Filmmaking is addictive. Worst that drugs. I tried to leave this industry multiple times in my life and eventually ‘relapsed’. Because there are very few industries that are this flexible, dynamic, and energetic. Nobody sits down, ever. It’s a continuous rediscovery, a continuous spiral of challenges — rewards and dopamine flow.
As a part of our series called “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me When I First Became A Filmmaker”, I had the distinct pleasure of interviewing Nadia Leonelli.
Filmmaker first and Entrepreneur later, Nadia got her start as the US-partner of European productions for the BBC, Studio Canal, Warner, Fox and more. As the New York Indie scene grew into a hotbed of new talent, Nadia developed and produced a portfolio of award-winning movies that resulted in an Independent Spirit Award Producer Award nomination. Movies include Sundance Audience Award winner “Acts of Worship” by Rosemary Rodriquez, Sundance winner “Hurricane Street” by Morgan J. Freeman’s, his second feature “Desert Blue”, (with Christina Ricci, Casey Affleck, Kate Hudson,), and “Perfume” by Michael Rymer (w. Jeff Goldblum, Mariska Hargitay, Jared Harris, Paul Sorvino, Leslie Mann).
Eventually Nadia leveraged her business degree on the more corporate side of media, becoming part of a small global team of innovation consultants working for large scale transformation at Fortune 500 companies, from Disney / ABC/ESPN to the Recording Academy, Comcast, AT&T, Moody, Reed Elsevier and many others. She co-authored the study “Digital Disruption, preparing for a very different tomorrow” with the IBM Institute for Business Value (https://www.ibm.com/downloads/cas/20NX8NYB).
Combining her talent-nurturing skills and entrepreneurial mindset, she also pursued patents on innovative tools, launched a motion graphics company with her husband and build the consumer products brand Element from concept to its current national scale.
A new era is clearly unfolding in front of our eyes and while we all struggle to grasp the ramifications, filmmakers are also empowered to explore our uneasiness. In this light, Nadia is returning to her first passion, developing a new slate of smart, thoughtful and relevant content exploring the contradictions intrinsic to change, whether it’s a look at the new face of the American Dream through the eyes of two young women caught in an situation that is bigger than they are (in “Boundaries”); or the resilience of a family of scientists who open the doors to new branches of medicine but also suffers the consequences of unsupervised progress (in “Black Butterflies”), or lastly an exploration of epi genetics, the science of change (in ”Rewire”). In television, film, podcasting, or digital media Nadia’s goal is to hold a mirror to our faces, capturing those fleeing reflections that make us special.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Our readers would love to get to know you a bit better. Can you tell us a bit of the ‘backstory’ of how you grew up?
I grew up in Italy in the tumultuous 80s, and given my father was a locally well-known political organizer with a big personality during a time of national unrest, we lived an interesting and now so traditional life. I think I attended street rallies and demonstration before I had teeth and spent my afterschool hours in steel factories or power plants listening to labor negotiations or strike plans while doing homework.
With a passion for acting since young age I had small roles on various Italian sitcoms or unremarkable TV shows until it was time to take it seriously and graduated from a rigorous acting program with a degree comparable to an MFA in Acting. While travelling to NYC for a school trip at age 16, I fell in love with the city and knew immediately I had found my place in the world. I saved every dime I earned, and I came to the US as soon as I could. I studied at Stella Adler, Strasberg, HB Studio but very soon reality knocked at my door: no movie or show was casting young actresses with foreign accents in any meaningful role, and I was not interested in playing bit-parts for the rest of my life. My choice was to go back to Italy as an actress or stay here and do something else. I am still here.
Can you share a story with us about what brought you to this specific career path?
Given my main skill set was acting, my first real industry job in New York was in casting. Not a fancy job, I was an assistant on De Niro’s “A Bronx Tale” in the Extras Casting dept. What I did mostly was to scout for the stereotypical Italian American/Brooklyn/immigrant/mafioso look that was so popular and so foreign to me as an Italian. But it allowed me to hang out around Tribeca Productions, listen in and learn some lessons. After that, I tried various crew jobs, spending hours after hours on sets observing everyone’s role. One day, I was working on an outdoor night shoot with minus 20’F and snow everywhere. it was miserable and I stopped at the production office to pick up some paperwork. When I walked in, the Line Producer was on the phone, in a warm room and with a hot tea. That sight gave me a new short-term goal: aim for the job where you can stay indoors and supervise everyone ☺. And so soon enough I worked my way up to Line Producer. I joined a small film studio in Brooklyn, called AKIVA studio, and there we produced music video after music video for a couple of years. It was a continuous stream of low budget projects, an incredible lesson in problem solving and creativity executed with very little money. I was hooked. I loved — and still do — enabling talent. It has been the guiding light for my entire career. All I really want in life is to be with creative and talented people and help make brilliant ideas a reality.
Although I haven’t acted myself for 20 years, I never lost the passion and continued studying and adjusting my methodology, working with young actresses, including my daughter, to help them develop their craft and carve a niche for themselves in this industry.
Can you share the funniest or most interesting story that occurred to you in the course of your filmmaking career?
I am sure most filmmakers have tons of funny stories. My top one is probably the story of the first and only short film I directed. When I first arrived, I had absolutely no money to attend film-school, but I was lucky to work for an independent film Studio and share an apartment with 3 filmmakers. We had tons of equipment, a stage, editing equipment and crews available, so I made my own film school by directing a short. The premise was meant to be serious, but the production became hilarious: an ordinary man
recognize when people lie to him as he can see them naked. During pre-production I happened to bump into actor Robert Sean Leonard in the street. At the time he was famous because of “Dead Poet Society”, and with complete disregard for due-process I stopped him and asked if he wanted to be in my short. And he said yes. Of all the challenges first time filmmakers face, my biggest problem was to find a full cast and extras willing to act every-day-things fully naked. Nothing sexual, just living life while naked. Thankfully my roommates and friends were not shy. So in my last scene, when everyone around the lead character is naked, we set up camera on Washington Street in Brooklyn, which is the famous street with the Brooklyn Bridge in the background that is in so many commercials. Pretty much everyone up and down the street besides myself and a few crew members, was fully naked. We didn’t have a budget to shut down the street, so people were walking around us with their jaws dropped but we really didn’t care. It was impossible not to laugh and by the time we were done it became a naked party and people almost didn’t want to put their clothes back on. I think I created indelible memories for lots of friends on that day.
Who are some of the most interesting people you have interacted with? What was that like? Do you have any stories?
This industry has many problems, but lack of interesting people is not one of them. What amazes me is how many business-types have a hidden creative streak, and how many creatives understand exactly how to play by the business rules to get what they want. It seems that the left-brain-right-brain connection is innately strong in filmmakers at large. So many interesting people, and not necessarily the famous names that are so often dropped in conversation.
The real interesting people are the ones that make the filmmaking machine turn every day with their inventions, their out-of-the-box stories, their rule-bending personalities, their global visions. I love to be surprised by the unexpected, I love to be the least smart person in the room, and I have to say I have had the luck of finding myself in that position often enough. The depth of critical thinking of director Michael Rymer, whom I worked with on “Perfume” is only matched by his talent, or my friend Vin Farrell’s (Chief Content Officer at Wunderman) ability to align the agency organizational strategy to its content strategy over breakfast and then jump on an helicopter to take amazing arial pictures of NYC, or my friend Josh Saviano, an actor-turned lawyer-turned entrepreneur, who uses his analytical mindset to teach creatives to lead and not be led by Industry and commerce. Years ago, I was lucky enough to consult for the NYC American Museum of Natural History, modernizing their digital platforms and content distribution and I interacted with many of the in-house scientists, whose work was often at the cusp of science and entertainment, including celebrity astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson. His brain and lifework don’t even need an introduction.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
This might sound cheesy, but nobody has helped me as much as my husband. Filmmaking has never been a 9–5 job, and as a woman filmmaker with a family, there is no way of getting through the day without a supportive husband. When my daughter was born, I was finishing my MBA at Stern. I literally
took my last midterm the day before giving birth and I never stopped working before or after her birth. My husband and I were running our production company Manifesto Vision together and it was the same year I was nominated for an Independent Spirit Award/Producer of the Year, as well as for our movie “Acts of Workshop” and we went back and forth to meetings and events with a newborn in tow. Nothing I have done in the last fifteen years would have happened without him.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“Todo Pasa”. I am actually getting a tattoo with that line because having it embossed on my skin might be the only way to remember it when I need it. Everything will pass, we change, we are change. There is extreme angst and extreme hope in recognizing the transitory quality of our lives. Art, with its permanence, gives us a little respite, which is maybe why it fascinates me so much, but it’s not enough. The key is to let go of what we can’t control, not an easy task but my current aspiration.
I am very interested in diversity in the entertainment industry. Can you share three reasons with our readers about why you think it’s important to have diversity represented in film and television? How can that potentially affect our culture?
I am an immigrant, a woman and specifically a woman over 40 in an industry that is obsessed with youth. I strongly believe in diversity. I think there is one key reason why we need diversity and representation in media. As Malcom Gladwell remind us, if we want to understand ourselves, we need to pay a lot more attention to the situation we’re in because we are shaped by our external influencers a lot more than we think we are. How we behave is frequently a function of the context around us rather than our character. So, if context is so important, how do we shape the environment around us to influence better habits? And here comes entertainment. Film and TV are more than a passive mirror of our society, through their emotional charge, they are powerful and active external influencers in our lives. They are a substantial part of that context that can change our beliefs, attitudes, opinions and both individual and societal behavior. If we show a diverse world, inclusive of people living with mental illness or physical disabilities for example, transgenders, immigrants, minorities, seniors, atheists, it will slowly — and most likely involuntarily — change our attitudes, especially in highly influenceable young people, who will become more and more welcoming the reality of a diverse society. And that is what we want.
What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now?
I am so excited by my new projects I can never decide in what order to describe them, but I’ll begin with our 10-episodes show, “Boundaries” which follows two very different young women, both working at a bar in the evenings and searching for their passion and direction during the day. They are unexpectantly linked when one of them is arrested and forge a bond that allows them to face a situation that is bigger than either of them, as we are reminded that the American Dream is only as possible as our institutions allow it to be. Boundaries has its dramatic moments but it’s also a coming-of-age story, full of fun, friendship, and the tribulations of entering adulthood.
In a completely different time and environment, the husband-and-wife medical team in our movie “Black Butterflies” ‘almost’ discover a technique that could save thousands of lives. At the leading edge of medical innovation, they witness the risks and benefits of progress, the greed of the corporate interests that awards them fame and ask them loyalty. It is set in the 1930s, as the distance grants us a level of comfort to appreciate a story that is not only current affairs, it is the most classic dilemma of science.
And then I’m working on a documentary called “Rewire” about the small changes we can make to potentially alter our destiny as it is written in our genes, and a movie about the indirect influence of sex in our lives.
Which aspect of your work makes you most proud? Can you explain or give a story?
Supporting talent, I spent a lot of time trying to understand what my own talent was and at the end I feel I settled in the idea that I am an enabler, a bridge in between talent and commerce. I am fascinated by people with new and different ideas, people who challenge the status quo and make us think. People who make the world better. And when I can help make those ideas a reality, spread their voice through film, television, social media or business I feel proud. A small story: Last year when the pandemic hit and New York City was the epicenter of the outbreak with enormous masks shortages, my 19-year-old daughter was desperate to help, especially health-care worker, and together we worked to leverage her substantial social media reach, through videos and merchandise giveaways, involving and engaging her fans and over a couple of weeks she raised 10,000 dollars to buy N-95 masks. We sourced them directly from China and delivered them to hospitals in the tri-state area. It was an amazing experience and the proof of positive influence of media.
Ok super. Here is the main question of our interview. What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.
1. Filmmaking is addictive. Worst that drugs. I tried to leave this industry multiple times in my life and eventually ‘relapsed’. Because there are very few industries that are this flexible, dynamic, and energetic. Nobody sits down, ever. It’s a continuous rediscovery, a continuous spiral of challenges — rewards and dopamine flow.
2. The secret behind success is stamina not talent, not money. This business is taxing on both mental and physical health. It’s an industry about ‘looks’, where fame can be achieved in a blink and disappear at the same speed. You are only as good as your last success. Holding back and letting opportunities pass sometimes is the best long-term tactic. Survival is a marathon-approach.
3. It’s about the process not the results. The finished products, the shows and movies are for the audiences, but the filmmakers find their joy and their raison-d’etre in the collaborative process. Filmmaking is often a sequence of temporary projects with changing social environments and routines. That’s where we thrive.
4. The rules are here to be broken, listen but don’t listen, don’t let them force you, embrace them to change them. I have been around for a long time, and I remember so many ‘rules’ that have disappeared. The strict length of a show, the number of shows in a season, the windowing across release platforms… and then someone dares to do it differently and castles crumble. Love it.
5. Balancing family, career and personal well-being is almost mission impossible. Something has to give. And the compromises can be very painful at times. Possibly the hardest aspect of filmmaking.
When you create a film, which stakeholders have the greatest impact on the artistic and cinematic choices you make? Is it the viewers, the critics, the financiers, or your own personal artistic vision? Can you share a story with us or give an example about what you mean?
I am a producer not a director, so my key stakeholder is the director (in film) or a combination of the writers and directors (in TV). Money is simply a guard-rail, a boundary that tells me “you can’t afford doing this or that, you need to find another way to communicate this story”. Studio execs or Networks have influence because they ultimately can change a narrative or stop a project, and many of them are quite involved but then again, they are more of a parental-figure: don’t piss them off, do your homework and they stand on the side and observe. I see filmmaking similar to cooking. The key stakeholders are the main ingredients in the recipe. I can’t make a salmon dish without salmon. But then there are all other parameters that will change the recipe one way or the other, I can bake, broil or sauté a salmon, I can add a surprise ingredient like sugar and make it candied salmon, I can buy expensive wild salmon or more modest farmed salmon, I can chop it in pieces and make a salmon burger. I can cook it Italian style, French, or Thai, and I can just not cook it at all, eat it raw in carpaccio or sushi. All of these are limitations or enhancements, they will change the final taste and will create different experiences and please different palates, but at the end, my main stakeholder is salmon.
You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
GIVE PASSPORTS TO ALL AMERICAN TEENAGERS. ALL. Make sure they travel. A LOT. Travel should be like the military was in Italy when I grew up: mandatory at age 18, you cannot escape it. Teens must experience the world on their skin, not through the internet. Meeting, talking, living with different people, hearing different languages, tasting different foods, and learning different customs. Mandatory. I truly believe that is the foundation for world peace.
We are very blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might see this. 🙂
Mackenzie Scott, a great disrupter, a woman who is having a real impact in the world and who doesn’t have to bow to a higher power, political influences, or lobbyists.
But one choice is too little…. Can I also add Christiane Amanpour, brilliant journalist and a permanent fixture in international conflicts. A role model for grace, courage and empathy paired with hard hitting investigations. Few like her.
How can our readers further follow you online?
I am quite techy, and I spent years studying social media, influencers and marketing messaging, but at the end I never really give time to my own social… but I promised myself that I will. So, in light of the fact that I prefer talking to posing in front of a camera I would say TWITTER: @manifestovision.
This was very meaningful, thank you so much! We wish you continued success!