Director and producer Paola Bernardini has a special sense of work ethic when it comes to filmmaking.
She’s always putting in the time to make unique and intriguing films, and once she’s started a project, there’s nothing that will get in the way of finishing that project.
As you’ll hear her describe in the interview, Bernardini once found herself in a situation where she had to get footage without a crew.
Bernardini has proven her dedication time and again, and the worldwide film community has taken notice.
Her short film City of Dreams (currently streaming on miniflix.tv) was selected for the Short Film Corner at Cannes Film Festival as well as the Film Festival Ma Ophüs Preis. Her thriller short Solitaire was selected for the Cascadia International Women’s Film Festival and the Soho International Film Festival.
Bernardini also created the video Living the Italian Way, My Way for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Italy.
We invited Bernardini to have a conversation with us about inspiration, work ethic, and overseeing every aspect of production. You’ll find the full interview below.
Where do you tend to get new ideas for films? Do you have a consistent source of inspiration?
My ideas come from everywhere. As an artist, you have to be a sponge of inspiration. Sometimes it’s a piece of writing, a great script, an article, sometimes it can be a cause that I believe in, and sometimes it comes from people in my life.
Most commonly, inspiration comes from people and an experience that I feel that I can relate to. Making a film is not easy. It takes a long time to put all the pieces of the production together and if I have to work on an idea for a long time, it has to be something I’m deeply passionate about.
I read a great short story about two boys riding their bicycles in the suburbs of New York, talking about the death of one of the boy’s fathers. I asked the screenwriter to collaborate with me by taking that story as a source of inspiration to develop a script set in my hometown in Italy. We created a different coming of age story but the heart of it was still there: grief, love, and the bond between siblings. That’s how Cittá dei Sogni [City of Dreams] was born.
Living the Italian Way, My Way was directly inspired by my family and friends. In fact, a lot of them are in the film. Solitaire, on the other hand, was inspired by the location, which is this majestic spooky place that sparked the use of magic realism in a story about loneliness and friendship.
You never know what can inspire you and that’s the best part I think. When I have an idea that I can’t stop thinking about and it becomes obsessive to the point that it’s a necessity to make that film. That’s really thrilling for me.
What has been your longest shoot so far? Was it especially challenging?
My longest shoot was the one with the least crew members. Solitaire was shot in an Embassy, it was a very prestigious and rare opportunity but I couldn’t bring a full cast and crew to that location. I couldn’t shut down an Embassy to shoot a film so I decided to bring just one other filmmaker on board.
From start to finish, it took me a little over a year to complete and it was extremely challenging. It was done against most rules of filmmaking. Just him and I with a camera, running around this Embassy trying to tell a story while also being the only actors. It took us a lot longer than a regular shoot, since we had to do our wardrobe and makeup, set up the scene, rehearse, frame the shot, and nail the performance.
Trying to make a film this way was an obstacle itself, we were challenging ourselves as filmmakers and it wasn’t always fun. I was so passionate about making the film work. In the end, it looks and feels more professional than some of the independent films made with a big budget and full crew.
I’m very proud of it but it also reinforced the fact that filmmaking is collaborative.
Do you have a group of crew members you like to use on different projects?
I work with multiple people, sometimes they are the same, sometimes they are new, sometimes they are specific. For example, I made Solitaire with Wayland Bell, he is a great cinematographer and storyteller. He is very resourceful, he can light a scene with minimal equipment while still delivering the psychological and emotional impact we were striving for. I wouldn’t have done that film with anyone else.
At the end of the day, it’s best to work with people you enjoy being around who respect and understand your vision as a director. They have to be just as passionate about the film as you are and bring their talents to the table.
If you build a good team, then you have a stable foundation to go through the process successfully. Filmmaking is collaborative. Everyone helps to inspire and mold the story.
How do you decide what the visual style of each film should be? Do you like to change this style with each project?
I think style might be defined by the collection of tools a director uses to make the film and the repetition of those techniques in other films.
I care about the story and the characters, then about what visual tools can support that narrative. I’m expressing myself visually by keeping in mind that there’s an audience I’m trying to convey these emotions to. I’m not particularly thinking about any previous style I used.
There are similarities in the films I’ve made, like symmetry, rhythm, and the use of music. There’s definitely a clear style within each individual film but I don’t have a distinct style that is applied to everything I make. As an artist and filmmaker, I want to be able to tell a variety of stories and not be tied down by one thing. Each film lives in its own world because the stories, genres, and execution are different.
What does the casting process look like for you? Have you changed your approach at all since you started your career?
Today I would work with a casting director. I have also offered roles to actors without auditioning them simply because I know them personally and know what they can do it. That’s the easiest way to do it.
I find auditions weird when actors have only one or two chances to run lines without having read the entire script. How would they know how to prepare for the character and what I’m looking for? It’s like a guessing game.
I give a character breakdown and the full script. Especially if it’s a short film, there’s no reason not to provide the entire story. I pay attention to what’s around the actual audition, how they present themselves, I ask them simple questions like where they’re from, what they think of the character, and I appreciate when they have questions.
At this point, I gave the actor enough information that I don’t need to hear a monologue. With a monologue, an actor is prepared to put their best foot forward.
Usually, it’s a gut feeling, even if it’s a pre-recorded audition, you know before the audition is over if you want to see that person again or not.
I enjoy casting sessions but I haven’t actually held a proper casting in a while. Recently my projects have been more documentaries. For my last narrative, Solitaire, because of the circumstances of the location, Wayland and I were the only options to star in the film.
How important is it to have a successful first day of shooting?
There’s always so much momentum leading up to the first day of shooting and I usually can’t get much sleep the night before a shoot, no matter what it is. It’s like you’re going into battle you want to win really badly.
No matter how much I prepare, I think there’s always a bit of anxiety, but then when I get to set, it all goes away. They say the first day of shooting sets the tone for the rest of the shoot. I don’t necessarily believe that. I can always bet on something going wrong at some point but I can also bet that whatever it is, a solution will be figured out.
The first day of shooting Cittá dei Sogni, I think we lost half of the footage but what was left from that day ended up being the best shots in the whole film.
Are you heavily involved with the post-production process? Do you enjoy seeing the first rough cut?
I am heavily involved in the post-production process. As a director, I already see the film in my head, so that includes edits. I don’t think there’s a way to not be involved in the editing process. If you give the footage to someone else to edit on their own, it becomes their film and their point of view.
The first rough cut is usually what the editor thinks you want so you have to sit there and collaborate. Scene by scene, frame by frame, there’s a lot of decisions that have to be made.
A simple cut can make all the difference between sadness or joy, scary or funny. It’s a very meticulous process that can take a long time and requires a lot of patience. Hopefully you and your editor won’t want to kill each other by the end.
I definitely learn from editors. A great editor can help you direct, especially when you get stuck. They can give suggestions that can make you look at a scene in a whole new light. It’s very beneficial to a director to work with an editor who is willing to experiment.
What is it like to screen a movie for the first time? Is it exciting, nervous, both?
It’s the best feeling in the world. I love the experience, but it’s also uncomfortable. We work hard to put all these pieces together to make the story feel as real as possible. I made someone feel something and that’s pretty awesome to me.
At moments I feel embarrassed where I see flaws in the film. Usually, those are just magnified to me and not the audience.
Recently, I attended the WILDSound Film Festival in Toronto which was an amazing experience. They show a few films and then stop the screening for the audience to give feedback and start a discussion.
The moderator of that screening insisted on not letting anyone know I was in the audience. Essentially I sat there while the audience spoke about what they actually thought about the film and my decisions as a director.
I loved that, I was eavesdropping on people’s real and honest opinions.
Screening your films for the first time is definitely a vulnerable and addictive feeling.