I’m 18, with frosted tips, earnest to a fault, about to graduate South Seas Film & TV School. I post out my CV to every production company I can find: nobody bites. (Though, I did send it with a bar of soap wrapped in 16mm film and the opening line, “You don’t know me from a bar of soap…” *double cringe*).
Then one of my tutors puts me in touch with a graduate student who is working on The Lord of the Rings, shout out to Dan Story! Dan takes my CV to the production manager, Brigitte Yorke. While unimpressed with the soap, Brigitte, an alumnus of South Seas, appreciates my grades and hires me as a runner for two weeks. I martyr myself to the job. Changing lightbulbs, making coffee, spilling coffee, wearing my studio-issued ID like an Olympic medal. Two weeks turns into two months, and before I know it, I’m off to Wellywood, leaving behind my hometown in the Tron.
I quickly learn the magical business of show business can be a high stakes, lawless place, and I’m sucked into the pressure, the hierarchy, the people. It’s intense, intoxicating, compulsive… a wild west of bullshit, politics, nepotism, sexism, slave drivers. And I bloody love it. Because when you finally see your name roll up in the credits, it’s suddenly all worth it. Addicted, I jumped from one film to the next… King Kong, The Water Horse, The Lovely Bones, Avatar, The Hobbit… going from runner to driver to cast PA. Watching. Learning. It wasn’t until I became James Cameron’s driver, 8 years after leaving film school, that I decided I had to tell my own stories. I quit James and made my first short film… and then the next one, and the one after that.
One day, producer Katie Millington saw my short Darryn Exists and took a punt hiring me, believing I could learn how to direct commercials. I moved to Auckland, but had nothing to show for myself, and advertising people want you to prove you can tell a story in 30 seconds or less. So I self-funded a couple of ‘spec ads’ to build a showreel for myself. This got me my first job directing a TV commercial. I guess things snowballed from there, but not without the loving mentorship I’ve received from great people and places along the way.
Looking back, it really does feel like a collision of passion and opportunity that got me into (and keeps me in) the industry. Thank you South Seas, thank you Dan, thank you Brigitte, thank you James, thank you Katie.
It can be a long road, so when it comes to weathering the storm, the things I tell myself:
Turn away from rejection, towards something you love. I’m quick to go on the offensive, taking shit personally. But actually, the truth is sometimes it’s them, not you. If I lose a job to another director, I reframe it in my mind like an actor that loses the role to somebody more “quirky looking” and “on brief”, while I must be too handsome for the part. Then I lock myself in my room and write my screenplay. This way, I not only ‘bounce back’ from the setback, I also have something to ‘bounce to’.
Phone a friend. Nurture these relationships and connections because they are a wellspring to refuel from when you’re in the eye of the storm. Having a cup of tea/gin with a mate toughens/loosens me up every time.
You can say ‘no’. It’s human rights. Sometimes you can’t afford to turn down an opportunity. And sometimes you can’t afford not to. It’s okay to say ‘no’. For better or worse. It can be bad for business (ask my producer or my husband) but it also makes room for other important stuff. I’ve made a list of deal breakers that match my values – a way to measure a job and decide if it’s something I want to do. Yes… it’s idealistic, probably unsustainable, and sometimes I get a nosebleed on my high horse. But it’s not as bad as doing something I hate.
Good luck out there. Thanks for reading.
About Jamie Lawrence
Jamie is a director who has balanced short films with a career directing commercials. His debut short in 2008, Somewhere Only We Know, showed he could tell a story without any dialogue at all. Follow up short comedy Darryn Exists debuted in the NZIFF, and got an Honourable Mention at the Oscar-Qualifying Nashville Film Festival. Jamie has received a NYC Film Academy scholarship, a DEGANZ Director’s Attachment, and a Script to Screen FilmUp mentorship. As a commercials director, he has ranked in Best Ad’s top 10 Kiwi directors, and has received nominations for the Emerging Talent Award and multiple Best Direction Awards at the CAANZ Axis Awards.
How I Got Started in the Industry is a guest blog series from the Directors and Editors Guild of Aotearoa New Zealand (DEGANZ). Our members reflect on how they made their way into assistant editing, editing, and directing—with no two stories the same. They offer advice for those starting out. Get in touch with firstname.lastname@example.org if you’re a member and would like to share your story.