Interview with director Vera Graziadei

  • Was there a particular event or time that you recognized that filmmaking is your way of tellingstories?

It’s one of my ways of telling stories, but perhaps the most preferred one. However, while I have a definite event that have inspired me to apply to an acting degree in LAMDA (Katherine Hunter playing Richard III at the Globe Theatre in 2003), I don’t have one particular time when I decided to write and direct films. Somehow ever since I begun acting professionally, I knew that this is what I would want to try to do eventually. This inner calling wasn’t always as loud and clear as it has been in recent years. Sometime in the past it would appear, but then would fade and disappear all together. It’s been at least ten years of me learning the basics of filmmaking through short courses and directing short projects, writing two plays, one sitcom, several shorts, numerous feature treatments and first drafts, while at the same time developing love for the medium and drawing inspiration from auteurs like Tarkovsky, Malick, Bergman, Coen Brothers, Michel Gondry and many more. The most important thing for me is that I have stories to tell or rather I’m aware of the stories that need to be told in a beautiful and powerful way. Whether it will be me who’ll tell them so or someone else, only time will tell. 

  • Do you think it is essential to go to a film institute in order to become a successful filmmaker? 

First of all, let me differentiate between a filmmaker and a successful filmmaker. Success is such a subjective concept and depends on so many, often random, factors, I wouldn’t want to theorize about this. It’s a separate long conversation.As for becoming a filmmaker, I don’t think you need to go to a film institute, but I’m saying it from the point of view of someone, who’s worked in front of the camera for many years and had a chance to learn about the filmmaking process through direct experience. I think the answer to this question will vary according to an individual and their situation. The main advice I have is this: whether you go to a film school or not, respect your own and other people’s time and effort. Filmmaking is not like strumming a guitar alone in your bedroom, where you can have all the time in the world to learn through doing and it won’t cost you much. Making movies is an expensive art, even if it’s done on a ‘low budget’ as then it means that many other artists invested their precious time and talents into your project. And because it’s an expensive art that involves other people, I would say you would do yourself and your team a favor if you somehow learnt as much as possible through study and observation before committing yourself and others to doing. 

  • Is it harder to get started or to keep going? What was the particular thing that you had to conquer todo either?

For me ‘getting started’ and ‘keeping going’ is the same thing, as the moment you’ve done your first project, ‘keeping going’ requires you ‘to get started’ with a new project. This is if the question relates to the filmmaking path as a whole rather than to a specific project. In my case, I struggled with both. After A Map of the World, I entered a difficult cycle of life and not only did I not do much with this film, I couldn’t pursue other projects for a few years. Filmmaking commands high level of physical and mental energy, focus and hard work. I think it’s important to be realistic about your internal and external resources and ‘get started’ at the right time, so that you can make sure that you can ‘keep going’ for as long as you can. I guess I’m saying that timing is important. So if you’ve just had a baby or struggling with severe depression then the odds are against you and it might be better to wait a bit before plunging yourself fully into this exciting but demanding profession.

  • What was the most important lesson you had to learn that has had a positive effect on your film? How did that lesson happen?

Working with small children is unpredictable, especially if it’s their first job. They can do brilliantly at an audition, but it doesn’t mean they can withstand the pressure of being on set. In our case, one of the children couldn’t understand why it’s necessary to do many takes of the same scene. Without this understanding, repeating the same lines again and again seemed senseless to a kid with no acting-for-film experience. We were on a very tight schedule, as we had to shoot everything in one day, but I had to take time to quickly explain to them the basics of filmmaking: what wide and medium and close-up shots are and how they are assembled together in editing. This made a difference in the first half of the day and we could do several takes of the same scene without much resistance. Then, as they got tired, I had to bribe them with cake to act at all. They both acted marvelously at the end, I think. So the lesson is: always bribe child actors with cakes and yummy food if you want them to act well. (This works with adult actors too).

  • What were the production realities from casting through editing that you had to accommodate? How did you navigate those compromises or surprises and still end up with a cohesive film?

A Map of the World is a mini short film that had to be shot in a day, where keeping on schedule was the main challenge, aside from working with kids, whose spontaneity and inquisitiveness was wondrous, but also time-consuming. Juggling time-keeping and being attentive to kids was difficult, but we managed at the end. I think doing a storyboard helped greatly on the day, because I was aware of every single shot we have to make. However, by the end of the day we did run out of time and I didn’t spend as much time on the last scene of the script as I planned. At the end, I cut that scene out all together and I think it’s a better film for it. 

  • What was the hardest artistic choice you made in the making of a film, at any stage in production?

This relates to the previous answer: the hardest artistic choice was to edit down a film from 4 to 2 min. Having had more experience of filmmaking since this short, I would say that editing is one of the hardest stages of the process, as this is your last chance to decide on the essentials of your story and to trim out the superfluous. 

  • You are a collaborator. How have you discovered members of your team and how do you keep the relationship with them strong?

I worked with a cinematographer of AMOTW on another short directed by someone else and with the camera operator/editor on an ad where I was an actor. Whenever possible I prefer to work with people whom I’ve worked with before or who are recommended to me by close contacts. Because Filmmaking is a collaboration and if anything goes wrong and the film doesn’t work, the blame will fall on the director, you have to work with those whom you can trust on all levels. And, of course, the best way of keeping a working relationship is through work. 

  • What do audiences want? And is it the filmmaker’s role to worry about that? 

Depends on what kind of filmmaker you are. If you aim to make purely commercial work, then you probably need to second guess your audience. This is not how I work and I don’t think I could work like that even if I tried, even though I do think it’s useful to be aware of what’s happening out there on the market.A script needs to inspire and touch me personally, so that I can be sure that I could live inside of it for many months or even years as a director. It’s not a nine to five job, making a film becomes an integral part of ones life, so you need to make sure that the message of the film, it’s characters and the story can fit into your life journey . Just as I wouldn’t waste my time on an activity or person who bores me or makes me regress psychologically and spiritually, so I wouldn’t want to spend time on a story or characters that I don’t find somehow stimulating and interesting. Ideally a project needs to give me a chance to grow as a human being, to make me question myself, to expand my awareness, not only to entertain me and give me something to do. 

  • Do you believe that a filmmaker should be original and fresh or he/she should stick to classic but safe cinema style?

Any artist should search for their own authentic voice and modulate it according to what is being said. Trying to be original just for the sake of appearing fresh is not that dissimilar from sticking to classic storytelling in order to be safe, in that both approaches are driven by individual psychological factors and external goals that have nothing to do with the story itself. It’s the story and the characters that should drive the style, alongside awareness of one’s own artistic personality.