Multi-Award-Winning Writer and Director Erin White on Resilience, Creativity and Battling AI

Posted on: Jun 20, 2024

Photo Credit: Jae Frew

By Tahlia Norrish

If you’ve watched any Aussie TV in the past few years, you’ve likely laid eyes on a series with Erin White’s fingerprints on it. Paramount+’s Paper Dolls, Netflix’s Wellmania, AcornTV’s Under the Vines, ABC’s The PM’s Daughter and Nine Network’s Doctor Doctor, for example, are just a few of the multi-award-winning writer and director’s credits. 

Before White’s string of television successes, several of her short films graced the international film festival circuit, including screenings at Sundance, Palm Springs and Flickerfest. In 2016, White partnered with Australian producer Michelle Hardy to co-found Hardy White Pictures, where the duo now have a slate of projects in advanced development. 

Here we speak to White about resilience, inspiration and battling AI. 

Could you tell us about the moment that drew you to filmmaking? 

I was always a creative kid, so I was always interested in books, art, and dancing. I wanted to be a ballerina, and then I wanted to be a painter. Then I wanted to be a musician. That’s what I studied at school – I was the music captain and in all the bands and choirs. I realized at 17 that music wasn’t going to be my career. I didn’t think I was going to be good enough to do that.

I was in the wilderness for quite some time after school. But I remember the moment: I went to the cinema and I watched a movie and I loved it all the way through and then the ending kind of sucked. I remember sitting back in my chair and going, “I think I could do it better than that.” It was honestly like a lightning bolt in my brain. My brain immediately went, “Oh my God. Oh my God. Maybe I can do that!”. I came home–this was in the days when there was no internet–and I got the Yellow Pages out and I turned to “Film.” I was like, “How do I learn how to do that?”. 

Wow. So, post-Yellow Pages moment, what were some of the biggest challenges you faced from there, and how did you navigate them? 

In the Yellow Pages, there was a section called “Film Schools,” and there were two schools in Melbourne: Deakin University and the Victorian College of the Arts Film School. So, first of all, I went and did some weekend courses for beginners, and got behind a camera and started making little short films. Then I applied for the Victorian College of the Arts and didn’t get in – it’s a very intense audition process.

I applied for the next three years and still didn’t get in. I was like, “This is crazy. I’ll apply for Deakin University,” which wasn’t really a film school, it was a media school. It was TV, animation, visual effects, film studies. I got into that and did that for nearly three years. I thought, “I’ll apply again for the Victorian College of the Arts” and I got in. 

Over five years, I applied four times for that school. I was just not giving up. If I could say something to anybody who thinks, “Oh my gosh, it’s too hard. I’ll never do this,” I would say you have to develop that resilience and tenacity. I didn’t even know if I was talented. I refused to give up. 

You’ve now had some incredible success both as a writer and director – not least your three Australian Directors’ Guild nominations. What might your peers consider your superpower? 

I’ll tell you what I try to be good at. I try to be really good at storytelling. That’s the number one thing I would say for anybody trying to get into the industry. No matter what you want to do – whether it’s being a cinematographer, production designer, makeup artist, sound recordist, or anybody – you’re helping tell the story. That’s what we do as filmmakers: we tell stories.

That’s the thing I put at the top, and then everything else filters down. Whether it’s how I work with actors, how I work with my heads of department, how I work with my editor – all of that filters down from, “I’m just trying to tell the best story that I possibly can.” You’ve really got to take yourself out of it. You can’t be ego-driven. It’s got to be about the story. You’re there to serve the story. 

Do you have any unexpected or unconventional sources of inspiration you feel color your work?  

I get inspiration from all over the place, especially with my writing. It might be that I see somebody down the street and I’m like, “Oh, that’s an interesting character,” or something might happen to me, or something happens to a friend of mine, or I read something in the news.

When I’m trying to work out my director’s vision, I’ll often think of a word and then punch that word into a photo library and see what pops up. I just let the images speak to me and collect them. Then I open all the images together and I go, “Is there a common theme here? Is there something that ties them together?”.

For example, are they all dark, or pink, or have a shallow depth of field? Because when I read a script, it goes into me in the instinctual, gut way. Then I have to turn my brain on and go, “Okay, why is it that I’m feeling this image for this story?”, and translate that into words. As a director, you have to communicate your vision and what you’re trying to achieve visually, tonally and sound-wise.

That, to me, is often the hardest part because I know exactly how something needs to look and feel, but I can’t quite put it into words, and it’s that process of sifting through hundreds of images that makes me go, “Oh, there’s a pattern here. Okay, now how do I describe this pattern?”. 

What traits or skills do you feel will be most important for the next generation of writers and directors as the filmmaking landscape continues to evolve?

As we battle AI, filmmakers and storytellers are going to have to connect even more deeply with their soul and intuition. Going forward, we’re going to need more soulful stories – stories that are connected to the heart, connected to the universe, and connected to each other. AI can’t replicate that, but humans have that innate ability.

It’s really important for you to develop your intuition. Listen to those little whispers spoken to you in the dead of night. When you’re selecting the jobs you want to work on, or even when you’re working on something you didn’t really want to work on, but you’ve got to make the best of, try and connect with it from a soul level. That will ensure a quality and a kind of storytelling that you can’t get anywhere else.  

Just make films. Make little short films with your friends. Shoot them on your iPhone. Just practice, practice, practice. I made 12 short films before I started directing professionally and that helped me develop my craft. Whether you go and do formal film training, or you do short courses, or you just study whatever you can on the internet. Just keep making films. 

On films, do any pop to mind as masterclasses in filmmaking for you? 

I always go to this film because whenever I watch it, it just blows me away, and that’s a film called Punch-Drunk Love by Paul Thomas Anderson. It’s a masterclass in filmmaking for me. I love everything about it. It’s kooky and weird, and it’s beautifully shot, and it’s odd and I just love it. Watch the cinematography, the lighting, and the sound design. 

This interview has been edited and condensed. Special thanks to Erin White for her time. Keep an eye on White’s Instagram to stay up to date with her latest projects – and enjoy the occasional snap of sunset along the Australian coast. 

Tahlia Norrish is an Aussie-Brit actor, writer, and current MPhil Candidate at the University of Queensland’s School of Sport Sciences. After graduating from both The Liverpool Institute for Performing Arts (Distinction, Acting & Musical Theatre) and Rose Bruford College (First Class Hons, Acting), Tahlia founded The Actor’s Dojo — a coaching program pioneering peak performance and holistic well-being for actors.

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