“You Don’t Have to Go to Film School:” Producer Linda Burns’ Advice on Getting into Film, and What Makes People Good at It

Director_Linda Burns3
Atlanta-based producer Linda Burns has produced and worked on award winning films, shows, commercials, and music videos for over 2 decades. She produced a pre-show for the Academy Awards for 10 years, she’s done music videos with the likes of Snoop Dog, Ludacris, and Outkast, and she’s been a part of films such as V/H/S and Petunia, and TV shows like Your Pretty Face is Going to Hell, to name a few. She also runs the PA Academy in Atlanta.
She graduated from Michigan with a degree in abnormal psychology and deviant behavior. She spent her post-graduation years traveling to several different places, heading to each new city with “no job, no place to stay, no plan.” She made it work, first as a weed puller and then a fisherman in Hawaii, then a radio personality in Key West, then eventually in film in Atlanta, where she has remained ever since.
Now as she ponders stepping away from the industry to get a beach house and return to her fishing and outdoorsy roots, she pauses to reflect for us on the industry, her career, and what advice she would give to someone trying to break in. This is part of a three part interview series with Burns.

What she does as a producer

“I’m a combination of 2 types of producer: creative producer and nuts & bolts producer.
“I try to make sure we have characters who are fully fleshed out, that their motivations make sense, that their character arcs make sense. I make sure the story works; that the tension is there. I work to find the right actors, and find the right locations, so that they’re creating the right mood and feel that the director wants.
“I make sure whoever’s giving the money, that I’m spending well, that the story being told is good enough. And my job then, hopefully, at the end is to sell that, to get on the festival circuit, or on a digital platform, or whatever.
“My hands are in in everything from beginning to end. I’m the seer of all, the Wizard of Oz of the set. Not to micromanage, but the more I know about different departments, the more it allows me to maximize efficiency, money and time.

Related jobs on a film:

“There’s the production assistants – That’s the entry level, the runner/gopher. An assistant director does logistics, figures out how to organize the shoot & make the shoot happen. The Production manager overseas the budget, determines the budget, works with people on the schedule, manages the finances. The Producer goes out and gets the money (or gets hired by the studio), works with the writer and the director, makes sure the project is marketable, and that it’s doable for the budget. That’s the nuts and bolts, and then there’s the creative side– what works in the story, what doesn’t.

What makes someone good at this

“Puzzle solving ability is great for the production side of the film.
“I’ve always been good at puzzles. Growing up, I always tested as excellent in spatial relations. I was being pushed into science and math. I can look at a room and know how much stuff can fit in there. I can tetris the crap out of your car on vacation (laughs).
“I’m one of those people where I walk into a house and people have those little [brainteaser] games on the coffee table–you don’t have to tell me what it is or how it’s supposed to work, and I can just pick it up and be like, ‘Oh, is this how it works?’
“I can sit in a restaurant, and watch the wait staff, and see instantly how to make a waiter a 100 times better, or how to run that restaurant better.
“I’m a self starter. I can figure it out; take charge even when I don’t know what I’m doing. I can problem solve.
“And I’m good at math — a good producer still has to know how to roll numbers. You have to be a little bit of a politician, because you have to get things out of people that they don’t want to give you.

Getting into the industry

“There are lots of different paths. Ask 15 people in the film industry how they got in and you’ll get all different answers.
“You don’t have to go to film school.  Some of the worst people I’ve ever had on set had BFAs and MFAs from [top film schools]. Some of the best I’ve worked with are high school dropouts.
“There are a million different paths. I think the best is to start at the bottom as a production assistant, to learn how the industry works. Even if you never want to become an assistant director, which is the natural path from there, it’s really the place where you learn all the different departments. It allows you to experiment and find out what your niche is. And you can certainly change your niche.
“If you’re good, people will want to help you succeed. And people will want to pull you in to a department you naturally fit in because they want good people.

Cut your teeth in short, student, and indy films

“It’s great when you’re starting out to go work on short films, student projects, independent films, whether they’re paid or not, because getting out to learn is important.
“On big budget professional things, at an entry level, they tell you what to do and how, but not why. No one has time to tell you why, they just say ‘Go do this, and do it my way.’ But indy and low budget there’s less risk, so you can make mistakes. Those small projects allow you to experiment, to take risks, and to figure out why things work the way they do. And you’ll get to do more things.
“One of the first jobs I was on (an independent horror film), I volunteered in the office as an office assistant, one day a week. By the end of that job, I had a production credit.  They realized I was smart and I “got it,” so they kept giving me more responsibility. Soon when it came time to shoot, they said “you’re gonna be my second AD.” After the movie was done, I helped with reshoots, I helped direct second unit stuff, and I helped sell the film and worked on marketing and publicity. And I earned that producer credit.

 

In the other two parts, you can read Linda’s story on finding her way into the film industry, and her advice to career seekers in general.

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Matt Gwin
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