Backstory Pt. 2
Continuing my safari among the creative young people of the millennial generation:
In today’s conversation with Jeff Simon, I ask Jeff what brought him from Chicago to L.A., how he got started in the movie business, what networking is like today among twentysomethings in Tinseltown, and what he learned working for eighteen months with Tom Cruise and Doug Liman on the sci-fi film, Edge of Tomorrow.
Jeff talks about his own career arc and how and why he began to “think bigger” about his aspirations for himself, artistically as well as commercially.
(The transcript of today’s video is below. This post is #2 in a series of eight, which will run in this space on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Click here for post #1.)
Steven Pressfield: When you got here to LA, what happened in the first year or so? How did you kinda get your feet wet and what did you do?
Jeffrey Simon: So I got here during the writers’ strike which meant that everybody was out of a job. I actually had more meetings with bigger people than I could ever imagine because they weren’t working. I met with big time production designers which is what I came out here to do, since that was my degree, and I thought I’ll production design for awhile and try to assist one, so I met all these people. They were like, “Your work looks alright. I might hire you, but I don’t have a job!” The first eight months of being out here I had no money and so my buddy, David, who was my roommate at the time and I decided to start doing web design. He’s a programmer and I’m a designer so we decided we should team up and started a little web design company.
S: Well that’s interesting to me because it’s kinda under the question: well, how does an artist survive, right? It’s not just eating Ramen noodles every day, right? Some of the people we’re talking to here are living in Eau Claire, Wisconsin, or wherever and they’re thinking to themselves, “Should I move to New York? Should I go to LA?” What’s your thinking on that sort of thing?
J: I think there’s a lot of people that struggle with that, but I think there’s no way not go to LA in my mind. You gotta go where the action is. If you don’t then you’re just kidding around.
S: It’s better to go kinda where people are because you make friends, I mean you guys at home can’t see behind the cameras, but there’s like six people in here and they are all Jeff’s mates that are working on Camp Abercorn and are your friends and I’m sure you guys network and have all kinds of connections between you.
S: Yeah, so tell me a little bit about how that works for you guys now.
J: Well, a lot of us are aspiring filmmakers so somebody will write something and they’ll say, “Hey, you’re my buddy. Will you come help me film this for little to no money for awhile and in return I’ll help you on your next one.” The big film schools are all here so USC and AFI and UCLA so you sorta meet people starting at the grad school or student level and then those people work up to doing short films and other things. Somebody will need a P.A. on a bigger project and they’ll hire you. That’s how I met Oliver.
S: A production assistant. (P.A.)
J: A production assistant. I think if you’re just sitting in Eau Claire, Wisconsin, then you don’t know if you actually like making films or not even if they’re your favorite thing ever. I think the process of making a film is very different than wanting to make films, I guess.
S: Yeah, it really was the same back in my day, too. The other thing, of course, is like if someone is thinking of hiring somebody for a project and they’re living someplace else then they’d have to fly in.
J: So much happens last minute. It’s like, “Oh! We got this idea to do this other thing we need some more people. I’m going to call my friends who I know live here who are available now.”
S: You get phone calls I’m sure where people say, “We’re shooting this weekend can you come out to Simi Valley six hours from now?” Right?
J: Yeah. One of our cast members, Declan, we actually had to cast super last minute because the guy we had playing Colin was like, “Listen, I got this gig doing this NBC show. I found out just now I can’t be in your project anymore.” And so we cast him like three days before we were supposed to start filming.
S: So, let’s cut ahead now. Ok, you’ve arrived in L.A., you have various day jobs, you’ve met people, you’ve made friends. Now between that and when Camp Abercorn first started, what was going on?
J: I had been progressing in the Art Department world. I had been assisting this guy, Jimmy Cuomo – he’s the Pee Wee’s Playhouse production designer, and he’s really great. I worked for him for three or four years, and then moved on to working for Oliver.
J: Oliver Scholl, the production designer for Edge of Tomorrow. He did Independence Day. He’s a big time science fiction guru. And for me I’m like, “Here’s this amazing production designer, I’m getting to work with him every day learning about what I could be doing in fifteen years if I keep at this.”
S: It was similar for me in the sense of there’s work that you do by yourself when you’re just in a room with your own people, but then there’s when you’re working for other people who are mentors to you. You really get a view into how the big guys do it. I know that was very helpful for me when I would see that. Was it for you, that whole Edge of Tomorrow experience?
J: What was different about Edge of Tomorrow for me than other project was that I started out in development. So Tom Cruise wasn’t on board yet. it was just Doug Liman, the director, Oliver, some illustrators, and me, basically.
S: So you got to see how it happened from the ground up, uh?
J: So for six months it was us putting together pitches for Tom Cruise and Emily Blunt and Warner Brothers. I got to work with Doug a lot and saw what he was doing and thought, “That’s more interesting!”
S: At this point now, Jeff, are you starting to really think, “Well I really want to be directing?”
J: I knew that I wanted to write a project and direct a project of my own and when I was in London every night, after working sixteen hour days, I would come home and write a little something. Gray Oak Productions, my production company, I founded in 2006 when I was in college. So like eight years ago, so I knew that I wanted to produce my own films eventually. I didn’t know if it would happen or how it was going to happen, but that’s sorta always been part of the plan. I’ve been equally interested in business as I am in the creative side of it. Film is sort of the ultimate art form in that sense in that you need to have good business because it takes a lot of money to make a film, but it’s also music and visuals and storytelling and all of the creative side that I’m interest in, too.
J: There’s so many screenplays in Los Angeles that never get made. Honestly, I figured if I wrote something it would never happen, and plus we can distribute it online for basically free.
S: So this is a whole different world from my era.