Q: Did you always know you wanted to go into filmmaking?
A: No. And in fact, I didn’t become a filmmaker until my 30s, so over a decade into my professional career (I graduated from Hamilton in 1985.). I did know that whatever I was going to do after I graduated from Hamilton would involve storytelling and writing. I have always loved to write short stories since I was young. And I was always fascinated by reading about people who overcame personal and or emotional challenges, or people who belonged to different subcultures. I was always fascinated by the variety of ways people could live out their lives that were different from mine. In hindsight, I guess it made sense that I would become a documentary filmmaker. But it wasn’t apparent to me when I began my career.
My first job after college was in publishing, at John Wiley & Sons in New York City. I was a publishing assistant. I copy edited the galleys — which is a long printed proof of a book. John Wiley & Sons primarily published textbooks — and still do, I believe. So, there wasn’t anything exciting for me there. The pay was low. The pace was slow. But I was excited to be working in the city. I lived at home with my parents about an hour north of the city and would commute.
I also want to pause here to say that it took me around six months to find that job. I worked as an office temp before then. So, I was humbled. My point here is, don’t necessarily expect to be hired, full-time right off the bat after graduation. It may take a few weeks or months. The key is to keep trying. Persistence is key.
After John Wiley & Sons, I worked as an editing associate at a trade magazine, Graphic Design: USA. I found out after getting the job the publisher’s son went to Hamilton as well. Milton Kaye was the publisher and Gordon Kaye, who now runs GDUSA graduated in ’74 and is the president of the Alumni Association.
I also want to pause here to say that very high up on your first things to do when looking for a job is to make friends with the Career Center. Find out which alumni are working in the field you are interested in and make appointments to meet with them. I definitely took advantage of this, and it was a great opportunity to ask questions and seek guidance on becoming a professional in that field. From my experience, Hamilton alumni are very generous with their time—and I am talking about some very successful, powerful women and men. Work with the Career Center and seek out those alumni.
I would say that it was my next job that finally set me on the path to filmmaking. I got a job as the receptionist at CBS News’ 60 Minutes series. Unless you had connections, that was the entry-level job into production. I was promoted to assistant producer before leaving 60 Minutes and moving over to the Eye to Eye With Connie Chung show. I could write a whole blog on my experiences at CBS News but suffice it to say it was an eye-opening experience. CBS News was the big leagues, and you had to develop your A-game. So, it was work, learning office politics, work and learning office politics. I loved the energy. It was exciting working alongside top-notch journalists and, of course, there were the celebrity correspondents — Mike Wallace, Morley Safer, Ed Bradley, Harry Reasoner, Diane Sawyer, Leslie Stahl, Steve Kroft, Meredith Vieira, and Connie Chung.
However, after seven years in the news, I yearned to tell stories that were not a part of the news cycle. I wanted to tell stories in a more lyrical and non-formulaic manner. And I wanted to learn how to shoot and edit film (the networks are union shops so you could not touch the equipment if you were non-union.) In short, it was at this point that I came to realize that I wanted to be a filmmaker. So I left CBS News, enrolled in the New School and 10 years after I graduated from Hamilton, I received my Masters in Media Studies.
Let me sum it up and say that it’s okay if you don’t really know what you want to do when you graduate from college. Some people do know. Some have known since childhood. But if you don’t know, that’s fine. Life is a journey.
Q: You worked at various studios and production companies before founding Paradox Films. What made you decide to open your own studio, and what was the process like?
A: The process of starting my own company began when I realized that there was a documentary I wanted to produce and direct. Before then, I gained invaluable experience honing my skills as a filmmaker working on other people’s productions. Primarily, working with the multiple Emmy award-winning production company, Firelight Media as well as other production companies, I learned by doing different jobs on different films. So on one project, I was the cinematographer/associate producer. On another film, I was the coordinating producer. On another, I was an archival researcher, etc. I also watched how different production company executives grew and shaped their businesses.
By the time I decided to start my company, I had a solid foundation in production and a basic understanding of the business of running a media production company. Of course, nothing really prepares you for running a company until you do it yourself. But my point is that this wasn’t something I one day woke up and decided to do without having some real-world experience. For the actual establishment of my company, Paradox Films, the process was relatively simple. I hired a good accountant who filed the necessary paperwork to set up the company.
I knew that Paradox Films would be a small operation where I would focus on producing one project at a time. I wasn’t interested in building an enterprise. My company exists as my creative outlet. So that means, I have a “day job” and then on my time off — evenings, weekends, holidays, etc. — I move my projects forward. The only exception is that I am continuously fundraising. For the most part, government and non-profit organization grants fund my films. And when grants come in, I hire freelancers (i.e., camerapeople, soundpeople, graphic artists, composers, researchers, post-production color correctors, and audio mixers) to collaborate with me to move the film towards completion. Once a film is finished, the earnings from screenings, filmmaker appearances, and distribution are placed back into the company
Q: How did your classes, extracurricular activities, professors, or other mentors inspire or assist you in your career?
A: When I arrived at Hamilton, I knew that my focus would be on exploring my more creative side. Although I took government, psychology, and maybe a science class — my concentration was in English, creative writing, and in extracurricular activities like joining the choir, singing in Special K, and writing for The Spectator. Although I played sports in high school, I wasn’t involved in Hamilton athletics. I think I came with a hard-core mission to hone in on developing the left side of my brain only (ha!). So the fact that I had professors who were passionate about literature and creative writing and that Hamilton had all these other activities to explore, certainly deepened the foundation of my creative expression.
Q: What has been your favorite (or one of your favorite) project(s) since starting Paradox Films?
My first feature documentary, Mary Lou Williams: The Lady Who Swings the Band will always be in my heart since it launched me as a producer/director in my own right and it gave me the foundational experience in completing my own film. The documentary focuses on this renowned yet unsung jazz pianist, composer, and arranger. It was broadcast nationally on PBS in 2015. It is available for sale to the educational market and on kanopy.com. Check out the project website here and the educational sales website here (http://marylouwilliamsfilm.com). I screened the film at Hamilton in 2015. Which also coincided with my 30th-year reunion. It was fun revisiting the Hill. So much has changed.
I am finishing up a short documentary, Coming To A School Near You, on the phenomena of state takeovers of low-income African American and Latino public school systems. Next, I am really looking forward to beginning to edit my next project, Blueprint For My People, which will illuminate the African-American experience by lyrically interweaving spoken-word narration of Margaret Walker’s epic poem, “For My People” with contemporary images and rare 19th-century cyanotypes (blue photographic prints known as “blueprints”) of African Americans. I intend for it to be impressionistic and so it will, I believe, force me to think and create outside my comfort zone, which is more journalistic.
Q: Do you have any overall advice for Hamilton students trying to find their footing in the film industry?
A: The first thing is to tap into the resources you already have. Talk to your professors about your interests. Like so many educators that I know — who are also filmmakers — your professors are working on their own creative projects or know of other film professionals. Volunteer to intern or become involved in some way in those projects.
And as I mentioned before, make your way to the Career Center and start reaching out to Hamilton alumni who are in the film industry. Tell your parents, family, friends that you are interested in getting into the business — these are the people who will happily promote you to everyone they know.
Finally, do some research and start joining organizations to begin networking and building contacts. Once you do get that first internship or paid gig — be prepared to work hard. So much of this business is word-of-mouth referrals, so making a good impression is critical to moving forward. Good luck and see you at the premieres!