“When I have an idea for something, when the idea comes to me, I know what form I want it to take. There’s no real question about it.” — Aileen Ching-lin Sheedy 2/24/20
Who is Aileen Sheedy?
Aileen Sheedy is a filmmaker and writer who lives and works in Portland, Oregon. I first met Aileen when I was volunteering on a production crew for the short film, THE LEGEND OF STELLA, written by a screenwriter friend, Maren Curtis. Aileen was directing the project. She since has joined a local writing group that I’m a part of.
While I think of Aileen as an emerging filmmaker, she considers herself a storyteller and feels comfortable working in a variety of media formats, including the latest digital trends, which is no doubt made easier by her double major in computer programming and electronic media arts and communication. In addition to making films, Aileen has written stories, novels, and poetry, and is well positioned to build on her early successes. Also, it should be noted that this interview took place before we knew that the coronavirus pandemic would completely change our lives, so we didn’t discuss it.
J: I always start these interviews by asking people where they’re from… so where are you from?
A: I’m from here, actually. I was born in California, in Pasadena, and then my parents moved here when I was about six months old because they didn’t want to raise their kids in L.A.
J: So what was it like growing up in Portland? Can I ask what year that might have been?
A: Yeah… I’m almost thirty.
J: You’re so young.
A: I still feel young, and then sometimes I feel old. It sort of depends.
J: I’m sure it does. Everybody feels that way… but you’re really young. Take it from someone who’s not. I think I might be interested in going back and being almost thirty again, if I knew what I know now. Otherwise I wouldn’t want to go through it all again.
A: Yeah, I feel like I’m ready to be in my thirties. For the past five or six years I’ve sort of already felt like I’ve been in my thirties. A lot of my friends are older, my partner’s older, and so it’s sort of like I felt a bit older mentally. But people would look at me and could tell I was in my twenties so maybe wouldn’t take me quite as seriously. That was a little frustrating. So now I’m ready to be like… “No, I’m thirty! I know stuff. I have some experience.” (laughing)
J: So what was it like growing up here? What part of town did you grow up in?
A: I grew up in Lake Oswego. My parents actually still own the house I grew up in. So, I mean, it was one house my whole life, at least that I can remember.
J: That sounds like a stable upbringing.
A: It was, but that actually made it a little harder to go to college. It was hard for me to leave. Whereas I felt some of my friends that moved around a little bit were a little more prepared for that. But yeah, I had a very hard time moving somewhere else.
J: Then you must have been happy here.
A: I was, yeah. I had a pretty good childhood.
J: So… you grew up in Lake Oswego, and you had a pretty good home life. What did your dad do?
A: My dad was a software engineer.
J: Ah… a programmer.
A: Programmer, nerd guy. (laughs) And he actually was kind of around more than my mom was. My mom’s a doctor, so she worked a lot. She still works a lot. She’s almost 65, and I don’t think she’s close to retiring yet. Anyway, she was gone a lot, so my dad cooked and kept the house clean, gardened, drove us around.
J: So he’s a gardener?
A: Yes, but not so much as he used to be. He goes through phases with his hobbies. He was really into gardening for a few years. He was really into fishing for a few years. He’s still into aikido. He got us into that as kids because he was interested in doing it. So it was sort of like… you guys go do this thing and I can like tag along, you know. (Laughs)
J: So you did aikido?
A: Yeah. I did not like it, but I did it. I started when I was five, and I finally quit by the time I was twelve.
J: Since we’re talking about Asian things, you told me your Chinese middle name before, but unfortunately I don’t remember it.
A: It’s Ching-lin. It means pure lotus.
J: Did your mom teach you much about Chinese culture?
A: She tried to teach me Cantonese for awhile. I went to Chinese school every Saturday when I was around five or six.
J: While doing aikido…
A: (Laughs) Yeah, just this whole multi-cultural Asian background. But my parents took me out of the class because I was getting bullied by the other Chinese kids because I was the most white-looking one, which is a little ironic. So I don’t remember most of that. I can recognize certain words, but I can’t really speak it.
J: You mentioned having a hard time leaving home for college. Where did you go?
A: I went to RPI… Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute… in New York. It’s in Albany… well, it’s in Troy, so it’s across the river from Albany.
J: How did you end up going there?
A: They gave me a scholarship.
J: Oh, that’s a great reason to go there. For what?
A: Well, it was actually… my high school awarded me the scholarship. The high school was allowed to pick one person who excelled in math and science.
J: You were a STEM kid.
A: I was. (laughing) And so my high school picked me for this award, and I’d never heard of the school prior to this. But they said “we’re going to give you this award, and if you choose to go to this college, you can get all this money,” and so I was like, “oh, I probably should consider that.” So I looked into it, and I ended up going there.
J: What did you study?
A: Computer science and electronic media arts and communications.
J: So that’s the link to film.
A: I started out just doing computer science, and about halfway through I wasn’t sure that was what I wanted to do as a career, so I thought maybe I should tack something else on there just in case I didn’t like it. So I ended up taking a bunch of video classes and getting a dual major.
J: So how did you get into the visual arts side when you were basically on track to be a programmer?
A: Well, it was sort of a winding road.
J: Those are the most fun
A: Yeah. (laughing) I had done photography in high school and really enjoyed it, and I also had a lot of other creative interests, like music, so I wanted to stay in touch with that. When I first got to college I considered a minor in music initially because I played piano and I was learning guitar and I sang a little bit, and so I thought maybe I’d minor in music and be in a band. That’s what every seventeen-year-old wants to do right? (laughing). Anyway, I started by taking a combined audio and video class… but I ended up not liking the audio side of it and really enjoying the video side, which I had not really considered. So I thought, okay, maybe instead of doing music I’ll do video.
J: Was it at that point that you started to think about filmmaking or where did that happen?
A: Well, after I took my second video class, I realized that this is actually something that I like doing… and I seem to be pretty good at it (laughs). It was probably my sophomore year in college when I got started with it.
J: So that’s when you got started. What do you consider your first film?
A: Oh no… that’s a hard question because, I don’t know… do student projects count?
J: I consider poetry I wrote as a student to be poetry.
A: Okay… so when I was in school I did a project… it was the final project for one of my classes. I don’t remember what the assignment was, but I ended up making a video that was very word based. I wrote a five-page long… not a monologue… it’s a story. A sort of fairytale in five parts about this girl… me… and like five different people she’s been in love with.
J: They keep remaking that on Netflix.
A: Yeah. (laughs) It’s not an original concept.
J: Well, but it was for you.
A: It was, and I’m still proud of it. There are a lot of things I don’t love about it anymore, but probably I would say that was my first film.
J: What was it that hooked you and made you want to do more?
A: I liked the sense of accomplishment. And I liked feeling it was something I was good at. Because that’s always been a thing that has motivated me unfortunately… people telling me I’m good at something. I submitted it to a competition that we had at the school… it was a literary competition that had a category for multimedia and visual stuff, and I won.
A: And I got a $300 prize that I spent on groceries. (laughs)
J: So what did you do next?
A: I studied the video stuff in school, and then when I graduated I went into engineering very briefly. (laughs)
J: Back in New York?
A: No, here. I moved back home, partially because my boyfriend at the time, my college boyfriend, he was a year older than me and he had moved here because he knew I wanted to move home. So he got a job and moved here, and I was like, okay I’m going to move back home and get a job and be an adult, I guess. So I ended up getting a job as a software QA engineer for a company called Harmonic, which was a company that made video servers for cable companies and video-on-demand type companies. And my job was to read all of the automated test logs every day and pick out the errors, and then copy and paste those errors and email them to the engineers who would fix them. And then the next night they would send us a new build and we’d run all the automated tests on it, and the next morning I would look at the test logs and see what was wrong. (laughs)
J: Sounds like a lot of fun.
A: Not really, but I got paid really well to do it so I don’t want to complain about it, but I wasn’t happy. It wasn’t fulfilling, and it wasn’t a situation where I liked the people I was working with. I mean I didn’t dislike them, but I didn’t connect with them. Most of them were men in their fifties or sixties, like my dad’s age. (laughs) And some of them actually knew my dad, because he had worked for a competing company. And so it was a very weird situation when people would say, “you’re Sean’s daughter” and I was like “Yep.” So yeah, I just didn’t feel a sense of being connected to the company or the people. And I didn’t have a sense of what I was doing for the products… I couldn’t see how what I was doing was affecting anything that was really happening. And so it was frustrating for me. But I did it for a year. Saved up some money. Bought my first car. (laughs) Saved up enough to buy some film equipment and then quit. (still laughing) Then, I didn’t really have a plan about what I was going to do after I quit… I was just like, I know I can’t work here anymore.
J: Okay, so you quit that job and bought some equipment. What’d you do with it?
A: Well I had a friend from high school, Amanda, who had studied theater, and she was really good at all of the things that I was not great at. Like she could do production design and makeup… things I had less experience with, and I could do the technical stuff… the camera, the editing and sound. So we had done a 48-Hour Film Project the summer right before I quit my job…
J: What year was that? I might have done that, too.
A: Well, we did one right after I came back from college, so that was 2012. It wasn’t great. We were on a team with a bunch of people who didn’t know what they were doing. (laughs) But we came away from the experience thinking, okay, we work really well together… the two of us, and we have these complementary skill sets, and we could probably do this better than the team we just worked with. So the next year… 2013 was the year I quit my job… we were like, okay, this year we’re going to start our own team and try again. So we did that and ended up meeting some actors and other film crew from around town.
J: You did that in 2012 and 2013… did more film work follow that?
A: Amanda and I worked together on those projects, and when I quit my job, she was quitting a job at the same time, and we thought we had partnered really well. As I mentioned, our skill sets matched, and between the two of us, even though we didn’t know how to run a business, we thought we could figure that out. Then an actor friend suggested the idea of creating custom acting reels for people, because at the time there was sort of this thing that was happening in L.A. People were creating custom reels where you would write these short, 30-second scenes, get all the props and stuff, film the actors doing these fake scenes, and then they could use that footage for their reels. And our friend knew a lot of actors and sent them our way. So that was the sort of thing we started out doing money-making wise.
J: Did you make any money?
A: Not really because we didn’t charge people enough. We were only charging like a couple hundred bucks, and it was taking a lot of time and energy. So we stopped doing that pretty quickly. (laughs) It was fun though. It was like an exercise… a writing exercise and a film exercise.
J: Were you also doing creative work for yourself?
A: The biggest personal project I worked on after 48-Hour was a web series based on The Secret Garden. It’s about two and a half hours. There are forty episodes, which are mostly about three to five minutes. So altogether, it’s about the length of a feature.
J: Did you have collaborators?
A: I had a lot of collaborators. Amanda and I, who weren’t in business together anymore at that point but were still working together, were the two people who were leading everything. And then we had a team of writers and creators that we had recruited, which we needed because in addition to the episodes, there was other multimedia content that we released between episodes. Some of it was like emails between the characters or social media posts of the characters… voice memos, playlists. So there was all this supplementary stuff that you don’t really need for the story, but it develops the world and the characters more fully. And this was a trend that was happening at the time.
J: That sounds cool… and you’ve also been working in the filmmaking industry in other ways, right?
A: Over the next couple years I started working as an Assistant Director. I’d done some PA (production assistant) things, but my first AD experience came when a friend who was the director on a project asked me to be the AD. I told him I didn’t have any experience, but he didn’t mind because he trusted me to figure it out. And on that project, the producer was Molly Preston, who produced STELLA (Maren Curtis’s short), so that was super lucky that I met her. She liked my work, and subsequent to that, she consistently hired me over the course of that year on other projects.
J: So that’s how you broke into the industry.
A: Yeah, that was the year I really started being involved in other people’s projects and started feeling like other people would really hire me. (laughing) Like, people knew who I was and felt comfortable working with me, whereas before I was just someone offering to work very cheap.
J: So obviously you did a good job, because you kept getting work.
A: I did. I was working a lot. I did not have a good work/life balance at that point because I was taking every project that would pay me. Or if they didn’t pay much, they offered a chance to work with people I wanted to learn from. I was trying to build up my resume, and sometimes I’d end up double booking myself and not giving myself time for breaks. Eventually that caught up with me, and I realized I needed to start being more selective about what I worked on. So I got a part-time day job working as a receptionist at a salon. That gives me what I need to live, and enables me to focus more on my own work.
J: At that point had you been writing very much?
A: I had, but I hadn’t done a lot of screenwriting at that point. I’d been doing, like, novels and poetry and short stories and stuff.
J: Okay, so we’ve missed all of your writing background in this interview so far. Where did the writing come from?
A: I don’t know. I’ve always written things since I was a kid. Even before I could write I would tell stories to my mom and she would write them down and draw pictures. One time I asked my dad to draw the pictures and they were terrible so I never asked him to do that again. (laughs) But my mom could actually draw really well. She was really good at drawing princesses… really good at drawing pretty ladies with long hair, so I had a lot of stories about princesses. And animals. I had a lot of stories about squirrels (laughs).
J: Did she study art?
A: I don’t think so. She has always wanted to be a doctor… since she was a teenager at least. I don’t think she ever considered anything else.
J: Did she grow up in L.A.?
A: No, she’s from Hong Kong. She moved here when she was nineteen. And she had to fight really hard to become a doctor. She was the sixth of nine girls.
J: It sounds like your mother was a single minded person.
A: Yes, very. (laughs) Which can be hard when they expect the same from you. I mean, I feel that I am that way, but just not about the things she wants me to be that way about. I was like that about school, which was acceptable, but now I’m like that about film and not about engineering, and that’s less acceptable. (laughs)
J: Well I’m with you on the film over engineering. But back to the writing… it started with children’s stories that your mom illustrated. Maybe you two could still collaborate on that.
A: (Laughs) Maybe when she retires. But yeah, I was always just writing stories.
J: You’re a storyteller.
A: I think that’s primarily what I feel like… more that than a writer or filmmaker or anything really… I feel like a storyteller. And whatever form the story takes, I want to tell it in the way that it needs to be told. I don’t want to be limited to any particular medium.
J: So at this point, it sounds like you’re focusing on storytelling… maybe leaning in a film direction, but ultimately storytelling in whatever way feels right at the time.
A: Yeah… and working with whatever idea strikes me. Because usually when I have an idea for something, when the idea comes to me, I know what form I want it to take. There’s no real question about it. Like the features… I know I want them to be features. I’m working on a podcast, and I knew from the outset that it needed to be an audio drama because it would never work as a TV series. Ideas that I’ve had for novels, I wouldn’t want them to be movies.
J: All this, and you’re just getting ready to turn thirty.
A: I am.
J: Where are you going to be when you’re forty?
A: Oh, man… I don’t know. (laughs) I’ve been thinking about that a lot actually.
J: Where would you want to be?
J: There you go.
A: I think that’s the main thing. I don’t think I could make career goals, because I don’t know if I’m still going to be doing film stuff in ten years. I don’t know what I’m going to be doing in ten years. I just hope that whatever it is that I’m enjoying it and feel like I’m being creatively fulfilled.