I am the first performer in my family. A big reason is that I am a first-generation American; my entire family is from Ukraine, where the arts were not a safe or stable career to have under the Soviet Union. The first time I was able to talk to working artists was through my internship at SPACE on Ryder Farm the summer after I graduated. I had never interacted with people who paid their bills by making art and it reaffirmed my passion for this career choice. As I started to branch out beyond acting, getting into writing, producing, and theatre-making, I felt pressure to choose one path. When I feel myself getting in my own head, I reach out to people who inspire me to look at situations from a new angle.
I met Leah McKendrick and Mariah Owen during my senior year at Chapman University while they were filming several scenes on campus for their critically-acclaimed first feature, MFA. I was a college correspondent for BroadwayWorld at the time and asked to interview them as part of a series on Chapman alums (Leah is Class of ‘08), which can be found here.
Their most recent collaboration is Pamela & Ivy, a short feminist origin story for Poison Ivy. Leah and Mariah are filmmakers at the forefront of the entertainment industry; both dove head-first into creating and starring in their own work, reclaiming the traditional power structure of the industry. I, an early-career artist in quarantine, wanted to hear more about their journeys. Below, Leah and Mariah discuss the importance of creating through multiple avenues, and how each creative pursuit comes together in the overall career goals of being an artist and a creator.
How do you define yourselves as artists, if you have a label or labels at all?
Mariah: I think filmmaker is a really simple term to cover the chaos that we do as producers, writers, directors. It’s a great way to say that I get films made and I make films, so to me “filmmaker” is the umbrella term I use to introduce myself because it’s the simplest way to define what I do. I think the stigma comes from people thinking you are all of those things out of necessity because “you’re not extraordinary at one of them,” which is so not true. I think it’s far more of an award or an accomplishment if you can do all of those things successfully versus being a producer because your acting career isn’t working out; those are two very different things. I really hope we can demystify that stigma one day.
Leah: I’m still not comfortable calling myself an actor but I wasn’t comfortable for a really long time because I didn’t feel like any of my credits were “real” credits and then I started getting “real” credits and when people asked, “Well what have you done?” and then I found myself listing off what I had done. That doesn’t feel good and then you watch their face and think, is this a big enough credit for them? Do they like that show? Did they see that? You feel really on display as an actor. You’re constantly measuring yourself up against the most renowned movie stars in history so it’s such an awkward thing. My living is made predominantly by my writing and in some ways, I’m embarrassed (to be an actress); like intellectually I know it’s not something to be embarrassed by but I just feel this way. When I’m in a meeting in a studio and they go “Oh, are you an actress as well? I saw your IMDb…,” I get embarrassed because I think in some ways they’re not going to take me seriously as a writer and it’s constantly feeling like you’re hiding some parts of yourself or asking “How can I be taken more seriously?” I just find that the less I say, the more comfortable I am. But I’m a filmmaker, if people want to ask what I do for a living, we can go further. There shouldn’t be so much shame or questioning surrounding our profession. We work in an incredible industry that people turn to for entertainment and I think we all get a little bogged down by the thought that we’re gonna have to explain ourselves or prove our worthiness and sometimes that’s not the case. So I try to be a little more open and not feel that everyone is going to immediately judge me if they don’t think that I’m “successful enough.” It’s so easy to feel that we don’t have a place at the table when the whole table is old white guys that want to hire people that look like themselves. I will say that I have seen, just from my projects getting bigger and the people that I work with getting bigger, the progression of everything. Even these older white guys, they’re learning what's up. They’re learning that female filmmakers are an untapped resource, a very valuable resource. The business is changing, even if it’s not quickly enough, it is changing.
What are some things you've learned in your first few years post-grad that you believe should be a required course in theatre and film school programs?
Mariah: For me, I went to school for English and Cinema Studies. I think the biggest thing post-grad was how to fill out proper paperwork for all of the unions, how to get insurance permits, like each film permit is so different, and I think that should be a required course for any artist in any program, college or university. You already know you can create, you are a creative person. Well, how do you support that? You need to have some business skills, that would be an awesome kind of class to have in school programs.
Leah: There’s just so much. I loved my program, my school, and my professors so much, but I think the business is constantly changing and updating and evolving to the point that it’s so hard to keep up if you’re not in it, you’re not in the trenches of it. A huge thing for me is actors creating their own content. Not just actors, directors and writers too and not waiting for permission. I think there’s a very simple way to break down what I did in the beginning when I became a creator, I don’t think it’s rocket science. Like, I don’t know how to fill out that paperwork, but Mariah does. Find someone that you work well with, that complements your strengths, and know how to create a team of people that come together. It’s not about an exchange of money, it’s about an exchange of labor and we’re all just putting our talents into the pool and we’re all coming out with a piece of work that we’re really proud of that we can use as calling cards. So much of that is having a hard time connecting with other people in the business and there’s so much power in a network of filmmakers. I don’t think people understand how much more you can do in life when you have another person that has the same dreams as you. A lot of strength that I had in those first few years was that I didn’t have any money, but I knew how to ask for help. I wish there was a class teaching you how to get shit made without money, because you’re probably not gonna have any in those first few years and the answer really comes down to getting crafty and finding people that have similar goals.
Mariah: Both Leah and I get hit up a lot, like, “How do you make stuff? I have no money” and it’s two-fold. You can either work really hard, save, and do something like we did with Ivy, or you live in an age where everyone has a smartphone and you’re a creative person, well write something that’s a page and shoot it on your phone. Just the start is to create, just push those boundaries.
Leah: Even TikTok is such a great example. I’m blown away by people’s creativity and they’re just doing these funny videos but some of that shit is really good. My producer at Escape Artists, she has my SONY movie, she has my TV show, and she’s a big legit producer and she’s obsessed with TikTok and watches it for hours like you and is like blown away by people’s talent...and she’s a big producer in Hollywood. People all over the world are super, super talented but they don’t necessarily know how to get into the game of filmmaking and the only thing that they really need is a camera and we all have one in our pockets.
Pamela & Ivy is available to view on all online platforms. A huge thank you to Leah McKendrick and Mariah Owen for their candid answers and for taking the time to speak with me across countries and time zones.