‘Shooting is beautiful, editing is divine’, or so says the slip of paper inside the fortune cookie I’ve just been handed by the internationally renowned story consultant Fernanda Rossi. Under her ‘documentary doctor’ pseudonym, Fernanda travels around the world, giving talks, workshops and lectures on all aspects of documentary filmmaking.
All Photography courtesy of Ionut Barbu.
She is busy signing copies of her new book as I sit down to prepare for our interview. Milo, her two year old son, is running amok around the room as his nanny for the day attempts to rein him in. I look down and begin running though my planned questions, but all too soon I’m struck on the head by a stray mini football. I look up from my notebook to see Milo grinning up at me. “Milo, no!” Fernanda calls as she walks over to the sofa.
“Right, shall we begin?”
Yes, certainly! What’s a day in your life like Fernanda?
A day at home starts with catching up with emails from all over the world, and stretching my mind across several time zones. I consult on Skype and in person and I plan logistics for future events. So there is a lot of jumping from creativity to logistics.
Creativity/Logistics; that’s a permanent duality in what I do. Right now I’m working on five different projects which are all on deadline at the same time for the same grant, and setting up France, which is my next destination. I’m still sorting out a nanny and the venue!
Can you tell us a bit about how becoming a mother has affected your work?
I bring Milo everywhere! I’m an advocate of integrating motherhood with the job, because that’s the reality of my life. If you go to my Facebook you’ll find tonnes of pictures of him teaching with me. So I do believe in integration. Women shouldn’t have to choose between work and motherhood; they should be supported in doing both.
Would you encourage him to be a Filmmaker?
God no! I think he’s going to be a lawyer or a soccer player.
How old is Milo?
He’ll be three in August.
And were you doing the same job before Milo came along?
Yes, I just added him! I did my first lecture when he was six weeks old. I always joke that I had to show a lot of boob to get my career going because I would nurse on stage in front of 50 people.
He has come to every trip since he was born and we’ve now done 50 trips around the world. He’s been to every workshop, to every consultation. In the beginning he would sit on my lap, then he would sit next to me. I always had help, like today I had people taking him out or luring him outside! But he is welcome in the room and I try to integrate him. It pisses some people off, but it gets the majority encouraged and inspired, so I kind of do my own activism as I travel!
How have your goals and aspirations changed since you started out in the industry?
Well, I set out to be a writer/director and it has happened to some degree. Becoming a consultant was a major breakthrough because I started to think more globally. I would hear and see filmmakers doing things that I was doing, and I got to experience what it’s like to be on the other side.
It was a great schooling to go and be a grand evaluator, or to be a person listening to a pitch, or to be a consultant and hear how it feels to listen to that; how it feels to hear the filmmaker going “Oh this is a very important story that must be told!” and I was thinking “Hmmmmm, wrong thing to say”. So it was a great schooling to sit on the other side and listen, and realise the things that I shouldn’t be doing.
You compare your role in the film industry to that of a midwife. Can you tell us a bit more about that, and perhaps discuss the difference between being a consultant and a collaborator?
I hate the word consultant; however it’s the easiest way to name what I do. A consultant is somebody who gives you ideas and feedback, and that’s very valid. But I work with the person, I am the midwife, I’m supporting their process in order for them to deliver. A midwife doesn’t have the child for you, they don’t take the child away from you; a midwife supports you. Maybe it’s too feminine a metaphor, but I think it’s very universal at the same time.
You bring a lot of psychology into your work. Can you give us an insight into the psychology of both the executives, the people with the money, and also of the filmmakers, the creative people?
There is a lot of semiotics and psychology in what I do because I think that’s at the core of everything we do in filmmaking. I get to understand people as commissioning editors and brand makers and people who finance films in general as people who have incredible pressure to make the right choices.
Filmmakers see it as ‘you like me/ you don’t like me’, but I think it’s more helpful for a filmmaker to understand that that person has needs, and that you are there to support those needs, or to fulfil those needs. Instead of saying, ‘I’m pitching and I’m being liked or disliked and that’s a person of power giving me the thumbs up or thumbs down’, it’s more about ‘That person has to fill their programming, and I have a programme’ – We complement each other, we have to find a point of contact. So I think that’s ultimately the psychology behind it.
Your latest short film, Clara Como el Agua, is about a mixed race schoolgirl who is bullied by the predominantly black Puerto Rican community in which she lives. What made you decide to make a film on that subject?
I’m always interested in issues of identity and women’s issues and empowerment. I’m a choice mother, so obviously I have a vested interest in empowerment and all those things.
A choice mother?
A choice mother is somebody who conceives through a donor. A single mother by choice. So, since the beginning of my youth I was interested in questions of identity. Obviously I’m not biracial, but I think we’ve all experienced rejection and I use issues of biracialism to discuss issues of rejection. I wasn’t a popular kid in high school so those ideas of who belongs and who doesn’t were very interesting to me.
And her race is a sort of physical embodiment of that?
Exactly. Race is a physical embodiment of that, so I decided to explore it. Racial issues are the easiest way to demonstrate these things.
A lot of the things we’ve discussed seem to transcend the film business and can be applied to many people’s lives. With that in mind, can you share three pieces of advice from your life experiences?
Well, stay for the long run. This is a marathon, it’s not for sprinters. I think whether you want to call it perseverance or resilience or persistence; it’s all the same to me. Run the marathon, be ready for the marathon.
Another big one is; in a film career you have to stand up as many times as you have fallen. As long as you stand up one more time than the times you have fallen, you’re good. You cannot avoid the fall. I tell people, ‘Don’t expect things to go smoothly’. If you have trouble, that’s a good thing, it means you are doing things! They say in real estate if you’ve never had a deal gone bad, you’re not making enough deals. So in filmmaking, it doesn’t matter how many times you fall, as long as you stand up one more time than the times that you’ve fallen.
Lastly, don’t be narcissistic. Look at the other, instead of yourself. Look at the commissioning editor; look at the colleague filmmaker who is now competing with you, maybe he is feeling threatened. Look at the other person instead of yourself, because the more you understand your colleagues and the business instead of focusing on yourself, the easier it’ll be to move forward.
Fernanda’s book, Trailer Mechanics: How to make your Documentary Fundraising Trailer is out now and available on Amazon.