EXCLUSIVE: An Interview with the director of Filmworker Tony Zierra and producer Elizabeth Yoffe

Best known for directing the documentary My Big Break, and the most recent UK documentary Filmworker. Here at Mandy News Tony Zierra discusses his journey into film making and his partnership with the producer of Filmworker Elizabeth Yoffe.

29th November 2018
/ By Steph Long

Tony Zierra & Elizabeth Zoffe FILMWORKER

Tony and Elizabeth, tell us who you are and how you got started out in the film industry.
TZ: My name is Tony Zierra and I’m the director of Filmworker. This whole thing started when I met Leon, who was on my list, for a project about Kubrick himself. He was a must – my producer, Elizabeth Yoffe, tracked him down and found him. I went to LA to film with him (I’m based in Boston) and we hit it off immediately and I was really struck by his story.

When I brought back the footage I watched it with my producer and we were just mesmerised by how selfless, devoted and knowledgeable he was, and his situation was really interesting. When you’re an independent filmmaker you kind of go, “How are you going to deal with another project on top of the one you have?” If you’re working on a Kubrick project, it’s so consuming. Even though he’s not in the world, he’s still consuming.

I was really hesitant, and I remember a few days later Elizabeth came back and said that if you don’t do this you’ll regret it. I knew she was 100% right, so we went back and got started.

How did you originally come to filmmaking yourself? Is it something you studied or was it just something that you gravitated to? How did you fall in love with it?
TZ: Of course, falling in love with it, that’s hard to explain. It’s almost like “why do you like to eat?” It became more of a necessity, but as far as how I accumulated the knowledge, I’m more self-taught with a mixture of taking bits and pieces - you just do whatever you can. These days you can look up stuff online and learn, but for me, it was read everything, watch the movies that you love until they become part of your mental process.

I learnt the most from trial and error. There were times when I couldn’t transfer my own film because I couldn’t afford it. I would project my own footage on the wall, videotape it and transfer it back to the computer. I cannot tell you how many hours I spent just testing things. It would actually go on years – it becomes an obsession. You’re on a mission and you want to know everything because when you’re independent you can’t just sit back and go, “there’s some company that’s going to come and call me.” You have to be able to wear a different hat.

So when I didn’t know how to edit and shoot, I’d do all those things. There also came a time where I thought, “Who’s going to be my tech person?” because you could be working, have all these drives running and suddenly your system or your software starts to act funny or things aren’t compatible. I would literally sit there and wait for a whole week, sometimes two weeks, and I would have to drive all the way to a big city and find someone and spend so much money.

In the beginning, it was kind of overwhelming, because you think “how can I do this?” Then you meet people that are such experts at what they do, but of course, they’re always busy or far away or too expensive. But you really see, especially with Kubrick, how he wasn’t just fascinated. He knew how to approach things. People talk about independent filmmakers in reference to the new breed of filmmakers now, but he was doing that in the ‘50s. He was in the streets of New York, carrying his own camera and sound, and he would shoot on location.

Back then, things were much harder as the cameras were bigger and the sound equipment was huge. You learn from somebody like Kubrick that you just have to find a way. Even if you’re going to bring in other people, you need to know what you’re asking them to do. I remember, with my producer years ago, she said to me, “You know, I think you need to start doing your own edits and you need to start doing your own tech stuff.” I remember literally having this feeling of wanting to pass out and vomit because by then I was so tired and irritated with the business, and how hard it was to break through.

So, when you meet somebody like Leon, you kind of realise that that’s just how it works. That’s how stuff is made. You have to be really good at your craft. Everything matters. That’s what I love about it. It’s what originally attracted us to this story; the craft and the details. Stanley Kubrick was all about details. He had to have someone like Leon beside him because it was details, details, details. That’s why the shelf lives of his films are just incredible.

I would say he’s really the top of the list – his movies will be 30 years old and people are watching it as if they’ve never seen it before. You learn from people like that and from trial and error and from classes and from meeting people. You always encounter people as you work, and I can’t say everybody’s great, because sometimes you literally lose your mind when you work with people that don’t care. If you care yourself, they influence you, and they make you look at things in a different way.

Obviously, you have enough reason and enough want and desire to make a film like this, but once you met someone like Leon Vitali, that became a must, to make the film, right?
Yeah, because you realise that that type of person is rare in the industry. I think Leon is also one of those that, once you tell his story and you tell it right, that is film history. That is very important, crucial because we’re a celebrity society and people like Leon are overlooked all the time because we look at the movie stars, but Leon and types like Leon, are the ones that really make these movies.

It was really more about honouring the people below the line, you know?

From the footage, it looks a lot like he really did everything. All of the jobs.
You also see the material in his house. I can’t tell you how many times I would see buckets full of notebooks, and when you opened one you would literally start to get dizzy, because the notes in it would go from run lines with so and so actors, to “go to the lab and pick this up”, “Spielberg called and he needs this,” “you need to train so and so,” “you need to rewrite the script from the final version of the film. “

You think “you’ve got to be kidding!” That’s one notebook, you know.

After you decide to make the film, what is the process of making a film that relies on so much footage from other big studios and stuff like that? How long did it take you, and how did you go about getting hold of the footage and making it all happen? 
I think what takes the longest, normally, is knowing that this is actually going to be what I use in the end. Because, you could sit there and go “Yeah, I’m going to use clips from 2001,” but which clip? And you need to make it really work with the scene. Once you see that it works with the scene, is it really going to work with the story overall? You just keep working at it, over and over, until you really know.

I’m really lucky to have Elizabeth. We almost have to assess, what can I do, what can she do, and what’s the smart way to go about it and not waste time. It was almost just, “keep working, see what you really need, get it, try it, watch it, test it, re-edit, watch it again. Once you really know that this is what you want, and you’re 100% set on it, let me know, I’ll move forward and get it going.”

EY: You know, it’s different in different parts of the world, but as Tony was saying, you have to be so clear in the final process, about what you’re going to use, and how it’s going to be used. The whole concept of best practices in documentary filmmaking that has arisen over the last decade has really helped with this. Because you start to understand that it’s fine if you’re going to use a clip, as long as you use it within the correct context.

It’s a mixture of things, and it is a process in itself. You have to look at each element, so you don’t get carried away and just say “Oh, this would be cool to use here.” Sometimes you can’t and we’d be advised: “Nah, that’s kind of pushing it.” One thing very important thing, of course, is the music. If the music is part of the clip it’s one thing, but if you try to use that as a soundtrack element, no.

When it comes to your role as a producer, what are the biggest challenges for you in general on this picture, and how do you go about that role as such?
EY: I would say that on something like this, it’s being able to have the stamina to be dealing with every aspect. I will say that I succeeded in a lot of ways and in some ways I don’t feel like I did. One of the most important things, when you’re working on a partnership, is to understand the level and the pressure that the filmmaker is going through, creatively. And he’s not just a creative guy, but he’s also the tech person and he oversees and does everything.

He really does it as an artisan, that’s how I look at it, and that puts an extra pressure on. Of course, my role is to keep things moving and ensure that every aspect from the outside world, the deadlines, the legal stuff and the festivals. The biggest thing for me was to balance the understanding of what Tony as a filmmaker needed in terms of the space, the time - not stopping him from what he needed to do. I feel like I’ve learnt a tremendous amount about how to balance those two.

We were talking about him having to wear a lot of hats, as editor, and tech, and DoP. It must be a very difficult process, to time-manage all of those different elements.

EY: It’s difficult, it’s challenging, but, right now, it’s extremely rewarding, because we didn’t know how it would turn out. But we’ve been so grateful that it’s turned out so incredibly well. Each of us had to stay focused and sometimes it flowed really well. We always have our eye on the same prize, but of course, sometimes we’re at cross-purposes because Tony needs more time to do a creative element and then I have to figure out a way to manage my own sense of the impending, exploding deadlines.

I’m looking at some of the work you’ve done together, and you guys have been a team for quite a while now. How did you become a team?

TZ: We became a team when we were in LA. I was doing a documentary about carving out the names of actors, and she knew one of the actors, Chad Lindberg. She helped him come to LA to start becoming an actor and he did very well - we met through that project. I was learning more and more how to do different things and become really independent, and that was the same thing for Elizabeth too. The more we learnt and the more we took on, the more the partnership grew, then the more we understood each other.

EY: I was a casting director, and then had gotten into producing, but when I saw the work that he was doing completely independently, on Carving out our Name, which then later became my big break, I was so impressed with him. It wasn’t that I wanted to come and be a producer, just to produce whatever movie was out there, I was really interested in working with somebody that had sensibility. When I saw his piece at the Toronto film festival, I just thought, “OK this is a really talented person,” and from there it just grew.

One of the interesting things is we’ve been so independent for so long, and that’s been great. We’ve learnt a lot but I think the ultimate goal of having a success like this is wonderful. For me, it was almost like you’re a marathon runner and then somehow, suddenly you got into the Olympics and you just suddenly have to be able to do it, you can’t screw up. You have to be able to take your game to another level. That’s what it’s been like, I feel. For me, anyways, to go, you’d better up your game, and it hasn’t always been easy to just do so.

TZ: What was really strange too is that you could say if you’re a painter, or if you’re making a small film, it’s like you’re in your own little studio and you just work. Then once it goes out there, suddenly you’re not just working by yourself and with a few people, but there are literal strangers involved which requires more work, and they require more money. You’re dealing with people who have a different way of doing things.

How long from that first conversation about making the film to actually having finished the film?
TZ: Three years - which is fast. A lot of times you hear that they spent seven years, but I put the Kubrick project aside because I was really worried about time and about Leon’s health so instead we jumped to Leon’s right away. The three years went by really fast.

The film’s being received amazingly well on the festival circuit at the moment. Could you tell us where you are at the moment with the film, and what is the next step with the doc? What’s the plan?

TZ: It got picked up in the US at the beginning and then got picked up in the UK, Scandinavia, Benelux, Japan, and then Spain. It’s shocking because originally when they were going to release it in the US they were going to commit to eight cities, I think we’re on 30 cities now. The UK was the same thing, about seven theatres, or seven cities, now it’s up to 35, theatrically, and I think the UK already started releasing the DVDs, and on iTunes. Recently the Academy requested to show it to their members, and they wanted us to attend. We took Leon, and he had another standing ovation - which is such a beautiful thing.

You’re both working on another documentary, it’s in post-production at the moment called SK13. What can you tell us about that, and what else is going on for you guys for the future?
TZ: This is the project that we put aside when we met Leon. This is going to be the one on Kubrick, based on some really fascinating stuff that is taking a completely different approach. Things that are really unusual and I’m very excited about it. It’s been in the works for a long time, and of course filming with Leon, we gained more knowledge. We have so much footage so we’re hoping that we can manage to release this right away.

I’ve been travelling all over for the festivals, and trying to talk to people about the movie and do as much as possible - Elizabeth has been doing this on her end from here too.

EY: Again, although we do have distributors now, which is great, we’re still independent, which we like, and so, therefore, we choose to stay on top of all the aspects of it. From managing the social media, upgrading our website, and making sure the release is on the next territories. I even make sure of things like updating our IMDb page and Wikipedia and all of these things that make an impact when you are independent. We’ll be doing that, and then SK13 is in the works. One thing I have to say, it is really funny about entering Kubrick’s world. As Leon discovered, it’s almost as though you can’t get out once you get there. It is The Shining in a very funny way - it keeps you there like a vortex.

TZ: You just get sucked in in this portal of Kubrick, but what a beautiful place to be, you know.

The quote where Leon was talking about people saying they’d give their right arm to work for Kubrick, and it’s just amazing, because, is that all?
TZ: You always talk to people and they go ‘Oh, I would’ve done it,’ and then they pause for a second and go ‘I don’t know,’ it is a big commitment. You have to be into it, you have to be actually obsessed with it, and I do really believe in this kind of addiction thing. Creative addiction, we discussed in the movie - Leon just cannot live without it.

What advice would you give about the process for independents wanting to approach doing it themselves, like you guys have and do?
EY: The best thing for an independent producer to do is to find projects and or filmmaking partners that they really believe in, that’s number one. The second thing is to learn as much as possible, don’t let it stop you if you don’t know - but learn on the job. Get as much knowledge and then apply that knowledge, and be willing to be a person who understands their strengths and weaknesses and keeps going despite the obstacles you may find. For me, I really like to research, and I don’t have a problem with detail work, but at the same time, even when it’s overwhelming you start to understand how details are creative in their own way.

TZ: Determination is definitely at the top of my list. You have to really care because I think care takes you to another level of how you operate. As Leon put it, it’s perseverance, but also don’t get lost in listening. Every time you hear something, don’t let it put you off - don’t start all over and change everything. Have your own judgement, and see whether or not things work for you.

EY: There’s one other thing since we’re talking about people in production. I would really say, especially for younger people who are coming into this field, to be able to remain open-minded and curious. To also understand that just because you have access to great equipment and to all of the bells and whistles, it doesn’t mean that you should shortcut things. That was the hardest thing we had with a lot of the interns we worked with, is they’re so used to things being done fast. It’s about getting to a place where you can learn to be patient when you’re creating something. It’s very hard to find those younger people who have the patience to do what’s necessary - the detail work.