By Christian Lybrook
“Yeah, totally. It’s that idea of ‘a dollar is a dollar.’”
We were sitting outside at the Nomad Bar in Austin, Texas, a bastion, a friend had told me, of filmmakers and artistic types. It was a warm spring evening, and cigarette smoke and friendly dogs roamed into and out of our conversation. Emilie and I had met a few days before at the Hill Country Film Festival in Fredericksburg, TX, and it turned out we were both going to be in Austin for a couple days before flying back to our respective homes.
I had been exploring the difference between a career and a livelihood, and how the recent distinction in my head had made a big difference in my journey as a filmmaker.
I’m mostly self-taught when it comes to filmmaking. I have an MFA in Fiction, which certainly helps with story, but up until last year I had only taken one screenwriting course in my life. Everything I knew I learned through trial and error and creating my own curriculum on social media (following every filmmaking feed I could find and saving relevant posts to develop my own reading list).
I had a gig as marketing director at a healthcare nonprofit, but dreamed of quitting my job to take on filmmaking full time. I was afraid of not being able to pay my mortgage, buy groceries, and spend money on too-expensive bourbon. I was afraid of things that may come to pass. And, deep down, I was afraid of losing the “status” had achieved. I hadn’t realized how much of my identity had become what I did as my livelihood. People were impressed by my title. And I fed off that.
So what did it take to shift my perspective?
I needed to get shit-canned to give me the courage to turn my passion into my career. It took someone else pushing me out the door to allow me to say “Fuck my day job.” Even then, it wasn’t an easy transition, and I’m not suggesting that you all say “Christian said to say fuck it and quit my job to pursue my dreams!” I don’t want threatening emails from your sig. others/wife/husband/boy-girlfriend/partner—or you—about you ending up divorced, homeless, and standing on a corner holding a cardboard sign on the corner reading “Will Film for Food.”
But if you’re making your decisions primarily out of fear, you’re already failing.
Not long after I got laid off, I started formulating my plan—I needed to stop playing it safe. I had spent a long time making decisions out of fear, and it was time to make decisions based on my passion for filmmaking and telling stories. And to acknowledge that I had plenty to learn.
I called Philip Gilpin at ITVFest. A pilot for the series Zero Point I co-created with my frequent collaborator Gregory Bayne had played at ITVFest in 2015 (and won Best Cinematography I might add). When Zero Point first came out, there wasn’t a lot out there like it—45-minute independently created pilot shot in Idaho by people outside the TV system. We got some attention, but the mechanism for developing it wasn’t in place then.
So I went back home to Idaho and made a western sci-fi short film called Carbon. It was programmed in ITVFest in 2016, and I came back to the festival, met more people, continued to build my body of work and, importantly, my community.
And then, in 2017, I got laid off.
By then Philip and I had become friends, so when I was trying to figure out my next move, I reached out to him, guessing he would know good opportunities to invest in myself. In sports, it’s called “self-scouting”—looking at yourself for weaknesses you can shore up. Philip said, “You need to talk to Jake Krueger. He runs a 10-day screenwriting retreat that sounds like it’s right up your alley.”
The retreat, I should mention, was in Costa Rica.
Here’s the thing: I had spent nearly 10 years building community and thinking about the long-game, so when the time presented itself, I had people to lean on, people to reach out to for advice, and people who could connect me with other people. But still, I wasn’t certain. Spend a good chunk of change on flying half-around the world to sit and write when I was unemployed? What was I going to get out of this? I had had some success to that point, what did I need to go to some screenwriting retreat for?
I got on the phone and talked with Jake, the founder of the Jacob Krueger Studio, a screenwriting studio that goes far beyond teaching formulas or canned structure. Jake gave me the low-down, and I sensed this was something different: a focus on helping me find my story—not only the screenplay I was working on, but my story—as a writer and filmmaker. And I realized my trepidation about signing on was still grounded in fear.
So I took the plunge and three months later found myself in the jungles of Costa Rica, hanging out with an amazing array of writers and screenwriting mentors—and also poisonous frogs, crabs that live in trees, and sunbathing iguanas. It was ten days of focus on writing principles, but it was also ten days to begin laying the groundwork for reinventing myself. On embracing the self within me that I hadn’t allowed to flourish out of fear. Partly because of the idea that if I did and failed, what would that mean? Keeping the filmmaking at arm’s length meant I’d never have to face real failure. Or success.
So I took the plunge and went to Costa Rica. And I placed all my fears, insecurities, and assumptions of my own expertise into a box. I opened myself up to knowing nothing, and subverted my need to feed my ego best I could. I told myself, “Shut the fuck up for once and be open—to anything.”
I’m not going to lie. It took a few days to really embrace being quiet, listening, and being open to learning new things. I put aside my skeptical leanings and did morning yoga, engaged in hypnotherapy to calm the voice that says “You can’t do this,” and found a different way into my writing. I found new ways of doing things, a language for things I was already doing intuitively, techniques that I could now identify and make repeatable. It didn’t replace what I had spent years learning; it augmented it.
And I realized I was being taught how to be more than a screenwriter, I was being taught how to be an artist, to live with the uncertainty of turning my passion to my career. But it started with choosing to not live in fear of what might happen if I didn’t have a day-job.
For most of us, our survival drive is powerful. We find ways to persevere and provide. We find ways to turn our passion into our career and not worry too much about the trappings of livelihood. I spent the better part of the last 15 years with two careers and one livelihood. My day-job in marketing, and an every-other-minute-in-the-day job working on film stuff—writing, directing, producing, editing. And what I realized after 15 years is that that’s one career too many and the livelihood doesn’t matter.
I don’t mean that having a livelihood doesn’t matter—it does. We (apparently) still have to buy food, spend an inordinate amount of money submitting to film festivals and script competitions, and pay bills and taxes (unless you’re the President).
What I mean is that what you do for your livelihood doesn’t matter. Career, if you’re doing it right, is what you do for your soul. Because you get that pit in your stomach of dread and guilt when you aren’t doing it.
“Yeah, totally. It’s that idea of ‘a dollar is a dollar,’” Emilie said.
We’re back at Nomad, on the patio, on the warm spring evening.
Emilie explained that she borrowed the “a dollar is a dollar” concept from Andrew Simonet, who started as a choreographer and transitioned to a writer and artist advocate. The thinking goes that a dollar earned by driving for Uber or cleaning toilets buys the same groceries and pays the same bills as a dollar earned by sitting in a corner office with your name on the door. But if your livelihood affords you the time, flexibility, and creative energy to transform your passion into your career, you’ve come out ahead. Way ahead.
For some of us, that means setting aside the illusion of status our day-jobs may provide. If we realize the status piece attached to our livelihood isn’t real, we’ll realize the what of the livelihood doesn’t matter, and that everything will turn out alright. It may mean tough conversations with our significant others, it may mean tightening the belt, changing our spending habits (in some case radically), and downsizing our expectation of our lifestyle. But it is doable. These are the steps some of have to take to turn our passions into our careers.
In October 2017, I attended another Jacob Krueger Studio retreat, this time for TV Writing. Where? At ITVFest naturally. And the first person I sought out was Philip.
He was, not surprisingly, running from one venue to the next, but he stopped and we had a quick reunion.
“Hey man!” I said, “Thanks for the hook-up with Jake!”
“How’d it go?” Philip asked.
I didn’t really know how to explain how much my life had changed, and Philip was in a hurry. “It’s… great. Seriously. Thanks again.”
As the week progressed, I reunited with people I had met in previous years, and met lots of new folks. If you’ve never been, ITVFest is like summer camp for screenwriters and filmmakers. I drank too much and made poor eating decisions. I shut the fuck up and listened. I made decisions based on where I wanted to be, who I wanted to be.
Almost a year after I was shit-canned from my day-job, Jake hired me to be a screenwriting faculty member in the Studio’s ProTrack program where I work with students one-on-one on their pages, the screenplays they want to write, the stories they want to tell. I help them find the stories of their specific screenplays, but also find their stories as writers and artists.
It’s all come full circle. And come October 10-14, I’ll be back in Manchester, VT at ITVFest for an alumni screening of Zero Point, the pilot that opened the door in the first place.
Christian Lybrook is a screenwriter and filmmaker who works with the Jacob Krueger Studio as a screenwriting faculty member. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.