David Droga and Leo Premutico make being an ex-pat look easy. Both Aussies launched ad agencies in New York that found fame and brought them fortunes. (Ironically, Droga also founded an agency at home in Sydney subsequently, that didn’t.)
A creative friend of mine, Bec Morris, has also found very green grass in the US. Not in advertising, although she featured in a number of ads when she lived in Sydney. She’s a dancer and choreographer. Bec saw that the arts industry in the US was a very big pond and the US saw that she had exactly what it wanted. That, combined with an absolutely ideal work ethic, won her performance work with Nicki Minaj, YG, Big Sean, Tyga, Justin Bieber, Little Mix, Jessie J, Redfoo, The Veronicas, LunchMoney Lewis, Charli XCX, Kelly Clarkson and Flo Rida, and choreographic work on more music videos than she would have landed in Australia in her lifetime. Because I dance (a lot), I know a lot of dancers and choreographers who make the move into the same big pond and find that they’re only small fish in it. It made me wonder about being a creative expat in advertising and production. About what it takes. What it’s like. And what great work Aussies are doing overseas.
So I asked Photoplay director, Lucinda Schreiber; Sweetshop director, Liz Murphy; film editor, Matt Osborne; Mr + Positive founder, Peter Grasse; and photographer/director, Michele Aboud.
“Sweetshop director, Liz Murphy, is this story’s classic intrepid adventurer. She took off to conquer London. “I was ready to have an adventure and see where life might lead – work and otherwise. I managed to get an Irish passport through an obscure relative (the main criteria seemed to be red hair and surname, Murphy) and off I went.”
Bec Morris took on Los Angeles because, “LA has the opportunities. It’s Hollywood! So the auditions and job opportunities that come up are incredible. I auditioned for Nicki Minaj last year with over 600 other women. It was a tough day of dancing but it was about rising to be the performer they wanted – and being the right person at the right time. I then consistently worked for Nicki Minaj last year for shows like Saturday Night Live, The Ellen Degeneres Show, MTV VMA’s, BET Awards and many other events. Morris also won a dancer’s teaching gig beyond all others – at The Playground LA and got to choreograph for star director, Santiago Salviche.
Director & photographer, Michele Aboud, left Australia in 2015 “to see what I was made of”. Her idea to return to New York where she had lived in the ‘90s was triggered by a friend and agent while she was on holidays there. “I had no intention of living there again full time. The late ‘90s was such a great time for me and there was no need to repeat the experience. But the potential that New York offers can be quite seductive. I wanted to change things up with my POV and creativity. NYC is best for that.”
Peter Grasse left when the opportunity to launch a production company in Japan beckoned. He subsequently launched his own production company, Mr + Positive, in Japan. His relationship with Japan isn’t entirely full of love. “We love Australia. My kids were raised there, and we still believe in, and live by Australian ideals – mateship, civic duty, giving everyone a fair go. We honestly didn’t want to leave the Lucky Country. I’d just had some bad luck. I wasn’t getting a fair shake at the company I’d worked hard to build there, and so we were forced to pursue happiness elsewhere. I’d still love to come back.”
Matt Osborne moved to Shanghai and works all around the world. “I grew up in a very small town in Tasmania and from a young age had an adventurous spirit that wanted to explore the bigger world out there. I also probably always had ambitions that were bigger than the place I lived in allowed. I think this desire to explore new places and do bigger things is what led to my move overseas. I also wasn’t getting the kind of work I wanted to be doing in Australia, and after doing a couple of projects in China I saw an opportunity there to move into doing bigger budget and larger scale work.”
Lucinda Schreiber had travelled to New York “quite a lot” before she moved there, “pretty much every year for the last few years and my stays had been getting longer and longer. Eventually, I just thought I should move because I really liked it here.” She did an illustration residency in New York for a summer to test it out first.
Australian creatives may have a killer reputation at the advertising awards, but Murphy still had to work hard to establish herself in London. “It was all about friends, friends of friends, and friends of friends of friends standing next to other random people at the pub at the right time. I knew a handful of people in London before I left – but it was definitely the friends of friends that got my foot in the door at a few places. Gradually, I started to build my network and meet the people that I clicked with to make the work happen.”
Osborne also relied on friends at first and one key contact, a production company that gave him a lot of work. The production company also proved to be a useful source of information about finding somewhere to live and figuring out the day to day things, “especially in a country where I didn’t speak the language”. It was then just about meeting people in the industry and making contacts to start working with a wider pool of people, he added.
Grasse wasn’t entirely a stranger. “I’d studied anthropology at the University of Chicago and chose to do my field work with the Ainu in Northern Japan in my early twenties. So, Japan wasn’t entirely new territory. I’d also had a good reputation in Australia & NZ and that seemed to precede me.” He also has a Japanese wife.
Schreiber’s family have always been “nomadic”, so it wasn’t difficult for her to adjust. “I don’t necessarily feel tied down to any particular place. I love living here now but I could imagine moving somewhere else or back to Australia. I also won two jobs out of New York just before I moved here, one for Coca-Cola and one to animate Sax Fifth Avenue’s Christmas windows, so that seemed like a sign that I should relocate. It also meant that I had some professional contacts already as well as some companies interested in repping me.”
Bec Morris and Michele Aboud had agents who helped to break the ice. But filling their suitcases with perseverance was extremely useful. “Having an agent means you can tap into an existing market, and you do your best to connect with other creatives,” Aboud noted. “It takes time to build a new client base. Resilience comes in handy. What do they say, ‘90% perseverance…’? I think I’m an expert at this.”
Morris faced the gruelling task of starting from the bottom again, “trying to build up my profile as a dancer and a person in this industry so that I didn’t just blend in with everyone that was already here. Going from Australia (where I’d built myself up over YEARS of training and working) to Los Angeles where dancers around the world come to work, is pretty daunting BUT nothing that couldn’t be done,” she stated. Aboud also found her fame wasn’t spotlit in a city brimming with creativity. “[Being an ex-pat] is a balancing act, sometimes a playoff, you learn to appreciate the positives because there can be weird moments. The one thing I learned was to engage with humanity, on the streets, talking to everyone, hearing what they had to say, that has stayed with me. Which brought me to my own evolution, I love telling a story through directing.” It was during this stay in New York that Aboud made the transition from photography to directing.
Osborne’s biggest challenge was building long-lasting relationships. “Shanghai can be a very transient city for expats,” he stated. “There are always people coming and going.” The transience of China’s ex-pats also delivered opportunities though. “Most of the work I’ve done in China has been with foreign directors flying in. It’s allowed me to work with a wide range of people from lots of different countries and backgrounds. This keeps things fresh and has also led to me doing international projects in Germany, London, France, and now being represented by Spot Welders in the US.”
For Murphy, “being an ‘outsider’ is both a blessing and a curse. Sometimes it’s hard to fully appreciate certain cultural nuances or social cues when you haven’t grown up with them – British politeness, wearing a bikini in a city park on a hot day, or intrinsically knowing who the poshest person in the room is.
“At the same time, it means I find these cultural differences totally fascinating, and I love being able to capture moments with a pair of fresh eyes. Being able to use different perspectives to push the way an audience understands a particular cultural insight is a fun area to play with. It also works the other way when working on projects closer to home. After being in London for 10 years, I now have a kind of Euro/British tint to my approach to work from AUNZ.”
Schreiber still faces that challenge too – “not being so familiar with how things work and how jobs are run. Even though America is similar there are differences and I still feel like a foreigner. I’m outside looking and maybe I’ll always feel like that” – but like Murphy, she acknowledges that having a different perspective and fresh eyes can work in her favour. Her greatest challenge though has been building professional contacts and establishing herself. “Even though I had done that before I moved here to some extent it’s still not like when you’ve lived somewhere for a long time and have a natural gathering of contacts.” She also found that when jobs came up, she didn’t necessarily have a team to draw from.
One of Grasse’s most enduring – and endearing – characteristics is his unwavering optimism (in case the name of his company didn’t suggest that to you). “I’m American by birth and had been an expat in Australia. Life is challenging in most every regard and there’s a new opportunity around every corner.”
Most expats miss family and friends first and foremost. “All my friends are there,” Grasse explained. “In fact, the best times I’ve had in Japan are when I’m producing Aussie & Kiwi jobs with my production companies, Mr+Positive Tokyo and Cutting Edge Japan.”
Aboud missed Australia a lot this second time. She came home to establish herself as a director. “Sitting in a cafe in Mott St, Soho, chatting with a fellow Aussie, it became apparent that my interest in directing was starting to take legs. Then the frustration followed. I have amazing connections in Australia to support pulling a production together. In New York, one of the first questions asked is “what’s your budget?” I didn’t have what I needed there. I phoned a friend in Berlin and explained my thoughts. His advice was, “Go home. Do it there. You have support.” Since coming home I’ve directed a short film, A Close Shave, a campaign for Saatchi & Saatchi Health and am in post-production for a documentary about a female boxer. A Close Shave has been well received by film festivals throughout the world including Berlin Short FF, Dumbo FF, ARFFAmsterdam//International Awards and ARFF Berlin//International Awards (and a couple more I can’t mention yet).
Osborne misses “the beach, clean air, and going to the footy every week.” What could be more Aussie than that?
Every one of these creatives was drawn to other cities by the lure of doing great work there. Explore what they’ve done here:
Cover image: Michele Aboud