There is something refreshingly unromantic about Philip Bloom’s responses in this interview. It’s an honesty that comes after spending decades in the industry, when all the frills and luster have worn off and all you’re left with is whether or not you still love what you do. Philip says he’s never been happier with his work, but he doesn’t have any illusions about what the life of a freelance filmmaker entails. There is a lot of sacrifice. A lot of stress. It can be hard to maintain relationships. Weirdly, it was good to hear these things. The freelance lifestyle is often overidealized and oversimplified. A lot of blogs out there will try to tell you how easy it is to print some business cards, build a client base, and start making bank. But take it from Philip: the life of a freelance creative, while potentially wonderful, is no walk in the park.
Watch Philip’s Musicbed Story, Making Room, and then read our extended conversation below.
No. I never made films. I never did anything like that. I had no idea what career I wanted. In school I just chose classes I enjoyed: art, computer, politics. Completely disconnected subjects. By choosing those, I couldn’t go down a vocational path. They weren’t specific enough. I had no idea what I was going to do. Then I saw a documentary on TV about a press photographer. I thought, That looks really fun. That’s how I decided what I was going to do. There was no real love. No real desire. I wasn’t shooting Super 8 films since age 10. There was none of that. I just liked photography and wanted to do something I enjoyed.
The lifestyle. I loved the lifestyle. I didn’t want to do an office job. I liked the fact that these TV crews were doing something different every day. I wrote to all the TV companies out there, trying to get a job. I think only one company was willing to bring me on in a really junior capacity. That was Sky News. I ended up working for them for 17 years. I did so many different things, so many different stories. I traveled all over the place. Covered everything from film festivals to wars. I learned what stories were because I had to make thousands and thousands of them. As far as I’m concerned, news is the best training in the world. You learn to think fast. You learn to talk with people. You learn to get things done.
It wasn’t an easy decision. When you’re on staff, you get guaranteed days off. I was working five days on, five days off, which was wonderful. And then there’s the pension and the healthcare. Oh, and the salary. A really good salary. All that stuff makes it difficult to jump ship. You need something to push you, which sort of happened to me. I was a senior cameraman/editor directing long-form 60 Minutes style stuff. It was incredibly rewarding. Then a new head of news came along and decided to go 24-hour rolling news. We were going back to 90-second packages, and I just couldn’t go back to that.
Luckily, the executive producer of the unit became commissioning editor of the network for documentaries. He said, “You need to leave and come with me. I will put you on this series.” It was the push I needed, but there was no safety net. The project was going to last only six weeks.
Everything that happened after that — everything that’s still happening today — there’s no grand design to any of it. There’s no road map that’s been written out. Not at all. It’s just completely organic. It all just happened.
Yeah. I’m a terrible planner. People say, “What do you want to do?” I’m like, “Well, I’m kind of doing it. I don’t know. I have no idea.” I haven’t thought past my next job, to be honest with you. Is that the sensible thing? Probably not. But as long as I am learning and enjoying what I’m doing, then I’d say I’m progressing. I’m doing different things that challenge me. That’s my ambition: to challenge myself and do things I haven’t done before.
I’m in my eighth year. I started in 2006. The thing is, I hate freelance. Absolutely hate it. I’m the wrong person for it. I’d say I’m less happy now than I was when I started making films. Back then I had security and a lot less stress. I’d go home at the end of the day and just switch off my brain.
I’m an insecure person. I’m sensitive. It’s who I am. So when I started [doing freelance], I’d get to Friday and have no work lined up for the next week. It stressed me out. By the end of the day, somehow, I’d be fully booked. But living week by week is scary. It’s a hard existence.
Anybody who works freelance needs to understand that picking and choosing is almost impossible unless you are rich or at the very, very top of your game. We’re talking the very top of your game, like a Roger Deakins type. Those people can pick and choose. For the rest of us, you take the job that’s been offered to you. That’s what you do.
There’s always an amount of insecurity — especially when you’ve got responsibilities. I don’t have as many responsibilities as a lot of people do because I don’t have children, which would obviously be a massive responsibility. You’d take everything — literally, everything you possibly could because you’ve got to support them and provide for them.
A lot of times it does come down to money. I’m not pretentious enough to say that everything I shoot is art. It’s not. Not at all. It is creative. But at the end of the day, it’s still about money. It’s still a job. The good thing is, it’s also what I love to do. It’s my hobby. I get paid to shoot.
I think people are impatient. They expect things to just happen. You think you’re going to leave school, walk in as a DP, and get these great gigs. You won’t. I was invited to speak at a film school last year, and one of the first questions I asked was, “Who here wants to shoot big Hollywood movies?” Two hundred hands went up. Then I said, “Who here wants to shoot weddings?” How many hands went up? None.
I told them the reality is you’re going to shoot mundane stuff. It’s nice to have ambition, but you need to have realistic ambition. I can’t give you a path to success. There’s no such thing. It’s a combination of talent, ability, luck, and, of course, who you know. There’s no guaranteed way. I know some incredibly talented people who aren’t working. I know some incredibly shit people who are working a lot.
You need to understand why you’re doing this in the first place. I got into it because I wanted to do something fun. I didn’t want a proper job. My dad came home every day [feeling] miserable. He hated his job. It wasn’t a horrible job; he just didn’t like it. I assumed that’s what my life was going to be. That’s what I grew up with. So to be in the position I’m in now where I’m doing work I love is wonderful. I never thought that was going to happen.
The thing is, I had a really good salary when I was working with Sky. Everything was comfortable and nice. But I wasn’t being challenged. I’d never go back to doing what I was doing before, not even for all of that comfort and security. I’m happier with the work I’m doing now. Am I happy with my life outside of work? No. I’d say I’m much less happier than I was eight years ago. That’s a byproduct of being freelance. There’s a lot more stress.
Whenever I come home now, I know there are projects I need to work on or prepare for or edit. There’s always something to do. There’s never a moment in my life when I feel like I am completely done with everything I need to do. Never. I got to the point where I was working too many hours at home. I’d get back from a job and be editing until two or three in the morning. I was in a relationship at the time, and it wasn’t good for the relationship. That’s the problem with working at home. It’s too damn tempting to keep on going.
The truth is, I want to have kids. I want to have a family. And I thought I’d found the right person. When she left, it was devastating. I had tried; but as often happens in every area of life, you don’t make changes until it’s too late. Hopefully you learn for next time. You’re going to make mistakes. We are human. As long as you learn from those mistakes and don’t keep repeating them, you’ll become a better person. I believe the most important thing is having balance. Spending time with friends. Playing Xbox. Whatever makes you happy.
I think I learned to never take anybody for granted. You don’t know how long you’ve got with them. I spend a lot of time abroad. When I come home, I try to see my friends and my family. I try to see my parents every weekend. My parents are getting older. My dad is 69, and my mom is 70. I hope I have many years ahead with them. I love them dearly and see them as often as I can.
I try to see my nephew and niece and my sister as much as I can too. They don’t live close, so it’s harder. That sort of stuff is important. You need to see the people that matter to you. I think it’s taken for granted. You think, Oh, I’ll see them next month or a month later…and then you don’t.
I actually haven’t seen my nephew and niece in four months. I look at my diary right now and I don’t know when I can get up there. It’s a big commitment to go. I have to stay overnight. It’s a big chunk of my life. But it’s my nephew and niece. I need to see them. They make me happy when I spend time with them. It’s worth it.
We talk about this a lot around here — the balance between art and life, but that’s because we believe it’s an essential conversation. And maybe the conversation itself is what’s important. There aren’t any clear-cut answers. There aren’t five steps to a happier, more creative life. There isn’t a strategy out there that’s going to work for everybody. So we love that Philip Bloom is willing to be honest not only with himself, but with others too. We find that comforting somehow. We hope you do too.
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