10 Things Making Movies Taught Me…


…That Are Actually Useful in Real Life.

america youngI have been working on movie sets of all sizes and budgets for ten years. During that time I have learned a few things that apply to production AND real life. Art imitates life and life imitates art and the making of art.  Or something deep and philosophical like that. Either way I was thrilled to find similarities between filmmaking and the rest of the world.  Made me feel less like a mystical, lawless carny and more like a relatable member of civilized society.  Which is nice sometimes. Usually though, I prefer to feel like an artistic vagabond.

Here are the things I learned.

1. The Unfinishable Qualities of Water bottles.

Once someone drinks from a water bottle and puts it down, that water bottle will never get used again. Doesn’t matter if you buy the super tiny bottles or if you write names on them (that only works if you have a dedicated person for the job). The act of putting down the water bottle leads to an amnesia of where “your” bottle went, an absolute conviction that THIS bottle is not yours or if it is yours, that someone with mouth herpes drank from it.  Either way the meager damage to the environment is not worth the risk of cooties so you get a new bottle and vow to not let that one out of your sight, until something distracts you.  This happens anywhere people have disposable water bottles and are in a large group and it drives me nuts. Anyone have any solutions to this?

2. Sometimes the people in charge are clueless. 

Sex. Nepotism. Stupid luck. Bullshit artists. Unqualified, inexperienced and undeserving people get in positions of power.  Happens a lot in Hollywood but also in every career. It sucks.   Hopefully one day it will work in your favor.  Until it does, just work hard.  Be a hard working, nice person to be around and you won’t need Nepotism.

3. It rarely has to do with you. 

Even if the world revolves around you, which I have no doubt that it does, most likely someone in a bad mood (or good mood) is dealing with something not related to your world.  I have watched actors between takes anxiously watch the heads behind the camera talk and shake their heads and exclaim emotionally. The actors watch and grow worried. They are sure that they did something wrong and will be fired for sure. They put themselves through their own personal hell only to discover that there is a lens flare that’s frustrating the crew or a huge argument over what’s for lunch.  Whether it’s your boss or the rude grocery clerk, chances are their mood has nothing to do with you. So don’t let it affect your mood or day.

4. Law of First Day Scheduling – The first day never starts on time or goes according to schedule. Don’t panic.

Whenever I get a callsheet for the first day of a shoot, I always smile fondly.  9 times out of 10 we will not be anywhere near this schedule.  No matter how big or small the budget. When you are starting a new project – whatever the career – things will not go according to schedule the first day (or the second day).  But the third day – the third might be just right.  (It won’t.) There are too many variables that not even a mathematician PhD can predict and calculate.  Mainly because most of those variables are human, we are a hopeful species and most likely than not are way too optimistic with our goals for our first day.  Don’t panic. Just take a deep breath and work through the onset panic and self-disparaging thoughts. If you stay calm and clear headed, you will find your precious schedule again (as long as it was a reasonable schedule) and all will be right with the world.  Unless it’s a one-day project, then over-schedule by double and you’ll make half of your day, which is just right. (That is an example of production math, as vague as Calculus but 30 times more useful)

5. Do your job.

As well as you can, no matter what it is. You are part of a bigger machine.

Show up on time. Be prepared. Do your job. Charlie Sheen being fired off ‘Two and a Half Men’ has taught us, no one is irreplaceable. No matter what someone’s job, it is important and necessary. Don’t give the powers that be a reason to replace you by being lazy, entitled or a dick.

6. Shit goes down.

Sometimes those can be the best moments.

When everything you planned for months falls apart – people don’t show, locations are not available, gear is MIA – you can be screwed or you can be brilliant.  You can let it end you or you can take those months of planning and think of a genius solution that not only saves the day but makes it even better than you ever imagined.  The moments that always get the most laughs and emotional reactions in my movies are things we had to think of on the spot to work around an issue.  My favorite moments on vacation are ones when everything goes wrong and we have to improvise.  The moments people always remember at weddings are when someone trips and turned it into a bow.  In ‘Raiders of the Lost Arc’ there is a scene where an expert swordsman did an amazing flourish with swords, which was supposed to lead to complex fights with Indie.  Harrison Ford was sick as a dog that day and was dreading the fight.  So he asked “Can I just shoot him?”  This wasn’t at all what was planned but Ford was really sick, they had to improvise.  And this turned out to be a very memorable part of the movie.

When the box collapses leaving only a cloud of dust, you will be forced to think outside the box.  And out of the box in that cloud of dust (which is a magnificent mixture of panic, adventure, necessity and creativity) is where honest genius lives.

7. Everyone has an opinion.  Not everyone EARNED his or hers.  

Know who to listen to.

I want to write a whole blog on this. So for now I’ll keep it short. In the ages of the internet, everyone feels entitled to tell you their opinion. When it comes to your work, not everyone knows what they are talking about. Most don’t actually.  Know who to listen to.

8. Set boundaries way before you reach them. 

When you are on set with everyone watching and you are asked to do something that makes you uncomfortable, whether it is to fudge the union law, be nude, or cut some shots from your shot list, it’s a lot harder to be objective. Make sure before you show up to work (or to go car shopping or to teacher-parent conferences), know what your hard line boundaries are and stick to them. Know how nude you’ll get, which shots you will not compromise on, how much verbal abuse you’ll put up with from the parents and what extras on the car you can live without. Be able to walk away if you are tested. Never need something more than your morals. Never.

9. The loudest person on set is not always the scariest or the most powerful. 

This goes for parents. And all work places. The more power you have the less you have to use it.  So usually yelling signifies feeling powerless.  That’s why children have temper tantrums.  That’s why grown ups have temper tantrums.  Unless you are Michael Bay and just like yelling.

10. Important people have to wipe their asses too. 

Accidentally walking into a toilet stall (that wasn’t locked) and being face to face with a childhood hero of mine mid-wipe brings me to my final point.  Of course, look up to people. Of course, be inspired by people. But be careful of idolizing. Makes it seem like they are better than you which can then intimidate you into paralysis rather than inspire you into action. No matter who they are, they spend time of each day sitting on a too short porcelain bowl with their pants around their ankles making sure they are free of fecal matter. Next time you meet someone who intimidates or undermines you, try to guess which butt check they lean on when they are wiping. My hero leans left. Puts things in perspective doesn’t it?

In conclusion, the fact that so many things that I originally assumed were only film production actually apply to many other situations just strengthens my theory that humans are humans.  We pursue different dreams and goals in life but we still have things in common with each other no matter what.

So remember whether you are creating art, saving lives or shaping young minds: label your fracking water bottles.

America Young

About America Young

Filmmaker/Stuntwoman - Currently working in many aspects of film making. She is a writer/producer of “Geek Therapy” (licensed by Stan Lee & POW! Entertainment). She’s done motion capture for over 25 video games. Some of the characters she’s voiced are Wendy Darling in “TinkerBell”, Betty Cooper and a few characters in “Monster High.” She has stunt coodinated films and music videos for Katy Perry, Ashley Simpson, Chris Cornell and Natasha Beddingfield to name a few. She helped found, run and program the “Feel Good Film Festival” (2007- May 2011) and “The Catalina Film Festival” (2011- current). She is one of the executive producers of the feature film anthology called “Girls! Girls! Girls!” She is attached to direct the feature, “The Concessionaires Must Die.” When she’s not seducing the Barbarian King, kicking the crap out of Super- Heroes that support the Superhuman Registration Act, talking to fairies or setting herself on fire, she enjoys sipping herbal tea and sharpening her pair of Sai.

  • How HARD is it to label your water bottle?
    Just do it. I put a sharpie on a string right there.

  • Verona Blue

    Such a good article. I think newbies to film sets are easily intimidated. We’ve all DREAMED of this, and now we’re here and we start to doubt how we even made it, and someone must have definitely made a mistake because we’re not good enough to be here. Being cool, collected and prepared is really fantastic advice regardless of your part in the machine.

    I always bring my own re-useable water bottle to set to avoid the dreaded abandoned-water bottle problem.

  • Number 7 – yeeeeeeeesssss!
    And can we tack onto the end of that – just because it’s YOUR opinion (earned or not) doesn’t mean it has to be MY (or anyone else’s) opinion.

    Number 9 is also related to this…

  • Amanda

    Bravo! Great piece.

  • Craig A. Butler

    The answer to your water bottle question is simple – stop using plastic water bottles! It’s expensive, creates litter, and promotes irresponsibility. It’s actually cheaper to buy the entire crew personalized, permanent water bottles and provide water in bulk using water coolers and jugs. Not only is it easier to identify whose bottle is whose, but afterwards it becomes a memorable keepsake!

    It behooves anyone in any kind of project management to study military science. Your #4 about first day scheduling reminds me of my favorite von Moltke quote – “no battle plan survives first contact with the enemy.” Or, as Eisenhower put it, “plans are worthless, but planning is everything.” Production is the enemy to be outmaneuvered, and will constantly throw the unexpected your way. Thus, having a strict schedule and trying to stick to it is impossible; but doing your research and collecting your resources ahead of time so that you know what your options are at any given moment is extremely powerful.

    #6 speaks to this exact point – flexibility in the face of rapidly changing conditions is crucial. Sun Tzu: “Water shapes its course according to the nature of the ground over which it flows; the soldier works out his victory in relation to the foe whom he is facing. Therefore, just as water retains no constant shape, so in warfare there are no constant conditions.”

    #7 is very true – just look at all the opinions I have! I’d like to say we should be generous and take everyone’s input before coming to a balanced decision, but in the heat of battle, extra opinions can be distracting and wasteful of everyone’s time. Yes, it’s a collaborative artistic process, but who gets to contribute what needs to be kept in mind. Also, when is as important as who: the bulk of the creative process should happen in pre-production, not when we’ve got three shots left and the sun is setting and the location is threatening to call the police if we don’t get out.

    I could tell lots of stories about #8, especially where actresses and nudity are concerned. The best plan seems to be to shoot nudity/sex scenes first and get it out of the way for everyone.

    #9 on your list reminds me of a Denzel Washington line in American Gangster… “the loudest one in the room is the weakest one in the room.”

    Finally, Raiders of the Lost Arc would be an excellent title for a mathemagical edutainment adventure.