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Turning Your Passion into a Career: Wāhine Filmmakers Share Their Tips on How to Make It in the Film

Although the path that led them to their careers as filmmakers differed, the common thread among their journeys is their passion for storytelling.

In this blog post, the directors and producers of Reel Wahine of Hawaiʻi — Anne Misawa, Erin Lau, Heather Haunani Giugni, Shirley Thompson and Vera Zambonelli — share their experiences of how they survived and continue to thrive in the film industry.

From how to jumpstart your career and getting hired to growing your skills and staying at the top of your game, these successful wāhine filmmakers provide tangible steps on how to turn your passion into a career.

1) “Recognize what inspires oneself.” - Anne Misawa

Having now worked in the industry for about 25 years, Anne Misawa admits that she never actually made a film until she went to film school. Originally studying creative writing with a focus in poetry, she decided to make the jump into cinema based on “complete instinct.”

“I've always been a very visual thinker,” she said. “My instincts said that there was something possible with cinema that was similar to poetry in terms of being able to communicate on a level that you can't quite pinpoint. But, everything is working together to convey something quite magical to you.”

Misawa realized that this path was possible after she found inspiration from two films: My Own Private Idaho and an experimental film that translated to “Angel.”

Inspired by these films she realized that cinema was a medium she could use as a form of expression. She wanted to make films like the ones she had seen and that interest pushed her to actually pursue this avenue that was somewhat elusive at the time.

“I think that's the first step is to really think about, is there anything that you watch that you're inspired by, or you're curious by and to try and pay attention to that, to tap into that and see how that resonates with yourself?,” she said.

Misawa said once you realize what inspires you, it leads to questions as to what you want to say as a filmmaker, what is important to you, and whether there is a style or drive that you gravitate towards.

She said that once you find your reason, this will be the driving force to push you into your career and continue to motivate you.

The next step, Misawa added, is to then try to connect that meaning to the work you want to create.

2) “Look for the people who share your why, who share your values, who are pursuing the same types of stories and drive that you are.” - Erin Lau

The question now becomes how do you then create your vision?

Erin Lau, who currently works at Jubilee Media as a producer and director, has been behind the camera since the age of 17. Growing up in a musically inclined family, Lau said she “couldn't play an instrument to save her life.”

So instead of picking up an instrument, she chose to hold up a camera, documenting her family’s performances.

Having fallen in love with the craft of filmmaking, Lau began making strides to learn more and to make connections. She would go on Craigslist to find gigs, make music videos, find internships and work as a Production Assistant on a variety of sets. She said putting in the work and honing her skills has led her to where she is today.

Lau explained that by putting herself out there, she was able to make connections with other creatives.

In the film industry, connections are the basis of how one can find a job. But, Lau said although connections are important, it is even more important to build relationships.

She said that you shouldn’t network with people to simply advance your career. Although in essence that is what you want to achieve, it is important to make meaningful connections.

Taking advice that her father has been telling her for years, Lau said, “You want to be around people you want to be like, and people that share your values for the world.”

Going off of what Misawa had said, Lau emphasized the importance of finding your why and having a clear understanding of what you want to create as a filmmaker.

She explained that once you know what you want to do and why you want to do it, you will be able to find like-minded people that will help you to turn your passion into reality.

3) “This field is fulfilling but also can do whatever you want to do, you just have to work hard at it.” - Heather Haunani Giugni

Besides having a passion for cinematography, it is also important to build skills as a filmmaker and know what you're getting into before stepping into the film industry.

Having been first introduced into the world of film and camera work by her mother, Heather Giugni decided to pursue a career in journalism. Working at KGMB in the 70s, she instantly fell in love with the inside of a television station and knew this was what she wanted to do.

Although she was passionate, Giugni began her career during a time when film and television was “all boys club” — a time when no men had ever thought that a woman could do something like the work they were doing.

With hardly any women in the industry and almost no women role models to look up to, Giugni said she had to learn from the trenches.

“We had to observe. We were very good observers and copied everything that the men would do because it was a time where there was no instruction of how to do it for women,” she said.

“So you had to really push yourself, be courageous. You had to speak up for yourself because nobody was going to speak up for you.”

Because she didn’t have the opportunity to study film in a traditional setting, Giugni said her “film school” would begin at night at the TV station — when everybody, all the bosses and most of the staff left for the day.

“All the technology was ours to play with and to pump out our stories,” she said.

This was how she was able to learn and hone her skills as a filmmaker.

“Figure out what you want to do and get good at it so that you are noticed,” Giugni said. “You want to be that good so that people call on you and that then as they call on you, you get more and more experience…People who work really hard, really rise.”

Besides hard work and cultivating your craft Giugni stressed the importance of finding mentors.

“You can learn so much from so many people, and in this industry, that is how we learn,” she said.

“I really believe everybody, every student, young person, should have mentors. I'm talking about like a dozen mentors, from people you don’t know, people who you see as celebrity types that you can't even imagine that they would even respond to you, but you know, all of those.”

Simply, don’t be afraid to reach out to make that connection and continue learning.

4) “Know what you’re worth.” - Shirley Thompson

Now that you know what you want to do and have skills to achieve it, the next step is to make sure you are getting compensated for your talent.

Working as a radio DJ in college, Shirley Thompson first got her start in understanding the world of editing with having to edit her own promos for her show. Similar to Giugni, Thompson began her career in journalism.

Having first been drawn to the allure of being on camera as a reporter, Thompson said through working in news, she found a love for technology and working with equipment and using cameras.

“I got less interested in being in front of the camera and more interested in being behind the camera, and doing that kind of behind the scenes storytelling,” she said.

Gaining experience from audio production and moving into video production, Thompson now works as a freelance editor for various films and documentaries.

As a freelancer, Thompson said you must think of yourself as the advocate for the business person that is you — meaning that although you are doing the work you love, you still have to make ends meet.

She said working in the film business is a hustle, and you have to be willing to stand up for yourself and your needs.

In a male dominated industry, Thompson said it is often easy for women to sell themselves short, especially when you first start out. But, she said that we must trust our talent and know our worth as filmmakers.

Thompson said we must get comfortable talking about money. And because women usually make less than men in most industries, she advised that we should not be afraid to ask for more — about 10% 20% more than we think we should get paid.

Although this task may be daunting, at the end of the day she said that if you want to make film your career, you have to take the steps to make sure you can survive on the income you make.

5) You have to love what you do.

Above all the biggest piece of advice that each of the producers and directors shared as to how to make it in the industry was that you have to love what you do.

“If you are in the industry, you are doing what you love and if you love it that will sustain you too,” Misawa said.

“The bottom line is you have to love what you do. And I think everybody here is extremely passionate about what they do, and that is where the success lies, because you can always find that Avenue, that pathway, that mentor to get to where you want to go. But it is your distractions that will trip you up,” said Giugni.

Simply keep your eye on the prize and make strides to achieve that goal because these amazing wāhine filmmakers are living proof that it is possible to turn your passion into a career.

To watch the full Wāhine Make Movies Seminar, click here.

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