The Importance of Skin
An Interview With THEA GAJIC
The first work of Thea Gajic's I saw was Run, a short film she released about a year and a half ago in June 2016. I remember seeing a teaser clip of it posted with the link to watch, and immediately from that presentation I was intrigued. Usually, I tend to be disappointed by short films I see. With Run, however, I took to it instantly and enjoyed it.
I wasn't alone in my love for Run. Besides getting plenty of attention on social media and gaining Thea more of a fanbase online, she also received industry recognition. Run won the Sundance Ignite "What's Next" Challenge (and earned her a Sundance Ignite Fellowship), and was selected for the BFI Future Film Festival 2017, where Thea won the New Talent Award. These are only some of her noteworthy accomplishments since Run's release, not to mention other credits like doing a spoken word piece for Viceland.
Thea is an actress, writer, and filmmaker. While initially pursuing acting, she got tired of waiting for things to happen (like auditions or agents) and decided to take matters into her own hands by writing her own scripts. She realized it was a way for her to create her own roles, stories, and opportunities. Run was her first big release of her own written and directed material. London, where she's from, plays an important part in her stories. Perhaps partially as a result of living in London when I studied abroad, I feel an extra level of interest in her work.
One thing I appreciate with Thea's work is that she doesn't try to do too much at once within a story. At the same time, you still get a real sense of place and a world. Also, perhaps most importantly, it feels natural and like real life.
In September of this year, Thea released The Importance of Skin as her next big short film. In my eyes, it was a successful and progressive next step from Run and solidified my stand on her work. I believe Thea will continue to grow as an actress and director and I know I'll be watching any and all of the films she puts out in the future.
You can watch The Importance of Skin below and then read my interview with Thea after the jump.
INTERVIEW - NOVEMBER 2017
INTRO + QUESTIONS BY JACK SOMMER
Location obviously plays a strong role in your work. With this film in particular, you give thanks in the credits to Roupell Park Estate RMC for teaching you "the importance of community and feeling like home.” I assume that’s where you shot this film as well? Talk a little about your experience there.
Roupell Park Estate is the council estate I lived and grew up in for 13 years (and where we shot the film). It truly molded me into the person I am today. It taught me things school could not. It exposed me to countless different cultures, households, food, traditions, languages. Community. I found my feet there – I still remember the first time my mum let me got to Londis (the shop we filmed the opening scene in) on my own. It’s exactly the same! We didn’t have private fences or gardens or detached houses, which meant we spent a lot of time in the communal areas with one another. I subconsciously learned a lot about human behavior from just being around such a diverse group of people every single day. The media gives a lot of negative press to working class spaces, which of course isn’t a true reflection of the environment for the most part. It was important for me to shed a different light on those communities that I will always hold close to my heart.
This film is a bit more ambitious and mature in subject matter than your previous short film Run (which, as I’ve mentioned to you, I really enjoyed). In Run, we see young characters just starting to figure out their interactions with each other. In this new film that we are discussing, The Importance Of Skin, we see characters from a variety of ages. We see cycles of life. And part of the story is about growing up. You have Fabe and his friend Aidan talking about their perspective on pregnancy/birth during high school compared to how they see it now. There's Cyra talking to Jade about her potential scholarship and future. From Run, the stakes are heightened in a sense but is still very much about just everyday life. Was it a conscious decision to take this leap to a more mature space? Or did the idea just come to you and you decided to pursue it?
I’ve wanted to explore trauma and loss in a creative angle since I lost my dad to a heroin overdose in 2015. I’ve been finding ways to tell that exact experience of mine for two years and in my next project you’ll see how it unfolds. Although The Importance of Skin isn’t about an overdose, it’s still about sudden loss and trauma amongst young people who truly weren’t expecting it. Which is a reflection of what happened to me the day I found out about my father.
You’ve just now recently, about a month afterwards, put out another short improvisation video called Sorry, What? that deals with abortion. While The Importance Of Skin does not deal with abortion in particular, it does deal with pregnancy. This is obviously an important subject matter, but why do you feel the need, desire, or responsibility to cover these topics in your stories right now?
As a 23-year-old woman, I’m becoming increasingly aware of my own fertility and future motherhood. A lot of my friends are young parents so it forces me to think about children a lot. I’m super keen to make content about taboo topics because the things we are most afraid to talk about are the things we need to talk about the most. Obviously, abortion is a very sensitive topic, and I’m not suggesting everyone should shout about their experiences if they don’t want to, but the problem occurs when our silences are bred from the fear of not being socially desirable enough. If my content can spur people into feeling more comfortable to have a public conversation about such universal truths, then I’ve achieved my goal.
I’m also probably a bit obsessed with the relationship between young parents and their children (a topic which also gets negative coverage), but watching my friends raise their children in their early 20’s is one of the most beautiful things in the world to me. Obviously, it comes with its own challenges but I adore the fact that we really raise those children together – that they’re around all the time because they have to be. It’s really gorgeous to me.
Talk about your casting process and working with your actors in pre-production and on set (in Run and The Importance of Skin).
Both productions so far have basically had no budget, which means having a good casting process and spending pre-production with actors doesn’t actually exist. We shot both films in one day so rehearsal time is pretty much non-existent. At the moment I’m just casting actors I already know can do the job – so none of them had to audition or anything. Despite the time restraints I still like to give actors as much time as possible to do their scenes (as an actress myself, I know how frustrating it can be to feel rushed), so I still put performances as number one on my priority list. I tend to do a condensed version of the rehearsal process on set: asking character-related questions; suggesting pace, actions, marking the turn in the scene; etc. In an ideal world, I’d love to have a lengthy audition process and really delve into the characters and worlds as much as possible before touching set.
What have been the main pros and cons so far when writing roles for yourself? And do you find it challenging at all to both be acting in character while simultaneously directing the shoot?
When writing I’ve learned to pretend as if I’m not writing a specific character for myself because if I do, it often ends up crappy for some reason (laughs). Sometimes, I tell myself "What if you were sending this to (a certain actor)" and that usually gets me to bump up the entire dimension of a character. Juggling trades on set is extremely difficult. Writing and directing compliment each other massively because you have this supersonic clear vision of what you want in your head. The difficulty is letting it go and becoming focused enough in order to act. This is really tricky on low-budget sets as there just aren’t enough people to stop your thoughts from running at 100mph. I’m set to be truly content with my performance in one of my own films. The more aware I become of that, the harder I try to ensure it doesn’t happen again. So hopefully next time I’ll be happier!
Run received a lot of critical acclaim and press. Do you think that the success of Run, both as a project itself and in its reception, gave you more confidence during this project?
It probably did give me confidence but I wasn’t aware of the confidence as much as I was aware of the pressure. I feel like the second piece of content is always scary because it’s really how people judge your taste. You’re not a one off artist anymore – you’re creating your filmography and people will naturally compare or notice the little things that make you unique. It’s a scary time. I felt a lot more self-doubt than I did confidence.
Olan Collardy is your cinematic partner-in-crime and the only DP you work with. You guys make quite a team. Describe your process working together on The Importance Of Skin in particular and in general.
Olan is my idol! We have a lot of dialogue about the script and shot list and overall vision. Luckily we pretty much have the same taste so there are rarely disagreements about aesthetic decisions. We always have a location recce (scout) beforehand and discuss possible shots to figure out what would work best. We iron out any queries and ask each other any questions we might have. Then that’s about it really! We understand one another’s style so fluidly that we have the capacity to work very efficiently on shoot days. The key word here is TRUST.
How was it having Haus Pictures as Producer on The Importance of Skin? What were some of the things Haus helped you do for this particular short? From the credits it also looked like you worked with a bigger crew on the technical side.
Haus Pictures were a massive help and having extra hands the whole way through the production journey was honestly so key to the success of the film. Obviously, the scale was bigger, so having Haus be on board to handle the new challenges that come with expansion was majorly effective. As always, I still had my core team right there with me to ensure all of our creative goals were still achieved. We also had a steadicam operator and focus puller this time, which Olan was very grateful for! It was wonderful being able to see Olan work his magic without having to operate a camera the whole time.
You’re working on a feature called Grapefruit now. How has that process been so far compared to the shorts you’ve been doing? In what ways do you feel like they’ve prepared you for it?
Writing a feature is without doubt the hardest thing I’ve attempted to write. It’s painful and frustrating and there’s this constant overwhelming feeling that it’s impossible. I’ve quickly learned why they take years to make! I didn’t go to film school or anything so without the experience we’ve created for ourselves there is no way I’d even know how to approach a feature length. We’re currently going through a couple of funding programs so we can fund a proof-of-concept for Grapefruit as a feature. That’s been challenging in itself because there’s more people and more opinions involved. Your writing is constantly under scrutiny, which is very stressful at times. The main difference I’ve noticed is the amount of pure thinking time you need in order to figure out how to keep the momentum up in a longer form piece. Celtx has a thinking/writing count at the bottom of the page and my thinking time count is always 3x longer than my writing. The thing is – you could think for an hour and have that only equate to three lines of dialogue. It’s frustrating when you just want to get it finished but of course, we can’t rush the art and more often than not the light bulb moments occur when you’re not working!