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From Dressing a Pickle to Making The Hunger Games

Nov 8, 2012

From Dressing a Pickle to Making The Hunger Games

Bryan Unkeless has some pretty good stories to tell, like the time he drove all over Los Angeles looking for clothes that fit a pickle.

The 2004 Duke graduate, now a film producer who co-produced, among other things, The Hunger Games, told some of his stories in the keynote speech for Duke's recent Duke Entertainment Media and Arts Network (DEMAN) Weekend. It was such a compelling speech that we decided to post it here for folks to read.

Enjoy.

 

Hi everyone. Welcome to the DEMAN Weekend Career Workshop. I want to thank Grace Taylor, Will Evans, Grace Kohut, Angela Karl, Scott Lindroth, and Sterly Wilder for coordinating this event and inviting me to speak today. It’s a real honor to be here with all of you. It’s been a while since I’ve been here in the Bryan Center — when I think back upon this place the first thing that comes to mind is the Dillo. And when I think about the Dillo the first thing that comes to mind, is that they serve beer on points. That was probably the best thing that happened to me in college, when they decided to do that. After that I really started flying through the points on my meal plan. And now, well that’s actually one of the weirdest things about coming back here. I bought breakfast earlier and I actually had to pay for it. With real dollars. It was terrible.

It’s been an interesting experience, writing this speech, because it’s forced me to actually stop and think about what I’ve learned since I’ve left Duke. What lessons I’ve picked up that may be of value to others. It’s strange because it doesn’t feel like it’s been that long since I’ve been in school and in many ways I still feel like I’m figuring everything out. Truth is I’m not sure you ever really do figure it all out. If I’m lucky maybe I’ll come back here in five or ten years and I’ll STILL be figuring everything out.

But I have picked up a few things since I’ve graduated. Mostly by making mistakes. I’ve made A LOT of mistakes. I once crashed my boss’s car on my way to driving toward the wrong set location. Another time I told a different boss she looked just like Kirstie Alley. When she asked if she looked like skinny Kirstie Alley or fat Kirstie Alley I told her fat Kirstie Alley. The correct answer was skinny Kirstie Alley but I was being honest.

I’ve missed meetings because I’ve gone to the wrong restaurant, I’ve walked right into one of the best takes we had in Hunger Games, I once accidentally sent a weepy romance script instead of an action script to Bruce Willis…

Don’t you guys want to keep listening to me? I’ll give you some great advice! You can leave now if you want, no harm no foul. My feelings won’t be hurt. But if you do want to stay, my advice… you can take it or leave it. And if you take it, take it with a big grain of salt. Because there’s no one right way. And if all goes well, you’ll leave here and set off and go make your own mistakes… Here it goes…

POINT OF ADVICE NUMBER 1: YOUR GPA DOESN’T MATTER

I’m sure the faculty is already regretting inviting me here. Probably won’t get invited back. But it’s true. A GPA matters if you want to be a doctor, if you want to be a lawyer, if you want to be an Indian Chief, but it does not matter if you want to work in film. And I’ll tell you what else doesn’t matter. Your major. Your minor. your extra-curriculars, your fraternity, your sorority, the award you won for doing community service when you were in seventh grade… NONE OF IT MATTERS out there. Some might say a diploma doesn’t even matter out there.

I hope you don’t find this to be disempowering. My hope is very much the opposite, I hope that you find it liberating. In many ways you’ll have a clean slate when you get out there. So if you really, truly want to work in film, then right now, don’t worry about what you’re supposed to worry about. What everyone else is worrying about…. Don’t do what you’re supposed to do… what everyone else is doing. Worry about what YOU want to worry about. And do what you WANT to do.

Here you are… at Duke University. There’s really no place like it. The options are almost limitless. You can do anything! Just don’t fail out, and you have four years in which you have very little responsibility, and the world is your oyster.

Your job here is to be interested. To become interesting. Find something you’re passionate about and then learn more about it. Then learn a little more about it. Then more. Go to Perkins. Go to Durham, the actual city. Go to Rome if you have to. And then let that lead you to something else that’s interesting. Keep learning. And use Duke for more than just learning content. Use Duke to learn - experiences. When I was at Duke I was pre-med. Psych Major. Not film, how’s that for proof that a major doesn’t matter out there. I spent more nights than I should have bleeding over organic chemistry theorems. Now… I don’t remember a single organic chemistry theorem. But what I do remember is what it’s like to sit high in the stacks during finals week, the comaraderie of everyone cramming for finals. That was an experience, and it’s valuable, but it’s far from my favorite, and hardly the most important. Don’t let Duke be only studying. I cherish the memory of playing Frisbee in the Duke Gardens. I remember chugging beer with my friends while dancing to a Guns N’ Roses cover band. I remember long swim practices. And I remember the girls!… I really like those memories!

I wish I had experienced even more (girls and otherwise). I wish I had another Duke. I used my Duke all up. Because, oddly, that’s the stuff that really helps me in my job. The experiences. The people. Your task while you’re at Duke is to immerse yourself in Duke. Live it, learn it. Because you will never have this opportunity again, don’t let tomorrow get in the way of fun today. Do it because you’ll love it. And do it because you’ll need it later.

POINT OF ADVICE NUMBER 2: WORKING IN FILM IS MORE LIKE BEING ON THE OFFICE THAN ON ENTOURAGE… AT LEAST AT FIRST.

And here’s what’s scary. You’re lucky if it’s even The Office. The sad truth is that the industry is shrinking. Jobs are scarce at any level, and that includes entry-level positions. It’s not impossible to get a job, but it’s not easy.

But here’s the good news. There are many different TYPES of jobs you can pursue within film and television. You can be a director, you can be a screenwriter, you can be a cinematographer, a grip, an assistant director, a studio executive, a location manager, an agent… or a producer, which is what I’ve become. There’s no right or wrong choice, all of these jobs can be quite fulfilling. 

Your task when you first arrive in Los Angeles (and yes, you do need to move to Los Angeles, that’s where the game is played, so that’s where you need to be), is to educate yourself enough so that you decide as quickly as possible which job you want. No pursuit has to be lifelong or permanent. But in my opinion you do have to focus on one, at least at first. Because it’s very difficult to accomplish anything in film and television. It becomes even more difficult if you’re dividing your time and energy trying to do a whole lot of things. Just think about your career as filling buckets with water. If you’re filling two or three buckets it’s going to take a lot longer than if you’re just putting all your water into one bucket.

I chose to become a producer. It’s the path I know the best and so my advice is most oriented toward that choice. But before I dive into that, some words about other pursuits. If you want to be a screenwriter, write screenplays. If you want to be a director, direct. I don’t mean to be overly simplistic, but the truth of the matter is that it’s that easy. You just need to practice your craft. Think Malcolm Gladwell and his 10,000 hours theory. And it will be frustrating at first. Because you are all intelligent people. You have a sense of what is good. And you’ll have an understanding that what you’re making in the beginning isn’t good. But keep going. Your work will get better — just focus on really finding your voice. Consume mass quantities of content — read, watch, figure out how other artists you respect do what they do. Then decide what makes your work unique. Push more in that direction. Keep trying to unlock that door that only you have the key to.

In this day and age you have no excuse not to. There are less barriers than ever before to get your work out there to the masses. All you have to do is look on youtube or funny or die or whatever to know that there’s homemade content out there. Go home-make it. Do it this weekend. You don’t need some studio exec telling you yes or no. You’ll have plenty of that later in your career. For the time being, just do it yourself. Create and create and create.

The path is somewhat different if you want to become a producer, or at least it is if you want to become a movie producer within the studio system. What’s a producer? A producer is someone who wears many hats, but basically someone who oversees all aspects of a project, from development through production. He or she finds a story, develops that story with a screenwriter, finds financing for the project, often times from a studio, mediates the conversation between the studio and the creatives, finds a director, attaches cast, oversees the actual shooting of the movie — making sure you get all the footage you need while staying on budget, then oversees the cutting of the movie. It can be stressful, but it’s a pretty awesome job if I do say so myself.

So how do you get a job like it? Again, there isn’t only one path. But with few exceptions people break in to the industry working in the mailroom at an agency. From what I can tell, agencies are like pledging a fraternity. I was lucky enough not to work at an agency but I had my own hazing process at DreamWorks. You get coffee. You get drycleaning. You make copies, get screamed at. You get screamed at, you deliver mail you get drycleaning. You make coffee, you make copies, you get screamed at, you get drycleaning. You take a car to the shop, you make copies, you get screamed at…. You get the idea.

Once around this time I was tasked with the job of finding clothes for a pickle. There was supposed to be a dancing pickle in one of the scenes but the director was concerned that it would be awkward if the pickle was naked. So I spent all day driving back and forth across the city going from one doll shop pickle in hand asking if I could try their doll clothes on the pickle. Trust me pickles are very slender and there’s not a whole lot of doll clothes that fit them. Brace yourself those are the types of things you’ll be doing early in your career.

But here’s the good news. You have Duke. Duke alums like Jack Pan, Laura Lewis, Julien Thuan, Grant Kessman, Mike Macari, and Doug Mankoff were incredibly helpful to me when I first got out there. One Dukie named Sean Feeney let me sleep on his couch for six months while I was first getting started. I am wholeheartedly thankful for them. Many of these people I just cold-emailed through Duke Connect while I was on my way out there. You should do the same. People will be happy to have a meeting with you and give you a sense of the type of job they do, and try to guide you toward finding one yourself.

And there’s more good news. There are others that are in the same boat you’re in. Misery loves company. In many ways these other people become your class. And you all help each other up through the industry. If you play your cards right you might get promoted to being an assistant because a buddy from back in the mailroom days puts you up for the job when he or she leaves. It’s a smaller industry than it first appears and you’ll soon start to know the people doing what you’re doing. You should try to get to know as many of them as possible. Not only because you can often help each other out— but also because you probably will share a lot of interests with these people. You all love film, after all. So that’s a start. Hopefully you’ll become real, genuine friends.

And you’ll rise up together through your career. What jobs will you do on your way up? As discussed, you’ll start in the mailroom. Or as an intern. Your life will be pretty rough. Next is being an assistant, likely for an agent. You will be tasked with making sure that your boss’s office runs perfectly smoothly. You will answer your boss’s calls, you will listen in on those calls in order to take notes, you will schedule his or her meetings, you will make sure he has the script he needs to read for that meeting tomorrow, you will make sure he has a reservation, or that he gets into a premiere. Your job is to make your boss’s job easier. It sounds easy but it isn’t. First of all, there’s a good chance your boss won’t treat you too great. So that complicates things. Second of all, there’s a lot to handle, and at a very fast pace. Putting a name on a call log is a simple task. But think about it, so are shooting layups in basketball. And if you had to shoot 100 layups quickly in a row all while getting screamed at, there’s a good chance you’ll miss one. But don’t you dare drop a call. Because an angry boss is an even meaner boss.

Next up the food chain are assistants for producers or studio executives. It’s pretty much the same job as being an assistant for an agent, but you’ll be answering less calls, and reading more scripts. These jobs are a little better because you’re getting a little closer to actually being creative.

Next is being a creative executive. These jobs are pretty hard to get. Many a smart dude is unable to make that jump from assistant to CE. Each time one of these jobs becomes available the word quickly gets out, and before you know it there’s about fifty people trying to get the interview. You won’t get promoted to being a CE overnight. Plan on being an assistant for about five years. After a very long interview process I was fortunate when my boss Nina Jacobson gave me a CE position back in 2007. It’s one of the best things that has ever happened to me. When you do get the job then you better start working, man. You need to read every script that you can because part of your job is to make writers lists for your company’s projects. You also need to type out notes for each project draft that comes in order to give to the writer so that he or she can improve the script. You occasionally need to meet with writers, directors, or actors to develop stories or just on a general basis, and then you basically have to be up to date with everything that’s going on around town. It’s like being a spy! Only instead of trading top-secret information about a foreign nuclear program which could protect your country and save millions of lives, you’re trading info like what director just got hired for the new ALVIN AND THE CHIPMUNKS movie. So I guess it’s not really as high stakes as being a spy.

The next stop on your rise to superstardom is being a VP, then a senior VP, then an executive VP, and then maybe even some day you’ll have the courage to strike off on your own, start your own production company, and be a full-fledged producer. As you rise through the ranks you still do a lot of the same things the CE’s do but just more of the fun stuff and less of the not-so-fun stuff. You get to work more with writers, directors and actors while you develop a script, you sometimes get to oversee production, and you even go to some Entourage-style parties every once and again. Because you don’t have to type out notes or make lists. There’s others for that. Oh, and you also get paid more, which is nice.

So what’s the best way to rise through the ranks? That brings me to...

POINT OF ADVICE NUMBER THREE: DON’T BE ‘THAT GUY’ IN YOUR OFFICE

Everyone knows that guy. There’s one in every group. Don’t be him. Just don’t be that guy. I think maybe there’s a few people in the world that are just born being that guy. No matter what they do it’s hopeless — it’s in their genes or something. If you’re one of those people, well, that sucks. I’m sorry.

But a lot of the “that” guys out there aren’t necessarily fated to be that way, it’s almost as if they find their way toward being that guy accidentally. To those people I say — reform! You can leave your ‘that guy’ days behind you. Here’s my advice on how.

Know your role. No one wants to work with someone who always knows better, who is disrespectful, obnoxious or arrogant. Focus on your job. Be proud of it, no matter where it is on the hierarchy, and do that job well. Be responsible, reliable, and have a healthy respect for authority, but this is important… don’t be confined by authority. Story is subjective. People will try to make you feel that your opinion isn’t valid just because you’re more junior to them. That’s ridiculous — you’re intelligent, you’re creative, you love movies — your opinion is indeed valid. The careful balancing act is appreciating the value of those above you’s experience and authority, while also being sure to speak up and voice your opinion. It’s sometimes scary to disagree with a boss, but if you’re worth your weight, you sometimes have to do it. And ultimately they’ll respect you more for it.

Be informed. Watch movies. Lots and lots of movies. Every type of movie. Don’t be a movie snob — judge a movie on its own terms. Is it a good version of what it’s trying to be? A movie isn’t bad just because it’s studio popcorn. A movie isn’t good just because it’s an indy art house flick. You can’t ever watch enough of them. Start to know the names of the people behind them. Who directed Good Will Hunting? What else has he directed? Who wrote Pitch Perfect — what’s her next project? Read scripts. Start to know what makes them tick. Analyze their structure. Why does one script work and another script suck? Read a lot of books about story. Start with Syd Field, then Save the Cat, then go on from there. You can never know too much about story. And teach yourself about the industry that you’ll work in. Read the trades regularly — the Hollywood Reporter, Variety, Deadline Hollywood. At first it will just be a jumble of names but with time you’ll start to recognize who the major players are. Take a look at Tad Friend’s articles about the film industry in the New Yorker. There’s one about Dave Wirtschafter who is a big time agent and another about Tim Palen who is the head of marketing at LionsGate that are quite authentic and informative. 

Ask the right questions. Never ask your boss a question that has an answer you can find out some other way. Maybe it means looking on the Internet, maybe it’s double checking a file or something, but if you can use discretion with your questions its beneficial in two ways. One, it makes you more supportive of your boss. He or she isn’t distracted by what they need to accomplish because of you, and therefore you’re better at your job. Two, it allows you to get the most out of the questions you do ask. It’s rare that you have a boss who will take the time to explain what he is doing each step of the way. You are not his priority. Mostly you will learn by observing, by reading as much as possible and taking it all in. But occasionally you will want to ask for boss for guidance. Those times will be a lot more meaningful and productive if you haven’t already worn out your welcome.

Remember that it’s supposed to be fun. People have a tendency to take themselves and their jobs very seriously. They’re on edge and mean and just nightmares to be around. That’s stupid — don’t be like that. This is movies, not heart surgery. You’re making entertainment. Relax and have some fun with it.

Be ambitious, but not too ambitious. It’s easy to outmaneuver yourself. I’ve seen many a friend get frustrated with their position and then go to a different, maybe lesser, company where, sure they may have a better title, but they’re actually further away from making movies they’re proud of. Have some patience, and be honest about where you are in your trajectory. It’s not a race — the real task is to arm yourself with as much knowledge as possible so that when you finally do get a higher position, you’re prepared to do it well.

I’ll open this up for questions — happy to answer questions about anything really, whether it’s the Hunger Games, how you get started at an agency, or how to nail your interview - but before I do I’ll close with this.

I know it feels daunting right now. But it is possible. There’s a lot of hard work and a lot of lessons learned before you find your way to having success in the film industry, or whatever pursuit you choose. But I promise you can do it. Take it day-by-day, day in and day out, work your ass off, and before you’ll know it you’ll have made great progress. At the risk of sounding trite, I have found the adage, “it’s the journey not the destination” to be remarkably apt for the film industry. 

The most fun thing about film isn’t a movie’s premiere; it’s the long, exhausting nights when you’re actually in production. Yet ironically this idea is often forgotten in Los Angeles, where people are brutally aspirational, often to a fault. They’re so eager to make it big that they make selfish choices — they act in a way that they’re not proud of, and it taints the whole experience. My hope is that you are confident enough in yourselves to know that you WILL accomplish great things, but even better, you know you’re going to accomplish great things… the right way. You’re going to do it by being honorable, by being honest, and, very importantly, by looking out for one another. We can all accomplish great things together. Let’s honor this place we love by pushing each other forward. Let’s be a Duke family.

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