Women in Film: A Conversation with Ellie Foumbi

A few months ago, Artistic Fuel held a Clubhouse panel about women in film with Ellie Foumbi,  Pamela B. GreenTracy Kleeman,  Aimee Long, and Sara Seligman. Each of the five talented directors are in different genres and stages of their careers and provided valuable insight on their paths and passions. The panel, Women in the Director’s Chair, inspired by the three women (Chloe Zhao, Emerald Fennell and Regina King) nominated for Best Director at the Golden Globes. Since then, Chloe Zhao, won both the Globe and the Oscar for Best Director. These accolades give hope to a lot of women in the industry, but are they an indication of a changed entertainment landscape?

Artistic Fuel sat down with Ellie Foumbi to talk about her experiences in the film industry and how she explores her own point of view through her art.

Below is the transcript between Katie Cetta and Ellie Foumbi.

Ellie Foumbi: From Cameroon to the United States: Discovering a New Love for Cinema

AF: You are a very talented director. I know you are an actor too. I saw you perform at a Film Fatales Directing workshop a while back and you were wonderful. Can you talk to me a little bit about how you came into both directing and acting?

Ellie Foumbi: I feel like it started with me falling in love with cinema when I was really young. At five years old, I moved from Cameroon where I was born, to the States. In Cameroon, we had one channel on our television. So, when I arrived in the States, the idea that there was this box in our living room that had all these interesting programs, cartoons and movies and TV shows, was so revolutionary to me. At that age, I thought it was all real. I didn’t realize that it was make-believe. 

Everything shifted when I moved to New York. I went to a French school where my French teacher was a cinephile. So, I always think of that period from like sixth grade up until the end of high school as my first film school. Every week in class, my teacher introduced us to films from directors like Louis Malle, Claire Denis or Truffaut. At the time, I wasn’t even I wasn’t thinking, “Oh, I want to be an actor or I want to be a director.” I just loved cinema. I devoured everything I could get my hands on. But having my world open up to international cinema was a game changer.

We were also studying classical French theater. I was already kind of immersed in that world. But whenever I got up on stage, it was just awful because I was so painfully shy. I did not think that acting would be something that I would do at all. The writing was there already. I knew that I loved cinema. I didn’t necessarily think about directing because I didn’t know anyone who worked in the industry. So the possibility of becoming a director didn’t even compute. 

It wasn’t until I just randomly auditioned for something in college that my sister found. They were looking for a French speaker. I spoke French and I said, “I’m going to go to this thing!” And it just clicked. I don’t know what happened, but somehow everything I had been absorbing for all those years came together. Everything else evolved from there. 

Ellie Foumbi: Film School and Finding Your Stories

AF: I love how you became inspired and I love that acting seemed like it just happened to you. The other film students inspired you to say, “Okay. Yeah. I have stories to tell too, and I’m going to tell my stories in my own way.” You have a degree in directing now which is wonderful. So how did you go from seeing others direct and how did you step into those shoes and decide to direct? 

Ellie Foumbi: That was not so obvious to me because when I went to film school, I did not think I was a director. I thought that I was a writer and an actor, but I knew I had stories to tell. The lack of meaty roles for women of color was really frustrating. I mean, this was pre Lupita, you know? By the time she arrived on the scene, there was a little bit of a revolution that happened in the industry for actors of color. But before 2013, it was pretty sparse for black actresses. And there wasn’t the kind of creative casting that we see now. So I just didn’t see a place for myself as an actor within the industry. At least I didn’t see the stories that I could be included in. 

Yet, I have so many unique stories to tell that reflect my culture, my experience being in this country as an immigrant. And I thought, “why aren’t people writing these kinds of stories?” And I realized I had to write them myself. That was the first step. I wasn’t going to wait around for an opportunity that may or may not come. Film school terrified me. I felt so intimidated because I didn’t have any experience behind the camera. Whereas, a lot of kids were coming in with undergraduate degrees in film already, and they had a few shorts under their belts.

It felt like such a steep climb in terms of learning the technical aspects of filmmaking. There was something that just came together during the shoot of my first-year film. The film was okay. It wasn’t my best work, but I felt so comfortable on set working with actors. I loved collaborating with them. I felt excited and exhilarated, and I thought I need to continue investigating something here. I’m not a hundred percent comfortable yet, but I feel complete when I’m directing. That’s why I pressed forward, continuing to practice because I knew this was the time to experiment. I could have easily graduated as a screenwriter and called it a day. But I didn’t want to do that because it would have been too easy to stay in my comfort zone.

Women in Film: Practice and Letting Go of the Outcome

AF: Something that stuck out to me was that you mentioned, the first year of film school can intimidate people. I think it’s really important to hear someone like yourself express that kind of same idea because you pushed through it and you graduated and now you have a lot of incredible opportunities on your plate. So let’s talk about after graduation. What was your first professional directing experience and what that was like for you?

Ellie Foumbi: It’s a crazy story. So my first professional directing job was a TV gig. When I was on the festival circuit with my thesis film in 2018, I met a showrunner who saw my work. And I remember he came up to me afterwards and told me he really liked my film. And we immediately bonded and exchanged information. He sort of kept track of me over the time. It’s crazy.

A year later, my new short film premieres at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival. I get a call from him and he’s like, “I see you’re in LA.” And I said, “Oh yeah. I mean, I’m in Santa Barbara at a film festival.” And he’s like, “I need you to come back to LA as soon as you can. I’m trying to get you hired to direct an episode of Tales.” Mind you, I haven’t done a feature. I’ve only done a few shorts and a music video up until this point. I was like, “I’m sorry, what?”

Mind you, I was actually in L.A. to start a directing Lab. 

So, I drove back to LA from Santa Barbara. Literally, this is my pep talk from me to myself. —  “You’re never getting this job. No, literally. I’m like, there’s no need to freak out. You’re not getting this job. You don’t have the experience. Just show up because he put in a good word for you. You need to make a good impression and do your best. And then you’re going to go on with your life. You’re going to go do the directing lab.”

First thing, the head of the network said to me, “look, we have another candidate who’s way more experienced.” But I relaxed because I was so certain I wasn’t getting hired. So I wasn’t nervous at all. I told her, this is what I do. This is my style. I don’t know if I came off as crazy, but I left that interview around noon and by 5pm they called me. They hired me. Two days later, I’m flying to Atlanta to start pre-production. 

I threw up from anxiety because I now had to leave the directing lab. I couldn’t not take the job, but it terrified me. The first thing I did? I called my mom. She was like, you’re going to be fine. Just put one foot in front of the other. And she was right. It was the most incredible experience ever. So I directed my first episode in March of 2019 on a show called Tales. It’s an anthology series on BET.

It’s amazing because every episode is its own world. On the one hand it’s great because I didn’t have to follow a specific formula or language, and I had a decent amount of freedom in terms of setting the style of the episode. On the other hand, we built the entire world of that episode from scratch so that meant a new cast, new locations, a new production design palate. It’s like making a mini feature film in 2 weeks. 

I felt like superwoman after I completed that episode. It was such a confidence booster. I overcame that challenge and proved to myself that I could do anything. So that was my first professional directing experience. 

Still of Justine Skye as Violet from BET’s “Tales” episode 205 – Cardi B – Bodak Yellow. (Photo: Annette Brown/BET)

AF: That’s amazing because you have this opportunity to make it your own and it doesn’t have to match somebody else’s vision or the established vision of the show or anything. That’s insanely awesome. And wow the universe showed up for you. You must have super powers. 

Ellie Foumbi: The universe has been really good to me. I only had time to react. Once we got into prepping the episode, I was like, this is exactly like directing my shorts. It’s just a bigger team. I’m making decisions on a bigger scale, but I know what I’m doing. I know what I want. I just need to take a breath and lean on the people around me who’ve been here and have more experience than me. The crew really got me through it.

Navigating Covid-19: From Short Films to Feature Films in France

AF: I mean, you even said you felt like superwoman. So, what was next after that? I know you were involved with Film Independent and you also received some grants for your own personal projects. 

Ellie Foumbi: It was a difficult decision for me to leave the lab because making my feature was always my priority. So I felt like I needed to turn back to that.

I decided to put my focus into making a smaller movie. And that’s how I ended up writing the script that went to the Venice Biennale College-Cinema and was later selected for funding. That was all in the same year. 2019 was a crazy year for me. In March, I was directing Tales. By October, I was in Venice workshopping my first feature.

AF: Let’s talk about your feature. I know a lot of filmmakers struggle with that hurdle from going from shorts to a feature. Granted, most people don’t get an amazing TV gig in between, but going from shorts to the feature is a big jump. So, do you want to talk a little bit about that process and how it was for you? What was your experience from conceptualizing the idea to like applying for funding, receiving funding, everything moving forward?

Ellie Foumbi: I decided to go to Columbia School of the Arts because it’s one of the few schools where the screenwriters can direct and directors can take as many screenwriting courses as they want. The school may limit more now, but when I started in 2013, most people did both. You technically declared one concentration or the other, but you still have the opportunity to do as much directing or as much screenwriting as you wanted. I think that’s one of the reasons that school was my first choice. 

While I was there, I wrote three features. But I really started to think about what was feasible for me to raise money for and to make as a first film. OUR FATHER, THE DEVIL, which is the feature that I ended up getting funding for, was a simple story set in a small town in the south of France. It’s about an African immigrant with a mysterious past whose quiet life is turned upside down by the arrival of a charismatic African priest whom she recognizes from her past. The film is about redemption and examines whether people deserve a second chance after they have committed atrocities. 

I knew crowdfunding wasn’t going to work for me because I didn’t have access to money like that. We could try it as a last resort, but I’m terrible at it. I started to look outside of the States, particularly in Europe where there is a lot more government funding for the arts. Simultaneously, my producer’s boss sent him a link to the Venice Biennale College Fund application. They select 12 features to be workshopped, then chose four to fund with a  small budget of 150,000 euros. It’s a really small budget, but you’re funded! 

Then the four funded features premiere at Venice the following year, which is the cherry on top. It is insane. Again, I gave myself the same pep talk of “I’m not getting picked for this.” I use the application as an excuse to push myself to rework the script but also to help me step away from the first, more expensive feature I was trying to make. When my project was selected in that first group of twelve, I was really shocked. Covid delayed things a bit. We are now getting ready to shoot in a month. 

AF: And you’re shooting in France, which is super amazing. I love your attitude going into these big opportunities, like instead of letting the opportunity intimidate you a little bit, you kind of just take away its power a bit. You see it as practice and then whatever happens, happens and you’re totally cool with it. I think that is a really good take away from the conversation to let go of the outcome of things. It is so healthy. 

Ellie Foumbi: It only comes from having been rejected so many times, you know what I mean? It gets to a point where you accept that you might not get into this thing so have to put your focus somewhere else. That’s way more productive than being totally weighed down by the outcome of a lab. I’ve been doing a lot of meditation too. I will say that this has really helped me.  Meditating, prayer, and really refocusing my energy on my own artistic purpose and my own artistic practice. Trying to remove some of the external elements of not knowing what the hell is going to happen. 

Facing Rejection and Finding Your Voice

You can’t predict how life is going to go. I got rejected from like five things right before I got the Venice thing I was applying for. The key is to apply to everything. I’ve applied to hundreds of things over the years. In my case, the more I got rejected, the more I became numb to it. That’s why I’m able to divorce myself from the outcome, because I’m just like, okay, I don’t know where I’m gonna land. I kind of like throw everything up and see what sticks. This is where meditation comes in so handy because you are able to recenter yourself and focus on what’s really important. For me, that was my growth. How can I move my work forward? How can I get myself to a place where it feels like I’m getting better? Is this opportunity even right for me?

I’m always pushing to refine my voice and to work on things that articulate the messages that I want to articulate.

So by focusing more on that, I’m a lot less affected by all the other stuff. Even if Venice had rejected my project, it wouldn’t have affected much since I did not expect to get it. But, then when you get the yes, it’s incredibly rewarding.

AF: I love that philosophy. I love that outlook. I think it’s super healthy and super important for artists. Because it is tough. It is tough choosing the life of an artist and it is tough putting yourself out there for everything and getting so much rejection. Something I hear pretty often is not to let the criticism go to your heart and don’t let the praise go to your head. So I love your outlook. I appreciate that you are a living example of letting go of the outcome, and really focusing on what’s most important, which is expanding yourself as a person and as an artist. I’d love to talk a little bit about your short film project available on Netflix. 

Ellie Foumbi: Again, that was an opportunity that came out of the blue, like most of these things do. After George Floyd’s death, the Black Lives Matter movement really kicked into high gear, not just in the U.S. but internationally. We lived through an entire summer of protests with all the killings that occurred and are STILL occuring. It seems like a lot of companies and networks were wanting to give a voice to underrepresented filmmakers and to the moment we were living through as a country.

Behind the Scenes photo featuring Meliki Hurd from HOME by Ellie Foumbi Presented by Film Independent and Netflix Film Club

Netflix partnered up with Film Independent to create a grant for underrepresented filmmakers. Netflix gives Five filmmakers a grant to make a short film that touched on the important themes in 2020. When I got the email from Film Independent inviting me to submit a pitch, I had to finally accept the fact that I wasn’t going to be shooting my feature that summer because of the pandemic. So I reached out to my frequent collaborators that I work with and my producer Roy Clovis, and we brainstormed ideas together. 

Roy recounted an experience when he was driving upstate and got lost in this neighborhood where almost all the homes were lined with American flags. When he said he was absolutely terrified, I knew EXACTLY what he was talking about. I thought it would be interesting to examine the ways in which the symbolism of the American flag has shifted, especially after the events of January 6th at the Capitol. When I saw police officers being beaten with American and Trump flags, I thought…Yep! This is where that fear comes from. It’s really sad to think of an abundance of American flags as a signal of the presence of white extremists, but that’s where my brain goes now. I’m sure a lot of black folks feel the same way. And that’s the fear Roy and I wanted to explore in HOME.

We wanted to highlight how we are living in a completely different reality from white Americans, who would NEVER think twice about questioning their safety in a quiet, suburban neighborhood lined with American flags. The thought would be utterly preposterous to them. For them, the American flag has only ever been a source of hope, love and pride. But whether people want to admit it or not, what it means to be patriotic in this country has shifted, as has the symbol of our flag around the world. In many ways, our film was a little prophetic because we wrote and shot it the October before the January 6th event. We could have never imagined what was coming!

From the beginning, I knew that I wanted to write a horror movie because I love the genre, and I love thriller films as well. It’s kind of my thing. I wanted to explore what home means for a black military family, and more specifically for this black boy, who’s moving into a new environment. I pitched that to Netflix. They weren’t going to pick us because it was an ambitious short for the tiny $10,000 budget we received to make it. But they loved the idea. 

Working with Netflix was a wonderful experience. The feedback I received from the executives were super helpful and definitely strengthened our film. It was like two or three rounds of notes and then we finalized it. Initially, we didn’t know they wanted to release the films during black history month, but that’s what Netflix decided. It was cool to see everyone else’s films when we finished. I couldn’t believe I was in this group of super talented and super accomplished filmmakers. It was awesome!

AF: Yeah. I think that’s one of the best feelings is to get to see who your peers are and you’re so proud of them. It’s so cool how supportive everyone is of each other. I think it’s amazing. So, your short film was incredible. I’m a horror nerd. I make horror films. I love horror. And I love in particular this kind of like step towards making genre films that are about something very real, like a real fear.

Using genre to have an interesting way to create unique visuals. I love the use of certain visuals and like the different kinds of spins on the metaphors that people can use with visual things. You did a wonderful job with the short. I loved watching through the eyes of the little boy too and then seeing how differently and almost like cryptically, his parents would speak. It was really, it was really interesting and really, really well done. Artfully done. 

Ellie Foumbi: I’ll just add that it was the hardest short I’ve ever made by far. Part of it was definitely shooting during COVID with a small budget of $10,000. We had to creatively figure out how to stretch that money while also dealing with the new health and safety protocols. The fact that we pulled off the impossible reaffirmed what an incredible group of artists I work with. From my cinematographer, Tinx Chan, to our production designer, Margie Verghese, to our sound recorder/mixer Andrew Litton, our colorist Joseph Mastantuono and finally, our producer Roy Clovis, who also edited the film.

It goes without saying the film’s cast led by Meliki Hurd, Souleymane Sy Savané and Vickie Tanner were an indispensable part of this dream team. Shorts are such a pain, not only because how little money is usually available to make them but also because of the fact that they seldomly move the needle professionally for anyone besides the director.

I try not to take these artists for granted because it’s a luxury to be able to afford to work for nothing on a project you love. Most can’t do it. Luckily for us, we locked in a big part of the creative team on HOME from our feature in France, so it was a great opportunity for us to warm up and to adapt to the new COVID protocols. 

Ellie Foumbi: The Shift from Comparison to Discovery and Confidence

AF: Yes. Shooting with COVID is a whole other monster in its own. I want to shift gears a little bit. There are people who are, who are reading these articles, perhaps a lot of young women, I’m hoping at least, who are in the same place that you were in whenever you went to film school and found yourself as a director. I want to give you some space to talk directly to those people, having gone through it yourself. What is your advice for a young person going into film school, deciding that they want to have a life as a filmmaker? What do you want to say to them?

Ellie Foumbi: I would say the number one thing is don’t compare yourself to other people. And honestly, that’s really tough, especially in film school because you’re in this intense bubble with other filmmakers and see so-and-so’s film going to Sundance, and so-and-so’s film going to South by Southwest. My films were not getting into any of those festivals and that directly impacted who wanted to work with me and how some of my professors interacted with me. Even beyond that, on a more fundamental level, within classes, it impacted the way my work was being critiqued.

It’s so easy to fall into that trap of feeling like you have to keep up with others or like you have to prove that you belong in that program, but that attitude will never serve you because it takes your focus away from what’s really important, which is learning and growing and puts it on the achievements. I think it’s one of the most destructive things for a young filmmaker. I wish I had been able to snap myself out of that sooner. Every person’s path is so unique. What works for someone else may not work for you.  

Film school is your time to discover, to find your voice, to figure who are and what you want to say with your films. The key thing to remember is that it is “your” time, and you really need to use it the way that suits you best. You can’t waste time trying to please others.

After my second year, I luckily woke up. I hadn’t directed nearly enough to start focusing on festivals or anything like that.

I needed the space to try a bunch of different things. Most importantly, I needed to give myself the permission to fail. Because once you’re out in the real world, it’s a different story. So that’s the number one thing I would tell young women entering that film school space. Carve out a space for yourself, protect yourself, try to put the blinders on. It’s hard, but really try. You should experiment without fear because it’s the only way you’re going to get on solid ground as a director. I had to make a lot of bad films before I started making decent ones. 

My other advice is always follow your gut even if it means you have to fall on your face many times. Following your gut builds confidence. It helps you figure out what works for you and what doesn’t. And for those who don’t go to film school, don’t sweat it. It’s only one of many paths to success. It’s definitely a luxury so don’t kick yourself if you feel like you can’t afford it or you don’t want to spend that money. There are other ways to work on your craft. Just go out there and make stuff!

AF: Yes. I love that message. It’s so important. I love it because we waste so much time just trying to prove that you have a right to be there. We get to do crazy things and figure it out like everybody else. You said so much amazing stuff. I think your journey is fascinating and you’re kind of like this lucky, not just lucky…

Ellie Foumbi: Thank you. I’ve been very lucky! 

AF: Yes, luck finds you. You deserve the good opportunities and you are skilled enough to crush them. Thank you for carving out some time for us. I know you’re in the middle of pre-production and all of those crazy things. So, thank you again!

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