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First-time director Branden Morgan: What I learned about filmmaking as a car valet? Everything

Zach Hursh in Branden Morgan's first movie as a director,
Zach Hursh in Branden Morgan's first movie as a director, "Jimmy the Saint," which premiers at the Los Angeles Independent Filmmakers Showcase in May
Laminated Pictures

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Off-Ramp commentator, writer, actor, filmmaker, and car valet Branden Morgan's debut film, "Jimmy the Saint," is showing in June at Dances with Films.

"Well, this is awkward."

"Not at all, Mr. Depp. Welcome to the hotel."

I can't tell you how often over the years I've had that exact conversation with different celebrities. And it does get a little awkward when the person I'm welcoming to the hotel I work at is the same person I pitched a project to that morning.

Awkward for them, really. People like to categorize, not necessarily in a pejorative way, but just to keep things in order. Am I the guy whose writing they like enough to discuss a possible job? Or am I the guy they'll tip 5 dollars when I get the phone they forgot in the car? When those two realities occur hours apart it makes for an interesting day.

Writer and director Branden Morgan
Writer and director Branden Morgan
Branden Morgan

I've worked at the premier hotel on the Sunset Strip for over 10 years. In New York they'd call me a "doorman," but out here where everybody has a car it means I also oversee the valet parking. There are the valets in the silly uniforms ... then there's me dressed like a Reservoir Dog: black suit, white shirt, black tie. I'm the supervisor. My two main responsibilities are driveway maintenance and guest recognition. Especially guest recognition. Anyone would recognize Brad Pitt or Johnny Depp walking into the lobby, but far fewer would recognize David Fincher or Kathryn Bigelow. That's where I come in.

And I've learned to make the most out of my time in that driveway. Our main clientele are serious Hollywood A-listers. Actors, producers, directors. You name it, they go there. All the damn time. So I decided several years ago to try and learn what I could from these people who were - aside from the actors - left alone in the driveway while they waited the two to three minutes for their car to arrive.

My hotel has an official policy that forbids self-promotion, and for good reason: most of the staff dream of Hollywood careers and the big players would simply stop going if they were constantly hounded by every busboy, hostess, server, or valet with a screenplay.

So I made it about them. I found a perfect question to ask that fit perfectly into the short window I had with them. It goes something like this…

"How was everything in the restaurant tonight, Mr. Fincher?"

"Wonderful, thank you. Beautiful room, great service. How have you been?"

"Fine, thanks. Can I ask you a quick question?"

"Sure. What's up?"

"What do you wish someone had told you before you directed your first feature film?"

The responses I’ve gotten over the years have been incredible. It’s like film school with the absolute top directors of all time …in three-minute lectures.

Fincher told me he wished someone had told him to get at least a working knowledge of every department involved in making a movie. It’s the only way to know if money is being wasted that could be spent in better service of the film. He could handle the style and substance of the movie, but he needed to make sure no one was screwing him.

David O. Russell directing
David O. Russell directing "American Hustle"
American Hustle

David O. Russell looked me dead in the eye: “Direct every scene as if it were life-and-death. Every single goddamned scene.” You can see that passion and commitment in every one of his films. Every single goddamned one.

William Friedkin, who directed “The French Connection” and “The Exorcist,” told me a director's main concern should be to keep the actors focused on acting despite the whirlwind of distractions that are a constant on movie sets. “Protect the world that the actors will be living in,” he said. "The costumes, the relationships, the locations … everything. It's a fake world, but it's incredibly important. Protect it. At all costs."

Charlize Theron (as Mavis Gary) discusses a scene with director/producer Jason Reitman on the set of
Charlize Theron (as Mavis Gary) discusses a scene with director/producer Jason Reitman on the set of "Young Adult."
Phillip V. Caruso

But the best advice came from Jason Reitman. At least, it’s the encounter that has stayed with me and affected me the most.

Reitman said, “When you’re on set and your actors are doing their thing and you’re watching in the monitor, you should only have one question in your mind: was that honest? Not, was it sexy or funny or smart. Forget that. Was it honest? Because the audience can smell a phony performance from a mile away and they will not stand for it. Trust your gut. If what you just saw was not honest, fix it before you move on.”

Sean Penn told me, “Get in shape. It wears you down physically.” And, what, running around a driveway for eight hours doesn’t? But it's a good point.

After dozens of these interactions I stopped being surprised at how eagerly these people shared advice that might help someone avoid a hidden pitfall or calm a petulant actor. I wrote them all down and referred to them constantly before and during production of my first feature film. It was an education I couldn’t have bought.

It all came full circle a few months ago when a familiar face showed up in my driveway: Bradley Cooper. He’d once lived at the hotel for months and we became, if not friends, close acquaintances. He had just signed on to direct his first feature. He was aware that I had recently finished up post production on my movie and asked with a smile, “Got any advice for a first timer?”

Do I ever.