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Lunafest Favorite, Director Ela Thier Talks About Her Craft

Momasphere ‘s Lunafest women’s short films festival on Sunday, May 23rd, at the Brooklyn Arts Exchange, kicks off with award-winning film A SUMMER RAIN, by producer, writer, director Ela Thier. Momasphere managed to snag an interview with Ms. Thier, to talk about the film and her craft. Now in its ninth year, LUNAFEST was established by LUNA, the makers of the Whole Nutrition Bar for Women, to simultaneously promote women filmmakers, raise awareness for women’s issues, and support worthy women’s nonprofit organizations. Last June, Ms. Thier poignantly described some of the difficulties women filmmakers encounter in an open letter to the film community. Ms Thier’s feature film credits include FOREIGN LETTERS, PUNCTURE, THE WEDDING COW, and dozens of short films including JUDO GIRL, GENTLE CYCLE ONLY, and A SUMMER RAIN. Ms. Thier will be on-hand at New York City’s only Lunafest to lead an interactive session and Q & A with festival attendees.

Momasphere: The film is so personal, and seems autobiographical. You’ve written and directed quite a number of films. Is it easier, or harder to write about your own experience?

Ela: Writing autobiographically or writing fiction is not at all different. No matter how fictionalized a story is, you’re always writing about your experience. And no matter how autobiographical a story is, you have to shape the narrative for dramatic effect. So whether I’m writing about pigs in space or about my personal immigration experience, I’m drawing from real feelings and relationships, while applying the craft of good story-telling.

Momasphere: I understand that you’ve already shot the feature. Did you start by writing the whole feature-length script first, before shooting the short, or did the project start as a short and grow into a feature?

Ela: I’m a feature-film writer; that’s my medium. So yes, this too was initially conceived as a feature. However, when I received notice of a 7K grant, I knew I would produce the short first. I was stuck in LA traffic when the shape of the short came to me in one piece. As soon as I was back in my room, I wrote it in one sitting and then called my producing partner to let her know that we’d be filming it that summer. After we finished the short, I went back to the feature concept and completed writing it.

Momasphere: Lots of our readers are creative people, who may never venture into the world of film, but would like to share an experience from their lives through some other medium, possibly writing. Can you offer some advice for how to get started?

Ela: Give yourself permission to do a very bad job. The most beautiful gardens grow out of manure. I often tell people to find a box of crayons, pick two colors that don’t go together, and then scribble with your eyes closed.

There is a myth in our culture that if you’re a “true artist” your work will be automatically brilliant from the moment you start out. If your first work isn’t brilliant, you’re not a real artist. This is a horrible, terrible, no good, very bad lie. Creative mediums are just like anything else in life: the more you do them, the better you get at it. How do you know if you’re a real artist? If you WANT to make art, then you are a true artist. Period. End of sentence.

I’ve made lots of amateur work before I did good work. And I keep getting better all the time. One day, when my career is solid enough to withstand it, I plan to publish the first drafts of some of my scripts, so people can see how far one can go from “bad writing” to stellar writing.

Your long-term goals should be as ambitious and bombastic as possible, because why settle for less? But your short-term goals should include little baby steps. If you’re not accomplishing your short-term goals, then they are too big. Make them smaller. Instead of writing an Oscar-worthy epic screenplay, spend ten minutes scribbling down a really bad, syrupy, clichéd, melodramatic scene that makes you sick. Tomorrow you’ll do another one. If you spend just ten minutes a day, writing bad scenes, two months from now you’ll be light-years ahead of where you’re at right now.

Do lots of “bad” work. I put “bad” in quotes because there’s no such thing as bad work, it’ll just feel that way that you. If YOU made it, then it’s good, because it’s always a good thing when a human mind makes an effort to create something.

Don’t worry about accomplishments. Remember that fun is the most efficient use of your time.

Momasphere: David Broza is an Israeli musician who has also made a name for himself in the United States. His song, ‘Yehyah Tov’, ‘Everything Will Be Good,’ serves as a kind of theme song for the movie, and is a bit of an anthem for a generation of Israelis. Can you talk a little about the significance of that song for you?  Can you tell us about the process you use in creating the musical soundtracks for your films?

Ela: When it comes to music, I do the very thing that no filmmaker should ever do: I choose my ideal track, put it in the rough cut, and fall in love with it knowing that I may never get to use it. Then I spend time worrying about the heartache I’ll feel if I won’t get to use the music I want! My tip to filmmakers: don’t do it that way. Secure the rights first before you get attached to the music.With “A Summer Rain” I wrote Broza a personal letter which I sent to his manager. Miraculously, my sister ended up waiting his table at a restaurant in Jerusalem the day that he received my letter. It was a coincidence beyond belief. Broza was incredibly friendly and generous in letting me use the song.

With both the short and feature, I wanted to use authentic Israeli music because these films are so much about cultural identity, and I think that music captures a culture more than anything else. The feature is filled with Chava Alberstein music and I’m currently in touch with her manager about using her music. In fact, the feature is titled “Foreign Letters”, which is the name of a song she wrote which I’d like to use as the theme song.

Everyone: please keep your fingers crossed for me. I’ve yet again laid in my ideal sound track, fell in love with it, and now I’m doing the legwork to see what I can do to get to use it.

 Momasphere: The accolades on your website are completely over the top. I wanted to just include one here, for our readers, from an award winning screenwriter: “When I read the testimonials on Ela's website, I said to myself: "No one is that good." And I was right. Ela is infinitely better than good. Most screenwriting gurus claim to know all the answers. Ela goes them one better, she asks all the right questions. Whether you're a complete novice or a battle-hardened, ink-stained wretch, I defy you to take this workshop without learning a number of invaluable lessons about film, the craft, the business and, more importantly, yourself.” What’s your secret?

Ela: Thanks for a very flattering question!

Success, in the real sense of the word, comes from the ability to make friends.
The only thing you need to reach out for are real friendships. You need to encourage people to go after their dreams, and train them to support you in doing the same. Notice what’s great about people and make a point of telling them and appreciating them. Then make yourself vulnerable by letting people know that you too need an encouraging word.

The biggest obstacle to success is the fact that we operate in isolation. When you try to accomplish things alone, you become too vulnerable to discouragement and self-doubt. You need people to keep you going. I’m blessed with a supportive husband, family, friends, and an ever-widening circle of filmmakers who I’ve gotten to know through my own classes.

Don’t go after glory and being impressive. Just go after friends. Dare to need people. Friendships are the key to success. Nothing else really matters. Real human connection is the greatest asset in life. It’s the only source of real security. Money and glory just give an illusion of safety, but those things come and go. Your only source of real security are your allies.

So what’s the secret to being popular? I tell my students this all the time: the secret to being popular is not being impressive or pretty or rich or funny or witty or nice or helpful or well-dressed or accomplished or any of those goofy things that we get distracted by. None of those things work.

What makes someone popular is the ability to like and want people, and to show it. Instead of being focused on what would make you likeable, focus on liking other people and brace yourself through the embarrassment as you communicate to people that you like and appreciate them.

Make friends with all sorts of people. Show some “liking” for people who you easily like, people who you can’t manage to feel anything about, and people you’re inclined not to like. All those people have qualities in them that are simply awesome, and you get to build the muscle of noticing what’s great about people.

All of us feel very desperate to be liked. You’re not the only one. So if you can show people that you like them, you won’t know what to do with all the people who will want to be friends with you!

Momasphere: The film, A Summer Rain, has won countless international awards. You must be thrilled. Did you see that coming?  What do you think it is about the film that has resonated with so many people?

Ela: You know, people make the mistake of thinking that what makes a film great is that it pushes the envelope or is daring or edgy or risky or unique or shocking in some way. I think that’s a lot of hot air. It’s how you end up with pretentious films that come and go, but don’t really stay in people’s hearts.

If you can portray human connection in an honest way, there isn’t a human being out there who won’t relate to your work. Human connection is the most compelling and important part of life. “A Summer Rain” and “Foreign Letters” are essentially a love story. So yes, the leads happen to be two twelve-year-old girls who are best friends, but that doesn’t matter. One human loving another human is as universal as it gets.
When producer-types ask me about “audience” and “demographics” I tell them what they want to hear: “children. women. Jews. Asian-Americans. Immigrants.” These are all demographics that the movie reaches. But to myself I say: my demographic is the human race because my stories are about love.

I recently directed a film called “Judo Girl” about a young woman who wants to compete for her black-belt but her coach won’t let her attend the tournament because she’s injured. She fights like hell to win her right to compete. I love the story because it’s about an ass-kicking, powerful woman and when it comes to being a powerful woman, I can use all the role models I can get.

However, as I directed the lead actress during the shoot, she realized that the story is really about her connection with the coach. At one point, as we were filming the scene where she challenges her own coach to a fight, she turned to me with a sudden realization and said: “this is a love story, isn’t it.”

They all are. No matter what the story is: if it’s my story then it’s a story about people loving each other. And that, I believe, is the ingredient that makes my films compelling.


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