Director Leanne Pooley: How I Got Started in the Industry

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I am a Film School dropout and my slow but steady trajectory from PA to Director/Producer is the classic example of working my way up from the bottom.

In the mid-eighties I was studying at one of the best TV/Film Schools in Toronto, Canada; an institution formally known as Ryerson. In my first year a Kiwi boy I’d met while traveling in the Middle East the year before turned up on my doorstep. He convinced me to take a year off (it was a 3-year programme) to come with him to NZ. I did, and I never went back.

In NZ I got a job as a production assistant at a company called Northern Television. Northern made TV commercials, broadcast programmes (drama/comedy/entertainment), and corporate videos. I was lucky to work across them all in a junior ‘do whatever is needed’ role. I worked with industry luminaries like Robin Scholes (producer), Andy Shaw (director/TV exec), John Cavill (DOP), and Brian Shaw (Editor). My boss was the extraordinary, smart, and slightly terrifying Linda (Tex) Milton. Sadly, Tex passed away a few years ago but she was a wonderful mentor who was generous with her knowledge and very supportive of my aspirations to learn as much as I could about production.

Director Leanne Pooley in Rome and Africa for BBC documentary ‘God’s Candidates’ in 1994 / Photo: Supplied

After Northern, I became a TPA (Television Producer’s Assistant) at TVNZ and spent four years there working on everything from sports to drama. I was then hired as a trainee director on a programme called First Hand; a series in which directors used new lightweight cameras (Hi-8) to make documentaries. First Hand storytellers filled all the production roles; camera, sound, editing, writing, and directing. We were the original one-person band. It was an amazing opportunity to learn under the tutelage of Richard Thomas and George Andrews; two stalwarts of the documentary genre. Doing every role meant the filmmakers came to appreciate all the components that go into a documentary. We were also faced with our own mistakes in the cutting room, a very steep learning curve indeed. First Hand was responsible for launching the careers of a number of highly successful broadcast professionals. Alan Erson went on to become Head of Documentaries at the ABC. David Ambler is a BAFTA-winning producer at the BBC, Mark McNeil runs the highly successful award-winning company Razor Films, and Peta Carey is a celebrated filmmaker and author. It was an incredible breeding ground for talent and I was very lucky to be part of the First Hand incubator.

Leanne on set for her 2013 documentary ‘Beyond the Edge’ / Photo: Supplied

In 1992 I moved to England where I was hired as a director/camera person on the acclaimed BBC series 40 Minutes helmed by the legendary documentarian Paul Watson. This was the first of many documentaries I made over the course of five years in Britain. I directed films for blue chip series including; Everyman, Omnibus, Frontline, Modern Times, and Eyewitness amongst others. My time in England solidified my position as a documentary filmmaker, I learned from the best in the business and when I returned to NZ to have my first child, I established my company SPACIFIC FILMS (25 years ago).

My trajectory has combined a little bit of study, a lot of luck, and some bloody hard work. It’s been a ride that’s for sure and I’m still with the boy who turned up in Toronto all those years ago.


About Leanne Pooley

A documentary filmmaker for over 25 years, Leanne has directed films all over the world and has won numerous awards (including Best Documentary at TIFF). Leanne is a New Zealand Arts Laureate, a member of The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, and was named an “Officer of the New Zealand Order of Merit” for Services to Documentary Filmmaking in the 2017 New Year’s Honours List. Her work includes The Girl on the Bridge on suicide survivor and activist Jazz Thornton, We Need to Talk About A.I. for Universal Pictures and GFC, the animated feature documentary 25 April, and acclaimed local box office success Topp Twins: Untouchable Girls. Most recently, she produced Dame Valerie Adams: MORE THAN GOLD on the titular Olympic champion.

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 admin@deganz.co.nz if you’re a member and would like to share your story.

Last updated on 8 June 2023