I would like to ask you, first of all, if your movie is autobiographical and, if so, to what extend.
In a very literal sense, no, the film is not autobiographical. I do not have a brother, and I am certainly not Nia. But everything a writer writes is autobiographical, at least in some small way. I do have the experience of my summer trips to Greece being very sad. It was strange to be so deeply unhappy in such a beautiful place. That’s the strongest autobiographical element of the film.
Could you talk to us about the very good photography work in your movie? How did you do so well with underwater shooting? Also, the beautiful images on the beach?
It’s impossible to take an ugly picture in Greece! We had hoped to use underwater housing for the Canon C300, but in the end it was beyond our budget. So what you see is actually just a GoPro! (GoPro Hero 3) We were all surprised by how cool those shots turned out in the end; we didn’t have a monitor, so we had no idea what we were shooting at the time. As for the other images on the beach, I grew up visiting this area every summer to see my father and my grandparents, so it was all very familiar to me. I had photographed these places so many times throughout my life that I had a very clear idea of how to shoot in each location. For the most part I knew my master shots well in advance, and my DoP covered the scenes based on that.
Your movie seems to focus on the double identity of a second-generation immigrant. It reminded me of the saying ‘two countries, no country’. Have you experienced such a feeling and was this one of the ideas in mind?
My father is Greek and my mother is Dominican, so for me it would be “three countries, no country!” But that’s fairly common in NYC, so actually, no, I can’t say I have experienced that feeling. It was never in my mind as an idea for the film; it was simply the default. I don’t have a country, but I’ve felt quite at home in every big, international city I’ve visited. I feel very lucky for that and I’ve never minded being a sort of nomad. It always struck me as odd to define myself by the things I did not choose, like nationality. It makes more sense as an ongoing process: defining and redefining, based on my own decisions in life. For a person like Nia who is so indecisive and ambivalent, this is an especially difficult task. That was certainly an idea: finding a sense of self when you have mixed feelings on everything.
‘Where are you going alone like that..?’ The touching phrase ending your movie… Would you talk to us about the heroes’ loneliness? Was this one the issues you wanted to focus on, especially regarding second-generation immigrants?
Loneliness was a tremendously important theme, but not necessarily in reference to being the children of immigrants. It was more about being from a broken home – the children of broken people. How do you learn trust when you can’t trust the very first people that were supposed to be there for you? It’s lonely to go through life knowing you can’t rely on anyone, especially today, for a generation facing a different world than the one our parents knew. In a sense, Nia and Peter are like orphans, blindly navigating life with no support. There is no ground beneath them. They don’t know what it is to feel emotional comfort, so how can they comfort one another?
What is the ‘New York City Council for the Arts’ exactly? How does it help cinematographers? Is there support for movie-making in the City of N.Y.?
The New York State Council on the Arts (NYSCA) is a government organization whose function is to protect and promote the arts. (This is STATE government. Not the FEDERAL government of U.S.A.) I’m extremely lucky to live in a state that values its cultural foundation. New York City offers many tax incentives for production companies filming in the city, but it is New York STATE that offers grants and awards to individual artists. NYSCA awards about 2000 grants every year to various cultural efforts, which sounds like a lot until you realize just how many artists there are in New York! I had applied for many private and government grants for years with no luck. I was awarded a NYSCA grant to finish the film after we had already shot and edited. The state of New York is very supportive of artists, but we artists must prove ourselves first.
How does a wannabe cinematographer set off his/her journey in movie making? Tell us a few things about the ways you can study and then go on making films in the States and how difficult this is.
If you have some economic privilege it’s great to go to film school and even better to go to graduate school, because in graduate school you do make great connections with professionals in the industry. But if you’re like me, you have to quickly understand – and accept – what you are capable of on your own. When our economy tanked, all of the jobs I looked forward to became unpaid internships overnight. I quit film school and took a second job. (I have had many odd jobs, and never worked just one at a time.) Then I looked for an internship (unpaid, of course) where I would be handling equipment and not just getting coffee for my boss (though I did that too.) To make an incredibly long story short: I learned more there than I ever could in school and eventually started getting paid as a freelance camera operator for commercial and fashion shoots. Later I was asked to shoot a short documentary series for a non-profit organization, and it was there that I learned how to produce films with next to nothing. I purposefully wrote NIA ON VACATION to be a micro-budget film. Seven years ago! We finished the film this past January. So perhaps that answers the question of how difficult it is – hah! I think there is a common misbelief that in the states we have endless opportunities, when in fact the opportunities are limited and there is more competition than anyone can imagine. And our living and educational costs are criminally high. I still have two other jobs, and I’m still paying for the film school I attended twelve years ago. Had I finished film school I would be in double the debt and two years behind in finding paid industry work. But wherever you are and however difficult it is, my advice is the same: If you really want to make films, you must first make one film!
Last, I would like to ask you if ‘Nia’ was your first movie and how you picked up the location(s), the actors and the rest of the crew.
NIA ON VACATION is my first film. I studied crowdsourcing and did the math to establish how much money I might be able to raise on my own. Every other decision was made based on that number. I knew I could not raise enough money to shoot a film in NYC. I knew I could only afford two lead actors. I hired a novice crew to keep payment within budget – so this was actually everyone’s first feature film. The main location was the house, and my super cool yiayia allowed us to film there free of charge. This house in Aigio was the only real home I ever knew. In NYC we moved constantly. So I had drawn, written about, photographed, and dreamt about this one house (and all of the exterior locations) for so long that it was clear in my mind long before I wrote the screenplay. I have a close cousin who worked with a theater company in Aigio, and everyone there was so talented, open minded and happy to help that casting was actually quite easy. We cast 95% of our actors at the very first casting call we organized. As for crew, we spent nearly a year asking around and looking for recent film school graduates and novices who were looking for experience. We were nine crewmembers in total, making our first feature film. We had 16 days and two lights, and it was as difficult as it was exciting. I think our independent spirit, and the strong bonds we formed really show in the finished film.