Helena Bowen grew up just south of the Wyoming border in the small town of Wellington, Colorado. After studying film production at Boston University, she moved to Los Angeles to work in the entertainment industry. As Content Producer for TEDxMileHigh, she utilizes the skills she’s accrued in Hollywood in a different capacity.
Currently an Executive Assistant at HBO, Helena is by far our busiest volunteer. She is responsible for combing through the thousands of speaker applications we receive each year and digging out the stories that will inspire our community. Here we talk about the parallels between TEDx events and film sets, the power of language, and working with sled dogs.
You studied film production at Boston University. Is that what brought you to Los Angeles?
Yeah, I majored in Film Production and Hispanic Language & Literature, though I always knew that Spanish was more for my own enjoyment during college. I was semi-disheartened to discover that if you want to be in film production—at least at the time that I was in college—you pretty much had two options: LA or New York. People told me that it would be much harder to break into the film industry in New York because it’s a smaller community, so I was like, “Okay, I’ll try this whole LA thing.”
What brought you to film production to begin with?
I always loved well-told stories. When I was a kid, I wanted to be a writer or a journalist of some sort. I used to write tons of short stories, both fiction and nonfiction. In middle school, we were assigned to shoot a scene from a book that we were reading about Alaska. This was in Fort Collins, and it just so happened that my dad’s colleague had sled dogs. With her help, we shot a little film of me on a sled being pulled by the dogs, and it was so much fun that I kept making films throughout middle school and high school. I realized, “Oh, maybe instead of storytelling in the written word, I’m more interested in this as a visual medium.”
One thing I find interesting about film production is that the more you learn about the way films are made, you begin to see that it’s not just the work of a director. It’s a whole orchestra of people working together behind-the-scenes to make this very difficult thing happen.
Yeah, it’s actually insane and amazing in that way. That’s one of the best things about film production. Any single film or TV show creates hundreds of jobs for people doing wildly different things. It creates a wonderful intersection between blue collar and white collar jobs—you have the creative, artist types, the business types, and people doing hardcore physical or technical labor all working side by side with the exact same goal. I can’t think of another job quite like it.
You grew up here in Colorado, but you live in Los Angeles. What led you back to TEDxMileHigh?
I was working on set as an assistant director, and as much as I really loved it, I was starting to miss my adventures in Boston. About 30% of the population in Boston is college students and people working in academia. No matter where you are, whether you’re in class or out of class, in a bar or in a restaurant, there is this all-pervasive nerdiness around you. Distinct from Boston, LA revolves around the entertainment industry, so one way that I was satisfying this need for academia was by watching TED talks. I excitedly went to a TEDx event in Los Angeles and came away thinking, “I’d love to develop and grow a TEDx event.” I went home, looked up the next opportunity to be trained by TED, and signed up with the intent of creating my own event in LA. At the training session in Vancouver, a friend introduced me to Jeremy Duhon, founder of TEDxMileHigh, and we instantly bonded over our shared Colorado-ness! He asked me to come shoot a behind-the-scenes video for [email protected] and it just snowballed from there. I absolutely love being able to stay so engaged with my home state. I have a better idea of what’s going on in Colorado than most of my friends who still live there, and it’s a great way to give back.
So what are some similarities in terms of setting up a film or TV shoot, and putting together a TEDx program?
The overarching similarity, which you pointed to earlier, is that creating large events, like we do at TEDxMileHigh, and creating a film or a TV show are both such insanely collaborative endeavours. The biggest skillset that transfers between the two is just working with creative people, technical people, and logistical people all at the same time. In terms of the speaker side of things, it just comes down to just being able to recognize a good idea when you hear it. That’s one of the most difficult things because we are pitched literally thousands of ideas every year!
Do you have a standout experience of shepherding someone through the process of building their talk and watching them crush it on stage?
One that I am really excited about is Betsy Cairo from TEDxMileHighWomen 2016. Her talk is the perfect example of the power of a well-constructed narrative. Her big idea is that the word “feminism” is outdated. But if you just said that straight up, you’d anger a lot of people! When she was first accepted, she was really nervous about speaking to a largely female audience and potentially alienating or angering the crowd. We were like, “No this is actually the perfect audience for your idea!”
The secret is that her talk is not about feminism – it is really about language: the way that we use words and the ways that those words impact movements. Once we zeroed in on that element of language, it made her message so much more accessible and people loved it. The least agreeable comments said things like, “I don’t agree with you necessarily, but you make a really good argument.” I love hearing comments like that! With increasing polarization in the news, it is so easy to instantly conclude “you’re right” or “you’re wrong” about everything. But TEDx gives us the opportunity to really engage people. You may not persuade them, and that’s totally fine, but just to get someone to think deeply on a topic is powerful stuff these days.
So that was definitely an amazing experience. She was worried about people hating it and being booed off the stage, but she got a standing ovation from the audience. At the after party, I got to be all smug about it and say, “I told you so.”
One of my favorite things about our team is that everyone who dedicates their time and energy to producing these amazing events also has their own pretty fascinating things going on. Where do you see yourself in the next five years?
On the TEDxMileHigh side of things, we are really hoping to expand our presence massively. We’re having tremendous impact here in Colorado, and we’re committed to expanding that significantly over time to reach across the globe. What’s crazy about all of this is that we have a really small team. We are such a tiny, tiny team and we get so much stuff done. I think of our team as being really amazingly resourceful and scrappy in the way that we are able to produce these giant events with so few people. That’s why I’m so happy to volunteer with TEDxMileHigh.
On the personal side of things, I currently work at HBO, which is an amazing experience and I absolutely love working there. Eventually, however, I will move out on my own. I would definitely love to get back into film as a producer or a director, just to get my hands dirty. I miss being in the trenches of film production. I spent the last year-and-a-half at HBO kind of watching everything from a distance. My goal is to focus on my own creative pursuits.
Watercolor portrait by Filmon Merid