Veteran director at Station Film and founder of Adolescent Content on humble beginnings, the future of gender identity in media and the joys of making sauerkraut
Ramaa Mosely wanted to be a filmmaker ever since she was 12 years old, when she would listen to her father dispense his views on old James Bond and John Wayne movies. But in reality, she had no idea how to make her dream come true. That is until one day a film crew came to her small hometown of Ojai, California, and 12-year-old Ramaa managed to wangle herself on set and boldly ask the director if she could shadow him.
Shocked and impressed by the audacity of this kid’s boldness, he said yes and went on to mentor Ramaa and allow her to use his equipment to make her first film, aged 15, about the environment. That documentary won Ramaa a United Nations Environmental Programme Global 500 Award. She then went onto helm both a commercial and music video at the age of 16, which got picked up by a bunch of production companies and led to her first directorial representation.
Nowadays repped by Station Film, Ramaa has over 20 years of commercials under her belt, numerous documentaries and two feature films. She’s also the founder of Adolescent Content, a global creative studio and platform that represents and promotes creative work made by Gen Z talent and an all round advocate for marginalised communities, a point enforced by a panel she recently chaired at SXSW that explored the future of gender identities in art and media.
In her downtime, she loves fermenting cabbage and she describes herself as never jaded, perpetually optimistic . LBB’s Addison Capper chatted with her to find out more.
LBB> You directed your first film at 15! How did that come about and what were the biggest lessons you took away from that experience?
Ramaa> I knew I wanted to be a director when I was 12. I grew up in a really small town and my parents were both really poor - that’s the only way to say it really. But I was pining away, wanting to be a director. I would read magazines and watch movies… and it just so happened that one day I was walking down the street in my small town and there was a film shoot happening. I managed to get past security, wander on set and make my way to the director. I asked him if I could just follow him around and help. I think he was so disarmed by that request that he said yes. He ended up letting me stay with him and use his own personal camera equipment. When I was 15 he was still my mentor and I told him that I wanted to make a documentary about the environment and how youths see the problems surrounding it. He agreed to let me use his equipment, so that’s how that project came to be.
My one goal with that documentary was to get it to the United Nations in Geneva, Switzerland. I made the documentary with a group of my friends and it ended up winning the United Nations Environmental Programme Award, and I raised the money to go to Geneva. I stood at the gates of the United Nations and told the guards that I was there to bring my film for them to see, and somehow the gates opened. It was the weirdest thing. And I went inside and actually screened the film for 30 or so scientists and became a United Nations child ambassador. That was really the beginning.
Then at 16 I did a commercial and a music video, and people saw them and I just started getting calls from some big production companies, like Propaganda, A&R Group, it was crazy. I signed with my first company and started being represented.
LBB> All of those early experiences feed so well into everything that you do now. You’re a filmmaker, you run Adolescent, which focuses on young filmmakers (two of which I interviewed here), and then there’s the film you made about the environment - today you’re an active advocate of a number of other important issues.
Ramaa> Yeah, the core of who I am has really remained the same. Coming from my background, I found it quite overwhelming when I first started directing commercials. We didn’t have enough money to buy a box of cereal, let alone really get a camera. Yet somehow the universe conspired to let me have this opportunity, so I have always been really passionate and indebted to helping future filmmakers and creators in general.
Founding Adolescent Content came from my heart because I felt like I really wanted to help, but it was also a smart business move because I recognised that brands were struggling to reach Gen Z, and I was mentoring all of this incredible Gen Z talent. It’s like a full circle, I’m glad that you see it.
LBB> What were the things that actually made you want to be a filmmaker at the age of 12? A lot of 12-year-olds are aware of filmmaking but probably don’t think of it as a career option.
Ramaa> My father was a mechanic, he worked on VWs as a specialty. But he was passionate about movies and it was really him [that got me into filmmaking]. He would show me old James Bond and John Wayne films and he would explain what was good and bad about them. At some point he had a film book about directors from that time and I just started thinking about how there were people that you can’t see behind these movies.
People ask you so often when you’re a child, ‘what do you wanna be when you grow up?’ For the longest time I’d say that I wanted to be an astronaut or a CIA agent, I had all these big lofty ideas. But then it became very clear that I wanted to make movies, I wanted to tell stories and be director - but with no way of knowing how to get there.
LBB> Over the years, you’ve directed such a huge variety of films - features, documentaries, commercials. Is there an avenue you enjoy exploring the most or feel most comfortable with?
Ramaa> I'm always looking for a pathway towards human connection. Whether it’s a commercial or documentary or film, it can ignite a feeling of love within me. Films are, in a lot of ways, like birthing a child. They can be extremely painful and can take a really long time. It’s a bigger and more sustained kind of joy that comes from it but it’s also more painful. I’ve never been one of those directors that would look down on commercials. But making my first [feature] film really helped me be so appreciative of the advertising world. Going between the two, you get to see how distinct they are. So far I’ve made independent films and independent documentaries, and those are much more challenging than a studio film.
My last film, Lost Child, we made in the Ozarks - it’s an area of the United States that’s almost like a country in itself. People have a very strong accent, it’s very wooded and people have a very strong belief system and can be very superstitious. Being there and making that film in that kind of environment was very challenging and incredibly moving. When I came back to make commercials I had access to so much equipment and crew, I think I was on some kind of crazy high! I was so gleeful.
Ultimately I’m looking for ways to create connection, whether it’s a feature, documentary or commercial, and whenever I do that it brings me a tremendous amount of joy.
LBB> You’re a great advocate on all sorts of issues, from environmental causes to women’s rights. How did you become so actively involved in those initiatives and why is it so important for you as a filmmaker to be involved in them?
Ramaa> I feel that because I was helped I really do believe in karma. My parents were seekers, they went from being in an ashram, to being in Liberal Catholic Church, to being born again Christian to going into EST, which was a big thing in the ‘80s, then they went into Scientology and so on. Although I’m not involved in any of those, it was kind of baked into me, so I guess at the core I do feel that I was helped in a tremendous way in a totally unlikely situation. About six years ago, I was mentoring younger creators and the work they were doing was remarkable. I felt that they could have a career, and an idea just started sparking in my head because I recognised that brands were struggling to reach the Gen Z audience, and so I launched Adolescent.
This is fulfilling my mission to help in that we are able to give these young creators a pathway to monetising their work. Whether it’s utilising their social media following or actually getting hired to direct a full-on commercial - a few years ago we did a campaign for Target directed by a 17- and 13-year-old and the budget was $3 million - all of it is in service of them creating their careers and finding a pathway into the industry. What I do is really act as the executive creative director and shepherd them and give them advice on how to do better conference calls and lead a better pre-production meeting. But they’re coming to us with incredible talent already, I just put my hands out and I help them step up.
LBB> How do you see the opportunities for young directors today? How has the advent of social changed things?
Ramaa> The opportunity for young creators is at a growth point heading to a real peak because the only way to reach a young audience is primarily across social. What we found with Adolescent Content is that 80% of young people polled from a section of 1,000 said that the only thing they really look at is content from their peers and, to some degree, influencers. They’re not watching advertising. Every brand and ad agency is competing for attention with these kids’ social channels. The best way to reach this audience is through their social channels. We don’t represent influencers, we represent people of influence - they all have to be creators, taking photographs or making videos. Our young people get hired by brands to make the work and then post it on their channels. It doesn’t feel like advertising because their followers and peers are watching it, and a lot of them want to be creators too so it’s super inspiring.
A good engagement rate in social right now is around 3 or 4%, but our creators have engagement closer to 10, 20 or 30%. Not to narrow in on figures and numbers but I find it really fascinating to watch because we’ll have a creator who has maybe 15,000 followers but then gets 20-30% engagement. It’s almost like hiring someone with 300,000 followers to work on a campaign. It’s really exciting to see and the opportunities for youth in this space is incredible. They have to have a strong point of view and beautiful and interesting work, and that’s what we look for when finding new talent.
It’s at this point now in our process that it’s almost like a mousetrap. We have a digital platform called Adolescent and all the content is made by young people, and we get around 300,000 monthly visitors. Every day people submit new work. We get around a dozen submissions, and then out of that dozen we’ll select maybe one to sign officially. We’ll also then bring those other 11 into our Adolescent Content creators network and invite them to create content for the digital platform. So it’s this constant growth funnel and people are able to both participate and have their work exposed, but also then be signed. And then it just repeats. That’s why I say we have about 500+ creators because everyday it’s growing and we think that by the end of the year the network of creators will be closer to 2,000 globally.
LBB> You recently spoke at SXSW on the future of gender identities in art and media - can you tell us more about what was explored in that session?
Ramaa> I’m not in the LGBTQ+ community, I’m an ally. The work that I explore in media is really around how women and girls are identified in media. But it was amazing to be able to moderate this talk with three of our creators who are in the LGBTQ+ community - 80% of our roster at Adolescent is female, people of colour or LGBTQ+.
What I was really hoping to communicate and help the panellists talk about was how this generation is the most sensitive to how the LGBTQ+ individuals are perceived in media and the lack of representation. We showed a couple of clips and one was an ad for Clearasil in which two teen girls are getting ready for prom. One of them has a pimple and inside the pimple is a gay young man dressed in pink who is clearly the thing that needs to be eliminated. That’s just one example of just how wrong that brand got it. And then there’s a Snickers ad in which two guys are working and they accidentally kiss, and they have to rip out their chest hair to kind of get away from the kiss. We showed a video that started in the ‘50s, and things haven’t gotten better since then.
In some ways, yes there’s better content but in other ways it’s totally homophobic and fear-based. So when you’re making content that’s aimed at this audience - and around 45% of Gen Z represent as LGBTQ+ - it’s totally not landing. A lot of the conversation was in talking about representation and how if you want to reach that audience you need to hire LGBTQ+ makers. And not just for Pride. Every year around March, April, May we begin to get boards in for that and there’s a weird commodification around Pride month.
One of the most powerful things that I took away from it was that to be a good ally to this community it’s really important to educate yourself. I’ve spent the last six years working with creators from the LGBTQ+ community - of course I’ve always had friends but I hadn’t really educated myself, and it feels really good to now be able to speak about the issues that they face and the things that are important to them with much more of an understanding.
LBB> What kind of things do you think brands and agencies need to do to properly represent that community ?
Ramaa> Right from the beginning you have to have LGBTQ+ people involved in a meaningful way, properly involved in the process. We all talk about the importance of inclusivity and diversity but we can’t just ask people what they think, you need people in the agency and involved so you don’t have something happen like Gucci earlier this year. So if you have people of colour or from the LGBTQ+ community in your ad agency then they’re going to tell you that’s a really dumb idea and why. Even down to vocab - people can’t just use the word queer or gay without a context and understanding.
I think the answer to your question is actually super simple and couldn’t be simpler. Just hire people from the community to do the work.
LBB> You recently joined Station Film - why is the company a good fit for you as a director?
Ramaa> Station is owned and really shepherd by amazing people who really care about creative and their directors in a very deep way. Already the work that I’ve been bidding on and doing is so rewarding. Obviously there’s no question that making commercials is a great living but at this point as I move into other areas of my life I’m really looking for work that really creatively feeds me. And when I set out in this industry I set out with a goal of things I want to do, and I really want to achieve them.
The reason the fit is right is because they’re incredible at curating work and their reps are amazing at pairing me with the perfect projects, but they’re also really supportive of work that may not be that hugely budgeted. I still do those projects but there are less and less of them. I’m also holding myself to a high standard of work in terms of what I want to do because Adolescent is an incredible business and is creating so many opportunities for our creators but also for myself, it’s a global enterprise. It sounds so snobbish to speak like that but I, as a filmmaker, have so much that I want to do and tell in terms of stories. I want to keep doing that but make sure that I’m doing it in a way that is creative and meaningful. The one thing that I feel beyond anything is that I’m able to accurately assess myself and accurately say that I haven’t reached the level that I want to reach. I started young but I feel like I still have a long way to go and I want to reach that peak. That’s the reason for being at Station. And that couldn’t have been a longer answer, but it’s the most honest.
LBB> Which piece of recent work - commercial or not - are you most proud of and why?
Ramaa> The project that most recently launched was for Secret Deodorant, it was called Cheer and starred [American soccer player] Alex Morgan. That content - there’s more that will launch soon - was so wonderful to work on because it was about exploring girls of all ages within the sport and how the community supports the young girls and their teams.
When you support Alex Morgan you support the five-year-old who’s just learning to play soccer right through to the elite players. It was beautiful to shoot. I directed and DP’d it which I often do with my work, and the client was so in service of making the most creative work possible. We shot with real kids who had never been in front of a camera but just love to play soccer and we actually put them into the narrative. One thing that I love to do is take people that have never acted before and have them actually perform and take on identity, and I got to do that with this project which was really exciting. It was something I did with my movie Lost Child, I cast people that had never acted, who were just people from the Ozarks, and they became the leads of the film.
But there will be more to talk about. I started working properly with Station at the beginning of December and ever since then it’s been really busy.
LBB> Who/what are your biggest creative influences?
Ramaa> My biggest influences come from historical photographers. Julia Margaret Cameron is a photographer who was making work in the 1800s and I’ve studied her extensively. She was taking photos of people who didn’t always get to be featured in works of art and I found her work really inspiring. I always thought that I wanted to feature people who are marginalised in my work. Whether it’s someone who is homeless or people living in socioeconomically challenged communities, I want to put them in front of the camera because when you feature people who don’t often get spoken about you give them power, you give them a voice. At the root of my work I’d say that she’s been a really important inspiration. Irving Penn also did a similar thing. Then Jane Campion is an incredibly powerful storyteller and auteur who has told stories repeatedly about people who are unseen and not spoken about. Those are some of my biggest inspirations and on a daily basis I think about and look at their work.
LBB> What keeps you busy when you’re not working? Any quirks or hobbies that we should know about?
Ramaa> Yeah, I have a really weird one! I really like to make homemade sauerkraut. I’m obsessed with it and I think the reason is that it’s a full creation from start to end. In general I love to cook, but specifically sauerkraut. I think about it, I dream about it, I love to do it. It takes about eight days to make a batch. I go to the farmers’ market, I pick out a beautiful head of cabbage, I come home, I peel off the outer layers, I slice it, I put in Himayalan sea salt, massage it for 10 minutes, then I put it into Mason jars and put a stone on top and cover it. Then everyday you have to push it down further and after eight days it’s just the most delicious thing. I use red cabbage so it’s this beautiful deep red colour and the final result is just so deeply gratifying.