wrote the screenplay for True Romance while working at the video store, proving that no matter your current situation, you can always find time to pursue a dream.
Diablo Cody Was a Stripper, Then a Columnist
The Oscar-winning screenwriter for the indie classic Juno had quite an unusual path toward the silver screen. Working as a stripper in Minneapolis, Cody documented her job for a local newspaper, before writing her story in a memoir – Candy Girl: a Year in the Life of an Unlikely Stripper.
From there, the transition between writing books and writing for the screen was easy. Her manager at the time her book was published encouraged Cody to write a screenplay. And thus, Juno was born.
Diablo Cody’s unorthodox journey to the Academy Awards red carpet should offer an uplifting lesson that anyone you meet, regardless of where they work, could have an award winning script up their sleeve.
Ava DuVernay Covered the O.J. Simpson Trial
If you’re unfamiliar with Ava DuVernay’s career output, you should fix that immediately. The multi-award-winning documentarian and director of Selma, When They See Us and 13th is hugely talented. It isn’t all that odd for a documentary-focused filmmaker to get their start in media coverage – after all, what is a documentary but a long-form article.
But it’s the particular media coverage here that warrants inclusion on this list. DuVernay worked as a reporter for the O.J. Simpson trial, an experience that had two profound effects on her: one, it taught her the value of rigorous reporting; and two, it pushed her away from journalism.
Using $6,000 she’d saved up, DuVernay made her first film, a 12-minute short smartly titled Saturday Night Life. With the little bit of exposure she gained from the festival circuit, DuVernay was able to continue making films – with the budgets and distribution getting bigger with each project. Her next project, a Netflix documentary about Prince, promises to continue her hot streak.
George Lucas Filmed a Rolling Stones Concert
George Lucas didn’t just slap down the screenplay for Star Wars and hit the races. Like others, he had to cut his teeth in the industry. For Lucas, that meant working as a camera assistant for the Rolling Stones live filmed concert Gimme Shelter in 1970. The only problem was, Lucas didn’t that great of a job.
During the concert, Lucas’s camera stopped working, which rendered his footage unusable. But the job did give him valuable behind-camera experience, and the confidence to continue working in the industry. As the story goes, Lucas wanted to remake Flash Gordon, but after being unable to secure the rights he decided just to create his own space fantasy. 43 years later, Star Wars has made him one of the richest people in the industry.
If these six filmmakers can do it, so can you