Long island city
On the surface, Elle Ginter’s road to directing seems pretty unusual. After all, not many people get their start in the film business by working on a whale-watching boat. But once you hear Elle’s story, it makes sense that her incredible work ethic and ability to connect with people have established her as a director to watch.
You were born in New York?
I grew up in upstate New York, and went to college in the Midwest. Then for most of my 20s, I lived in Boston.
What led you to Boston?
My sister lived there. After college, I wanted to live somewhere new and Boston was a local choice.
What did you study at school?
I studied journalism. I didn’t love college—I’m more of a hands-on learner and I’m terrible at sitting still, so college was not my favorite place. But I worked really hard and graduated early. I moved to Boston as soon as I graduated, thinking I would get a headstart in the job market.
Of course, it wasn’t so easy because this was in the middle of the recession in 2008. I was living with my sister and helping out with her kids. I think I sent over 70 resumes that year, but nobody was hiring. My brother-in-law’s family owned a whale-watching boat about 40 minutes outside of Boston, so I went to work on the boat in an attempt to keep myself busy and make money. To this day, it’s one of my favorite jobs.
What did you like about it?
I loved being on the water. It taught me to love the ocean. It really changes your perspective when you see animals that massive every day. It gave me a lot of time to think and reflect, and I also met so many interesting people. I know a ton about whales. [Laughs] The downside is people who are seasick thrown up on you a lot! It’s a gritty job, but it’s also beautiful. You are surrounded by nature in the most amazing way.
In a way, it prepared me for working on film sets, because it’s really hands on and the hours are very long. I also learned to talk to anyone. That’s how I got my first job in film.
You met somebody on the boat?
Adam Sandler’s crew were filming nearby, and one of them came on the boat during his day off. We were chatting on the boat, sharing stories, and it came up that I studied journalism and film. He told me I should come work on a set, and took down my email. I honestly didn’t think he would actually email me.
Two weeks later, I got an email about working as an extra on the set. The timing worked out, and I took a chance. I am from a very blue-collar family, so being on a movie set was not something I thought was even remotely possible. I was so freaked out on the first day! The initial job was for two weeks, and I hit a big crossroads when I got an offer from a radio station to work for them full time. It was a proper journalism job, but I actually cried when they called me because deep down I was disappointed. I was having so much fun, and I had barely skimmed the surface of this new life I had just started. I knew it would be the sensible thing to do, but I felt trapped by the idea of taking this job, even though I only had $69 in my bank account.
I was literally sitting in a field on set, waiting to be called up for a scene with the other extras, and I called the woman at the radio station to turn down the job. I was so upset, even though it was the right thing to do. Somebody from the crew came over to me and asked for directions to a pizza place. We got to talking and I told him a little about my situation. He walked away for five minutes, and came back with this guy. He said, “This is Frankie. He’s going to give you a job.”
So I became a production assistant. Initially, they only wanted to hire me for one week, but I worked my butt off! I was the first person on set and the last to leave. I ended up sticking around for a year and a half. There were lots of movies being made around Boston at the time, because of the tax breaks that were offered. I worked on Adam Sandler's Grown Ups, Kevin James' Zookeeper, Ben Affleck's The Town, and Tom Cruise's Knight and Day.
It just felt good to be busy! To this day, I still love hanging out with PAs on set. They are just getting going and they have such a hard work ethic.
That being said, after a year and a half of these crazy hours I was burning out. At one point, I was working on three features simultaneously.
What! How do you even do that?
Monday, Wednesday, Friday was one. Tuesday and Wednesday was another. Saturday and Sunday, I would fill in if the set went into overtime. There is a lot of fear placed in you as a PA. You are constantly told that if you can’t hack it, or if you turn up late, then there are five people who can take your place instantly. In a way, that is very true. It’s a game of stamina. But it was a real lesson for me in learning how to take a step back. For whatever reason, I had the confidence to say, "You know what, I can't do this anymore." I took a waitressing job for six months, and having regular hours was so amazing!
I wanted to get back into film, and so I decided that I should learn how cameras worked. So I got a job at a camera rental house, and worked there for three years. I asked so many questions and learned everything I could during that time.
When did you know you wanted to be a director?
It sounds crazy, but I never had aspirations to become a director until about a year and half ago. I think it was a culmination of loving journalism and film and storytelling. During my time as a PA and working in rental houses, I learned so much about every person’s job on set. It allowed me to be very comfortable with what it takes to make a film and tell a story. It makes sense now when I look back at it, but it’s not something I planned.
So how did you get your first job as a director?
After working at the camera house, I worked as a camera assistant. The director on set needed help ghostwriting for commercial pictures. My journalism degree kicked in and I offered to help. That ghostwriting gig led to a job at a production company, which I did for a couple of years. Throughout that time I worked for a lot of directors, both working on set and also doing small writing gigs for them. But I was doing so much work for other people that I started to need a creative outlet for myself.
I thought I would do a project of my own, just to test out whether I was actually any good at directing. So about two years ago, I started working on a script, got a few trusted people involved, and made a short film. The good thing about working on commercial sets for so long is that there are so many people also looking to work on something creative. Because I understood most of the jobs on a set, I would trade that knowledge for people’s time to come and work on my piece.
That first film was an exploration of depression called “Why We Wake.” I was pretty happy with how it turned out. I entered it into showcases and got a little bit of recognition, so I decided to make another one.
It’s amazing that you made your first film only 20 months ago!
It's been crazy, but honestly it's been so humbling and very fantastic. [Laughs] For a while, I was still working at the production company and making my own films on the side. When I left I was still freelancing for money while I built up my portfolio of work. It was terrifying to leave my job, but I gave myself a deadline: I would wait until I turned 30 years old before I moved on and looked for other work. It’s my 30th birthday next week! It’s been incredible—I’ve been signed to an agency and am now starting to get commercial work that still aligns with my aesthetic.
Where does your inspiration come from?
My inspiration comes from music. I write my films like I would write a song. If you name any one of my films, I would be able to tell you the exact piece of music or song that inspired it. Growing up, I listened to music and wrote in my journal a lot. My mom was in three car accidents when I was younger, and she spent a lot of time in the hospital. I had a great upbringing, but it was also a bit chaotic. I would escape mentally by creating stories in my journal. Because I spent so much time in my own head growing up, I am fascinated by what other people are thinking and experiencing. That’s what I want to explore now.
You sound incredibly driven. Is there anything in particular behind that?
Honestly, competition has driven me to a large extent. I also have worked under many directors who I didn't fully respect; their work would be amazing, but their crews wouldn’t like them at all. I really believe that I can do things differently while still producing quality work. It’s about the whole team. Often it’s only the top people on set who are let into the creative vision or feel like they have any agency. On my sets, I will always listen to input and ideas from anyone. I want to talk to everybody, from the camera person to the PA, and build those relationships so that we can all progress together.
What are you working on now?
I’ve just finished shooting two commercials in LA. I have a couple of projects in the works, including my first long-form narrative film that I’m writing! I’m really excited about it. I’m also working on a personal project that explores three professional athletes and the concept of strength as a woman.
What’s the best piece of advice you could give?
Don't be afraid to take your time. When you're good, it's great to take every opportunity and never discount anything. But as you go forward, don't expect to be to where you want to be overnight. Taking time and building relationships helped my career directing move much faster once I got to that point.
What does New York mean to you?
New York has taught me to hustle. It’s something I thrive on. Being here in the last two years has allowed me to go on a straight rampage of directing. [Laughs] I didn't stick with the film industry this long to slow down now! There isn’t another city I could think of that would give me that energy. I love it.
To learn more about Elle's work, click here.