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ARUN RATH, HOST:

Now, for the latest installment of our series My Big Break, about triumphs, big and small. For director and producer Leah Warshawski, her big break into the film industry happened on the water.

LEAH WARSHAWSKI: You know, I was living in Hawaii. I was going to college, studying Japanese, and one of my dorm mates, she was working on a boat and they were looking for somebody to work on the boat who knew a little bit of Japanese to translate for all the Japanese tourists.

And at that point, I had already declared it as my major, so I wouldn't say that I really knew Japanese, but I wanted to know Japanese. I was really eager. And I applied for the job and I got it. And there I was working in Waianae in Hawaii on a dolphin excursion boat. It was swimming with dolphins in the wild, seeing humpback whales breaching in the winter, and trying my best to speak Japanese to the tourists.

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WARSHAWSKI: The marine coordinator for "Baywatch" came on to the boat, and it turns out that he was actually looking for an assistant to help with a production that he had coming up. It happened to be "Baywatch: Hawaiian Wedding." And every time you see a film or a show or a commercial, any time there's filming on the water, there's a whole department that just deals with that filming. It's called the marine department.

At that point, I didn't really know anything about film production but I knew a little bit about the water, and that was one of the requirements. So I got the job.

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WARSHAWSKI: It was a trip. My first wrap party was with, you know, David Hasselhoff and Carmen Electra on the North Shore of Hawaii. And it's just crazy to think about now. It's such an odd entry into the industry, but you have jump in headfirst sometimes. That's where it all began.

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WARSHAWSKI: Since "Baywatch: Hawaiian Wedding," I've worked on a number of different television shows and films, commercials, a number of episodes for "Lost." I've worked on "Survivor" in Fuji, a show called "Hawaii" that was on NBC for a season. And there was a scene with a pirate ship, a modern pirate ship. It was more like a rust bucket.

Sure enough, one of the ships that we scouted really fit the bill. It looked exactly like what was written into the script. It was scary to walk on. Why not? It was a perfect fit. We ended up renting the boat for the shoot. And the captain of the boat and his crew came with the rental.

And so one day we were filming, and I was in charge of making sure that the captain did what production needed. And he got pretty sick of production and ended up holding me hostage until we got back to shore and they gave him what he wanted.

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WARSHAWSKI: It did turn out to be a real pirate ship, and it got decommissioned. They were actually running drugs on the boat. Nobody knew about it at the time. It was a mess.

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WARSHAWSKI: You know, that was one of my first jobs in the film industry. So after that, everything else seemed like a breeze.

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WARSHAWSKI: You know, my big break was really being able to work on this dolphin excursion boat in college and have the opportunity to learn about the ocean. And to be honest, I get pretty seasick on the water, which is ironic. I'm always the first one to get seasick over the side. But once I remedy that, it's just heaven.

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RATH: Director and producer Leah Warshawski. Her documentary, "Finding Hillywood" is out now. We want to hear about your big break. Send us an email at mybigbreak@npr.org.

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RATH: If you've just tuned in, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR West, and I'm Arun Rath.

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