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Meet Rachel Annette Helson: Director, filmmaker, and actress

Rachel Annette Helson, director, filmmaker, and actress, chatted about two of her latest films.

Rachel Annette Helson
Rachel Annette Helson. Photo Credit: Justin Schuman
Rachel Annette Helson. Photo Credit: Justin Schuman

Rachel Annette Helson, director, filmmaker, and actress, chatted about two of her latest films.

How was your experience in “The Engagement Dress”?

I had a blast directing “The Engagement Dress.” I usually do dramas and films that are heavier in tone – so to be able to direct a romantic comedy was such a joy.

Even though on the surface this is a romantic film, what really drew me to the project were the female friendships that serve as the backbone of the story. The core four ladies would do anything for each other, and I wanted to celebrate their love as strongly as I did the romantic leads.

As a female filmmaker, it’s important to me to showcase women as multi-faceted individuals who can lift each other up, and the women in this story are ride or die.

There was a lot of laughter on set, and I think you will feel that chemistry as you watch the final film. I can’t wait to share it with an audience on Tubi.

What was it like working with Mike Manning, Angel Prater, and the cast?

Mike Manning was born to play a leading man. A terrific actor and a charismatic on-screen presence, he goes above and beyond to make sure that he gives his best performance and that every moment feels genuine. 

And, Angel? Well, I think she’s a star. It will shock me if you don’t see her as the lead of a series in the next few years. Warm, fun, smart, hardworking… this was the first time she had been #1 on the call sheet, and she handled it like a pro. 

The cast of this film became really close throughout the course of filming, and there was an extra special bond that formed off-screen that really made their performances shine. I adore every single one of them. 

What was your favorite part of the filming experience?

I was an actor for a long time – so I’m a very character driven director – and what I love most about directing is similar to what I loved most about acting: reading a character on the page and bringing them to life.

I spend a lot of time figuring out who the people are: what their opinions are, how they move, what they wear, what makes them unique, etc.

With this film specifically, group dynamics were really important, and establishing who someone was as an individual and a member of the group was essential. The four female friends needed to be distinct, different people so they each brought something unique to their friend group and to the film.

If one of them was generic in any way, they would have been redundant and non-essential. When you watch the film, I think you will find that each character has a strong, specific personality.

How does it feel to be a director in the digital age? 

I’ve only ever been a director in the digital age – so I don’t have a lot to compare it to – but I know that as a viewer, I really miss going to the theater to see a movie.

I know from seeing movies on big screens at film festivals versus seeing them on the small screen at home that there is a huge difference in the viewing experience –  and in how your film lands with an audience.

I’d love to see a renaissance of moviegoing as a shared experience rather than something that plays in the background while you fold laundry. 

What do your plans for the future include?

Most immediately “Good Daughter,” the short that I directed this Spring, is on the festival circuit where it’s been an Official Selection of Hollyshorts, Catalina Film Festival and Centre Film Festival.

The film stars Samantha Sloyan (Fall of the House of Usher, Midnight Mass) as a small-time con artist who rips off elderly dementia patients by pretending to be their daughter – until the con catches up with her. She’s amazing in it (- as she is in everything). 

As we started screening the film for audiences, there was a lot of excitement around it, and it became clear that there is more story to be told – so the decision was made to expand the short into a feature. This project has always been a “hell yes” for me – so I’m thrilled to continue working on it. 

Additionally, I’m developing a heist comedy set in the bourbon industry, and I’m attached to direct a really sweet holiday film. 

What is your advice for young and aspiring filmmakers and directors?

Your cast and crew will look to you for answers. Make sure you’ve done your homework. Come to set with a detailed plan, make sure everyone knows what the plan is, but leave room to be flexible.

Educate yourself about as many departments as you can: learn to edit, take a class on sound, talk to DPs about lenses and cameras…learn to speak the language of each department so that you can communicate with them better.

Remember that you are not the specialist, they are – so don’t try to do their job for them. Give space for their creativity and ideas, but never forget that your job is to be the keeper of the story.

Be decisive – but if someone suggests a great idea that serves the story, it doesn’t matter who comes up with it. The best idea in the room should win.

Learn everyone’s name. It amazes me that some directors don’t do this. Every PA, every day player, every grip… Everyone together makes a set run. You can’t do your job without them so the very least you can do is learn their names (and say thank you) 

Practice patience and treat everyone with kindness. Being a director means navigating a lot of different types of personalities. It’s a challenging job, but it’s truly the best job in the world. 

What does the word success mean to you?

To make any kind of living as a director is a privilege – and to a certain extent, that is a success – but I’d be lying if I said that I didn’t have ambitions beyond that. As I get farther into my career, the benchmark keeps moving.

First it was: direct work and get paid. Then, direct artistically fulfilling work. Now, it’s more: direct artistically fulfilling work and get paid and make a career out of doing it over and over again. 

I live in New York City, and one day, I’d love to be able to finally buy an apartment solely by working as a film and television director. But, there’s an inherent amount of “success” built into that – because if you can afford to buy an apartment, it means you are consistently getting paid to direct projects of a certain caliber. Ultimately, that’s where I’d like to be.

What would you like to tell our readers about “The Engagement Dress”?

This film is sweet and fun and funny, and I hope it brings audiences joy. If it brings a smile to your face, we’ve done our job.

To learn more about Rachel Annette Helsen, follow her on Instagram.

Markos Papadatos
Written By

Markos Papadatos is Digital Journal's Editor-at-Large for Music News. Papadatos is a Greek-American journalist and educator that has authored over 21,000 original articles over the past 18 years. He has interviewed some of the biggest names in music, entertainment, lifestyle, magic, and sports. He is a 16-time "Best of Long Island" winner, where for three consecutive years (2020, 2021, and 2022), he was honored as the "Best Long Island Personality" in Arts & Entertainment, an honor that has gone to Billy Joel six times.

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