Woman Behind The Lens: Documentary Filmmaker Sarah Menzies

Rate this story:

When Sarah Menzies first started making outdoor–related films, it had never even occurred to her that there was an outdoor industry.

She’d grown up exploring the outdoors and moved to the Pacific Northwest for easy access to mountains and water, but she’d never given a thought to the massive industry that stood behind all the products she used for her everyday recreation. So, it’s probably safe to say she didn’t get into it for the money.

In fact, she got into it because of her love for the environment. While documenting the results of the 2010 Gulf of Mexico oil spill for a nonprofit, she began to realize the power of film in affecting people. “I really began to understand what visual storytelling can do,” she says. “Within a month or two, I quit my job.” She dusted off what she’d learned in college studying broadcasting and gave it her best. Now she’s got an award-winning environmental surf film (Catch It) under her belt, and is in the midst of a feature-length film about the Women’s National Cycling Team of Afghanistan. Here’s what she’s learned about filming adventure—and making a living.

Sarah Menzies

Individuals make the best stories.

I’m so drawn to passionate people,” Sarah says. “Having this tool in my hand lets me help tell their story, get their message out.” She considers her film “Afghan Cycles” the likely pinnacle of that. “I’m not a cyclist,” she adds, “but their story hits a nerve with me.”

Being an independent filmmaker requires far more than shooting film.

“Sometimes I feel that saying I’m an adventure filmmaker is a fancy way of saying I’m chained to my desk. People like the idea, but then I explain that I do every part, everything is bottlenecked at me. Sometimes I contract out editing, but for a lot of things, it all comes down to me. Like figuring out funding. It’s a lot of juggling. Founder, director, producer, janitor, payroll. You have to wear a lot of hats—you learn all these different things.”

And working in the outdoors industry doesn’t mean you’re always in the outdoors.

But Sarah makes a point to get outside as much as she can, taking her dog out for a couple laps on the mountain if it snows, or even sneaking out for an early-morning visit to the ocean. “Lately the newer version of dawn patrol has been fly-fishing,” she says. “It’s been my connection, helping keep me balanced.”

Adventures on a whim can pay off, with some effort.

One of Sarah’s big breaks actually came when one of her gigs fell through. Finding herself with an open summer schedule, she went to Norway on a whim to hang out with friends and wound up finding great stories there. Even though she didn’t think filming for fun—and then hoping to make money off it later—was probably a good business model, those projects led to a call out of the blue: A client who was working with the Norwegian tourism board asked if she’d do a four-part video series for them. They liked her style and wanted her to do the project without any direction. She’d worked with clients before, but this felt different—special. “I remember setting up a sunset time lapse,” she says. “Then sitting back and thinking, ‘Oh my god, this is my life.’”

Find more of Sarah’s work at Let Media.