Martha Jeffries on the importance of life experience

Martha Jeffries is a film and television director, producer and writer. Even though she had little formal training in the art of filmmaking, the New Zealand native has produced and directed shoots across six continents and achieved many accolades for her work, citing her passion for storytelling as the key to her success. Despite the sometimes grueling lifestyle realities of being a filmmaker, Martha is a true artist with dedication, commitment and curiosity to the core. I spoke with her just prior to her embarking on a new season of the Emmy award-winning documentary series Years Of Living Dangerously.

What did you want to be when you grew up?
I always wanted to tell stories. Before I could write I’d dictate tales to my mum and I’d put on puppet shows at pre-school. Growing up I played a lot of music too and was very serious about making it a career. I eventually did a classical music degree majoring in performance flute. I mostly made a living as a musician until my mid-twenties, at which point I realized it was quite a solitary job. You have to spend a lot of hours practicing alone. I love working in teams. So the storytelling won out and I have never looked back.

Who would you invite to your dream dinner party?
Jane Campion, Sofia Coppola and Kathryn Bigelow.

What single book has had the greatest impact on you?
I've been impacted by books my whole life so I can’t think of one single book. I was a voracious reader as a kid and my second degree was in English Literature. At the moment I'm reading I Love Dick by Chris Kraus, re-reading Slouching towards Bethlehem by Joan Didion and dropping in and out of A Girl's Guide to Surfing... I'm brushing up for summer!

When do you go to bed and when do you get up?
It depends on where I'm working and what the job is. I travel a lot so it changes. I’m not the world’s greatest sleeper but I’m usually in bed between midnight and 1am and up around 7ish.

What is your favorite time of the working week?
That also depends on the project I'm working on. The whens and wheres are so variable. When I have a regular Monday to Friday schedule I do love a Friday afternoon. As much as I love my job, I cherish the time off to reset.

Can you briefly explain your career path to date?
After university I spent several years in Europe. I lived and worked in Sweden, Denmark, Austria and Portugal doing a variety of jobs. I played music on the street, worked in a ski shop, managed a bar. I even had a spell as a moss picker. I came back to New Zealand when I was about 25 and got my first job in television as a production assistant. I had some good breaks and started directing after just a few months. I directed my first television series at 26. It was a family travel show called Are We There Yet and we shot all over New Zealand. I also started directing music videos early on and that gave me an amazing education. I never went to film school so I really learnt on the job.

I’ve worked on a wide variety of TV shows but have done a lot in the travel genre. I directed and produced a food travel show called World Kitchen that ran for five seasons. I moved from New Zealand to New York in the middle and kept making it from here. We shot all over the world and it was an amazing ride.

Over my career I have directed television series, commercials, documentaries and music videos and I’m starting to move into scripted film. I like to work across different genres.  

What is the biggest obstacle you’ve overcome, as it relates to your industry?
Adapting to change. When I started out we were shooting on digibeta tapes. The speed of change in technology can make your head spin. You have to always keep learning.

Unfortunately the other obstacle is being a woman in a male dominated industry. It means you have to work that much harder to get ahead.

What motivates you?
I want to make work that moves the audience or asks them to think about things in a different way.

What advice would you give to someone at the start of his or her career?
Get some life experience. Travel, explore, work some shitty jobs, know what it’s like to struggle and see some things that blow your mind. I don’t think a straight trajectory is always the right one in this business. When I am hiring I like to work with people who know something other than film school. I want to work with people who have good people skills, a great work ethic, can think on their feet and adapt to change.

When you’re in it, work hard, be respectful and be grateful to those who help you. Make everything as good as it possibly can be but when things don’t work out learn from your mistakes. Remember that the industry is pretty small. The people that you work with when you start out are quite often characters that will return again and again, even across countries!

What do you consider your greatest achievement?
I am proud of being able to make work that reaches large numbers. World Kitchen has played in 80-something countries and my commercial work has reached wide audiences too.  I’m also proud of (and humbled by) having a career where I've been able to experience so much. I've filmed all over the world and I've been exposed to an astonishing amount of natural wonders and human experiences big and small. I’ve shot in deserts, jungles, cities, and mountaintops - family homes, religious ceremonies, at political riots and morgues.

What do you believe has been the key to your success?
I am curious. I have worked hard, taken advantage of every opportunity and I have not compromised on quality. I don't take on projects I don't believe in or that are exploitative in any way. 

In addition to that I have had some good luck. There are a lot of very talented people in the world who didn't have the opportunities I had and I often remind myself that.

What is the most important lesson life has taught you?
That life is inevitably painful - as humans we suffer. It's the thing that binds us. Finding beauty amongst the chaos is the only way to make sense of it all.

What do you believe are the personality traits of great leaders?
Great leaders, as distinguished from successful leaders, are kind and respectful, calm and composed, always keeping a firm eye on the big picture – what is best for most. They speak up for those less able to themselves. There are a lot of successful leaders who don't necessarily do that, great leaders do.

What do you believe to be the secret to rising up to the top?
Work hard and think differently. Always endeavor to be an originator, not a copier.

Good fortune probably plays a bigger part in success than most successful people like to think! Being born into a situation where you have access to education, are able to take advantage of opportunities and meeting the right people at the right stage of your career are all critical. All the luck in the world won’t help without talent, focus and drive. There are a lot of things at play. Having them all line up at once is where the real magic happens.

Who do you turn to when the going gets tough?
My parents are both great risk takers and never encouraged me to make ‘safe’ career choices. They are terrifically supportive of anything I do and a constant source of wisdom and support. My friends are great and I am lucky to have an extraordinary husband. He is an artist (painter and a sculptor) and understands that making good work sometimes means big sacrifice. He never wavers in his support and dedication.

What's next?
I have a new music video coming out soon and I’m aiming for my short documentary Freedom on Wheels to be ready for festival release next year. I am also working on a scripted short film set in Delhi, India, called Room 1227 staring Zoë Bell. I have some other projects that are in early development and I start work on a new season of the Emmy-award winning documentary series Years Of Living Dangerously next week. There’s a lot going on!


As told to Caroline Hugall at Brooklyn Label Bar in Greenpoint New York on Monday 11th May 2015.