Interview with Vanessa Williams
Conducted 1/2/2020 at Anderson Island, WA
IA: Okay, we’re getting ready to do our fourth interview for the Island Arts website, this one with Anderson Island’s own Vanessa Williams. And no, not that Vanessa Williams.
VW: That’s right, different Vanessa Williams.
IA: Vanessa Williams is a local filmmaker. So why don’t you start by telling us about your early life, family, friends, where you went to school, that sort of thing.
VW: My early life was spent mostly out on the Island. I was born and lived in Kirkland until I was 5 or 6 and then moved out to the Island in ’89. It was an interesting experience because I didn’t know this was not normal. We were very poor at the time and we moved into a house that wasn’t built yet. We lived in it while it was being finished.
I went to All Saints, a Catholic school in Puyallup, because that’s where my Mom was teaching. It was cheaper for me to go with her to that school than it was to get a babysitter to watch me after public school until she got back. So, we made the financial decision that I would get up from the age of 6 at 5 a.m. until the age of 18 and left high school
It was kind of an interesting, slightly brutal, early years between the Catholic school and the strictness of that situation. We weren’t abused by the nuns; there weren’t rulers or anything like that. But, I remember going to the principal’s office almost every day in 5th and 6th grade because I would do things like, on the ferry I’d put nail polish on, then dry it and then we’d get in the car and I’d hide my fingers when I’d get to school I’d say, “Yeah, nail polish.” Then they’d make me go and take it off. And so, my Mom bought nail polish remover and had it in the car for all the times I would try to sneak in. You couldn’t have a tiny braid up your hair; you had to have two solid braids, one braid or straight down. There were weird, strict rules that made no sense to me. There were just a number of things that really set me up for not wanting to live life the way normal people do.
IA: Academically, do you think you got a good education (at the Catholic school)?
VW: Interesting, yes and no. The Catholic school really focused on the things they thought would help your career. So, in science, language arts and math we were well ahead of the curve. So, when I went to high school, I actually skipped a couple of grades as far as where I was in the science level and I think, I was never good at math, so I went back to normal math. But I skipped a couple of grades in English. But, on the other side, we weren’t allowed to do art (in Catholic school). So, if a kid was drawing something on his paper, the teacher would grab it, crumple it up and throw it in the trash and he’d have to start over again. That was the approach to art.
Once a year we were allowed to write a creative piece. It was usually about a religious thing. It was like, “Imagine the world of Jesus or whatever. . .” and I loved those. I didn’t know that was the thing I was good at. I had no clue I was good at anything. I thought I sucked at everything, because I was always falling behind. You don’t get normal grades; you get “satisfactory”, “unsatisfactory”. I was always in the “unsatisfactory”. I’m shocked I made from one grade to the next because I thought I was not very intelligent. I would write these stories and they were like . . . “oh my God, these are so good.” The teachers would read them in other classes and spread them around school. So, once a year I got to be good at something.
While in some ways my education was strong in certain things it was incredibly weak and horrible as far as reading books, drawing. . . anything creative.
IA: You went to Steilacoom (High School) right?
VW: I did.
IA: Did you start at Steilacoom High School?
VW: It was a really big deal. When I left 8th grade everyone was going to Bellarmine Prep. And I had had it with Catholic school. I was so done. Like I said, they had all these weird artificial rules. And I felt very stupid there and I felt really like I didn’t fit in at all. So, I said, “I’m going to go to public school.” And we also couldn’t really afford Bellarmine. My Mom was going to make it work and I had been accepted under the concept I would do Summer school ahead and I would do a work-study program where I would be a janitor for the first couple of years of my education and I
Vanessa with Crewmember on a Recent Film Set
didn’t get to choose a single class until my Junior year. I was like, “No, I’m sorry. I’m done with this. There’s no way I’m going to Bellarmine Prep. I don’t care what college I can get into after that.”
IA: I’m curious, you said your time to shine at All Saints was doing this writing. Does that reflect to your thought process of becoming a filmmaker?
VW: No, not at all. I knew I loved writing and I always wanted to be a writer, even though I haven’t done it yet. I knew that’s what I cared about more than anything and which is why when I went to college, I studied literature. I wanted to learn how to write. In fact, I started off in creative writing then switched to literature because the teachers were really poor.
I thought I was just going to follow that and then I kind of got stuck in the academic circle. I was on my way to a Phd. I’d been accepted to a Phd. program but I hated the subject matter, desperately hated it. So, then I swapped over and got a Masters in Film Studies. My initial post-grad degree was in Modernist Literature which is just a bunch of whiny rich people. I thought, “This is the worst.” They told me I could do a Phd. in it (Modernist Literature). And I said, “No”. So, I did Film Studies and then wasn’t really good at it. Finally, I wanted to stay in England for another year and decided to go to film school as a way to stay there. My boyfriend at the time was going. And I was like, “Why not?”
IA: You’ve jumped ahead quite a bit there from high school to your latter years of college. So, when you went to college, film wasn’t in the picture at that point?
VW: Zero percent. I hated film, too. I loved watching films; that was a huge part of my life. I loved movies. I actually joined a filmmaking club at one point, two points, once at Pierce College and once at Kings College, London. And both just sucked. I just hated it. The people were pretentious and they were jerks. They weren’t organized. Everything was slow and nothing was happening. And I thought, “Why are people. . . Oh everybody who wants to make films, la de dah.” I just thought those people were horrible.
IA: Were they acting like they thought directors would act?
VW: Completely. It was very much not the work and all the pretentiousness. My impression of the film world was very low and, in fact, the main reason I went to film school and the thing I was sure I was going to get out of it was screenwriting. I thought that was a practical application of the kind of writing I wanted to do. I wasn’t ready for the job world yet.
VW: After doing two years of Running Start at Pierce College I graduate from Steilacoom High School and received my AA as well. I went abroad at Western to study as a part of my literature degree. I studied Dickens and Thomas Hardy and a few other very core English things. Then I came back, graduated from college that Spring and applied to graduate school in the UK. That’s what got me going over there. It’s only a one-year program to get your Masters Degree. It’s intensive and it’s from September to September. So, it’s not like, “Oh you aren’t doing anything. It’s one year.” It’s very intensive and requires a lot. But after one year I had a Masters and I was like, “I’m still not ready and I don’t want to do the Phd.” So, I did another year of the Film Studies Masters Degree. It was like, “I don’t want to go home to America yet.” I went into film school for a year.
IA: So, do you have two Masters Degrees?
VW: I do, yes.
IA: Your first Masters is in. . .
VW: Modernist Literature.
IA: And the second is in film?
VW: Film Studies.
IA: Both from Kings College?
VW: No, one’s from Queen Mary and the second is from Kings College. Kings College was one of the few universities on planet earth that did
With a Script on Set
Film Studies. It’s a very new discipline. A lot more schools are now doing it. At the time it was the top. It didn’t matter to me; I just wanted to stay in England. But it was the top school for Film Studies. They had no idea what they were doing.
IA: Oh, really.
VW: Yeah, none at all. They were totally making it up as they went because in literature you’ve had thousands of years to study things, to discuss things, to figure out how to approach it. With film they’re trying to figure out how to approach it and they really had no idea.
IA: That’s interesting.
VW: My thesis was on horror mockumentaries. They were brand new at the time. There was Blair Witch (The Blair Witch Project) and there were a couple of . . . like The Office had just come out in England. So, there were a couple of comedy mockumentaries but it was not a really steady genre yet. I was told to go out read all these papers and research it. There were no materials to research. So, I had to make a lot of movements on my own by looking at the reviews and the articles and the statistics of these films. And my advisors were saying, “This is not good information. You need more stable resources.” And I said, “There are none because this is brand new.” Because film is so new, even 100 years of it is considered baby, baby, baby subject matter.
So, then I went to actual film school, The Metropolitan Film School. And that’s not film studies. Film studies and filmmaking are polar opposites. In film studies you sit there and watch films and you write up academic papers about what you’ve seen. In literature there’s one author and that one author is responsible for everything on the page. In film a zillion people came together to make something.
There’s this Auteur Theory: Like Tim Burton is the one responsible for all of his films looking exactly and feeling exactly the way that it is. No, he often hires Johnny Depp because Johnny Depp brings something to the table. And he probably hires a lot of the same crew members. And that’s why he has consistency. It’s not because he’s in charge of literally every single thing.
In the film studies world that’s really hard for them to get under their hat. They really do not get what it is to make films. They are very disconnected. What they want to do is sit there and be like, “Let’s talk about the use of top hats in the films of the ‘20s. What does it mean? Why are there top hats in these films?” That’s what film studies is. It’s studying things like film noir and why does film noir exist. What does it mean for the cultural and economic and creative paths of people at that time?
IA: It’s like studying film as literature?
VW: Yes, very similar, very, very similar. It’s pretty much one to one. And filmmaking, in film school, you learn how to make them.
IA: Technically how to make a film?
VW: Yes. You don’t study films in that same way. If you’re watching films, you’re studying the lighting, you’re studying the timing, you’re studying the pacing, you’re studying the acting.
IA: You’d be studying lighting in relation to creating a mood?
VW: Yes, totally. You’d be studying lighting and figuring out how they did it and what it means when you see lighting in that way so that you can reproduce it. It’s a totally different approach. I remember somebody did a thesis on David Lynch and the use of electricity and light in his films. This was in film studies. “It means all these things and every time you see electricity it means this thing.” And, then, in film school you’re learning he didn’t have a lot of money so he used dim light. So, if you don’t have a lot of money this is one way you can approach it and give it this really moody, dramatic look.
It’s not the theoretical approach. They’re telling you, they’re interpreting it for you. They’re explaining what film has done so far and what audience expectations are, and how, if you light something a certain way or shoot it at a certain angle, it means something to your audience’s brain. So how to use that language that already exists to create your own work.
IA: So, when you went from film studies to film school were you doing that, when you went to film school, was it sort of a realization at that point that you wanted to do something with film and that film studies just wasn’t where it was at? You needed to go to film school in order to . . .
VW: Yes, if I’d followed film studies and then got a Phd. in film studies and then taught film studies, it’s an academic life.
Discussing a Scene
IA: You could have been a critic (chuckles).
VW: Maybe I could have been a critic if I was lucky. Most likely I would have been teaching it. I would have been stuck in a world of academia and I wanted to do something more practical.
IA: A closed loop?
VW: Oh, very much so. To get to that point, you can’t jump into filmmaking from film studies.
IA: You wanted to go into filmmaking?
VW: I just wanted to have a job. It was 2005 at that point. I just needed something practical that I could do and make money at. I was still feeling kind of lost and I thought, “I know, I can become a screenwriter and I hear those people can make money. Then I can write and make money” since I was intimidated by writing books. So, I went to film school, A to stay in England and, B because I felt totally lost and C because I needed some sort of job at the end of this whole thing.
And then, when I went there that’s when my concept of filmmaking completely shifted. It went from being a bunch of pretentious jerks who don’t know what they’re doing and want to be the king of the world to, “Okay, so we all want to make art and we’re passionate about the stories we have inside our brains.” How do we do that and how do we move people and make people feel things? And these are the different practical applications of different things you can do in the film world. It was a very different thing and I realized it was a whole microcosm of the universe that I just didn’t know existed. And it was really fascinating.
IA: To me that’s really the crux of the matter. Right there that was your spark that got you excited about film.
VW: Yeah, and it took a little bit more than that. Our class was 90% dudes and out of that it was 90% dudes who wanted to make Tarantino films. My homeroom teacher, the main guy who was in charge of my class, he was just such a jerk. He ignored all the girls and only focused on the guys. And they talked about Superman together and they talked about Tarantino together and they only talked about super-bro subjects because that’s all that mattered.
IA: This was in film school?
VW: Yes, so he’d sit there and read Superman comics with them. He told me I should become a producer essentially because that’s what girls do.
IA: Oh brother. Because you don’t have the creative juice?
VW: Yes, because, you know, girls should just stand over there and hold the binder and make sure everybody shows up on time.
IA: That’s pretty blatant.
VW: He was a silo. When I started the second half of that term, we had a bunch of small classes that led to things. Some were longer and some were shorter. When I started having other teachers, that’s when I learned there was a whole other side of things. My editing teacher in film school really sparked a huge light in me. His name is David Gamble and he was the editor of “Shakespeare in Love”. So, he was an Academy-award nominated editor and he was this tall, goofy, curly-haired guy who loved country music and he’d get us to do these exercises where we’d create these shapes in the editing software and then try to get them to move around. He gave us all these wacky assignments.
One of my first projects I set my film to Dolly Parton’s Jolene and he just loved it. He was like, “You’ve got to come with me and my wife. There’s this country square dance club out on the east side of London. I took a friend of mine and we went one time. I just loved this man because he was so insane, just great. Nobody else respected or listened to him. I totally befriended him. So, around the time I graduated from film school he came up to me and said, “I know you’re really interested in pursuing editing a little more.” I wasn’t totally committed to it at that point. I just knew that I was good at it and had the patience for it and nobody in my class did. “So, my wife is also an editor and she’s working on a film on this lot.” Our school was based at Ealing Studios. We weren’t allowed to talk to anybody who was making movies but they were there. “She just lost an assistant on her editing team. Would you like to meet and talk to her?” I said, “Yes. Yes, I would.”
I really liked the film that she’d cut. So, I brought it up to her when I met her. She said, “You know what, we literally just lost this person on our team. We have another 3-week position that we need somebody to jump in on. Would you be willing to do it. And I said, “Oh my gosh, yes.” And, essentially my job, it was really the first time I was working in an editing bin. So, she had her assistant who was doing all the normal assistant stuff
Trying to Keep Track of a Million Things
of helping her string stuff together and source stuff and do more creative stuff. So, they had me go through hundreds of soundtrack albums looking for temporary music. They had me finding sound effects and then I was washing dishes. Those were the things I was doing. It was really unskilled work but I was there.
IA: You were exposed.
VW: I was exposed. Meanwhile all of the people who were graduating from my film school were like, “What are we supposed to do?” Some of them were working as bartenders, some were working in cafes or just getting the only jobs they could. And I was working in the field.
IA: You had your foot in the door and you were making contacts.
VW: Yes, I was making contacts.
IA: That was probably even more important.
VW: I still to this day have a recommendation letter from her. Her name is Alice Mackey and she edited the first Robocop film.
IA: Oh, is that right?
VW: It’s not necessarily the best content she had worked on. She does a lot of work, though. She has a big breadth of work. This film that I worked on was called St. Trinian’s and it was awful. It’s an awful movie. The first cut that I saw was nearly 4 hours. And it was a sweet little film, but by the time you got it down to 90 minutes it made no sense anymore. There was too much content. I had that recommendation letter from her, that piece of paper, to prove if anybody wanted to know that I’d actually had that experience.
IA: Did you consider yourself at that point, in a sense your career had started then, were you considering yourself on a trajectory to be an editor?
VW: No, I was lost.
IA: You didn’t know what your goals were at that point?
VW: In film school I realized my screenwriting teacher was awful. He was this pretentious Swiss-French dude who had no sense of humor. He was just awful. I had wanted to pursue screenwriting but had no tools for that because he was so awful at his job. But our directing teachers were amazing and I had a lot of jobs to do directing. But directing is not like a paid position. The only way you can direct is to direct. You can’t apply to direct. You have to just be directing and people find you and are impressed with your work and then offer you directing positions. That’s not a very applicable skill. The people who were getting work had been trained in camera. Camera is a position that you can start to work your way up. There’s still a bit of a system for it. You can become an assistant, then become a different assistant.
IA: Different levels of responsibility?
VW: Exactly. You can work your way up in that. That’s few and far between. You can do that for lighting. You can do that for a number of hands-on skills. So, I wasn’t really sure what I wanted to do. I knew I didn’t want to do camera. You have to carry a lot heavy stuff. But I wasn’t sure what in the film world I was right for yet.
IA: At that point do you think you knew what the possibilities were?
VW: I knew much better. Honestly, the best thing I got out of film school was confidence to walk onto a film set and know what things were. It wasn’t really beyond that. I didn’t have the trade skills to walk in and do a job at a higher level. I just had the ability to walk onto a set and not be dumb.
IA: To feel comfortable, to know what was going on, who was doing what.
VW: I knew what clips were called, what gels were, what 3-point lighting is and how you’re supposed to set up a light without burning out the bulb or burning yourself. I understood the basic, basic things.
IA: Technical stuff.
VW: The most basic technical stuff. And I actually did know how to direct pretty well because we were just trained by fire with that where they’d bring these actors in and tell them to be really harsh on us and be really problematic. We did months of working with people. If anyone has yelled at me on a film set, I don’t think twice about it because I got yelled at so much in film school. They insult you, they do the best they can to really
A Makeshift Editing Booth
put you through the wringer. So, when you get out of film school into the real world you’re prepared at least emotionally. There were certain things I came out with a good amount of understanding.
IA: A thick skin.
VW: A thick skin. That helped a ton. The first real job I had working outside of working on St. Trinian’s was for a film company called Film One to One and it was such a con. The guy had thousands of websites. He had bought a website and he’d sold it for millions. His new idea was to have an office full of people where they had thousands of websites and he was just banking on numbers. Somebody was going to want to buy one of them. And he would make another couple of million. I had to create video content for these websites to make them more attractive to buyers.
IA: They were all just phony websites?
VW: They existed. They had no purpose at that point other than a sale. My job was so dumb, below minimum wage. I had to go out and produce, direct and film a piece, come back, edit it, put it together, put graphics, everything thing in, like lower thirds and put it online in one day and I had to do one of those a day or I’d be fired.
IA: Oh my god.
VW: So, I did over 300 websites because I worked with them for over a year, I did over 300 of these videos for these websites. And I learned these tricks. It was a horrible job, so horrible. But I learned all these weird little tricks at are helpful. If you stand outside of a tube station with a camera as people are flying out from getting off work, I could stand out there and say, “Hey, I’m interviewing people for this website on allotments”, which are little gardens, or on financial services or on debt or on mattresses or any of these random sites that he had. And he had a list of the top 20 that I was aiming for.
I would interview between 10 and 20 people on multiple subjects. I’d let them go and that way I had content for at least 3 videos. I’d do that with enough people that I could film enough for the week and then quickly put out the videos for each day. And that way I was frontloading it. I was so shy and terrified of talking to people that this really broke that for me. It was like, I have to put on my film hat and my camera in front of my face and talk to human beings because I’m terrified. Because otherwise I would have been fired and I wouldn’t have a job. And this was all I had. I had to break out of my comfort zone and figure out how to approach people, which is a really important skill for filmmaking.
IA: Also, to get people to talk.
VW: Oh yeah. And I’m pretty good with people and so that wasn’t too hard getting them to talk. But getting them to feel comfortable in front of a camera, getting them to be open in front of a camera to loosen themselves, to be willing to sign the paper at the end saying they are willing to have their image on film. All that kind of stuff. Running around the city with huge bags of film equipment. It taught me a lot very quickly about some of the basics of film.
It just taught me what I didn’t want to do. I didn’t want to become a camera person because you have to carry all this heavy equipment. And I was okay at it; I probably could have gone into it (camera). But it just wasn’t fun. I slowly realized out of that job that I really needed to pick what I wanted to do. And it is so hard when you first get out of film (school) to pick one thing and say that’s what I’m doing. A lot people come out of film school saying, “I’m a filmmaker and I can do anything.” For people who are listening this means I do nothing because you have to have a specific skill for them to think about you. You can be a PA (production assistant). In England they call that a runner and you can be a runner all day long but they probably aren’t even going to think about you for that unless you say I’m interested in getting experience as a runner. Being specific is what’s helpful. And I was terrified of saying, “I want to do this thing.” But, finally I did decide, I think eventually I just got worn down. I thought, “Sure, editing, why not. I have the patience for it. It seems to pay the very few times I’ve been hired to do it. Yeah, I’ll do that. I know literally no one else who is doing it. I have no competition.”
IA: It sounds like when you were working for the horrible website guy, you were in essence editing your own stuff.
VW: I was.
IA: It sounds like editing . . . I want to find out more about the process. But one thing it does sound like is you have to have a vision of where you’re going and you’re taking a bunch of stuff and putting it together, the raw material. It was almost like speed dating or something you were doing with this job. You were having to do one a day and you were figuring out ways of getting bulk material together so you could do a bunch of editing all at once.
One of the Films Vanessa Has Worked On
VW: That’s a great way of putting it. It felt like speed dating all of the different things you can do with film actually. It was filming, directing, producing and editing. It was the whole process, the whole gamut. It was me doing these little versions of each task, not necessarily very well, with very little guidance at the same time. I think editing, where you get to sit down and things slow down and you have control, that’s a huge plus for an introvert especially. You can just push the world away and go into that content and start to mold it. And that’s very creatively fulfilling for me.
IA: So, what does it mean that you’re an editor? What does that look like? And also, how do you put your creative stamp on things? It sounds like there’s . . . they give awards for film editing and it’s a big deal at the Academy Awards and other awards so obviously the editor is an important part of the process. So, give us a class on editing.
IA: Arguably editing is one of the most important parts of filmmaking. We have so much control over how things are going to turn out. In fact, you can write it a certain way, direct it a certain way, film it a certain way. Doesn’t matter. It’s in the edit that determines how it looks, feels, everything. I’m trying to figure out how to answer this. So, when I first got into editing, I wasn’t totally sure either what it was about. I was really just taking content and putting it on a timeline and making a story out of it. But, as you do it more and more, you learn to take that content you’re given and create emotional moments and lead people through that story. So, it can be very creative and it can be not at all creative. It really depends on what you’re going, who you’re working with and how it’s set up.
IA: How much flexibility they give you, how much license they give you to work with their material?
VW: Yes. They go out and they film this stuff. They’ve written it. They say a film is made three times. The first time is when it’s written, when you have the story, the second time when it’s directed and you have all the footage, and the third time when it’s cut and you’re deciding how it feeds together. The directors, the people who create the content you have to work with. . .
IA: The screenwriters?
VW: The screenwriters are usually kicked out of the process once they sell the script. They don’t really see it again after that. They have very little say about what actually happens. Then the director is the secondary holder of the story. The director then takes that story and figures out casting. “I think this character looks like this person and I think this character looks like that person. I want them to act in this way to fulfill these roles. And I want to use these locations to set up that space.” So, between the script and the actual film it’s a very different. . . it can change a lot.
There’s a little bit of creativity in directing because you’re choosing the look and the feel of everything. But really the creativity for that comes in directing the actors and honing them into an emotional space. So, that’s where their creativity comes in because they already have the script. They’re not really writing, but are making the decisions as to where the writing goes. Then, when it gets to post-production, sometimes the directors know exactly what they want. They know what they shot and they know how they want it to come together. But, in my experience, 99% of the time they don’t. They’re tired and they want to go home and see their families. They give you the footage and go, “My part is done. Now, it’s your turn.”
VW: Because you’re handing a baton off and you’re running a marathon, right. So, the screenwriter hands the first baton off, then the director runs and hands that off to post-production and then post-production hands it basically to the finishing line. Most of the time I get hard drives full of footage. I get the script. I get the notes that were taken by the script supervisor on the day saying what happened. “Hey we dropped this scene because we ran out of time. This actor was sick this day so we cut this shot. There was an airplane overhead during this scene so you’re going to have lots of cut-around.”
They kind of give you a bible of what happened throughout the process because you weren’t there. And then you just sit down and start to attack it scene by scene or day by day. And you take all that footage, you organize it. That’s the most important thing upfront, organizing is a huge part of the process because otherwise, you’ll have no idea what you’re looking at. So, you label everything, you might transcode it all to smaller bits so it’s easier to work with. And then you get creative and you start honing these scenes and you mold them. And hey, maybe the writer wanted this scene to be this emotional argument between a husband and wife, right. And the director on the day thought, ‘You know what, I want it to end in a romantic moment.” So, they’ll start to argue and then they’ll come together and it will be like, actually they still love each other. I’m going to do a little twist on that. And then it comes to me and one of the actors was really sick that day; he looks disgusting. So, I have to cut it so there’s an emotional blow-up and a romantic ending but kind of not using his takes as much.
IA: That’s amazing to me, sounds like amazing work.
VW: It’s so creative because you’re basically problem-solving. You’re taking a puzzle that’s upside down and you’re trying to figure out how it fits together to form a picture. You have a guide, you have some guiding moments and things. But most of the time they’re wrong because they aren’t paying attention only to that. They’re paying attention to a hundred things. And you need to watch them all. I see every single thing that gets shot. It’s exhausting, it’s tiring, it’s grueling and it takes a lot of patience.
I watch the same thing over and over and over again and I put it down on the timeline, the one that I think is the best and I put other things up against it. And then I watch it over and over and over again and then I realize, you know what, this is the strongest performance from this person but it’s not the right feel for this scene. I’m going to pull that and put in a poorer performance because it’s going to feed into that overall scene feeling way better.
So, I’m just crafting, molding and molding this footage until we have this great scene. A lot of time, if you’re watching a movie, and it’s really boring, that’s partly the editor’s fault because they’re the ones who are telling you what you’re supposed to feel and teaching you and taking you through from moment to moment. So, you have a lot of responsibility as an editor.
An Intense Discussion with Crew
IA: I know you said this thing about telling the story three times and your fine-tuning it as it goes, at least that’s what I was picking up. Do you read a screenplay before you start? Do you have some sort of outline of the entire story before you start? Or do you create it primarily from what you’re given from the day-to-day work that went before you?
VW: Well, my job is ideally to be true to the story. I feel like I’m a defender of the story. It doesn’t matter what other people want to have happen. There’s a vision. I didn’t direct the film and I didn’t write the film. There’s a vision that goes with the film; there’s a concept behind it that everybody worked long and hard to achieve. So, I usually start by sitting down with the director or the creators and I really talk it through. “What do you want this to be? Where do you want this to go? Tell me what your vision is for this film.”
IA: It’s basically an interview with somebody like that.
VW: We break it down together. I have the screenplay and it helps me figure out what words come in which order. I use that as a guide. And story boards are really helpful because they give me a good idea of which shots they thought were going to blend together. They’re drawing out the movie from all of the angles. And you’d think I just sit there and put it together. Not at all because a lot of times they’re wrong. They think that they’ve achieved something but they didn’t. So, I take that space, that emotional thing they wanted, that piece of the story they were hoping to create, and I kind of throw everything out the window. I say, “Okay, it’s great I have these notes. It’s really helpful I have the screenplay. But, it just doesn’t help for this scene. I’m going to take what they told me they wanted for the core of it and I’m going to do that. And I’m going to use this footage they made on the day and do the best I can with it. There are a number of times I’ve worked on a film where they’ve said, “Where’s the aerial shot of this or where’s the shot of that. I really need that shot in here. You’re messing up and failing the piece because I have to have the thing.” But he never shot it in the first place.
IA: Oh no.
VW: Yeah, it happens all the time. That’s the point where they go, “Okay, reshoots. We have to go pick up this aerial shot because we thought we had it.”
IA: This is interesting. It sounds to me what you’re doing is making concrete in film what is in their imagination. They have it in their head what they want and then you have to go and turn that into reality.
VW: It’s problem solving on the highest level, the most extreme. It’s non-stop problem solving. Like I said an actor might be sick or maybe they recast in the middle of a shoot. There are so many things that can happen along the way. It’s supposed to be sunny in the script. You know, they’re holding hands and walking down the street and it’s a sunny day. And it ends up pouring rain during the shoot. You’re taking this information and you’re trying to figure out what they want to do with that scene, and taking all that footage they give you. Because when they do the footage it’s not like they only cover the exact thing they’re after. They’re doing the entire angle; ideally, they’re doing the whole scene from that angle multiple times.
So, I will have the entire conversation from one person’s shot and I’ll have the wide shot of the them, the medium shot and the close-up. Then we do the entire scene again from here and here and here. Then we do the whole scene from a two-shot. Then maybe we’re going to do one fun scene as a way to get us into the scene where we have dolly tracks that we put the camera on and move it around the table to give it some energy. So, taking all of that and figuring out how to piece it together. And maybe they thought the dolly shot on the tracks is what’s going to get us into the scene. But I realize actually we should just hard cut into somebody’s face yelling. And, then, midway through, when the energy starts to dip, we jump onto that moving shot then. So, there’s an idea of what it should be but the reality is very different.
IA: If you have a 5-minute scene how much time do you spend editing down to that? Does it depend on who you’re working with? Do you get better work from some people over others? Can you even answer the question the way you’re smiling?
VW: It’s so complicated. Just on a very base level I would say something like a 5-minute scene that’s a fairly standard scene like a conversation would probably take about a week. When you finish a feature film that’s about 6 months of work for us.
IA: In the editing.
VW: Yes, in the editing. And that’s not CGI (computerized graphics), that’s not all that stuff, post sound where they fix the sound and compose the music. That’s actual editing work.
IA: My nephew (who works for Fox Studios) was telling me the studio he works at did Avatar and that took over 10 years. He saw sections of the film over and over and over again.
In Front of Her Editing Screens
VW: Yeah. It probably changes hands a lot, too. They were doing a lot of experimental stuff. That would be really hard to get right. That CGI technology would have been evolving consistently and they would have been trying to keep up with it. Slash match, slash make it look awesome. It depends on the project but a basic project that I’ve been a part of is often . . . I’ve put together that scene and I think, “Okay, I’m pretty close to how it should be” and then the director comes in and sits down with me. And they tell me what’s working and what’s not working. They ask if they have these other shots because they think this isn’t quite what I wanted. We come to an agreement. “Okay, I’ve taken your notes and I’m going to craft it again.” And, then, they come back and they look at it and then we move on. Once we have the whole film, we all sit down together again and we watch it through and we think of what’s working, what’s not working.
IA: Do you prefer working with someone who gives you a big box of stuff and lets you figure it out, figuratively I mean, or do you prefer someone who has a complete algorithm of the whole thing from start to finish and everything figured out and you’re essentially a technician? Which do you prefer?
VW: I would rather be given the box of stuff. A director is going to be brilliant at directing. That is their job, to be a director. My job is to be an editor. They’re not an editor; they’re not going to be great at editing. They’re going to sit down with me and they’re going to make the film worse frankly because that’s not what they do. They are supposed to be entrusting me to get the emotional core out of their work. And if they can’t trust me to do that, I’m probably not the right one for them, because that’s just button pushing. I know that George Lucas in the first three (Star Wars) films was like that. He sat down with the editor the whole time and he micro-managed that film to death.
IA: Do directors have their editor already? Do they work with the same editor?
VW: It depends. Often times the director will have their favorite editor. I know a couple of directors who’ve told me when they get their feature funding, they want to have me because we work well together already. So, it is ideal to suss out who your editor is before you start because you want somebody you agree with, you work well with and you respect. If it is two strangers you have to have a good relationship if you’re going to work together across disciplines.
IA: To trust each other.
VW: Yes, you have to be able to have conversations and be on the same page and be working together and not against each other. That’s where you get a lot of producers coming in. Often, they come in and work against what the editor or the director want. And they’ll say, “Well, Coca Cola is really big this year and they’re a sponsor so let’s make sure to show a lot more of that, guys.” And we’ll say, “But the story would be better without it.” And they’ll say, “Nope, put it in.” “Okay, this film is now worse because of what you asked me to do.” And that’s always heartbreaking, but that’s where they got some of their money and we owe them so now we have to make that happen. But, if I have a director that is pure hell for me, if I have a director who just sits there watching over my shoulder watching me work, for me it’s really not a good process. I really need to be alone with the content so I can be there emotionally. If I have somebody with me, I can’t get into the scene.
IA: So, you primarily work by yourself?
IA: Is that because editors generally work by themselves?
VW: We’re weird people. We sit in small, dark rooms on our own.
IA: I was just wondering if there could be 2 or 3 people sitting in a small, dark room.
VW: No, it’s usually just one person. If you’re in a high-end editing suite you have Dolbys. You have all these different speakers all around you. You’re making sure that’s functioning right. You’re in the dark room really by yourself where you don’t hear any of the outside world. You don’t see any of the outside world; you’re just completely by yourself looking at this piece. And that’s pretty vital because if you’re not, you can’t get into it and it’s harder to tell that story right.
IA: Are most people in the industry formally educated or are there a lot of people in the industry who are self-taught and have learned.
VW: Most people are self-taught who I’ve come across or have jumped in from other industries. The cool thing about the film industry is that it accepts everybody. If you have a skill-set of pretty much any kind there is a position for you in film. If you’re an electrician there is a position for you in film. If you are a carpenter, there’s a position. If you’re a medic, if you’re a baker or a food person, if you are a costumer or you just mend wedding dresses or a wedding planner there is 100% a place for you in film because it’s like an army of skills and talents that come together to create, to conquer the mission that is making the film.
Watching From the Sidelines on the Set
And that’s what it feels like. It feels like being in the military because that’s the only way I can describe it. It might be more fun, but you’re still working 12 to 16-hour days, probably lifting a bunch of stuff or standing in the rain waiting for things to happen. It’s pretty grueling work and, for long periods of time, it’s not real well-paid. But, it is very democratic in that there are so many positions we take just about anybody. And no one cares, no one cares about your education. What they care about is your ability because they have money and they’re offering a tiny amount of that money that they have to make this whole project to you and they need to trust you to do your part. That’s all that matters. Your reputation is the #1 thing for getting work in the industry. No one cares about anything else. No one cares where you studied or who you know. I mean, yes, who you know can get your foot in the door.
IA: Sounds like the ultimate meritocracy.
VW: One hundred percent. Yes, if you stay in it long enough and you’re a very talented DP, director of photography, cinematographer or cameraman, the idea of the vision of the look, if you’re really talented at it and you stay in it long enough, yeah, you’ll be top-notch. You’ll be really flying high by the end of your career. It’s all about your skill and honing your skills. I feel pretty good about my skills as an editor but there’s a lot I still have to learn. I’ve been doing this since 2007, 2006. And I feel like, man, that’s well over a decade and I still have a lot to learn.
IA: When they give the Academy Award for editing, these people are usually in their 50s or 60s, so they’ve been at their craft for a while.
VW: They probably have a breadth of work behind them. People like Tarantino and Spielberg, all kinds of directors often have their editor. And those editors, before they even join up with these directors, have done tons of work. And then they hone and they hone. A film won’t win an Academy award unless an editor did their job right. It’s like a lifetime achievement award when an editor receives an Academy Award.
IA: Are there specializations in editing? Do you primarily focus on long films? Do some people focus on documentaries? Do some focus on commercials?
VW: I feel like editors are the most versatile people because we’re so used to problem-solving. We kind of can do anything. I do everything personally. I’ve done television. I worked at Technicolor as well as I did Hoarders and a TLC series called A Statement of Profit. Currently I’m doing tons of commercial work, so I just did a Berks shoe commercial. I do tons of corporate because they pay super well. So, I do Amazon and Microsoft events, interviews, video game trailers. I do everything. I like feature films but, in our state, there aren’t as many so the opportunities are few and far between.
IA: Are there hubs for editors in terms of areas of the country?
VW: Yes, but it’s getting a little bit different as the internet and hard drives advance. The hubs are still New York, L.A., definitely L.A. But, they still want you on site. If you’re working on a feature film you really have to be working with that director on site in those post houses and delivering it to the screening rooms and sitting there taking notes with the director as to what’s working, what’s not working. It’s good for you to be in that location. However, with the smaller jobs, with that commercial stuff and corporate stuff, half the time they don’t even have directors. So, they just send me a hard drive. I work on it and we send things back and forth online. They give me notes on programs like Vimeo that allow you to make notes on a timeline. I make those changes, we agree on it and, then, we’re done. So, my personal clients, especially for the commercial and corporate work are all over the globe. I worked last year with people in Sweden, England, Australia and Poland, just everywhere, Canada, tons in Canada . . . those borders are being broken down. I still think on the bigger, creative projects you’re not going to have that situation, at least not for a long time. On the smaller projects it’s very easy not to be there.
IA: The other question I have is about independent filmmakers. When you were talking about going through school and the frustration you had, it seems like there’s more and more independent filmmakers. And what does “independent filmmaker” really mean in the business?
VW: That’s such a good question. What does it mean? Originally it meant doing everything. I’d say in the ‘90s when independent films were really rising it meant somebody managed to get their hands on a cheap 16 mil camera or an 8 mil camera or a VHS camcorder and they put together, with a couple of friends, a project. And the good ones, people like Jim Jarmusch, rose to the top. And David Lynch. They rose to the top because they have exceptional vision. Now, anybody can make it because a smartphone can create a feature film. But the level is still rising so there’s a huge range of independent films. It can still be literally one person making it all. I think there’s a huge risk because you’re not going to be good at everything. You’re going to be really good at certain things and really terrible at others. You really do need that team. But for a lot of independent films it just means they just are lower budget films with the same size team. It’s just you’re paying them less, you’re shooting less time, you’re shooting in cheaper locations, you have crappier costumes, your food isn’t as nice. It’s much more that sort of thing.
IA: Aren’t some of the independent films, they went out and found people who can afford $500,000 but they can’t afford $20 million.
VW: Absolutely, that’s still very much an approach. That’s a very good way to think about independent films as well, is getting money from friends, family or investors who have taken a shining, rather than studios. Studios and larger production companies that already afford films, it’s gambling. It’s gambling on a very large scale. So, what they want to do is put their money on the winners. They already have money, they have millions and millions. They want to put all their chips on a number that’s likely to come up. Which is why you get these safe, crappy films now, like action films starring The Rock, or whatever. You know that that’s a winner.
IA: You have a built-in audience.
VW: You know you’re going to get your return on it. If you have this no-name director with no talent and they’ve done one independent film that looks kind of crappy, no one wants to give them money, except for their mom and dad. That’s when you start to get people, you approach people who may not expect a return or need a return. “You know, I just want to give money to the arts. Here’s $500,000. It doesn’t matter if it works or not. Good luck. Hope you do well.” You still have a contract that says they get their money back if you make a profit. But, most likely you’re not going to make a profit. Half the films I’ve worked on that are in theaters don’t necessarily make a profit. They may break even, maybe, but. . . And streaming isn’t helping because you lose money the minute you put it on Netflix.
IA: When you were starting in your career you probably weren’t by yourself. There probably were a lot of people who came out of film school feeling that way, being exposed to a lot. I was thinking some of them might get so frustrated they would say, “I’m just going to do it myself” and just go that route.
Another Film Vanessa Has Worked On
VW: I think that’s where documentaries come from.
IA: Oh really.
VW: I hate working on documentaries. It’s always that way. It’s always one person who has a vision, and they want to do it.
IA: They want to tell this story.
VW: And they spend 10 years going around following these people, this band or whatever. And then they have, like, 100,000 hours of footage and they say, “Hey, make a movie out of it.” And you think, “What did you do?” They’re different formats and they don’t even know what they want. Yes, you can get frustrated and make your own film and that’s where a lot of peoples’ first-time films come from. I know Rian Johnson who did the 2nd Star Wars film, his first film was Brick and that was made with Joseph Gordon-Levitt right before Joseph Gordon-Levitt became fairly famous. He was known, but not super well-known. He went to his old high school; he got the high schoolers on the weekends to help him make this movie. He got local townspeople to donate stuff. It took a long time for this film to get made and when it came out it’s one of those rare stories of success where, I think, it actually made a fair amount of money. Not in theaters, it did a few festivals; but really on the DVD sales. And that gave him enough clout to be able to get his next slightly bigger film and then that got a slightly bigger film and then Hollywood’s been doing a really weird thing where with huge, enormous films where they’re taking up and coming directors because the power balance is more in their favor. They get these indie kids where they say, “Welcome to our $100 million set and you’re going to do exactly what we say.” It’s a huge power move.
IA: Someone like Tarantino can say “f___ you and the horse you rode in on” and leave.
VW: He can say, “I’m Tarantino and I’ve been in this racket for a long time.”
VW: Totally, “I’m above this. I have that clout.” Most people don’t have that clout. Independent filmmaking is really difficult. . . I mean, look at Get Out by Jordan Peele. Key and Peale started Key and Peele, the show, because they didn’t get on SNL. They thought, “You know what, neither of us got on SNL. Let’s make our own comedy show” and they sold it, and it started doing really well. So, Jordan Peele decided he wanted to make a feature film and I’m pretty sure he got laughed out the door of many, many offices, even though he had a popular TV series. So, he somehow convinced somebody through a lot of work they should help him make this film and it won an Academy Award for best writing and made tons of money. People realized that there’s an African American audience out there and they’re desperate for great content and will pay money and fill seats. And all of a sudden, we get to have movies like Black Panther and we get to have movies that focus on the Black story and Black viewpoint that aren’t just about slavery or crime.
VW: Unless you take the risk, you won’t know the pay-off. That’s why companies like Amazon and Netflix are doing things like Stranger Things. Maybe we’ll see, we’ll put a little bit of money into this thing and see what happens. And then it’s a huge success and “Oh my god, we didn’t even know this audience existed. Now that we know we can start making all this other content we can sell in different ways and get money for in different ways.” Thinking outside the box is a huge part of filmmaking now. It didn’t used to be but right now with streaming rising and with TV disappearing. . .
IA: Many avenues to go after. You told me a few months ago that you want to write. So, where do you see yourself actually going and does that fit into where you want to go? You’re on a trajectory. Is that the trajectory you want to be on?”
VW: I actually shifted my feeling about my own career about a year or two ago because I really wanted to edit feature films and TV and I really felt like I needed to go in that direction and almost moved to LA a couple of times to do that.
IA: Oh really.
VW: But, at some point I realized I’m making a fair amount of money doing the kind of editing I’m doing right now. I’m just a gun for hire, depending who calls me that week then that’s the job I’m going to do. Which is great to a certain extent because I get a lot of money. But creatively I’m not making a name for myself outside the state. I’m really pushing myself into a pretty small bubble. I’m not really advancing my career as far as television and film.
IA: Are you like “Miss Fix-It?” Is that what you’ve become?
VW: I am actually getting a pretty good reputation in the local area as an editor in general, but not specifically in the area of feature films. People doing them are not looking at me specifically to edit. I’ve been asked to do a lot of assistant editing and I will do it if the right editor is there, one that I’m already friends with. But I really don’t want to become an assistant editor. That’s not my favorite place.
IA: Are you basically seen as a free-lancer?
VW: Free-lancer, 100%, yes.
IA: So, you’ll do . . . just present the project and I’ll tell whether or not I’ll do it.
VW: Hundred percent. There are tons of projects I turn down, too, often because I don’t have the time for them. If they don’t pay well enough. This is my job and I made the decision, probably 5 years ago, that I would never work for free again. Because every time I worked for free the projects took forever, they were miserable, they went nowhere, and they didn’t pay. It was a huge waste of my time. So, now, because this is how I make money, this is what I do. I charge a certain amount because I have a certain skill set and I can get you something quickly and it’s going to be a great value and you’re going to love it and it will help sell your product or whatever.
So, there’s that and then there’s the writing I want to do which, any writing and directing I do make no money at all, give me nothing aside from my own creative fulfillment. And I realized that I could either edit these random projects, make a lot of money and take time off when I want to do this writing, or I could full-time, passionately, hardcore aim myself toward editing Hollywood pictures. But if I edit Hollywood pictures I don’t have time for screenwriting. I have 6 to 12 months at a time per project that hopefully I like and I am on that and nothing else. And I am not going to have time to do anything of my own. So, I had to make a decision as to whether I wanted to be a professional, elite editor or if I wanted to leave space for myself to do creative projects and hopefully write a book and hopefully sell some screenplays and leave room to maybe direct and write at least one film in my lifetime. So, I chose, and it was a hard decision, and it took me a lot, and I chose to step away from the Hollywood dream and go more towards making sure that I’m financially stable and that I’m happy just doing what I want to do and having that freedom. It’s a hard thing when you realize the more you get to know the industry the more you realize how to aim yourself, where you’re headed and you really have to start to think if that’s right for you.
Babysitting and Editing?
IA: It sounds like you’re comfortable with what you know and who knows that, so even if it’s not like you have a contract for the next 12 to 24 months you know the work will be there because of your reputation. And that also allows you the time to do some things you want to do that are not a part of your daily grind.
VW: And I have to say making that decision as, kind of heartbreaking as it was to not be like, “I’m going to go full force go toward science fiction future films”, which is what I love to do the most, at the same time I’ve had such great opportunities come out of this decision. So, right now, I’m working a Kung Fu film; it’s in its last couple of months of work. I’m an assistant but an assistant for one of my best friends. I have tons of creative say throughout where he often asks me my opinion. I get to really have my hands in it. It’s very fulfilling and, just like with Prospect, which is the last one I was an assistant on, with this film one of our three leads is a main character in Mulan. I can see that this film has some potential success just off of something like that. Same with Prospect, the lead in that was Pedro Pasqual who is now the star of The Mandalorian. He was definitely not a big name, he was a medium, smallish name and now he’s huge.
So, doing these smaller projects actually does end up being fulfilling because you get to meet all these people who are on the cusp of really launching and taking off and that includes not just the stars but the writers, the directors and the other people involved. It’s really fun to be a part of their world. And on top of that, I get to do . . . I got called up last August for an emergency video game trailer. I do a ton of video game trailers. A friend of mine said, “Can you help me with this thing?” And I said, “Sure, okay.” And we just bashed it out. And I went to the Penny Arcade Expo, which is the big gaming convention, I think it’s the biggest one in the world still once a year. It’s in Seattle. I was going up the escalator and there are these huge banners down the side of the escalators for the game I just did the trailer for. I didn’t know it was a premier game. I knew that it was big. It’s based off of a comic called Cyanide and Happiness and it was a game they were doing in that style. It’s a lot of fun; I don’t think it ended up taking off, but it was a huge centerpiece and when I went into the expo floor they had an enormous stand with something attached to the ceiling. They were tossing T-shirts at people and I was watching my trailer front and center on these screens as people are walking by.
The fulfillment of stuff like that, where I don’t necessarily expect anything but these great things happen, is so satisfying. And it’s nice for bragging. But it’s great. I’m actually not trying to tell people I’m awesome and I think because I’m not trying I’m finding the right people naturally who I love working with and who love working with me and they’re spreading me to other people who are great to work with. So I don’t want, “I’m Mr. Joe Hollywood and I’m gonna scrape at the bottom of the barrel and do the worst work for you for ten years of my life.” Instead I get to work with my friends, have a good time and do really cool random work.
IA: I bet that was a hard decision but it sounds great. How much writing are you doing?
VW: I’m trying to do more. Actually, last year I finished my first feature film screenplay and I’m working on another one this year. I did shoot a proof of concept trailer to try and sell the feature film I’m working on writing this year. So, that will just give me something extra I can take to investors and say, “Hey, this is the mood and the style I’m looking at. Tell me what you think and if you’re interested.” It’s given me space to do stuff like that. I have a science fiction book series I want to write. So, if I have time, I’d love to do that. It’s a 3-part trilogy and I’m real excited about it.
IA: Where do you see the film industry going in the future? You talked a little about all these different audiences that Amazon and Netflix are reaching out to. Do you see that changing at all? Expanding?
VW: It’s crazy. Ever since the writers’ strike in 2007 everything has changed. During that time television went from Thursday night comedy and Friday night blah blah blah. And tune in between these times. When the writers’ strike happened, it threw a lot of that out the window. People were saying, “My show isn’t on” because there were no writers. “It’s going to come on in Summertime or half of it is, and not now.” And they were having mini-seasons. Everybody was struggling that year. And, then, at that same time they put out the box sets of DVDs. And everybody started buying the box sets. And that’s where binge watching was born. We didn’t have any TV. You could get Battle Star Galactica 1 through 3 and Lost 1 through 4.
I think what is going to happen . . . I think that was the start of the end of television as we know it. I really think cable TV and network TV are going to disappear. And I think what we’re going to have is things like streaming services where you can watch content at home and theaters. I think movie theaters are going to be ok, partly because . . . you guys remember there was Movie Pass last year or the year before? It was a pass you could buy that was basically like a credit card and I think it was like $100/year. It was very little. And it would allow you to see as many movies as you wanted in the theater.
IA: We had a friend who bought it.
VW: A bunch of people bought it, including myself. I actually didn’t use it that much. But I noticed the attendance in theaters went up massively because so many people could go to the movies for practically nothing. Theaters were prohibitively expensive for a lot of people at the bottom of the economic crisis. Then Movie Pass of course crumbled because it was a terrible idea. You could in no way sustain that. Now we have things like AMC, Cinemark and Regal having clubs. I’m part of the AMC membership and I think it’s something like $20 or $30/month and I can see up to 3 movies per week.
IA: Yeah, seniors get discounts or you go on a Tuesday, that kind of thing.
VW: I think as long as they keep it . . . That’s a great way to do it because it’s like a membership, you feel like you’re wasting your money if you don’t go and you’re automatically getting charged each month. That’s huge. And they can probably sell the marketing data as well. “Females tend to go to movies on Tuesdays from 12 to 2.” That’s very helpful.
IA: They’re already doing that. Baby and mommy times where mothers who are nursing can go in and have the lights low and they go with their friends and they don’t have to worry about the neighbors complaining because your baby’s crying.
VW: I think that’s so smart. It’s such a clever idea.
IA: Plus, you have a big screen. We have these friends who have these huge screens but they’re still not the size of a theater screen.
VW: I do think the home theater is taking over a lot of stuff. But I do think people like to come together and experience things en masse. Which is why you’ve got Star Wars and people come and they dress up. And I feel that that sense of community isn’t going away as often as people talk about it. People have been talking since the ‘70s about the death of movie theaters. It hasn’t happened yet. I don’t think it’s about to happen, but television, paying for a cable package where you don’t like half the content on there. Daytime TV, soap operas; soap operas have been condensed down to like one at this point. That stuff is going away because the taste has changed. People like to watch things at their own leisure and they get to choose what kind of content they have. It’s become pretty democratic in that sense.
IA: So, you think TV as we know it will go away?
VW: It’s pretty much already gone. I don’t know anybody who is signed up for a cable package. Everyone I know has specific streaming packages. I would never pay for TV. I hate TV because I hate commercials.
IA: I hate commercials, too. We have Dish Network. What would you advise a young person, or student, who wants to go into the film industry?
VW: There’s a couple of core pieces of advice that I would give after I have gone through it myself. The first thing which I touched on earlier is decide what you want to do as soon as you can. And tell people specifically that’s what you do. The minute I told people, screw it, I’m an editor, I got work immediately. It just didn’t stop. That’s what led almost within a month of me doing that to me getting work at Technicolor and then just consistently being able to pay my bills. And every time I met someone, I told them I was an editor. If anybody had editing jobs that came up someone would say, “Oh I know an editor. It’s this girl. I’ll put you in touch with her.” Or it was, “Yeah, I’ll give her a call because I’ve got this project coming up and she did a great job on that other film.” You can just declare, you can change your mind, but declare what you do as soon as you can. Just take the risk and do it because if you tell people you can do anything they’ll say, “Well I need somebody who can be a lighting assistant but I don’t know anybody who wants to be one.” You’ve already told them, “I will do anything.” And they’ll say, “But I want to give a chance to someone who is interested in lighting.”
IA: Saying you can do anything sounds like someone who is desperate.
VW: It does and it comes across that way. In the film industry the higher you rise the more you realize how desperate that is and how it’s just not useful. It’s just not a useful thing to do so declaring what you want to do and telling people that’ what you want to do and starting down that path is huge.
The other thing I would tell people and it’s the hardest lesson I learned, and it sucks and nobody wants to hear it, is you should live in the place where you want to work. If you want to go to film school, go to film school where you want to work. If you want to be in LA, go to LA. If you want to be in New York go to it (film school) in New York. If you want to be in London, go to London. These little microcosms of the industry, it’s all based on trust. It’s all about who you know and how good your reputation is. My reputation in LA? Who knows me in LA? I know a couple of people and they might be able to get me on some reality TV stuff but, in Seattle, I know hundreds and hundreds of people who will think of me, who will call me, who know me, who have worked with me. I can’t just move somewhere because every time I’ve moved . . . so when I started in London, I had my little London group. And I tried to move to New York right after film school for a little bit and it was horrible, and the economy was crashing. I couldn’t get work to save my life. I got one unpaid job for the 8 months I was there.
IA: Was it because there was just a ton of competition? Everybody goes to New York?
VW: Everybody already knows each other. I didn’t know anybody. There was probably plenty of work; I just didn’t know where it was. And if you call companies, if you do cold calling; I even started showing up at peoples’ offices they would say, “Yeah, we just laid off 3 people this morning, so no. Please leave.” You call Sesame Street and they would say, “Do not show up, do not call us.” They had it on their voicemail. “Do not approach us for work.” You had to know somebody. “Yeah, my neighbor, Joe, is working on the show and I can just check in with him to see if he can get me on.” That’s how you get work. So, to build your reputation from nothing to consistent work each place I’ve moved to it’s taken me 3 years.
IA: Oh my god, that’s a long time.
VW: It’s a long time because you have to go to parties, you have to meet people, you have to get crappy, tiny jobs on film sets so people can meet you. The only way you’re going to meet working people is in a working environment. Otherwise the people you’re meeting are not current . . . I mean if you meet someone at a party, they’re at a party, they’re not at a job. So, you don’t know if they actually have work or have clout. If you meet people on a film set, they have a job. So, they can probably get you a job on the next project they’re on if you impress them. You have to prove that you’re on time, and you work hard and you’re good at what you do. But, first and more important, they need to be able to trust you. So, when I first moved back to Seattle, it was all over again. I didn’t know anybody and it took me about 3 years to get any kind of work and it’s taken even longer than that to be able to do what I do now where I freelance and I can take much higher level jobs and a lot of it’s been through flukes and accidents and good luck and bad luck to get to the level I’m at.
If I’d wanted to go to LA, I should have gone to film school there because that’s your first step in networking. It’s the people, your teachers and your classmates, who are your initial network. And those people are in that city. If I go to film school in London, which is what happened, and then I wanted to go to LA, I don’t know anybody in LA, every one of those people were saying, “I’d love to go to LA, but I don’t have a visa for that. You have an American visa. Why are you here.” I got a lot of that.
If you want to start in the film industry, I get it. “I don’t have money, my car is broken, I don’t have a place to stay, I don’t know anybody.” Well, you know somebody. Go stay with your 3rd cousin’s friend on their couch for a month, figure it out, get yourself a crappy car and just start doing it. You can’t do it unless you start doing it. And it’s scary and it’s terrifying and it holds a lot of people back from getting in it. Otherwise you have to start all over again in every single city you go to and you have to start that whole process all over again. So, just go where you want to be.
IA: That’s good advice. Both of those pieces of advice seem to be, “Just take the plunge.”
VW: I think it’s because those were the two things I had the most difficulty with and was the most fearful of and it wasn’t until I did them that I was successful.
That’s a huge thing. I had a job at a little company in town. I was desperate for work. I had just moved back to Washington from England and I was just starving for something. There was an internship and they were going to take on 3 interns at this company and they were going to hire one of them at the end of it. So, I just showed up and “I’m desperate for work” and I was a little older than the other two girls who came in and applied. And I struggled a little bit more and I just knew I had to have it. So, I worked late hours, I worked super hard, I paid a lot of attention, I just gave the best version of myself to them, and I got the job. Now, the job wasn’t amazing. But, I got it. It’s that kind of stuff, being prepared, getting yourself ready to take that plunge at a second’s notice. If I go to a film industry or production office, at least in Seattle, and I say, “Are you guys looking for anybody?” there’s a huge chance that they might say, “We’re shooting over in West Seattle right now and our PA (production assistant) got sick. Can you go and jump on set?” That’s the kind of stuff that happens. So, being ready at a second’s notice is huge. All my friends in film school who got part-time jobs never entered the film industry. The people I went to film school with are not filmmakers because of that. They had a part-time job and they couldn’t make a call like, “Hey, if you think of such and such, give me a call.” They get that call and they have a shift that night. They couldn’t jump into their car and go to the other side of the country and work for 3 days. That’s the kind of stuff you have to be able to do.
On the Job with Computers Everywhere
It’s going to suck. I spent a good portion of my years starting off in the film industry literally with nothing. I was living off of Ramen. It was horrible. I was going into debt, but because I did that, I’m still making films. It’s a hard industry to enter.
END OF INTERVIEW