by Persephone Vandegrift
Gina Scalzi is an actor, writer and producer. She wrote the screenplay for the upcoming short film Close Distance Focus, currently in pre-production.
Women who are working creatively and wanting to tell stories can benefit from the unorthodox new directions in storytelling.
Currently you are very much an artist of many creative trades across the entertainment world, can you tell us how/when you started in the industry?
I knew I wanted to be a performer as a kid. The focus was dance, and for my most formative years, nothing but. My mindset is still strangely “choreographic” – if that makes any sense – and music remains my muse. Disciplined fluidity. I trained and studied, and as a dancer, opportunities came to expand into musical theater, and eventually I transitioned into acting, and now beyond that as well. Growth meant change and exploration for me. I suppose it does when you start the journey as a kid.
You mention being involved with First Nations writers and filmmakers, how did that come about?
It was, as so many of the expansive opportunities in my life have been, a byproduct of research. In this case, it was serendipity really. I grew up back East, and was mistaken for Native American as a little kid. Perhaps that identification followed me, but the history and culture was fascinating to me. I wrote a feature screenplay, years ago, as part of a workshop assignment, with no great ambition, and the preparation period allowed me to justify delving into the culture and history and approach various resources as part of that process. Years later, I am now in a community where part of that realized plot played out and I find myself getting a consult with a historian who, like me, finds himself contributing to the community he is researching, and months later I am part of a committee myself, lending my voice-over to their crowdfunding, working with Native American intertribal organizations on a grassroots level. The research periods of the work seem to naturally lead to this. Similarly, I worked on a film called The Sensei and found myself working with PFLAG, the Matthew Sheppard Foundation, and film festivals who were giving the cause a voice. This again, was a film that was being led by a fierce woman, Diana Lee Inosanto, daughter of Bruce Lee’s martial arts student Dan Inosanto. The two situations are very similar.
Though we have some cherished examples of women really making it happen in film, media, publishing...there is a huge pool of talent, much of it untapped
As Her Film Project focuses on women in the entertainment industry, what have been some key challenges and triumphs (personal and/or professional & links if you like) that you've experienced over the years?
I have been incredibly lucky to have worked with some amazing women in film. Diana Lee Inosanto, being directed by her and seeing her process, was a bit of a revelation. She was tireless, felt absolutely no sense of entitlement, was completely engaged in the making of the film on every level – she brought a motherhood sense of leadership to the set… and her life. It was a revelation to see the power of that maternal leadership. She was up against a lot, she and her film were seen as a “risk”, and her perseverance was really incredible – her cast and crew were so dedicated to her and the intention and tribute that were the story behind that film. The trials – let’s be honest, there are incredible trials across the board – but I think what Diana did so well was never lose touch that, though we have some cherished examples of women really making it happen in film, media, publishing, that there is a huge pool of talent, much of it untapped, and that means a HUGE pool of competition – made all the more competitive because there is so much talent with fewer opportunities. The fact that a woman succeeding on the highest level is unique does not mean there is less competition for that success, rather the opposite. The most successful women making film that I’ve met, whether in independent film, martial arts, LGBT, Native American media, what have you, are in touch with the fact that being a female doesn’t make you unique - we are 50% of the population and there is a lot of absolutely amazing talent out there. You’ve got to deliver. You can’t rely on the “novelty” of being a “female filmmaker” to carry you, because there are some crazy wonderful women in film raising the bar.
You've acted, written and produced, are there other positions in the industry you are looking to explore?
What seems to have been a natural expansion is this learning curve we’re on regarding marketing, exposure, and promotion, and increasingly how we need to commit to getting material seen on multiple platforms. There’s no plugging into a magic equation. I’ve been increasingly lending my part to the promotion of projects I am working on whether as an actor, producer, or writer, beyond the parameters set by those roles traditionally. Getting a film made is one miracle, being part of making it independently is another, getting it seen is another, and then being able to make the next. It’s amazing to see the epic lengths being taken to get work realized, the exhaustive work projects go through, and what is being made with so very few resources. There are some incredible people doing work with such necessary creativity and innovation, simply because they are so limited in their resources and so very bound and determined to see the project through. The intestinal fortitude alone is inspirational - seeing projects being made with such professionalism while making the most of so few resources. I spoke with a woman last year who had lived and worked on and with the people of Pine Ridge reservation and it was literally her home for years in the making of the film, because she physically uprooted and made it her home. She’s received critical acclaim, ad continues to, and her success continues because she is still just, persisting. On the other hand, a few years ago I worked with a female music producer, Diana Gomes, to independently release a CD set of my brother’s music. It was an expansive process, but after being a part of that process and seeing the incredible effort Diana gave to it, I consider it a labor of love I may not be able to repeat.
Currently you have a couple projects on the go, a short film in production and you are in development on a very interesting project about Rankin Scott Kelly. First, give us a little background on the short.
I’m in London working with a three-woman, international team (US, Poland, UK) on a short film for Raindance Film Institute. We make a triangle – it’s a metaphor that runs through the project. I wrote the short as a single scene study for a workshop and when I met the Producer, from Poland, and heard her thoughts on the treatment, it seemed obvious that her vision would serve the story and expand it. We’ve gotten particular support from Elliot Grove we never could’ve asked for. The re-writes have been such a genuinely organic process and it has evolved into a period piece with contemporary relevance, in a way I couldn’t have imagined before understanding her perspective of the history behind the project that, as an American and English-speaker, is not even on my radar.
The Producer and I had contributed to a short film I worked on as an Associate Producer. The film premiered at the London Film Festival and won a Spotlight Silver Award (2015) in Atlanta and in turn, the filmmaker is now contributing talent to our Close Distance Focus. I introduced her to our third creative, who’s worked behind the camera in London and Vancouver, and then we made three.
The story behind Rankin Scott Kelly, one of the first sheriffs in the “wild west,” is a natural offshoot of the Native American exploration. I approached a historian asking for a consultation on accuracy and credibility regarding some scenes I had written about a tribal custom he had done a great deal of research on, and protection of. Working directly with the tribe who were removed from the lands where this custom took place, his research, like mine, had turned to action and advocacy. As he was consulting for me and reading my scripts pages for authenticity, he was exploring this true story about a little known historical figure who had interacted with many of the Native Americans who practiced this custom. Next thing I know, he’s on set being interviewed on the subject for PBS and the producer he is working with is looking for these kinds of stories for narrative film. She gets us in touch with another producer and both of these women are dedicated to finding and developing these types of historical dramas. By the end of 2015, the historian had asked me to come on as co-writer, and we have been working with them on the feature screenplay. There were moments when writing in this genre has left me chanting a mantra to Marilynne Robinson [author of Gilead]. The generosity of these women is, again, such a huge part of the evolution of the story.
A final statement if you'd like, addressing your journey thus far, advice, other opportunities to suggest for women trying to break in that you have observed there is less 'push back' (if there is such a place...) and whatever you feel inspired to address.
I was sitting with a friend of mine last year, just about this time, who was in the midst of making the rounds of film festivals with a period piece she’d made. She’d been well received and proud of the work she’d done, but was still seeing obstacles as she made her way to the next step. As the entertainment industry evolves – as independent film, feature narrative and documentary, and now internet, web-series and streaming platforms gain and lose ground at what feels like an ever changing rate, what it seems to me is that women who are working creatively and wanting to tell stories can benefit [from] the unorthodox new directions in storytelling. If you are telling stories and your audience is finding content on alternative platforms – go there, work on those platforms whatever they may be, and find your audience.
Learn more about Gina Scalzi's work at IMDb, on Facebook, her website, and her blog.