I met Soraya last December, and we immediately clicked. She was only in Tucson for two days, but we managed to get a few perfect moments together, moments that have already had a huge impact on me, and that I wouldn’t trade anything for. We’ve kept in touch and continued to deepen our connection by sharing our frustrations with the struggle to live as a millennial artist, our life philosophies, stories of experiences that help us see ourselves (and the world around us) more clearly, and how much we hate Ridley Scott. I truly admire Soraya, and when she started her film school blog, I knew I wanted her to write something for my website since she is so thoughtful and cares so much for many of the things I find myself obsessed with. I was lucky enough to have her write this incredible article on how she turned her favorite film maker into a personal mentor after I watched the story unfold from Soraya’s eyes. If you like her writing check out her blog SorayaSimi.com/filmschoolblog. Either way there’s a lot to learn here, but don’t just read it, try it! I know I will 😉 ~ Charlie
Soraya Simi: artist, filmmaker, photographer, film student, writer, manager of a comedy Instagram account, fluent in French
How To Get in Touch With People You Admire and Why It Matters
by Soraya Simi
I think I was 14 the first time I wrote an email to someone I idolized. It was right after watching Beasts of the Southern Wild, which affected me so profoundly that to this day, I often revisit it to be transported by its magic.
I didn’t want the movie to end. The story was too compelling, too beautifully told, and I wanted more. I went on IMDb and typed in the title, and started surveying the cast and crew. Benh Zeitlin, the director, stood out to me immediately. This could have been because of his prominent role in making the film, but it was more likely due how cute I thought he was. I was 14 after all. I clicked on his profile and learned that Beasts was his debut feature film – quite a commendable start.
The next question I asked is the same question I keep asking myself, and one I encourage my friends to ask themselves: how can I be more like this person whom I admire?
So by the powers vested in the Internet, I scoured the depths of what Google had to offer. Did he go to film school? Which one? How old is he? Why’s there a silent ‘h’ in his name? How was this project funded? Why did he feel like this was story he had to tell? What were the high and low points of production? Would he do anything differently? What did he learn that I can learn from him?
Benh Zeitlin was still blossoming as a public figure, so there were very few articles containing the answers to the questions above. I learned that he was young, early 20s; I learned he had gone to Wesleyan for film school; I learned he had been emotionally attached to Louisiana and extremely devastated by Hurricane Katrina.
Still. There was so much more to his story that I wanted to know. It takes a beautiful and intelligent mind to create such beautiful and intelligent stories.
That’s when I saw it… the link to his Facebook profile. I hovered over the link, suddenly hesitant, uncertain about whether to perturb his privacy and disrupt his world, but I couldn’t help myself. I stalked his profile as much as a ‘non-friend’ could. The “Add Friend” button was so close, yet so far. How creepy would that be? I remember sitting there debating my next move for a long time. Could I hold my insecurities at bay long enough to take a risk and see what might come from it?
Photo by Soraya Simi
I clicked “Add Friend”. Then shut down the computer immediately and walked outside to forget what I had done. The adrenaline rush alone was worth that act of audacity.
The next morning, I saw he accepted my friend request.
I couldn’t let this opportunity go to waste. I spent the morning writing up what I thought would be the perfect message to send: sharing my perspective over my love for the film, and asking him what advice he would give to a 14-year-old wannabe filmmaker…
… and he never wrote back.
In fact, in a matter of weeks his profile changed from a personal page to a celebrity fan page. I was no longer a “friend”, just a sad little “like”.
And while I feel like I should be slightly humiliated, I’m not. I understand his not writing back for a few reasons:
- 1) I was 14. Do you know what kind of “fan mail” 14-year-old girls send when they’ve developed crushes on a person they’ve never met? I’ll tell you: weird ones.
- 2) Everything I put in the message was probably nothing he hadn’t heard before. This is one of the most important lessons I’ve taken from my experience. You have to understand that people are extremely busy, and while they love being validated and hearing how much their fans love their work, it’s impossible (and boring) to write a personalized “thank-you” for everyone. Avoid saying something that they’ve probably heard many times before. Make yourself stand out as someone who’s going to contribute something different, something unique, something they’ve never thought of before.
- 3) My question was not specific. Vague questions get vague answers, if they get responses at all. If you want to know the details of a potential mentor’s work, make sure that your questions are detailed, can’t be completely answered with generalized statements, and are difficult to misinterpret.
But, the really good news?
The worst that can happen is that they don’t respond. Literally. That’s it.
Photo by Soraya Simi
And it’s not so bad, I promise.
Like anything, this was a learning opportunity. I’m grateful that I didn’t allow it to deter my curiosity or confidence. In fact, I took it as a challenge to learn how to write the perfect fan e-mail. This is not an exhaustive list of the people whom I’ve contacted, just the one’s sitting on top of my mind: Richard Linklater (film director), Julie Delpy (actress and director), Jason Brubaker (distributor and creator of FilmmakingStuff), John Hess (filmmaker and creator of FilmmakerIQ), Brendon Thomas (Editor in Chief of Surfer Magazine), Morgan Maassen (my favorite surf filmmaker and photographer).
From the above list, my response rate has been 50%. In fact, I didn’t just hear back from some of these people, I’m actually friends with a few now!
I was 16 when I wrote Jason Brubaker expressing my esteem for FilmmakingStuff and how I barely knew anything about film marketing before finding his blog, but have since used his methods to crowd fund and distribute my first feature, Second Impressions. He wrote back a sweet “thank-you” and “good luck” message, but I figured I might as well ask if, while my dad and I were in LA looking at film schools, he’d be available to grab coffee. That’s rather a forward and daring thing for a 16-year-old girl to ask, and maybe he just said yes because he thought it was cute and naïve, or maybe he thought I’d never follow through, but I did. The conversation and coffee were great. He said could tell I was ambitious just from the email and the fact that I was so confident I was going to get into USC, and said he didn’t even have adults actively working in the industry write him emails as bold as mine.
What did I learn from this? The problem in anything can potentially become part of the solution. Do not let age or any other excuse hold you back from trying; a perceived weakness can often turn into an advantage. Had I operated under the premise that none of these people would write back because I was young and therefore inconsequential or unimportant, then I likely would have never gotten in touch with them.
John Hess is another person whom I’m friends with today. He’s a great guy, and someone who is totally unpretentious and extremely helpful. I friend-requested him on Facebook because I wanted to write him a quick message explaining how instructional and helpful his videos were in not only teaching me more about filmmaking, but also the class of 5th-9th graders I taught throughout high school. He wrote back almost immediately, saying he checked out my website and photography and said he was really impressed and happy if he had any impact on the quality of my work. To this day I send him questions on my homework or whatever else comes up that I know he can explain simply and effectively.
Another important lesson is to keep in mind who is actually within reach: be rational, but not restrictive. Don’t limit yourself to just famous people, because you can still learn a lot from the lesser known people who you feel have offered you a lot. Think locally, too! Who’s in town that you could maybe collaborate with and get to know? What resources do you have access to now that can help you be more like the people you admire? (Note from Charlie: I do exactly that with my website. I reached out to Raymond, Soraya, Ian, and Jake because I liked their blogs, and now we’re collaborating on a few things, like this article!)
“The one with my friend as a speck on the sand dunes in Death Valley demonstrates the “shared eye” I referred to with respect to Morgan’s work, even though it’s not a surf photo.” Soraya Simi, photo by Soraya Simi
By far the most successful interaction I’ve had (and relationship I’ve built) was with the one, the only, Morgan Maassen. It’s difficult for me to articulate precisely why his work has had such a profound impact on me but I felt I could explain it best to him. Two years ago, I wrote him an email expressing how his films and photos helped me realize what kind of work I’d like to produce. I told him that the way he looks at the world is similar to how I see things, and that I think this “shared eye” is why his work resonates with me so deeply. I asked him what the next move is, as someone who’s just starting with surf filmmaking (other than the obvious and literal move of living by an ocean), and what specifically should I invest in to get started. Finally, I ended it with goals I have, one of which would be meeting and working with him in the future.
Photo by Soraya Simi
Let’s unpack why this was an effective email that elicited a really amazing response:
- 1) Be genuine. Nothing in my email was fabricated to just flatter him. I meant every word I said, and that came through.
- 2) Pick someone very specific and useful for you to get in touch with. There are a thousand other surf photographers and filmmakers, but Maassen’s work is what I liked best and I really personalized the email to demonstrate that it was meant only for him – not one I was sending to ten other photographers. Furthermore, I would recommend to anyone to find the person out there who is the current and closest representation of your ideal lifestyle. This has helped me enormously in shrinking the pool of possible contenders to a manageable few, figuring out specific and achievable goals, establishing my values, and visualizing what I want.
- 3) Ask them questions that only they know the answer to. If you can find it online from another source, then pick another question (research before you e-mail). They don’t have time to repeat themselves; be considerate, do your research, and ask them questions they’re going to want to answer.
- 4) Situate yourself as their equal. This is so, so, so important, and probably where I went wrong with a lot of past emails I’d sent. We have to understand that no matter how famous or how rich or how preoccupied these people become, they are not gods, they are just people. They are not better or worse than you, they’ve just had more time to fail and learn. You have as much potential to reach their success as they did when they were in your shoes, so make sure you’re confident in your tone, otherwise reverence comes off as creepiness. By explaining to Morgan that I am in the same position he was just a few years ago, he could empathize with me. By ending it with the wish to work with him in the future, I established my intention on more than just a fan to idol level, but on a professional, student to mentor one.
From this email onward, I’ve remained engaged with his social media, and have had small interactions and conversations with him on Instagram, Facebook, and Vimeo. This goes to show how one meaningful email helped him remember and recognize my name.
When I asked Maassen for an interview, I attached a list of 20 well thought out and revised questions that I really wanted him to answer. This was strategic because I figured he’d be more willing to engage in an unpaid, private interview if he could see the questions before to determine if they could potentially be a stimulating use of his time. Again, I was very specific and asked him questions that not only demonstrated how closely I pay attention to his work, but also that I had done my background research. For example:
In what ways does working with surfers like Kelly and Stephanie, who, besides just being incredibly talented at the sport, are also so noticeably intelligent, challenge you? Have they ever said or done something that changed the way you approached photographing them? Can you share one or two examples?
It challenges me in a competitive way that I not only have to prove my worth as an artist with a “vision”, but I also have to delegate politics and business to maintain positioning with them. Its rather unappealing, but an equally tangible beast to deal with when working with them. I guess it makes the simple beauty of taking photos/videos with them that much more of a reward when the time comes. I don’t think they’ve ever said anything in particular that has changed my approach, rather inversely my approach of working towards friendship and partnerships has really leveled them into accepting me into their lives and adventures.
Lastly, the single most important thing I did when writing Morgan was keeping my intent pure. My objective in writing to him was ultimately to learn, which I clearly stated in my email and I believe this is why he continues to respond to my messages: he can tell that I actually care.
Photo by Soraya Simi
This interview enabled Morgan to be more straightforward in his answers because there was no pressure of it being published. He doesn’t even bother to capitalize or punctuate some of his answers, which I love because that means his responses were meant to be genuine not impressive.
The final piece of advice I can give regarding contacting people you admire, and, in passing, just a life skill to remember in general, is never ever ever ever forgetting to say thank-you, preferably in the form of a hand-written note.
When was the last time you received a hand-written thank-you card? How did it make you feel the last time someone took the time to send you some kind of note of appreciation and really meant it? When was the last time you sent a hand written thank you card, or even just said thank you? Get in the habit of making those two words come out of your mouth more often, and inevitably you’ll feel more grateful about the world around you.
There is something so disarmingly simple yet powerful behind a hand written note. I cannot emphasize this point enough. People whom I’ve made connections with in and outside of the film industry become more than just “connections”, they become friends because I like to prove to them that I value their time and their help. A note is not asking a lot from you, but means so much to the recipient. To end with one of my favorite quotes:
“People will forget what you said, they will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” –Maya Angelou
Photo by Soraya Simi
Ultimately, it’s a classy and tangible way to be remembered.
It’s up to you in the end if you want to get in touch with people whose work you admire, or who you feel are current representations of who you want to be. The worst that can happen is they don’t respond, but the best that can happen is that you’ve fostered a connection you would not have had otherwise. It’s certainly helped me reach my professional goals, as well as boost my confidence, and I’d recommend it to anyone who is serious about pursuing what they want.
I’ve been a big fan of Tim Ferriss for years, and have been particularly interested in understanding his learning style so I can apply it to my own life. When I try to apply the 80/20 principle to a skill I am trying to learn, I typically spend hours attempting to identify the fundamentals before I even get started. This is extremely difficult, because as an outsider you really have no way of knowing what efforts will lead to the greatest returns. Experts might not provide the best guidance either, as it’s difficult to remember what it feels like to be a beginner. In the Rock ’n’ Roll Drums episode I was surprised how late in the learning process Tim applies the 80/20 principle. First he tries just about everything, then after identifying what’s working, he decides which 20 percent of his actions are yielding 80 percent of his results. After that, his practice is simple, efficient, and he improves rapidly.
My big takeaway from this episode is that I should get started faster when learning something new. My learning process should involve more experimentation before I perform my analysis. Next time, I’m going to try a wide variety of approaches before I decide what works and what doesn’t. Hopefully this accelerates my learning process.
I’ll post an update below once I get a chance to give this a quick test: