In times of struggle, we are most reminded of why we need artists. Today we spoke with Hannah Welever, a filmmaker passionate about creating empowering content for women and minorities. Listen as Hannah tells us about the importance of rest, the life of an independent filmmaker, and how she got her start in the industry.
Hannah Welever: [00:00:00] Prove to myself that being in a creative field doesn’t mean that I will live at home. It doesn’t mean that I will get a job serving coffee, even though that’s a very important job. It doesn’t mean that I’m going to change my mind and go back to school and try again…
Sam: [00:00:18] Here are some words we love here at ideamix radio: “I always think there’s a way to adapt whether you don’t have any money, you don’t have any resources or people, there’s always a way to make something”. These are the words of today’s guest, Hannah Welever. She’s an LGBTQ activist and Midwestern native. She’s ruled by her hustle-based work ethic and aims to create stunning work while weaving together diverse teams from around the world. Playing an integral role in the production of award winning narratives, music videos and commercial content, Hannah’s industry experience spans the full spectrum of cinematic and storytelling. Hannah, it’s such a pleasure to have you on the show with us today.
Hannah Welever: [00:01:26] Yeah, I’m just really happy to be here. Thanks for having me.
Sam: [00:01:30] So Hannah, when people say the film industry, one of two images comes to mind. One, Hollywood blockbusters selling out movie theaters or movies harnessed by streaming giants enjoyed quietly in the comfort of our homes. Recent events have led the latter to prevail. And yet, for a lot of independent filmmakers, working in the industry doesn’t really reflect either of those situations. Immeasurable things like creative energy and passion re-enter the conversation in a world run by revenue and stream counts. So tell us a little bit about your motivation to start yourself down this path.
Hannah Welever: [00:02:11] Yeah, I mean, I think we’re really touching on a lot of interesting things already because this industry is in obviously an unprecedented time. But there really is something to the necessity of art during times of struggle. And I think that that might be more clear than ever right now. And for me, that’s definitely a big reason why I’m in this industry at all. I mean, I think it’s very passion based and that’s not necessarily something you can just wake up feeling one day. I always really loved watching films, but that doesn’t have to make you into a filmmaker in every case. But I also loved photography and I loved sort of making something and failing and making something and liking it. And that really started with my love of thirty five millimeter photography and developing my own film and processing prints. And so the industry, like I said, it’s just a crazy time right now. But I think that there’s, there is a lot of time for focus and for remembering parts of your passion in ways that maybe we don’t get as much. I’ve definitely been taking more photos. I’ve been feeling a bit more creative with this time, and it’s a great reminder of why I started in the first place.
Sam: [00:03:55] It’s almost an opportunity for a creative reset to bring us back to basics and really think about why we’re doing what we’re doing.
Hannah Welever: [00:04:05] Yeah, I mean, I think the element of rest is something that rarely comes to creative people. And I mean, I can definitely speak for myself when I say when the lockdown hit, I had worked so much in the first three months of 2020 that it was kind of this crazy omen of just needing to reset. I needed to rest. I needed to be still. I was really obviously thankful for how busy I was and working and being new to L.A. But the timing of it all in my life was really a wake up call.
Sam: [00:04:49] Amazing. Tell us what it’s really like to be an independent filmmaker day to day.
Hannah Welever: [00:04:56] Yeah, I mean, I think it varies, definitely varies. Well, let’s see. So if you’re feeling excited, you’ll probably wake up to some productive emails of someone being like, hey, I’m interested. Do you want to listen to the song? We’re looking for a collaboration for a music video. It’ll be emails about following up about a budget. It’ll be emails following up about edits for a project we’re currently working on. It’s really managing a lot of things and a lot of different baskets. Whether you are starting a project in the middle of one or wrapping one up, it’s a lot of communication between those between different people, but between the processes. But I mean, sometimes you’re not getting any sort of you know, maybe it’s a day off and that’s when you’re shifting gears and you’re writing a script or you’re working on a grant or you are finishing a personal project or you’re updating your website. I mean, there’s really no downtime, but it definitely can shift where your priorities are going. I’m definitely an email aholic, classic millennial 2020 person to be, but I really want to be an accessible business owner and follow up quickly, but also put time into creative projects that mean something to me. So it really varies. But, you know, I’m thankful for the business these days, I would say.
Sam: [00:06:33] How do you how do you find the balance between, you know, as you said, the the process driven things that allow you to run a project or run your business relative to carving out creative time for yourself to just do some blue sky thinking and really think about what are what is your next set of interests or how are you going to make a project that you’ve been thinking about happen? How do you distribute your time between those two?
Hannah Welever: [00:07:02] Yeah, I think it’s a lot of multitasking. I definitely try to be juggling a few things at once so that when a job and or something begins, I do have something to jump to at all times. And it really depends on opportunities. Like I remember seeing a grant that really interested me a few months ago and I was like, this is a great time for me to set some deadlines for this creative project, the short film that I want to make, and allowing yourself to set certain deadlines, even though it’s I mean, I hate deadlines as much as I love them, but it does help me keep productive and really meet a schedule in my day to day. But that time is allotted for my creative projects. And I think that really varies, again, on how busy I am or how many things are going on. But I find that that’s why I’m in this business, is to feed that creative monster that I’m constantly reconciling with. And that time is equally as important. It really is. I mean, I think it’s really easy to forget about that side of things, but that’s why I’m in this business. That’s why I started my own business and developing my stories and my perspective adds a lot of value for me.
Sam: [00:08:27] So, so much has changed for so many of us. And as you said, those of us who still are, we’re so fortunate to be working during this time that we’re going through with the pandemic and all the after effects. The film industry is projected to lose a lot of money, 160 billion dollars over the next five years. And at the same time, it sounds like even though you’re not traveling as much, your day to day life and business, have they changed that much? How have they changed since the onset of the pandemic?
Hannah Welever: [00:09:08] I would say the big change is working with network television, the sets that are 30 plus people, maybe even 15 plus people. I think, yeah, I mean, people with the big companies are not willing to, I think they really want to go back because they see those numbers and they are shaking in their boots a little bit. But smaller companies, smaller clients who need social media assets, who need music videos, who need content to stay relevant, to stay along the hustle with everyone else. Those are the people that are really investing their time into creative resources right now. I think the bigger networks are still processing. I do know that a lot of buying is going on. So there’s like preparation for when we’re able to work together again. But so many projects were put on pause, so many projects were canceled because of the lockdown. And we definitely are going to see a clapback of that within the media we consume day to day. But there are so many businesses that can do things with a few people: web series, creative content, independent films, smaller commercials, social media campaigns. And I think it’s a really interesting period of time. I don’t know if all of that work is necessary, necessarily going to replace billions of dollars of lost revenue. But I do think that there’s still people working and being resourceful right now.
Sam: [00:10:51] I agree out of you know, out of all of this destruction will hopefully come sort of a rejuvenation. Right, but in different ways. I want to quote back to you something you said some time ago. “I definitely did feel like an outsider, a black sheep, I still do”, you said, “something that drove me and still drives me, is feeling somewhat isolated or different and then trying to create art with those feelings as opposed to having them eat me alive”. Thinking back on that comment, tell us a little bit about how you’ve really woven this into your career, the projects you’ve picked, the films you’ve made.
Hannah Welever: [00:11:37] Well, I think that people who want to make films are people who get excited about sharing a unique perspective or a perspective maybe that they never saw when they were growing up, and I don’t think I can fully say that I never saw myself on screen. But there are a few things that I’ve experienced in my life that do allow me to sort of feel a bit more isolated from the pack going to film school as a cinematography major when I did. I was one of three women in a class of 30 and things are cliquey. And I think if you are someone who wants to succeed, you find those things that get in your way or that might be burdens or hurdles and you have to sort of repurpose them. And I think being different or feeling like you have a different approach can sometimes really open up into a sea of people who also feel like you and they trust you and they want to work with you and they see a human behind the emails or in person that’s worth collaborating with and worth being vulnerable with or open. So I think, yeah, I mean, being a black sheep and such like that quote was really nice to hear because it is something that I’ve been dealing with a lot of my life. But I do find power in that in that feeling and then kind of going your own way. I think that carving your own path as a queer female business owner who can direct and also shoot and also record sound and direct, I can just wear a lot of hats and that’s not something I see a lot. So therefore there is this, you know, although I’m different, maybe I’m great or maybe I am impressive or good at what I do or excited about what I do in a way that other people might not be.
Sam: [00:13:57] I love that because I so agree with you, I think, you know, as individuals, we have to embrace our vulnerabilities because they’re equally what make us so unique. And I love the way you’ve done that in your career. So as you look back on your decision to become a filmmaker, I want to take you back to the decision to go to film school. How did you develop conviction around doing that? I mean, so many people, I think, have a real passion for something that they want to do, but then fall victim to a combination of circumstance and their fears about what that would actually involve and back away from it and then find themselves doing something they didn’t expect at all years later.
Hannah Welever: [00:14:56] Yeah, I mean, you can’t just really sign a piece of paper that says, you know, now you’re a filmmaker. And I think that when people go to film school, that’s kind of what they think they’re going to get. I’m here to tell you that’s really not the case. And I felt that myself. I had never made a film, you know, like I guess I’m a filmmaker now because I’ve made things. But for a while, I was in film school, but I hadn’t even made anything. There’s something to following a gut instinct or something that you love, and I don’t mean a hobby like you enjoy it. But something that interests you, that excites you, that you want to learn about and do yourself, you want to talk to other people about it. You want to spend your free time absorbing it. And that’s how I felt. I mean, that’s why I went to film school, because I wanted to do something that excited me and all of my senses. Where there’s so many other things out there that I just didn’t feel, I didn’t have this push to explore in the same way, and I think once I left school, I just really needed to work. I needed to prove to myself that being in a creative field doesn’t mean that I will move home. It doesn’t mean that I will get a job serving coffee, even though that’s a very important job. It doesn’t mean that I’m going to change my mind and go back to school and try again. So I needed to shift gears and really take what I learned, what I was excited about. I felt kind of like a freshly sharpened knife and was like, I need to put this to the test and pay my rent and work from there and just work up and see what comes my way. You’re never going to start a hobby or a thing. I’m just thinking, like, if you just wanted to try karate because you loved it, you’re not going to go in with you might have seen some movies about it or you might have taken a class five years ago, but you’re there to learn and to be better and to understand the art form. And that’s how I feel about filmmaking. I still have so much to learn and so much to explore with my career. But I do it because I’m so excited by it and I have a lot of ownership over my own process in this industry. And it keeps me going. I mean, I definitely can get burnt out, but that’s pretty normal as a business owner and just a person creating art day to day. I feel like this is a feeling or it’s like I keep thinking of how you said conviction, and I just— it’s definitely something in my blood. I think I just get really excited about working with people and creating this tangible object together that can be used to sell things or excite people or share news. You know, there’s so many things you can do with this format. And the world is just so big with ways you can explore and perfect your craft.
Sam: [00:18:24] Really well said. I think every entrepreneur talks about it, as you said you don’t leave film school with a certification saying you’re now a filmmaker. You have to sort of work your way around to that. And it’s a multi-step process. And I think every entrepreneur talks about how having the idea is sort of the equivalent of going to film school. But then what are you actually going to do with that idea? What are the steps you define to actually act on that idea and kind of get a business launched out of that? Those are yeah, those are two very different things. So you’re leaving film school. How did you identify your very first project to work on?
Hannah Welever: [00:19:13] I think at that time I was doing quite a few, you know, free, free labor just to meet people. There was a project I had worked on that was a feature film in Chicago. This was around when I was about to be done with school and it was all overnight. So I would go to school during the day and then I would work overnight, not making any money on this film that was made with a bunch of people who I had never met. And they needed help in the camera department. And I think that being out of school and sort of in the world and in the community of people in Chicago who were working at the time. Really sort of propelled me forward because it was all about utilizing your resources, right? So calling your friends, being like, hey, I’m out of school, I’m looking to make something, or someone says, hey, we need a hand on this comedy sketch tomorrow. It’s like making yourself extremely available, whether it’s paid or not, to then start building the infrastructure of your network of people, because ultimately that’s what’s going to get you work jobs pushing forward. And I think I was excited and needed to leave my collegiate bubble because those people weren’t, they didn’t have jobs. They were making any money. We would talk and we would boast and be maybe art snobs. But I really wanted to see what the workforce was doing in Chicago since that’s where I was in the industry. So I was trained, I was ready. I was young, eager, willing to work for free. I had to jump in and stay afloat. I will say that I remember being really excited. It was a project I did out of school. And I was working with a surgeon, she used to be a surgeon and Bonnie Mason lives in, you lived in Chicago, and she started a nonprofit that encouraged minorities in the surgical field, in college and whatnot to come together for this conference. And she was a woman of color. And I think she ended up having to stop giving surgeries because she had some sort of issue of her own and had to stop. So she started shifting gears, started this nonprofit and encouraged young minorities to pursue this field. And I filmed some videos for her and the students and really jumped into this. Like, I got to experience other worlds, like things that I would never experience in my day to day. So I got to do my job while also seeing the world or like seeing the city around me and things that I would never normally explore. And that’s still what my job is today. But I think coming out of college, that really excited me to meet new people and to get out of the house and to be able to make income based on this really kind of fun and sort of silly lifestyle of you know, filming, I mean, that’s really what it is.
Sam: [00:22:48] I love that story. Yeah, and I think as a storyteller, you have to throw yourself into the subject and the experience but it’s such a skill. So, Hannah, in many ways, you are your business and at the same time you run a business. How do you think about scale in your business?
Hannah Welever: [00:23:12] Well, I think you have to choose how you want to be perceived. And you really need to communicate what kind of work you want to make. But I also think that there’s, you know, turning things, turning away projects has never really done great things for me unless I really should have and needed to because I want to be as stimulated as possible. And I think juggling a few projects allows me to…Keep the business afloat, but also work with so many amazing artists that I’m just constantly waiting to work with. Right now we’re working with a cannabis company on some social media stuff, and I have a team developing that. And then we’re also finishing up a music video and I have another team developing that. And we’re all kind of working together. And I think the more, you know, obviously it’s always going to be more clients, more people to collaborate with, but I love sort of multiple things happening at once because it just really feels like this breathing organism and I think we’ve been around for maybe two years now. And I’m really curious to see how the growth takes shape. I mean, where it goes, what amazing projects we have down the road. But I think right now it’s really important to take good jobs, like definitely vet your clients. And I don’t mean it sounds maybe more serious than I mean. But is this job going to be COVID safe? That’s definitely something you need to think about. Will it help my creative integrity or will I lose money doing this project? Or is it someone who deserves to be lifted up and we can afford to help this artist share their story? I mean, you really have to make space for growth, but you also have to keep your, I’m going to say mission statement, but really just what the meaning of your business is, you have to keep that in mind and it’s always going to be adapting. And I think that’s okay. But I think for us, it’s constantly moving forward, constantly saying yes and yes, we can do it. But also this is what we need from you. Becoming a better communicator and really to be ready to work with anyone. And I’m really excited. I think that there’s so much potential right now. And I’m really trying to prove that we can do stuff. We can create great, great content despite the limitations right now. And I think that that’s really going to be big. I think I’m going to look back and feel really proud about how I treated the lock down and the business and the work we made during this time.
Sam: [00:26:16] I think making decisions that are true to your mission and with integrity so important. So as you look back on the last couple of years, Hannah, what are some assumptions that you might have started with that you’ve revised since then?
Hannah Welever: [00:26:37] I remember reading this question and thinking that it was very difficult, but I would say, I never thought that I would be a business owner. In theory, I saw myself and I would be like, yeah, I could do that, but I never thought I’d get to the point of that being sort of a necessity and I still I mean, we all sort of limit ourselves or give disclaimers about things we can and can’t do. But starting this business has really empowered me in a way that I think I needed as a freelancer, as a solo creative. Because I think that we get intimidated and I think a lot of women, we get intimidated about what we’re able to do because we don’t want to disappoint, we don’t want to fail. And I definitely felt that way when I started the company of just kind of, okay, I need to deliver. And this is now official. Now I need to maybe act a little differently. And that’s not totally untrue, but. I think I’ve seen myself develop within the company in dealing with these more logistical sides of things that have empowered me, they haven’t you know, I haven’t needed to prove to anybody that I’m, you know, I haven’t needed to prove anything to anyone and I guess what I’m trying to say in that. It’s a process for sure, but I’ve just seen so many benefits from it, and I think my assumptions were really harsh, I was harsh on myself about how it would be to sort of change everything and become just a more formal set up. Because I’m such a casual person, I really like the sort of flowy-ness of creating and working with people. And so I was worried I’d be taking myself too seriously. But I have no regrets. I mean, I feel so much better, I think feeling comfortable, financially and having an accountant who’s on my side. I think a few years ago I would have been like, yeah, that sounds nice, but I don’t know if I want that. But right now I feel so thankful for really jumping into what I wanted to do in a more serious way, because it’s helped. And it’s also empowered me in this way that I haven’t really felt before.
Sam: [00:29:12] Amazing. Last question. What’s a lesson you feel you’ve learned from this journey?
Hannah Welever: [00:29:18] I think the road is very long and winding but that doesn’t mean you choose another way, and I’ve had such a fun time creating and starting my business and traveling the world and meeting people and working with people and creating work that people want to see or feel excited about doing, and I’m thankful for that, but I’m always pushing forward. I mean, the advice is that it’s never ending. It is never ending. You’re going for essentially forever until you decide it’s too much. But you have to take time for yourself. You have to. Remember where you are, like if you won an award or you. Are being honored or that you finally finished a project or something like you deserve to. Take a second and absorb that, because we move so quickly from one thing to the next, that you really have to preserve your state because it’s going to last a really long time and we will always get burnt out. But this career is so enriching, like I’ve just had the time of my life exploring the world and filming and meeting people who are incredible. And I’m so thankful that this is my job.
Sam: [00:30:48] Wonderful. Thank you for that. Here’s something else you should know, even while Netflix traffic hits all-time highs amidst the pandemic, with all of us at home streaming endless amounts of content, the global film and television industry is slated to be one of the industry’s hardest hit over the next five years. And yet the tenacity and boldness of filmmakers like Hannah gives us confidence that people will continue to make great art, whatever the circumstances. Thank you to Spotify observer Forbes and a variety of other sources for the data underlying this episode. Hannah, your story and experience is inspiring, and thank you so much for being here with us today.
Hannah Welever: [00:31:38] Thank you so much.
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