Jen grew up in Canberra as part of an adventurous family - her niece Charlotte is one of our original SisuGirls in Singapore - and started making films for the ABC documentary series Race Around Oz as a 24-year-old in 2000.
A business degree at RMIT saw her take on other careers, but a trek to Nepal in 2003 sparked a desire to make more documentaries.
How did you get into documentaries and film?
In a very roundabout way! From about the age of 10 I had a camera. I was really interested in photography as a kid; our family travelled a lot, and I would take my camera along, but I never connected it with a career. When I was older I started working in the oil industry as a trader – of all things, which is kind of strange and a whole other story. And then there just came a point when I just realised I wasn’t happy. My brother said to me: “If you could choose any job, what would it be?” And my answer was making documentaries.
It has definitely been a process, but it started with a keen interest in travel and people: I didn’t always want to be a film director at all.
When did it all start?
It really started with Race Around Oz. I was still at University, and was still in my early 20s. After I did the show Race Around Oz I took a job as a marketing manager at Inside Film, and ended up as the managing director. We produced a monthly magazine and yearly film rewards. My role was very much running a company and business, but at the same time I built up a lot of contacts in the film industry. After a while I was able to merge the two. Today I’m a director with a producing background.
In addition to Sherpa, you also directed Miracle on Everest and a Discovery documentary on Everest. How did your love of the moments and film combine?
I am one of those people who, when life presents an opportunity, I just have to say yes. I had some New Zealand housemates when I was living in Bondi and they were filming an adventure race and I went with them. Then one thing led to another and I made friends with a guy at the race who was a camera operator in the Himalayas. He invited me to come along the trek before the upcoming season. Circumstances collided and I found myself there and – much like the experience many people who go to Nepal find – it changed me in some way. I found myself really captivated by that environment. Something weird happened to me physiologically as well: I felt really alive the higher I got. I discovered that my body works really well at high altitude. I still get altitude sickness, but what I discovered is that I could work and film well at high altitudes – which isn’t very common apparently.
How do you handle the risk factors that come with working in such extreme environments?
I definitely don’t have as high an appetite for risk as some people, but I understand it. I was talking with my cinematographer, Renan Ozturk, the other day, and he said some people think of what he does as a death wish. But, he said he thinks of it more as a life wish. And I understand that: I feel more alive when I’m in these extreme circumstances. I don’t subject myself to the same levels of extreme that [Renan] does, but I understand it. I have felt that heightened sense of ‘really being alive’ which comes from being in those situations. I feel it helps you to gain a deeper understanding of yourself.
In practice, what does your job involve?
I am a director, but, like in the case of Sherpa, I also work as a producer (or co-producer). That means I am the one that pulls the crew together; that goes on the film site; that directs the camera crew. I say how we get the shots and what shots. I work on all the creative sides – all the way down to the sound design and working with the composer. It also means I do the scheduling and the budgets.
You went to Nepal with one idea about a story that you wanted to tell, and circumstances changed things radically. How did you handle that huge and very emotional change?
You are always flying by the seat of your pants when making documentaries. For me, this film didn’t really change as much as everyone thinks it did. Of course, the film became more dramatic because of the death of the 16 sherpas and the subsequent protests, but the film was ultimately about highlighting the disproportionate risk that sherpas take when getting people up and down Everest. The drama was always going to be on Summit day – that’s when mistakes are high, when the foreigners can see the summit and want to get to the top but they’re not going fast enough, they start getting sick… we don’t know what would have happened in any event, but I always knew that things would not have gone smoothly – it never does – so I was prepared for the fact that I had to be prepared for anything. But what happened was still bigger than what anyone could have imagined. But the themes and the ideas of the film are still very much in line with the original intention.
Do you ever have any doubt during the filmmaking process, and how do you deal with it?
You are always wrestling with fear and doubt and uncertainty as a freelance filmmaker. And I think it takes a certain type of temperament to manage that. I still don’t find it easy. I found it incredibly hard – I barely slept after the avalanche because I kept thinking, “I have a responsibility to come home with a film, and what film is that film going to be?” I didn’t know until I got back to the edit suite, many weeks afterwards, that I realised maybe had a story. But you never know. And that’s a terrifying way to operate. But I think that’s part of the beauty of creativity – wrestling with that uncertainty.
Does it get any easier, or it always just as frightening every time you step up to create a new film?
To a certain degree it does because you get so used to the uncertainty, and you start to expect it and understand it and find mental models to deal with it. Some people liken the creative process to a tunnel, where you’re all the way in and you can’t see the light yet, but you have to just keep moving forward.
Elizabeth Gilbert has a great TED Talk on the pressure of creativity, which I watched the other day: you just have o show up. Every creative person has to find a way – from the outside looking in it can be so easy for people to feel that you’ve done so well, it’s going to be so easy now. But it doesn’t feel like that, and I don’t think it ever will. No one’s every really “made it”. You think about these Hollywood film stars – they’re under constant pressure to keep their careers alive. It’s same, same but different for everybody really. But I think it’s about accepting uncertainty and finding your own way to deal with it.
I still get incredibly nervous, no matter what I’m doing, before everything I do. But I think it’s good fear. It keeps you on your toes, and keeps you wanting to do good work.
What are the most important skills and personality traits that you bring to your work?
As a documentary filmmaker it’s probably empathy – the ability to consider someone else’s points of view. You’ll see with Sherpa, and something I worked really hard to do, was not to be judgmental, and let people’s stories tell themselves. That’s my style as a director – decisiveness. Being able to make a decision. Because people are relying on you to chart the course. And if you flounder and can’t make a decision, then you get nowhere. Part of both of these skills is relying on gut instinct. In the case of Sherpa, you can say that it’s gut instinct or luck, but there is a quote I like that says, “The harder I work, the luckier I get”. In the case of this story and these people, it was a story I was around a lot for a long time. I hadn’t been to the Himalayas for a while – I had decided to stop doing that work and have kids – but I’d always stayed in touch with the stories. You know the landscape, the dynamics and you know the players, and you know how to respond to things better. I wouldn’t have been able to make Sherpa coming in cold for the first time as a filmmaker just with a good idea. It was made because of the decade of relationship building I had worked on prior to that.
All documentarians will talk about building trust. The way you do that is to never let people down. And often that’s difficult. As you’ll see in this film, the main expedition leader is someone I knew for 10 years, and who first gave me my break as a camera operator in the Himalayas. He had a really difficult time in this film, yet, luckily he was able to come out of the end of the film and say to me, “That was really tough, but that was fair.” I was amazed. You always have to walk a very clear line on your ethical boundaries. Really ask yourself, Am I portraying this person in a really honest and truthful way? Because you can’t show everything.
Ethics in film: so, where do you draw the line?
I think it’s about showing the essence of truth. You might, for example, miss a shot, and find that you need to find another way of representing what happened – but does that make it untruthful? It depends. There are so many foggy boundaries. For me, it’s ultimately about your role as filmmaker – where that starts and where the role of human being starts as well, and where the line between the two lies.
I made a film a few years ago now called Solo. The film was about a man who was paddling solo from Australia to New Zealand. During the making of that film, the main subject died and I was with the wife and the son when the police came to tell us they’d found his body. When the police came and knocked on the door, I answered, and I knew in that moment I knew. Without even a second thought – it wasn’t something that crossed my mind – I put the camera away. It’s something I wondered about later, but I just knew that her reaction would have been so extreme that in that moment I had to stop being a filmmaker and start being a human being.
Whereas in Sherpa, I knew we had to continue. I personally stopped for some moments when we were too close – when a body was coming down in the helicopter, for example – because it was not respectful.
Then again I made another film where I followed three people with terminal illness, and I made a different decision with each of them. You have to live with yourself at the end of the day. It depends on the moment, the circumstances and your relationship. When you’re dealing with life, and death you have to make those decisions carefully.
How did life change when you became a Mum, and did it have to change?
Yes and no. Everything changes and nothing changes. When we decided to have kids we talked about how everything would have to change – Mark is a photographer so we both have creative careers. I really respect the role of being a full-time carer of children, but I soon realised it wasn’t the best version of myself. If I’m honest, it was doing my head in staying at home all that time. When my first daughter was only 9 months old, one of the production companies I had been working for really needed me to spend a lot of time on a show. And I found that I was alive again, back at work, and that she was completely fine. I found that I would come home more present and happy and ready to be there. I found that to be quite a revelation.
How do you deal with the mummy guilt being a working creative mother?
When Universal Pictures came on board for Sherpa, I remember looking at my husband and saying: “Oh My God, be careful what you wish for!” I suddenly thought, What was I thinking? I’m a mother of two children. I can’t go to Everest and make a film! And he said, “Are you crazy, you’ve been working on this for 10 years of your life. You have to do this. We will be fine.”
It’s always hard, and you will always feel guilty. But it’s just something I have come to accept. I do different work from most, but it’s the same guilt. I just try to make sure that when I’m there, I’m really present. I’m also really lucky I have an amazing partner who supports me, and we just manage as best we can.
What’s an average day like for Jen?
Is there such a thing? Not really. Working as both a director and producer, no days are ever the same. I love the variety. But some days, like today, I had my producer hat on, but what I really needed to be doing was wearing my director’s hat as I’m in an edit on another project. I get pulled between the two jobs all the time, and sometimes I don’t feel like I do either very well– it’s like motherhood at times really. Luckily on Sherpa I had such amazing producers I was able to really focus on what I had to do. I’d rather just focus on the directing – I’d love not to do the rest of that stuff – but it’s helpful to know how it all works. And if you don’t do that, you don’t end up getting the full reward. Because ultimately it’s the producers that get the copyright in the films. So this way, I get to really own my work, break the cycle of always working for others, and finally have control of my works. It’s a rewarding feeling.