For some people, asking for help is admitting weakness; for actor-turned-director Monia Chokri, it’s a source of strength. “I feel more competent in being able to say, ‘I don’t know,'” she says. “I ask and I learn.”
This openness has no doubt helped Monia grow her skill set from working in front of the camera to stepping behind it. And, with her first feature, LA FEMME DE MON FRÈRE (A Brother’s Love) set to debut at Cannes Film Festival later this month, it’s safe to say her humility has paid off.
So how did she break into the world of directing, and what has she learned along the way? Watch our Creator Spotlight video — and check out excerpts from the interview, below — to find out.
How did you get started in the film industry?
I started my career as an actor, mostly working in theater. Then I met the French-Canadian director Xavier Dolan, and we made Heartbeats in 2010. That was kind of my breakthrough: I went to Cannes, got an agent, and started working between France, Belgium, and Canada.
Then in 2013, I wrote a short called “An Extraordinary Person.” Even though the film was nearly 30-minutes long, we got accepted into a lot of festivals, including Locarno, SXSW, and TIFF — and we won a lot of prizes. That made me think maybe I could be a director and a serious writer. I just made my first feature this year, so yeah.
Watch Monia Chokri’s critically acclaimed short, “An Extraordinary Person,” which took home a Best of the Year badge in 2017.
What was it like going from acting to writing and directing?
I started writing five or six years before “An Extraordinary Person.” I wrote a series and worked with a producer, but I was pretty young at the time. When I wrote my first feature, I wasn’t thinking of directing — I was thinking maybe I would write myself a part and give the screenplay to someone else to direct. But once I started writing it, I felt that I couldn’t leave it to someone else.
Around this time, I met my producer, Nancy Grant. She was interested in working together, but we didn’t know how I could direct a feature since I hadn’t worked as a director before. So she said, “Let’s try a short and see if you like directing.” Then I wrote “An Extraordinary Person,” we shot it, and the rest is history.
What did you learn from directing for the first time?
I learned that directing is one of the most difficult jobs in the art industry. I’ve got a tremendous amount of respect for every director I work with and every director I meet. It’s a very stressful job, but it’s wonderful, too, because you get to create a whole world, which is exciting.
How did being an actor help you as a director?
A lot of directors are afraid of speaking to actors, which is not the case for me, since I’m an actor myself. Being in contact with actors was easy for me, but I was very afraid of the technical side, and speaking with technicians. Then I realized that I integrate a lot of technical things as an actor, which was surprising to learn. But yeah, I mean, I’m still learning every day as a director. What is lighting? What is color? What is a look? The more technically competent you are, the better a director you are.
What did you do if something came up on set that you didn’t know how to solve?
The best way to learn is to be honest and ask questions, which can be especially challenging for female directors — like you kind of feel like you have to prove that you have a right to be there, directing a crew. Sometimes it can feel like you can’t ask questions; every single time I don’t know something, I ask, and that’s how I learn. I feel more competent in being able to say, “I don’t know.” I ask and I learn. And I love not knowing, experimenting. It’s kind of a simple answer, but it’s true, you know?
What was it like receiving a Staff Pick for your work?
It was a huge thing. Vimeo is an important platform for directors because it’s so elegant — and because of the quality of the content on the site. I try to be humble about it, but I’m very happy and proud of myself. It’s a great honor, for sure.
Has receiving the award propelled you or the film forward in any way?
My film was released in 2013 and I won the Staff Pick in 2017, so it was kind of like the movie’s rebirth after festivals. When I won, I was right in the middle of directing my first feature, so it was kind of like, “Hey, go on.” It was a good feeling, like Okay, I have the right to be where I am.
Advice for aspiring directors?
My advice for anyone who wants to be in this industry is be yourself. The other thing is that you have to work so hard. Being a director is like going to the Olympics. You can’t be someone who only likes to swim once a week. What will make you successful is working — watching movies, watching master classes, writing, rewriting, and then writing again. Spending so much time in the editing space, so much time preparing your film, having a good crew, rehearsing, going to see exhibitions, reading, all those things. Walking around and watching life, it’s part of work, you know? Dedicate yourself to being a full-time worker.
Video by Ashley Maas.