Hard Won Advice from a Producer

On set, my DP, PA, extra & EP (photo by Nico Malvaldi)

Recently I did a radio interview about creating Happiness Series and the Ageless Diet™. And I was asked what’s my advice for people wanting to work in the field I’m in, content creating – writing, directing, and video/film production. I think I said something like, “just do it,” and “don’t let anything stop you from working the field you love.” Valid advice, right? But also kind of blah, blah, blah, “I could’ve watched Oprah for those pearls of wisdom, Tania.” What I should have said and what I’ll write down here is advice that I’ve learned through trial and error. And it’s advice that applies to all areas of life. I wish I had known then what I know now.

I’ve spent a lot of years working in restaurants, especially in New York. Working in a restaurant in New York City is probably one the best classrooms there is… I learned to move quickly, to collaborate, to be generous, to tolerate fools gladly, and that every night is a new night. Every day in a restaurant you prove yourself again. You can’t rest on the money you made last night or the praise you got from the drunk patron at the table near the bar because tonight is a new night, and you still need cash for rent. This is true in all areas of life. In love, in work, and at home. Who you are today matters most. The work you do right now is what counts. Sure, you build on the skills you’ve developed through the years. I was a better waitress because I had done it for a long time. But the couple who sat down at my table one night didn’t care that the night before I killed it with those finance guys. They wanted their food; they wanted their wine, and they wanted it brought with good cheer and efficiency. This is what it’s like on set. How well you did setting up that shot last night or wrangling those extras doesn’t really matter this morning – except that you have more tools under your belt – because today we’re shooting outside, and it’s a closed set. What’s my point? Be present and do your work today like today is all that matters. While you’re working, forget what you’re building and focus on the task at hand, like this RIGHT NOW is it.

Everything I just wrote about today being the only day that matters is true. But there’s another truth, you build on each day. It pays to hustle and interact with people more connected and more successful than you, but it also pays to be kind and generous to the folks you’re with in the here and now. Do this because it’s good for your soul. And do this because it’s good for your career. You never have any idea who ends up where. If you’re easy to work with, fun to be around, and you do your job well, people will like you. Your colleagues in the restaurant will enjoy working with you. And who knows, maybe someday, one of your co-workers will be running a production company, or marry a celebrity and suddenly have access to resources you’ll need to get your project off the ground. In fact, the biggest lesson I’ve learned in work is this: who you know today could help you tomorrow in ways you have no clue about. And you’re that person for others! Who you are in one thing is who you are in everything, and people instinctively know that. Do good work all the time.

One of my projects was entirely executive produced and funded by someone I worked with in a restaurant long ago. You never know. So, treat everyone with respect and kindness.

I’ve also learned through the years to work whenever I could. I wish I had been involved in more projects than I have. I would decline something if it meant a longer subway ride or missing a yoga class. If you’re invited to do something, and it’s ethical and somewhat interesting to you, do it. This goes back to my earlier point; you never know where something will lead or who you’ll meet. Everything is a stepping stone. Get involved. And going hand in hand with this is the truth that no job is too small. People appreciate help. If you’re a good PA (production assistant), chances are someone, somewhere will notice.

Here’s another thing I was recently reminded of, if you believe in your work, and you keep doing it, you will eventually get somewhere with it. Even if that particular show doesn’t get picked up, you might attract the attention of someone who wants to do something else with you. Keep working on what you love. And send thank you notes.

Work with best materials you can. This one took me a while to comprehend. Even though I do a fair number of video projects regularly, I will often accept a lessor option if it’s easier, closer, and quicker, even when the better one is available! Don’t do this. People can tell. Take the time to source the best ingredients – cameras, actors, equipment, sets, crew – you can. They don’t need to have the best in the world. Make do with what you got. Don’t use not having a “RED” camera at your disposal as an excuse not to create, but don’t settle when it’s not necessary. Take the time to cast the best actors available to you and the same goes for crew and equipment. Use the best the budget will allow.

Take your time with your projects. Don’t hurry needlessly. Yes, you’re under budget and time constraints but you have a little room to maneuver. I didn’t fully realize this one, and I put myself under the gun for no (real) good reason. I had to finish a shoot in a week, but I could have chosen a better week to do it, when the set was finished and not a war zone. And then, when I thought we only had money for a six day shoot near the end another bit of money was found to pay for one more day. There are always options. Remind yourself of this when you feel you’re out of them.

I find this hard won advice to be true at home, with my partner, in life and work, and even in my workouts at the gym. I’m sure I’ll keep learning new ones too! The hard way, of course.

On set for one of my projects, surrounded by my EP, DP, lead actor & AD (photo by Nico Malvaldi)


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About the Author: Tania Van Pelt is the creator of Happiness Series. She is a writer and content creator, working in film, tv, and online. She wrote the popular lifestyle book "Ageless Diet," published in late 2015. And she is currently working on her next book. She also developed a sitcom pilot set in the restaurant business called "Employees Only TV" and is developing another web series comedy about Denver.

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