Jamie Zelermyer of New York Women in Film & Television: 5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me When I First Became A Filmmaker
Don’t take a no personally. Storytelling is often very personal, and we get a lot of no’s in this business. For many years I have been working on a show about my childhood, so the no’s can feel even more personal than if it was just a random story. I always have to remember that each company, festival, or executive is looking for something specific, and it just might not be what I’m pitching or making at the time.
As a part of our series called “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me When I First Became A Filmmaker”, I had the distinct pleasure of interviewing Jamie Zelermyer, whose new podcast premiered at the Tribeca Festival this month.
Jamie Zelermyer has been a New York based Producer and Production Executive for the past 20 plus years. Currently, she is the co-host and creator of I Was Never There, a serialized eight-episode non-fiction podcast, made in collaboration with Wonder Media Network. Jamie also teaches group and one on film and television pitching sessions giving attendees practical strategies and practice before they pitch to outside companies. She was the VP, Physical Production at Focus Features / Rogue Pictures. Prior to Focus Jamie was a Line Producer and Production Manager working on films such as Igby Goes Down, Boys Don’t Cry and You Can Count on Me.
Jamie is the President of the Board of Directors of New York Women in Film & Television, the leading non-profit professional association for women in New York which advocates for inclusion and media and supports women at every stage of their careers. And she is an adviser on NYWIFT’s The Writers Lab, a script development program for women writers over 40 supported by Meryl Streep and Nicole Kidman.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Our readers would love to get to know you a bit better. Can you tell us a bit of the ‘backstory’ of how you grew up?
Funny you should ask this because my podcast, I Was Never There, is literally my back story! When I was 10 days old, my parents moved us off the grid and back to the land to rural West Virginia. We often lived communally, and, throughout my childhood, we almost never lived with just my parents. When I was six, my mom was busted for growing marijuana on our farm, and it forced a move to a bigger city — Morgantown — where both of my parents eventually went back to school. Even then, we still lived communally. It was an alternative upbringing, and it continues to have an impact on who I am today; filmmaking is a communal family! I have always wanted to tell the story of the time and place, West Virginia in the 70s and 80s, so I’m excited to share I Was Never There with listeners this June.
Can you share a story with us about what brought you to this specific career path?
My mom tells me she can remember me as a little kid on the farm in West Virginia watching the Academy Awards and saying I want to win one of those! For as long as I can remember, I have wanted to work in the film business. We eventually ended up in New York City, and after two years in a very prestigious high school, which was not the right fit for me, I dropped out and went to an alternative high school where internships qualified as class credit. I interned in the film department at Hunter College where I made a short film about West Virginia, and here I am 30 years later still making content about West Virginia — full circle!
Can you share the funniest or most interesting story that occurred to you in the course of your filmmaking career?
No, I can’t! [Laughs] I take my film career VERY seriously! But I think what is crazy about coming up from the bottom rung on the ladder, and especially on low budget independent films, is that you have to do everything from craft service to driving a picture car to picking up equipment. Production Managing the Academy Award-winning film Boys Don’t Cry was such a challenging and memorable experience. One of my favorite stories is when one of the producers, Jeffrey Sharp, and I literally had to jump behind the counter at a Subway fast food restaurant outside Dallas, Texas and make the sandwiches ourselves! It was 11pm at night — the store was closing — but our crew needed a second meal. We still laugh about this story today.
Who are some of the most interesting people you have interacted with? What was that like? Do you have any stories?
Working in the production office on major motion pictures like The Horse Whisperer and Conspiracy Theory, I was lucky to be around amazingly talented cast and crews. After working on some bigger shows, it became clear to me that I did not want to only work in the production office; I also wanted to be on set. Strategically, I decided that the best and fastest route was to work on smaller independent films, starting as a production manager and eventually line producing. Luckily, early in my career I got to work on films like Boys Don’t Cry and You Can Count on Me. I eventually became VP, Physical Production at Focus Features, and my time there gave me the opportunity to work with some amazing directors such as Cary Fukunaga, Lone Scherfig, Paul Wietz, and Terry George.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
Filmmaking is such a collaborative effort that it’s hard to pinpoint one person. There are so many unexpected friends and colleagues who moved me up the ladder from a script supervisor, who had lunch with me when I was fresh out of college and then helped me get an internship on an HBO show, to my colleagues at New York Women in Film & Television who help me in ways that are constantly surprising. Also, kind of unbelievably, my mom who partnered with me on this podcast and Wonder Media who took a shot on us.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“Be here now” by Ram Dass is my most recent favorite quote. I say it to myself all the time. It reminds me to try to live more in the moment and also be more of a risk taker. I’m generally on the more careful side, and can overthink, so anything that pushes me out of my comfort zone is a good thing.
I am very interested in diversity in the entertainment industry. Can you share three reasons with our readers about why you think it’s important to have diversity represented in film and television? How can that potentially affect our culture?
As the President of New York Women in Film & Television (NYWIFT) Board of Directors, I’ve been very active in these conversations. First, it’s important to see oneself represented on screen or in other types of content. It’s so important for people to feel seen and validated. Secondly, there are so many stories to tell. Women over 40 is a particular age group I have actively worked with at NYWIFT’s signature program, The Writers Lab. Diversity covers many categories and ageism is a big one in the industry. Women over 40 have lived full lives, experienced so many things, and have so many wonderful, creative stories to tell. However, they’re often seen as “old” and having kids can definitely hold us back for several years. We only get better with age! And finally, on the flip side, as a mother with young kids, I know that we are raising a new generation of filmmakers who truly value representation. I believe that these up-and-coming writers, directors, and podcasters will tell the stories that will make inclusion the norm.
What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now?
My most recent project is I Was Never There which premiered June 9th at The Tribeca Festival and anywhere you listen to podcasts. Along with my 73-year-old mother, we investigate the shocking disappearance of my parents’ good friend Marsha “Mudd” Ferber and explore Marsha’s evolution from suburban housewife to back-to-the-land hippie to drug-dealing bar owner. She was a folk hero in Morgantown, WV where I am from, and I am now the same age as Marsha was when she vanished. As word has gotten out about the podcast we are getting calls about other true crime stories, and I’m excited to see what’s next.
Ok super. Here is the main question of our interview. What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.
- Don’t take a no personally. Storytelling is often very personal, and we get a lot of no’s in this business. For many years I have been working on a show about my childhood, so the no’s can feel even more personal than if it was just a random story. I always have to remember that each company, festival, or executive is looking for something specific, and it just might not be what I’m pitching or making at the time.
- Don’t be afraid to ask for help. No one in the entertainment business would get anywhere without asking for help from someone. Many of us have had to ask for internships, or first jobs, or just some casual advice. When I was just starting out, my mom used to always remind me that the worst thing anyone can say is no, so go for it.
- Don’t be afraid to try new formats. Be creative. For the past 25 years, I have worked in film and television in various positions. But the business is constantly changing, and it’s important to stay current. There are so many new ways to create intellectual property, and it was a conversation with my friend, producer Anne Carey, that led me to try a new format. Podcasting was not something I had ever considered, but I took the leap and I am hooked.
- Keep trying; you’ll get there. Projects can take years to get made. For many years, I have been trying to make something about a time and a place; West Virginia in the 70s and 80s. I didn’t know how I was going to make it or in what format, and I considered all possibilities. Many years later, I am finally releasing the story I have always wanted to tell. It is not the exact story I started with; it has evolved over time. It’s not the exact format I imagined; that too has evolved over time. But I was committed, and that commitment has paid off.
- There are no bad questions. I am a big believer in no bad questions. When I mentor or work on a project or teach a class, it’s important to make that clear from the start. I don’t want anyone feeling bad that they don’t know something. There were so many things I did not know about the process of making a podcast. Even the basic crew titles are different. It’s better to ask the questions because not knowing can bite you in the ass down the road, and you’ll be better at the job if you understand the full picture.
When you create a film, which stakeholders have the greatest impact on the artistic and cinematic choices you make? Is it the viewers, the critics, the financiers, or your own personal artistic vision? Can you share a story with us or give an example about what you mean?
When you’re first starting out, there are no viewers, critics, or financiers, and there may not be any other crew; there is only your artistic vision. So you need to have complete agency in your work. That said, I want to make something that will touch people and have an impact. So, in time, there’s a shift, and we want viewers and listeners. I’ve worked on my podcast for many years. It’s very personal; it’s my life story. But, at a certain point, it goes out into the world and needs an audience.
You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)
As I cycle off the NYWIFT Board of Directors, which has been my movement for the last seven years, I’m thinking a lot about what’s next. Climate change is definitely very important to me, and, ultimately, I just want a safe and clean future for my children. I’d love to do a podcast with kids, so maybe there’s a way to bring the next generation of podcasters into the fight for climate change through storytelling.
We are very blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might see this. :-)
Honestly, the person who comes to mind is Laura Dern. I have grown up with her, and I think we’d be like minded in terms of politics and lifestyle. It could be a great lunch!
How can our readers further follow you online?
@Iwasnevertherepod on Instagram
@jamiehayaz on Instagram
@JamieZelermyer on Twitter
This was very meaningful, thank you so much! We wish you continued success!