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Ellen Houlihan | SHOOT New Directors Showcase Event
Ellen Houlihan

Todd Glass For GLSEN

Ellen Houlihan

How did you get into directing?
I first started directing in high school TV production elective courses and wound up working in feature film, TV and commercial production and development as soon as I was able to earn internship credit during college.

After a few years of working on major budget projects, I realized I hadn’t actually directed a project of my own in a few years so I directed, wrote and produced a high school comedy short called Catholic High School Musical. It wound up catching Werner Herzog’s attention for his so-called Rogue FIlm School (no BS seminar series) which gave me the confidence to apply to grad film programs.

I earned my MFA at Art Center College of Design where I’ve been able to focus on both narrative and commercial projects.

What is your most recent project?
I am currently in postproduction on a 20-minute short film/TV pilot called Joan’s Day Out, which is inspired by Ferris Bueller and Harold and Maude, about a grandmother who escapes her assisted living facility for a day of adventure starring Oscar-nominated actress Sally Kellerman (M*A*S*H) in the lead, co-starring Betsy Franco (James and Dave Franco’s mom) and Tara Lynne Barr (lead, Bobcat Goldthwait’s God Bless America) as Kellerman’s middle aged daughter and out of control granddaughter, respectively.

What is the best part of being a director?
Inspiring others to feel good about themselves, and less alone in the world is a tremendous feeling. My Todd Glass for GLSEN PSA has received many accolades (College EMMY, Cannes Young Director Award, AICP Shortlist) and featured press (The Huffington Post, Perez Hilton) but it feels even more rewarding to know how many people were impacted by our hard-hitting message from the critics and award show judges to the majority of YouTube commenters, believe it or not.

Selfishly, it feels amazing to see something you’ve written and spent months or even years on be performed by the perfectly cast actor. I always get a kick out of it.

What is the worst part of being a director?
Having financial limitations gets in the way of shooting as much as possible but that exists at every level of directing, I’m sure, and in every business. I have many, many more ideas I’m eager to shoot but in order to produce quality work on a small budget, I try to confine myself to only shoot projects I’m completely passionate about, at least when I’m footing the bill! But as my dad, by way of The Godfather Part II always reminds me, “This is the business we have chosen.”

What is your current career focus: commercials & branded content, TV, movies? Do you plan to specialize in a particular genre—comedy, drama, visual effects, etc.?
I am primarily interested in character-driven stories. Although I consider myself to be focused on comedy, I think a combination of humor and heart goes a long way.

Living in Hollywood, I am definitely aware of the possibilities of writing and directing for television and the movies, which is absolutely part of my 10-year year plan (though hopefully sooner!). I’ve fallen into a few joke writing and ghostwriting opportunities which have been great but directing is my true passion.

I’m very open to all forms of directing be it commercial or narrative; and I think in this day and age, they go hand in hand. For instance, when I made Joan’s Day Out, I secured BMW and In N Out Burger as corporate product placement sponsors. Branded integration is an essential part of filmmaking, and I enjoy the opportunity to develop my client base any way I can.

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 most with you?
I’ve gotten to meet a number of influential directors as a result of my work, and from living in Los Angeles and attending panel events. I was able to meet Brett Ratner from directing the Todd Glass GLSEN PSA for a contest he was judging. I truly admire how prolific Brett’s been in film, commercials and music videos, and how enthusiastic he is about all of his work.

Recently, I had an interesting meeting of the minds with director/photographer Matthew Rolston, an Art Center College of Design alum, whom encouraged me to continue on in pursuit of truth in the name of comedy.

Bob Peterson, MFA chair of Art Center, whom educated Rolston, Michael Bay, Zack Snyder, Tarsem and many others, told me early on that I was a “compassionate anarchist” and I’ve always liked the sound of that.

Currently, I’m crewing on a new Mark Duplass project he’s executive producing and starring in by first-time feature director Charlie McDowell. It has been incredible to watch Mark work up-close.

Who is your favorite director and why?
One of my favorite directors is Alexander Payne who’s won screenwriting Oscars for Sideways and The Descendants. His earlier satirical comedies Election and Citizen Ruth are two of my favorite films. I enjoy the nerve he had in making those debut films, and how he had something meaningful to say about human behavior in an honest and at times biting way while maintaining a respect for his flawed protagonists. Payne is also one of the most insightful public speakers I’ve seen in person. I always come away from a Payne conversation feeling more intelligent and evolved somehow.

What is your favorite movie? Your favorite commercial or branded content?
Rushmore by Wes Anderson is one of my all-time favorites. While it’s impossible to pick a favorite Wes Anderson film, Jason Schwartzman’s characterization of Max Fischer reminds me of a younger version of myself striving to achieve and be the president of a million clubs in high school while feeling like an old soul caught in a younger person’s body. Anderson’s trademark dolly shots, montage vignettes, music, art direction, wit and exploration of class politics are all on display, and it was the start of his artistic collaboration with Bill Murray. If anyone knows Bill Murray, please send him my way!

Tell use about your background (i.e. Where did you grow up? Past jobs?)
I grew up in Allendale, NJ, a suburb of New York City, and always knew I’d be in the entertainment business. I earned my BA from Fordham University (NYC), and my MFA from Art Center College of Design (LA). Among the many positions I’ve held in the film business include working as a script reader for Todd Phillips (The Hangover); crewing on a Mark Duplass mumblecore film; PA’ing on major blockbusters including Night at the Museum and I Am Legend; production coordinating a commercial at HSI, as well as an animated film for Imagi Studios; pitching and eventually managing a Hilary Duff DKNY Jeans year-long endorsement deal as a creative executive under Robert Thorne (the Olsen Twins’ mega-manager); and of course, directing-writing-producing my own work. I’m also not-so-secretly an improv comic and enjoy working on my craft in comedy clubs across Los Angeles.