Blue Shield Do You Hear Me?
What was your first professionally directed work and when was it?
My first professionally directed work was a commercial for adidasRun in September 2019. I was plucked fresh out of my full-time job at Pyer Moss. I had been producing content for about a year at that point. This job came to me from TBWA’s creative director at the time, Andre Gray. My guess is that he saw the basketball series I had been producing and brought me on to do that work for Adidas.
How did you get into directing?
One of my best friends, Zoe Munlyn, asked me to be in her short while we were still at Howard. It was so cool to see everyone commit to this one story that she created. I had no concept of filmmaking as a possibility until then. When I was rejected from the film program at Howard, I got inspired to apply for Creative Minds in Cannes. The program sent me to the Cannes Film Festival where I developed a keen interest in East Asian film (completely by chance), particularly South Korean thrillers. I had always been a writer (since the age of seven) but I was just beginning to explore the visual side of my creativity through my graphic design minor which translated into photography and ultimately filmmaking.
What is your most recent project?
I just finished an Ulta beauty campaign with McCann. It was such a joy to work on. I had a fun and courageous client/agency duo and an amazing crew. I felt deeply connected to this project because it was about shifting the way that we see beauty. A lot of my work is in dialogue with this idea. I find that I naturally gravitate to the beauty that stands opposed to the standard, especially when I shoot fashion. Since I was a kid I have always tried to find the beauty that I could see myself in on TV and in films, but everything always fell short of this particular sort of representation. So this project is near and dear to my heart.
What is the best part of being a director?
I liken directing to steering a ship. I’m pretty sure I’ve heard someone say this before. But when I’m on set, that’s how I feel. The vision is the ship, and all of us — the whole crew have our hands on the wheel. Some people steer one way, other people steer another, and there I am trying to keep us centered. It’s one of the greatest feelings in the world. I always feel so at ease even when things are tense because at the end of the day I’m living my dream. So I would say the best part of being a director is seeing where that ship lands once everyone’s hands have been on it.
What is the worst part of being a director?
I love being a director but the thing I like the least about the process is the initial zoom pitch. My mannerisms and body language can easily be misread through this little box and so I always feel like I need to prepare my body and spirit to be as natural as possible in this incredibly unnatural way of meeting a person.
What is your current career focus: commercials and branded content, television, movies? Do you plan to specialize in a particular genre–comedy, drama, visual effects, etc.?
I majored in public relations when I was in college because I felt like that would have the most impact if we could deliver a positive message. Now that I am directing commercials that are centered around shifting the way that we think and expanding our empathy, I feel like I’m doing work that I love to do. But I want to take that even further and move into television and movies. That was always the goal. I’m setting up that world as we speak. My hope is that when I move into the TV/Film side of directing, people see the potential in what I do narratively through the work I continue to do with documentaries and commercials.
Have you a mentor and if so, who is that person (or persons) and what has been the lesson learned from that mentoring which resonates with you?
I am constantly learning from the people around me. I mean, to start, I’m inspired by Rhea Scott and Helen Hollien (Little Minx). They are powerhouse women and they get things done without all the bigotry and ego. Working with Malik Sayeed felt like a mentorship in a lot of ways. Watching him and the crew work was a master class in cinematography for sure. A lot of my mentorship also comes from friends who share my experience. We learn from each other, which is valuable. But an official mentor would be a dream. That is something that I would want to happen organically.
Who is your favorite director and why?
Hirokazu Kore-Eda is one of my favorite directors because his films (Nobody Knows, Shoplifters and Like Father, Like Son) are a masterwork of empathy. The way that he tells stories about families and everyday people who have to do, sometimes really hard things in order to survive, feels so natural as if you are living their experience. That is the sort of lens that inspires me. He uses the craft of filmmaking to get to the heart and soul of a character and their dynamics with the world. I had the honor of seeing him speak at a screening and he mentioned that his earlier films were intended to feel like documentaries. I think that intention grounded his work in a way that I really could relate to.
What is your favorite movie? Your favorite television/online program? Your favorite commercial or branded content?
My favorite movie is Crooklyn by Spike Lee because it was the first movie that I really saw myself in (sounds a little narcissistic but I stand by this). I watch so much TV that I couldn’t even tell you a single favorite show. But I will say that I was really surprised how much I enjoyed Flatbush Misdemeanors this season. It was really well written. In terms of commercials, I really liked Oscar Hudson’s “Flip” campaign. That was an epic and imaginative piece. I also really loved India Sleem’s “Helping Families Feel At Home” for the Ronald McDonald House Foundation. It felt so personal and had a photographer’s sensibility about it that I liked.
Tell us about your background (i.e., where did you grow up? Past jobs?)
I grew up in NJ between Newark, Montclair, and East Orange. I came from a family where almost everyone went to Howard University so I didn’t really have a choice, ha! After college, I commuted from my dad’s in Newark to the financial district to work the front desk at a co-working space. There I met a duo creating a retail platform for luxury African Fashion. I offered my newly budding photography skills as a way to get a job with them. It worked! I shot and developed content between NY and Lagos, Nigeria for 2+ years before they shut down. I got a job working for Pyer Moss soon after. There I was sort of handling everything–editorials, campaigns, eCommerce. It was a hell of a lot of work but I built a pretty sturdy portfolio. Once I got the adidas commercial I quit to follow my dream full-time.
How has the pandemic impacted your career, art, craft, shaped your attitudes and reflections on life which in turn may influence your work, approach, spirit, mindset?
This virus that has been tearing through the entire world has completely inverted everything we thought to be “normal”. The world woke up. I woke up. The pandemic forced me to listen to my own voice and fight through the spirit of fear. I fought with a lot of demons to come out the other side a healed and whole person. I’ve settled into myself in a way that I think would’ve taken a lot longer had we not spent four months locked in our homes. This is what I call my silver lining. The beautiful music played as the backdrop to an incredibly sad and tragic turn of events. It is way too normal for you to ask an American how they are doing and they respond “Good!” even though it’s been feeling like the world is crumbling around us all. The pandemic and the events following have made me realize what’s important–compassion. Being rich and practical and productive and successful doesn’t mean anything if as a society we are soulless.
Helen Hollien, Helen@littleminx.tv, www.littleminx.tv