Freelancing, flexibility, and networking: An interview with filmmaker Sophie Saville
Are you interested in a career in the creative industry? Curious about what you need to know about freelancing or working in a production company?
Earlier this year, I sat down with Sophie Saville, producer of Evicted! A Modern Romance, which won the Audience Award for Best Narrative Feature at this year’s Sydney Film Festival in June. Sophie graduated from UTS with a Bachelor of Media Arts and Production in 2014 and freelanced in film and production for four years before co-founding the production company ‘The Story Mill’, with her creative partner Rowan Devereux.
Read on to hear more about Sophie’s career journey, what she’s learnt along the way, and what she wishes she’d known as a uni student.
So, to start with, congratulations! It’s a significant achievement, and you should be very proud, but how did it feel when you first discovered that evicted won at the SFF?
Just in shock! It was such a surreal moment and a dream come true. The whole festival was a very surreal experience and something I only dreamed about. Hearing we had won the Audience Choice Award was the cherry on the cake because, at one stage, I was almost certain we hadn’t gotten into the Sydney Film Festival. It was a few weeks out from the festival, and we still hadn’t heard any news, so we were like, OK, clearly we haven’t been chosen, so it looks like we’re not in the festival this year. Then, in what felt like the 11th hour, we got the acceptance e-mail, and we were shocked and stoked at the same time! So, we were riding that high, and then we received so much media and press interest around the film leading up to the festival. We were interviewed on ABC radio, FBi radio, and Garry Maddox interviewed us for the Sydney Morning Herald. Then winning the People Choice Award was just incredible, and I think it is actually the best award to win. It was a real journey, a real wild ride.
Yes, it’s an incredible achievement. So, Sophie, you studied a bachelor of Media Arts and Production at UTS and then started your own company, SoSavy. What were some of the things you learned from that experience?
So many things. So, in the last semester of uni, I interned at a small boutique production company where I learnt many hands-on practical skills in video filming and editing and how to run a small business. That internship was almost like a really intensive three-month course, so when I left uni and that internship, I dove straight into freelancing.
During my time freelancing as a videographer and photographer, I learned about the importance of fostering good client relationships, having good communication skills, and never making any assumptions. I realised very quickly the importance of asking many questions and establishing expectations with jobs and timelines. One tricky thing to learn when you’re just starting is knowing your worth and how much value you place on your time and skills. It’s very easy to be like oh, charge this much for this, or this much for this, but understanding the right balance takes time to figure out.
Once you gain more knowledge and skills and become better at your craft, you can then charge more, but you have to learn as you go. It ends up being a lot of failing fast and learning quickly.
Are there any recommendations you have for students looking to try freelance work?
The one thing that I think is so important, which I think led to a lot of my success, is that I would just show up to events like networking events just to meet and get to know people. In fact, one of my oldest clients is someone I met in a class at UTS. She was looking for someone to film a promo video for her dance school, so we created a video together and still work together to this day.
The other important thing to know is that although I have Instagram, Facebook, and a website, my best marketing tool has always been word of mouth. The more people you meet, the more jobs you do, and the more people will refer you to more people. Building good relationships is like a currency. So, show up to stuff, and put yourself out there making connections in your industry. That’s probably like my #1 tip. And then, from there, it’s a lot easier. You never know who you might meet.
Yeah, definitely. Since then, you’ve started a production company, The Story Mill, with Evicted’s director, Rowan Devereux. What’s your current role in that organisation, and what inspired you to start that venture?
Starting The Story Mill happened very organically. Rowan and I met in 2015 in a coworking space called Vibewire, just up the road from UTS on Harris street. Over 3-4 years, we worked on each other’s projects, from corporate jobs to short films. Then, we landed an opportunity to produce a TV commercial, and after that experience, we had a moment where we were like, hey, maybe we could make a production company from this? We had a whole team that came on board to make that commercial, and it was the biggest budget project we’d done at the time. So, we sat down and went, OK, our skill sets really complement each other, and we made this great product. Let’s build a company and grow something.
So that’s how The Story Mill was born in 2018.
We call ourselves a boutique production company, managing a team of about five and overseeing all areas of the business and projects. We are both the creative producers and directors of the company and wear many hats and perform many different jobs every day.
What is also unique about the way Rowan and I work is that we mix it up a bit. We don’t always work in a conventional way. We can both direct and produce on set, which can confuse people. Sometimes they’re like, who’s the director, who’s who? To which I go, we come as a package. We make our own rules.
The company is set up so that we have two sides to the business – the creative and corporate arms. The commercial/corporate work is our bread and butter, which feeds into the creative side, such as podcasts, short films and feature films like Evicted.
I love that, the kind of flexibility you get when you’re comfortable working with someone. It sounds like you’ve had a lot of experience already. What have been some of your career’s most significant challenges and highlights so far?
The biggest challenge, but also the biggest highlight, would be producing Evicted. It is the most significant thing I’ve done in my career so far. Producing a feature film is like climbing a mountain over many months. We shot over five weeks, and it was the most intense five weeks of my life, I think. The post-production also takes time and can be tedious, and then finding distribution for an indie film comes with a whole new set of challenges, navigating uncharted territory. But boy! It’s been a steep learning curve, and it feels like I’ve just completed a two years master’s degree on ‘how to fund, produce and sell a film’. But it’s been awesome.
There are always challenges, like working with demanding clients. That’s a day-to-day challenge, and navigating that and how to set expectations. I’ve gotten better at it. But some people are more challenging than others; some jobs are more complicated than others. It’s now trying to gauge that before you enter into a project, sometimes like spotting out where the red flags are or the challenging people. And yeah, making that journey as smooth as you can.
As for highlights, they’re easy.
This year, I directed my first short documentary, Inspire Me, funded by the Screen Ability Program, which also premiered at the Sydney Film Festival.
We also made a short queer film called Peach in 2019, which did really well on the film circuit. So that was a real highlight to see how successful that became, and we are actually making a sequel to it called Pineapple next year, which I am very excited about.
I’ve also been lucky enough to meet and work on projects with some really awesome people and idols of mine, including Tracey Spicer, Michael Kirby and most recently, Paralympian Ellie Cole and writer, disability, and women’s rights advocate Hannah Diviney.
When you work with lots of clients, they always bring in more connections. Sometimes you don’t know who you’re filming, and you’re filming someone like Julia Gillard or taking photos of Dylan Alcott. So, that’s always fun and keeps things interesting.
That’s so cool—so many incredible connections. We’re coming to the end of the interview, but before we go, I’d love to know: if you could tell your university-self one thing, what would you tell them?
Uni was an interesting time for me as I’m not an academic and have always been creative at heart. So if I could go back, I would tell myself to focus my time and energy on my passions and strengths. Get the hands-on skills and not worry too much about the rest. I’d tell myself to have fun and know that the real world is very different to uni, but foster good relationships with your peers.
It was great to sit down and chat with Sophie and hear more about her career journey. If you’re interested in catching Evicted! A Modern Romance, the film is being shown at the Brisbane International Film Festival on the 5th and 6th of November, so head to their website to book tickets. There is also a screening at The Ritz in Sydney on the 11th of December, so book tickets now if you want to check it out closer to home! You can also follow The Story Mill’s Instagram or Facebook page to stay in the loop about any other upcoming screenings.
Amelia is a Sydney-based writing and communications enthusiast working at UTS Careers as a Communications Assistant. She is a current UTS Student, studying a Bachelor of Communications (Creative Writing & Advertising), and a Bachelor of Creative Intelligence and Innovation. She is passionate about creativity, storytelling, and the art of a well-timed gif, and has a vast collection of crazy socks.
Producer and Director
Sophie was born in Sydney, but had an international childhood, living in six countries before the age of 18. In 2014, she graduated from the University of Technology Sydney (UTS) with a Bachelor of Media Arts and Production and soon after started freelancing as videographer and photographer. In 2018, she started The Story Mill, a video and film production company with her creative partner Rowan Devereux. Today, Sophie produces and directs a range of online content, TVC’s & films, including awarding her winning films ‘Peach’ and most recently ‘Evicted: A Modern Romance’ feature film.