In her first column, Samantha Lee reveals the price of following your dreams and the cost of being a freelance creative.
One of my earliest childhood memories was from my kindergarten graduation. Each of us had to go up to the mic, state our name and what we wanted to be when we grew up. The girls in front of me went through a traditional list of occupations: doctor, lawyer, accountant and housewife (that last one got a lot of laughs). When it was my turn to speak, I told everyone that my name was Sam and that when I grew up I wanted to be a painter. “You want to be a paper?” The girl beside me whispered when I got back to my seat. “A painter!” I said aggressively and proceeded not to talk to her until we were in high school.
After graduation, my mom pulled me aside and said, “Why do you want to be a painter? They don’t make any money.” That argument still rang true when I told my parents that I wanted to take up film studies in college. They took me out to dinner and tried to explain to me that going to UP and taking up film would be the unwise choice to make. I did it anyway, against their will, and that ended up being the first real decision I ever made for myself.
Throughout film school, I was plagued with doubts about whether I was in the right course or not. I thought about switching to economics, or even switching schools. It wasn’t because I didn’t like what I was doing — I did. I loved what I was doing, so much so that I felt like I wasn’t even going to school. While my friends were worrying about failing Math 17, and staying up to memorize words from a textbook, I got to hang out with my friends making films. Despite all of this, making money was still at the back of my mind.
My first experience in the industry was working as an unpaid intern on an independent film shoot. I slept a total of nine hours during the first four shooting days. I now had my very own industry war story to tell. That internship was a great learning experience for me, and I have undertaken a total of six internships throughout my career. However, I feel like there is something wrong with the prevailing belief that in order to start your career as a creative, you must first work for free. I don’t know how many times I’ve been asked to do work in exchange for experience when I was starting out. At first, I thought that this was okay, that I was paying my dues. I didn’t realize that every time I agreed to one of these “for experience” offers, I was affecting the people who came after me.
Being a freelance creative means that you must do whatever is required to support the interests of your producer or your client. This means working longer hours, agreeing to dismal salaries, taking on additional responsibilities and replying to emails at two in the morning. You do this because this is the life you signed up for when you said you didn’t want a nine-to-five job. You do this because Kanye never sleeps and neither should you. You do this because you want to prove your parents wrong. But most of all, you do this because if you say “no,” there is a whole army of kids willing to do the work you’re doing in exchange “for experience.”
“I don’t do these things much anymore,” I found myself saying while I was on a shoot today. It’s scheduled to be a long day: 12 hours, 19 layouts, seven celebrities and four cups of coffee (that I have to pay for). My legs hurt from standing too much and I space out while shooting a celebrity that all my friends have a crush on. I suddenly remembered why I kind of gave up on this life; it’s not because of the long hours or the dismal pay. It’s because, for now, I’ve given up on the stories that they want me to tell. Like the countless others who came before me, I have chosen to give in to the corporate world. I now have my own desk that I’m planning to decorate with my very own succulent. Sometimes I wonder if this will last, or if I’m doing it “for experience.” Sometimes, I feel like I’m faking it. But there’s something about feeling like the love you’re giving is equal to the love you’re taking.
There’s a scene in Aaron Sorkin’s Steve Jobs where Jobs and Steve Wozniak argue about the design of the first Apple computer. Exasperated by Jobs’ requests, Wozniak tells Jobs that “Computers aren’t paintings!” Wozniak felt that computers should be machines that are useful, that they didn’t have to lookgood. Steve Jobs challenged that. I went into film school thinking that films aren’t a business, but they are. At the end of the day, these working conditions are a reflection of the fact that studios and producers are trying to make a profit, first and foremost. But we live in a time where binaries are slowly disintegrating: computers don’t have to be ugly in order to work well; we can have humanitarian working conditions while still making a profit.
It all starts with a change of mindset. Long hours don’t equate to good work. I thought that my legitimacy as a filmmaker was validated by the fact that I was suffering for my work: no sleep, little pay, crap food, and no job security. I was blinded by the romanticism and the mystery of the concept of the “starving artist,” that I needed these horrible working conditions to thrive. In an interview with ABS-CBN about the working conditions on the set of Hele Sa Hiwagang Hapis, Paul Soriano said that “the choices you make are hopefully choices that can create change for the good.”
You don’t need to starve yourself for your art. You don’t need to take from yourself to share yourself with the world. You should be well-fed, paid justly, get six to eight hours of sleep a night and stop doing things “for experience.” In the eternal words of the great Justin Bieber, “Oh, baby, you should learn to love yourself.”