“Don’t waste your time comparing yourself to others.” I feel it’s one of the biggest ills of our society. We spend so much time looking at what people do. We project our fears into others and make excuses to actually not do what we are supposed to do. More than once I was scared of moving forward with a project because I was looking at what was going on outside of my circle of trust and I was telling myself that I wasn’t good enough, that it was worthless. Thankfully I brought myself back to reason knowing that everyone has something different to bring to the table, and my stories could also be heard.
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 Théo Mahy-Ma-Somga.
Théo Mahy — also known by his full name, Théo Mahy-Ma-Somga — is an independent filmmaker who has produced and directed a plethora of award-nominated films and TV shows. Mahy graduated from the Paul Cézanne University in Aix-en-Provence. He has been living in the United States since 2012. His film credits include “An American Life,” “All We Have Left’’ and “The Audience.”
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?
Thank you for having me. My name is Théo Mahy-Ma-Somga. I was born in Paris, and I grew up in Aix-en-Provence in the Southeast of France. My mom was young at the time, and she couldn’t really take care of me while my dad had never been in the picture, so I spent all my childhood with my grandparents, my mom’s parents and it was amazing! I couldn’t have dreamt of a better way to grow up.
Can you share a story with us about what brought you to this specific career path?
Storytelling has always been something very special for me. I grew up as a single child, and in order to keep myself entertained, I was always playing scenarios with toys in my bedroom. At the time I remember I was already basing my stories on real-life experiences. We were living in the projects so every day I was confronted with something, it could have been something dramatic, funny, romantic. It didn’t matter, you can be sure that I was re-creating the scene in my room.
Can you share the funniest or most interesting story that occurred to you in the course of your filmmaking career?
While shooting “An American Life” in Brooklyn, I was with the director of photography Michael Henaghan and Erik Barton, our gaffer. We were supposed to change location, and the three of us stayed behind to discuss the next scenes. When we left, a half marathon was taking place on Flatbush Avenue; our car was across the street, and a security guard told us that basically, we couldn’t cross without racing. Since we were already late and couldn’t afford to let the cast and crew wait for us in Manhattan, the three of us started running the race carrying lights and camera equipment above our head on 4 blocks until we finally reached a way to exit the Avenue. When I think about it, the security guard might have played us but that was very funny.
Who are some of the most interesting people you have interacted with? What was that like? Do you have any stories?
Jennifer Lewis is a very interesting one, I had the chance to go to her house one Christmas a few years back and I can tell you that she is exactly how you see her on-screen. She has this incredible energy that can light up any room she walks in.
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?
Deborah Dean Davis has been tremendously helpful in my development as a screenwriter. She has such ease with words. She was here for me at every step of the path. Writing a script is tough, I’m doing it in English which is not my first language, it’s even more complicated, she is the one pushing me to sit down and do it. Her house is always open if I need something and she jokes about the fact that if I show up with a hoody on my head she instantly knows I’m struggling with a rewrite.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
I wish I could say something classy and inspirational. I would keep it simple, “in the great expanse of time we are already dead.” For me, It means that we should enjoy the ride called Life. Don’t fear the past, don’t get anxious about the future, don’t waste your time comparing yourself to others, just have fun.
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?
Do we really need reasons? We can’t continue to live bound by archaic codes, we are all the same, regardless of sex, race, skin color, sexual orientation. I really have a problem with people who think they are superior to others. It goes against everything that makes us who we are.
I believe that we need to generate a culture representing the people who live in it. We need to be able to rely on who we see on the screen. For example, I’m French from African origins; my grandfather was from Cameroon and here in America we don’t often see people who look or sound like me. We all have a story that needs to be heard.
We should all be very grateful to be able to work in this industry, and it’s our duty to make meaningless changes to it. We are not just here to entertain, but we should be dedicated to bringing it to speed. That’s why I love telling tales of the underdog so much.
By having more diverse pictures, we will give confidence to young kids that will see that everything is possible. Kids need raw models that look and sound like them. By opening up our industry to everyone, we will see many new talents and ways to make movies. Look what happened with Parasite, that was so refreshing.
What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now?
I finished writing a script called “Ubuntu-An African Story”, inspired by my real-life story when I was 18, and my grandfather took me to Cameroon to do a very old-school rite of passage in the village he came from. You have no idea what happened to me there. That story changed everything in me, and I believe will resonate with a lot of people. I’m very much looking forward to having the opportunity to shoot it.
Which aspect of your work makes you most proud? Can you explain or give a story?
The collaborative aspect, I love that team spirit, it gives me so much adrenaline and confidence. Since a kid I always have transcended myself when surrounded by others, I can’t really act on my own alone. I don’t find it exciting. Having a team of incredibly creative minds just makes the filmmaking process a wonderful experience.
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.
- “It’s going to be hard.” It’s true, and it’s good to know it from the start. It’s also immensely rewarding when you achieve something you have been sweating for. It’s hard because you don’t know where your next job is coming from, you don’t know if you just made your last film. Most of us, creatives and have no idea how to deal with execs or financiers. It’s hard because the industry is meant like this, to make it hard for anyone who hopes to break through but if you don’t let that affect you, it’s an amazing journey.
- “Don’t drink at industry parties.’’ Don’t make me wrong I love parties, I’m French it’s in my veins, but at parties, it’s important to pace yourself, you never know who you will talk to or which opportunities can arise. It’s very hard to do, especially when liquor is free! I think I slept in my car a few nights.
- “Don’t waste your time comparing yourself to others.” I feel it’s one of the biggest ills of our society. We spend so much time looking at what people do. We project our fears into others and make excuses to actually not do what we are supposed to do. More than once I was scared of moving forward with a project because I was looking at what was going on outside of my circle of trust and I was telling myself that I wasn’t good enough, that it was worthless. Thankfully I brought myself back to reason knowing that everyone has something different to bring to the table, and my stories could also be heard.
- “Don’t listen to those who don’t understand you.” It happens to me with my ex-girlfriend. She couldn’t understand how I was dedicating all my time to try to produce one of my scripts, she kept pushing me to take a 9 to 5 job but I kept refusing. I know it would have been the end of my dreams, and I would never let anyone end them for me. We broke up for the better.
- “Enjoy every second of it.” When I look back, it’s as been a wild ride and I’m still at the beginning of my career, there is so much to experience every day, that I can’t say it enough, enjoy it, because it’s fun and if you fail, that’s ok, you will do better the next time. It goes by so quickly.
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?
The story along with my vision. I always make a movie that I will happily watch, so I put myself in the audience’s shoes. But the story is the most important, I can play around with it but it’s what carries you through the film. The initial cut of An American Life was 5 minutes longer but I cut it short. Why? Because I was only following my vision, adding scenes that I really loved but were hurting the overall story.
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. 🙂
Oh wow, that’s a great question. There is so much that can be done. I would start at the roots of our society. I would put in place mandatory meditation and personal development classes at school. We teach kids many things but never how to live, how to breathe, and understand human connections. I’m a big believer in meditation; it brings calm, self-awareness, self-esteem, and much-needed peace of mind. Especially in our world dictated by social media, screens, and a constant flow of information.
Before trying to conquer the world, we need to be at peace with ourselves, learn how to say no, learn to forgive others, learn to listen to our body, learn that it’s ok to fail and that we are not worthless.
By doing so, we could create a world where people are more loving than competing.
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. 🙂
It would be Daniel Kahneman; I’m fascinated by his study of human psychology.
How can our readers further follow you online?
I’m not on twitter, but you can find me on Instagram @theomahy_
This was very meaningful, thank you so much! We wish you continued success!
Thank you! It was my pleasure.