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The Best Filmmaking Advice I Ever Received

What a producer told me that helped me through my first film shoot

Photo by Chris Murray on Unsplash

Years before I made my first feature film, I was slogging it out in New York as an underpaid production assistant on a particularly terrible reality TV show. I didn’t know yet that I wanted to be a screenwriter but I was certain I didn’t want to keep working in reality television.

I was lucky enough to work with a senior producer with decades of experience at NBC, CBN and National Geographic. Recognising my dissatisfaction with my job, he chose not to report me to the Executive Producer. Instead he told me, “You’re being wasted here. Go and do something you care about.”

Whether or not that was true doesn’t really matter — what’s important is that he said it and that it made me think differently about the possibilities for my future.

It was thanks to this producer’s encouragement that I took up screenwriting. He was teaching a course in the evenings at New York University and he used to sneak me into his classes, because he knew I was too broke to afford the registration.

He didn’t pretend to love my first screenplay — the one I wrote during his workshops — and I was grateful to him for not bullshitting me about that. He called it a “grab bag of scenes with no coherent plot.”

After I quit the company, lost my visa sponsorship and returned to Australia, I did another screenwriting course and decided to produce the script into a film.

My former mentor from New York happened to be working on a documentary series in Sydney at about the time when pre-production was kicking off. We were a couple of months out from the shoot and imposter syndrome had hit me hard. I’d never made a short film before, and with no technical filmmaking skills or experience who was I to try and make a feature?

While he was in town, I was at about the height of my panic about actually shooting the film— and my self-confidence was probably the lowest it had ever been in my life.

Here’s what he said:

“You don’t need to know how to make a movie. You just need to surround yourself with other people who do know.”

He didn’t mean that I should fake it ’til I make it — but rather that as the producer, my main job was to find out what my crew needed and work out how to get it for them. It was their job to know what they needed.

Producing is basically problem solving and project management (with the occasional breakdown in Bunnings Warehouse.) And that’s how I got through my first feature film shoot.

So every time aspiring filmmakers ask me for advice, I always tell them the same thing:

Choose your people carefully. You can work out everything else.

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Claire J. Harris

Claire J. Harris

Global wanderer. Expert thumb-twiddler. Screenwriter, travel writer, and copy writer. Find me at