Ostenberg Elswit is an independent Visual Effects
Producer in the film industry. But her journey into
the field of production was different. She left a
very successful law career to follow her heart.
During our interview, Helen described how praying
daily, relying on inspiration from the Bible, and
trusting God helped her overcome her fears and directed
her to a very fulfilling career.
How did you make such a major career move from
law to movies?
During the height of the Wall Street frenzy in the
late '80s before the stock market crashed, I was working
on Wall Street for more hours than I could believe.
I decided I would move to Kansas City to work at law
firm because I wanted a life. I had family and friends
there. After about a year there, I really still was
not happy working as a corporate lawyer. My heart
wasn't into the whole idea of business law. So, I
opened up my thought to the film industry and began
to explore opportunities in that field, even though
I was in Kansas City, far away from Hollywood.
I started making a list of everyone I knew in Kansas
City who had any connection to the film industry or
television. Soon I met all these people who were real
film buffs. I saw a notice in the paper that a movie
called "Mr. and Mrs. Bridge," starring Paul
Newman and Joanne Woodward, was going to be filmed
in Kansas City. My new film buff friends encouraged
me to submit my resume, even though it was a law resume.
I ended up working on the film as an intern as Paul
and Joanne's driver. The people I met on that film
became my contacts. One thing led to another, and
I worked as a camera assistant for about three years.
Then I decided my skills would be better served on
the production side of the industry. Making this change
was pretty scary because I was really on my own. That's
when I started buckling down and praying daily. That
prayer led me to work as a visual effects producer,
which is what I've been doing for 8 or 9 years now.
You said it was scary. How did you deal with the
I was most fearful during the transition from camera
assistant to producer. Here I was in my 30s, turning
my back on a very stable law career to try to get
into the film industry along with everyone else in
the world. Out of all my contacts, I didn't know anyone
who could help me find my way into production. I had
no money because I had gone quite a few months without
work. So I prayed that the right activity would unfold.
A Bible passage that I really worked with a lot was,
"Be still, and know that I am God" (Ps.
46:10). It was that sense of listening that was very
important to me. I was willing to practice law again
if that was what "listening to God" led
me to do, and had interviews at some of the most prestigious
law firms in L.A. About that time, a friend of mine
introduced me to a producer who had a position that
seemed to be tailor made for me. I thought it was
the obvious result of all my prayer. So, when I got
a call from the company saying that they were going
to hire someone with more experience, I was in tears.
When I called someone for spiritual guidance, prayer,
and support, the individual said, "Oh, isn't
that wonderful! God has something much more wonderful
in store for you." She pointed out two Bible
passages to me that I treasured and worked with daily.
Eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, neither have
entered into the heart of man, the things which
God hath prepared for them that love him. I Cor.
Trust in the Lord with all thine heart; and lean
not unto thine own understanding. In all thy ways
acknowledge him, and he shall direct thy paths.
Prov. 3:5, 6
These passages became very important to me.
Could you explain how these passages helped you?
Sure. A friend of mine in the movie business had such
a yearning to better understand true spirituality
that we met daily to discuss spiritual ideas. Even
when she went on location as an assistant director
for "The River Wild" (filming in Montana
and Oregon), she would call to discuss spiritual ideas.
One day she called me to see if I wanted to work as
her production assistant for two weeks when they filmed
in Boston. She called me back the next day to say
they'd prefer me to be a production coordinator because
I had experience in that area. At the end of the two
weeks, the director asked me to finish the film with
them in Montana. I told him that I'd love to, but
I couldn't come until the next Monday. His response
made me feel that I had probably said the wrong thing.
But I wanted and needed to attend a conference the
following Saturday that would teach me more about
prayer and our spiritual nature. The first words out
of the conference speaker's mouth were, "We are
all in the midst of production." To me, this
was a clear message from God. Here I was, trying to
get into production, and the speaker's message helped
me to spiritualize the idea of production, to understand
what it means to be productive in life - above and
beyond just getting a job. I was happy that I had
made the choice not to miss this meeting and happy
that I hadn't been lured into thinking that I had
missed an opportunity. Two days later I received a
call from the film company asking me to come to Montana.
It all worked out. I had my first real foray into
production. Plus, on that movie, I met my husband.
The whole experience was a real lesson to me. If
I had gotten that other job that I had thought was
so right for me, I would have never gone into the
fulfilling and wonderful aspect of production I'm
in now. And I never would have met my husband. What
I had thought of as my ideal job was not nearly as
wonderful as what God unfolded for me.
That's how the Bible passages really came to life
for me. I've learned to be humble and not to dwell
in disappointment when something doesn't work out
the way I think it should. It now seems limiting,
narrow, and presumptuous of me to think that I know
better than the Father what good He has "prepared
for them that love Him" because there's nothing
that I've "seen" or "heard" that
could possibly be as wonderful as the plan that God
has for me.
It sounds as if trusting in God to "direct
your path" enabled your new career to develop
rapidly and successfully, too.
Yes! Another wonderful development in my career occurred
when I got back from Montana and my wedding. A producer,
whom I had thoroughly enjoyed working with when I
was a production coordinator for a small two-week
project, called me to see if I would like to help
him with a film called "Outbreak." "I
want you to produce the visual effects," he told
me. When I questioned him, he replied, "Don't
worry. You went to law school. You can figure it out."
What did he mean? How did your practice of law,
which seems so different from producing visual effects,
help you in your film career?
I think I wouldn't be where I am today if I had not
practiced law. As a lawyer, you learn to reason in
a way that's helpful in any area of life. In my particular
case, I think that the fact that I had practiced law
gave me credibility as a woman in a very competitive
business -- credibility that I may not have had otherwise.
The area of visual effects was new to us back then,
and the producer needed someone he could trust to
learn about it and share the knowledge. He opened
up a door for me that I would never have considered.
It enabled me to produce on a much faster track than
the conventional track -- being a production coordinator,
then a production manager, then a line manager. Often
people who go the conventional route never get the
opportunity to work creatively because they get pigeon-holed
on the business side of things. Then, too, part of
my job as producer is to negotiate contracts. My law
degree was instrumental in moving me quickly into
the position I'm in today.
So it sounds like your willingness to listen and
be grateful for whatever you were led to do allowed
you to advance more quickly in a way that's been very
Yes, and even though everyone told me that it was
impossible to get into film business in Kansas City,
even though it sounded silly and stupid, I still opened
my thought to the idea that had come to me. The fact
that I was in Kansas City when this film came to town
and was able to work on "Mr. and Mrs. Bridge"
opened up an avenue for me that may not have been
possible had I moved to Hollywood where the competition
is so intense. This experience taught me to listen
to spiritual intuitions. The progression of thought
starts with intuition. And to me, intuition has always
been that "still small voice" (I Kings 19:12).
It's a leaning of the heart. You feel something purely
in your heart. I've really learned to listen to that
spiritual intuition, to honor that, and to be open
Is there anything you'd want to tell teenagers,
I want to encourage them to open their hearts to the
opportunities that come to them, and really to consider
all the options and opportunities with an open heart.
I would also encourage them to be grateful for what
they have right now - and build on that.
Next month, you'll have
the opportunity to read how Helen learned to turn
to God to meet her needs after her father passed on
when she was just 15. Plus, she offers teens and parents
valuable advice on education and careers.