Natalie Schwan: “Treat every job like your dream job”

Treat every job like your dream job. One of my first jobs was as a producer’s assistant. It wasn’t glamorous; it was very long unpaid hours as an intern. I ended up doing more household chores for her than work directly on film projects, like walking her dogs and driving her daughter to school. But […]

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Treat every job like your dream job. One of my first jobs was as a producer’s assistant. It wasn’t glamorous; it was very long unpaid hours as an intern. I ended up doing more household chores for her than work directly on film projects, like walking her dogs and driving her daughter to school. But at the end of it, she gave me a glowing recommendation that helped me get my next job, which gave me my first on-set experience that I probably wouldn’t have gotten otherwise. There were days at that first internship that I just wanted to quit, but I kept at it. My “no job too small” attitude stood out to that producer, even when I didn’t think she noticed. Being diligent and energized in the small things paid off, so I could get closer to my dream job.

I had the pleasure of interviewing Natalie Schwan of Velocity Creatives. 
Natalie is an award-winning commercial and narrative director and producer who is known for work that celebrates the vastness of the human condition, the journey of the overcomer, and the spirit of adventure. She has received multiple Telly Awards for directing and producing, produced Webby-nominated work, and recently won 2nd place in the She Directed Audience Awards Competition for her J.K. Rowling biopic short film Jo.

She is constantly drawn to historical narratives, and is set to direct her debut feature Rebel, an action packed film based on the true story of Deborah Sampson, the first female soldier in US history who disguised herself as a man and fought in the Revolutionary war. She is also developing a period era Ellis Island narrative series surrounding stories of immigrant children, a female-driven scripted anthology series that celebrates hidden histories of bold women who dared to defy the status quo, and Simmer, traveling docuseries focused on international cuisines.

In 2015, she launched her full service, award-winning production company Velocity Creatives, which creates commercial and narrative content that present stunning visual stories that inspire, challenge and excite. She has created work for brands including SONOS, Colgate and Goldman Sachs. Her heart is in travel and exploring, and you can often find her planning her next international adventure.

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 grew up in Tampa and am the second of four girls. We were all really close growing up, and always making forts, playing music and putting on plays: creativity was just a part of life. My parents were pretty strict on television and video games. We could only play them if it was raining, and we had to earn TV time by reading books. I sort of hated it at the time, but now I really respect my parents for that. We spent most of our time playing outside and entertaining ourselves, which was really healthy in retrospect and honestly developed so much of my creativity.

My dad is a huge adventure and travel junkie, which I clearly inherited, and he always showed me that I could do anything a son would. One of his first gifts to all of us girls were little mini-tool boxes with blocks of wood and hammer and nails and such that he taught us how to use. My mom taught us to swim as we learned to walk. We all rode horses, and my dad taught us how to ski when we were barely in kindergarten. I got my scuba certification when I was eleven.

I was homeschooled until middle school (no one believes this about me, which honestly is the biggest compliment), when we moved to Phoenix. I was years ahead of my classmates when I did go to formal school. That adjustment was definitely a tough cultural learning curve, plus Phoenix was VERY different from Florida. But luckily, everyone’s awkward in middle school. My mom taught all four girls at home, which is a wonder in itself, but I think this kind of education not only gave me a really great balance of school and play — and a charmed childhood — but it showed me how to teach myself new concepts and have a hunger for knowledge and reading. Most of the neighbors around our age were boys, so we spent our afternoons catching frogs and playing kickball, never thinking that we “couldn’t” because we were girls, we loved it.

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

My career path is pretty unconventional. I studied Marketing in college, and then went on to get my Masters in Organizational Studies. So, pretty much as far from film as you can imagine. I originally wanted to go into PR, and spent some time working for an events and entertainment PR firm. Then I moved from Arizona to LA to pursue that career. As soon as I landed, I realized that what was attracting me to PR was the creativity of my clients, and that I actually didn’t want to represent them, I wanted to BE one of them. I’ve always been an extremely creative person, but believed it could only be a hobby and wasn’t sustainable as a career. As a kid, I used to write plays and put on shows with my siblings. I would always be playing around with my dad’s film camera and camcorder. (We’re talking recording on tapes, very pre-digital age). In high school and college, I wrote and recorded music; and I think that sort of helped me lean into film as a potential career. My friends in college were all in film school, and I was often involved in all their projects. I would act in them or help out on set, or write the songs they would use. It took me a very long time to give myself the permission to say that film is what I wanted to do: that my passion and life purpose was to make movies that could affect real change.

I remember Blood Diamond was an extremely significant film for me. It was the first time it clicked that film can be more than just entertainment. It could educate audiences and really make you care about people and issues that you were ignorant of before. So, at 24 I started over. I interned at any film company that would have me. I wrote script coverage, was a producer’s assistant, was a PA on movies, and all the while started reading everything I could get my hands on. I actually read “Filmmaking for Dummies,” and decided I could teach myself how to do it. I wrote and made my first short film with zero formal education or any experience, and I’m still really proud of how it turned out.

I kept doing this and then launched Velocity Creatives more as a way to protect myself when creating than actually having any real plans for it as a profitable company. But then people started asking me to produce for them, and I later got my first big commercial job producing a photo campaign for a clothing company. I knew not only that I could do it forever, but that I was good at it. Then in 2016 I moved to New York, and the pace of the city just aligned with me. I was busier and more creative than I was in the years of trying to “make it” in LA. I blossomed as a young adult, coming into myself for the first time, and really found my creative voice amongst the energy of the city. Velocity became my full-time job and the referrals just kept coming.

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

I once had to drive Regis Philbin home (I know, what a sentence). I had just moved to NYC and was a PA on a commercial shoot. For some reason his driver didn’t show up, and I was tasked with driving him home. I seriously almost had a panic attack driving a Mercedes sprinter van through Manhattan (a place that I had never driven before) with the precious cargo of Regis and his wife in the backseat. I was honestly just trying not to have a panic attack. I asked him for his address so I could GoogleMap it, but he said “Oh doll, I’ve lived here so long, I’ll just tell you where to turn.” So sweet, but definitely stress-inducing. Let’s just say making U-turns off the West Side Highway with a second’s warning nearly gave me a heart attack. I kept my cool though, and we arrived safely. But that was definitely in the top 5 most stressful moments of my adult life. I look back on it laughing now, and thought of it really fondly when I saw the news of his passing. He really was a very special and sweet person.

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?

Not sure if it is “funny” but on my first ever short film, I was supposed to film at a coffee shop, and it went disastrously wrong. We had a very simple contract and fee agreement, but the owner ended up kicking us off the property as soon as we arrived. She refused to return our money, and I ended up having to go to small claims court at 23, where you can’t have a lawyer. I grew up A LOT in that moment. I was petrified to have to sit in front of a judge and defend myself alone. I shook through the whole thing, but I won and the judge ordered her to return my money. From then on, I had lawyers review every contract and became much more explicit. We ended up filming the scene in a nearby park, and it’s actually one of my favorite scenes I’ve directed thus far. Some strange magic happened that day, but in the moment I was mortified and humiliated and felt like a massive failure. I had to choke back tears in front of the cast and crew. Details matter, and what I chalk up as mostly inexperience, I also learned to be painfully clear in contracts and stand up for myself.

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 are so many people that have given me advice and met with me for coffee and encouraged me along the way, but there is one recent example that stands out. I was 2nd place in a directing competition last fall: #SheDirected for Audience Awards. The top five were placed with a female mentor in the industry. I was matched with this incredible woman who was a VP at Lionsgate. I thought it might just be an email or phone meeting, but we met for coffee in person. She asked questions and really took an interest. It was clear she cared about mentoring and helping me make connections. I pitched a project I was working on, and she introduced me to some colleagues. Those meetings probably would not have happened otherwise. That was a huge shift for my career last fall, and honestly has given me the confidence to approach big players like that as partners, rather than be too intimidated.

At the end of the day, it was someone at a c-level taking the time to meet with me, talk to me, and ask about my ambitions. She went above and beyond what I expected, and I really appreciated her energy and being really present in that meeting. I’ve taken plenty of similar meetings, where they are on their phone the entire time and I can tell they don’t want to be there. She gave me such a different experience, and not only do I respect the hell out of her for that, but she’s inspired me to always do the same. I always want to treat people who may ask for my advice someday with respect and courtesy, and act like I want to be there. Not just because it’s the right thing to do, but you never know who could end up being your boss someday or become a big deal in the industry, and then you just blew your first impression.

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?

The first step is just accepting the fact that you will indeed fail. You will mess up, you will have setbacks and challenges, you won’t get things on the first try.

But moments of set back do not equal failure as a whole. I would argue that the only real failure is deciding not to try at all. You have already succeeded by deciding to follow your career aspirations and goals and dreams. This is truly the hardest part.

On a practical note, FIND YOUR TRIBE. A thousand people both inside and outside the film industry are going to tell you that “you can’t.” It could even be the closest people to you that end up being your biggest discouragers. Find the people who inspire you. Find the people who let you break down when things get overwhelming (without judgement), and then help you get back on your feet and keep trying.

You’re going to need a support system when things get hard, but most of all, you’re going to want all these people that have invested in your journey with you to be around when it’s time to celebrate your victories.

On that note, ALWAYS CELEBRATE. We are so hard on ourselves, we beat ourselves up for every failure or missed mark, or when we fall short of our goals. But when we do have moments of success and progress, we blow right through them and start planning how to go even harder and set our eyes on what’s next. Take a moment to savor those moments of success fully. Make celebration a common ritual in your life.

I found a lot of personal success by asking for 15 minutes of people’s time. Whether through connections or cold emailing, I had a lot of great experiences reaching out and asking industry experts for their advice and how they got started. People are really willing to help you, if you come to them with an open mind and a humble attitude. Everyone started somewhere, and most people want to pay it forward if you connect in an authentic way. Be prepared to work harder than anyone else in the room, and treat no task as too small. The right people notice when you go above and beyond on the entry/intern level and will start to trust you with bigger and bigger things.

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?

There are so many incredible stories that need to be told both past and present; and that really keeps me going. I want to use any talent I may have to make the world a better place, and film is such an incredible opportunity to connect with people and bring some light into the picture. Film to me is a really special form of art that truly arrests our attention and can seep into both our hearts and our minds. It can take us on an emotional journey. It can make us think about complicated issues differently. It can take us on an adventure. If I can have any part in being the caretaker of important stories, that really inspires me to get up in the morning, and get to work.

I think we have already made a great shift into more diverse storytelling with more multidimensional and complex characters and stories. Audiences are already a lot more sophisticated than even five years ago and are demanding some changes. I do think that pendulum can swing back pretty hard, and I hope we can embrace a future in filmmaking that doesn’t shame or rip apart people who have enjoyed success for whatever reason. I really hope we find a way to work together without a vendetta for reparation. I fully stand behind elevating unheard voices, but not at the cost of sabotaging others just because they’ve done well. I always say I don’t need to take your seat at the table, I just want to pull up a chair. I hope film has a future of people truly being included based on merit and potential rather than trying to fill some kind of quota. I personally feel a bit dehumanized and patronized when people only hire me “because I’m a woman.” I want to earn my spot, just like everyone else, and be hired because I’m excellent, not because I’m a female. I hope we all accept that men and women can tell any kind of stories they want. We all share a universal humanity, so suitability for directing or creating or acting in a project should only depend on the individual and their perspective and vision, not their gender.

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?

Thank you! We are starting to transition into adding more scripted narrative content to our slate. The long term goal is to have two entities for the company: one that is strictly artistic film + and one for commercial client projects. We have quite a few projects coming up.

I am directing my first feature, Rebel, next year — an action packed historical film based on the true story of Deborah Sampson, who was the first female soldier in U.S. history. I am so excited to be the caretaker of her story, which needs to be told. I also can’t wait to direct content that feels more typically “masculine,” this movie is going to be gritty and intense and raw.

I’m also developing a few episodic series I’m really excited about. Ellis is a narrative period series set in early 1900’s Ellis Island that focuses on child immigrants and their stories of coming to America. I think it is really fascinating to explore our history in this chapter and to amplify the resilience and strength of those who risked it all for a better life. I’m also working on another project — Simmer an adventurous culinary docu-series that follows female celebrity chefs around the globe, as they explore untold cuisines in the kitchens of the women who cook them. I’m also producing a scripted anthology series based on true events in history.

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?

It’s just more interesting

We don’t want to see the same stories done over and over again. Not only does it get boring, but it sells film short of its potential. There are too many diverse stories, people, and experiences out there to limit ourselves to a formulaic menu of what “sells.” Audiences are so sophisticated now, demanding change and dynamic content. Let’s respond to that elevated palate.

Elevating new voices

Breaking into film is a long, uphill battle. Everyone needs someone to give them a chance, and the market has been saturated with a lot of the same stories. It’s about giving everyone a shot at the audition, rather than casting it ahead of time. I’m not saying we need to take jobs away from people who have had success, but if we don’t give new voices a chance to prove their talent, we’re missing out on so much great art.

Empathy + Collaboration

What better way to encourage empathy and collaboration than to showcase “different” through a human lens? This is how we affect change: humanizing what feels different from us. Storytelling is how we have bridged the gap between cultures, languages, generations from the beginning of time. We’re living in a scary time, but I’d argue an exciting time. We’re on the platform of greatness, but we’re standing on the edge of the knife. We grow by exposing ourselves to whatever feels foreign to us. This is what makes us care. We have to be brave enough to lean into that.

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

Success is not linear.

I used to have this belief that I had to completely “make it,” and fulfill all my major career goals by 30. Some happened, some didn’t. Some I thought were a decade away came into my path unexpectedly. Some I thought were easy to achieve are still on my to-do list. The only important thing is to keep going, because you’re planting seeds every time you show up for your career. I’ve had seemingly random gigs open massive doors for me because I met someone on set who connected with me and helped me get meetings for my projects. I have had tremendous losses or failures in my work that came as a huge shock, closing doors that were devastating, but then opening up new ones I couldn’t have dreamed of. Just keep going and believe in the process.

Treat every job like your dream job.

One of my first jobs was as a producer’s assistant. It wasn’t glamorous; it was very long unpaid hours as an intern. I ended up doing more household chores for her than work directly on film projects, like walking her dogs and driving her daughter to school. But at the end of it, she gave me a glowing recommendation that helped me get my next job, which gave me my first on-set experience that I probably wouldn’t have gotten otherwise. There were days at that first internship that I just wanted to quit, but I kept at it. My “no job too small” attitude stood out to that producer, even when I didn’t think she noticed. Being diligent and energized in the small things paid off, so I could get closer to my dream job.

Don’t be surprised if your group of friends changes drastically.

This industry has crazy hours. I mean, crazy hours. I easily pull 16 hour days when I’m filming, and then I just want to do nothing on the weekends and rest. Or you’ll have a few weeks of downtime when work is light, and now all your friends in traditional jobs are slammed at work and unavailable. Some of my friends understood or were in similar industries, so there wasn’t as much resentment when I had to (constantly) cancel. But others got fed up (very fair) and fell out of my life. I also lost a lot of friends from college, who had gone to film school and thought I was cheating the system by not going to film school, and trying to just do it on my own. It was pretty painful, but ultimately a massive blessing, because those people were not my friends after all. But the good news is you’ll meet a lot of new ones. A lot of my friends work in the industry simply because you spend so much time with other creatives on set. It sort of bonds you like soldiers on the battlefield. It’s refreshing to have people in your life who just get it. And they have become my biggest support system, because they are in the trenches with me.

Stick to your values

It can be tempting to say yes to every job when you’re starting out, but you have to remember that your name is always going to be on that project. How does that sit with you? I struggled to turn down jobs in the beginning when something really felt offensive to me or didn’t align with my values. Trust me, it’s hard to say no, but you have to hold on to that integrity and the value of your name. If you can’t turn down small projects that make you feel internal conflict, how are you going to stick to your guns when the stakes are even bigger and the budget is in the millions? You have to develop those muscles of developing your taste + voice (the greatest asset an artist has), and lean in to being proud of every project you’ve worked on.

Don’t let anyone dehumanize you (no matter how famous).

Not going to name names, but I once was working with a pretty big producer on a feature film. I’m not sure if she was just having a rotten day or was nervous or flustered, but she spilled her coffee everywhere in the middle of a massive meeting with the execs. It was a scene. I was sitting next to her, and she just lost it on me and told me it was my fault her coffee spilled and to clean it up right away, and get out of her sight. I’ll never forget that shameful feeling of everyone watching me, while I was on my hands and knees cleaning up her mess. I vowed that day that I would NEVER make anyone get my coffee for me or treat an employee that way, no matter how far down the ladder. I wish I was brave enough then at 24 to refuse to be treated like that. But I hope someone else reads this and stands up for themselves respectfully if they encounter something similar. I don’t care how famous they are, you should treat everyone with the basic human decency and respect they deserve. If they can’t, it’s time to go. There are enough extremely talented and successful people out there who WON’T treat you like a human punching bag, and it’s time to take your talent to those companies instead.

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.

Thank you for asking this question! It’s something that I honestly struggle with often, especially with the “feast and famine” sort of schedule with filming. Some weeks I can maintain a healthy 9–5, other weeks I’m pulling 14–16 hour days. Having said that, exercise and moving my body is the main thing I do to keep the stress at bay, and give my body a break. I try to eat as healthy as possible, but sometimes with long hours and set days, things go out the window. I use a meditation app every day, even if it is just for 5 minutes. It used to feel like a splurge, but I get a massage once a month to take care of my body (especially when I’m typically on my feet all day). I journal often and go to therapy. I have “no screen time” an hour before bed, and try to wind down with reading or a bath instead. I have slowly gotten better about “out of office” hours for work emails. I used to be on my phone or laptop when I got home, sometimes until midnight, because I couldn’t turn it off and felt like I just had to keep hustling all the time.

I quickly burnt out, and then would get sick and be forced to take a time out. Then the cycle would continue. It’s an ever-changing path, but the biggest thing is paying attention to what is going on with me. Am I exhausted? Am I feeling disconnected from friends? Am I just hungry? As an entrepreneur, it always feels like there is something to do. But I know if I’m not taking care of myself, I won’t be able to work at my best or feel like I’m living a full life.

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

Something I’ve been ruminating on a lot is: “You cannot control the waves, but you can adjust the sails.” It’s been attributed to so many people, I’m a bit unclear of the actual origin. It has rung so true especially in the current climate. In film, it can often feel like a never-ending hustle and competition. I start to feel like Sisyphus rolling a boulder up a hill day after day after day, only to have it fall to the bottom again when you reach the top. But I’m learning that much of my industry is not about white-knuckling it, but figuring out how to adapt as things continuously change. How can I make the “waves” work in my favor rather than running into them head first and hoping I somehow win out through my continued effort? How can I learn to ride the waves and take some pressure off myself? I recently turned 30, and it used to feel like this huge pressure point. That if I hadn’t achieved “x, y and z” by that point, I was a failure. I had to remind myself I’m in this for the long-haul. This is going to be a lifelong journey. I’ve already come a long way, but I’m just getting started.

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’m very flattered you think I have the influence to start a movement. I truly believe that movements don’t necessarily start with protests and speeches, they start in your everyday life. In the quiet ways you influence the world around you. It happens in conversations and personal interactions. If I’m known for anything, I hope it is for empathy. Man, we need a lot more of that right now. We’re living in a self-righteous age of swift judgement of others, and I wish we had more courage to sit down with people who live, look, believe, think differently than us, and have respectful and humanizing conversations. It’s easy to join the crowd and scream; it’s hard to listen and try to understand where people are coming from, even if it doesn’t make sense to you. We need some human kindness. We need some grace.

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!

Brené Brown. A true hero in my book. She’s equal parts no nonsense achiever and full-hearted empath. I’ve taken so much from her advice on full living into both my personal and professional life. She doesn’t shy away from the hard topics, and she encourages me to stay constantly curious about the world and people around me. She challenges me in the best ways.

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

Yes — I’m on instagram @nik.nat and my company is @velocitycreatives

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