What I learned… from a night in prison, with Across the Pond’s Julie Cohen
Julie Cohen is chief exec of creative agency Across the Pond, working with major tech brands including Google. Before founding her agency in London, her unconventional career took her from fixer in Paris to globetrotting documentary filmmaker. The latter led to a night behind bars. We sat down with her to find out how.
Across the Pond’s Julie Cohen on her time as a documentary filmmaker and the night she spent behind bars / niu niu via Unsplash
Long before Alex Honnold’s Free Solo there was Alain Robert, ‘the French Spider-Man,’ and his equipment-free ascents of the world’s tallest buildings. He’s still going today – still climbing buildings, and still getting arrested for it. The best chronicle of his daring remains the 1998 documentary The Wall Crawler, produced by Julie Cohen. During filming, she was arrested and spent a night in prison – experiences that have influenced her career as a creative.
Hi, Julie! Is it fair to say your route into creative work was as a documentary filmmaker?
Sort of. I was interested in documentaries. I wanted to travel around the world and have a purpose doing it. I moved to Paris after I graduated university, and set myself up as the person American TV networks would call on as ‘the American who can get stuff done in Paris.’
I was illegal for 10 of the 12 years I lived there. I worked first in a bar (because drinking helps you be bolder with learning a language) and met this ex-hippie American who worked for American TV shows. He was drunk a lot – by 6pm in Paris he was drunk and LA was just waking up so, I was mostly on my own.
Sounds like a varied role from day one...
I was called a producer, a fixer, a field director. I wore all the hats. I’d book my own travel and find a crew and do the interviews and do an edit to send it back via satellite to America.
I did that for Access Hollywood, Inside Edition, Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous, the History Channel, the Travel Channel...
And then you meet Alain Robert?
Yes, randomly through my neighbor, I met his brother who told me Alain wanted more PR.
I went to the networks and said: “This guy climbs buildings with nothing, do you want to do a segment with him?” Inside Edition picked it up and sent a reporter; I produced the segment. Alain said: “Do you want to make a documentary?” And that was the start of a three-year journey.
So you were still having to hustle?
We had no money. No sponsorship possibilities because it’s death-defying and illegal.
I’d get on the phone and say: “He wants to climb the Golden Gate Bridge. Do you want an exclusive?” Then I’d negotiate, making sure we’d have enough to pay the crew and get him out of jail.
Culture was a big factor. In Malaysia, he ended up having dinner with the King and Queen. In Brazil, they love him – he just had to sign autographs with the policemen. In the US, it was very severe.
And you ended up getting arrested.
Twice. The Golden Gate Bridge was the first; the second was in Philadelphia, my hometown.
In San Francisco, I was blending in with tourists while the crew filmed from a hill. When he started climbing the bridge, a crowd formed and I was watching with them, and the police came up to me and said: “You’re with him.” I thought they couldn’t prove it so I lied. But I later got charged with lying to a police officer, resisting arrest and the big one, conspiracy (which is a felony).
They put me in cuffs and in a police car.
And then off to jail?
I was booked, strip searched, put in prison blues and put in a cell. I spilled toothpaste on my shirt and was told by my cellmate (who told me she couldn’t be friends with me outside the cell because of ‘politics’) that you can’t get new clothes until commissary day – next week. I was like, what?
I called my parents and they told me there was nothing we could do – the district attorney had been stuck in traffic after the stunt, so they made my bail the highest it could be. We had to get a bail bondsman.
Then court – it was supposed to get taken off my record because I’d spent time in jail. But then we got arrested again in Philadelphia and it was still on my record.
It’s a whole different thing but my boyfriend at the time was Philly’s favorite TV weatherman – I’m pretty sure that helped.
What did jail teach you? It must have been pretty terrifying.
I was young enough and naïve enough that I thought it couldn’t be that bad. But it did get scarier by the hour.
I did learn more about negotiation: I couldn’t find a seat at lunchtime and ended up with the pregnant women at the back. I didn’t eat meat and was able to trade my ham sandwich for extra apples.
At this point, I usually ask whether you’d recommend this experience. I doubt you’d recommend jail, but how about the hustler’s approach that took you there?
Absolutely. Not everyone has the opportunity but it’s how I cut my teeth in the industry. Having a project in the bag makes you learn everything from finding great people to briefing a crew to doing a pitch for something you haven’t made yet – I made treatments before I knew what they were called.
Having an unconventional career path has taught me so much – learning on the job and figuring everything out. You learn things once because you have something that you need to do rather than someone telling you the theory.
Documentary and journalism runs through everything we do. My big learning in life is about listening. When you’re in over your head, listening is your superpower. You really have to listen so well in order to understand problems you want to solve inside and out. No different to taking a brief, really.
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