Interview with Semeli Vogazianou
Semeli Vogazianou is a Cypriot filmmaker currently studying at the UK’s prestigious National Film & Television School (NFTS). She has a distinct eye for the everyday which is captured in her photographs (shared via her instagram account) which are intriguing as much as they are beautiful.
Initially her focus was on working as a film & TV editor. She moved to the UK, completing a BA in Post Production from Arts University Bournemouth (AUB). After a year or so of running and freelancing she switched her attention to the camera department.
Semeli recently wrote and directed her first short, It’s Him. A nail biting, introspective thriller about a tormented man who observes his neighbour abusing his wife. He suspects the abuse has turned deadly and contemplates what he should do. The film is currently being submitted to film festivals so keep your eyes peeled in the coming months to be able to catch it.
R: Semeli, the photos in your instagram feed always stop me, make me lean in to look for details I know or feel are there but aren’t always evident on first glance. I’m curious as to where and when your love of photography started?
S: I started taking photos when I was around 14. I didn't take it very seriously until the second year of my studies at Arts University Bournemouth. I felt like other students knew way more than me about cameras, framing, lenses etc. and I was perhaps a little behind, so in my free time I would read about photography and shoot on my own in order to learn.
R: I feel if Vivian Meyer and Martin Parr had a love child it could be you. Coupled with the guidance of an an aunt and uncle in Dougie Wallace and Diane Arbus. Not sure how you feel about that photography family tree? Who would you say your influences are?
S: Wow, really? I love all of those photographers so thanks. I mainly take photographs to practise and improve my 'filmmaker eye'. I definitely consider myself more of a filmmaker.
When I take photographs I frame as a cinematographer or director. With that being said, Fred Herzog, Richard Billingham, Vivian Meyer, W. Eugene Smith and Sebastião Salgado are my favourite photographers of all time. In terms of filmmakers; Wim Wenders, Sergio Leone, Haris Zambarloukos, Christopher Doyle, Stanley Kubrick, Alfred Hitchcock and Sean Bobbitt all play a big role on my framing.
R: I love Wim Wenders! Where did your love of film stem from?
S: My mum is an artist and both of my parents are film buffs, so I grew up in a household that had a lot of love for art. I don't know why but I was drawn to storytelling. I would watch so much television that my mum took away the TV set.
I knew I wanted to make films when I was 12 after watching Midnight Express. I remember that night very vividly. I was at my grandparents house and my grandfather fell asleep on the couch, so I had the TV all to myself. Midnight Express came on and there is a scene where the main character rips someone’s tongue out. I remember being so shocked I didn't know what to do. I just stared at the screen like 'WOW'.
I also remember recognising a Greek actor, Mixalis Giannatos and I was so surprised. It made me feel like I could actually do something important. You have to understand that I was used to seeing Greek and Cypriot filmmakers make small or low budget TV & films that were not taken seriously. It gave me an immense amount of hope.
R: Actually I remember seeing Midnight Express quite by accident too. I just remember how tense the whole film was - I’d actually like to see it again now. So tell me, you started off focusing on post-production, why the move into production?
S: Yes, I studied editing at AUB and worked as an editor for about a year. I edited a couple of short films and worked as a runner for a bit. It wasn't fulfilling anymore, it became a chore. Being stuck in a dark room for nine to twelve hours a day, working with directors who don't want to listen to their editor's opinion was draining. I wanted to be excited about making movies again. I told myself "look, at the end of the day you love cameras, lenses and all of that nerdy stuff so just try out the camera department." It was a risk and I was intimidated at first, but it was the best decision I ever made.
R: The NFTS is the school of industry legends. A couple of years ago it was ranked in The Hollywood Reporter’s ‘top 15 International film schools’ - how are you finding it? What has been a highlight so far?
S: It has been an extraordinary experience, it deserves all of the accolades and more. I am studying on the Assistant Camera course. Our tutor, Louise Ben-Nathan has been fantastic, I consider her my mentor. She is an excellent teacher and person. Her guidance and care has given me so much confidence in myself.
The school also provides you with the opportunity of working with established filmmakers in the industry. You have the potential to make invaluable connections with people who will open doors for you and get you started on your career.
R: So let’s talk about your first short film - It’s Him. I think it is fair to say it is intense but you’ve left enough room so we have time to process what is happening and unfolding. Where did the idea come from?
S: Not sure, usually my ideas are like a collage of things I've consumed and been exposed to; a variety of different books I read, documentaries and films I've watched, experiences I've had.
The script is based on a short story I wrote a while back. The concept of voyeurism and obsession were the main themes. As I was writing the script it changed, the theme of trauma became the primary focus.
The opening of Apocalypse Now, Taxi Driver, The Shining were all big influences. However, the biggest one was Salad Fingers. It's an animated show on YouTube, if you don't know what it is just take a look because I can't even explain it. It gave me a blueprint for the atmosphere, pacing, voice-over narration and overall vibe for the film. I do understand why a lot of people dismiss it as a weird little online series, but I was so moved by the overall pain, loneliness and darkness the character evoked.
R: It can be super energising but also fraught with stress producing and directing something you’ve written, how did you find the experience?
S: Let’s be honest here, the idea of making a film is very thrilling. But in reality it's a long, tiring process - masochistic dare I say. It will challenge you in every aspect. It will make you question your talent and just overall essence as a person. If you are also directing something you wrote you will feel exposed. You need to somehow trust people in entering the most personal and secretive parts of your mind. It's strange to say the least. Because it is so challenging I feel like I have grown not only as a filmmaker but as a person. I learned things about me I didn't know. If you challenge yourself to such a degree you will get a lot out of it - just don't let it ruin you. Or maybe I am being pessimistic, ha.
R: What was the biggest lesson you’ll take from It’s Him to your next film?
S: GET A PRODUCER. Seriously, what was I thinking? I was such a control freak (still am, but hopefully less so), I didn't want to let other people help with things I didn't know about. I wanted to do everything myself and it was too much.
You need a team around you that care and are willing to work hard to turn your vision into reality. That is very difficult to find when you are first starting out because you don't know anyone and most people won't take you seriously - which is understandable. You will have to experiment and work with a lot of people you don't vibe with in order to find your gems. This is actually my biggest goal at the moment, I want to find a good producer and create the right team. It is a must before I make my next film.
R: I know it is early days but what are your ambitions on graduating from the NFTS?
S: Well, I worked as a camera trainee on my first feature film last year. I want to work on more features and hopefully move up as a 2nd Assistant Camera.
I will also keep working on my own writing and directing. The screenplay for my second short is already done. It's a suspenseful drama about a bare-knuckle boxer who is torn between a life of violence and family. If you are a producer reading this 'HIT ME UP, thanks :)'
R: What is your advice for someone considering working in the film & TV industry?
S: I am still young and relatively inexperienced, but one thing I know for sure is that no matter how talented you are if you don't reach out to people and CHASE it, you won't get anywhere.
You HAVE to bombard people with emails asking them (well actually begging them but nicely) to give you a shot. You have to go to film events and approach people. You need to pursue it. Don't wait for the industry to come to you, you need to go to it. I'm just as shy and socially awkward as the next person but the more you do it the better you get at it. I know it's scary and uncomfortable, even painful at times, but you have no other choice.
This is an industry that revolves around connections - and if you do get a chance don’t take it for granted. Reputation is very important since most jobs are word of mouth. Apologies if I sound preachy but lose the ego. Yes, you need to chase people, yes you need to work very long hours for very little money (if any) but you are just starting out and that's how things are. Don’t resist it, just go with it.
One last thing, I want to give advice to filmmakers who live in countries with small industries. The country you work in is extremely important. If you dream of working on big movies and TV series you need to go where they produce them. The UK is great for that, it has the biggest industry outside of the US. Be patient, keep chasing and it will happen.
R: Amazing! I so can’t wait to see your next film and what the next year or so brings in terms of the productions you get involved with. I can, of course, continue to enjoy your photographs in the meantime.
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