By Pete Barell
Arts and Entertainment Editor
Livia De Paolis co-wrote, directed, produced and acted in her feature film debut “Emoticon,” which first premiered at the Gen Art Film Festival in 2013, and currently has a limited theatrical release at Cinema Village in New York City. The film tells the story of an anthropology Ph.D. student named Elena (De Paolis) who attempts to complete her thesis on modern communication, soon becoming involved in the lives of her new boyfriend’s (Michael Christofer) adopted teenage children — her best subjects of study. Dealing with themes of age, identity and technology, “Emoticon” tackles modern social problems with a touch of indie humor.
A veritable jack-of-all-trades, De Paolis moved to New York in 2001, working within the theater community in collaboration with Richard Foreman and the Ontological Hysteric Theater, 3LD, SITI Company, Labyrinth Theater Company and others. Originally born and raised in Rome, Italy, the actor received her Masters degree in Philosophy from University La Sapienza. De Paolis is currently living in Los Angeles.
The Pioneer had the opportunity to speak with De Paolis about her challenges, process, and memorable moments while making “Emoticon” as well as future projects.
The Pioneer (TP): Can you tell us about the process of getting “Emoticon” made? At what point did you decide to dive in to the production?
Livia De Paolis (LD): Sara [Nerboso] and I started writing the script, and as we were writing it I got progressively more and more involved with it and passionate about it and [wanted] to actually make it. I took a class with Film Independent in Los Angeles, which was [about] how to make an independent film for no money. It’s a very step by step scenario where they explain how to raise money and go about it. However, in the meantime, I also gave the script to James Calleri who is [our] casting director. He really liked it, thank god, and he sent it out to to his contacts at agencies he works with. Thanks to that, Michael Christofer came on board.
I had a little bit of money at the time when I started it, but I didn’t have the full budget. With [Christofer] aboard, Daphne Rubin-Vega, Carol Kane and Sonia Braga joined in. With a more packaged situation I was able to raise more money. Then we cast the kids and shot the movie, but we still didn’t have enough money to finish it. So then I was fortunate enough to have the post-production house here in New York City, called The Station Media. It is [Executive Producer] Hugh Broder’s company. They do post-production for commercials and all sorts of stuff. He read the script, watched a very rough cut of the movie, and decided to come aboard as a producer, basically financing the entire post production. And that’s how the movie was made.
TP: Were there any particular challenges, taking on so many roles as a crew and cast member? What was that experience like?
LD: The part of it that I overestimated was how complex the production aspect is. I had produced theater before but theater involves ten to fifteen people, where a movie involves one to two hundred people. With ultra low-budget movies, while it’s possible to (recruit) very good creative people who are willing to work for little money, because they’re young or they’re working on their reel and their craft, it’s hard to find a producer who is experienced and is willing to do it. That was the most difficult part. For me, I really overestimated myself and my ability to actually do everything, because once we were in it, I thought if I’m shooting and acting I’m not going to be able to be on the phone with agents; I’m not going to be able to look for permits. It became clear to me that I cannot do everything, although I did a lot. One morning I ended up driving the truck with the camera to location.
TP: What about happy moments?
LD: So many. In general, my favorite part of the production was working with the actors because it’s something that I really enjoy. One of the most stressful moments was at the same time was one of the most fun memories. In New York you can shoot in the street for free with a permit. You can talk to your friends and shoot in their apartments, which I did. But the hardest location to get, was like an elevator. So we had to steal those shots. It was very, very late at night because we’d just done the party scene. It was the end of the night and they had a beautiful elevator, so we’d just do it fast. It was a very tall building, so the elevator ride was going to be long and I thought it would work out. Of course, there was a camera in the elevator. Of course the doorman saw us. Of course the doorman locked the door and called us down. So we couldn’t stop the elevator. We were just going down and once we hit the ground that was going to be it. We were really tired. It was me, Miles, the DP, Alex and our grip guy, we were just laughing hysterically, but in the end we got the take. With one take we got it! So it was stressful, but also very playful and fun.
TP: “Emoticon” deals with modern communication and identity. Do you think that it is harder to define personal identity now that technology constantly bombards us with information and choices?
LD: This is an interesting thing because I feel like we all have a double identify with social media — ourselves, and our public persona, which used to only be for celebrities, but now we all have it. We have to deal with this public image. We decide what to put out and what not to put out. Somebody asked me if we’re putting out too much and taking in too much. I personally think that it’s good to have an extra opportunity to interact even though it’s not, and it’s never going to be as good as when people talk in person. For example, the phone. The phone is great because we can talk — I can hear your voice, you can hear mine. There was a time when we had no phone, so people would probably have written better letters at that time, because the need for communication is still there, we’ve always had it.
So, personally I think that has two sides. I like to focus on the positive sides of technology and social media because I have a lot of people in my life who wouldn’t be, if not for Facebook. As I say in the movie, it’s still human connection, but in a different way. I think that comes out in the movie as well. However, I also see how there can be a risk of not really interacting with people in person and kind of imploding, which happens to Jackie in the movie. Not being sure of how much can be communicated, and when is does come out it’s clumsy.
TP: Especially in some scenes where we have characters videotaping and not actually looking with their own eyes, which you made a point to focus on.
LD: I’ll bring in an example. I have a friend of mine who was tweeting, he said ‘I have to stop, because my entire day I keep on thinking what clever things I can come up with to put on Twitter, it’s influencing my thought process’. If we go for dinner, and instead smelling the food and eating it, we take a picture of it and post it, to share it, we have a modified way of taking it in and experiencing it. The movie is a reflection about those themes. I’m not saying one thing or the other, I’m saying one thing and the other. It’s there for us to use, and to experience, and to see what it does to us. It is a reality and I do believe that it’s a good reality. However, sometimes I wonder how our brains are actually evolving or changing now due to emoticons, due to the way we communicate now (which is) different from the way we communicated only seven years ago.
TP: Age plays a significant role in the film, with younger and older characters having parallel relationships. Can you relate to the teenage characters in the film How was your upbringing different from theirs?
LD: This movie is autobiographical in different ways. I never got pregnant. You know there are aspects of [it] that are completely made up. There is adult Livia who had a relationship with an older man who had two adopted kids. I wanted to kind-of play with that story. And then there is teenage Livia, and my co-writer as well. I grew up in Rome, she grew up in New York. We both have divorced parents. I grew up with my dad and had the experience of being this daughter of a father who does have a girlfriend. And the girlfriend is around the house and I am not happy to have her around the house. But now as an adult I can see that this person actually brought a lot of good things into my life at the time. I was young and those relationships are so complex that it is very hard to see that. Ironically as an adult I found myself on the other side, so I thought it was an interesting thing for me to explore. It’s not autobiographical in the plot points, but it is in the emotional content.
TP: There’s that proverbial saying “write what you know,” but is doesn’t have to be an actual thing that you’ve experienced. It can be a thematic or emotional experience.
LD: I think that every writer, to a certain degree, writes autobiographically. It’s how much you choose to go away from the truth. How much of the story will be actual story? It’s up to any writer to figure out.
TP: Any advice for aspiring filmmakers or actors?
LD: Acting is so tough. It’s so hard that I would encourage anyone to start writing their own material and to start producing their own stuff because it’s so invigorating. It feels really good to be able to not be at the mercy of other people constantly (laughs). For filmmakers, I’d say that if you really want to make a movie, or anything, I think that it has to become the most important thing in your life. It has to become something that you will not be able to do anything unless you get it done. The amount of passion has to be that great in for a project to be brought to completion.
TP: What is next for you? Any projects planned?
LD: I have two projects that I am working on. One [film] I am writing. Another is a book, but it is still in negotiation so I can’t really say anything. The movie that I am writing is about an adult, still an ensemble piece, it involves thirty-somethings. It’s really about emotional and sexual confusion and relationships.