Tammy Tiehel-Stedman is a Philadelphia-based filmmaker and producer. While attending AFI film school, Tammy produced a short called My Mother Dreams the Satan’s Disciples in New York, which went on to win the Oscar for “Best Short Film – Live Action.” In addition to film work, Tammy has produced over 100 hours of television programming for the Discovery Channel and TLC.
We spoke with Tammy over the phone. She gave us some great tips for recognizing your passion, believing in yourself, and taking a do-it-yourself approach to pursuing your dream.
Q: How did you figure out your passion for filmmaking?
A: Growing up, I thought filmmaking was something only people in Los Angeles could do and that I should just get a “real” job. While attending Washington College, I took my first film class and it opened up a whole new world for me. Our teacher showed us a few low-budget independent productions and it was the first time I ever thought “This is something I can do.”
Q: How did you get started in the film industry?
A: After college, I had a bunch of different jobs – real-estate, sales, advertising. My first job in the film industry was as a production assistant – an entry level position that a lot of people use to get their start. I loved it, and stuck with it. I got that job through my mom, who knew a local businessperson who was shooting a commercial. I got in touch with them, worked hard, did a good job, and it led to another job on different commercial. From there, I worked my way up.
Q: Any tips for young filmmakers trying to get that first gig?
A: Early on, I also volunteered to work on projects for free. For example, one time I volunteered to work with this local band who was shooting a music video in Philadelphia. We shot in the freezing cold and snow – one night we were outside for 13 hours. And honestly, I can remember jumping up and down in the snow, mid-shoot, thinking “I have never been happier! I love this!” I was so young and so excited, I didn’t even care about the cold.
Here’s the best part: I met so many people on that shoot who ended up hiring me for future projects. They saw that I would work hard and was willing to be out in the snow with a smile in my face. I was always the first person to say “Sure I’ll get that, sure I’ll do that, sure I can handle that!” That’s the type of passion you need as a young filmmaker.
Q: After working as a PA, how did you take your career to the next level?
A: I worked on a few writing projects with my sister and then, when I was 29, I applied to the American Film Institute to be a Producing Fellow. I went to LA and took their masters program. My first big project was producing a short film with a Directing Fellow named Barbara Schock. That was the first thing I’d ever really done for myself and it was a hit at festivals. We submitted it to the Academy for consideration and it wound up winning the Oscar. It was pretty crazy, we were just students but there we were at the Oscars! After that, I went on to work for the Discovery Channel and the Learning Channel.
Q: How do you balance your career with family?
A: Right around the time the Oscar happened, my husband and I got married. I had been working for quite a while and decided to take a break to focus on family. So, I had my wonderful children. In between each child, I would work on a short project. I did a short film called Touch and two fundraising videos for non-profits (a homeless shelter and a charter school). There wasn’t a lot of money in those projects but it was SO incredibly rewarding to take my skills and use them for a good cause. I absolutely loved it.
Q: What projects are next for you?
A: After my kids were old enough, a friend/author Kelly Corrigan and I started developing a screenplay based on her memoir. I also partnered with another friend who wrote a screenplay called Bad Boys Crazy Girls (a romantic comedy). I partnered with some Philadelphia entrepreneurs. We’re shooting this coming summer!
Q: What are some of the money challenges in filmmaking? How can first-time filmmakers raise the money they need?
A: For my latest projects, we’re been seeking private investors. Also, we are using some tax credit money. Some states, (PA, NY, LA, NM) offer film incentives through rebates or tax credit. It’s really wise to use that money if it’s available. Also, I’d recommend looking into crowdfunding like Kickstarter.com and Indiegogo.com – those sites can be great for a relatively low budget production. Or, at least to shoot enough footage to make a trailer to show to a bigger investor.
Q: A lot of people have movie ideas. Would you recommend they take a do-it-yourself approach? Or, try to break into the Hollywood system, find an agent, find a studio, etc.?
A: I think if you’re just starting, it’s much easier to do it yourself.
Even if you’re established in your career it can be tough to break into Hollywood – I’ve been doing this (filmmaking) for a while, I’ve won some awards, and I’m still finding it hard to get reconnected. I lived in LA for five years – it really is all about who you know and what relationships you have. Knowing the right people makes it so much easier. But the good thing is that with crowdfunding and better technology, it’s possible to do it outside of the Hollywood system.
For first time filmmakers, do it yourself. Do it as simply, as inexpensively, and as creatively as possible on a micro-budget. If you have an idea, write it yourself. Get FinalDraft, pick up a book on screenwriting, learn filmmaking. All of the tools are out there. The one exception would be if you happen to personally know an agent, a casting director, or a major producer that you could contact. They could open doors for you and maybe get you the funds you need.
Q: Any final thoughts?
A: This is the kind of work that you’re really lucky to be passionate about. No matter how hard you work and how little you get paid, it never feels like work because you just love it. As long as you’re doing it from your heart, the work will always be true and good.