I have never been one to join organizations. This aversion probably started in high school, where you could join any number of clubs and start resume building before you were old enough to get a job. There was the Spanish club, the Yearbook club, the Journalism club, the FFA, student government, etc. My one club experience was Key Club, a sort of nebulous do-good club associated with the Kiwanis Club of Fullerton. I joined it because you were required to join at least one club if you had two elective classes, or some silly rule like that. I quickly learned that Key Club involved meeting at lunch time once a week to decide on a project that helped the community, such as doing yard work at a retirement home, or ringing the bell outside of a department store in December in a Santa hat trying to drum up money for the Salvation Army.
One of the “perks” of Key Club was that every other Monday, two representatives from the club got to go to the Sizzler down the street and join the Kiwanis Club lunch, which was a group of local men who apparently never officially quit their high school Key Club. I always took advantage of this lunch because throughout high school I was constantly hungry. I never seemed to get enough to eat at school, and the idea of skipping class for an all-you-can-eat steak and shrimp blowout in the middle of the day on Monday was very tempting.
These lunches were always fodder for humor, so my friend Ed Caspers and I would take the two available spots as often as possible. I think these men considered themselves pillars of the community – they were real estate agents, bankers, councilmen, and small business owners, and they all seemed to enjoy the liquid part of the lunch as much as I enjoyed the steak. Ed and I would watch with fascination as a few of the men got sloppy and told stories with increasing boisterousness as their faces got redder and their shirt collars got sweatier. Later we’d imitate a particularly intense handshake and shoulder grab that one of the men always gave us at the end as he spluttered, “So glad to know you! Just so glad to know you!” After the luncheon was over it was usually around 2:30, so you didn’t have to go back to class (another perk), and I’m pretty sure these Kiwanis members’ days were shot as well.
From where I sat, these guys seemed a bit sad. It was like this lunch was sort of the height of their month; their potential had been reached, and now it was time to enjoy the spoils of victory with a t-bone, a baked potato and a martini. They all sort of dressed the same, and seemed to follow this unwritten code of how to interact with each other. It seemed not only a bit sad, but also dangerous, like a trap you could fall into and never find your way out of. It felt so small-town that it scared that crap out of me. Something about that experience stayed with me, and I don’t think I ever trusted a fraternal organization again.
When I got to college I stayed away from fraternities, figuring I’d never fit in or connect with a group of guys who considered beer and team sports the height of civilization. Instead of joining clubs, I gravitated towards project-based interactions – being in bands, skateboarding, drawing political cartoons for the college newspaper and being a photographer.
Looking back on all of this now, I realize I’ve continued on this path well into adulthood. I don’t enter photography contests or join associations related to my career. I remember being so incensed when my photography business insurance started requiring membership in the APA (Advertising Photographers of America) that I sought out a different insurance company altogether. And though I am a member of the Director’s Guild, I backed into that one as well, having been forced to join when my first documentary feature (I Am Trying To Break Your Heart) was accepted in the Los Angeles Film Festival.
I guess I just never bought into the idea that I need to associate with a certain group of people to gain acceptance or connections in my chosen fields. I love the feeling of doing something independently and proving to myself I can pull it off – to me, that’s half the fun. I have been extremely lucky, and have of course relied on the trust and kindness of many people to get to this stage in my career. But I can honestly say I have never developed a you-scratch-my-back-I’ll-scratch-yours network, and I am proud of that. And I’m not saying that these organizations are inherently bad or unhelpful; I just never wanted them to define my vision or my success.
When I think about doing things independently, on one’s own, and with a singular intent and focus, I realize that most of our Off Camera interview subjects are highly developed examples of this approach to life. Take Matt Damon. Here’s a guy who was so intent on making it as an actor that he took the bus to New York at age 15 over and over again to audition. His high school “business meetings” with pal Ben Affleck involved discussing, well, the business of being an actor, even though they had no business at all, because he knew what he wanted to do, and he made it up as he went along. When he couldn’t land coveted film roles, he went ahead and wrote himself (with Ben) into his own movie and went on to win an Oscar for Good Will Hunting.
What I notice about the people I get to talk to for Off Camera is that they set out on their own, and no one was going to stop them. They didn’t join clubs and trade favors. They didn’t insulate themselves in a peer group that protected them, and they didn’t settle for being a big fish in a small pond. They just waded forth into the waters of uncertainty with nothing but their gumption to guide them. That’s the club I want to be in.
Sam Jones, May 2014