Diliana Alexander, producer, independent filmmaker, and the executive director of FilmGate, is challenging film studies students in her Magic Realism in Eastern European Cinema class. The students are enthusiastic and have been able to approach her with the ideas they have for making films and other projects.
FilmGate is a nonprofit organization that supports independent filmmakers and actors in Florida. They’re holding a creative conference in February that explores how new technology influences the future of storytelling like virtual reality, augmented reality, mixed reality, and mixed media.
I had the privilege to interview Professor Alexander this week. She has advice on the art of filmmaking and production for FIU students.
How did you get started with filmmaking and production?
I graduated from high school with kind of a good average, so I got accepted into a prestigious university, and because I was good at math I thought I would be good at management and economics, so I studied that and I hated it but I graduated. I always took electives in English and other artsy stuff and when I graduated, I worked for the government for two years in Canada and I hated it, so I thought to myself that if I had to do this for the rest of my life, I would be very unhappy. I took a summer off and went around Europe and when I came back, Canada had just passed a lot of film incentives, so a lot of films were being shot. It was just about to become Hollywood North. Then I thought, well, there’s a lot of filming and I love films, so I’m just going to try it out and see if I can go on a film set and see if I like it. Immediately from the first hour at a film set, I was hooked. I started as a production assistant. and because I had the economics background I got really quickly up to production, coordinating, the management and budgeting side, but once I was producing I thought of being more creative, I wanted to write scripts, I wanted to direct, so the TV show that I worked for allowed me write one script but they didn’t let me direct because they didn’t think I had the credentials (I had been working with them for three years) so when they went on hiatus, waiting for their next financing round, they said “Oh I think it’s going to take three months until we start the next season” and I said “Oh, okay well, I’m just going to do my Masters in Film” and that’s how I ended up in Florida.
Could you talk a little bit about the FilmGate internships?
Yes! So FilmGate does a lot of things. We have monthly screenings called “I’m Not Going To Move To L.A.” not because we hate L.A. We love it, but because we think that local filmmakers should have the possibility of staying here if they want to and create Florida stories and give the state a voice. We screen local shorts films and we present local musicians, and we have a percolator session in it where you can pitch your ideas and then you can find collaborators and creators, and then we have a networking event at the end where people can meet each other and talk about their projects. And then we have monthly workshops, workshops about screenwriting, producing, we just did one on the art of the pitch, which was on how to successfully pitch your project and get it funded. We also have workshops on budgeting and special effects makeup. Then we have that creative conference I mentioned that is happening on February, it’s like putting on another festival but on an international level. We get MIT and the NY Times flying themselves to it, so it’s quite stressful but great. On top of this, as a collective, we also help our members produce projects. Whether it’s short film, narrative, feature films, but also virtual reality projects/ augmented reality projects. If somebody is interested in more of the production process then we need production interns, if somebody is interested more in event management and festivals, or nonprofit administration side then we have internships for that as well.
We love to train. If people are interested in learning how to shoot or learning how to light, we train in that as well. It’s really cool, because for anyone that has worked for us so far (FilmGate started in 2012) we’ve been able to place them in really good positions, which I’m super happy about because we’ve had students come from UM or FIU that didn’t have any film background. One of the production coordinators we worked with started out as an intern and then she became paid, then moved to New York and now she’s working for a really famous production company, so it’s like a great training ground.
You were in Canada last week at the Toronto International Film Festival, right?
Yes, I was pitching my feature film, it’s my directorial debut. I’ve produced feature films before, but I’ve never directed one. I’ve directed short films, music videos, and television shows.
My screenwriting professor is amazing, one of my favorite professors I’ve ever had. So I found out that she is also a novelist (she invited me to one of her readings). I fell in love with the writing and ended up reading all of her books. They’re young adult novels, but I didn’t care, they were cool! They had a darkness to them, they weren’t too fluffy, it wasn’t just about a love story, you know? I always like a really good coming of age story and always from the point of the outsider, and me as an immigrant, I’ve always kind of related to that. So I pitched to her that she would let me adopt her second novel which is called Narc, and she LOVED the idea because it was so obvious that she had written it cinematically because she’s also a screenwriting professor. She had seen my short films, so she thought it’d be amazing to work with a director and I had the sensibility and aesthetic that she would like, so it wasn’t really hard to convince her. I think she was waiting for it, really.
So, what are your thoughts on the film scene in Miami? Do you think it’s growing?
It depends on how you look at it. When it comes from the union side (the non-independent side) it’s not, because of lack of incentives. Most shows have left, I believe the only two right now that are left are Ballers and Bloodline, and Bloodline was green-lit for the third season, but from what I understand that’s going to be the last. I don’t know if it’s because the story ran out or because of lack of incentives. I can probably guess that it’s because of lack of incentives. I’ve met a lot of producers that have said that they love Miami and would shoot in Florida in a heartbeat if incentives returned, but it’s just not financially viable. So, from the union perspective, it seems that it’s quite dried out and that’s really sad because that’s where the highly paid positions are. When it comes to the independent side, it seems that more and more filmmakers are creating with the democratization of technology. I’m seeing a rise in feature film production locally, and not all of them are amazing yet but the more there are made, the more they’ll get better. There’s a feature film that was made here last year called Moonlight, and without incentives. Right now, there’s Oscar talk; it was the most talked about film at the Toronto International Film Festival. The director really loved shooting in Florida. I remember we talked about Harmony Korine in class shooting Spring Breakers here, and now he’s back shooting another film and buying a house here. So that makes me really happy that there are some great filmmakers that are attracted to this unique environment we have here.
For those that are interested in filmmaking, what sort of advice do you have for them? How can they start and where could they go?
On the preparation side, I think the more movies you watch and the more books you read, the better you know how to tell a good story. Even if they’re bad movies, you still learn from them. On the other side, in order to be a filmmaker, you HAVE to have production experience. The more you know, the better of a filmmaker you are. Don’t be afraid of taking a camera and shooting with it, just because you’re not “techy.” That goes for both men and women. Learn how to light, even if lighting is going to be obsolete soon, because of cameras becoming so sensitive. The best thing to do is to be a production assistant for free, or interning for free, and try to absorb the apprenticeship process as much as possible. Try to learn from people that are talented, of course, because you can also pick up really bad habits on set. At first don’t be picky, but then eventually you need to start being picky about who you work with, like, which director or which producer because you will probably have those habits for a long time. Also, write your own stories and make as many films as possible. And you know, the first ten will be bad. I mean, unless you’re a Martin Scorsese genius. You’ll have a lot of bad films in you, and that’s a part of the learning process for the good to start coming out, so don’t be discouraged.
Is there a specific genre you like to work in or do you work in a variety?
Okay, so I like to work in a variety of genres, but what I would love to work on is Sci-Fi. In a heartbeat. I’m kind of excited about the remake of Blade Runner because I love the filmmaker who’s making it but I’m also kind of worried because it’s one of my favorite films!
Article by: Pierina Hidalgo
Pierina Hidalgo is interning for the FIU Film Studies, Fall 2016 semester. She is an English major who is also pursuing the FIU Film Certificate.