Here’s a snapshot of Aya Tanimura: she’s the kind of person who will Facetime you on a random Thursday morning while she’s procrastinating on a shoot by making friendship bracelets. Even if you only met her for two seconds the night before, she will talk to you like she’s known you forever. The director’s energy is magnetic, vibrant, free—and it’s something that’s unmistakable in her work, and her random as hell life path.
Case in point: she got her big break organizing Katy Perry’s underwear drawer. We’ll let her tell you the whole story, but let’s just stay that before she became Katy’s go-to collaborator, she was on the struggle bus to nowhere until she ditched it and said yes to a random lift from a stranger, which happened to be a plug for the popstar.
That said, if you’re stuck somewhere, let this story give you the confidence to channel your inner Aya Tanimura.
When you started working for Katy Perry, was it with the clear intention of directing for her one day?
Aya Tanimura: Oh no. No, not at all. I literally was brought in for two weeks of housework and organizing. So basically, I had no money because I was like, “I'll get a job, I'm making all these short films." My friend Tom was like, "Yeah, but you're also homeless, so get a job." Tom was Russell Brand's assistant at the time. And Russell Brand and Katy Perry had just moved into a house together. And I'm like super type A, anal attentive. So he was like, "Listen, I got you this gig to come and organize Russell Brand and Katy Perry's house, because they just moved in together." And I was like, "That sounds like a fucking nightmare." But I did it because I needed the money.
“I came to organize an underwear drawer, and then I was in charge of five properties around the United States whilst trying to create my own short films and features—and content for her, of course.”
Back then, Katy was big, but she wasn't really big. She’d just released “I Kissed a Girl.” At that point everyone was like, “Oh, she's a one hit wonder,” which turned out not to be true. One day, Katy saw me in the house and asked, "Who are you? What are you doing in my house?" And I was like, "Oh, I'm here to organize." And she said, "It was like so amazing. Don't ever leave me. Stay forever." Then I told her that I’m a director. She asked to see some of my stuff and after I showed her, she was like, "Oh, this stuff is weird." I said, “Yeah.” And then she said, "Do you want to do the lyric videos for my new album?"
I had no idea what a lyric video was. So I went home and Googled it. At that time it was just animated lyrics just flashing on the screen, and I was like, "Ugh, I don't know how to animate." So I did it with live action, and everyone was like, "Whoa. A lyric video where the writing is in the live action footage. That's crazy." And thus born my career as a director. I made something, not to toot my own horn, that hadn't been done before, and that was like, pretty awesome.
Which videos did you end up directing and what was the response to them?
I did “Roar,” “Unconditionally,” and “Birthday.” It was interesting because my lyric video of “Birthday” has more views than her official music video. The label actually said that they wanted no more lyric videos from me because the videos ruined the launch of the actual video. But by then, I got signed to Black Dog RSA, so then I just started making music videos, which was never my goal.
How long did you end up cleaning and organizing for Katy?
The gig was supposed to be two weeks. Then I ended up working for her on and off for about four years. I got sucked in and I was like, "Oh my God, what am I doing?" What's crazy is she became bigger and bigger and bigger, so the job of organizing and keeping the house organized turned into a bigger and bigger job, right? Because she kept moving and buying houses. All of a sudden, I was in an estate management job. I came to organize an underwear drawer, and then I was in charge of five properties around the United States whilst trying to create my own short films and features—and content for her, of course. It was great because I had health insurance and a steady income, but I didn't sleep for four years.
I finally made a clean break from the job about three years ago. So now I just direct for her, and we still hang because we're friends. But no more organizing underwear drawers.
What were some of the weird things that you got to do, besides sort underwear?
Part of the allure, and the reason I stayed for so long is because Katy is awesome, and because she obviously leads a very exciting life. I went on vacations with her and flew on private jets to go see concerts. I had unlimited access to her ginormous wardrobe, for any and all occasions. I was kind of vicariously living.
"When my green card came through, I came back to the US and I moved to Los Angeles. I had no connections and I knew nobody in the business. So I went on Craigslist. I found a listing for this producer looking for an assistant, and I thought, ‘This is for sure going to be in porn.’”
How were you getting by before meeting her?
When I graduated college, my visa was tied to photography, so I was doing photography stuff, and I fucking hated it. I was a bit stuck. So I went back to Australia for a bit, where I worked at this really fancy establishment called Starbucks. I don't know if you've heard of it. I worked at that fine establishment for like six months, and I was like, "Oh no. This is even worse." I was just buying time for my green card to come through.
When my green card came through, I came back to the US and I moved to Los Angeles. I had no connections and I knew nobody in the business. So I went on Craigslist. I found a listing for this producer looking for an assistant, and I thought, “This is for sure going to be in porn.”
But it just so happened that it was Clayton Townsend, who was Judd Apatow's producer. So I got the job, and I was Clayton's assistant on Judd's movie, Funny People. Then, Clayton took a break, and he recommended me to Chris Brigham, who's normally Scorsese's producer, but he was prepping Inception with Chris Nolan. So I went on to work on Inception. When that wrapped, everyone rallied to help me make this short film that I had been writing whilst working on Inception. It was really nice. So I made my first 35 millimeter short, shot by Polly Morgan, who was the DP's first assistant on Inception. She would also shoot some of my music video stuff. Now she’s this fucking bad, big feature DP.
So yeah, so then I made that short film, and I was like, "Look at me, I'm a director." But I was poor.
Since leaving Katy, how have things changed?
The first year after leaving Katy, I had saved up enough money from working with her to not have to work for a year. Even if you're consistently making music videos, unless you're a top tier music video director, like a Joseph Conn or like a Hannah Lux Davis, you're not making money. Because music videos don't have money. So I prepared myself for a year of destitution, and it was good that I had a buffer because it really was a tough time. I was making a lot of $20,000, $30,000 music videos. Then, just as soon as my savings ran out, I started getting jobs in the $60,000 to $80,000 music video category. I was at least making enough money to survive.
And then in the third year, Katy, my guardian angel, requested me as a director on this PSA for DonorsChoose with Staples. It was a union job, so I became a member of the DGA through that job, which opened me up to more commercial work. Then at the same time, my music video stuff was doing really well, and I got bumped into the 100k+ music video category. All of a sudden, I had health insurance and not only enough money to live off, but enough money to be comfortable. I can shop at Whole Foods. What? Who am I?
"Unless you're making Schindler's List, or Honey Boy, or something that has meaning, it's like calm down. You're making a tampon commercial. Take a breath."
How have all these random experiences shaped your philosophy about life, about what's possible?
Working for Katy and becoming friends with her really helped me in terms of connecting with talent, because I think as an outsider looking into that world, you do kind of think of them as alien creatures. They're so far removed from your life and your world. But I realized that the only difference is their money. With the exception of Keanu Reeves, I'm not fazed by anyone. I feel like having access to this world just deepened my understanding of the human race, you know?
Clearly you still have a sense of humor about it all. Hearing your journey is like having a bird's eye view about how fucking ridiculous the industry is.
It really is. The entertainment stuff we make has an immense impact, and has the ability to change for sure. But like 90% of the content that is being created and 90% of the content that I create, in the grand scheme of things, really doesn't matter. So if you can't have fun and have a sense of humor about it, then you're taking yourself way too seriously.
Unless you're making Schindler's List, or Honey Boy, or something that has meaning, it's like calm down. You're making a tampon commercial. Take a breath.
Did working for Katy shape your aesthetic as a director going forward?
No, not really. I think one of my biggest detriments, which I think is one of my best qualities, is that if you look at my reel, it has everything from slapstick comedy to doc horror to quirky, fun, cutesy, Sanrio type stuff. I think a lot of people look up my reel and they're like, "Who is she and what does she do? It's all over the place." But that is who I am in my daily life. I dress sometimes like I've escaped the cults, but then other days I dress up like a lesbian.
I do think during my Katy era, my stuff was obviously tailored more towards her aesthetic. But whilst I was doing that, I also produced a horror film that won an award at the Los Angeles Film Festival, which was obviously the furthest on the spectrum from Katy.
Even though your work crosses genres, what do you think are elements that you constantly try to incorporate in your work?
I do think the one thing I have in all my stuff, no matter what the genre is or who the client is, is an interesting, strong cast of characters—most of them women. Also, I just re-cut my reel, and my editor, who's this badass Filipino chick, Celeste Diamos, was like, "You have every color of the rainbow and sexual orientation on your reel." And I was like, "Oh yeah, I kind of do."
I'm always conscious of casting and crew when I hire, but I never sat down and took a step back. When I saw my reel, I was proud of it. No gratuitous sexy time. I have a sexy video I did pretty much just to prove to people who don’t think I can do sexy women. And I did this really sexy video with Vanessa Hudgens, and this guy Shawn Hook. But guess what? Shawn Hook has just as much naked sexy time as Vanessa, so it's for the ladies and the men and the queer community.
Do you have any advice for anyone for breaking in, from your perspective?
Kind of say yes to everything. Say yes to everything because you don't know who you're going to meet, or where it's going to lead. And you need the money.
And also, think outside the box. When I was unsigned—this is going to date me—I used to put my reel on a DVD. Then I'd go to Little Tokyo and I'd buy all of these 99 cents bento boxes. I would put some Japanese snacks in the bento box with my DVD, and wrap it up in a futoshiki, which is a Japanese cloth. I would mail them out to all the agencies and all the production companies with a little note that said, "Looks like your roster needs a little flavor. Check out my reel.” By the way, no one ever responded to it. Rude.
What's funny is, when I did the first Katy Perry lyric video, all of a sudden, all these agencies that I'd sent my bento boxes to started calling me and said, "Oh, we just saw your lyric video. We'd love to have you come in and talk to us." And I'd be like, "Did you get my bento box five months ago?" And they'd be like, "Oh my God, yes, that was you." And I said, "Yeah, never got a response." But of course, beggars can't be choosers. So I was like, "Never got a response, but I'll be right there."
But yeah, the lesson here is to just be persistent, but not annoying. And send bento boxes to people. Unless you're white, in which case it'd be racist, so don't do it. Embrace your difference or your culture or your sexual orientation—whatever. And make it your winning strong point.