Chutzpah: What Famous Filmmakers Have in Common

In Faith, Film, and Culture, Media and Culture by

– By Sam Hendrian –

There are many roads that lead to a career in the film industry, and almost none of them are straight. This fact may cause young filmmakers to wonder: How do I know what the right path is to take? While taking film courses at a university certainly builds skill-sets and provides much-needed experience, it is still no guarantee of a career in making movies. Another question young filmmakers might logically ask is: How did the legends do it? After all, even Spielberg was just a kid with a dream once. While almost no path to the entertainment industry is identical, what do the success stories of creative artists like Walt Disney, Frank Capra, and Steven Spielberg have in common? The answer is one incredibly important Yiddish word: chutzpah.

Chutzpah, meaning “audacity” or “boldness,” is one trait that is absolutely vital for every young filmmaker to have. Talent is all fine and good, but if it is not boldly and persistently carried out into the world and displayed for all to see, it will not take anyone very far. One young man who instinctively knew the importance of chutzpah for success was Walt Disney. In 1923, the 21-year-old cartoonist was practically broke after his Kansas City animation venture, Laugh-O-Gram Films, failed. With just $40 in his pocket and nothing else but a suitcase and a dream, Walt bought a first-class train ticket to Los Angeles and headed out to Hollywood with the optimistic determination that he would find a job there. Staying with his Uncle Robert, he visited several different movie studios in hopes of landing a directing job, but all his efforts were in vain. Building a small animation stand in his uncle’s garage, he decided to turn back to cartoons and soon started the Disney Bros. Studio with his brother Roy. The rest, as they say, is history. If Walt Disney did not have the chutzpah to hop on a train for Los Angeles with practically no money and no guarantee of a job, the world would be deprived of so much wonderful and inspiring entertainment.

Another young man from Walt Disney’s era who climbed his way into the film industry with lots of chutzpah was Frank Capra. This Sicilian immigrant actually graduated college with a degree in chemical engineering– not the first degree one associates with the movie industry. After serving a year in World War I as a mathematics teacher for the U.S. Army and working a series of odd jobs, he ended up in San Francisco. A stage actor whom he met there wanted to make a movie based on some poetry, and Capra convinced this actor to let him direct the movie. He had absolutely no experience in filmmaking, but he soon started a job at a San Francisco studio and became committed to learning all he could learn about the craft. Six years later, he started working at Columbia Pictures in Los Angeles, where he would eventually direct such classics as It Happened One Night and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. If he did not have the chutzpah to convince a San Francisco stage actor that he had what it took to be a good director without any prior experience whatsoever, we would be deprived of so many terrific films, including It’s a Wonderful Life.

Several years after the chutzpah-fueled emergence of Walt Disney and Frank Capra into the entertainment industry, a young man named Steven Spielberg was entertaining dreams of breaking into Hollywood. According to legend, he was taking a bus tour of the Universal Studios lot when the bus made a stop for a bathroom break. Hiding in one of the stalls, Spielberg did not get back on the bus but instead decided to explore the studio on his own. Later that day, he bumped into Chuck Silvers, the studio’s film librarian. Silvers was quite amused by this young man’s tenacity and gave him a three-day pass to come back onto the lot and start making connections. While many sources deny the truth of this legend (Spielberg has been accused of being a tall tale-teller), it is undeniable that this baby-faced kid from the suburbs was quite good at using the art of persistence to bolster his way into the movie industry. At age 22, he directed the legendary Joan Crawford in a television special, and at age 28, his movie Jaws would break box-office records and go on to receive an Academy Award nomination for Best Picture. Not bad for an under-30 suburban kid with a dream.

It is understandable why media students often become discouraged about ever entering the entertainment industry and achieving success. The roads that lead there are many and unpredictable, and none of them are secure. However, there is good reason for young dreamers across the world to have hope. If a practically-bankrupt cartoonist, an inexperienced chemical-engineering major, and a baby-faced industry outsider could break into Hollywood and become immensely successful, so can anybody else. All it takes is a little talent, persistence, and a whole lot of chutzpah.

About the Author
Sam Hendrian is a student at JPCatholic (Class of 2019) pursuing a double emphasis in Screenwriting and Directing.