I recently had a chance to interview Nina Ljeti, an incredibly talented actress, filmmaker, and musician who you’ve probably seen in the feature films Child of God, Tar, The Letter, About Cherry, and many more. Despite her young age, Ljeti has not only written and directed a feature film, but she has also starred alongside some of the world's best actors including Winona Ryder, Jessica Chastain, Mila Kunis, and James Franco.
Check out our interview below to find out about Nina's upcoming feature film Memoria, starring Golden Globe winning actor James Franco, as well as her unique affection for playing male characters, and the unwavering passion that drives her creations.
PL: Why are you so passionate about film as a medium for expression?
NL: I love film because it uses many different artistic mediums to tell a story (writing, music, visual art, photography, performance). And unlike any other art, film is primarily and predominantly a collaboration with other filmmakers, technicians and performers. I think this is exciting because part of why I’m so passionate about film is that there is always room to learn more and to find different ways of expressing yourself. When you’re working with a team, you can use this to your advantage to grow as an artist. You learn from your peers and your collaborators. I constantly try to find new ways to tell a story. I’m always looking for truth in my work.
PL:What is it about acting that you love?
NL: As I stated before, I am always adamant about being honest with myself as the artist, and the audience. The goal of the actor is find the truth and the life behind a character. This is so hard to accomplish, and that’s what makes acting fun.
PL: Was there anything specific that happened in your life that made you feel the film industry was where you belonged?
NL: I can only say that from a very young age I envisioned everything in my life as if it was a movie. I was always writing scripts, always imagining where I would place the camera in certain situations. I will say that my father bought me a VCR when I was 3 (it was one of the first things he got me when we immigrated to Canada). That VCR was my prized possession. I was always watching movies.
PL: For Memoria, how do you feel about the film? When will it be released? How did the process change/help you grow as a director?
NL: Working on 'Memoria' has been an amazing experience. Because the budget was small, there will obviously be some faults in the film, but I also think that’s what makes this film exciting. We are making something out of nothing. It’s very DIY, punk rock. We’re re-recording some of our RED footage onto a VHS tape to add depth and texture to the film. Because of that, I feel the film will be appreciated in an indie circuit. Currently, CAA is looking at the film. We plan on submitting it to TIFF, but if not, it will premier in early 2015 at BERLIN and SXSW.
This experience really helped me grow as a director. For obvious reasons. It taught me that a director must have incredible focus, energy and drive to lead a crew into production. I find that very thrilling. It also taught me that the script must always be revisited in production, so that I can remind myself of the line of characters, the story and maintain consistency in my work.
PL: Can you tell me about some of your other experiences as a director?
NL: Prior to 'Memoria' my favorite film that I directed was ‘Jeffrey.’ The script was short and sweet, and I had to figure out a lot of things as I went. I made the film for 900 dollars. Looking back, I kind of liked not knowing. I was overly confident, but at the same time I wasn’t bound to any technical aspects of the filmmaking process. I was making a film purely as a form of expression. There wasn’t any pressure or a desire to prove anything.
PL: Can you tell me about the project 'Collage?' What was your role? What was the intention of the overall project?
NL: 'Collage' was a multi-media performance art piece that combined music, dance, drama, and video. James (Franco) asked me to pick four plays and to write a script (which he would then stage at NYU). He also asked me to play the lead role, and to write original music for the project with my band. James and I created the piece together. I got to combine all my passions (acting, writing, filmmaking, music) into one piece.
We wanted to combine different artistic mediums into one stage performance. That was the original intention behind the project. The greatest compliment I ever received was during a final performance of the show. Michael Shannon (actor) approached me after a performance and told me that he thought I was absolutely brilliant, and that I should be proud of my work. He was so kind and generous. I’ll never forget that he said that.
PL: I noticed you directed a music video for Liphemra—can you tell me about how you got involved with her? I know it’s not released yet, if you’re able to talk about the video I’d love to hear about it…
NL: I met Liphemra when I first moved to Los Angeles. We have very similar interests, and we are both driven, passionate women. She was familiar with my work as a director (she appeared as an extra in 'Memoria,' and is contributing music to the film), so she asked me if I would direct a video for her song “Bloodwork.” We shot the video underwater with a go pro camera. It’s super cool. It’s not out yet because she just got signed with a record label, so they’re timing the releases of her work very carefully.
PL: I read that you’re a trained musician- what instruments do you play? Can you tell me about your training and how long you’ve been playing music?
NL: I’ve been playing music for 16 years. I’m a classically trained pianist (with the Royal Conservatory of Music). I also play guitar, bass guitar, and the saxophone. Music is a great passion of mine. My band, 'Yeah Well, Whatever', has performed in both 'Collage' and 'BirdShit.' I’ve written original music for both those performance pieces, as well as a couple films. Music is a hobby of mine, but I definitely like to apply it to my work as a filmmaker as much as possible.
PL: How do you think being a musician yourself adds to your ability to direct videos for other musicians?
NL: My understanding of music helps me not only as a music video director, but a film director in general. It helps me to understand the rhythm of life, of dialogue, and of sequences and scenes. Music teaches you this. It’s hard to explain why, but it’s a language you pick up when you are a studying musician.
PL: Can you tell me a little about your upcoming acting projects?
NL: Currently, I’m working on a film called 'Kurt.' In it, I play Kurt Cobain. It’s a project that James (Franco) and I have been developing for a couple years. Nirvana is my favorite band of all time, so I’m very excited to be working on this piece.
PL: What has the experience of playing a male character been like for you? I know you played James Dean in 'Rebel,' what was that like? Are those your only two male roles so far?
NL: I love playing male characters. I find them so complicated and interesting, and I feel that I am able to bring something unique to them because I have the perspective of a female to add to the role. I’ve played male characters many times. I played James Dean in 'Rebel,' Stanely Kowalski (from a Streetcar Named Desire) in 'Collage,' Treplev (from The Seagull) in 'BirdShit,' Kurt Cobain in 'Kurt,' and I’ve modeled as a male many times for 7 For All Mankind.
It’s so much fun to get into the mind of someone that is so far away from you, personally. It makes it that much harder to find yourself within the character, but all the more satisfying when you do. That’s why I love playing male roles. For some reason, they come naturally to me.
PL: Do you have any upcoming directing projects?
NL: I am currently writing my second feature film. It’s entitled 'Things You Missed (While You Were Gone).' I have recently applied to the Sundance Writer’s Workshop, and am currently meeting investors and seeking funding for the film.