Rising Star Rachel Noll James: “Let’s move the support for women out of the advice phase and into a tangible space where real money is backing real women at the early stages of their career.”

Women still face substantial hurdles as directors and content creators — getting investors to take a chance on a first (or even second or third) time female director, producer or writer feels sometimes like an unscalable mountain. I would love to unite a movement that would take the support out of the phase of advice and workshops for female filmmakers, and into a tangible space where real money is backing real women at the early stages of their career. There are so many talented, fierce, and driven women I know who are struggling to get their projects made — I want to see that change for myself, my peers, and the women who will come after us.

I had the pleasure of interviewing Rachel Noll James. Rachel is the writer and producer of feature films “The Storyteller” and “Don’t Pass Me By,” multiple award-winning short film “Paramnesia,” and the writer and director of short films “Half Light” and “Follow the River.” She was the recipient of the Silver Prize in the PAGE Screenwriting Awards 2015 and Best Feature Writer at LA Femme Festival 2014. Rachel is also a co-founder of the female-focused production company Emergence Films.


Thank you so much for joining us Rachel! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

I moved out to LA when I was 18 to be an actress. I worked and trained with that singular goal in mind for several years, with every thrill and frustration that life brings, until eventually I found myself getting restless waiting for other people to offer my work, and burnt out with the endless no’s, the closed doors, and the frustratingly 2-dimensional roles I was being sent out for (and rarely booking). That restlessness and frustration lead me to writing and producing my first feature film, which was is when I realized that being a part of the creation of a story, having the chance to imagine and inhabit worlds and stories that reflected the multi-faceted person that I am, and having a hand in how it comes to life, was far more rewarding for me than waiting for someone else to invite me to their party.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started this career?

I think the way this first feature fell into my lap is one of those examples of “when it’s the right time and the right thing, it finds you.” I wouldn’t have known how to go looking for that at the time, or even that it was something I wanted. I was taking a three week acting workshop with a film producer. So it was me and 30 actors in a classroom. On the second night, this producer mentioned that he worked with a similar class some years ago on shooting a feature film — and someone in the class asked “Could we do that?” To all of our surprise, this man said yes. So with a mentor at our backs, the group of us began brainstorming a concept that would feature a large group of us in starring roles. The meetings began with 20+ people, but quickly whittled down to the dedicated few until it was just me and one other woman who ended up spearheading the production process and co-writing the script. It was my first time producing, my first time writing a screenplay, and my first time stepping into a leadership role like this. Everything that could go wrong on this production went wrong — and it was one of the most educational experience I have ever had.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

I think the biggest mistake I made early on was trying to blend in and be like everyone else. Whether it was an interview or an audition, or my first day on set, I would paralyze myself trying to figure out what everyone else was doing, or what the people in authority positions were looking for so I could avoid making a mistake. I didn’t yet have the courage or the self confidence to show up as myself and know that that was enough. I remember one of my first meetings with an agency — I sat across from this agent and she asked me a series of questions about my work, my interests, my goals — and the answers I heard coming out of my mouth were so vague and careful and calculated that I gave her no actual indication of who I was or where she could place me on her roster. I became this weird shadow person with no substance, and I could see it on her face. I was a master at hiding — and when it comes to art and self-expression,cultivating the courage to be seen is pretty much mandatory. That vulnerability is the key to the kingdom.

What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now?

I have two feature films in development currently. One is a high concept low budget film that, speaking of vulnerability, is a piece that pulls a lot of elements from my real life. I’ve been amazed at the challenge I’ve had finishing this script, because of how much of myself I have put into it. It’s calling out all the places I’m still trying to hide and forcing me to confront them. Art as therapy is real!

The second film is a female driven period drama that will be shooting in WA state where I now reside. It’s a gritty character piece akin to Winters Bone that strikes a meaningful resonance with the #metoo movement.

I will be directing both films.

I am also developing a series with my Emergence Films partner Sienna Beckman and producer Mali Elfman — it’s a docu-series that will feature female filmmakers from around the world, and document their process of creating and filming a short genre film. Our goal is to help give a voice to women in underrepresented areas and help continue to empower female storytellers around the world. This is a series that we hope will become a global movement.

Who are some of the most interesting people you have interacted with? What was that like? Do you have any stories?

I think the thing that surprised me the most early on, and has now become a goal post and a recognition of a certain kind of success, is that many of the most successful people I have met and worked with, are some of the most kind, humble, and generous people I have known. We see so much about the extravagance of fame and success and how it changes people for the worse, but those who really have stuck it out for love of the work, who have struggled and failed over and over, those who have taken the time to work on themselves and find happiness and solidness within their success as they found it — In my experience, these are the people that lift those coming up behind them, and have the capacity to inspire real change in their industry and the world. I aspire to a success like that.

Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?

Be patient with yourself and with the unfolding of your career. And don’t postpone your happiness while you wait.

First and foremost, you have to continue to ask yourself “Do I love this process? This journey? If this never turned into anything tangible, would I still be glad I spent the time in process with this piece of art?”

Ask yourself that question every time a door closes, or a timeline gets pushed, or you are ready to pull your hair out because you can’t figure out how to get your project funded. If the answer is yes, then take a breath and keep doing your work. You will never have control over the result. Trying will only make you crazy. And while that result manifests or doesn’t, focus on a life that will make you happy — a happy life nourishes a happy career. Scarcity and stress breeds more of the same. You come first always. And the things you will learn when you put your focus on your joy will astound you.

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. :-)

Women still face substantial hurdles as directors and content creators — getting investors to take a chance on a first (or even second or third) time female director, producer or writer feels sometimes like an unscalable mountain. I would love to unite a movement that would take the support out of the phase of advice and workshops for female filmmakers, and into a tangible space where real money is backing real women at the early stages of their career. There are so many talented, fierce, and driven women I know who are struggling to get their projects made — I want to see that change for myself, my peers, and the women who will come after us.

What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.

You will be so glad at 33 that you did not become successful at 23.

The person I was at 23 (who was SO SURE I was ready) would have been crushed under the weight of other peoples opinions and expectations. I would have lost myself. The time I have been blessed with to grow into the woman I am now is such a gift. I can’t stress enough the power in the unknowables of time. Keep getting to know yourself.

Comparison is death. Keep your eyes on your own sandbox.

I used to compare myself constantly to other people. Their careers, their appearances, their success…. And all it did was turn me against myself because in the comparison game I never measured up. Everyone has their own path. Yours is yours alone and no one else can walk it. Have faith in your journey, and keep your eyes on gratitude for all that you have and all the amazing opportunities that have been yours alone.

Figuring out who you are and who you are not, and being yourself on purpose will be mandatory to becoming the kind of artist you want to be.

I spent years chasing a dream that, as it turned out, had very little to do with me. I had to put a lot of myself aside and armor myself up to go out into the world as the person I thought I had to be to win the life I thought I wanted to have. It took a lot of years and a lot of disappointments to teach me that the dream I was chasing was not my dream. The dream that belongs to me is much more rich and personal — and it doesn’t leave me out of the equation.

A delay is not a denial. Be patient.

Be patient. Be patient. Be patient. Man, I am not a naturally patient person. I can tie almost every major let-down to a lack of patience. Because a no right now is not a no forever. If you can cultivate a long game focus and be content sitting in the unknown, you will save yourself a lot of suffering.

You are enough. Always. Let them see you.

You walk into every room with your head held high. Whatever stage of your career you are at, wear it as a badge of honor. Do not let anyone make you feel ashamed for being a beginner, or for not knowing how to do something you have never done. Do not worry about the success of the person to your right and how that will make you look. You are enough always. Let them see who you are, now. Show up confidently and be honest about what you do and don’t know. If its yours, no one else can have it. If you are open to taking each experience as a learning lesson, no experience will be wasted.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

“You want to know what my secret is? You see, I don’t mind what happens.” — Krishnamurti

Oh this quote. This speaks to the core of almost every anguish I have suffered through the course of my life and work. Attachment to outcome has killed my ability to enjoy the process and the present on so many occasions. We, none of us, have control over the outcome of our work. Or the direction that our lives will ultimately take. We have influence, but not control. The freedom that is available when I am able to truly release my attachment to what happens with any of my creative projects, is life changing. Because the outcome is always out of my control, and by worrying over it, I suffer. I believe that my life has always served me, and hindsight is my proof. And the detours I have taken in my life that felt like they were taking me away from my dreams, have always brought me closer to myself.

One more Mary Oliver quote I just love:

“You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk for a hundred miles on your knees repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain are moving across the landscapes, 
over the prairies and the deep trees,
The mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air, are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
The world offers itself to your imagination…”

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?

So many people have helped me on my way. Mentors who have become good friends, family, people who took a chance on me, people who stood by me when it felt like there was no path forward, people who challenged me. I am thankful for each of these people, whether their time in my life was long or brief. Finding the people who believe in what you are doing, in spite of the success or failure of your efforts, those are the people to hold onto. The ones who see your work with lit up eyes and open hearts, keep them close. And let the others fall away. If they don’t understand what you are doing, if your art doesn’t thrum in their veins, they are not the people that your art is for. And if you haven’t found those people yet, have faith that they are out there, and the more you are willing to be seen, the better chance they will have of finding you.

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. :-)

I would love to sit down with Lena Dunham. And Brit Marling. Two women who have forged careers as creators and actors, who have delved into vulnerable and personal work and found their audience and their success in those places that are so uniquely theirs. Their genres and story forms are outside the traditional box — forging the path for other female creators with a voice and a story to tell.

How can our readers follow you on social media?

You can follow me on instagram and Twitter at the handle @ranojay10

You can also find me at www.rachelnoll.com or www.emergencefilms.us

Thank you so much for joining us. This was very inspirational!