New York, New York. It’s a place we see out the corner of our eye repeatedly – in the nightly news, in our favourite TV shows and movies and books. Its intricacies have been explored time and time again, by poets and writers, artists and songwriters (you know you want to sing the “New York, New York” song right now).
With so much exposure to New York, it can feel like we already know the city – even if we’ve never been there.
To put this to the test, we asked three Kiwi women currently living in New York – and by all accounts “killing it” – to share their experiences of the city.
What are the unique challenges they face as they pursue their careers in the Big Apple? Is it true, like Jay-Z says in “Empire State of Mind” that if you can make it there you can make it anywhere? Here’s what they had to say.
Sally Tran - Director, Ghost Robot
A quick run-down on who you are and what you’re doing in New York
I’m a Director currently living in New York, working as a commercials and branded content director. I’m represented by a production company called Ghost Robot in Williamsburg, and have collaborated with clients like Sesame Street, Cartoon Network, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt publishers and more.
What drove the move to New York?
In 2013 I received a wonderful opportunity from Script to Screen NZ to work at the film production company Killer Films, which is run by Christine Vachon – a producing giant in the independent film scene. My role was to research and blog about New York’s film culture and work in their development team.
I never had the big city dream of living in NYC, but when I lived here for those several months, I fell in love with this vibrant inspiring city and knew this is where I needed to be.
Caption: A one-shot mixed media music video directed by Sally through Ghost Robot, for the band Walk off the Earth.
What’s been the greatest challenge/s so far?
New York offers so much of everything, it can be distracting at times. There is so much inspiration, great people to meet, amazing projects to be attached to, places to see – so it’s really hard to find time. The time for yourself, and time to focus and develop your personal work. As a director or a creative that’s really important.
Have you found any cultural differences in your work environment in New York compared to New Zealand?
I lead an unconventional working lifestyle. A Director has a certain amount of control in their schedule.
When I worked from the Flying Fish office in Auckland, I could come and go prepping projects, being in production, or developing music videos, short films, or my feature film. In New York, I have a similar set-up where I work from the Ghost Robot office to prep and post commercial work, as well as buzzing away on personal projects.
In New York, Directors and Executives are mostly men, Managers are mostly women. There is a diverse mix of different ethnicities in the industry. So I would say the directing culture and production environments are very similar between New Zealand and New York, in my experience.
Do you think being a Kiwi has been an advantage here in any way?
Many people do take note of the Kiwi accent and enjoy it, mimicking it sometimes. But it has yet to land me any opportunities, work-wise or socially… unfortunately.
Has being a woman in your field in New York been any different to being a woman in your field in New Zealand? i.e. Are cultural attitudes or norms towards women any different?
Being a female director is hard no matter where you are. I’ve had a more difficult time in other countries, like Viet Nam. But that’s a whole conversation for later. I tend to wonder, in situations, if I’d be treated differently if I was a man in the film/TV/commercial director industry… and the answer is probably yes.
I do however see a shift in the perceptions towards women and in making a conscious effort to open doors where they once were closed – in front and behind the camera. New Zealand is also a great country that allows women to grow, and do, and become the artists they are with government funding and great opportunities.
Kiwis have a certain perspective of New York – often as the ultimate ‘big city’. Now that you’re here, how would you describe it to Kiwis back home? How is it the same or different to the perspective you had before you arrived?
I was in Viet Nam before I arrived here in NYC, and it’s an extremely busy, compact, and intense city. I expected NYC to be more overwhelming than Viet Nam, so when I arrived and moved to Brooklyn, I was surprised to realise it’s peaceful pace, with plenty of parks and greenery surrounding these suburbs.
The city offers so much diversity, which was probably the biggest and most wonderful surprise. It really wasn’t until I was here, living amongst it, that I really appreciated the neighbourhoods that can change dramatically block to block. It’s a phenomenal place.