Newly signed to Rocket Film, who discovered her reel originally on Free The Bid’s database, Pamela Romanowsky‘s work as a director spans branded content, feature film, documentary and television. This wealth across disciplines has yielded a rich and nuanced body of work. From her Refinery29/Dove Chocolate branded short Khethiwe and the Leopard to her latest commercial spot for the NY Marathon, Pamela finds ways to highlight the depth of character in her subjects, whether they’re actors or documentary participants.
Pamela’s first feature film The Adderall Diaries (James Franco, Ed Harris, Christian Slater) premiered at Tribeca Film Festival and was acquired and released theatrically by A24 in 2016. Pamela has been awarded several fellowships for her work, including the Sundance Institute’s Screenwriting, Directing and Female Filmmaker fellowships, the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s Artist Academy, the Ryan Murphy Half Foundation Directing fellowship, and Warner Bros Television’s Directing fellowship. Pamela is a member of the National Board of Review, a motorcyclist and a lover of all that is adventurous, poetic and explosive.
Pamela chatted with us about working with real leopards, being an adrenaline junkie, and how exciting it is that younger generations are rejecting rigid gender roles.
One of the most interesting things that we find about our database of women directors is that each has a such different path to a directing career. What would you say initially sparked your interest in film? Was it a lifelong pursuit?
That’s so true, there is no obvious path to being a director. I love everything about filmmaking and feel so well-suited to it, but it took me a long time to find it. I grew up in Minnesota, which is much more oriented to canoes and camping than to knowing how films are made. I didn’t grow up watching TV and it’s hard to imagine a place more further removed from “the industry.” (Which I am ultimately thankful for, but it did make my path a bit windy). I remember watching the Oscars with my high school Movie Night Club in 1999, a particularly wonderful year for arthouse films, and asking what a director does? None of us knew, exactly.
The first book I read about filmmaking was “Hitchcock/Truffault” and I fell in love with the idea that each creative decision was based in psychology. Each frame being informed by the experience of the character and devoted to the feelings of the audience, that was a revelation to me. It made me realize why I loved the art and photographs and music and films that I loved, because they had been carefully made to connect with me and to illuminate something secret in myself that I wasn’t able to articulate yet. I remember watching “The Motorcycle Diaries” by myself at a theater one night in college, during an unhappy time, and I thought, “I’m not living the right life.” I also thought, “what a gift to be able to communicate with a stranger like this.” I was pre-med and living in Minneapolis that day, and a couple months later, I was living in New York learning to make movies, with the backup attitude that it was just a study abroad and I’d go back to my real life at the end of the semester. Of course I fell in love with New York and with filmmaking, and I only went home to graduate college and pack a bag.
I so deeply appreciate those detours, though. Studying behavioral psychology didn’t lead me to medical school (which WAS an appealingly clear path) but it informs so much about what I see in characters and actors, and how I think about people. My first job in New York was working as a PA for the great documentarian Barbara Kopple, and filming non-actors was another great place to watch human behavior carefully, and to start seeing what authentic emotion and strategy and hiding look like on camera. Next, I went to get my MFA from NYU’s grad film program, and then to the Sundance labs, and in those two places I had an incredible education. I think directing requires empathy more than anything else. You have to have real compassion and understanding for your characters. And of course for all the people you’re bringing them to life with. I like that my job requires meaningful communication and authentic closeness. And I like that it requires me to constantly be learning, researching and out of my comfort zone.
Who are some of your biggest cinematic inspirations?
My favorite directors are stylish humanists, people who can take you to a world totally outside of your life experience, and make you feel like you’re there, and that this could really be happening to you. Sidney Lumet, Ang Lee, Jane Campion, Paul Thomas Anderson, Joel and Ethan Coen, Robert Altman, Spike Jonze, Affonso Cuaron and Reed Morano are some of my favorites. I also read, listen to music and see art a lot for inspiration. I love Joan Didion, James Baldwin, Anthony Doerr, Chris Burden, Kehinde Wiley, Frank Ocean, and Lucinda Williams are some of my favorite sources of connection and inspiration.
Your feature film debut, The Adderall Diaries, was released in 2015. Before that, while you were in the MFA program at NYU, you co-directed The Color Of Time. Can you talk about how you went from point A to point B – how did your career initially get off the ground?
I had just finished the MFA program when we made The Color of Time, which was a really cool and truly collaborative experience. Ten directors each made a short film based on a poem from the same collection, and we worked hard to figure out how to interweave and connect those ten shorts to create a cohesive film. Adapting a poem is really wonderful because you have the tone and emotion baked in, and sometimes a bit of imagery, but no dialogue or action. The story is so often what we start with, so it was neat to begin with the feeling instead. After we wrapped, I started working on a few different scripts and shooting BTS fashion videos and industrials and just trying to eek out rent and find something that would stick. I had been working on The Adderall Diaries script for about a year when it got into the Sundance Screenwriters’s Lab, and then the whole trajectory of that project, and thus my career, shifted.
Since The Adderall Diaries was developed during your Sundance Institute mentorship, can you tell us all about your experience with that program?
The Sundance labs changed my life, professionally and personally. I’m so grateful to have had that opportunity. There’s the obvious visibility and vetting that comes with being a fellow, which really can alter the scale of your project pretty dramatically. I signed with an agent and started getting calls about packaging and casting right as the director’s lab was ending. In a much quieter and less public way, there’s something that can happen during those labs that’s harder to describe but is about identifying the why of what you’re doing, becoming comfortable in all the risk and vulnerability of spilling your guts onto a screen, and developing confidence in your voice and vision. I learned more than I could ever really articulate there. Michelle Satter and Robert Redford are remarkable people, and the labs they created, the community of mentors they encircle you with, are all infused with an unrelenting and very authentic idealism. Best summer of my life, without question.
We loved your branded content film for DOVE Chocolate, Khethiwe and the Leopard, that premiered as part of Refinery29’s Shatterbox Anthology earlier this year. How did that project come about? What was the process of filming like? Had you ever worked on branded content like this before?
Thank you! I’m so proud of that film. I met Shannon Gibson, (Shatterbox EP) and Amy Emmerich (R29’s CCO) at the Sundance Women’s Summit in 2016. I submitted a proposal to them that (fellow lab alum) Gabrielle Nadig successfully pushed for, and we got to make Shatterbox’s very first short film, a little 6-minute doc called Watching You Watching Me. We all loved working together, and I was invited to pitch for another R29/Shatterbox project, the branded collaboration with Dove. The idea was to shoot two commercials and then a narrative short in Africa (although we ended up shooting the commercials in Ecuador). The pitch was wide open, so knowing that both companies prioritize empowering a female POV, I wanted to write a script for a 13-year old girl who was struggling to feel powerful. From there I really just let my imagination fly and somehow came out the other side with a story about a leopard. I’m still shocked that they said, “oh a real leopard? No problem,” but they did, and we had the most incredible adventure filming it. Dove was beyond awesome to work with and the R29 team (Shannon Gibson, Megan Doyle and Kate Bolger) were incredibly supportive, literally with me every step of the way as we figured out how to navigate mud slides, triple digit heat, cranky leopards and the logistics of shooting a Zulu language film with kids and teens. We went on to shoot the Ecuador spots, and got to be more involved with the Dove team there. They operate with so much integrity, respect and passion and are a wonderful brand to work for.
Recent statistics have shown that the number of women directors hired for TV have increased over the past year. We’ve followed recent initiatives within episodic TV created to diversify directorial talent and were really interested to discuss your experience as part of Ryan Murphy’s Half Foundation initiative. Can you tell us about your experience with it?
Those statistics are indeed encouraging, and it was so awesome to watch Reed Morano win her Emmy and to see Michelle MacLaren’s success with The Deuce pilot. I was a fellow with the Ryan Murphy Half Foundation and the Warner Bros TV Directing program this summer, and both have been invaluable learning experiences. There’s so much of the craft that remains the same across feature, television and short form filmmaking, but there are big differences in the structure and machinery of each one. The episodic space is exciting to me because it’s such longform storytelling. By nature, it requires a unified and singular style and POV across all these different people, in service of the showrunner’s vision. You can’t direct unless a showrunner places that trust in you, and so that’s why the support of someone like Ryan Murphy is incredibly meaningful. It’s a door being opened for me but it’s also a larger political decision for all of us in the industry. To have someone like Ryan Murphy or Ava Duvernay say, “look, I hire a lot of directors, and I can choose to place my trust in women, people of color and LGBT folks” is powerful. I mean financially and politically, not just in language.
As a director who has had such a breadth of experience across feature film, episodic TV, and advertising, how have you been able to maintain such fluidity between forms of content? Do you approach each form of content differently, or does your experience with each inform the other? Do you have advice for directors who aspire to similar career trajectories?
I love being on set, creating content and staying in shape as a director, so I relish the expansion of experience and knowledge that comes with working in all three arenas. I’ll always love directing films, but I wouldn’t be happy not being on set during the years between them. And not every story is a two-hour story. Sometimes it’s a novel that would take a series to unpack, sometimes it’s a stunning 90-second visual, and sometimes it’s a 20-minute short. Directing in any form shares a lot of the same skill set as far as working with actors, visual storytelling, and galvanizing a team, so I do think the job description is pretty similar across mediums. But each kind of directing, and certainly each project, has different demands and challenges, and adding tools to your directorial belt is awesome. What I love most about the job is that it always requires something you don’t yet know how to do. You have to learn and adapt constantly, and I think that makes me a better, more compassionate and more adventurous person. I remember Kathryn Bigelow talking about that constant learning curve when I had just started my MFA and she was a guest lecturer. She said that if she already knew how to do everything the film required, she wouldn’t be as interested in doing it. I agree that much of the joy of the job is about the constant learning. You go to places and meet people and face challenges you never expected, and your life is much richer for putting yourself in so many different people’s shoes.
Congratulations on signing to Rocket Film’s commercial roster! We’re so happy to hear that Rocket reached out after finding your work on Free The Bid’s database. Can you tell us more about the signing?
Thank you! I’m thrilled to be on the Rocket roster. I met with Sara Eolin and Susanne Kelly, who reached out a couple of days after I joined Free The Bid, and knew right away that they were my kinda people. When I met the rest of the team I was certain that this was the group I’d been looking for. They’re passionate about what they do, create excellent work, and are unrelentingly positive, all of which are my favorite attributes in colleagues. Rocket is a really familial, tight-knit group, and that creates an open exchange of ideas and an incredible culture of support. I get calls wishing me luck, sharing experience and offering advice from the other directors, and Sara and Susanne are right there in it with us. I love the breadth and scale of the work Rocket is creating, and am so inspired by the other directors on the team.
Your fantastic spot for the NY Marathon is a personal portrait of what running means for a particular participant in relation to mental health. What was your approach for working on this project? Any particular challenges or joys from this shoot?
Thank you! My friend, badass producer Rachel Morgan, brought me on for the NY Marathon spot with Madwell. She is awesome and stuck her neck out for me by insisting that she hire a woman, and the director she wanted. They had already locked in Camille Ake, the incredible young woman featured in the spot, so the creative work was really about telling her story in a style informed by her point of view and experience. I just started running an as antidote to anxiety this year, so I found her story very relatable. I always love shooting outside in New York because there are so many different ways to show the city, depending on what it means to you (see: Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Taxi Driver, Annie Hall, Good Time). Camille’s New York is NYU and the East River running path and the rhythm of her breath freeing her from anxiety.
The heart of the spot is about the transformative power of running, so we see a shift in the visual style that mirrors her emotional shift. I wanted the music to feel like it was a product of her emotion, and to be percussive and energetic, so it’s Birdman-esque jazz drumming during her daily anxiety, pauses with her intentional breathing, and then layers back in timed with her steps to build back up to an energy that feels good and aligned. It’s also about the drive and achievement of being a first time NYC marathon runner, so I wanted the final shot to be in the place that always reminds me to stay hungry and to celebrate what I have, which is that awesome view of midtown from the Greenpoint pier.
What are some dream commercial jobs for you in the future?
I’m dying to do a car commercial. I love driving and riding my motorcycle and the feelings of freedom and possibility that pump through my blood when I come around a gorgeous bend or see the sparkling lights of the city on the water. Car imagery is just so iconic and deeply tied into Americana and the dream of the open road, and I get it on a deep level. I also LOVE shooting with arms and precision drivers and process trailers. I’m a camera nerd and a little bit of an adrenaline junky and I think that driving scenes are an absolute joy to direct. My favorite day on Adderall Diaries was when we got to shut down the FDR and shoot scenes with four motorcycles and a Mustang. I mean, what could be more exciting?
Free The Bid is committed to advocating for diverse perspectives and points of view. What do you think are some of the benefits to diverse representation on both sides of the camera lens?
There is only benefit to diverse representation in the content we create and put into the world. We are what we eat, and our culture is deeply informed by the media we have access to and consume. There’s so much subtext and psychology in everything we watch, and that stuff embeds deeply. I realize now how many times I identified with or aspired to be the male hero in a movie, and how much low-grade shame and confusion that can create. I was sorely disappointed when I went to join Girl Scouts thinking I’d go camping and get a knife, and instead I was supposed to sell cookies and maybe jump rope? Major WTF moment. Who would aspire to be the adoring and ignored girlfriend instead of the richly drawn, complicated and powerful hero? I think the same applies to the frequency of POC and LGBT actors being relegated to supporting characters. Seeing that over and over again will sneak up on you in ways you don’t even realize. Behind the camera, directing is about filtering an experience through a specific point of view, so limiting the people whose POV we get to see limits a lot of the human experience from making it onto the screen. We’re all hoping to catch ourselves there, to learn something and connect, so we all benefit from a wider array of perspectives.
Any final words for our Free The Bid family? Advice for aspiring women directors?
I love seeing your Free the Bid profiles pop up on my Instagram. There are so many talented directors on FTB, representing a vast breadth and depth of vision and style. I see friends from time to time, but these are mostly directors I’m just hearing about, too. I got an email today asking if I had any recommendations for directors to be on a panel about women in film, with a chagrined, “I guess there aren’t many, are there?” That is absolutely untrue and I get this email regularly. There are SO many talented female directors. We out here. The problem is not supply or interest, it’s visibility. That’s why incentives like Free the Bid are so important and powerful right now. The problem is not that diverse directors don’t exist, it’s that we haven’t often gotten the press, the opportunities and the high profile gigs. I genuinely, sincerely believe that that is changing right now, right before our eyes. There is a tidal wave of realization that we have a big problem crashing down on Hollywood right now. I believe this will be a different conversation in a year. I believe that in my lifetime, my gender won’t even be a part of my career. I hope so. I love that teenagers are so bored by gender and identifying themselves that way. What a thrilling shift in our culture to have that not be such a big part of “who you are.”
My advice for aspiring directors (and over and over again to myself) is to get clear on what you love about the job because that is the well you have to go drink from every day or else the hard parts will be crushing. Also, take acting classes and send thank you notes.