My first real lessons as a filmmaker were given to me under a pale blue Los Angeles streetlight.
I was a casting assistant. My first job in the industry, I was in a small office - myself, another assistant, an associate, a few interns. And Mali Finn.
We frequently worked late into the evening. And more often than not, Mali and I were the last to leave. I would help pack her car with scores of headshots, scripts, notes on legal pads, newspaper articles, sheets torn from magazines and photos she used as visual reference and inspiration - all stuffed into boxes and binders so she could keep working at home into the night or over the weekend.
Standing next to her car, cradling boxes underneath a lonely streetlamp, the frantic day paused. And with only the night as my classmate, Mali would relate the stories and lessons she gathered as a casting director.
She told me about being in her 40s when she left a career as an educator, moved to Los Angeles with her husband and began as a casting intern. No one would hire her because she was overqualified or underqualified or too old. But Mali insisted on starting at the low end of the totem pole. Her climb to the top was the stuff of inspiration for me.
Mali replayed the war stories of her life. Her legendary talent searches, finding the likes of Edward Furlong and Brad Renfro in the most unlikely places. Casting Titanic for nearly two years and how the auditions were some of the best she had ever seen. Working on everything from film-school shorts to no-budget independents to the Matrix - often working for only the love of a script, a director, a story and a vision.
Of course she taught me about acting. "It's more important to be interested not interesting," was her primary lesson for actors. Cast the eyes, don't fall for the beautiful and pretty faces. Listen. Focus.
She would laugh boisterously, unabashedly, as punctuation. Then I would put the boxes in her trunk, and the streetlight lesson was over.
Mali paid me next to nothing and I didn't mind at all. But she did, so she bought me a membership to IFP/West. With her, I evolved - from an assistant, to a director at AFI, into a filmmaker navigating the world. Our friendship endured beyond the world of movies.
Mali's final lesson to me was given not under a streetlight in L.A., but on her deathbed in northern California, hundreds of miles away and a year removed from casting, now battling cancer.
When I saw her this past winter, she had become quite ill and bedridden. I sat near her feet, as student to teacher, and told her what I had been doing. She, of course, was proud that I had earned a spot as a Directing Fellow at ABC, and maybe I would start getting some work directing network shows.
Mali said to me, weaker but with the earnest force of a true independent spirit, "Don't let it change you."
She died three weeks later.
I want to believe there are more people like Mali working in the film industry. My fear is that she is the exception, not the rule.
She understood the industry is built from the bottom up, from interns who become directors, assistants who become moguls, and the talented hardworking few who get lucky enough to find someone like Mali to take them under their wing.
The industry is built on lessons from a sage under a streetlight on cool Hollywood nights.