Have you ever had trouble answering the question 'What do you do?'
Do you occasionally find yourself dreading the subject of careers coming up in conversation at social occasions or family gatherings?
Ever felt like you live a double life? (And I'm not referring to a seedy one!)
For me, the answer to all of these questions is yes. You see, my work life is complicated.
The other life
By choosing to pursue a creative career as a freelancer, I simultaneously chose to live a life of uncertainty. There are good months and bad months as a cameraman and as with everyone else on this planet I have had to find ways of paying the bills whether or not I'm filming at all. Its been a tricky area for me, and I'm sure for many other freelancers, in doing the film work/regular work balancing act and it's very easy to get stuck when you're starting out. To be available for filming you need to have a fairly open diary but with no guaranteed income you can become poor very quickly. However, if you have a full time job you have the money but not much time for filming. Even working out the days of the week is difficult; keep yourself available at weekends and you can't do most corporates because they're nine to fivers, work all weekend and you miss much of the event work!
My approach a few years ago was to find a flexible part time job and I learned quite quickly that to get the flexibility you would inevitably get terrible pay. I was faced with a catch 22 situation: how can I save up to buy the camera, get the insurance, run the car so I can get to jobs (and be happy in life) if I'm earning a pittance? And how can I get the experience and build up the clientele if I have the money but don't have the time? I worked part time in hotels, restaurants and warehouses trying to desperately save some cash AND get some experience..and each 'normal' job would ultimately come to an end for one reason or another. A part timer with their heart in another place is understandably quite unattractive to most employers.
A stroke of luck hit me a couple of years ago and the funny thing is I didn't realise it until recently. I received that dreaded phone call from my employer at the time: "I'm sorry Matt but I'm going to have to let you go". Oh great I thought, another one. More time to waste trying to find a job I am completely over qualified to do and can do in my sleep. It just so happened that on that day a friend of mine (who had also been let go from the same company) was looking for casual staff at the local racecourse. The idea of serving toffs overpriced champagne on minimum wage did not seem appealing in the slightest, but I had no choice - I needed a new job quickly.
Two years later and I am a supervisor at Goodwood racecourse and motor circuit.
I accidentally fell into a position of some responsibility that has absolutely nothing to do with what I do and I actually enjoy it! That is quite a big deal. I mean, I don't want a long term career in retail and hospitality, I want to make films, but as second jobs go this one is good. I've found that management experience, even in a non filmy environment is particularly useful in developing transferable skills that can actually help a film career!
Most of the season I run the annual members bar where the focus is on customer service of the highest level even though it is classed as retail. I have to butter the members up to make sure they enjoy themselves - rather like looking after corporate video clients! I also have to look after a team of 10 or so members of staff, making sure they've been appropriately trained for their roles and adhere to health and safety standards and the like. DOPs have to manage a crew of varying sizes, right? On a big budget feature there may be 2 camera units, each with an operator, a focus puller, loader and trainee. And then you've got a gaffer and their sparks and electricians. Retail and film/video may be worlds apart but the underlying key skill of being able to manage a team is essential for both. What's more, event work is often an unpredictable and highly pressurised affair - you have to be able to multitask and sometimes adapt to challenging circumstances. Well, if that doesn't sound like working on a film set then I don't know what does! Finally, most of the other managers do this full time, working on the 'circuit' at venues all across the country throughout the year and they are like one big extended family. To say that reputation is important here is an understatement - it is everything. I actually got poached for the Grand National earlier this year as a supervisor in a 300 seater restaurant - hard work and impressing the right person landed me that job. I would never have thought that the catering and film industries would have so much in common.
I only really have one issue with my new 'normal' job and that is the fact that I have to shave (talk about first world problems)!
Eventually my double life will cease to exist and I will be able to focus my attention on the one career but for the time being it's quite an exciting and varied, if unusual life. I get the best of everything - experience, to build a reputation, the ability to keep my diary open and a decent wage. Also, no longer do I have to sustain an awkward conversation when someone doesn't quite get the 'I want to make films' thing as, at last, I have a respectable backup.
The reality is that forging a career in film is hard work, real hard, and most who attempt it will probably fail. Yet those who have the drive, the persistence and the ability to adapt will ultimately succeed. Taking a step up in an alternative industry is definitely not a step backwards, it is merely a side step. It shows resilience and a desire to advance. Both industries in question need people like me.
June has proven to be a very busy month for me in both of my jobs - I've just come back from corporate filming in Paris and in a few days I'll be running an area at the Festival of Speed. I've certainly had plenty to be getting on with and that's how we like it.
So to anyone who plans on asking me that damn question 'What do you do?'
The answer you'll get will depend on which day of the week you ask me.