I’d been hoping to shadow the writer for a show on a major network. I was looking for some hands-on experience to round out a rather theoretical film school education, and hoped to gain some as an intern on the show.
But this particular writer would come running onto set screaming, “There’s no Diet Coke
in the fridge! Hello!? Interns!”
That’s when I questioned what I was getting into by entering this field. I wanted to pay my dues to figure out the industry, but on this particular show, interns’ primary duties consisted of sorting the mail and stocking the fridge.
I knew interning was just about the only way a kid with no connections could land work in this field. The reason I moved to the city was because once, when I was visiting a few years back, the check-out girl at Kim’s Video chatted with me about how much she loved her job, and how great it was that she could do it part-time because the rest of the time she was interning for Wes Anderson.
I was inspired by the idea that any shop girl could work for the big names, and even the little guys stood a chance if they had enough wherewithal. For most of us, interning is the last level playing field, where you show up and prove you’ve got guts.
I got off to a great start with my first New York film internship, which was for a documentary production company. We were working on a film about the funeral industry, and I got to log hours and hours of industrial videos featuring an actual embalming. (“Time code: 03:02:45:51: PRACTICIONER REMOVES BODILY TISSUES THROUGH TUBE. PUMPS TUBE REPEATEDLY IN ABDOMINAL CAVITY.”) Not only did I learn a number of invaluable tips for how to make my own documentary, I also learned lots of fun funerary buzzwords so that I could fact-check episodes of Six Feet Under, much to my friends’ annoyance.
I look less kindly on major studios and networks who use interns as mail clerks and don’t even offer a stipend. At the same major network, interns were required to stay late one night a week—making it a 10 or 12-hour workday for us. Plus, our job on those nights was to order dinner for the staff. It was disturbing to find that the show didn’t pay its interns but spent over $700 on nightly dinners for its employees.
A group of us tried to unionize at one point, demanding better assignments and more serious projects: I was promoted from stocking Fig Newtons in the back room to bringing M&Ms onto the set and control room. I woke up one morning about four weeks into servitude and had a moment of clarity. I decided this was not the place for me. In a stroke of genius, I called in overqualified. “Hi,” I said to my producer’s voicemail at 7 a.m. “My advisor says the work I’m doing at the show isn’t commensurate with my experience and really doesn’t qualify for credit, so I can’t come in anymore. Sorry.”
For the record, I know that there are bound to be some crappy aspects to an internship. You expect to do some photocopying and run errands, but the open secret is that if you “shine,” you’re going to get the great assignments. At the network, the moment we put on our ID badges it was intern Survivor, with the job as the prize.
In the past two years I’ve done tremendous things to get the prize: fetched and scurried, lugged giant printers over the Brooklyn Bridge, photocopied entire forests into oblivion, and in a blazing July heat wave I shopped for USB cables that I later found out were for the production manager’s personal use. I’ve sweated on subway platforms to only freeze on sets cooled to resemble the arctic. Twice I’ve had to sneak out to buy new shoes in the middle of the day because the nature of the work turned out to be so badly matched to the hopeful footwear I’d worn that morning. I’ve had my work assignments handed over to a 15-year-old (hired as a favor by the boss to his buddy), and I’ve waited around on set with my Nextel walkie-talkie on for hours at a time. All this, and I’ve done it all almost entirely for free.
But I’ve also witnessed great moments unfold on set, helped nurture fascinating projects, seen the insides of places I might never have seen, gotten some great words of wisdom, figured out what was important to me, and—finally—got a job.
Of course, even a choice internship does not guarantee success. Working long, grueling hours for no pay might just be the gateway to working long grueling hours for very little pay…for the rest of your life. Possibly the best thing about interning is that it prepares you for the long road ahead. For anyone who hasn’t already been told that filmmaking is a labor of love, let me repeat it. If you sometimes get the feeling that internships are designed to break your spirit, remember, they’re actually designed to test you to make sure you want this—really, really want it.
Nobody wants to suck a kid into this unforgiving industry unless absolutely necessary. Think about it the next time you’re trudging out the door at 7 a.m., and make sure that, wherever you’re going, there’s nowhere else you’d rather be.