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Where's the Yellow Brick Road?

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By Jennifer Glos, Photos by Aimee Rentmeester-Flynn

Published Jan 1, 2008 8:00 AM


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Jennifer Glos studied cognitive neuroscience at MIT and worked in high-tech before coming to UCLA's School of Theater, Film and Television in her late 20s to pursue her dream of filmmaking. Her thesis documentary, War on Their Minds: Voices of American Kids, aired on Showtime in 2004. And she co-produced Fighting for Life, a feature documentary on military medicine directed by Academy Award winner Terry Sanders '54, M.A. '67, which will be released in February. Glos shares the lessons she learned on her journey from aspiring student to successful film producer.

There's no ladder.

With a newly minted M.F.A. from UCLA's film school, a couple of degrees from MIT and a documentary that aired nationally on Showtime, I was ready for a corner office and a multimillion-dollar budget for my first big documentary film. To my dismay, no one was lining up to offer them and I had no idea what to do next.

Many careers have well-defined career ladders. Friends who went through law school are now associates at firms, aiming for the partner track. As a creative industry, no such track exists in the film business. Instead, a complex web of independents, studios, agencies, etc., provide numerous paths initially fraught with confusion and career uncertainty.

Focus on the people, not the position.

After graduating, I started by meeting and discussing career options with my mentors at UCLA. Marina Goldovskaya, one of my thesis advisers and an acclaimed documentarian, pointed me toward a small, independent documentary production company looking for an intern. A one-to-two-day/week internship wasn't what I had in mind, but the filmmakers for whom I would be working — Terry Sanders and Freida Lee Mock — had directed and produced more than 50 documentaries, winning multiple Oscars and Emmys along the way. I knew I wanted to work with them. That internship became a co-producer position and during those two years I learned from Terry and Freida a tremendous amount of practical knowledge of how to manage a creative vision with the pervasive realities of deadlines, budgets and other limitations.

Learn about Fighting for Life, which premieres in February, at www.fightingforlifethemovie.com. For more on Jennifer Glos' first film, War on Their Minds: Voices of American Kids, go to www.galagostudio.com. And check out what current and former Bruins are doing at the School of Theater, Film and Television at www.tft.ucla.edu.

That was my first lesson about working in the film industry: Focus on the people, not on the starting position. Make sure you're working for someone you respect, who can mentor you, and who you would want to work closely with for a couple of years. Make sure it's at a company where you'll be noticed and where there's potential for advancement.

Know your craft — and your computer.

I never imagined that negotiating a good deal on body armor and flak vests, or organizing "war and terrorism zone" insurance, would be part of my first producing job. Or that I would be standing in the rain, 100 meters from a military runway, holding an umbrella over our camera as a C-141 blasted down to a landing next to us.

You just don't know what the next film will throw at you. Having a broad base of skills enabled me to help out in all aspects of the project, from coordinating international film shoots to organizing our digital post-production workflow to developing our online marketing materials. We had to manage terabytes of digital footage and organize our data to allow two editors to work concurrently in separate locations. With modern technology and digital filmmaking, computer expertise is invaluable.

Trust and collaboration are key.

Filmmaking is a collaborative process where personal relationships matter a great deal. Our production crew worked together for more than two years, sometimes in physically or emotionally challenging situations. It was essential that we trusted one another and could anticipate each other's needs in order to focus purely on getting the story. Likewise, it was essential to develop trust and good relationships with the individuals whose stories we were telling. You're not just building a film, but a career, and as Terry, the director, would tell me, "You're only as good as your reputation."

In Fighting for Life, we follow the story of 21-year-old Army Specialist Crystal Davis. Our crew first saw her as she was rushed off a helicopter at Balad Air Force Theater Hospital in Iraq, her right leg blown off from an IED. We stayed with her as she was flown to Germany, then to Walter Reed in Washington, D.C., where she fought to recover from her injuries and to save her left leg. Over the year, as we shared countless dinners with her, met her family and documented her progress, we were inspired by her optimism and strength. In getting to know her, we were able to tell her story with greater honesty and intimacy.

In making this film, we felt honored and privileged to be telling the emotionally intense stories of the military doctors, nurses and wounded soldiers. We worked hard to live up to their trust.

Always have several irons in the fire.

I've been fortunate enough to be working during a documentary resurgence. Eight of the 10 top-grossing documentaries have been made in the last five years. Fahrenheit 9/11 grossed $119 million domestically; March of the Penguins grossed $77 million. A strong political climate and an infusion of humor have helped redefine documentaries; audiences — and studios — are responding. What are the most talked-about films, what's playing at the top festivals, what films have been acquired, by whom, and for how much — this is the world I work to intimately understand as I decide what projects to pursue next. My filmmaker colleagues all have multiple projects in various stages of development. As one friend recently advised, "Always take the meeting." It's impossible to predict what will germinate, so it makes sense to plant many seeds until one takes root.

Since films can take years to develop, passion and persistence are key factors in whether or not you'll succeed. In my case, I have a young son and am deeply concerned about the environmental catastrophes he will inherit. There are many compelling issues here, ranging from acute pollution to resource depletion, from global warming to species extinction. I'm developing projects on several of these fronts. Some are wisps of ideas; for others, I am writing grant proposals; and for some, I have footage already in the can. Most will fall away before a frame is shot, but I look forward to one of them hopefully blossoming into my next film.

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