Christopher McQuarrie's (The Usual Suspects, Mission Impossible) Twitter tips on breaking into the movie business

mikefrommontreal

Active Member
This is taken from his Twitter feed today, and is more intended for screenwriters, but much of his advice applies to us aspiring film score composers, especially when it comes to our passive approach to making careers for ourselves, It's worth your time:


I‘m receiving a lot of questions from writers asking where to submit scripts or how to sell them. Others ask how to sign an agent, attach directors or producers, etc.

You won’t like the answer, but here it is:

You’re asking the wrong questions. (Thread)

2. I spent seven years - AFTER winning an academy award - asking the same questions. My career stalled (and I still have scripts that no one will make despite subsequent commercial successes).

3. In that time, I never stopped to realize that my own career didn’t start by blindly submitting scripts, nor did the careers of any of my writer friends. This is not to say it can’t happen, but the ODDS of just submitting your script and having it made are extremely slim.

4. It’s also empowering others to determine whether or not you’ll have a career. And while I would never discourage you from playing the lottery, I would strongly advise you not to make it your sole source of income.

5. “How do I sell my screenplay” is a question at the heart of the screenwriter’s mindset and is the essence of why writers are treated the way they are. We are trained to think that way. The system depends on our dependency.

6. The subtext of that question is “where do I go for permission to sign away my dream?” It also asks “what is the shortest route to my career?”

7. After twenty five years in the craft, I’ve learned the secret to making movies is making movies - starting with little movies no one will ever see.

The secret to knowledge is doing and failing - often and painfully - and letting everyone see.

8. The secret to success is doing what you love, whether or not you’re being paid. The secret to a rewarding career in film (and many other fields) is focusing entirely on execution and not on result.

9. There are countless valid arguments against everything I have just said. They don’t change the fact that the lottery is a lottery.

10. One will say “I can’t direct.” There are only three answers:

1. Neither could I. Now I do.
2. Find a friend who can.
3. Keep playing the lottery.

11. One will say: “This is easy all for you to say. You have an established career.” There are only two replies:

1. This is how my career began.
2. Keep playing the lottery.

12. One will say: My script is too expensive to make on my own. There is only one reply: If this is your only idea, this may not be the right career for you.

In any case, good luck playing the lottery.

13. Some will say: I can‘t find a friend who will direct and I don’t WANT to direct.

I have news for all of you writers who like to say writing is where the process of filmmaking begins:

Understanding the process of filmmaking is where real screenwriting begins. Why wait?

14. Some questions you should be asking: How do I gain experience making films? How do I become an invaluable part of the process? How do I learn to walk before I fly? And the answer is: make a film - alone or with friends - share your work - then do it again.

15. This guarantees NOTHING. But it’s what I know. And it’s better odds than the lottery. And there’s no waiting for permission. You are, in fact, living the dream. And if you think the dream relies on bigger budgets and a paycheck, brace yourself for profound unhappiness.

16. Of course, none of this stops you from still playing the lottery. Let’s say you do. And you win. Congratulations. What did winning teach you about your craft? How did you grow? How did it make you invaluable to the process? What foundation for a future did it provide?

17. What power did winning the lottery give you? Other than the power to play the lottery again?

18. Some will say: I’ve already made that movie. How do I take the next step? How do I find an agent? How do I get a studio to read my material? You won’t like the answer but here it is:

19. Do it again.

Agents came to me when my friends and I had done all of the above. And they helped me more effectively when I helped them - by giving them something they could sell.

And it’s infinitely harder to sell a screenplays than it is to sell one’s proven abilities.

20. Stop thinking about the business as something to “break into” and starting thinking of yourself as a business to be acquired. Your job is to create, improve and demonstrate your value. Ask yourself if the lottery is the best way to do this.

21. Your greatest cinematic heroes, whoever they are, all made their own luck. They were also never satisfied, they all suspected their peers had it better and were better, they never felt fulfilled or fully understood.

At some point they all failed spectacularly.

22. And your heroes never, ever fully realized their dream.

That is why they kept dreaming.

That’s the best it’s ever going to be.

And there is no place else to start except at the beginning.

23. I never set out to be a director. I certainly never set out to be an action director. I never expected to be where I am and EVERY critical choice I made to get here was counter-intuitive.

I also still keep playing the lottery.

And the lottery has still given me nothing.

This is my truth - learned the hard way. It may not be yours. I was asked and I have answered with what I know. Those of you with arguments and acrimony are wasting valuable time that could be spent on your future.

24. For those insisting solely on playing the lottery, I wish you all the luck in the world. For those of you ready to make their own luck, I wish you all the success you deserve.
 
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Beluga

Arctic and sub-Arctic cetacean
I’m not sure how this applies to music composers for film. The nature of script writing and music composing are quite different. The script is the starting point of a project, its heart. No story, no project. The music is done in the end part of the project when all is said and done. So unless one has written a musical or an opera I don’t think it applies. Surely you are not suggesting we should create our own movie to make the score for it?
 

LamaRose

Gato Mighty!
McQuarrie is spot-on here... and, yes, his advice to budding composers would be to make your own film... could be some clips of your cat or kids or clouds... build a portfolio/build momentum with musical/visual context... and writing short scripts can be fun and instructional, especially if writing it from a musical perspective.
 
OP
mikefrommontreal

mikefrommontreal

Active Member
I’m not sure how this applies to music composers for film. The nature of script writing and music composing are quite different. The script is the starting point of a project, its heart. No story, no project. The music is done in the end part of the project when all is said and done. So unless one has written a musical or an opera I don’t think it applies. Surely you are not suggesting we should create our own movie to make the score for it?
No, not specifically. Though I've often thought that the only way that I'm going to get a chance to score something that I truly believe in (at this stage in my career anyway) is if I made it myself.
But I think the real point of this, in how it relates to composers, is how passive we are with our careers. How we rely on others, and put our fate in others to create our careers for us. As a result we never have the upper hand. We're just throwing things at the wall and seeing what sticks. That makes no sense. In no other "normal" job would anyone take that approach.
 
OP
mikefrommontreal

mikefrommontreal

Active Member
McQuarrie is spot-on here... and, yes, his advice to budding composers would be to make your own film... could be some clips of your cat or kids or clouds... build a portfolio/build momentum with musical/visual context... and writing short scripts can be fun and instructional, especially if writing it from a musical perspective.
Exactly. You don't have to direct Mission Impossible 9, but just something to score to. Knowing what goes into making films, writing, editing, overall storytelling, etc. can be invaluable for a composer.
When they asked Michael Giacchino what advice he would give to aspiring composers, his advice was to take an editing class, learn how movies are made, and how stories are told.
 

Beluga

Arctic and sub-Arctic cetacean
Clips of cats or kids or clouds?
McQuarrie is spot-on here... and, yes, his advice to budding composers would be to make your own film... could be some clips of your cat or kids or clouds...
Well, let us know how it turns out.
 

Kery Michael

New Member
Thanks for posting. I appreciate that. What I take away from it is to not sit around waiting to "be discovered". But just keep writing, keep networking, keep learning, apply your music to whatever you can at the moment. I don't believe that anyone is guaranteed to succeed at anything, but you can increase your odds by working hard. Work hard doing what you love, maybe the money and success will follow.
 

Wolfie2112

Senior Member
Thanks for posting. I appreciate that. What I take away from it is to not sit around waiting to "be discovered". But just keep writing, keep networking, keep learning, apply your music to whatever you can at the moment. I don't believe that anyone is guaranteed to succeed at anything, but you can increase your odds by working hard. Work hard doing what you love, maybe the money and success will follow.
Yes! And that whole Q&A is pretty much the same for composers. One can mope around complaining, or you can out there and pound the pavement; it really comes down to a combination of this and pure luck (being in the right place at the right time).
 

JohnG

Senior Member
I don't take from McQuarrie's post that we should as composers make our own films. To me, the take-away is to write "cool stuff" -- music that we, personally, think is absolutely great. Even if we can't get all the ideal resources to produce it, we all can find (if not near us then online) an ensemble, or even just a string quartet or choir octet or something, to record it and sweeten the result.

Jeff and Yo at Immediate Music always said, "write what you like, what you want to write." I took that to mean that, in so doing, you'd be much more likely to come up with something outstanding, something differentiated, and something that wouldn't be bland "movie music."

More than one spec piece I wrote with that mindset ("write what you like") ended up in trailers for pretty big pictures. One of them, which I wrote in an hour or less, has been commercially phenomenal (for me at least). Sometimes those spec pieces were recorded with a huge orchestra and choir at Abbey Road, sometimes a small ensemble in a church.

I interpret McQuarrie's message this way: don't wait for permission. Do something.
 
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