There have been a few moments in my life where someone has given me seemingly simple advice that suddenly changed the way I looked at things - that in fact was the perfect, magical solution to whatever problem I have had (sometimes before I even knew I had one).
I call those moments ‘Charlotte’s Dalai Lama moments’ because they always remind me of the Sex and The City episode where Carrie and Charlotte are walking in the Upper East Side, discussing (surprise!) their sex lives and Charlotte says, “But how well do we ever know the people we sleep with?” and Carrie’s voice over kicks in: “That was the thing about Charlotte. Just when you were about to write her off as a Park Avenue Pollyanna, she'd say something so right on, you'd think she was the Dalai Lama.” That’s exactly how these moments have felt to me - and one of them became my biggest lesson.
It’s spring of 2014, and I have just come back to New York after spending five months on my parents’ couch in Helsinki during the shortest, darkest days of the Finnish winter (literally) and the longest, darkest months of my life (metaphorically). I had been living in the US for two years and had a job I really loved, a serious relationship, and a little home. Then my new visa got denied, and suddenly I had to leave. I had just started to build my career as a producer in New York, producing short films and music videos independently, as well as working as a co-producer at SALTY Features on prestigious documentary films. Suddenly finding myself on my parents’ couch, unemployed and far from everything I had just built, was a huge blow.
My way back to New York was via a new job at a commercial production company. As someone who had studied literature and graduated from film school, I had absolutely no understanding of how this industry worked. Nobody who goes to film school learns what a commercial production company is or how the advertising industry is structured between clients, agencies, reps, production companies and their rosters. I had always produced independent projects and had to learn and unlearn a lot of things because I kept assuming that the way commercial production works is similar to an independent film.
Luckily, the people who supervised me had the patience to explain and teach me the ins and outs of the work. It was during this process that a ‘Charlotte Dalai Lama moment’ occurred. We were prepping for a job that was shooting the next day and I was production coordinating. The line producer came to me and asked me a bunch of simple questions like, “is the key grip self-reporting on location or taking the crew van?” or “do you have signed location checks?” I found myself answering most of these questions saying, “I assume he is because he lives near the location and has a car” and “I assumed I don’t need them since we’re on a soundstage”. The line producer told me to make about one thousand phone calls to confirm different things and told me that rule number one in production is to never assume. This advice (which was actually a directive) was so simple yet mighty, that I could almost see it turning into a golden key that unlocked all the secret answers to everything I needed to know in my new role. Never assume.
Everyone who works in production knows that while it “isn’t exactly rocket science,” what we do is incredibly complicated. Every little detail matters. If one single piece of cable doesn’t make it on set, the whole day might be delayed by hours, which translates to huge losses financially and creatively. If one background actor’s release is not signed, it might translate into huge financial and creative losses. By always double and triple-checking, and never assuming, you can make sure you have covered yourself.
After learning this lesson, everything changed. I fell in love with commercial production. I loved learning that there was a strong structure and method to everything. To an extent, everything followed an existing formula. Remembering to never assume anything made me a better communicator on and off the job, which was another great consequence of this little piece of advice. It made me more confident in my job and helped me build a strong professional identity, which helped me greatly in my career.
To never assume also taught me that having a job and knowing how to do the work aren’t the same thing. One way I evaluate my career is obviously through the job. Where I work, what my title is, how much money I make, who I work with, how I explain my job to someone who doesn’t know what I do, and so on. The other way I evaluate my career is the content and calibre of the actual work, the day-to-day tasks that together make the job. At the end of the day, it is usually the actual work that ends up mattering the most, since it’s literally how we spend our time. It’s important to get the job, but it’s even more important to know how to do and enjoy the work. For me, this one simple piece of advice became my personal mantra and I started to apply that lesson to life in general. Never assume it’s going to be warm in the evening if it’s sunny in the morning. Never assume anything about other people and don’t let them assume anything of you. Never assume that just because the job sounds really cool, the work is fun and vice versa. And never assume the key grip is self-reporting on set.
Ella Nuortila is an executive producer at tinygiant