When Steven Spielberg first became a well-known director, with the enormous success of his movie Jaws, he told a story about how he had come to work at Universal Studios. He had been making homemade movies since he was a kid, Spielberg explained, and by the time he was twenty-one he had learned about as much as he could about filmmaking without actually working at a studio. He was so sure that he was ready for the big leagues that one day he put on a suit and tie, picked up a briefcase, and walked confidently past the guards onto Universal Studios itself. Once there, he explored the main office building until he found a vacant office, which he took as his own. Then he started exploring. Pretending to be a fellow Universal employee, he hung out on sets to watch filming take place, and struck up conversations with all the folks who work to make movies happen — from the money men to the creatives to the tech people — learning everything he could about how they did things in Hollywood.
For months, he came to the studio every business day, waved through the gate by guards who had come to recognize him, and getting the best education in movie making that he could imagine. Eventually, using what he had learned from the Universal experts, he created a short film called Amblin’ and showed it to some of his new acquaintances at the studio. They were so impressed that he was hired as a contract director — the youngest in Hollywood history — and in was in that role that he helmed Jaws.
It’s hard to find a career story with a richer mix of bravado, ingenuity, passion, and success than that one. The only problem with it is: it didn’t really happen. Apparently this Spielberg character is some kind of storyteller. He just made up the tale of infiltrating Universal Studios, presumably to enhance his wunderkind mystique. In reality, Spielberg had been invited onto the studios by a friend of his father. There was some sneaking involved — Spielberg ended up hanging out at Universal Studios the entire summer after their initial meeting, but this friend was not in a position to get him a pass onto the set every day — but Spielberg never took over an unoccupied office or pretended to be anything other than the unpaid intern he really was.
Still, the fictional audacious masquerade was the least important part of the story, and the three crucial components actually did happen in real life. Spielberg took full advantage of his time at Universal Studios to learn as much about every aspect of the art and business of cinema as possible; he actively sought to meet and speak to as many people there as he could; and he took the opportunity while he had it to show off what he was capable of, with the goal of securing a hold on the next rung of his career ladder.
Anyone entering a similar situation should aim to carry out those three objectives themselves. This applies certainly to any internship, but more generally to any engagement that involves exposure to a new work environment and new colleagues — a departmental transfer, volunteer work, even a brand new job. After all, Spielberg didn’t stop inquiring and schmoozing once he’d won his coveted director’s contract. In fact, one of the very first things Universal asked its new director to do was to give a tour of the studio to a young writer who had recently sold the rights to film his new blockbuster. The book was The Andromeda Strain, the writer was Michael Crichton, and eventually the relationship and brainstorming between him and Spielberg would lead to E.R., Jurassic Park, and Twister.