The spirit of creativity

While her peers at Interlochen Arts Camp were practicing for auditions or learning their lines, Trish Sie (IAC/NMC 84-88) was choreographing a dance routine—set in the rafters of her cabin.

Although a keen cello student, what Sie loved most about Interlochen was the atmosphere of unfettered creativity. “I loved the outside-of-class time more than anything,” she said. “I wanted to soak up all the creative things that Interlochen had to offer.”

During her five years at Camp, Sie tried almost everything, majoring in cello while also taking electives in visual art, ballet and filmmaking.

Opportunities for creativity were found not only in Interlochen’s catalogue of courses, but also in the creative peers that surrounded her. “No one was ever bored or looking for something to do or someone to do it with,” Sie said. “It was a creative playground. All that we did outside of class was make stuff: put on dances, make up songs, and redecorate the cabin. The entire cabin had a dance number that we would do from the rafters—which was strictly forbidden, but we did it anyway.”

Years later, Sie brings that same spirit of creativity—and unusual choreographic locales—to her work as a film director. This December, her latest film, the third installment of the popular Pitch Perfect franchise, opens in theatres across the globe.

Sie’s journey from the rafters to the silver screen was unconventional. Sie began her study of the arts as both a cellist and a ballerina. In sixth grade, her cello teacher recommended a summer at Interlochen Arts Camp. “She said, ‘If you have the chance you need to do this,’” Sie said.

Sie requested brochures from the Camp and painstakingly prepared her audition. To her delight, she was accepted to Interlochen Arts Camp as an intermediate camper. “When I got to Interlochen, it was love at first sight,” she said. “I had never played in such a huge orchestra. I had played in the orchestra at school, which was probably 20 or 30 people, but it never had the full, right sound, and didn’t practice for two and a half hours. The teamwork of sitting in the middle of a crowd of people all playing this piece together was just euphoric.”

Sie’s experiences at Interlochen helped to guide her choice of college major. “I always thought I would have a creative career in music, but I came to realization that I was not a gifted or talented cellist,” she said. “That was one of the things that Interlochen taught me. I was never in the World Youth Symphony Orchestra, so I would go watch them, and go, ‘Ok, that’s a whole different calibre.’ It’s very humbling to realize that you’re not going to make it and there are so many people who are better than you—although at Interlochen, it’s not really a bummer because you’re having such a euphoric experience.”

As a result of her revelation, Sie enrolled in a music composition program with the goal of scoring films. After only a few semesters, Sie realized that her future did not lie in composition. “I was trying to write music in college, and realized that I wasn’t good and had to work too hard to be just okay,” she said.

Instead, Sie returned to her other primary artform: dance. “I leaned into dancing because it seemed to come more easily,” she said. In 2006, Sie’s brother, Damian Kulash (IAC 87-89, 91-92) of OK Go asked her to choreograph the music video for his band’s single “Here It Goes Again.” Sie designed an innovative routine staged on eight treadmills and taught the choreography to the band. After the rehearsal process, Sie borrowed a video camera from a friend to record the finished product.

“Shooting on camera was as a reference, to prove to ourselves that we had actually done it,” Sie said. Unbeknownst to Sie and the band, a friend posted the video to YouTube. The video quickly went viral, launching both Sie and the band to overnight fame. “When OK Go’s videos started getting attention and started winning awards, I started getting asked to film other things,” she said.

Despite her relative inexperience in the film industry, Sie found her background in music and dance indispensable in her new line of work. “I came late to understanding how eyelines, screen direction and other technical aspects work,” she said. “But the underlying spirit of all was the same. Rhythm and shape and pattern are most of what we respond to when we’re watching something we love. The technical aspects are just about communicating something how we’ve imagined it.”

Sie’s big break came in 2013, when she was asked to direct the major motion picture Step Up: All In. For the first time, Sie was working in Hollywood, a world traditionally dominated by male executives.

“I went to all-girls school for fourth through twelfth grades, which was very empowering,” she said. “I never thought of sexism or misogyny, I just did whatever I wanted, and did not see that as particularly special. I was probably in my mid-30s before I realized that the glass ceiling is not a metaphor. It’s something that faces all women, and it can hold you back.”

But Sie, ever the outside-the-box thinker, sees a silver lining hiding behind the glass ceiling. “It can actually give you a confidence,” she said. “I’ve had to work so hard to get where I am that when I get a job, I know I can do it.”

Ultimately, Sie lives her own advice to young artists: Maintain your unique point of view. “What I learned at Interlochen, watching these virtuosic musicians, and in college when I was trying to be a composer, is that there’s something about me that’s unique, and that’s what’s special about me,” she said. “That’s what I bring to the table—the hanging from the rafters, not the trying to get into WYSO. That’s not to say you don’t need to work hard. Once you figure out that that’s your thing, you go after it: Feed it, nurture it and practice it.

“Keep making stuff until it is work, and don’t be afraid when half of your stuff is bad. That’s the way it is for everyone.”