It’s hard to wear many hats. When you take on a significant, creative project on your own (like QILY) there often isn’t anyone who is making you do it. The deadlines are imposed by you, the standards are set by you. It can be hard to be the creative force and the engine that’s pushing things forward — but that’s ok.
The COVID19 pandemic has disrupted all of our lives. But sometimes disruptions can be times of opportunity. Many people’s livelihoods have been hurt by the pandemic. But some saw this as an opportune time to take their lives in a new direction.
As a part of this series called “How I Was Able To Pivot To A New Exciting Opportunity Because Of The Pandemic”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Nitzan Mager.
Nitzan is a Brooklyn-based world traveler and filmmaker who enjoys crafting socially conscious comedy. Over the course of the pandemic, Nitzan has been creating a series of short, interconnected conversations that take place on zoom, titled: QUARANTINE, I LOVE YOU. The most recent capsule of episodes took part in the Beyond Film program at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we start, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your childhood backstory?
I was born in Israel, moved to Los Angeles when I was 6, then North Carolina when I was 12. So, a pretty even split in three very different worlds. This had a big hand in shaping me: a curiosity about varying cultures, beliefs, ways of life and a sense of how important it was for me to be part of diverse communities. Storytelling served as a way for me to catalogue my experiences, makes sense of them, and more than anything, to foster understanding between differing cultures.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
Being creative is not so much the desire to do something as the listening to that which wants to be done.
— Anni Albers
For me, there’s always a strong sense that creating things is about taking in — not just generating output. A lot of my best work comes from being in that space: what story wants to be told? What project wants to come to life, or is needed in some way.
Is there a particular book, podcast, or film that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?
For me, the Artist’s Way made a big impact, as it has on many in creative fields. There’s something about honoring the creative impulse and seeing it as a critical part of our lives as humans. It isn’t just something for starving artists to pursue, or the select few to find success in.
Let’s now shift to the main part of our discussion. Can you tell our readers about your career experience before the Pandemic began?
Prior to the pandemic, I had been focusing on developing a feature screenplay for my next film. I was rewriting one script, and half-way through another.
What did you do to pivot as a result of the Pandemic?
Once the pandemic began, I felt that it was incredibly hard to focus on long-form work. So I allowed myself to just write very short scenes, just a few pages. And that proved to be really great for me, creatively. I was able to bring into my work everything that was happening around me personally and in the world during this crazy time.
I got some actors that I knew who are normally busy on Broadway or major TV shows, but who were stuck at home like I was (including Jay O. Sanders, Geneva Carr, Trieste Kelly-Dunn, Sarah Steele) and we started recording these short scenes via zoom.
Can you tell us about the specific “Aha moment” that gave you the idea to start this new path?
Once I had recorded several scenes, and I was editing them, and sort of figuring out how they all fit together, I really realized that it could be a bigger project: a series.
How are things going with this new initiative?
Once I realized that what I was creating was a series, I reached out to my friend and colleague, Lela Meadow-Conner. Lela is the executive director of the Film Festival Alliance and the founder of mama.film. From that point on, we were able to get funding for the project and grow the production by getting some other really fantastic actors on board (like Ali Wentworth, Denis O’Hare, Maria Dizzia, Michael Chernus). Through Lela, I also got connected to singer Injoy Fountain who ended up being a great inspiration for some of the story lines.
The highlight for the project so far has been taking part in the Beyond Film program at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival, as a project of mama.film.
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 may sound odd, but one of those people was Philip Seymour Hoffman — quite inadvertently. I had loved his work for years, and one night I was ushering at a theater in Brooklyn. He was there to see the show and after the crowds had cleared out and I started to make my way to the train (which was pretty far away) I noticed him walking in the same direction up ahead. He turned around and we ended up walking to the train together. We talked endlessly about theater, art, acting — and we also got lost trying to find the train station. All in all, we probably ended up talking for 30 or 40 minutes, though it felt like longer. And the highlight of the conversation was Hoffman’s advice: Make your own work. Don’t wait for them to come to you, don’t wait for permission. Just create your own work, and things will follow. It had a big impact on me then, and it has continued to resonate with me since.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started in this new direction?
The greatest thing by far has been meeting and working with actors whose work I’ve adored for so long. For this latest batch of QILY episodes, our actors were also located all over the world — New York, LA, but also New Zealand, Paris, and Vancouver. Being able to bring all these incredibly talented actors together on this project in such an unusual way, across different continents was so rewarding and cool.
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me before I started leading my organization” and why. Please share a story or example for each.
- Work with people who push you further than you might push yourself.
I felt really fortunate to start working on Quarantine, I Love You with Lela Meadow-Conner as my executive producer. It was easier for her, in many cases, to dream big — and that pushed me to do the same. That led us to get some really exceptional actors involved in the project.
2. Be ready to improvise.
The way that creating QILY episodes works is that they get made in a span of a week. So not everything can be planned out far in advance. This means that improvisation is always part of the work — and there’s something freeing about just figuring it out as you go.
3. Sometimes plan b is better than plan a.
Along the same lines, often even when you do have a plan, things can still fall through. For example, we thought that a particular actress would be playing a certain role — and the script had been written with her in mind. But when that didn’t work out, we ended up casting someone totally different, and made the necessary adjustments to the script. This plan b ended up serving the story even better than our plan a.
4. Evaluate which elements are most important, and create your schedule accordingly.
For this project, since the production end is relatively simple (just filming via zoom) we knew that what would make the episodes really stand out is a great cast. So even though the schedule was tight to begin with, we left as much time as possible in our production schedule to allow us to cast the best actors possible for each role. It was unconventional (and a bit stressful!) but we made sure everything else was in place already, and pushed the final casting to the last minute.
5. It’s hard to wear many hats.
When you take on a significant, creative project on your own (like QILY) there often isn’t anyone who is making you do it. The deadlines are imposed by you, the standards are set by you. It can be hard to be the creative force and the engine that’s pushing things forward — but that’s ok.
So many of us have become anxious from the dramatic jolts of the news cycle. Can you share the strategies that you have used to optimize your mental wellness during this stressful period?
I don’t read the news very often. I used to, but then chose to stop. I find that the news cycle doesn’t shift as fast as the media would like us to believe. Even if I read the news just a few times a week, and not every day (or even several times per day!) I am just as well informed.
Also, I try to do my morning pages daily, just 3 pages of stream-of-conscious journaling. When I do, it makes a big difference in my wellbeing and my focus too.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be?
I’m obviously biased, coming from a career in the arts, but I think that giving importance to that in our society is incredibly important. Art is how we synthesize experiences, information, emotion collectively and individually. It gives us a way to process, to connect, to understand things that demand a different type of thinking. So giving more resources to artists, arts education, and making more space for creativity for “non-artists” are some of the things I think we can do as a society.
Is there a person in the world whom you would love to have lunch with, and why? Maybe we can tag them and see what happens!
I think that person would be filmmaker Janicza Bravo. She makes things that are entirely her own, that are as incredibly unique as she is. It is something I fight to do, as EE Cummings said: “To be nobody but yourself in a world which is doing its best day and night to make you like everybody else means to fight the hardest battle which any human being can fight and never stop fighting.” It is a fight that yields some really interesting work, in general and on her part specifically, and I’d love a chance to get to meet her.
How can our readers follow you online?
@nitzan.mager on Instagram, www.nitzanmager.com
Thank you so much for sharing these important insights. We wish you continued success and good health!