For nearly as long as there have been movies, the world’s aspiring aspiring filmmakers have sought and achieved success in Hollywood. Even as the U.S. film industry sends blockbusters to theaters in other countries, the movies themselves reflect the talents and sensibilities of skilled professionals from every corner of the globe.
In the 1920s, stars like England’s Charlie Chaplin, Italy’s Rudolph Valentino and Sweden’s Greta Garbo made their mark, and more international talent — both in front of and behind the camera — soon followed.
European filmmakers such as England’s Alfred Hitchcock, Austria’s Billy Wilder and Fred Zinnemann, and Germany’s Fritz Lang arrived in Hollywood in the 1930s and 1940s, giving rise to film noir, crime dramas that combined gritty American pulp-novel plots with European film aesthetics, says Tom Blomquist, a writer/producer/director affiliated with California State University, Long Beach.
“The American storytelling style is popular because it keeps the action moving,” Blomquist explains, but the films themselves frequently are international productions.
For example, the Academy Award-winning 12 Years a Slave (2013) was directed by England’s Steve McQueen and stars Mexican-Kenyan actress Lupita Nyong’o, German-Irish actor Michael Fassbender and Nigerian-English actor Chiwetel Ejiofor.
Then there’s Birdman, a 2014 Oscar winner directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu of Mexico. Iñárritu anchored the screenwriting team, along with Nicolás Giacobone and Armando Bó (both from Argentina) and Alexander Dinelaris Jr. (the lone American). Mexico’s Emmanuel Lubezki was cinematographer.
Today, with nearly 70 percent of Hollywood box-office revenue coming from international markets, the prominence of international actors and directors in Los Angeles is on the rise. Studios understand that making movies for global audiences means adopting a global perspective when choosing cast members, screenwriters or even a film’s location.
Fortunately for the entertainment industry, “art and film schools in L.A. are filled with international students, and I’ve yet to meet one who didn’t want to stay here,” Blomquist says.
Breaking through: One man’s story
Attending a top U.S. film school is a good first step to a Hollywood career, as cinematographer/director Carlos González can attest.
A native of Venezuela, González studied architecture at the University of Miami, taking elective filmmaking classes during his senior year. “I got the film bug, and decided that was what I wanted to do,” he says.
A short film that González made as an undergraduate caught the eye of film editor Ralph Rosenblum. “I got hired to work on [film] sets, drafting set designs,” González recalls.
After graduating from architecture school, he worked on a few more films before earning a master’s degree in cinematography at the American Film Institute in Los Angeles. The film that became his master’s thesis (The Last Breeze of Summer, about school desegregation in Texas during the 1950s) was nominated for an Academy Award for best short film in 1992.
The nomination opened doors, and for nearly 25 years now, González has been working steadily in film and television.
“I did my first feature film at 26, as a cinematographer on South Beach, an action film starring Peter Fonda and Gary Busey,” he says. “In the last few years, I’ve been mostly doing television, which has become the bread and butter of the industry.”
His cinematography and director credits include such TV series as The New Normal and Switched at Birth. He’s currently in Spain, shooting a miniseries about time travel to the Old West.
“A lot of successful cinematographers are foreign,” says González. “There’s a perception that you bring a different, interesting point of view.”
Speaking with an accent can be limiting for actors, he adds. There are more opportunities in jobs like producing and directing.
“If the talent is there, you’ll make it. You also need perseverance and the right attitude.”
But “it’s not glamorous at all,” he warns. “We typically work 60 to 70 hours per week, sometimes under grueling conditions. There’s pressure to get things done on time, to not go over budget. There’s a lot of money involved.”
Blomquist agrees: “You have to know how to do the job and have a strong work ethic,” he says. “You’d better bring a very high level of craft and expertise.”
At Cal State Long Beach — whose alumni include director Steven Spielberg and actor/comedian Steve Martin — students prepare rigorously for entertainment careers, “whether it’s in Hollywood or a film/TV industry based elsewhere,” says Blomquist.
Like other top U.S. film schools, Cal State Long Beach welcomes international students each year through an exchange program. The program also allows U.S. students to spend a semester or two at partner schools in Germany, the United Kingdom, Italy, Spain and China, says Sharon Olson, director of the Education Abroad office at the school’s Center for International Education.
Attending film school in or near Los Angeles has clear advantages, Blomquist says. Students learn from faculty who are career professionals in film and television: “You can be studying sound design with someone who worked on [the blockbuster film] Inception.”
Making industry contacts is vital, and for non-U.S. citizens, pursuing a Hollywood career also means getting a U.S. work visa. Joining a union is necessary, too, as the entertainment industry is heavily unionized.
Blomquist cites two former students — a Japanese woman working as an assistant film editor, and a Norwegian woman working for a production company — who are thriving in California. He made phone calls on their behalf, persuading friends in the industry to give them a chance; their skills sealed the deal.
Be ready to absorb criticism and take initiative, says Blomquist: “You have to knock on a lot of doors and put yourself out there.”
For his part, González reiterates the need for persistence, talent and a team-player mindset: “Hollywood ends up taking care of you if you stick around.”