Behind the lens: Q&A with award-winning filmmaker and creative director Liz Hinlein

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MTF spoke to The 20/20 Series founder and New York City-based Liz Hinlein about her work as a creative multidisciplinary, her recent role at the New York Film Academy and what influenced her journey into the creative film and TV industry.

Where did you grow up?


I grew up in Philadelphia which was like growing up in a really interesting small town. The best part of growing up in Philadelphia was going to Quaker Friends schools. Philadelphia was founded by Quakers and I ended up going to Friends schools, as they are called, from K-12th grade. The school ethos was built upon community and cooperation. Their slogan was friends don’t fight. So, I learned from an early age how to talk things out and see things from other people’s points of view. It was a great egalitarian way to grow up.

What films/and TV shows have had the biggest impact on your career?

Victoria University


The most important film that made me want to be a filmmaker was “The Conformist” directed by Bernardo Bertolucci and shot by Vittorio Storaro. I saw that in my sophomore year of college, and I was blown away by the artistry, lighting, and psychological depth of storytelling. It was not just an interesting plot but a deep foray into a man’s soul. I didn’t know film could do that – and I was hooked.

At what age or point in your life did you start taking your interest in working in the creative film and TV industry seriously?


After being blown away from the Bertolucci film, I applied and got into NYU Tisch School of the Arts. Going to a film school changed everything for me. Before that, I had no idea that film was an industry or a possible career path and everything opened up for me from there.

For a lot of film and TV creatives, the first jobs they take in the industry aren’t always their first choice, but are nonetheless essential for breaking into the industry. What was your very first film/TV industry job, and how did it shape your trajectory?


I was a PA on a huge Martin Scorsese feature film in New York City and my job was to close up streets, very, very far from where principal photography was taking place. Basically, hanging out on a street corner by myself for hours at a time asking people to cross the street. It was at that point I decided that going up the traditional apprenticeship route to become a director was not for me – I wanted to take the fast track. Which for better or worse is what I did.

You’ve worn many hats throughout your career – executive producer, creative director, and even professor, among others. You’ve also done work for artists such as Mary J Blige, Britney Spears, and Quincy Jones. For most who read those names, it’s easy for them to say, ‘you’ve made it’. Is it at this level (of working with globally popular figures) where you as a creative professional could start picking and choosing your projects, or is it still a matter of grabbing whatever opportunity is available and running with it?


Well, it’s two-fold. As a creative, I am always interested in learning and bettering my craft. This is why taking on projects that are offered to me is always fun to embark on because you will always learn something new and become better at your craft. As a storyteller, there are stories I feel strongly that should be told, then it is more about creating the project and birthing it into the world which is more like being an entrepreneur

Who is the most interesting person you have ever worked with, and what is about them that made it so interesting?


James Gager, the seminal Creative Director of MAC Cosmetics. I did approximately 6 branding films for MAC and that is how I became a commercial director. James has incredibly refined taste, references, and vision, and pushed me to be a more discerning visualist and storyteller.

One of your newest roles is as Creative Director of Filmmaking & Cinematography at the New York Film Academy. What’s your vision for the work you’ll do in this role?


The New York Film Academy is an amazing institution populated with incredible teachers and inspired students. My vision is for NYFA to be a creative hub and think tank for students and the surrounding east coast film scene.

What inspired you to create the 20/20 webinar series for the MTF Academy?


COVID-19! I missed talking shop with my fellow contemporaries, students and teachers. I wanted the 20/20 series to feel like you’re listening in on a conversation about process and craft over coffee. For me, I love learning and with The 20/20 Series, I get to learn from the best.

Combating gender inequality within this industry is an additional important part of the work that you’ll be doing at the NYFA. How does this also translate to The 20/20 series, in partnership with the MultiChoice Talent Factory?


Gender, race, and any inequality is no good for creating powerful work. Young people can learn from and get inspired by The 20/20 Series guests for example, and realize they can have a seat at the table as well, or create their own table!

The MTF initiative is just one aspect of ensuring that the African continent secures a seat at the table in terms of the global film and TV industry. We have the stories, the technical skills, and the audience. How else can we refine what we have to take our content’s stories to the next level?


Keep going! It is about telling stories with authenticity and heart. That is what audiences are attracted to and how you build your community.

As a creative, where do you go (resource or people-wise) to find out the latest trends or movements in the industry?


I see what my friends are making! And I read the trades.

What do you do in your downtime?


Yoga, running, and my cooking has gotten much better during the pandemic!

What are you currently reading?


A novel about the photographer Diane Arbus.

What’s your guilty pleasure?


Late-night dark chocolate.

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