Keeping it Reel

How I Got the Job: Cheyenne Tan Talks Documentaries

It sounds too good to be true: a fortuitous Craigslist posting led Cheyenne Tan to her dream job.

“I always tell people this story and they’re like, ‘no way, you’re lying’ but it’s true!” she says.

This 2017 graduate of Columbia College Hollywood’s Bachelor of Fine Arts in Cinema program now works as a full-time assistant to documentary filmmaker and journalist Smriti Mundhra. Her work takes her around the world.

“Because I’m an international student, my visa required me to only work on campus [while I was studying]. But someone sent me a posting for a filmmaker looking for an assistant,” she explains. Tan wasn’t ready to take on a fulltime job yet; she still had one class remaining in the fall.

“The last week of November I was looking through Craigslist and lo and behold, the same listing was back up. I sent my resume just to see what would happen.”

After an initial phone interview, and an in-person meeting, she got the call. “They offered the job and I took it! I graduated in December and started immediately after that. It’s a little crazy, but I love it.”

Now, her job entails assisting Mundhra on projects in various stages, from planning to post-production. A typical day can include paperwork, following up with contacts, transcribing interviews, or conducting background research—very important to creating a good story.

“I just returned from India filming, so I’m getting organized, syncing footage and sound, getting clips ready to be translated,” she says. “It’s really unpredictable what my tasks may be. But I’m learning so much.”

Tan’s dream job almost didn’t happen, though. Growing up in Malaysia, she knew she wanted to tell stories but her hometown on Borneo didn’t have many options for creative careers. She looked for film schools elsewhere.

“My parents were skeptical, but I did a lot of research online. It was hard, everyone wanted a portfolio and I didn’t come from a place that really enabled me to make one,” she says.

Columbia College Hollywood seemed like a good fit, so she took the biggest risk of her life: buying a one-way ticket to go to film school.

“I’d never been to America before, it was two suitcases and a dream. I only truly started to love being in L.A. in my final year in school, which is coincidentally when I discovered documentary filmmaking.”

At the college, she “lived in the editing suite” and spent every opportunity working on campus, working in the library, or taking on new projects. “I was there when the school opened and was there when it closed,” she says.

Documentaries opened up a whole new world for her.

Her professors were especially helpful when it came to creating and editing her own films, she says. Her second documentary, Starting From Scratch, a story about a Malaysian woman opening a specialty bakery, won the Gold Selection prize in the 2017 CCH Film Festival, beating out nine other contenders.

All of the extra experience and confidence-building opportunities made it easy to transition to her role as a do-it-all assistant.

“I always worked really hard, studied, learned everything I could but always felt behind because of where I came from,” she says. “But when I started doing documentaries, I realized I’m good at it. I have a knack for it.”

“That’s when I realized that, wow I caught up to everyone else already, I just didn’t see it. I can do this”

Learn the art of filmmaking with a BFA in Cinema.