After Work Drinks With Director Helen J. Raine
The after work drink is a vital space for making deals, blowing off steam or bouncing ideas, just ask any lawyer in a 90s TV show. We’re using this classic excuse to meet up with locals who run their own creative businesses to find out how they do things on their own terms and to learn their life hacks. As director and co-founder of Motion City Films, Helen J.Raine says, “Ask, ask, ask for advice. Putting feelers out is such a powerful tool. You don’t have to be alone and know nothing and be overwhelmed.”
Helen also happens to be co-director of the first ever INDIE channel videos with Stacey Howell, “The big hook for us was the idea that we could talk to other people who wanted to make something of themselves and forge their own creative paths. It came at exactly the right time where the industry was going from this very safe hipster vibe to people not giving a fuck, saying, “This is who I am!”. Go back and look at the faces who were there: The Brother Moves On, The Sartists, VINTAGE, Tarryn Alberts, Lady Skollie. The proof is in the pudding.”
We met Helen at The Sorrows in Cape Town to discuss the South African film industry over Jameson and sodas.
What’s the best advice you’ve come up with through experience?
Have a thick skin: When you work in a creative field you’re giving a lot of yourself and your own personality in terms of your ideas so when people reject them it becomes such a personal attack and that’s really hard to recover from, especially in the beginning when you’re young and you’re excited and you’ve got all these ideas and you think this piece of brilliance that you’ve dreamt up is so pivotal in your life’s work. Later on you realise it was probably a bit stupid. So learn that you can’t take that personally. It’s easy to get really down and feel really shit about yourself when you take it on personally.
Listen: When you go into any industry and you’re bright eyed and bushy tailed you do think that you’re brilliant and everyone else is wrong – it’s the arrogance of youth. There’s so much to be learnt from people who are older and wiser. Be open to learning, realise your ideas are not insular and they aren’t always original. Take those ideas and let them grow organically through the input and influence of other people. Collaboration is essential to any creative field. This is why I love Missy Elliot so much, I think she is the ultimate collaborator and she’s so acknowledging about it. That women is a genius. I think she’s probably the smartest women MC that ever lived. Have you seen her new video?
Pick your battles: In film especially, you care so much about every little intricate detail of the production. You become very precious about the art direction or the edit or the grade or whatever it is. So I’ve learnt to go: Okay, have it your way so I can have other things my way. Save the big fights for the parts that really, really matter to you.
We all think we know so much but I work with agencies a lot and I can never bring as much to the table as an agency creative can in terms of knowing what the client knows. Hearing what they have to say in terms of what they need to deliver is such an important part of what I do.
“I’m essentially here because I failed, a lot!” – Helen J. Raine
What is success to you? What is failure?
I don’t think I know what success is because I’m still trying to figure out a lot of what I’m doing, and failure is such a learning experience for me. I’m essentially here because I failed, a lot! Firstly, I started off as an actress and a writer, and I’m still writing but the acting didn’t work out. I learnt that there were people who were way better at it than me. But being on set when I was acting led me to the other side of the camera.
I also started my own business because I failed. When I decided I wanted to go into directing I just wanted an in, I was willing to work for free, to intern, to PA, I was willing to take anything. But I struggled so much to find any kind of opportunity sending CVs out and banging on doors. Then I realised that this is bullshit, I’m totally in control of what I’m doing so I decided to start my own thing. I thought, “if no one’s going to give me an opportunity I’m going to create my own opportunity.” Which I think was a little stupid but also worthwhile because I’m still here 5 or 6 years later. It’s working out.
Success is so small and measured, every tiny little win is success, figuring something out is success, every new skill is success.
“Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.” – Samuel Beckett
What does independence mean to you?
Independence is the freedom to 100% do what I want creatively. The freedom to pursue passion projects.
What do you fear? How do you overcome this to get things done?
I deeply fear failure but as you heard earlier I haven’t even really defined what failure is. I think I fear that I’m not going to make it as a director and I’ll have to become a film critic or something. To counteract that I just keep telling myself that other people’s opportunities don’t mean less for myself. Counteracting failure is finding fulfilment.
What’s something that’s scary to say out loud?
What I’ve struggled with is trying to find my own place and my own relevance as a white person in South Africa. And it’s not an easy conversation and it doesn’t sit well with anyone but I had a realisation that my voice isn’t necessarily important here and that there are other voices that are way more pressing and way more important and valid and relevant for now in South Africa. The world is big, and I can be heard and my voice can be relevant somewhere else.
“I feel sorry for people who live for their after hours and their weekends.” – Helen J. Raine
What are some of your rituals: pre-work, after work?
On shoot days I wake up an hour earlier than I need to. When I step onto set and see all the grips trucks and the lighting trucks I still get the same butterflies in my stomach that I got the first time I was ever on a shoot, on a student film. The novelty will never wear off. I feel sorry for people who live for their after hours and their weekends. I still get really excited, so I wake up really early. Afterwards I always make sure I thank everyone and shake their hands. I think it’s really important, especially as a woman. I don’t know why but I’ve decided this in my head, to shake everyone’s hands.
A lot of what I do now ritualistically is to make sure I know exactly what’s going on in every shot so that A: nobody can say I don’t know what I’m doing and B: I can make everyone feel comfortable that I’m leading and there’s no doubt. I have this innate fear of someone going, “this chick doesn’t know what the fuck she’s doing.” A guy in the camera department once said to me, “Come and sit on my lap and I’ll teach you a thing or two about the cameras.”
I come from a family of three sisters and I went to a school that was extremely strong in its feminist principles: everything was “you will be successful and you will take over the world as a woman”. So for me when I went into film, which is a completely male-dominated industry, I was so shocked when I encountered sexism. For me it wasn’t the norm, it wasn’t to be expected. I was floored by it. Now that there is so much more awareness about gender equality in the work place across all careers I thought it would be easier but it’s not, it’s just as hard. There are still so few female directors in South Africa. I mean there are more and more all the time and whenever I see a new name pop up I’m like, “Yes! That’s great.”
What’s the best thing you’ve seen on the internet this week?
Rant of the week?
Women bringing other women down, especially in artistic spaces. It’s the most counter-productive pursuit in this time and day. We can help each other so much, we are this incredible network, and it sounds lame, but we’re a sisterhood. So many of the hands up I’ve been given have been by women. And when I see a woman criticising another’s work on social media I think, “Why must this happen now? Is this really necessary?”.
The other thing is people criticising creativity when they aren’t making anything themselves.
Who is your industry crush?
Zandi Tisani. I don’t know her personally but I really like what she’s doing and I enjoy her presence. I really like her vibe. She speaks her mind and I think she’s a cool example of women coming up at the moment.
My other crush is JK Rowling. Fantastic Beasts was her first screenplay and I watched it and was like, “I hate you JK, you can just do this and it’s brilliant!” I went to watch it 3 times at the movies.
Get an accountant! Have someone else who knows that shit better than you. As creatives we’re here to paint pictures and write words and make films and that’s okay. We don’t have to be good at everything. We are all not that multi-talented. I’m sad to say that, but it’s true. Don’t get my accountant, he’s terrible. I hate him.
Failure to evolve means basing your decisions on where you are now instead of on who you want to be and where you want to be.