Panita Chanrasmi-Lefebvre and Narissara Thanapreechakul: “Always remember your goal”

Be open to every opportunity, big or small, that comes your way. Never look down on a small opportunity, as you never know if it might lead you to another. The same goes for people. Keep your heart and mind open, and it will lead you to beautiful experiences and encounters along the way. As a […]

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Be open to every opportunity, big or small, that comes your way. Never look down on a small opportunity, as you never know if it might lead you to another. The same goes for people. Keep your heart and mind open, and it will lead you to beautiful experiences and encounters along the way.

As a part of our series about immigrant success stories, I had the pleasure of interviewing Panita Chanrasmi-Lefebvre and Narissara Thanapreechakul of Whiteline Productions, a female and immigrant-led media production company based in New York and New Jersey. Their company’s name comes from the Thai word “ไว้ลาย”, meaning, “to show one’s determination or resilience”. Whiteline Productions specializes in film, music video and commercial production on the East Coast.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us the story of how you grew up?

Panita: The pleasure is ours! Narissara and I have very different backgrounds, even though we are from the same country (Thailand) and were raised for most of our lives by strong, independent women. I was born in Bangkok, the capital city, which is a huge metropolitan city. It’s very densely populated — and if you think New York is the city that never sleeps, you should see Bangkok. I’ve seen whole families eating street food at 4 o’clock in the morning! There are a lot of expats who live there, so ever since a young age I was exposed to different cultures, and particularly Western/American cultures. When I was about ten I moved to Paris, France and lived there for ten years. It was there that I really developed a taste and passion for history and the arts and decided that I wanted to go into the film and television industry.

Narissara: I come from a family of immigrants. I grew up in a small rural town called Nong Khai, in the Northeast of Thailand, bordering Laos. I lived there until I was 15 then moved to Bangkok with my sister for a better education. My grandparents emigrated from Vietnam because of the war. I didn’t get my Thai nationality until I was six. I remember being embarrassed every time my teachers called my last name in class because it was a Vietnamese last name and it didn’t sound Thai. We ended up changing our name. I was too young at the time to fully understand the importance of doing that, but I could see how it was important to my mother and to our integration into the society and community we lived in. She raised me as a single mom. I would describe my childhood as a “buffet-style” one because my mom let me pursue anything that I wanted to and let me be whoever I wanted to be. She was different from the other conservative mothers in my small Asian town. She trusted me. I truly believe that growing up with that was instrumental to shaping me into the thick-skinned person that I am today.

Was there a particular trigger point that made you emigrate to the US? Can you tell a story?

Narissara: After I graduated university, I got a job right away at a production company in Bangkok as a junior film producer. I worked there for three and a half years and got to work for big-name clients such as Coca-Cola, KFC and Honda. I loved working there but I always wondered where else I could go from there. Thailand was, at least to me, not the right place to be questioning any of that. I was too afraid of being judged for quitting a good job and being unemployed. So I decided to save up and come to the United States, the place that everyone describes as “if you can make it there, you can make it anywhere”. It wasn’t just about careers though. In Thailand, like many Asian cultures, it is considered rude to be outspoken and have a different opinion than people who are older than you. I felt like I would find the freedom of expression in the United States that I craved living in Thailand.

Panita: In my mind, as it is in the minds of many immigrants who move here, I believe, the United States has always been the land of opportunities. New York is indeed a “concrete jungle where dreams are made of”. To me the United States, and New York in particular, was where it doesn’t matter who your family is, or what your academic achievements are. Nobody cares about any of that here. In my experience, if you work hard and are good at what you do, you are given an opportunity here. I have a lot of love and respect for that. Moving to New York for school was a no-brainer for me, especially to build a career in the film/TV business. The number of productions that film in the United States was incomparable to what was being filmed back home in France or in Thailand.

Can you tell us the story of how you came to the USA? What was that experience like?

Panita: Magical. I remember seeing the New York skyline from the yellow cab I took from the airport, and my heart racing with excitement. As if the Empire State building was the embodiment of the American Dream itself. But most importantly, what I felt was ready. Ready to get to work.

Narissara: A friend of mine had asked me to help out a friend of hers who had never lived abroad and felt a little intimidated by it, so we flew out to New York together. I had never lived outside of Thailand either, but I didn’t feel nervous or scared to do it on my own. We booked an Airbnb in Williamsburg, Brooklyn for a week to try and find an apartment to move into together because we were told it was the best area to live in. “It’s hip and cool” they said. What they didn’t mention was how expensive it was! Plus, I couldn’t find a good Thai food spot in that neighborhood (most Thais will tell you that is a deal breaker). I had to go all the way to Elmhurst to go to a Thai grocery store. Inside the grocery store was a notice board where people posted jobs and apartment rental opportunities. I decided to move to Queens where I felt more at home than in Brooklyn and went to English school for a while. The first two days were great. I enjoyed meeting people from around the world. But then I started to feel bored. Imagine a person who used to work 24/7 and left everything to chase her dreams going to school from 8am to 12pm every day! I had to re-strategize. I’m still here as you can see, but I’ve figured out a way to put my life savings and time to better use.

Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped make the move more manageable? Can you share a story?

Panita: My mother followed me here to help me get settled. I appreciated that. She did the typical mom thing — made sure I had kitchen appliances that I would never think of buying, furniture, etc. Made sure the building that I was moving into actually existed and that my neighbors weren’t crazy. Jokes aside, I don’t think she was too worried about me. Thanks to my moving around as a kid, I adapt to my surroundings very easily. I’ve met people who get intimidated by moving to a big city like New York, or who can never get used to the noise, the people and the subway system. I grew up in similar kind of cities, so I did not experience anything like that.

Narissara: My story is not so much about the person who helped me at the time of my move, but rather the person who helped me feel like I had finally, really “moved in” to this country: my boyfriend. He came to the United States on a tourist visa and used that time to walk into almost every single music studio in New York until he got himself an internship. He worked hard until he got a full-time position, and after three years, he became part-owner of one of the most prestigious studios in the city. He has always pushed me to do what I love, and plays a big role in my finding a way to stay here. New York is a tough city to move to and stay in, for both emotional and financial reasons. When I struggled to find jobs, he offered for me to move in with him so I wouldn’t have to pay for rent. He drove me around the city on his motorcycle to help me location scout for a shoot when I started all this. He supported me until Whiteline Productions became a household name for film/TV and commercial producers from Thailand who are looking to do projects here. I founded the company when I figured that there was a business gap as there were no Thai producers in New York, and there was a need for a service with a team who would know how to navigate the rules of shooting a project here and know where to find the necessary resources.

So how are things going today?

Panita: I couldn’t be more grateful for the opportunities that I have been given to get to stay and work here, following the career path of my dreams. I couldn’t imagine being anywhere else in the world. I think that pushes me to do my best, because I feel like I owe it to everyone who would love to be in my position but who were not as lucky, to make it worthwhile. If that makes sense.

One of these opportunities was to join Whiteline Productions as a Producer. I am now in a position to be able to offer work opportunities to other immigrants like us, not just from Thailand, but also from Brazil, Russia, France, China, etc. At Whiteline Productions, one of our main goals is to showcase immigrant talent in this field, and it’s been working out great so far. We just wrapped a co-production with a Thai company for “One for the Road”, a movie that’s executive produced by pioneering Hong Kong filmmaker Wong Kar Wai, on which most of our hires were immigrants from all over the world. We’ve managed to build a reliable network of talented cinematographers, costume designers, art directors, sound mixers, editors from so many different and interesting countries, and I am really proud of all the projects that we have been able to bring to life together as a team.

How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

Narissara: I feel like we have a social responsibility to use the opportunities that were given to us to give back to our community. When I first moved to New York, I co-founded a nonprofit organization called “T.A.N.Y.”, short for “Thai Artists in New York” that promoted works by artists from my country. As Panita mentioned, we strive to do something similar with our production company. America’s history is deeply tied to its immigrants, and as storytellers, I believe that it is our duty to share our rich and heartfelt stories and show the world what valuable contributions immigrants can make, not only to the economy but also to society. Again, it’s not that easy to just emigrate here. You must constantly prove yourself; you have to be more hardworking, more skilled, more resilient than anyone else. As movie producers, we have the unique power to offer different perspectives and touch people with the stories we tell. It is a privilege and an honor to be able to show that diversity is not only a quality but also a strength.

You have first hand experience with the US immigration system. If you had the power, which three things would you change to improve the system?

Panita: One of the first things that you do when you’re applying for a work visa is find a lawyer, because it is almost impossible to file your application by yourself. There is so much paperwork, and so many rules that are extremely confusing. Finding someone qualified and knowledgeable to handle your case is crucial, and as a result, it is not only absolutely nerve-wrecking, but can also be very costly. Not everyone can afford to do that. So I think that the two most important things for me would be to 1. streamline the visa application process (for example, work on the online portals) and make the steps a lot clearer, and 2. possibly reduce the costs for applying.

Narissara: 3. Have a real deadline. Some cases take one week, some cases take months or years (or more?) to know the result. Imagine not knowing where you are going to live and not being able to make real plans for a year! It makes people very nervous. I think that if at least they have a fixed deadline, people can at least know whether they can move forward or not.

Can you share “5 keys to achieving the American dream” that others can learn from you? Please share a story or example for each.

1. Work hard. The USCIS will literally not give you a visa if you are lazy. And to be honest, I agree with that 100%. It’s insulting to the thousands of people who would love to be in your place. Exceed expectations, and you will be rewarded. Your employers take notice when you’re the first to arrive and the last to leave the office.

2. Always remember your goal. I’ve seen a lot of immigrants who came to the US to pursue their dreams only to end up working in a restaurant. It’s one of the most popular jobs for immigrants. I get that it’s tough to chase your dreams when you also have to think about putting food in your stomach. I’m not saying it’s not good to pick up a few shifts, but it makes me sad to see so many people trade their dream for the few bucks that they can make from working at a restaurant. Unless that’s what you want to do, of course!

3. Don’t compare yourself to others. It might take 6 months, or a year, or five to reach that point where you feel like you have “achieved your American dream”. You are on your own timeline, and you will get your own opportunities as long as you persevere.

4. Be open to every opportunity, big or small, that comes your way. Never look down on a small opportunity, as you never know if it might lead you to another. The same goes for people. Keep your heart and mind open, and it will lead you to beautiful experiences and encounters along the way.

5. Don’t forget to pick yourself back up. There will be times when things get hard and you will get knocked down. Maybe even lose all hope. We’ve definitely been there, contemplated moving back home, etc. At some point you will want to give up, but you have to learn to shake it off and keep fighting for the dream. You need to have faith that it will all pay off in the end. Then you’ll look back and realize that it was all part of the journey.

We know that the US needs improvement. But are there 3 things that make you optimistic about the US’s future?

Panita: I have met a lot of people here who are extremely passionate about fighting for what’s right when it comes to gender equality, women’s rights, worker’s rights, and environmental issues. Being around people who are not only conscious of the problems that need fixing but who genuinely care about them is inspiring. I love that the US has always encouraged freedom of speech and allows its citizens to fight for what they believe in.

Narissara: In my opinion, the United States — especially places like New York — is like the biggest library in the world. There are so many people from every single corner of the globe who move here. I learn different things from different people — culture, philosophy, art, etc. It’s unlimited knowledge without having to travel. It’s fascinating how everyone adapts and learns from each other even though we are all from different backgrounds and different places.

Panita: I guess the last thing is that despite the fact that the coronavirus has slowed us down for now, the US is still home to the world’s largest film and TV industry (behind Bollywood). More and more innovative and interesting projects are being produced every day, and more states, like New Jersey, for example, are starting to establish exciting tax incentives for film productions. Needless to say, this is quite important to us and something that we are looking forward to exploring.

Some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might see this. 🙂

Panita: Reese Witherspoon. I really admire the work that she is doing with her media company, Hello Sunshine, through which she produced award-winning projects that put women at the center of the story, for example, “Gone Girl”, “Big Little Lies” and “Little Fires Everywhere”. She is truly talented at finding and producing these compelling stories and I truly applaud her for it.

Narissara: Miky Lee. Many might not know who she is, but if I mention “Parasite”, anyone in the industry or with an interest in film and TV would know this movie. It’s not easy for non-American movies to win an Academy Award, let alone four — with the biggest one being the “Best Picture” Oscar. This year, the team behind that film proved that it is possible. If it was just Bong Joon-Ho by himself, he might not have made it this far. Miky Lee has been a driving force behind cinema and entertainment in her country for decades. I would love the chance to pick her brain.

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This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!

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