Interview With Filmmaker Willow Polson

Willow Polson is an award-winning writer-producer with decades of experience who creates entertainment that educates, inspires, and makes the world a better place. When not working she enjoys growing African violets and doing crafts like embroidery and beadwork. She lives in Northern California near Yosemite with her husband, son, a few cats, a variety of wild animals, and an infinite number of pine trees.

Why did you get into the entertainment industry?

It was a combination of two things happening at once. I was reading Zen in the Art of Writing by Ray Bradbury, which got the idea 50% through my head that you should write what you love, because there’s always a market for passionate and well-told stories.

The other half of the equation was that the TV show Heroes came out, and I was in awe. “People write this, and it actually gets made, and other people can watch it?” It was incredibly inspirational to me. I’ve been a writer for nearly 30 years, but primarily in non-fiction “how-to” books and projects, so 2007 was the year I let myself shift focus into storytelling on a professional level.

How old were you when you made the decision?

The decision-making process for the entertainment business overall was more of a series of small decisions and experiments to see what made sense to do. The writing came first, including comics, novels, and scripts. Actual on-set production experience came in 2013, and directing after that.

There actually is “the moment” when I decided that I wanted to work in TV/film for the rest of my life. I had become friends with Tim Kring, creator and showrunner of Heroes and had met up with him at an event in August of 2012 (making me 46 at the time). As I was walking him back to his car, he said “Hey, we’re shooting at the beach tomorrow, do you want to come?” Obviously YES, so the next morning I found myself at Santa Monica Pier, sitting in video village next to Tim, watching them film episode 2.01 of Touch. I was there all day, and one of the last shots was where Jake draws a spiral in the sand at the beach. The sun was getting lower in the sky, and I’d just spent all day watching this incredible process, talking to everyone I could, and I’m sitting there in a director chair next to the showrunner. That was “the moment.”

I turned to him and said “This is what I want to do for the rest of my life.”

Tim, being the charming smartass that he is, replied, “What, sit on the beach?”

“Haha… no… I want to do this,” I said, gesturing around at the crew. “I want to make TV shows.”

What was the first project you worked on?

In terms of production, actually being a producer for the first time on a working set, it was Vintage America with Ginger.

We made it ourselves. I had met Ginger Pauley through Heroes, she played Peter and Nathan’s grandmother in a 1960s flashback episode. She was musing how she wanted her own vintage show, and I said “why can’t you?” So we pooled resources and a few months later we were shooting footage at the Oviatt Building in downtown LA. 

What are your future goals?

To make my own stories on my own terms, to be showrunner on my own shows outside the old studio system. The old model is a dinosaur that’s still deeply entrenched in a rigid gatekeeper framework. It’s not designed for creativity or innovation or fairness. It is not the meritocracy a lot of people think it is.

Did you go to film school?

I did not. Everything I’ve learned has been through direct experience on sets, including Tim letting me observe the process as much as he could, making our own shows like Vintage America with Ginger, and working on other productions.

What did you do for a day job while looking for showbiz work?

I worked at the front desk of a boutique hotel near Yosemite, then moved into Marketing Manager which also meant running the hotel’s live event slate. A lot of those skills direct translate into filmmaking, because when it’s 8:00 pm and the show lights go on, everything has to be ready to go at that moment. It’s the same with film. Pre-production is key to making sure everything is where it needs to be when the director says “action.”

When did you decide to stop working for free?

That’s still sort of a moving target. It’s very difficult to get paid work in my area, and for a woman over 50 at all anywhere. I’m also rather done with the experiences of getting bitched out on set over things I had no control over, and being set up to fail, so at this point I am also extremely selective about taking paid work from people I don’t know well.

What are you currently working on, and how did you arrive here?

I currently have it narrowed down to a slate of four things: Vintage America with Ginger (22-minute lifestyle non-fiction series), Hidden Gems (11-minute travel/history web series), Manos: The Debbie Chronicles (11-minute supernatural dramedy web series), and Triune, my passion project (1-hour supernatural/sci-fi drama series). Each of them has a Facebook page and Hidden Gems has a Patreon. We’re doing a PBS “viewers like you” funding model for Hidden Gems, giving individuals the opportunity to support the show for as little as $2/month because they love the concept and the content. 

What are the biggest mistakes a person can make when they first start working in the industry?

Thinking you know everything and/or specializing in one department to the point that you don’t know what other people on your set do exactly. Talk to each other, especially between departments. Watch and listen. If you don’t know something, ask. Every set is different, every group has their own lingo and methods. Every shoot is an opportunity to learn something new. Stick your ego in a coffee can and bury it in the yard, nobody is impressed by namedropping some person you met once when you have another setup to get through ten minutes before lunch is called.

Did you ever come across a project or a person that looked promising, and then the whole thing blew up in your face?

Not “blew up in my face” levels of failure, no, but I’ve definitely come across people who turn into nightmares to work for. At first they seem fine and reasonable, so I think what happens is they either crack under the pressure of production, or get comfortable in their position of authority over you, or probably both. I’ve had people demand that I be available 24/7 so they can message/text/call me at all hours, gaslight me, interrupt constantly and become extremely condescending, literally get right up in my face about things that weren’t my fault, not give me the information I needed to do my job, and take tasks away because they didn’t trust me to do the job they had just hired me for. Life’s too short for this level of crap, and I deserve better. I have walked from a few jobs as a result. 

Were you ever put in a position that you were asked to compromise your artistic integrity?  What did you do?

This has really only happened when pitching shows to production companies. For example, with Vintage America with Ginger, one company said “Can you trash it up a little? Maybe we follow Ginger to her house and she gets in a fight with her husband…?” We said NO. I will compromise on a few things on some projects if it makes sense for the market, but something like that? Gross. And no, I will not make one of the three Mason brothers randomly a girl just so there’s a girl sibling in Triune. Both of these examples fall under the heading of “they absolutely do not get what this project is.”

Were you ever put in a position where you were asked to compromise your moral integrity?  What did you do?

Yes, there was one shoot where I felt there was a very real danger that someone was going to get killed on set. I walked away early on from that one because I wasn’t being listened to about safety, and I did not want to be there when it happened (fortunately everyone made it out alive).

What’s been the highest point of your career so far?

Probably being on the Television Academy ballot for the Emmys. There are a lot of great moments that make me smile which aren’t “the highest point of my career,” but honestly those moments are just as important for different reasons. We have to always remember why we got into this business in the first place. 

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