Director Hweiling Ow: How I Got Started in the Industry

A forty-five-second short horror film, garnering 16 million views online, propelled me into a dream I didn’t know I desired.

Life is a game of random chances. You put in the work and hope the universe aligns. For me, the creative professions were distant stars in the constellation of ‘What you could be when you grew up.’ For good reason. My parents grew up in extreme poverty. There were days when my father’s dinner consisted of just two mouthfuls of food. My mother studied under the light of a kerosene lamp. Surviving life in the thick political humidity of Malaysia, they rose above it all and won national scholarships that turned them into local beacons of hope, elevating their lives to the middle class. This was what made me resist committing to filmmaking for the longest time.

My first memory of watching a movie is time-stamped between the ages of two and five. Perched on my dad’s lap, tightly shutting my eyes and covering my ears in an attempt to shield myself from witnessing the eerie metamorphosis of a man to a werewolf.

My life was filled with any movies I could get my hands on: Hong Kong movies, Bollywood movies, Hollywood movies – I was agnostic. It didn’t matter whether it was good or bad; it was my escape from the stifling Malaysian life. I wondered about my sliding door moment if I never came to New Zealand. Because New Zealand is my enabler.

Hweiling directing on the set of ‘Vaspy’ / Photo: supplied

When Ant Timpson ran a competition for his ABCs of Death anthology. Our team, consisting of Peter Haynes, Johnathan Guest, and Nick Burridge, entered with T is for Talk, a horror concept that I came up with. This was my creative awakening. For the first time, I experienced what it was like to see something my brain cooked up translated to screen. And it was watched, ripped, re-uploaded by others. I believe the true viewership count is in the millions.

From this short film, three things happened almost simultaneously: we received Skip Ahead funding; CryptTV, a digital studio, reached out looking for short horror bites in under a minute; and I received the New Zealand Film Commission’s one-off Women’s Short Horror Film Fund.

We pitched ten ideas to CryptTV, and they selected the two I came up with. I knew nothing about directing and insisted that I needed to direct at least one of the short films we pitched to CryptTV. The Tattooist climbed to 16 million views within the first year.

Hweiling directing on the set of ‘Vaspy’ / Photo: supplied

Being a migrant in this country is challenging. Social nuances are different. I was still looking for my tribe. I had gotten so used to being on the outside. This is where I met my second enabler. A chance meeting with Mia Maramara, where she made me giggle about eyeballs floating in fish guts; we would cook up ideas and enable each other, propelling us into various places. We shared many values. Along the way, we combined forces with the amazing Morgan Leigh Stewart and created MHM Productions with a shared vision to work on genre films and collaborate with cool people.

Homebound 3.0 was another random chance encounter. When NZ On Air called for Asian Pacific web series, I rallied everyone I knew to apply. I had just come off directing Sam Wang in a play and he pitched his idea to me and I immediately saw its potential. It didn’t get into that initiative, but it won the SPADA big pitch 2019 and caught the attention of Kevin and Co. Empowered by friends, I asked to direct a couple of episodes, and thankfully, the team said yes.

Hweiling directing on ‘Vivie’, her latest short film selected to premiere at SXSW Sydney / Photo: supplied

Since then, I have been phenomenally grateful for all the opportunities that have come my way. With the support of the New Zealand Film Commission, I was able to direct and write my short films Vaspy (horror), ChengBeng (Unreal), and Vivie (Kopere Hou). I co-wrote and co-produced Albularyo with the MHM team, which was part of Beyond the Veil on TVNZ. I received the New Zealand Writers Guild Seed Grant and co-wrote the feature horror Grafted with Mia Maramara, set to release later this year. Additionally, I received another Seed Grant for a feature comedy about a nihilistic Asian grandmother.

 My advice to cut through the noise? Utilise the free online soapbox to your advantage. Popularity and external validation literally count. You will be asked what your voice is. And I challenge you to look for the uncomfortable truth within yourself, the one that makes you feel vulnerable. That is likely your authentic voice that people want to hear and see. And then ensure you are supported by a team of people (definitely do a background check no matter what their credits are – hahaha) who will care for that heart as you journey through baring your soul naked to the world.

About Hweiling Ow

Upon arriving in New Zealand, Hweiling Ow was bitten by a radioactive Weta that made her fall stupendously in love with film-making. She has since developed muti-hyphenated skills in the areas of producing, writing, directing and acting, and has been taking the world by storm with her online digital series and short horror films that have garnered millions of views. She has also successfully received New Zealand funding for numerous local productions. Like a moth drawn to a flame thrower, she is attracted to telling genre stories with a migrant twist. Her quirky cheery view of the world influences the type of projects she is captivated by. She is the recipient of the 2020 WIFT Women to Watch and participated in DEGANZ’s Women’s Filmmaker Incubator in 2021. She is currently one-third of MHM, a collaborative production company between her and fellow creatives Mia Maramara and Morgan Leigh Stewart.

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 if you’re a member and would like to share your story.

Last updated on 23 May 2024