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Programs Fri 2.24.2017

Directing Lab Fellow Elena Greenlee on Finding Inspiration and Protecting Creative Space

Twice a month in Consumed, our Film Independent Fellows take a break from creating to talk about their reading, watching, listening and sometimes even eating habits, and what informs their work as filmmakers.


In Ibeyi’s “Ghosts,” a song writer/director/producer Elena Greenlee finds herself continually inspired by, the group’s French-Cuban twin sisters sing of a spinning heart hard at work “making words, making sounds, making songs.” It’s a telling choice from Greenlee, a 2017 Directing Lab Fellow and 2015 Alfred P. Sloan Fast Track Grant awardee, who spoke to us about non-existent work/life boundaries and depriving herself of simple life joys in order to finish projects, as well as resisting the urge to view media simply as escapism. Greenlee shared her consumption habits in the midst of shuffling between LA, Brooklyn and the Amazon jungle, where she’s shooting her upcoming feature Dark Forest.

Elena Greenlee on set

As a filmmaker who’s constantly making things, how much time do you have to consume the latest TV shows, films, music and podcasts?

I don’t have a lot of time at home when I’m either not working or when I’m so exhausted that any story, no matter how amazing, will put me right to sleep. I make a point to try to see the films I’m most interested in in the theater if I don’t catch them at festivals. So when I’m watching movies at home it is often for “homework.” I listen to a lot of podcasts, audiobooks and music in my day-to-day life, so I’m always taking in information and inspiration while I move around the city. Also I love to read—books are the real luxury.

What’s the last TV show you’ve watched a full season of?

The last series I watched in full was Issa Rae’s Insecure on HBO. Contrary to everything I said before, binging this show was pure entertainment and distraction for me. It worked for me because the episodes are only 30 minutes and feature super-relatable characters dealing with real life that are also incredibly funny. 

What was the last movie you saw in the theater?

Raoul Peck’s documentary about James Baldwin, I Am Not Your Negro. I saw it in the Dome at the Arclight in Hollywood and it was a spectacular experience: a moving image, multimedia performance essay that was so moving and informative. It’s a film that transforms you.

Do you have any rituals that help you get into the right mindset for writing or working on your film projects?

The most important thing for me is to protect my mental space and set firm boundaries around the hours in the day when I have my best creative energy. Once I’m in it, I’m living and breathing the script and it’s not a very sustainable state over long periods of time. When it wraps up I get excited to get some readers and take in feedback. I don’t collate the notes in a systematic or really thorough way. I trust that what sticks out to me and gets me fired up to start writing again is what matters.

What’s your power song?

I have a playlist for writing the Dark Forest script and it’s all over the place, from Flying Lotus to shamanic drumming, FKA Twigs to Gábor Szabó. But “power songs” are so specific to the particular spell life is casting at any given moment and need to change frequently. One that comes to mind that’s been really useful on my current project is “Ghosts” by Ibeyi.

If you could follow one person on social media who would it be?

I would probably limit myself to only following my favorite astrologer Chani Nicholas on Instagram. She’s a radical queer astrologer who brings intersectional feminism, politics and current events into the mix with a really grounded spirituality and beautiful artwork. She’s really provocative and constantly inspiring to me.

How do you celebrate or reward yourself after you finish a project?

I deprive myself a lot in the process of trying to hone my skills, know myself as an artist and get some work out there in the world. So simple things like sleep, food and maybe some new clothing is a reward for me. In my dream world I am rewarded with long stays on tropical beaches where I read many books, go to sleep at sunset and soak in the ocean during the day while the inspiration for a new project is percolating inside. That’s the dream I’m working toward.

If a movie were made about your life, who would the soundtrack be by? 

Seu Jorge. 

If you were stuck on a desert island with one album, one book and one film what would they be?

I would have to chose art that could expand the possibilities inside my own mind, something like Miles Davis “In a Silent Way,” a book of Rumi’s poetry, and… ugh I can’t pick one movie. Maybe WALL-E so I could just pretend the rest of the world had gone to live in shopping malls in space.

What is always in your bag on set?

I always need a notebook that I can jot stuff down in. On Manos Sucias, the feature film I produced in Colombia, my crew gave me a hideous purple fanny pack and I wore it all day everyday in the sweaty tropics. I planned to burn it when we wrapped, but somehow it keeps following me around. My producing partner Márcia Mayer recently gifted me a really cool weatherproof notebook that fits inside it well and I’m on the hunt for the special pens that work with it.

To learn more about Film Independent’s myriad Artist Development programs, including Project Involve, please visit our website. To support our Fellows in all that they do, consider becoming a Member of Film Independent today.

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