(Let me open this chapter by saying I almost certainly do more name dropping in the next few paragraphs than you will ever hear me do in a five minute conversation in real life. Nature of the beast…)
Like any film geek worth his salt, I knew the names of the filmmakers who either graduated or were otherwise connected to the ‘USC Mafia’: Lucas, Spielberg, Singleton right off the top of my head. My bootleg experiences had given me a rudimentary knowledge of how to make films; I honestly felt in undergrad I picked the basic knowledge of how to do that. But I definitely didn’t know Hollywood: didn’t know how it worked, didn’t know how to get a project through the system, didn’t know anyone who could help me do these things.
If I was forced to choose just one skill I picked up in grad school, it was relationship building, a.k.a. networking. No one ever says it out loud, but my industry is not a meritocracy. Don’t get me wrong, if it comes down to a Julliard trained cat with Broadway experience and some underwear model with no acting experience…um…bad example. I don’t want to discourage the cat who was in my shoes many years ago; if you stay on your grind, push yourself to your limits, and constantly get your name out there, you will eventually create an opportunity of some type. Even in Hollywood, persistence is rewarded (and somewhat mandatory). My point though is the more people you connect to, the better off you are. It was stressed to us very early to get to know the people to your left and right, because they will help shape your career.
USC is a great film school, and it’s unfair to say I didn’t pick up any new filmmaking tricks sitting in the classroom. My craft absolutely picked up in my time spent in those halls. But to come from the background I came from, what I was really paying for was ‘fraternity dues’ for lack of a better term…
Insider A: “Hey you ever heard of a Malik Aziz?”
Made Friend: “Yeah, I know Malik, he’s a friend of ours.”
You think I’m exaggerating?
My first mentor is now one of the hottest female screenwriters in town. (I won’t name her here, but for my non-Hollywood readers, I have a strong feeling you’ll start to become more familiar with her name in the next couple of years, if it takes that long). Some of those guys ‘to my left and right’ have written top selling videogames and directed movies that have opened at the top of the box office. Some have produced films that are already cult classics. When I was 23 years old, I had my own office on a major studio lot, and was giving my script coverage every week directly to the head of the studio. (Another woman by the way; if I really did have any misogyny in me, it evaporated quickly simply by the constant support and interest shown in me by the numerous professional relationships I was finding myself in.) Anyway, the studio job was cutting too much into my school time, so I had to find a new part time job. And I did find one. At the Playboy Mansion. Catered lunches with the Bunnies, working on my thesis at night. ‘Hollywood’, as my boys call me mockingly, was born. If at that point I was becoming as smug and arrogant as I had ever been, could you really blame me? I would never call myself ghetto, but in five years I had come a long way from Wyandotte County. In two years, I had come a long, long way from Lawrence, Kansas.
While I definitely feel I earned every opportunity that came to me, I was still nearly a year short of my 25th birthday when I got my Master’s degree. It was, in retrospect, a little too much too fast. I still had a lot of life experience to get under my belt. I was fairly mature for my age, but I wasn’t remotely mature yet. God works in mysterious ways of course. A strike shut down the industry the summer I graduated. My student budget fell all the way back into the red. With no money and limited options, I put my tail between my legs and headed back to Kansas.