Always been curious what the movie business is like? Want to learn how you can break in? Robert Randall is a Leo award-winning filmmaker who spilled the deets about Jean Claude Van Damme’s strange request and how a plain old measuring ruler was the secret to his success.
Victoria Welsby: Give me an overview of your career, where you started and where you are now?
Robert Randall: I went to the American Academy of Dramatic Arts to train as an actor. But I also wanted to be a writer - so I followed 2 years in LA with a year at University (UBC). Although I got a chance to act in a couple university theatre productions, being there frustrated me because I had no time to write and I found the entry level courses uninspiring. So I dropped half my classes and moved back to LA to study film at UCLA (Extension Program). I figured I didn’t need a degree to do what I wanted with my life.
After film school, breaking into the movies in LA proved difficult, especially as a Canadian with no real insider contacts. There’s so many wanna be’s in LA trying to do the exact same thing; it’s hard to get noticed. When I moved back to Vancouver in the mid-90s things picked up quickly. I got work as a Production Assistant on some movies and TV shows. The industry was growing fast so there were lots of opportunities.
I followed that path for 15 years - working on various productions, good and bad, big and small, Hollywood and Canadian. I eventually became a Trainee Assistant Director, then a Third Assistant Director, then a Second Assistant Director, then a First Assistant Director.
Birds will shit on you; I just brush it off and keep going.
Working in the movie business was very up and down through those years - usually working like crazy for a period of months and then having big chunks of time off. As I got older and started a family those chunks of time off became worrisome, especially when they became extended due to slumps in the local movie industry. One year, with some time off, I decided to put my training as an actor and experience in the movies to work by starting a kids acting workshop. These workshops caught on and I eventually started offering drama workshops to elementary and middle schools in the Vancouver region. This became The Young Actors Project. With this I left the movie industry behind. I’ve been running YAP for 7 years now. It grows every year. Last year we ran drama workshops with over 28,000 kids in their classrooms at school. And I continue to run evening classes where we make movies. That has spawned a successful YouTube channel with millions of views. Some of those movies have helped launch the acting careers of some of the kids that have taken my workshops.
Studying is good - but experience is better.
VW: Did you always know what you wanted to do with your career?
RR: I was a drama geek in high school. That led to me pursue acting. When I finished film school I did not know what an Assistant Director was, or did. I found that out when I started working on set.
VW: Do you think that you need to study to get into the industry, did it help you?
RR: Studying is good - but experience is better. Also if you do get real educated be careful you don't flaunt your education over the people hiring you when you break into the movie biz. At least that’s what I discovered.
The guy who hired me as a PA was the Assistant Location Manager on a movie starring Robin Williams. This guy didn’t care about my film school credentials. He never went to film school. He needed someone to pick up garbage on the film set (among other menial tasks).
When I got my first job as a PA I spoke about my experience in drama school and film school. The guy who hired me as a PA was the Assistant Location Manager on a movie starring Robin Williams. This guy didn’t care about my film school credentials. He never went to film school. He needed someone to pick up garbage on the film set (among other menial tasks). He hired me despite my training not because of it. Most important to him at the time was whether I was reliable, had a good attitude, and whether he could get along with me for 15 hours each day.
Be careful whose toes you step on, because someday they might be attached to the ass you’re kissing.
VW: How did you break into the industry?
RR: Working on movie sets, each job only lasted a short time before I needed to find work on another job so I had to hustle a bit to get work. At the time I needed to get my resume in front of location managers. I discovered that part of the location manager’s job on a movie was to make sure the crew had a map to direct them to wherever they were shooting that day, so they would spend part of their day drawing maps. This was before Google Maps and smart phones. I bought a bunch of foot-long rulers and had my name and contact numbers printed on them, along with the phrase “A FOOT IN THE DOOR.” Very cute and geeky, but it worked. They used them to make their maps and it made my resume stand out over the rest and led to lots of work for me.
Inadvertently bruising Jean Claude Van Damme’s ego almost got me fired once.
VW: What’s the most important thing you learnt during your time in the movie biz?
RR: Be careful whose toes you step on, because someday they might be attached to the ass you’re kissing. You never know if a person working below you will have an amazing career. You might need that person’s help someday; so be nice to everyone. That can happen a lot in the movie business.
Now I have kids telling me things like my acting workshop was the best day they ever had at school. That feels good.
VW: What’s the most memorable moment from your career?
RR: It’s hard to pick just one memorable moment. So many interesting things happen in the movie biz. I had an interview with Jean Claude Van Damme – known today as the guy who did the splits between the Volvo Trucks. He was planning on directing a movie that he wrote, a sequel to one of his earlier movies. I had never seen a Van Damme movie before getting the call for this interview. I watched a couple before going in. Not my style. But Van Damme seemed to like me, hired me on the spot and said it was my job to “protect” him. By that he meant to protect him from looking bad as a director, which is something a good Assistant Director will do. Sometimes an Assistant Director will do more directing than the Director and then get none of the credit for it. It seemed funny at the time that this action hero movie star asked me to protect him.
I had another big interview one time with a Director named Phillip Noyce. He’s well known for directing many Harrison Ford blockbusters. He hired me over many other more experienced candidates as his Assistant Director. I think the reason for this was because I complimented him when I first walked in the door. His movie “The Quiet American” had just been nominated for an Oscar (Michael Kane – best actor) so I acknowledged that and congratulated him. I wasn’t sucking up. It was a great movie. But for creative types a little ego stroke goes a long way as long as it’s sincere.
VW: What was the most challenging time?
RR: As a First Assistant Director I would work side by side with some big Hollywood players. Sometimes tactfully navigating around their personalities and egos would be difficult. Inadvertently bruising Jean Claude Van Damme’s ego almost got me fired once.
Another time I worked on a Jon Voigt movie. Doing my job directing the extras on a set proved tricky while Jon Voigt decided he wanted to direct them too. One time when Jon Voigt didn’t like a certain direction I gave an extra standing next to him he tore me apart in front of the whole crew. Fortunately the Director really liked how it looked, so Voigt took it all back and he never yelled at me again after that.
VW: What made you decide to start your own company?
RR: I thank my 6 year old daughter for planting the seed for my company The Young Actors Project. She’s the one who asked me if I would make a movie with her and her friends. I had the crappiest camcorder, but we made a spoof of Little Red Riding Hood. My wife made the costumes and the kids performed. When it was over I decided I would do it again - but as a class for kids.
VW: What was your greatest success during any time of your career?
RR: I wouldn’t consider anything I did in the movie industry a great success personally. Those were jobs I had, helping fulfill someone else’s creative vision. Some of those shows were decent. Many were terrible. But they paid the bills. My greatest success is starting the Young Actors Project and seeing the positive impact it's having on so many kids. When I left the film industry I had just finished working on two TV movies that were best categorized as garbage TV. One was about a car that kills people. The other was about a group of sorority girls in a cult. No redeeming qualities in the stories, nothing positive for anyone to take away. Now I have kids telling me things like my acting workshop was the best day they ever had at school. That feels good. I get to write and direct my own projects and put them on YouTube. YouTube allows its creators to put ads on their films so they can make money too so that’s starting to pay some dividends now that my channel’s getting so popular.
VW: And the biggest failure?
RR: Nothing stands out as a giant failure. I try to stay positive and not let any setbacks drag me down. Birds will shit on you; I just brush it off and keep going.
VW: What advice would you give to someone interested in moving into the movie biz?
RR: Volunteer. People want to hire people that they know and trust, so offer to help for free and let them get to know you. That’s the fastest way to get your foot in the door in a competitive industry like the movie biz. Make your boss look good and s/he will keep hiring you.
Sometimes breaking in means standing in the rain for a 15 hour day making sure nobody steals anything from the back of the lighting truck.
VW: Final piece of advice?
RR: Don’t go into the movie industry thinking it’s going to be glamorous. Sometimes breaking in means standing in the rain for a 15 hour day making sure nobody steals anything from the back of the lighting truck. Be prepared to pay your dues before you get the chance to do anything creative.
Robert Randall is a Leo award-winning filmmaker and founder of the Young Actors Project. He is a graduate of the American Academy of Dramatic Arts and the UCLA Film and TV Program. He has directed for the CTV show “Whistler” and has worked as a First Assistant Director for some of Hollywood and Canada’s best Directors. He has worked as a writer for Oscar Winning director Gavin Hood. His Young Actors Project movies have won multiple film festival awards and can be viewed on his YouTube channel.