Making an indie film is like launching a new startup, every single time. It takes a lot of work and requires much more than interviewing, shooting, etc. You have to be a great marketer, publicist, manager, the list goes on and on.
Managing people and personalities will become a huge part of your day-to-day. From the subjects of your film to your crew and everyone else who contributes to your film, there will be a lot of personalities and issues that will come up and you will have to juggle them all effectively in order to complete your film and have a great end product.
As a part of our series about Inspirational Women In Hollywood, I had the distinct pleasure of interviewing Jia Wertz.
Filmmaker Jia Wertz pursues stories that explore wrongful convictions in the name of protecting the social order. She is currently investigating the vagaries and inconsistencies of the American Criminal Justice system through the story of Jeffrey Deskovic and other exonerees who have had their freedom restored at the cost of irreparable damage to their minds, relationships and families.
Her debut documentary short titled Conviction premiered at the Greenwich International Film Festival and saw success on the film festival circuit receiving eleven official selections and three awards to date.
Jia is from Calgary, Alberta and currently lives in New York City with her husband and son. She is a graduate of New York Film Academy. “Conviction” is her debut film.
In addition, Jia is a featured writer for Forbes, has contributed to a number of fashion and business publications, and the Founder and fashion designer of Studio 15.https://content.thriveglobal.com/media/1fa8777f4ba92469a19de3c352cd0fb3
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Our readers would love to get to know you a bit better. Can you tell us the story of how you grew up?
My parents immigrated to Canada from Pakistan, and settled in Calgary. That’s where I lived until I moved to Toronto for college to study fashion management and marketing. I am the oldest of three and my two younger brothers, who are just a few years younger than me, are my best friends. Being an older sister to them has been one of the most wonderful experiences in life. Our family is huge, and I mean seriously big. My mom has eight siblings and my dad has five siblings so growing up I had countless role models and all of our aunts, uncles, and cousins were very close, it was like everyone was immediate family. It was a super fun upbringing with lots of laughter, massive family dinners, and entertaining road trips.
Growing up as first-generation immigrants was an interesting experience. At times it was tough because I was incessantly bullied in school for being different — looking different, eating different foods, being a quiet kid, the list goes on and on — and while it used to bother me a lot as a kid and even in my twenties, I know now that those experiences built character and have shaped who I am today.
Can you share a story with us about what brought you to this specific career path?
When I was about 20-years-old I read Rubin Carter’s book The Sixteenth Round, and was very moved by his words. Carter was wrongfully convicted of a murder he didn’t commit, and after losing all of his appeals and really having nowhere to turn, he wrote the book as a last attempt to seek help from anyone that would listen. It was a heart-wrenching read. His raw account of how his life had been ripped apart and the emotional and physical hell he was going through left a lasting mark on me and always stayed in the back of my mind, even today.
Fast-forward to 2014 I listened to the Serial podcast and was shocked and horrified by how Adnan Syed was treated and wrongfully put in prison. Hearing his story and remembering Rubin Carter’s words, made me want to do something to help people who’ve been wrongfully convicted, so a friend and I organized a fundraiser for Adnan to raise money for his legal defense fund. While planning that fundraiser, my friend introduced me to Jeffrey Deskovic, who had also been wrongfully convicted of murder and had spent 16 years in prison. Jeff spoke at our fundraiser and that is how we first met.
A few years later, while trying to figure out what more I could do to support this cause, I was at Adnan’s post-conviction hearing and there was a camera crew there filming the HBO documentary series The Case Against Adnan Syed. With my 20 years of experience in photography, I started to think that films would be a great way to reach a broader audience and that was something I would enjoy doing while also supporting the cause. That led me to enrolling in a documentary film program at New York Film Academy — which was the beginning of my new career.
When I decided to go into filmmaking, I knew I wanted to focus on true crime films about wrongful convictions, and Jeff was the first person I approached since I knew him personally.
Can you tell us the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?
I first started shooting Conviction as part of a school project at NYFA. One of the professors at the school recommended that I submit the film to festivals — prior to that I had no intention of submitting my film to film festivals. But decided to do so solely on his recommendation, and within the first month the film was accepted into four festivals. Needless to say, I was pleasantly shocked and very excited. Since then, the film has gone on to receive 11 official selections at festivals around the world and received three awards.
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?
In class one day, as the professor was talking about shooting b-roll, I raised my hand and asked what b-roll was. Clearly I was the only person who hadn’t heard of this term before. Sure, I felt a little embarrassed when I got the answer — but hey, everyone has to start somewhere, right?!
There are no dumb questions, so I wouldn’t change a thing.
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?
There have been so many people, I couldn’t even name just one person. I’ve found that everyone I’ve spoken to in the film industry has been so helpful and welcoming. Many people have graciously shared their expertise and tips with me — things they learned over their decades of working in the industry. After completing the NYFA program, I took another 43 masterclasses online that were taught by a range of people in the industry, such as Jim Cummings, Sonya Childress, and Roger Ross Williams. I learned invaluable lessons and techniques from these masterclasses.
In addition to that, the four main crew members on my film were fellow students at NYFA and the work they did on the film was just spectacular, I am so grateful for all their hard work, dedication, and their artistic eye.
You have been blessed with great success in a career path that can be challenging. Do you have any words of advice for others who may want to embark on this career path, but seem daunted by the prospect of failure?
For anyone who may be embarking on this career path I would recommend that they immerse themselves into the work and learn everything that they can — in different aspects and roles. If you have a good understanding of audio, cinematography, and other areas, you will make for a much better director, as you’ll know the ins and outs of the jobs you are asking others to perform. Not to mention how much better your communication will be with your editing team. All of these things will result in a better end product and a better working environment for your team.
Failures are a necessary part of the process.Every single failure we experience teaches us a valuable lesson and also helps determine what does and doesn’t work — this is why failures are not a negative thing. Sometimes failure is the quickest way to learn what to do next time, and it’s important to keep that in mind when a failure seems discouraging. One of my favorite quotes that I try to keep in mind is: self doubt kills more dreams than failure ever will.
What drives you to get up everyday and work in TV and Film? What change do you want to see in the industry going forward?
The desire to help people who have been wrongfully convicted drives me to get up everyday and work in film. I am happy to be able to do work that amplifies the voice of people who’ve been unjustly silenced.
I also love being behind the camera, any time I can go out and shoot, I am excited to do so, which makes the work really enjoyable.
The change I would love to see in the industry is more appreciation and access for indie filmmakers. Too often it seems that most of the bigger platforms or networks are a closed system that indie films are kept out of. There are so many quality indie films that would do great if they were put in front of a larger audience, but it’s tough to get networks to take a chance on them.
You have such impressive work. What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now? Where do you see yourself heading from here?
I am currently working on a feature film about Jeffrey Deskovic, the subject of my documentary short that is currently streaming on Amazon Prime. I am very excited to complete this film and delve further into Jeff’s wrongful conviction, how and why it occurred, and what went wrong. It’s such an important story and it sheds light on shortcomings of our justice system — which is something I think many people aren’t aware of.
After this film, I hope to cover stories of people who have been wrongfully convicted and are currently incarcerated so I can use this medium to help someone’s case whether that be by helping to amplify their voice or through revealing new facts about their case.
We are very interested in looking at 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 and our youth growing up today?
- Relatability — It is so important for viewers to see themselves in the characters they watch in film and television. I grew up never seeing anyone that I could relate to on TV. In fact, it was only a few years ago that I even began to feel like there were a handful of people I could really relate to on TV.
- Inclusion — Everyone should grow up knowing that they can do anything, and that there is room and opportunity for them in any career path they wish to pursue. If kids don’t see themselves represented on television, they may shy away from following their own dreams of working in the industry.
- Differences should be celebrated — People from all walks of life, all parts of the world, all ethnicities and age groups have unique qualities they bring. And these qualities are not only important, but also make for better and entertaining content to watch on television. The more homogeneous TV is, the less interesting it is.
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.
5 Things Video
- You can’t do it all yourself. It’s very tempting to take on every aspect of your project, but you will always have a better end product if you collaborate with other people and put creative minds together.
- Patience is key. Filmmaking is a very long process with a lot of moving parts. It will always go much slower than you expected — be patient.
- Making an indie film is like launching a new startup, every single time. It takes a lot of work and requires much more than interviewing, shooting, etc. You have to be a great marketer, publicist, manager, the list goes on and on.
- Managing people and personalities will become a huge part of your day-to-day. From the subjects of your film to your crew and everyone else who contributes to your film, there will be a lot of personalities and issues that will come up and you will have to juggle them all effectively in order to complete your film and have a great end product.
- Not everyone will love your work. And that is okay. Anytime you put your creative work out into the world, some people will love it and some won’t — it’s subjective. Take any and all criticisms and learn what you can from them to make your next project even better. People who will tell you what they don’t like are actually helping you in the long run — whether they are right or wrong.
Can you share with our readers any self care routines, practices or treatments that you do to help your body, mind or heart to thrive? Please share a story for each one if you can.
I love to meditate, it’s the one thing that really helps me get centered and reduce stress or anxiety. I don’t always find the time and space for it right now, since I have a 3-year-old son and there isn’t a lot of quiet time in our home.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
One of my favorite life lesson quotes is: “You never change your life until you step out of your comfort zone; change begins at the end of your comfort zone.”
For majority of my life I shied away from doing things that were out of my comfort zone. Only recently did I fully understand the repercussions of making excuses to stay within my comfort zone. I realized there were many, many things I want to do in life but I was the only one holding myself back. It’s so important to get out of your own way. I recently saw another quote that stuck with me, it said, “Whatever you think you can’t do, just know that there is someone who is confidently doing it wrong right now. They have no plans at doing it better either and people are paying them to do it. Please believe in your excellence as much as they believe in their mediocrity.”
You are a person of huge influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be?
My focus is on raising awareness of wrongful convictions. I think that for the average person, this isn’t a cause they think about, unless it has personally impacted them. But with approximately 2–5% of all prisoners in America being wrongfully convicted, we have over 120,000 people in prison who shouldn’t be there. If we could inspire a movement that would change laws and correct these wrongs, that would be so important for these individuals and their families, and our country as a whole.
Is there a person in the world whom you would love to have lunch with, and why? Maybe we can tag them and see what happens!
Yes, Oprah! She has done so much good for so many people and is such an inspiration. It would be a dream to talk to her one day.
Are you on social media? How can our readers follow you online?
This was so informative, thank you so much! We wish you continued success!