Rylee Ebsen: “Don’t give up”

Don’t give up. Have a plan, but also don’t be too rigid. Be open to all kinds of opportunities — there’s strength in diverse experiences. Don’t absorb unnecessary negativity, it should be like water off a duck’s back. If you fail, shake the dust off and keep going. “Failures” are valuable lessons. Sometimes I feel like we […]

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Don’t give up. Have a plan, but also don’t be too rigid. Be open to all kinds of opportunities — there’s strength in diverse experiences. Don’t absorb unnecessary negativity, it should be like water off a duck’s back. If you fail, shake the dust off and keep going. “Failures” are valuable lessons. Sometimes I feel like we should have a failure resume to accompany the ‘normal’ one. I’m equally interested in what you’ve overcome as I am in your accomplishments.

As a part of our series about Inspirational Women In Hollywood, I had the distinct pleasure of interviewing Rylee Ebsen.

Award-winning director, writer, and digital storyteller Rylee Ebsen has quickly made a name for herself in the entertainment industry, landing on Forbes’ prestigious 30 Under 30 list (2020) and securing a Telly Award for her innovative work in advertising and emerging technology. As a director on the rise, Ebsen recently joined the A-list roster at Girl Culture Films alongside Catherine Hardwicke (“Twilight”), Karyn Kiyoko Kusama (“The Invitation”), Amy Berg (“Deliver Us From Evil”), and Dawn Porter (“The Way I See It”) to further hone her craft alongside elite female filmmakers in the narrative, documentary, comedy, and action categories. Ebsen’s latest narrative project, a half-hour comedy pilot called “IRL” starring Belle Ackroyd will hit the festival circuit in 2021.

In 2019 Ebsen took a leap of faith, exiting a burgeoning career in the tech world to pursue her lifelong dream of becoming a live-action director. Ebsen had built her career as a critical member and executive at Snapchat, joining the team in the very early years, guiding the creative evolution of the company from a startup to a multi-billion dollar public company. Ebsen ran B2B and B2C content across Snapchat, Spectacles, Lens Studio, and Bitmoji, directing hundreds of commercials and dozens of original series including their first original series “Literally Can’t Even” and “Under the Ghost,” a live music series featuring bands like Cold War Kids & LANY. Now, Ebsen continues to be passionate about helping brands develop their identity through storytelling, and advises other startups with her experience between marketing, communications strategy, and design.

Over the years Ebsen has worked with dozens of high-profile actors, personalities and comedians including Seth McFarland, Ben Schwartz, Tom Felton, Nicholas Braun, Brittany Snow, and Doris Burke. Ebsen has directed short films, sketches, documentaries, commercials and branded content for some of the world’s largest brands, including Disney, Facebook, ESPN, State Farm, Kelloggs, Zillow and Snapchat.

As a proud supporter of women in film & tech, and a producer of new media, Ebsen is eager to share her knowledge. She’s been asked to speak at companies, conferences, and schools all over the world (including Facebook HQ, Promax, & NYU). In March 2020, she shared the stage with Alma Har’el at Disney’s HQ in Burbank, CA for the ‘Brave Global Marketing Series’ held at the top-secret Imagineering building

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?

I was born and raised in Los Angeles, California. I grew up in an eccentric family, kinda like The Royal Tenenbaums meets The Beverly Hillbillies. Both of my grandfathers were in the biz. Buddy Ebsen, my paternal grandpa, was an actor and comedian most known for his role as ‘Jed Clampett.’ Stan Freberg, my maternal grandfather, was a writer, comedian, and director who was best friends with Ray Bradbury and opened for Frank Sinatra (my Grandmother was Sinatra’s Girl Friday and that’s how she met Stan). My dad’s an editor, mom’s a writer, and we were always writing, laughing, and making things.

Can you share a story with us about what brought you to this specific career path?

Because of my family, I knew I would end up in front of or behind the camera so I decided to go to NYU Tisch film school to focus on directing. While at school, an old friend from high school, Evan Spiegel, reached out because he had seen a short I posted and wanted to ask if I would direct the first commercial for his new startup, Snapchat. CUT TO… working at Snap for several years, directing hundreds of pieces of content, seeing it grow to thousands of employees, building Snap’s consumer brands, and helping to take the company public by directing their documentary IPO film (the youngest and first female to do so for a company of that stature). So, that’s how I ended up working in film AND in tech. Now I’m focused on filmmaking — directing commercials for brands like Zillow, Facebook, State Farm, ESPN, & Disney. I’m currently involved with a few startups on the creative side and marketing consulting. Excited to see what the future brings with them.

Can you tell us the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?

I don’t know if there is just one story but without a doubt one of the most thrilling things for me so far is to have been standing on the stock exchange floor as Evan [Spiegel] rang the bell when Snap went public. I had worked harder on that IPO video than anything else in my career up to that point, pouring my heart and soul and talent into every inch of it. I will never forget how that felt.

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 was one of hundreds of production assistants on The Dark Knight Rises with 1100 extras when it filmed a big battle scene in NYC. I reported to the second assistant director and I was in charge of locking up a busy apartment building while Batman and Bane dueled in the middle of the cobble stone street. I watched Christopher Nolan as he navigated the chaos. New Yorkers being New Yorkers, they didn’t listen and would push right past me, often causing “bogies” in the shot. They yelled at me over the walkie, they yelled at me in the building. At one point I tried to physically hold the doors of the building, not letting people out, but quickly realized it was insane to hold people hostage to make a movie. Having that job for a few weeks gave me incredible empathy for every role on a movie set. There are no small jobs. It takes a village. And I guess I don’t really believe in ‘mistakes’ because you have to try things in order to learn and grow.

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?

First and foremost, I would have to say Evan Spiegel. We believed in each other before all of the craziness, and I’m so grateful for his trust in me and our incredible rocket-ship journey.

Also, Rob Reiner. In 8th grade I played Edna Turnblad in Hairspray. As a theater kid, I tended to play the crazy character roles (i.e. crazy townswoman with old makeup). In this instance, I was a girl playing a guy playing a girl, with a deep voice in a fat suit and a huge wig. I grew up with Rob Reiner’s son Jake, who played Corny Collins in the show — we did Groundlings Improv together too. Rob saw me go from a kooky theater nerd to a working commercial director. When the time came to join the Directors Guild, he endorsed my application. He told me the story of when Steven Spielberg signed his application and how special it was. It was a surreal and full circle moment, and it meant a lot that he signed mine.

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?

Don’t give up. Have a plan, but also don’t be too rigid. Be open to all kinds of opportunities — there’s strength in diverse experiences. Don’t absorb unnecessary negativity, it should be like water off a duck’s back. If you fail, shake the dust off and keep going. “Failures” are valuable lessons. Sometimes I feel like we should have a failure resume to accompany the ‘normal’ one. I’m equally interested in what you’ve overcome as I am in your accomplishments.

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?

I love telling stories. I love being on set and creating with others. I love the collaboration, combustion and compromise. It is a very powerful thing to make something out of nothing. It’s a privilege, and I don’t take it for granted.

In regard to change I’d like to see, I’d have to say that would be diversity and inclusion. We’ve made incredible progress but I would like to see even more women in positions of power, on boards, and in charge of financial resources. Film & TV has seen many major changes, but they still have a long way to go. We can’t forget about diversity in the advertising industry. It can be challenging to navigate gender bias, but the best way to overcome it is to not absorb it, find great people who support you, and to not give up. I like to say… here’s to women in film! May we be them, may we know them, may we give them funding.

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’d love to continue directing funny, thoughtful, and culturally relevant spots for brands that move the needle. There are not many female comedy directors in the ad space and I’m excited to be one.

I directed a few original Snap series and I’m looking forward to doing more film and TV. I’m writing an original buddy comedy about a retirement home for ex-entertainers called Sunset Towers. I’m also writing a new take on one of my grandfather’s beloved films. With my background directing successful, big-budget creative projects within a corporate environment, I think I’m well suited to take on a Disney project. That would be a dream!

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?

Diversity and inclusion is imperative in every area of life. We need more women and people of color producing content, directing, creating video games, making technology, and putting out mobile apps. These are things we consume and use everyday to help us learn about the world, communicate with loved ones, and self actualize. I hope one day we don’t even need diversity and inclusion programs, that it will just be our way of life. But the numbers just aren’t there yet which means we need to keep doing our part to change the landscape. It should be a daily conversation at studios, tech companies and beyond.

Decision makers and people in positions of power need to go outside of their referral pool when hiring (even if it takes more time), think outside the box, and take more chances on people. There’s a chicken or egg problem, you can’t get an opportunity without having experience and you can’t get experience without having an opportunity. Every successful working director was a first-time director at some point, and who gave them their first chance? Be that person who gives someone a first chance.

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

I’m struggling with this one because I feel like I was warned about it all by my family, ha! So not a lot phases me. But as I said before, don’t absorb other people’s bad attitudes or negative energy. You will never regret being kind.

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.

Accessing my parasympathetic nervous system by being in nature and getting exercise. I find it’s the best way to process my anxiety — which is even more important these days!

Putting my phone away for quiet time in the morning. I’m too impatient for meditation, so I do my own version. Listening to my favorite podcast, getting a massage, or watching my favorite comedies like ‘What About Bob’ or ‘Private Benjamin.’

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

I’m grateful to be a team leader and I enjoy encouraging others to make their best work. One of my favorite Ruth Bader Ginsburg quotes is, “Fight for the things that you care about, but do it in a way that will lead others to join you.”

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?

I directed the first voter registration campaign for Snapchat in 2018 and it helped register 400,000 new voters during the midterms. Conceptualizing and directing that campaign sparked a passion in me and in 2019, when I left Snap, I joined a truly inspiring group of women who created I Am A Voter helping to conceptualize, direct, and edit content. Our system isn’t perfect but it’s all we got, and we can’t complain if we don’t show up. The I Am A Voter tagline is ‘Democracy works best when we all participate.” I Am A Voter has an innovative text platform and puts social first, reaching people in fun ways with important deadlines, ways to register, and track your ballot. I was so inspired by the historic voter turnout this year, and I Am A Voter’s campaigns certainly played a role. [I Am A Voter was co-founded by former lawyer and fashion executive Mandana Dayani; CAA Foundation Executive Director Natalie Tran; actresses Debra Messing and Sophia Bush; April Uchitel, chief executive of beauty retailer Onda; and Tiffany Bensley of consulting firm Type Navy].

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!

Ron Howard! I’ve never met him. He wanted to cast my grandpa in Cocoon as Don Ameche’s role, but sadly my Buddy couldn’t get out of his contract. I think they did some TV episodes together too. I recently watched a zoom Q&A that Rob did with the Directors Guild and I loved everything he said. He’s an icon but he’s also thoughtful, kind, and generous with his wisdom. Would be fun to continue the conversation, share old stories, and talk about projects.

Are you on social media? How can our readers follow you online?

@DirectorRylee on IG, Twitter and Facebook.

This was so informative, thank you so much! We wish you continued success!

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