Julian Gilbert on Filmmaking and Telling Stories about Complex Female Characters

Julian Gilbert is a filmmaker who was born and raised in San Francisco. In 2014, she received her BFA from Parsons, the New School for Design with a degree in Fine Arts. Julian is currently a Film and TV production MFA candidate at University of Southern California. She writes, directs and produces and her projects have won awards at festivals such as Miami Independent Film Festival and Los Angeles CineFest. Julian is currently working on her exciting USC Thesis Film called Why Georgia? which is inspired by her own experience of being a teenager. Julian is passionate about creating more films which show the complexities of female character and believes this can be achieved by having more female directors in big budget films, a positive trend we are already witnessing.


Can you share with us what was your childhood like. Did you grow up in a creative environment?


I grew up in the suburbs of San Francisco (Marin County). When I was young, I traveled around the world with my dad, Brad Gilbert, who was a professional tennis coach at the time (he coached Andre Agassi from 1994 - 2004). My mom, Kim Gilbert, worked as a graphic designer in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s. She designed posters for the U.S. Open as well as for feature films. Both of my parents have non-traditional professions and I was always encouraged to be creative.


How early on did you realize that you want to pursue a creative path in life?


When I was in the middle school I wanted to be a fashion designer; I sewed Halloween costumes and dresses for family-friends' parties. In high school, I developed a love of fine art, and I especially enjoyed painting. I started pursuing filmmaking about five years ago, but I think I’ve always tried to “follow my bliss” as the Joseph Campbell phrase goes. I trust my instincts, learn from my experiences, and I’m not afraid to be flexible in my career path.


You first did a Bachelor’s degree in Fine Arts at Parsons before embarking on a Masters Degree in Film and TV Production. Can you tell us what attracted you to the medium of filmmaking? Do you perhaps see storytelling as the ultimate way to express your creativity?


At Parsons I was mostly teaching myself how to make films because there was no official cinema department. I wanted to be able to reach a broader (and not necessarily art-savvy) audience with my work. I was attracted to film's accessibility; a movie or TV show can travel around the world and reach mass amounts of people, and potentially impact them (even in the comfort of their living room). I liked the fact that a person doesn't have to go far to watch something like they have to view a particular art installation, for instance.


The key to great filmmaking is exceptional storytelling, and in my opinion, there's really no better place to learn the art of storytelling than USC School of Cinematic Arts. I've made a lot of connections with talented young filmmakers at USC and working with them helps the creative process tremendously. I like the collaborative aspect of making films; you can't make a movie on your own!


You are currently working on your MFA coming of age thesis film called "Why Georgia?". Can you tell us more about it and what inspired you to tell this story?


For context, here's the logline: "A shy 13-year-old girl named Haley finds an unexpected mentor in her new babysitter, Georgia, a vivacious and uninhibited 20-something who pushes the limits." When I was in elementary school I had a few babysitters whom I really looked up to, these slightly older girls seemed so self-assured, so "mature" and their energy was electrifying.


I remember one babysitter, of mine whose name I won't say, liked to show off her tattoos and flirt with any guy we passed that she thought was cute. At the time I considered her to be so grown-up, but looking back, she was a kid herself. So "Why Georgia?" is loosely based on an amalgam of my own experiences; as I've gotten older, I've started to view relationships from my childhood in a new light.


You believe in the power of representation and are passionate about showing that female characters don’t always have to be depicted as just “strong” but also as vulnerable which makes for more honest storytelling. Do you think more films need to be made which capture the complexities of female character?


I believe when we have more female writers and directors making big budget films, we'll start to see more complex female characters on screen. I think we all want to watch more three-dimensional females on screen. In the scheme of things, this is a great time to be a female writer or director. We're starting to see a lot of female directors going mainstream, like Patty Jenkins (d. Wonder Woman), or Greta Gerwig, which is fantastic.



Can you talk us through the process of preparing to do a film - from script writing, casting characters to fundraising.


I began developing “Why Georgia?” with my writing partner last summer. We went through draft after draft, refining the script; once I was happy with it, I invited my producers on board, and we got to work building a team. We brought on our cinematographer, Sarah Winters, a fellow (USC) Trojan, and she and I began discussing the look of the film early on.


My team and I surpassed our 15k goal and raised over $16K on IndieGoGo to fund the project which is very exciting. Even though we exceed our goal, this budget is still considered indie/micro-budget filmmaking. We’re almost entirely cast and crewed up, we’re locking our locations very soon, and we start filming at the end of May!


Can you tell us about directing, do you enjoy this part of your creative process the most?


I made a few smaller films at Parsons and USC, but this will be the biggest production I have directed. As a director, my job is to work with the actors and control the tone and style of the film-people will be looking to me for the vision. I think directing starts from the moment you begin developing your story. Pre-production is crucial; a former professor of mine at USC once told the class, we should be 100% prepared on day one of filming because inevitably 20% will go wrong regardless of how well you plan. All that said, I think I have the most fun when I'm directing on set because if we prep right, things run smoothly, and there's extra time for improvisation.


What are some of the main challenges you face as a filmmaker?


It’s hard to make a living as an indie filmmaker in today's market, and it’s difficult for new directors to break in; you can’t walk into a studio and pitch an idea as you could've 10 or 15 years ago. Not to mention, we're competing against companies like Amazon and Netflix in competition at film festivals like Sundance, Tribeca, and Toronto. You either have to be super original or have a lot of personal capital to gain attention. Another big challenge is having to deal with a lot of people telling you “no.” I've learned that you can’t focus on the people who tell you no, you've got to concentrate on the people who say yes!


Talking of the film industry in general, why do you think there are so few women in filmmaking and, in your opinion, what needs to be done to change it?


We are starting to see a shift in awareness and some progress regarding job equality. I think more women need to be in charge of development and production in the industry, so we can hear diverse voices that make up our world. The people in power (male and female) need to take more "chances" and hire female directors, writers, and executives and we’ll experience change. At the moment, several powerful studio heads are women, Donna Langley (chairman of Universal Studios), for instance. Megan Ellison, founder, and head of Annapurna Pictures is a trailblazer regarding hiring women into positions of power.


Boonji stands for ‘positive energy derived from creativity.’ How important for you is it to support other creatives, especially women?


The film industry is a harsh environment. Ultimately most people get into filmmaking because we love to tell stories. You can't make a film on your own, of course, you need help physically (crew), but you also need positive reinforcement. No one knows how to make a hit film or show, or what’s going to work with the audience; we’re all just trying to figure it out together. It’s very important to support fellow creatives and build networks that we can trust; we all rely on each other!


What would you like to say to your 16 old self?


When I was 16 I didn't feel accepted by my peers at school, and I second-guessed myself frequently. When I got to a certain age, I realized that it’s ok to have my own opinion and my voice. I’d tell my 16-year-old self to trust my instincts and not be so anxious about the future or how I am perceived by others. Also, I would say no one ever feels “perfect” and it’s ok.


What is your idea of happiness?


Doing the thing I love (filmmaking), staying healthy, and being surrounded by people I care about is my idea of happiness. I also believe happiness is a state of mind; bringing awareness to the blessings in my life always brings a smile to my face. It's normal to get caught in emotions like anger or sadness, but I try to remember the positive people and things in my life.


What do you have planned for this year?


I'm directing my USC Master's Thesis, “Why Georgia?”, and graduating in May. I’ll be doing post-production on the film over the summer (editing, color correction, sound design/mixing). We aim to finish post-production in August 2018, and we’ll submit to festivals. In June, I plan to start full-time work as an assistant to an Executive (in Production or Development) at a production company or studio and also continue to write new stories for film and for television.




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