Photographer: Selina Whittaker
She was named as one of The Hollywood Reporter’s 2018 Canada’s Rising Stars and her latest short film ‘The Things You Think I'm Thinking’ has won multiple awards including the Grand Jury Award for Best International Narrative Short Film at Outfest 2018, to name just one!
Sherren Lee is a Director, born in Taiwan, raised in Montreal and now currently living in Toronto. She attended McGill University, graduating with a Bachelor of Commerce in 2007. In 2014 she became a Cineplex Entertainment Film Program Directors' Lab alumni at the Norman Jewison's Canadian Film Centre.
While her most recent short film has won a number of awards, shortlisted for more and is still continuing its festival run, this hasn’t always been Sherren’s life. She understands the importance of hard work and dedication to succeed in business - which for her included not making any income for a year.
Here’s Sherren on balancing risks as an entrepreneur, how to protect and nurture your passions and measuring success through everyday happiness.
Tell us about a time that life handed you lemons. Did you make lemonade?
Perspective is everything. Many times, I’ve found myself in situations that seemed less than ideal, and of course, life is full of inexplicable lows. In those times, I take a step back and attempt to reframe the situation, not to simply “deal with it” or armour up to “get through it,” but to find a true benefit I can take from it, or to draw boundaries and have the courage speak out, or sometimes, to walk away.
Describe your ideal work environment to get sh*t done.
I like to be comfortable. The perfect work environment for me has lots of sunlight, very little clutter, and a constant flow of hot beverages (namely, coffee.) I often work from home and am most happy surrounded by my plants and sitting on my couch.
After that first year, how did you scale your business and continue to grow?
It's interesting to think of myself as a business and it's been a constant reminder to do so. I have a Bachelor of Commerce and it's come in very handy as a filmmaker. When I attended the Canadian Film Centre (CFC)'s Director's Lab, I wanted to dedicate myself to it fully, knowing I wouldn't make any income for a year. I kept telling myself -- this is what it takes to start a business. You have to think of this as an investment for the future. After that year at the CFC, I entered the film and television industry as a new director, and it took another year for me to start getting paid work. It was really hard to figure out how long it would take before I, or my business, would start making money. But thankfully, I did. So in terms of scale... I'm not sure how this applies to my business as a director for hire, but essentially getting that first job in the one-hour drama episodic world allowed me to focus entirely on creating work of my own (which I will benefit from later), without having to worry about income.
“So I think, as an entrepreneur, the most important thing is to protect and cultivate your passion for your business. I take as much risk as I can handle, without straining my passion or compromising my product.”
How much of your success as an entrepreneur has come from taking risks versus playing it safe?
This is a really difficult question, especially for any artists because what we offer is so subjective. It's hard to say whether your talent is worth anything to investors or consumers, and how many no's you can take before you give up on something. Ultimately, you have to believe in yourself. Putting yourself out there every day is a risk -- a risk for your product, but also for your own drive to keep at it. So I think, as an entrepreneur, the most important thing is to protect and cultivate your passion for your business. For me, that's filmmaking. So I'm always careful to nurture it, to find ways to give it space to be free and not burden it. I take as much risk as I can handle, without straining my passion or compromising my product. For me, that means -- to not rely on my filmmaking for financial gain at the beginning (you can make money elsewhere and keep cultivating your creativity as your main focus), surrounding yourself with a community that can relate to what you're going through, support and champion you when in need, and keep seeking feedback and growth. If you feel full and whole, you have more capacity for risk, and that's what's truly going to separate you from the crowd.
How do you measure success in your career?
I often sit back and remind myself that I am living the dream. I am working and living as a freelance filmmaker, and though there are many struggles and ups and downs as I work towards my goals, I practice being aware that I am doing exactly what I want to be doing. I measure success by looking at my growth and progress. As a freelancer/entrepreneur, the grind can be exhausting, but when looking back at how far you've come, that's always up-lifting. Everyday happiness is also an important tracker of success for me -- if you're not happy, then what's the point of doing it at all?
You're 30 minutes away from walking into an important meeting. What do you do to get yourself in the right headspace?
Make sure I've eaten something and drink a glass of water. Take deep breaths and remind myself of the unique strengths I have to offer. It's very important to me to feel centred and relaxed, and walk in as equal.
What is something that you read, watch or listen to regularly?
I listen to John August’s Scriptnotes on a regular basis. It’s super insightful and helps me stay disciplined and inspired.
“If you feel full and whole, you have more capacity for risk, and that's what's truly going to separate you from the crowd.”
What impact are you making through your work?
My mandate as a filmmaker is to tell stories that further our understanding of each other and inspire love and compassion for one another. I believe in the power of cinema to expand our minds and our hearts, to allow audiences to experience stories of people they would not otherwise encounter, or to recognize their own stories on screen and not feel so alone in their struggles.
Finding time for yourself can be difficult as an entrepreneur. Do you have a self-care routine and what does that look like?
Self-care is so important and decidedly very difficult to find time for as an entrepreneur. I don’t have a self-care routine (must work on that)—but it’s crucial for me to carve out time for rest and restoration, whether that means sleep, or watching something on tv just for fun and enjoyment, seeing good friends, treating myself to good food, spending time in the sun... whatever refuels and rejuvenates you. If I didn’t take time to celebrate my accomplishments or simply allow myself down time, I could never have this drive. Years ago, my sister sent me a quote by Marthe Troly-Curtin that I often must refer back to: “The time you enjoy wasting is not wasted.” It’s a constant reminder...
Remaining fresh and innovative as a business owner can be hard. How do you stay creative and where do you look for inspiration?
As a story-teller, curiosity about the world around you is so important. But a few years ago, I came to the realization that finding your voice isn't about building a box and fitting yourself into it -- it's about stripping away at yourself and trying to be as authentically you as possible. That's what makes you unique. So for me, taking time to reflect and get to know myself is the most important work I need to do. It's crazy how many revelations you can have about yourself.
Give us the play-by-play of your typical morning routine.
Wake up, put the kettle on while I brush my teeth and wash my face. Make coffee. Make a list of things to accomplish, including meals and rest periods for the day, while sipping on hot coffee. Execute.
What's next for you? Can you tell us a little bit about something exciting you're working on?
I am currently in prep for two episodes of Season 12 of Murdoch Mysteries, then going straight into directing an episode of CBC’s new show, Coroner. I’m still travelling with my short film THE THINGS YOU THINK I’M THINKING which has had an incredible festival run and working towards my first feature film.