Rising Star Alexander Yellen: “Don’t assume anything based on the way someone looks”

Don’t assume anything based on the way someone looks. There isn’t a dress code on most film sets and so the top positions are often not easily identifiable. Don’t assume the young-looking person in the punk band t-shirt is an art assistant. They could just as easily be a producer. I once asked such a […]

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Don’t assume anything based on the way someone looks. There isn’t a dress code on most film sets and so the top positions are often not easily identifiable. Don’t assume the young-looking person in the punk band t-shirt is an art assistant. They could just as easily be a producer. I once asked such a person if he knew who the director was. “Yeah,” he said. “I am.” Fortunately he was a nice guy but it could have gone quite badly. Suffice it to say, I felt like a jerk and haven’t made that mistake since.

As a part of my series about pop culture’s rising stars, I had the distinct pleasure of interviewing Alexander Yellen. Alexander is an experienced director and cinematographer, and veteran of 45 feature films and 60 episodes of television. He has won two Telly Awards for his photography, another for directing, and been a festival finalist for his short film “miles to go.” Traveling extensively with his scientist parents, Alexander was exposed from an early age to a wide-range of people and environments. He developed a passion for visual storytelling and has always sought to make those stories accessible through meaningful and unique perspectives. Alexander was born in Washington DC, earned a degree in film studies from Wesleyan University in Connecticut and has lived in Los Angeles for the last 16 years.

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

My childhood was in some ways very normal and in others quite unique. I grew up in the Capitol Hill neighborhood of Washington, DC with a college professor mother and a father who worked for the National Science Foundation. It was city life as usual except for the stretches when my parents, both archaeologists, would take my older sister and me with them on excavations in eastern and southern Africa. We lived in tents, in remote places, with people culturally very different from what you’d find in Washington. Those experiences fundamentally shaped my worldview.

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

I have my mother to thank. She’s always been an avid photographer, an interest that rubbed off on me at an early age. I can remember playing with her cameras so when she got me my first SLR film camera at 14, I didn’t put the thing down for the next 5 years. I dreamt of becoming a National Geographic photographer but also have always loved movies. Once I discovered the film program in college and realized that was a real career that one could work their way into, I changed course and charged full steam into that new and exciting world.

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

Probably not. For better or worse I’ve had what I consider to be a very interesting career. I think people often want to know how you get to where you are. In my case I built my career initially as a camera assistant with the aspiration of becoming a cinematographer. Assisting on independent features I’d offer to take the camera on the weekends and shoot second unit material that the production lacked time or resources to capture. All I wanted was to have the camera in my hands and the credit. This ultimately helped me build out my reel and legitimized me when I started being recommended for jobs as a director of photography. I essentially did the same thing again to gain directing experience and created even more opportunities in doing so. Also, the first time you film a car crash or a big pyrotechnic set piece is a special moment when you realize you’re being paid to do in real life what you pretended to do with toys as a kid.

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?

There’s a refrain in many fields that goes “fake it til you make it.” Film is no different. Seeming like you know what you’re doing can be almost as important as actually knowing. I was working as an electrician but was still quite green. Many pieces of equipment have nicknames. The gaffer sent me to the truck to get a “blonde.” I had no idea what that was but was too proud to ask. I spent the next 15 minutes looking at every piece of gear on that truck trying to figure out which one was a blonde. In the end I outed myself by grabbing entirely the wrong thing and trying to explain why that thing should have been called a blonde instead of the thing that was actually the blonde. The rest of the department had a good laugh at my expense. If you don’t know the answer, never be too proud to admit it. People are forgiving of those who are eager to learn.

What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now?

My most interesting project is Daruma, the feature I’ve been developing with writer Kelli McNeil for the last 3 years, and for which we’re about to begin our fundraising push in earnest. I’ve spent a lot time working on genre productions over the last few years. They’re fun because you get to layer a lot of commentary on real world issues under a seemingly innocuous veneer of action and spectacle. But I also want to create work that addresses those issues head on and forces the audience to see them for what they are. Daruma definitely does that, most notably in how we perceive disability but also ideas around personal responsibility, the treatment of women, parenting, and forgiveness.

I’m very interested in 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?

First, the more exposure we have to unfamiliar people and concepts, the less frightening they become. I was immensely fortunate to spend time in diverse cultures as a child. Those encounters normalized the idea of interacting with people with whom I may not share a language or cultural reference point. Once you get past that initial hurdle, it’s much easier to find the common human traits we all possess. The more we see people who are different from ourselves in entertainment, the more familiar and human they become. That has a downstream effect on how we see those same people in our daily lives.

Second, diversity is reality. Living in Los Angeles, which is a little less than 50% white, with large Latino, Asian, African-American, and other ethnic populations, you can’t leave home without seeing someone who looks different from yourself. Large cities in particular are rich tapestries of varied color, identity, interest, and ability. To represent them as anything else is simply disingenuous.

Third, it rightly amplifies the voices of people who haven’t traditionally been allowed to hold the microphone. The more people see and hear stories that reflect their own realities from people who look and sound like them, the more those realities are validated, and their own voices will ring more true in the arena of public discourse.

From your personal experience, can you recommend three things the community/society/the industry can do help address some of the diversity issues in the entertainment business?

Number one, don’t dismiss any story just because it’s unfamiliar to you or because it doesn’t fall into a neat category of past successes. If it speaks truthfully about the human condition and reflects honestly the community on which it is based, there will be an audience for it.

Number two, take some risks. There is a tradition in Hollywood of backing only what are considered safe bets, typically projects that are similar to what has been made before by a familiar carousel of creators. If a project that fits these criteria fails, it’s considered bad luck and the creators given another chance. The same attitude needs to be taken when considering projects by artists from communities that haven’t traditionally been respected enough to speak to directly. The successes of those projects need to be touted, especially when that success extends beyond the confines of the target community, and the failures need to be treated with the same attitude of forgiveness.

Number three, encourage diverse participation at all levels. There is certainly a need for diversity at the highest decision-making levels of the industry. There is also a need to grow the community of diverse participants in filmmaking in a grass roots way that will ultimately guarantee the cultural shift towards equal representation. More junior agents and writers’ assistants of color will create a strong pool of future executives and show runners of color. More female camera assistants and electricians will mean more female directors of photography. More diversity at the low and mid-levels will help ensure eventual diversity across the entire industry.

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

  1. Take some risks. There isn’t a safe or guaranteed path to any particular end goal in this business and reaching one rung on the ladder is no assurance of reaching the next. Most of the advances in my career have come on the heels of some risk, most notably signing on to projects that didn’t offer obvious or immediate benefit but were daring, interesting or presented the opportunity to work with new and exciting people. I’m doing this right now with Daruma, a film that in casting two actors with disabilities in the lead roles doesn’t have a proven path to follow but is a film that needs to be made and seen nevertheless.
  2. If it feels wrong, don’t do it. This point could be seen as contradicting my previous piece of advice but mostly relates to safety on set. I’ve done some unwise things in my career and been lucky enough to avoid serious injury. I’ve hung out from a rock wall 20’ up with a camera, unharnessed, secured only by a length on rope in my hand. I’ve filmed from the passenger seat of several cars, traveling at high speed without proper restraint. I’ve filmed on a dirt runway and was almost hit by a crop duster. I’ve been too close to pyrotechnic effects and nearly been set on fire. None of these were the result of wise choices and all felt at least a little wrong at the time. I’m now much more safety conscious. No film is worth your life or livelihood.
  3. Know when to keep your mouth shut. We all have great ideas and when we see problems are tempted to offer those ideas as solutions. The ability to read the room is everything and not every person is open to unsolicited suggestions all the time. When I was a camera assistant I soured my relationship with a number of cinematographers by injecting myself and my advice into conferences where it was neither invited nor welcome. On the other hand, a good idea offered at the right time in the right way can be helpful and raise your stock considerably. The difference is that timing is everything.
  4. Don’t assume anything based on the way someone looks. There isn’t a dress code on most film sets and so the top positions are often not easily identifiable. Don’t assume the young-looking person in the punk band t-shirt is an art assistant. They could just as easily be a producer. I once asked such a person if he knew who the director was. “Yeah,” he said. “I am.” Fortunately he was a nice guy but it could have gone quite badly. Suffice it to say, I felt like a jerk and haven’t made that mistake since.
  5. Be a person people want to work with. This may sound obvious but it’s vital to a long career. Nobody likes a diva. They’ll tolerate one if that person can really deliver but the minute they falter, they can’t get hired for anything. If I have two candidates who are equally talented, I’ll hire the one with the better attitude and who’s more pleasant to work with. In fact, even if that person is slightly less talented, I’ll still hire them because of all the downstream benefits of having positive people in your work environment. It should go without saying but be professional, be courteous, treat everyone with respect, and work hard. You’ll get far on that alone.

Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?

There are a lot of different strategies for maintaining a healthy relationship to the industry but the two most important are spending time socially with people in your field and protecting time for self-care and activities away from the industry. Film is an isolating profession, particularly in the creative fields. Directors don’t usually get to work with other directors. The same goes for editors, cinematographers, and outside of television rooms, writers. Building a social group of people who work in your same field allows you to share successes and challenges with other people who understand them and combats the professional loneliness that many creatives feel. It can also be fertile ground for future job opportunities as people tend to recommend other people they know and like. On the opposite end of the spectrum when you’re freelance and always have to keep an eye on the next job, work can bleed into every part of life and completely consume it. Committing time to hobbies and self-care that are insulated from work pressures is vital to mental health. Personally, I ride a bicycle because it’s protected time when nobody can reach me and my mind is free to wander.

You are a person of enormous 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? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

As the beneficiary of an excellent education, access to and emphasis on education is an issue of particular importance to me. I look at it as something of a silver bullet. If we, as a society, placed the kind of emphasis on educational excellence that we place on achieving celebrity or becoming wealthy there would be countless more people empowered with knowledge to improve their own circumstances and challenge authoritatively the inequalities inherent in the systems they are subject to. Schools should never have to choose what elements of education to deprive their charges of for lack of funding and teaching, passing on that accrued knowledge to the next generation, should be a venerated calling that also ensures financial security.

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?

In film especially, people expect you to show up to work with a practiced skill set commensurate with your job title. There often is not an abundance of patience to teach as you go. Early in my career I took a job as a camera assistant on a spec commercial. It was my first time loading 35mm film magazines and even though I was comfortable doing that, there were a whole range of other ancillary skills I was clearly lacking. The first assistant was a woman named Mary Stankiewicz who patiently tutored me in the finer points of my job as well as many set protocols and general professional advice. I showed up to the next job looking like a pro. I have always been grateful for that.

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

It’s a long one but I’ve always been most fond of “The Man in the Arena” from Teddy Roosevelt’s “Citizenship in a Republic” speech. To reduce it to its point “The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena… who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.” It’s a reminder to take risks and helps me overcome the doubts in my own mind. Not every endeavor will be a successful one but the effort is worthy nonetheless. There is valor in the attempt and valuable lessons will be learned along the way.

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 just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂

There are quite a few people who come to mind but at the moment I’m thinking of James Cameron. I had the opportunity to speak with him 20 years ago at function in Washington, DC. We talked about science fiction, a passion for exploration, and visions for the future of humanity. I didn’t know then that I wanted to be a filmmaker and even though I loved his movies didn’t realize what a strong influence he would be on my life and career. I’d thank him for that but would also be curious how his perspective on those same topics has evolved 20 years on.

How can our readers follow you on social media?

I’m most active on instagram @dp_yellen

This was very meaningful, thank you so much!

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