Written by JJ Barnes
I interviewed filmmaker Nadia Leonelli about her filmmaking career, what inspires her, and the creative process that goes into her latest project, Boundaries.
Tell me a bit about yourself.
Grew up in Italy. My early life was a bit peculiar. My dad was a union organizer in massive factories and railroads so I spent my after-school hours with iron/steel /railroad workers and by age 10 I attended more strikes, demonstrations, political rallies and union negotiation than most adults in their lifetimes.
By the mid 80s, new Italian laws revolutionized the old-style mental institutions with enormous consequences for both patients and employees and at the same time immigration from Africa hit Italy. So my dad’s work switched onto supporting Senegalese and Moroccan new immigrants in their quest for citizenship on one side, while being involved in the re-structuring of mental institutions on the other so I was spending my weekends with the insane. Literally. You can probably hear in my tone that I’m very proud of all of that, I met some of the most beautiful, caring people during those years and it left an indelible mark on me.
As per my personality, I was always thorn in between academia — I’m the history geek that learns every single date in the books — and acting. Eventually at 18 I was accepted at a 2-year full time Acting Academy, comparable to an MFA in acting here in the US and that was the official beginning.
When did you first realise you wanted to make films?
I had been on film sets in Italy since my early teens but during my last year at the Academy I won a scholarship for a summer film school in Paris and for the first time I was behind the camera, I experienced the full process, that actors usually don’t get to see or touch. And it was mind-blowing.
What is your favourite thing about films?
That narratives and stories can change the way people think, change culture, and eventually change the world.
What classes or research did you take to support you in your filmmaking career?
I took acting classes for many more years after my Academy. When I came to the US I studied at Stella Adler, Strasberg and HB Studio but before that, In Europe I studied Grotowski and Commedia dell’Arte and a lot of body-based acting that is completely opposite to the American ‘method’, and I think that gave me a very different perspective on performance and naturalism, and helped me, even as a producer , writer and a content creator, understand and develop talent and characters in different ways.
As for filmmaking school, I did not attend the typical film-college. When I first moved here at 20 I was broke and definitely could not pay for NYU or Columbia, but I took many individual classes, especially very technical ones, AVID editing, cinematography and lighting, etc. I believe that a filmmaker needs to understand and struggle with all the crafts that are involved to really appreciate the talent and skills of professionals. I specifically did a lot of editing. In my early years I produced many low budget music videos, week after week, and we spent plenty of nights the Steenbeck (yes we still edited in film) splicing images to the rhythm of rap lyrics and that was an incredible film school.
What was your first film industry job?
My first job in the US was in casting. Nothing fancy, I was searching for realistic-looking mobsters as extras and bit players in “A Bronx Tale”, specifically because I could speak Italian…. Although none of them really spoke any Italian, but I loved the experience. After that I did a lot of Production Assistant jobs, the lowest level in the film hierarchical ladder l. I worked my way up from there to Production Coordinator, Production Manager and so on. One step at the time.
Tell me a favourite experience in your career. Something that stands out in your memories and makes you want to find more experiences like it.
Making movies is so hard that the feeling you get when you finally see it on the big screen with people around you is almost cathartic, and that goes for every single project I made. But at the same time, the moments I miss the most are the little ones. Those long nights on set, hanging out in the back of a grip truck eating bad craft service, or the comradery in those long 14-15 hr days when everyone was taking turns giving a shoulder massage to everyone else… those are the best memories, and the fact that we were all 20something helps.
What was your toughest experience in your filmmaking career?
The toughest moments were always when personal relationships were destroyed by egos getting inflated or prescription drugs. This industry is about the 15 minutes of fame, it puts people on pedestals and then crushes them and too many, especially when young, change into unrecognizable human beings and all that we have left is memories.
What is the title of your current project?
Boundaries. It’s a TV show and we are still in development so it’s not shooting yet.
What inspired you to make Boundaries?
Boundaries is very personal. It’s about two young immigrant women in Los Angeles. Two educated, smart and very different women. Because the portrait we get in media is always one of desperate migrants crossing the southern borders, not speaking a word of English and hardly integrating.
Of course that is a painful reality, and it’s our duty to support and protect those who cannot defend themselves and most often provide for all of us, but it’s not the only one. Immigrants have PhDs, immigrants are MDs in our hospitals. Immigrants are tech geniuses at companies like Google and Tesla. Immigrants are young college students who decide to stay here after graduation. Immigrants are a diverse and large population and all of them matter and participate in this economy. So, Boundaries is about all the faces of immigration, through the eyes and lives of two young women coming together to defend their version of the American Dream.
What is the main conflict of Boundaries?
It’s the conflict in between our self-identity and the identity assigned to us by society and our institutions.
Did you work with a writer, or write Boundaries yourself? Would you do the same again?
I am working with a writer, Skye Emerson, and she’s fantastic. I always prefer to work in collaboration with others, more brains are better than one brain and it’s important to accept the criticism, listen to the perspective of someone who’s less ‘attached’ and is a professional.
How did you find your cast and what made you choose them?
On a general level, there is nothing better than a talented casting director. They know where to find the ‘jewels’ and they have the relationships and skills to manage through the agency world and maintain a degree of separation in between art and commerce. But sometimes, in the early stages of projects, when a casting director is not involved yet, we take the process in our hands. And the choice depends on whether we need a ‘celebrity’ to carry a budget or a ‘new discovery’. Each project is different, each choice is different, but on average talent and acting skills are always #1 for me as you can imagine from my past.
Tell me some career goals. What would you like to achieve?
I want to make movies and shows that resonate long after the last frame has faded. Content that matters.
Tell me something you were surprised by, something you had never realised about being a filmmaker.
It’s addictive. I tried to leave this industry several times in my life and I get pulled back continuously!
What are words of advice you have for other aspiring filmmakers?
Study and work at the same time. Don’t just work, you need to understand the history of film, the drivers, the techniques. You need to know the masters who preceded us, you need to appreciate the intellectual references and learn from the past. But also work. You need to be on set, be a grip, carry heavy equipment, do long hours. Even if you want to be a studio exec. Even if you want to be a marketer. Because there is no marketing without the sweat of the crew. Especially now, in light of the IATSE strike, every young filmmaker, who will be the exec , the casting director, the producer of the future, should understand what it really takes to make a movie or show. It will make for a better industry, but it will also make for better execs and better filmmakers.
Give me your social links so people can come and find you!
Twitter is my main social. @manifestovision