Film Industry Tips from Veteran Filmmaker Peter D. Marshall

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“Good directors know how to tell a story and know how to get good performances from actors,” filmmaker Peter D. Marshall (Photo Courtesy: D. Zhao Photography)

Cliché’s are boring and trite, but more often than not, anchored in truth.

Most people espousing career advice will hammer you over the head with some iteration of, ‘it’s not what you know but who you know’. And while it is true in most industries, it carries additional weight in the film industry.

“This industry is very much a “who-you-know” business,” concludes film director Peter D. Marshall. “It is also about networking. You never know when someone you worked with months ago or even years ago will come back into your life and be responsible for getting you a job.”

With over 50 TV and Film credits to his name, including productions ranging from Happy Gilmore and Legends of the Fall, Peter D. Marshall has seen just about everything during his 40 years of filmmaking. And one thing is very clear.

“Finding work in film is an on-going process. It is never easy. As you build your career, there may be certain times when you are the “flavor of the month” and seem to get many job offers at the same time. Other times, nothing happens for months– maybe even years.

“The only answer to this dilemma, is to hold onto your passion and never give up. Get to know the people who can hire you or make your own films. There is no one secret. It is truly up to you, as an individual, to find your own way in. And then when you find your way in, you must also learn how to stay in.”

Peter and I have been discussing this interview for quite some time, but he’s been more than just the flavor of the month, continually being in demand for film industry jobs. To finally get a chance to pick his brain about the film industry was a thrill for me and I know you’ll enjoy all he has to share:

You’ve been in the film industry for over 40 years – you’ve seen people come and go – what would you say makes one person fail and another succeed?

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Maybe I’m biased, but anyone that worked on the set of Happy Gilmore, like Peter D. Marshall, should be listened to

Marshall: Luck. Passion. Drive. Never giving up.

Not worrying about what others say about you. Having “selective hearing.” Knowing the right people. Having a business head. And know how to market yourself.

Here are 10 factors to help survive in the business:

  1. Have complete confidence in yourself and an unshakable faith in your talent & ability
  2. Have the courage and tenacity to stick it out “no matter what”
  3. Have a relentless focus on what is possible, rather than what’s not possible
  4. Protect yourself and your art from anyone (anything) that does not support your vision
  5. Listen to the people who know more than you do
  6. Always ask questions
  7. Have a sense of humor! (Learn to laugh at yourself)
  8. Know as much as you can about everyone else’s job
  9. Have a good working knowledge of your craft
  10. And have a healthy Ego. Ego is important for your survival, but misplaced ego (or self-importance) is what makes this business harder than it has to be.

What did you do early in your career that you believe helped set you up for future success?

Marshall: Working in documentaries was a great beginning to my career. It helped me understand the craft of filmmaking and also helped me to understand human behavior – which is a big part of knowing how to work with actors on dramatic films.

With powerful credits to your name in film and television you are truly an expert in each medium – what would you say are the biggest differences, and challenges, of working in film vs. working in television?

Marshall: Essentially, TV is a producer’s medium while film is a director’s medium. This fact alone will give you a distinct advantage over other filmmakers when it comes to working and surviving in the film & TV industry – no matter where you live!

But TV has changed over the past 5 years with the advent of HD and larger home screens. And there are also web series and shows completely produced for online streaming. You need to also keep up with the current trends and new technology.

You’ve worked with all types of directors, been a director, taught directors… so what makes a good director?

Marshall: My definition of a good dramatic film is “The art of visually telling a compelling story with believable characters who make us feel something.”Film Industry Tips

Good directors know how to tell a story and know how to get good performances from actors. They are responsible for overseeing every creative aspect of a film. They are the creative force behind the camera: the vision. The Director also creates the visual style (or look) of the film.

But I think that a big part of a director’s job is to empower people (cast & crew.) Hire the best people you can – especially the ones that know more than you do.

In short, as long as you know the story and you can work with actors, the crew can help you with everything else.

What was the first movie you worked on in the film industry and in what capacity? What do you remember about the opportunity?

Marshall: I went to film school from 1970-1973. I then worked on documentaries and industrial films for about 10 years.

My first opportunity to work on a big show was in 1985 as a 2nd AD on the TV series The Hitchhiker which was shot in Vancouver. After that, I became the 1st AD on several of Stephen J. Cannel’s TV shows such as Stingray, Booker and Wiseguy.

The first movie I worked on was The Fly II in 1988 as the 1st AD. That was the movie that gave me my break to work as a feature 1st AD.

I got that job because the location manager was formerly on Wiseguy and she had quit the TV show to work on the movie. When the producers were looking for AD’s to interview, she recommended me. I went to interview with the director, Chris Walas, and ended up getting the job.

When was the moment you knew you were meant to create things visually?

Marshall: I picked up my dad’s regular 8 home movie camera when I was 16 years old and shot a roll of film. I got hooked on filmmaking after that. I was very interested in cinematography and wanted to be a Director of Photography (DOP). That is why I went to a technical film school – to learn more about lighting and shooting film.

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I actually said back then that “I have nothing interesting to say” so why should I be a writer or director. But after graduating in 1973 and working for a few years as a camera assistant in Toronto, I realized that I was not just learning about filmmaking, but also learning about myself as a young man.

So it was about 1976 that I started to look more closely at writing and directing as a career. It was then that I got out of camera and started writing/directing documentaries and small dramatic PSA’s (public service announcements) to perfect my craft.

What would you consider your big break? The moment you broke out of small stuff and got a big chance? How did that opportunity come about?

Marshall: I would have to say working as a 1st AD on the TV series Wiseguy was my big break. I had been in the Cannel organization for a few years and they were very good to me. And then the Wiseguy producers gave me my big directing break by hiring me to direct two episodes of the series.

That experience enabled me to start directing other Cannell shows (21 Jumpstreet, Booker, Scene of the Crime) which eventually led me to get an agent and start my directing career.

About Brian Clapp

Brian Clapp has worked in the broadcast media for over 14 years as a writer, editor, producer & news director. After beginning his career in Atlanta at CNN/Sports Illustrated, he switched coasts to Seattle to work at Fox Sports Northwest. In 2010, Brian began pursuing a new found passion on the digital media side, launching a successful website and then taking on the role of Director of Content for &

Recently Brian has become addicted to Google+ and LinkedIn so add him to your circles and make him a contact. No seriously, you should.


  1. Mark Iacobazzi says:

    I’ve always been fascinated with TV and the movie business especially sci-fi, and christian drama productions ever since I was a teen-ager. I’m in my little world when it comes to watching TV and movies, and participating in music and theatre.. I see the icing on the cake, but don’t realize the amount of work and dedication required to even get into the music, show business, TV and movie industries, Can you enlighten me as to what is required to even get your foot in the door, and the negative side of the business. This will give me prospective as I’m in a cross-roads in my career and contemplating going into the music, theatre business.

    Thank you for your attention to this matter,

    Mark Iacobazzi

    • Mark – thanks for writing in! We have over 100 articles on our blog and many are related to exactly your questions about breaking into the industry…take a stroll through our content and I’m sure you’ll find the answer to many of your questions – all the best, Brian


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