Can you tell us a little bit about your beginnings in the film?
When I was 10 years old I had already read some of the Lord of the Rings with my sister. When I finally saw the film version of The Fellowship Of The Ring, I was completely blown away by how close the scenes were to my imagination. I immediately started watching behind-the-scenes videos and secretly started going on the web through our poor dial-up internet connection and searching for Peter Jackson on something called “Internet Movie Database.” I asked my mum what this profession was called, what Peter Jackson was doing, and I recall her having to think about it and then she said: “A film director, I guess?” I knew then that this was what I wanted to do. Looking back on that period and reading some of my diaries from before this time, I remember storytelling was in me much longer than I could define what it was. I would usually decide what games we would play when my cousins would visit, and more often than not I would invent games and the stories within them. I would also write short childish poems with small twists before I knew what twists were. After making this firm decision at age 10, I immediately started making a plan of which High School to go to and started doing research into which University would teach me this sorcery. This is how I got into The Academy of Arts in Belgrade, where I would study Film Directing.
You studied cinematography in New York City. What set you up to transform your career? What was it like for you to transition from director to director of photography? And what are you working on now?
I don’t think I ever looked at it as a transition. It was very logical to me, mainly because I create stories by thinking about them visually first. A screenplay always starts from a single frame, an image that is in my head for a long time before I type in the first letter. Also, creating the shot list with the DPs on my previous films was always the most exciting part of the process. I think it was just a matter of time when I would pick up the camera.
At first, it was a still photography camera, an old Zenit ET that belongs to my dad. I started taking images obsessively and creating different atmospheres on 35mm that I would later try and recreate in my films. I was lucky to be able to attend several summer film workshops abroad where I first had the opportunity to light as a DP. This excited me, mostly because I was studying only film directing at the Academy in Belgrade and as directors we didn’t have enough cinematography classes to actually try out lighting practically. So when I came to Tisch at NYU for my Master’s, I was already curious enough to accept encouragement to pursue cinematography further.
In your opinion, what is the difference between working in Serbia and working in the USA?
I can only speak to my experience but what I noticed is that in the US people are more open to answering questions if you don’t know something. They do not mystify knowledge and more often than not there isn’t a judgement about ignorance. I really appreciate this because I think we are learning all our lives – there is no way that we know everything at all times. Having a positive outlook and willingness to transfer knowledge with kindness creates a chain reaction.
What was the biggest challenge for your work while living in the USA?
I think I moved into a direction I didn’t quite think I would go – the social drama. When I was living in Belgrade, all my screenplays had a fantastical element to them. I really like genre films, psychological thrillers and horrors especially. Those films are rarely made in Serbia. There is an inclination towards it now, which makes me really happy. But, yes, for whatever reason, when I came to New York I somehow turned to the regular social drama – maybe because I found myself missing the Balkans, or maybe because people here are not really superstitious at all. New York City is a huge city that is very concrete. Time is not relative like in the Balkans and everything is clearly defined. It was a challenge to go back towards my roots and the mysticism in storytelling that I enjoy so much. I have a couple of projects on my mind that I’ll be working on in the future in this realm, so I am excited about it.
Another challenge was making films in English in New York City. I have already made films in different languages before but it was all either in Europe or set in alternate realities that weren’t defined by the language as much. When I was making “Aftermath” it was a dialogue-driven film about a relationship that was deteriorating. I found it hard to find the words, not because of language barriers but because everything sounded like it came from a different film that I have seen before. New York City has been depicted so many times in films that whatever I wrote sounded like a cliché. Now that I have been living here for four years, I feel like I am finally getting inspired by my surroundings and I think I will be able to write a story set here and possibly in multiple languages. I think it might have to do with a fact that I moved to Astoria, where a lot of people from the Balkans have settled. I definitely understand their stories well.
Is it harder to make movies in Serbia or the USA?
It is definitely harder to make them in the USA, mostly because of money. There is a complicated system of insuring everything, which is good – you take care of the people on set and it takes care of unpredictable circumstances, but more money is involved. There is a huge variety in equipment you can rent, but again it is definitely pricier, especially if shooting in New York City. Then permits for locations can be a nightmare as well. New York City is so used to filmmakers so there is a very complicated set of rules and sometimes lists of locations that can’t be used for films for various reasons. Funding your films also works differently – in Serbia there is national funding, while something like that doesn’t really exist here. Major productions usually get investors or banks to step in. Indie films rely on grants and crowdfunding especially if the filmmakers are unknown. The competition for grants though is huge.
How would you describe your style of directing and what topics are you mostly interested in as a director?
I love creating the atmosphere of tension in my films, with little to no dialogue, giving endings that ask more questions and have the audience be an active participant in the film’s storyline by coming up with their own answers to these questions. I like seeing a film as a puzzle and that every frame, every line and sound that appears on screen are bringing you closer to an answer. In this sense, I don’t believe in coverage and I try not to do that. I think that every scene has a specific angle from which its story should be told, you just have to find it and stick by it. This is why filmmaking excites me. Whether I am directing or shooting this is something I try to follow.
As for topics, looking back (and forward) to my work they are usually themes of family, roots, small town vibes and war. Growing up in the Balkans, it is impossible to escape from some of these narratives or not be affected by them at all.
What projects are you working on now?
Before COVID-19 I shot two short films I am really excited about – one is in New York City with the director Robert Moncrieff and the other in France with the director Oriana Ng. They are both in post-production. As a DP, I am also prepping another short film in the fall with a talented director from Italy – Giuseppe Di Lauri.
I am writing and developing 78 Days, which will be my first feature film, and I am also working on my very first animated short.
I am also happy to say that I’ll be launching a media company with my co-founder Alex Wiske – Istok Films. There is a lot of videography and film photography involved, so be sure to look out for that!
Why did you decide on animation? Can you tell us more about it?
Yes, I am currently working on an animated short, The Pit, which is loosely inspired by the poem of the same name by Ivan Goran Kovacic. I still remember first reading the poem in elementary school when I was only 13-14 years old, and something was stirred in me. The images were very evocative and powerful and sometimes very explicit as you can imagine since it is dealing with the atrocities from the WW2. At the time I was already certain I would be a filmmaker so I kept thinking how can one adapt this into a film. Years later when I read the poem again – I instantly saw very clear images of how this could look as an animation. So I started drawing.
I have since created an elaborate storyboard and right now I am testing different mediums. COVID-19 has meddled with my plans a bit since originally I was going to shoot this on an Oxberry stand in a studio in Brooklyn (a 2D Cut out animation table with a 16mm film camera on top) but because of the lockdown, I was forced to improvise a studio at home. This resulted in me drawing a lot of tests on my iPad which I kind of liked because the animation style will be pretty minimal and I really like drawing.
That said, I have been interested in animation probably longer than in the live-action films. I grew up watching Japanese anime and old Soviet cartoons from the 50s as well as the 90s Disney films. In all of these I loved the 2D animation because I found it more pleasing to the eye than CGI and the storytelling was really compelling. I did put off trying animation for a long time because I never thought I had enough time and now that I have finally tried it I have to say it definitely requires a lot of time. One of the first things I animated was the logo for a company I co-founded – it is a 2D simple drawing, but it took me week and a half to finish the 10-second video! But the process is so rewarding and I will do it again.
We can see that you have gone through the fields of film production so far: directing, photography and animation. So where do you see yourself in the future?
I see myself as a filmmaker and an artist. All these disciplines are really interconnected and inform one another. I definitely see myself writing and directing my own feature films and also directing animated films and collaborating with animators on those. I like being a director of photography for other directors and bringing their vision to screen while being in charge of the image. It is all storytelling and that is why I got hooked in the first place.
More information about Emilija you can find on her website.