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Producer Tania Zarak in conversation with Majo Aguilar on her own film production company and her experience working behind movies
México City, June 26th, 2022
The amount of people needed to take a story to the screen is amazingly big. One of the things that make cinema one of the most collaborative art forms is the amount of hands, eyes and minds a film can go through even before being projected on a screen. As everything in life, no one would be able to do everything alone- human interaction and support is needed to make something bright even brighter and to help balance elements so they flow in the right direction to reach a desired end. Even though directors, and most of all actors, are the people whose vivid image lives in pop culture, their work would not be half as good if it wasn’t for photography directors, costume designers, sound editors and producers, to just name a few. Mexican Producer, Tania Zarak joins us in this edition to discuss what film production entails, the cinema that she shares with her children and her production company Bonita Films.
Tania, can you tell us a little about yourself and your relationship with cinema?
I always knew I was going to make movies, and this happened because my dad studied cinema, although he never worked in filmmaking, he dedicated his life to book publishing and photography curating. Although he never worked as a filmmaker, I always knew I was going to do it. Initially I wanted to be an actress and that was my path. Once I was invited to act in a movie and I remember very well that they had us actors sitting in the corner for hours, this is before iphones and social networks and internet, so I remember that I was bored, nobody paid attention to us, they served us cold coffee... and I remember that there was a girl about my age with some notebooks and some keys and a walkie talkie who knew everyone and said hello to everyone by their first name and everyone knew who she was and she had the answers to everything. So I was curious and asked who she was and they told me "She is the producer," and from that moment I never went back- that experience left a deep mark on me, then I knew that this was what I wanted to do, that suited my personality much more. So that's how I decided that my thing was production.
What are the most important aspects of working as a film producer?
I think that producers must know how to relate to all kinds of people, they have to have a very high emotional intelligence because they are constantly dealing with different personalities and with different needs and they have to be solving problems. When you are a producer you have to know what you can do with the resources that you have, and by resources I don't mean just economics, it's in general. I remember a lot that once Tita Lombardo, one of the best Mexican producers, told me that there are times when a director comes and tells you "Okay, here I want these people to attack, and I want it to rain and thunder and I also want cowboys" and in that moment you have to think how do you make all that happen with what you have? So a producer must know how to solve problems, how to get along with different people and has to be realistic according to the expectations and resources that they have in their hands at that moment. They have to know more about cinema than everyone else, they have to, not necessarily know how to do what the others have to do, but to know who is the best at doing their respective job: who is the best editor, who is the best composer, who is the best in all areas.
You worked at Tribeca Films, what things did you learn during your stay there that helped you create the foundations of your own production company?
My first job was at Tribeca Films in New York, which is Robert De Niro's production house. I think that the most valuable thing for me about that experience is that I was physically close to a female producer. Robert De Niro's partner is Jane Rosenthal and she is his right hand in everything he does beyond his acting career. I worked in the office of Jane Rosenthal and that was the first time I saw a powerful, feminine woman, because she was a woman who did not stop being a woman, or being a mother or being a wife for being a producer or for being a professional. She was a woman who knew exactly what she wanted and she was a woman who was sitting in her chair by her own guns, she got to where she was on her own, no one helped her, and me working in her office and working directly with her and being able to observe her everyday taught me more than I ever learned in any academic institution. The most important thing I got out of Tribeca is that I worked closely with a powerful, intelligent, ambitious female producer. That was invaluable and I got to know what I wanted and didn't want to do, because she could be tough at times.
"Producers must know how to relate to all kinds of people, they have to have a very high emotional intelligence because they are constantly dealing with different personalities and with different needs and they have to be solving problems."
"I worked in the office of Jane Rosenthal and that was the first time I saw a powerful, feminine woman, because she was a woman who did not stop being a woman, or being a mother or being a wife for being a producer or for being a professional."
What kind of movies are Bonita Films interested in producing?
Bonita Films is not active at the moment, but after working in the United States and Mexico for several years in different jobs in which I was exposed to different experiences and after working with various filmmakers, because I also worked in Alfonso Cuarón's office in New York at the time he was making Children of Men (2006), I realized that at that time the most important thing was to create a bridge between cultures, tell universal stories but from specific cultural contexts, I was very interested in art cinema and auteur cinema, I was interested in working with young and talented people and I think I achieved it, I think the films I made for Bonita Films (two films in English, three in Spanish), achieved that goal. They traveled and created bridges between countries and languages. At the end of the day, that is art and culture, meeting points for people from all over the world, that has always been the objective of Bonita Films.
You wrote and produced the film Marta Rosa, which won at the Palm Springs Film Festival in 2015. How was your process when writing it and what situations inspired you to do it?
I made Marta Rosa's short film, which was very successful and very well received, inspired by a photograph by Enrique Metinides, who is a Mexican photographer who has just died. Enrique Metinides has a very impressive photographic sequence about a mother who is walking through Mexico City carrying the coffin of her little daughter and is looking for resources to be able to give her a decent burial, and that photo affected me a lot, at that moment I was pregnant with what would be my first daughter and there was something in that story that hit me very hard and I connected very strongly and I wrote Marta Rosa. That is a script that I wrote in one sitting, I channeled it and it came through me, I did it as part of my master's degree in cinema, my second master's degree, at Columbia University in New York, and Marta Rosa was my final project of my first year of master's degree. I wrote it with the image of the Mexican actress Adriana Paz in my mind, while I was writing it I thought of Adriana as Marta Rosa, fortunately we were able to get her for the film. Although it was a school project, it was very well received, it went to many festivals and it is a project that does not die, there are still people who keep talking to me about Marta Rosa. I chose the name Marta Rosa because that was my maternal grandmother's name.
Stills from Marta Rosa
Right now you live in Iceland, what differences have you noticed in terms of how cinema is consumed or seen there compared to how it is consumed in the United States or Mexico?
Now I live in Iceland and what a difference there is in how cinema is consumed. Iceland is a very particular country, there are 350,000 Icelanders, it is very small, it has a very difficult language that does not travel easily, so the Icelandic people consume a lot of local cinema. They have a very active industry, very protectionist, where if someone wants to make a film there is no problem with it, it's not like in Mexico or the US, where you have to battle and fight and see how you can get money for your movies. Here there is a very generous governmental fund that supports cinema of all kinds and that is open all year round, it is cyclical. There is a very large production and consumption of local cinema. Is Icelandic cinema difficult to exhibit abroad? Yes, particularly because of the density of the language, people don't speak Icelandic and it's not an easy language to understand. It's not like the romance languages, where if you speak Spanish you might understand a little bit of French. For being a very beautiful country and for having an incredible nature, historically it has been a "default" location, many movies, more than people imagine, from James Bond to Harry Potter, The Lord of the Rings, Game of Thrones... a lot of things have been filmed here. The technicians here are extraordinary, they are constantly working and they also have unions that protect them, so you can live from this here, it's not like in New York where you have to be a waiter or a bartender to be able to support your career as a filmmaker or actor, here you can live from your work in the cinema.
What films or people (actors/directors/partners, etc) have left an important mark on you?
This question is extensive... I have had the fortune, as I was saying in Tribeca's answer, to work very closely with very talented, privileged, successful people in their professional career. I was the executive director of Argos Cine in 2008, which allowed me to work closely with people like Epigmenio Ibarra, Gabriel García Marquez, Aida Bortnik, Carlos Payán, with pillars of the Mexican and Latin American cultural journey. I also worked at Netflix at a time when the department where I was working in was exploding in terms of growth.
I've had peers and colleagues from my generation whom I've met at college or in my professional life who are extremely successful and who I'm very glad to keep meeting on the way. I have undoubtedly had the fortune to work with people that I admire and respect and that is something that has been very important, something that has always been key for me is working with friends or with people that you respect and admire. Because at the end of the day, cinema is a team effort.
And what movies have marked me? Well, I can't answer that one, but definitely one that has been important was The blue lagoon (1980). I saw it when I was very little and that's when I knew that I also wanted to make movies. I recently saw a movie called The Worst Person in the World (2021) that I also really liked. Fleabag (2016–2019), Love and Anarchy (2020–present), Chernobyl (2019–2019), I've liked them all, I've seen more series than movies lately, although I also saw Licorice Pizza (2021) this year and I liked it too. I recently rewatched the documentary Tempestad (2016) again, I find it heartbreakingly wonderful. This list is infinite and also changes, there are stages in my life that resonate with some films that in other stages do not.
The Blue Lagoon
How have you introduced your children to movies?
My children have grown up with screens, the time is very different from the 80s, where in my house there was no TV by decision of my parents, not because we could not have one, in fact I had a very comfortable and very stimulating and very rich childhood, and I think that because my parents didn't gave us a TV is the reason we grew up interested in different things. With my children it is different because they grew up with screens, my oldest daughter was born in 2014, so they have a completely different relationship with entertainment and content. I try to watch longer films with them and I also try to show them the films that I myself saw as a child. It is an everyday job but I could not say that I have induced my children to films for the same reason that their relationship with the content is completely different from mine. I like them to watch movies in Spanish because my children are trilingual, so I like that they can listen to Spanish fluently, for example we watched Encanto (2021) in Spanish.
What issues are important to you that you would like to see discussed in more productions?
More than issues, the modus operandi of Bonita Films has been that if you touch on topics of the heart they will work because that is how they become universal. At the end of the day all the stories have already been told, if one goes to the bible, if one goes to the Koran, they are all already told and retold in different ways. When you focus on stories from the heart, that's when you tell the best stories.
What has been your favorite project in which you have participated and what role did you develop in it?
There is a film I made in 2012 called The Girl, it was the first film I made as Bonita Films, I was in charge of raising the financing in Mexico through the tax incentive, but it was my first project as an independent producer, it encapsulated very well everything I wanted to do through my production company, so it wasn't just raising the funds, it was a very intimate thing, I love that project a lot, it's a feature film. I also liked working on Monarca (2019–2021). I worked on Netflix in 2018 and I was the creative executive, so I was in charge of the writers' room. I reviewed the scripts and the stories. I worked very closely with Salma Hayek and Pepe Tamez. Obviously from Netflix I learned a lot about how to make serial stories, it was a great learning experience. I also worked on Martin Scorsese's The Departed (2006), as a production assistant, it was one of my first jobs and I value it and remember it for the closeness of being able to be close to all these characters, Martin Scorsese, Matt Damon, the Photography Director who was fabulous, to be able to be so into this world and learn firsthand.
What production are you working on right now or what would you like to start planning?
Right now I just accepted a job here in Iceland. I'm Vice President of Development for a production company called True North, which is the biggest production company in Iceland. I'm very excited, I'm also nervous but happy that they found me. It is a job with a lot of responsibility, they have very big shows, right now we are doing True Detective Season 4.
To stay in touch with Tania Zarak:
Follow @tanialicious on Instagram
Follow @truenorth_iceland on Instagram
Follow @senoraspunk on Instagram
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