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New Talent

New Talent: Rhea Lawyer

Offroad Films director chats working on Slumdog Millionaire, her journey through the film world and growing up in a creative household

New Talent: Rhea Lawyer

Rhea Lawyer may be newish to directing but she certainly isn’t new to the world of filmmaking. Growing up in an exceptionally creative family, she spent her childhoods on filmsets. She’s done, at one point or another, pretty much every production role you can imagine, from casting director to post supervisor. Make no mistake, Rhea knows her stuff.

And now, as part of the roster at Offroad Films in India, Rhea is flexing her creative muscles as a director. LBB’s Laura Swinton asked her about her artistic childhood, her journey through the film world and the experience of working on Slumdog Millionaire.


LBB> You worked on Slumdog Millionaire! That’s pretty cool – how did you get involved with that and what was the experience like?

RL> I was originally approached to work on Shantaram but since the project was on hold, the casting director asked if I would be interested to work with her on Slumdog Millionaire. All she said was ‘Danny Boyle’ and I almost fell off my chair! It was a hands-on, challenging and fantastic experience, to say the least. Collaborating with such exceptional talent from across the globe was a remarkable experience for me as the learnings were humongous. It also re-instated the belief in me of being in the right industry and allowed me to really align my focus to excel.


LBB> You’ve worked in all sorts of filmmaking roles, from post supervisor to 1st and 2nd AD, casting director – how has that experience helped you as a director?

RL> I think understanding the process and having the ability to do something different every time is really unique in advertising and it’s a weapon to keep for life. No TVC is the same - each film requires a different work flow and various ever-changing requirements that come in with their own set of challenges. 

Having worked in all these departments has really helped me hone my skills and acquire deep knowledge about every miniscule detail that goes into making a film. You absorb from the people you work with, you grow alongside the technology and really understand your craft. I strongly believe that establishing a concrete base always proves to be the making of an extraordinary journey – slowly but surely you get there!


LBB> When did you join forces with Offroad Films?

RL> Offroad Films is the breeding ground for young talent and they provide the most fantastic of opportunities. I have a connection with them that dates back many years. Having worked with them over the years assisting some really amazing directors, I always knew Offroad would be my first family in this business. I couldn’t have been more excited to officially join forces with them in the second half of last year as a director.


LBB> Where did you grow up and what sort of kid were you? Were there any clues that you would end up pursuing a creative career?

RL> Total tomboy- I was never a great student, I always had my head in the clouds or rather my television. I had the opportunity to be on film sets as a kid and I still vividly remember the energies that exuberated from each and every crew member – that memory has stuck with me ever since. The charm of the mammoth set-ups and a huge film camera being loaded into the back of a dusty old Maruti van to get those dynamic shots - what beautiful imagery that was. I believe my fascination for filmmaking really came from there.


LBB> I love your State Bank of India pieces – what was it about the stories that appealed to you? 

RL> Truth. These are not people you see or would have heard of otherwise. I got to take a peek into their personal lives and they quite literally wrote their own script. I also love montage films with great imagery- I find it to be captivating, it allows viewers to really live the moments with these characters. The message to ‘always be prepared’ is a strong anecdote to build on and I feel truly honoured for having been given this opportunity to engage with these real-life heroes and playing a small part in sharing their stories with the audiences.

LBB> There’s a growing conversation about the lack of women behind the camera in commercials and features, with movements like Free the Bid. What’s the situation like in India?

RL> Its lacking but it’s there. We have a lot of young talented women working in direction departments, wardrobe design, production design and as producers - there are less women than we would all like in camera, grips and lighting departments but I am certain that will pick up soon. I do think that the opportunities have expanded massively for my generation and the younger bunch, than there was before.

Education always plays a big role in providing the right opportunities to prospective candidates. We have globally affiliated institutes who are gradually investing in forming the right courses and charting out the academic journeys for budding talents along with providing them with real industry experiences. I think gradually the wheel is being set in motion and it is definitely moving in the right direction. Women are being recognised for their talents and in general I think there are a bunch of young guns waiting for an opportunity to grab.


LBB> As a director, how would you describe your working style? Are you a meticulous storyboarder? A spontaneous sharp shooter?

RL> In prep I love to be organised. I have a lot of paperwork and shot/scene breakdowns, I do a lot of research and I like to be as detailed as possible. I find it helps my colleagues to understand the film as well. Making a film is all about teamwork- so if everyone understands your vision, things flow well. Storyboarding is extremely important, but I don’t like to hold myself to it. It’s really about knowing what your shot is and then interpreting those sketches coupled with spontaneous improvisation. When I am ideating on set its very on the go - if you might not use the shot but you have the time and its interesting - take it - you never know what can happen on the edit table.


LBB> When it comes to choosing commercial projects to work on, what do you look for in scripts? 

RL> Emotion. It can be a strong social message, or a representation of a feeling. Preparation, freedom, sport, humour, family, a sense of surrealism. Marry an emotion with strong visuals and narrative and you get a beautiful film. A script needs to have a heart and leave a mark on the audience’s imagination.


LBB> What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever had?

RL> Pay now, enjoy later. Enjoy now, Pay later.

A constant reminder from my father to keep your head down and work hard.


LBB> Outside of commercials directing, have you got any other projects on the go?

RL> I enjoy photography so that’s a constant hobby. I would hope to publish a coffee table book of my works or hold an exhibition one day.


LBB> What inspires you?

RL> Other films, the constant flow of inspirational work happening around the world and the hope to bring this level of filmmaking into my work.

“Anyone who has ever been privileged to direct a film also knows that, although it can be like trying to write War and Peace in a bumper car at an amusement park, when you finally get it right, there are not many joys in life that can equal the feeling.” - Stanley Kubrick


LBB> Who are your creative heroes and why?

RL> There are so many mind-blowing directors whose work I have followed like Stanley Kubrick, Werner Herzog, Hitchcock, Tarantino, Wes Anderson, Guillermo Del Toro and then the advertising heavyweights Daniel Kleinman, Ringan Ledwidge, Ivan Bird, Ivan Zacharias, Frederic Planchon, the list is endless because right now there’s so much creative work out there. Closer to home are directors like Ashim Ahluwalia, Bharat Sikka, Prasoon Pandey… They are all my heroes because their stories have stayed with me.


LBB> What’s on the cards for 2018?

RL> We shall see! Hopefully a lot of travelling with my crew, and capturing moments and stories that will stand the test of time and become memorable classics.