NEW YORK - Michael Showalter’s path to success in Hollywood has as many plot twists as the movies he directs, which include the hit romantic comedy “The Big Sick.”
At 26 his hit MTV show “The State” was canceled, and soon he was living paycheck to paycheck. By his thirties he was sharing an inexpensive loft in Brooklyn with two roommates, but it was a downsizing that was a first step in reclaiming his finances, his self-esteem and ultimately his career.
Now, the writer, former professor, and director of the acclaimed film “The Big Sick” shares the lessons he learned.
Q: What was your first paycheck?
A: When I was younger I did some caddying, but my first real job was working at historical Morven, the old governor’s mansion in New Jersey, on an archaeological dig.
For two summers in high school, I was on my hands and knees with a trowel, digging through the dirt, finding bits of ceramic and glass and old buckshot and cataloging it all. I didn’t love it, but I was on my own a lot. I would listen to music and get lost in thought.
Q: Both your parents were Princeton University professors. Did they care whether you worked?
A: They were never really adamant, like “you need to get a job.” They were always encouraging me to find things I loved to do.
Q: That’s easy for tenured professors to say, isn’t it?
A: They had tenure, but, they were always working. They taught all day long. After dinner we’d migrate to the living room, and they’d continue grading papers. Life and work were kind of the same thing in my family because it was their passion.
Q: Soon after you graduated from New York University, your college sketch comedy troupe got an MTV show — “The State.” What happens when you’re making good money that young?
A: We weren’t actually making good money, first of all. There were 11 of us. We were making a thousand bucks a week each — $600 after commission and taxes.
And at that time in my life I had no clue about what money was. I took it for granted. After all, I was writing and acting in my own successful TV show.
Q: What happened when “The State” went off the air?
A: I was 26 and suddenly I was just another guy trying to get a job. There was a five-year period where I was floundering — I was always running out of money, living paycheck to paycheck, in debt to my parents. Finally I decided that for my own sanity, for my own self-esteem, I had to live within my means.
Q: What did you change?
A: I downsized. In my thirties, I moved out of my beautiful apartment and took a room in a Brooklyn loft with two roommates — my rent went from $1 400 a month to like $500.
I got better at paying bills instead of being afraid of them. And I started teaching screenwriting at NYU, which I loved. It was the start of making me a normal worker guy — I was showing up, teaching, grading papers, holding office hours.
When I realized I wanted to be a writer and director, I moved out to Los Angeles with no greater ambition than to get hired as a staff writer on a show and not get fired.
Q: With such a workaday goal, how did you end up directing feature films?
A: Well, I was constantly working. In 2011, I got to be a writer on a TV show called “Super Fun Night” on ABC, but concurrently I was writing a movie called “Hello My Name is Doris” with Laura Terruso, whom I’d met at NYU.
Doris was a tiny budget movie, but Sally Field read the script and said she’d do the movie, and I was signed on to direct. That was really a turning point for me.
Q: You adopted your parents’ round-the-clock work ethic, and it paid off.
A: I’ll be 48 in June. If I have any sort of wisdom to offer as someone whose career has taken many twists and turns, it’s that hard work is rewarded. Discipline is rewarded. Teachability is rewarded. Humility is rewarded. And be nice. Be humble. Be a worker among workers.
Q: Do you save more now?
A: I’m still not good with money. But a few years back I decided to hire a business manager. It’s the best commission I pay.