Gabrielle Kelly

Gabrielle Kelly is a screenwriter and producer of diverse content for the global marketplace and on the Screenwriting Faculty of AFI. With expertise and a passion for global storytelling, particularly in Asia, she is the recipient of two Fulbright Awards: in producing/screenwriting at the Taipei National University of the Arts, Taiwan and as writer/mentor in the screenwriting/producing Lab for the ASEAN Independent Cinema Project in the Philippines. A published author, her groundbreaking book “Celluloid Ceiling; Women Film Directors Breaking Through,” is a comprehensive study of women directors from all over the world. Her print/digital project on global film/TV development eco-systems uses her unique expertise in media Labs and will be launched in 2020.  Following a career in book publishing, she worked with New York-based director Sidney Lumet and screenwriter/producer Jay Presson Allen on films such as “Daniel,” “Prince of the City,” “Deathtrap,” “The Verdict” and others. Additional projects she developed include work with Andy Warhol’s Factory on an audio-animatronics show “From A to Z and Back Again,” the musical “La Cages aux Folles” with Mike Nichols and scripts for music maven Malcolm McClaren and CBS Theatrical Films. In Hollywood, she ran producer Robert Evansʼ company (“Godfather,” “Rosemary’s Baby,” “Love Story,” “Chinatown”) at Paramount Studios, working in development and production on a slate of diverse projects, and as an executive and producer with such companies as HBO, Fields Hellman, CBS Films, Eddie Murphy Productions and Warner Bros. Among her producing and writing credits is the music-driven indie film “All Ages Night” as well as several studio and indie films. She has consulted on many international productions such as China’s “Empire of Silver,” starring Jennifer Tilly and Russia’s Oscar nominee “The Edge.”   Her work in education includes teaching screenwriting and producing at major film schools worldwide and for the Middle East Sundance Lab, as well as leading global storytelling seminars.  She is currently writing and producing projects for the global marketplace and designing/running Media Labs such as the recent Parwaaz Film Lab in Islamabad, Pakistan, where thirty filmmakers wrote and workshopped short films as part of the 2018 edition of the Women International Film Festival.

Tara Karajica caught up with Gabrielle Kelly ahead of this year’s RVK Feminist Film Festival, where she was on the Jury for the SISTER Competition program and ran the Fabulera Script Lab.  






How did you get into film?

Gabrielle Kelly: Completely by accident. I was all about words, not visual images and only saw my first film at thirteen because I grew up in the West of Ireland without access to cinemas. I was working in New York for a literary magazine and my landlord burned down the loft I was living in and I needed a job that paid a bit more than what I was making, so I took at job being assistant to producer and screenwriter Jay Presson Allen who wrote Marnie, Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, Cabaret and other films, and director Sidney Lumet.

Can you talk about your work as a professor and lecturer?

G.K.: When I filled in for a friend to teach her producing class at a film school in Los Angeles many years ago, I discovered that teaching is the best way to learn, plus I could have an impact on supporting the work of women in the film industry, which is prehistoric in its treatment of women.

You are also a producer. How do you choose your projects? What does a story have to have in order to attract you?

G.K.: They choose me. I am open to any story from anywhere. The first film I produced was a studio film from a writer I met in a copy shop in New York city. It was an E.T. type of story, very commercial and a family film. I love stories that would not get told unless I made sure they did – the ones that are easier don’t need me.

You work a lot in Asia, both in production and screenwriting. How do the creative process and mindset in terms of film production differ from the US and Europe?

G.K.: It’s wonderful in Asia, despite challenges. I love the energy because it’s so “can-do.” As well as having an extraordinary history of great masters, many Asian countries are willing to try new ideas all the time. In the West, we use heavy steel for scaffolding, it rusts, is expensive and can fall on people; in Asia they use bamboo, light, sturdy and it grows when you stick it in the soil. That’s what filmmaking is like there. It’s also a different way of screenwriting, which I am currently writing about and which is so interesting to explore.  I also love the life and food there.

You also work with scripts, either as a screenwriter yourself, or as consultant or lecturer. Can you talk about that side of your work? What is a good script, according to you?

G.K.: A good script keeps me reading. Even if I want to stop, I can’t. It doesn’t matter what genre; it’s the combination of authenticity and surprise. I am always open to a story from anywhere being good and the most exciting moment is opening that first page and asking: “Is this a journey I am compelled to take?” I specialize in rewriting films in other language though sadly I speak no language other than English, but I do speak the language of story. I’ve rewritten scripts that were originally in Russian, Mandarin, Thai, Irish Gaelic and other languages and the trick is to find the story, despite the language translation to English, which is mostly awful. That’s where I come in!

You have also programmed for various festivals. Can you elaborate on that? What is a good programmer according to you? How does that particular complement all the other hats you wear?

G.K.: Programming is a joy and pleasure. Each festival has its own flavor, agenda and requirements. It’s like producing, matching and collaborating with your fellow programmers to find the best works. The sheer volume of submissions to festivals these days is astounding, over 18,000 submissions for Durban, a festival I recently programmed the feature films sections with two marvelous co-programmers. A good programmer is very open to any story being good, but decisive about what will work for the festival and the parameters include money, attendance by the director, other festivals and premieres where the film may have been and a whole host of factors that weigh in on the choice. It’s a great complement to producing, screenwriting and teaching. Right now, two filmmakers I have worked with at AFI where I’m on the screenwriting faculty, are in the running for the Oscar. They are both women filmmakers, Asher Jelinsky for Live Action Short and Shuhan Fan for Documentary Short and I’m so proud of them. The AFI Conservatory is a great program and I’ve taught and continue to teach all around the world with an expertise in designing and running script and producing labs.

For that matter, which one do you prefer?

G.K.: They are all part of a great professional and artistic life I’m lucky enough to have stumbled into. Sometimes, when I’m working at 3am and it’s not going well, I go to the other jobs I’m doing and get some relief! Being a freelancer, you are always working and looking for new jobs, so it keeps the adrenalin flowing.

What is a good film, according to you?

G.K.: My former boss screenwriter and producer Jay Presson Allen told me “A good film is a film XX actor who is bankable at the moment wants to be in. A bad film is a film no one wants to be in. That was a while ago, but it’s about how actors greenlight a movie more than any other factor. A good film is relative. What is good for one reason is bad for another. In classes, I ask not what is a “good” film, but what works in this film, what does not work in this film. That’s a more interesting question to ask about a film and the joy of the question comes from the fact that what works for you may not work for me and vice versa. Thus, the dialogue and discussion continue.

How has the film industry evolved, changed since you started working in film? What is better? What is worse? What is different?

G.K.: It’s changed completely in the rise of TV, streaming, the end or massive change in theatrical distribution and in so many other ways. But one way it never changes is story. The writer is the key. You begin with a character and you end with a character and what happens is the story in-between. Writers are treated so badly and told and handled as if they are interchangeable because without them, there’s nothing. Change is inevitable and I’m open to change – some of it seems worse, some better and all we know it will keep happening whether we like it or not.

You have also worked with studios in various capacities. What has changed since? What are the challenges they are facing today?

G.K.: Studios must make franchise “tentpole” movies with know IP, intellectual properties like Batman, Spiderman, etc. because it costs so much to market and distribute a film. Their days of making mid-budget films are over. They can discover and distribute smaller art films using their massive distribution machinery to do so, but streaming is changing all that. Bottlenecks and gatekeepers are being swept away in a tidal wave of change, which studios struggle to resist. There is so much more content of every type and so many more ways to view it. From the beginning of cinema just over a hundred years ago, we’ve come so far, but in many ways, it hasn’t changed that much. For the next hundred years well, maybe everyone can make their own version of every story, but we still need the storytellers and humans are hardwired to tell stories to make sense of life and themselves. In the world we’re in, we need stories more than ever.

You are a global citizen of film. Can you talk about the universality of the medium in that it crosses borders, transcends experiences, brings us all together, but at the same time, it differs from country to country, from continent to continent, from mindset to mindset and in different fields within the industry?

G.K.: A number of years ago, I was running a script lab in the Philippines. When I arrived, it turned out the twenty filmmakers all came from different countries and didn’t have one language they all spoke. One woman was able to sort of translate for us. I had planned on using an Icelandic short film that had very little dialogue, but because no one had a common language, we just had the language of those visual images. For nearly a month, we watched and looked and talked in broken English, but we all understood what the story of the film was because it was told in images. “Show, don’t tell” is the maxim of filmmaking. In the compressed visual language of filmmaking, if a picture is worth a thousand words, a moving picture is worth infinitesimal amounts of words. They all went on to write intriguing and original scripts – we were united in seeing not hearing, the story told.

I love to work in places where there’s not a lot of choice in terms of films to watch and to share the wonder of stories from around the world. I truly love that phrase and wish it were in my passport – a global citizen of film. The logline of my company is “Stories from the world, for the world” and yes, film can bring us together even when we think we hate, distrust, or cannot understand each other. Producer Robert Evans with whom I worked for years always said: “Film is America’s best export.” And it is.

And one of the frustrations of my life is that over half the world, women, don’t get to tell their stories. That’s a vast knowledge that is missing. I wrote a book about women directors from around the world to show that they do tell stories despite incredible obstacles. That is the mission of my life to support the telling of stories from women so the world can be richer for it. We’re just losing so much by not hearing their stories, but film is a very special and fun, desirable business and the power is held by mostly white men and they don’t want to give it up. It’s been great to have no competition from half the world for basically decades. Women were so powerful in the beginning of Hollywood and then once film started to make money, that was the end of them!  Stories from women – and men, too – that no one wants to hear are the stories I want to support being made.

What advice would you give to a young woman who is starting out in the film industry today?

G.K.: Be bold. For example, write and don’t worry about how is this going to be made, power on and don’t give up. If you can, have a sense of humor about the absurdity of anyone trying to stop you. I had absolutely zero connection to this very nepotistic business as my family are all farmers in Ireland, but somehow I found myself in it.  Don’t question if you are good enough – you really are and if you’re not, you’ll fail and you’ll learn something. Look for your allies who may be men and again, be bold. Why not? There is no one else like you and you have something to say.

Have you thought of directing? If so, are you working on something now?

G.K.: No, I haven’t, though I can imagine doing it if I wrote a script and was also the producer and got frustrated, but basically I always want to work with people who know more, who are better at what they do than I am, so my learning curve is always on the upswing.  I also dislike undermining directors by trying to do their job, so I don’t.

You have been active in many ways in terms of gender issues in film. Can you talk about these activities?

G.K.: It underpins everything I do because I have always resented being kept out by being a woman or a girl. I have never accepted that as a reality. I belong to every group I can that supports women including Women in Film, the Alliance of Women directors, and so many others.

There has been so much talk about the situation of women in film in the past two years. What is your opinion on that matter? Where do you position yourself in that discussion?

G.K.: I’m a woman filmmaker supporting other women filmmakers and also filmmakers who aren’t women if their stories interest me. I’m very open to something I don’t understand, how it can be a better way to do something. I am always learning. I am bold and adventurous and that way, I have a life that is extremely fun and inspiring. It’s also difficult in many ways, but why not be bold? We may be reincarnated but, for now, I’m here and I’m bold and I’m going to help any women and girls be as bold as they can be. In Ireland, bold means badly behaved as well as putting yourself out front and that’s a good definition.

Who is your favorite female filmmaker? And what is your favorite film by a female filmmaker?

G.K.: There are so many, but I’ll just say I recently saw Portrait of a Woman on Fire by Céline Sciamma and really loved it. If you’re a female filmmaker, count yourself as my favorite for trying to even the balance and for being bold. Just making a film means you are bold, it’s so difficult! I tip my hat to you and wish you well.




Tara Karajica

Tara Karajica is a Belgrade-based film critic and journalist. Her writings have appeared in "Indiewire," "Screen International," "Variety," "Little White Lies" and "Film New Europe," among many other media outlets, including the European Film Academy’s online magazine, "Close-up" and Eurimages. She is a member of the European Film Academy, the Online Film Critics Society and the Alliance of Women Film Journalists as well as the recipient of the 2014 Best Critic Award at the Altcine Action! Film Festival. In September 2016, she founded "Yellow Bread," a magazine dedicated entirely to short films, ranked among the 25 Top Short Film Blogs and Websites on the Planet in 2017. In February 2018, she launched "Fade to Her," a magazine about successful women working in Film and TV and in 2019, she was a member of the Jury of the European Shooting Stars (European Film Promotion). She is currently a programmer for live action shorts at PÖFF Shorts, Head of the Short Film Program and Live Action Shorts programmer at SEEFest and Narrative Features Programmer at the Durban International Film Festival. Tara is a regular at film festivals as a film critic, moderator and/or jury member.

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