PROFILED: Ambika Leigh

Ambika LeighMention a project that has come out of the We Make Movies community and filmmaker Ambika Leigh is sure to have been a part of it in some capacity. With an impressive list of credits attached to her name and her production company, On Purpose Pictures, the no-nonsense, driven and spirited Leigh is among the few who can truly call themselves a full service filmmaker (or as she cleverly refers as “writ to wrought”). Read all about her and then be sure to check out THE SPEECH, releasing today on WMMoriginals.  

 WMM: Where are you from, what is your background, and how do you think that informs what you do as a filmmaker? 

AL: I’m sure where we are born and raised informs the rest of our lives in some way, but I’ve always felt a little disconnected from where I’m “from” (New Hampshire to answer the damn question). It’s not that I don’t like the place (it’s beautiful!) or don’t like that I’m from there (Live Free or Die!) or that I had a stereotypically bad childhood (it was challenging in ways, but overall lovely). It’s just that I left at a relatively young age (16, to go away to college), and my life worm-holed (is that a word?) in some interesting directions after that, and I never really looked back. I visited my small, immediate family, sure, but we didn’t have any other family there, and I lost touch with everyone else I knew growing up. I’ve always felt more like a gypsy soul, trapped in the body of a girl who happened to be “from New Hampshire”.

WMM: When did you know you wanted to pursue your craft as a career? Were you supported in your dreams?

AL: I was a kid totally smitten with, and raised intravenously on, movies and TV. And while I’d love to say that I knew definitively at a young age that I wanted to do this, I didn’t really reach for it until my late twenties (I had other priorities and goals before that, like attaining total enlightenment – which in hindsight was probably an easier ambition than being a filmmaker). I had been a theater brat from a young age, both on and off stage, and ended up getting a minor in theater (major in music). But as I was working towards that degree I got the bug for on (and off) camera work as well (I’ve never been one for limiting myself to on or off anything).

TechnocraneI was strongly called to move to LA and pursue acting initially – while I was “still young”, and when I had a “good” manager interested in me. But within a few months (days, honestly) it was clear I wasn’t willing to, ahem, “do what it takes” to make it as an actor here (I could write a book on that whole subject, don’t get me started). So I decided to move to “Plan B”, which was clearly always the “real plan” (insert devilish laugh). I had already taught myself to edit when I created this elaborate multi-media one woman show the year before I moved to LA (in 2006), and had worked a lot as an event producer, so those skills naturally lent themselves towards producing for film. I also worked some for the local TV station in Boulder, got involved with the 24 hour Shootout there, and most influentially, worked on a large set for a couple weeks next to my then-hero Jennifer Garner (I was a huge Alias fan!!) and female director Susannah Grant, as an extras wrangler (the film was called Catch & Release). Ok, so that’s what honestly did it. That’s when I knew I had to make movies. Whew. Glad I finally came out in the open with that. I feel much better. Next question?

Did you study anywhere in your field? Where? Any notable stories / experiences / peers / teachers?

AL: After working several years in LA doing a myriad of things in the industry – producing, editing, various kinds of production work, doing development with an Oscar-winning producer (not as exciting as it sounds), etc, my real goal of directing still felt far off. Since I’ve been a chronic learner and perpetual student most of my life, I had a strong urge to go back to school to study filmmaking (hands-on, not theory). Part of my reasoning at the time was, that as a woman who wanted to be a director in an industry supposedly stacked statistically against my success, the least I could do is say I went to film school. As if that would offer some validity (it doesn’t, really). But what it did do, more importantly, was help me realize that directing was not only what I really did want to pursue, but at least at some introductory level, I realized I was capable of it. So film school for me (I went to the Los Angeles Film School, though I’m not sure that is a very important detail), was like a sort of mid-career sabbatical, where I didn’t have to worry about making money, and could just plunge in to my dream – feeling it out and trying it on for size. In that sense it was worth every penny.

WMM: What else do you do besides your craft? Day job?

cameraambikaAL: I am fortunate that this is what I have been able to do, full-time, since I graduated film school in 2010. Prior to film school, I was working full time in the industry as well, though more for other people and less for myself. I also used to supplement intermittently with restaurant and catering jobs. I actually really love serving people. It’s probably a weird connection to make, but I think good hospitality skills can translate well in to any line of work – and as a director/producer, “taking care” of people is a huge priority for me.

WMM: What is the lowest budget you have worked with? Highest? 

AL: Well, zero being the lowest, of course. And for projects that I have personally produced and had total responsibility for, the highest was close to $100,000. Not surprisingly, I prefer working with budgets that match the needs of the project – I think the trick is to find a happy medium where you’re getting the most bang for your buck, but also not sacrificing people’s time and sanity in the process (including your own).

WMM: What is the most stressful situation you have found yourself in as an artist? Most rewarding? Most memorable?

AL: I’d rather not rehash the stressful moments – there have been many of them! But the joy of creating this multi-dimensional, dynamic and collaborative work of art, that will exist in perpetuity as a crowning achievement, no matter how few people watch it, makes you crazy enough to want to do it all over again. And again. The most memorable moments to me are when I see a crew excited to work together and each contribute their special piece of the puzzle. It’s electrifying, and ridiculously fun.

WMM: What are your current project(s)?

AL: Well my company On Purpose Pictures always has a variety of clients and projects happening, and I freelance in a variety of capacities, and I perpetually feel like I’m spinning more plates than I can really handle, but as far as narrative projects that I’m signed on to direct – I don’t have anything solid at the moment. There are always projects buzzing around, but getting one to really land and stick can be a Mr. Miyagi-type exercise (you know, like chopsticks catching a fly type thing). There are no shortage of potential projects to direct with my talented cohort Brian Gaskill (prolific screenwriter and co-producer), so it’s really just a matter of figuring out how to embezzle more money from people. But I would like to make a shout-out to a project that is particularly dear to my heart – a web series called “Don’t Ask Nancy” that I direct/edit and co-created with the talented Coel Mahal. Also, Broad Strokes is a fun project I’m proud to have worked on recently, which is being released now on the WMMOriginals channel. [Editor’s Note: She cohesively edited all 40 of the micro-shorts, directed by five directors, including herself.]

Ambika Leigh (camera)WMM: How has WMM influenced / shaped / supported you with this process/project?  

AL: WMM has been a fabulous support system for numerous projects I’ve helmed or been involved with, and I continue to get regular paying work from folks in the community, which I am grateful for. Word of mouth (well, positive word of mouth anyway) is crucial in a city where literally every other person you meet is trying to do the same thing as you are. It helps to be part of a network of trusted professionals like We Make Movies. It’s also a great place to learn, and even make mistakes – kind of like learn-as-you-go guerrilla film school. But with free wine and yummy snacks and karaoke afterwards.

WMM: Who are your biggest influences? Directors? Actors?

AL: Not to be flippant but…I’m not a big fan of influences. I just do what I do. 🙂

WMM: What are your top 5 films? Top 5 directors? Books?

AL: Oh my god, this has to be the most laborious question ever. I refuse to even attempt it. 😉

WMM: What is your favorite project you have worked on and why?

AL: I’m gonna have to go with my thesis film, SWITCHBOARDwhich after several years is still, sadly, my “magnum-opus” (if I can even claim such a thing). It was such a complex and exciting undertaking for me as a new director – I am just in love with the entire process of taking a narrative film from the seed of an idea to the final credits (hence my company’s tag line “From Writ to Wrought”). It was a nice taste of hopefully more elaborate productions to come – ideally a feature, in the near future.

switchboardWMM: What would you change if you could, about your career trajectory?

AL: Not a fan of regret or wishing what could have been, but if I had to have a re-do, I guess I would have started my career earlier. But I was fortunate to really live a full life before knowing for sure what I wanted to do, and I think it can’t hurt to bring all that experience (a lot of it quite unorthodox) to my creative endeavors now. 

WMM: Any advice for filmmakers?

AL: If you can imagine yourself doing anything else, then do that.

WMM: What is your favorite thing about WMM?

AL: I first started coming to WMM in 2010, when I was in film school, and the one and only script I’ve had read there (as a writer) was, again, for my thesis film SWITCHBOARD. That reading was a fabulous experience (I was particularly impressed with the casting choices), and I met people that are good friends and colleagues to this day, and some that even worked on that film when I shot it. And then I didn’t come around for 2 1/2 years (lol). I started coming back almost a year ago, and since then have worked a fair amount with the community. Again, as I mentioned, it’s a great place to network, and a great place to incubate ideas. And then convince everyone else to help you make it happen. What are filmmaker friends for?

WMM: If you were stranded on an island for 6 months, what 5 items would you wish you had on your person?

AL: Rope, matches, knife, chapstick, camera.

WMM: If you were not doing what you do now, what would you want to be doing?

AL: I honestly can’t imagine myself doing anything else, not yet anyway. But someday I’d love to own a quaint B&B somewhere near LA, and have other people run the day to day operations, while I continue to write and make movies. I guess it’s like my retirement plan. Except I’d still be working and doing what I love.

ambika hatWMM: Describe yourself with 3 adjectives.
AL: According to other people, or what I hear most often, I am: determined, detail-oriented, and passionate. The detail-oriented thing always makes me laugh – I mean I definitely am, but I wouldn’t think that’s the most striking thing about me. I would say I am fun-loving, loyal, and a good listener.WMM: What’s next for you now?AL: Going to sleep. Waking up. Greeting the new day with a smile and keeping myself open to possibility.WMM: What, other than your craft, brings you joy?

AL: The list is literally endless; I find joy in finding joy. Even in small things (except puppies, I hate puppies.)