By Shannon Mullen
Women in Film & Video of New England presents a new series of Q & A interviews with professional female filmmakers who live and work in New England or have strong ties to the region.
In this edition WiFV features director Valerie Weiss, who started her film career while earning her PhD in Biophysics from Harvard Medical School. After defending her thesis Weiss “never did another experiment” and instead moved to Los Angeles to pursue her true passion: making movies.
She attended the American Film Institute’s prestigious and highly competitive Directing Workshop for Women, then wrote her first feature and returned to Boston to shoot it. The film, LOSING CONTROL, screens tonight at the Woods Hole Film Festival.
WiFV: How did starting your film career in Boston affect your path to Hollywood?
Weiss: Working on the east coast you have to be entrepreneurial and creative because there isn’t an infrastructure to make films. You have to create your opportunities from nothing. It’s the same way in Los Angeles even though there’s that cliché that it’s all about who you know. It’s partly that, but it’s also about your ability to put a project together on your own then get people to follow. So, I didn’t come out [to Hollywood] with a false understanding of how things get done.
WiFV: How did you find your niche in the filmmaking process?
Weiss: When I got a chance to direct theater in college I loved everything about it. [In film] I knew that in order to direct your first piece you have to write it. I also wanted to make a movie that was personal and unique, and because of my science background I could tell a story no one else in Hollywood could tell – that was important for my first film. Writing came out of wanting to direct, and I’ve learned that I really love both. Writing a script is very hard, and it’s not as much fun as directing because it’s so solitary, but when you come up with a great moment, or that perfect line of dialogue it’s incredibly satisfying. First and foremost, though, I’d say I’m a director but I love to write too, and people have really responded to my writing.
WiFV: What qualities do you think separate you from other filmmakers?
Weiss: I think part of it is what I said about learning on the east coast. Also, since I was little I’ve been a self-starter. I remember when I was in elementary school I ran for school president on a platform that the water fountains weren’t clean. I got out rubber gloves and cleaned the water fountains myself… and I won. It’s that idea that you see something that needs to get done you don’t wait for someone else to do it, because that’s the soul-killer.
With Losing Control, I was sick of waiting so I wrote the business plan, went out and got investors and three weeks later we had all our money. When you set your sights on something, assume that you have to do it yourself. People only support your vision once it’s a train leaving the station.
WiFV: What is the most important lesson you’ve learned so far about the process of advancing a film from script to screen?
Weiss: I can really speak only to being an indie filmmaker. It’s different if you’re trying to go through the studio system. I’d say if you’re trying to make an independent film, you really need to control the financing of your project – raise it yourself or do what the Duplass brothers do, or Lynn Shelton, and just make your projects for nothing. That’s my advice – you’ve got to think about how you can get your work made any way you can.
WiFV: What obstacles do you face as a woman trying to pursue a career in the male-dominated film business?
Weiss: Coming from science, which is at least as male-dominated, I was used to being the rare woman doing it in a lot of cases. You can’t control statistics. You just have to do your job the way you’re going to do it.
I’ve never felt any discrimination in directing film. I never feel that I’m treated differently because I’m a woman. If anything it’s an asset because my crew feels nurtured. I’ve felt it with TV directing, though, trying to get a foot in door there. While there are successful women TV directors that’s where you hear women say it’s harder to get those jobs.
Someone told me recently that the difference between men and women is that women ask for a chance and men just tell you what they’re trying to do. I don’t know if that’s true or not, but it’s interesting.
WiFV: What advice do you have for women who are just starting their film careers, especially those who are attempting to do it on the east coast?
I think you can take a really good lesson from people like Drake Doremus, Lynn Shelton, the Duplass brothers, David Gordon Green – they each made three low budget features, and each one was better than the next and got them some attention. Then finally the third one got them an opportunity to do a bigger budget film with high profile actors.
I think those are really good success stories to study. They’re talented and creative but they’re also go-getters. It shows you your first film might not be life-changing. It’s a very long, long, long term track and I think you need to do some self-assessment and make sure it’s for you. Then you need to sustain yourself while you’re doing it, create your own material that you can control, and find a talented team to bring it to life.
You either make a film so cheaply that you don’t need money – I’m a big fan of that if your story lends itself to low/no budget – or you go out and raise money. It’s not fun and it’s not easy, but you get better at it.
You’ve got to be really honest with yourself, and figure out which person you are. If you’re not into raising money just make your movies for nothing. For people who do want to raise money, you need a good business plan. Investors are business people and they’re going to want you to speak their language; they’re going to want to make sure you understand the film industry; they’ll want to know how to make real return.
You can raise money from friends and family, usually $30-40K at most. Then there’s Kickstarter, but realize that everyone’s doing that now so you need to go to a demographic that isn’t getting lot of requests. Finding industry sponsors is another smart way to save money, if there’s something relevant about your film to some particular industry.
I don’t know that there’s any revolutionary way to get financing, but these days more than ever you can reach more people through social networking. You just need that creative angle…
This is a lot to do and you need to remember to keep finding ways to have fun, because creativity comes out of the fun. I need someone to remind me of this! It’s hard because you need to be perfect, but then you need to relax. It’s counterintuitive and it takes practice, but you should enjoy the process if you’re going to go through all the effort.
For more information about Valerie or “Losing Control” visit the film’s website: www.losingcontrolmovie.com