If there is such thing as a “traditional path” to becoming a film director, Elle Ginter did not take it. After finishing her degree in journalism, Elle literally found herself out to sea. She worked on a whale-watching boat and talked to people about whales. As luck would have it, her job on the boat eventually led her onto major Hollywood sets with people like Adam Sandler and David Spade, which then led her to work with Brooklyn-based production company Variable, which ultimately led her to discover her real passion: directing. On paper it might look like a bunch of happenstance. But in reality, Elle is the type of person who makes the most of every opportunity. If luck has had anything to do with it, it’s luck that she made herself.
“I do think you need to be strategic about it,” Elle told us, regarding her recent transition into directing. “Your work alone won’t always speak for you.”
Over the past few years, Elle has built up an impressive body of work as a director, carving out a name for herself in a space where it can often seem impossible to get any recognition. We asked Elle how she did.
Did you always know you wanted to become a director?
I definitely did not know that. I actually went to school to be a reporter, but I couldn’t find a reporting job. So I ended up working on a whale-watching boat instead.
What was your job?
I talked to people about whales.
It’s one of my favorite jobs I ever had. I would go back in a heartbeat. But one day on the boat, I met the casting director for that Adam Sandler movie, Grown Ups. They were casting extras, so I gave him my email on a whim, and two weeks later he asked me to come on set. I felt like I needed an adventure in my life, so I quit the whales and went to the set. I was making $7 an hour as an extra, and I literally had $69 in my bank account. I specifically remember that it was $69.
That’s not a lot.
No. But one day during lunch, a dude from the film came over and asked me for directions to a restaurant nearby. I ended up talking to him, and I told him I was broke. Five minutes later, he brought the production coordinator over, and he was like, “This is Frankie. He’s going to give you a job.” So that’s how I started PAing. I just talked/begged my way in.
Did you meet Adam Sandler?
Yeah. Adam Sandler and David Spade. We talked all the time. That whole crew is so nice. So down to earth. A lot of people told me you’ll never have a better experience than when you work with the Happy Madison crew. They take such good care of people. I worked on a few other features with them. But eventually, I decided that if I was going to work in film, then I needed to know what I was doing. So I started ACing and working at a camera rental house, which is how I met the guys at Variable: Jon and Tyler Ginter and Khalid Mohtaseb. They were just starting up at that point, and they were basically like, “Come hang out on our shoot.” It was like a bunch of kids having fun. They really took me under their wing. That experience led to art directing, writing, visualizing ⎯ it’s all kind of connected. About a year ago, I realized that I love leading a team and that directing is an end game for me. This is what I’m going to pursue.
What was your first step in becoming a director?
The first step was to build a body of work — not just for other people to see, but for myself. So I could know if I’m even capable of directing. So I could make sure this is something I love to do. I knew I needed at least three or four really strong pieces if I were going to be taken seriously. So I made that my goal over the next two years. And then I started inviting people to work on these projects with me. I didn’t need the most experienced people. I didn’t want to wait for that. I invited people I already knew. I made sure there was something in it for them. Something for their reel or just the experience itself. After about a year, I have an amazing crew who loves working together. Now I don’t ever feel like I’m asking someone for a favor when they’re working on a project for me. I make sure that, on my set, everybody gets something out of it.
“You need to create for the sake of the creative process, rather than for the final piece that you’re going to post online for the world to see.”
One thing I’m really grateful for is that I waited a while to pursue directing. I’m 29. A lot of people start directing when they’re 23 or something. But I’ve had the chance to work with a lot of directors. To be mentored by a lot of directors. I’ve gotten some really good advice along the way that has kept me out of trouble. For example, I learned how important it is not to burn out by trying to do too much too soon. I learned to be very careful with what favors I call in, to never burn bridges ⎯ basically to be really strategic about how I moved into directing. I didn’t want to ask anyone for money to do these projects. I didn’t want to try to do something that was beyond my limits and then end up in debt. I wanted to be peaceful and happy.
There’s a lot of cliché advice about reaching beyond your limits, trying for the impossible. But just telling a good, simple story is hard enough.
Yeah. One theme from this past year, for me, has been to think simple. I dump so many ideas because they’re not simple enough. A lot of the ideas I come up with, they’re not ideas that could actually come to life. They’d take me a year to finish — or longer. They would require a huge budget. And while I’d love to do them, it would require me calling in every favor I have. So I try to think simply. Whittle stories down to their simplest possible idea. Make sure the locations and budgets are realistic. Keep the crew really small. I just want my ideas to be things I can actually make.
Did you ever worry that you might not be a good director?
You know, one of the reasons I decided to direct my first film, Why We Wake, was because I felt like I was surrounded with so many talented people, and I had become paralyzed by perfection. By the pressure of trying to create a perfect product. Sometimes that’s a really good pressure. You need high goals and high standards. But at the same time, if you get too focused on the end product, it takes away from the creative process. I felt paralyzed with fear. I didn’t think I could create anything that would be good enough. I had to get over that.
How did you?
By shaking myself out of it and just doing something anyway. You hope for the best, and you work as hard as you can. But you need to create for the sake of the creative process, rather than for the final piece that you’re going to post online for the world to see.
In an email, you told me that you see yourself more as a filmmaker than a director. At what point do you think you’ll start seeing yourself as a director?
When other people see me as a director. I think some of that goes back to that identity crisis in my 20s. Am I an AC? Am I a writer? Am I an art director? And then when I got married, I didn’t even know what my name should be. But my husband is the best advice-giver in the world. He basically said to let my job title develop naturally. I think people try to overbrand themselves sometimes. But I didn’t feel comfortable calling myself a director until I really was one. I still call myself a filmmaker because, to me, that encapsulates everything I’m doing. It’s weird though because in the last few months, people have started labeling me as a director. I didn’t push that idea. I wasn’t calling myself that. It just started happening.
“Directing is all about stamina. Accept where you are, then work your hardest with what you have.”
Is there some secret to transitioning into being a director? Some tip? Does that even exist?
There are some steps, and I do think you need to be strategic about it. You have to build up a body of work. That’s step number one. Then you have to be smart about how you brand yourself. You don’t need to call yourself a director, but you should put some time into making a clean website. That’s so important. It shows that you take yourself seriously. Your work alone won’t always speak for you.
The other important thing is to have a real job. You still have to work. You’re not just going to call yourself a director and then people will hand you jobs. You have to keep up what you’re currently doing, and then work extra hard in your free time on your own projects. Decide how much of your own money you’re willing to put into this. Invest in it.
Build strong relationships. For me, it’s been important to create things with other people who are trying to build their reels. We’re all in it together then. It’s important to find your community. It’s not that hard. When people say they can’t work in film because they don’t know anyone in film… well, I didn’t know anyone either. You have to be patient. You have to take every opportunity that comes along. Directing is all about stamina. Accept where you are, then work your hardest with what you have.