Born in Argentina, Paula Alvárez Vaccaro is a British/Italian award-winning journalist, scriptwriter, producer, and visual artist with over twenty-five years of experience working in film, radio, printed media, TV and independent artistic practice. She founded Pinball London in 2009, a production company based in London, UK, with an independent-cinema spirit at the heart to tell stories in all genres from an international perspective with a special emphasis on storytelling that focuses on gender, LGBT, human rights, immigration, minorities, class, and our planet. She has produced and/or written narrative and documentary features, TV series, and animated and narrative shorts in co-productions with the US, Latin America and Europe. She has worked with world-known filmmakers such as Sally Potter (“Ginger and Rosa”), Emir Kusturica (“Maradona By Kusturica,” “Words With Gods,” “On the Milky Road,” and TV series “Na mliječnom putu”), Guillermo Arriaga (“Words With Gods”), and with emerging talent such as Victoria Solano (“Sumercé”), Ana Rocha de Sousa (“Listen”), Agustina Figueras (“Bora Bora”), Edoardo de Angelis (“Mozzarella Stories”), and Aaron Brookner (“Uncle Howard”).
Ahead of the premiere of Ana Rocha de Sousa’s “Listen,” Tara Karajica talks to Paula Vaccaro about women in film, her career, “Listen,” of course, and Pinball’s next projects.
How did you become a producer?
Paula Vaccaro: I started in Media doing journalism and working in films as a freelancer. I worked as a 1st AD for a short while, did makeup… I always loved films, but journalism won me over when I started in the newsroom of Argentina’s largest newspaper and later as a Deputy Editor of an excellent monthly magazine in Spain. At one point, in the late 90s, I felt I wanted to go back to university and in 1999, I received an award from the British Council given to those under 35 who had shown leadership in their careers to study a Master’s Degree in the UK. So, off I went to London to do a Master in Media Arts, specializing in Documentary Production. It felt like a natural road from journalism. From my first producing jobs in documentaries, I entered story/script editing and followed with a wonderful job as Edit Producer, which is the producer who builds the story mainly with video diaries or found footage, in some of the early “reality” MTV series. From there, I moved to documentary features, and some of those projects with well-known directors were truly challenging. I was first a Development Producer for other production companies with some truly difficult projects such as one for Morena Films about Gadaffi directed by Oliver Stone, that ended up not being made. I became the go-to producer for difficult directors, ha! Then came my own company for documentaries, then documentaries turned into historical documentaries with dramatization, and then some friend who had a short, and then a narrative feature, and another… Then, some short docs for Channel 4 as line producer, a doc series for BBC as part of the production team, and another feature doc for another company until 2009, when I opened Pinball London, which I founded the year after I had Maradona by Kusturica in Cannes, a film I produced for a company in Spain that took almost four years to make.
It is all about the building blocks and you put them together as you learn the craft of producing, which includes the business acumen, but also the narrative one and the hunch to find projects, the patience and resilience to work with great talent, and I guess you learn about the collaterals of big egos, and the world of cinema. Each time you put together a film, you are an entrepreneur and you should get better at it. You need to develop it, finance, create the teams, the right package, manage the shoot, make sure the edit reaches the right shape, and that there is distribution for it. It is a massive endeavor with at least a hundred people – for a small film – and it is all under your responsibility including the chance for the film to see the world. If you are lucky, you can share all the weight with good co-producers! So, slowly but surely, I have built myself as a producer by going through almost all the steps of the chain of work in film and TV on the producing side and suddenly from the first job to now, it’s been more than twenty-five years!
How did you get on board of Listen?
P.V.: I met Rodrigo Areias from Bando á Parte, the Portuguese production company that started the film, in Cannes a few years ago. A common producer friend had told him we should meet. I wanted to support more female directors and we had also done a few first-time directors’ films – and they are a category of their own! Plus, of course, the story was to take place in London. He told me about the theme, the seed for a story, and I liked it very much. Not only did I want to support more female filmmakers, but I was also interested in developing more stories of immigrants facing the particularities of the British system. It was a small film and it needed more support, so it would be heavy lifting. I went back to London to discuss it with Aaron Brookner, my partner in the company. There was a presentation, and a first draft of a script. It was not fully developed and Rodrigo realized both Aaron Brookner and myself were also writers – and in Aaron’s case, he is also a director – so he offered to hire us to write the script. Our first involvement was truly as writers, and while writing the story, we realized we could also produce it as we were able to make this story our own while helping Ana realize her bold vision as a first-time director-writer.
Listen is the first ever Portuguese-UK production, shot in English and Portuguese and includes sign language. Can you talk about that?
P.V.: Listen is the first English-Portuguese co-production. The story incorporates a child who is deaf, played by the wonderful deaf actress Maisie Sly. It is a story of immigrants in London. The organic and common-sense way to do it is to accept language in a fluid way, as it is in real life. We had immigrants and a deaf kid. I am an immigrant myself, and my first language is Spanish, and I have a ten-year-old who was born in London, so at home we speak English and fluidly go into Spanish, and back to English. If you have a deaf child, but you are not deaf, you will use sign language with your child and, many times, you will verbalize some words and sounds as well. That is how it’s reflected in the script and in the film and what felt real to us all. I am proud we were able to include a deaf actor to play a deaf character in the same way that our Portuguese characters are Portuguese people!
Can you talk about the financing, shooting and casting processes of Listen – the whole production of the film in a sense? What was the prep like? What were the challenges and the little victories, production-wise?
P.V.: Financing was done with national funds, Portuguese distribution deals, the UK tax credit, private money and bank loans! A bit nerve-wrecking as we would have loved to have more money, but we committed ourselves to plough through and did what we had to do to have it done. Indie films are full of challenges and pitfalls and the bank account is always the producers’, with the collaterals at times being even your own home when you need to borrow money. Old style producing. Every day, thousands of pounds-euros were at stake and we needed to be on the ground. I think, when you have a first-time director, you need many people who are not first-timers, probably starting with the producers, to make sure things are done as assertively as possible. Prep is always insufficient for small films and new directors tend to want the world and the moon, so resources are never sufficient. But it is the way it is, and challenges come by the dozen each second. As I always say in the office: “This is the job and not another one. It’s a tightrope balance between what you should do, what you can do, and what ends up being done. Some battles are lost, some battles are won.” Having a finished film that is in a great festival like Venice, being sold by a great company like Magnolia, with great actors like Lúcia Moniz, Maisie Sly, Sophia Myles and Ruben Garcia who is a great Portuguese actor who worked mainly in theater, and helping launch a female director’s career into the world in such great company is not a little, but a huge victory! It’s blood, sweat and tears and then, it goes into the world. We are very proud of Listen as a film, and very soon, it is not ours anymore, but the world’s and that is the most exciting moment for Cinema!
Can you talk about the importance of European co-productions today?
P.V.: European co-productions are key to a more sustainable landscape, especially for independent companies. A film is a huge endeavor from idea to screen and a producer’s job is, most of the time, that of the first to come on board and the last one to leave. While directors move on to the next project, producers are still supporting the film and working to launch it into the world, making sure it finds their audiences and place in the chain of value and exhibition. This is, of course, no small feat and when you have a co-producer, the burden is shared, the ideas are shared, the conversations are shared. That makes life so much more bearable! Having co-producers who are in your same time zone, who are close by geographically, all of that makes a lot of sense. Most of our co-producers have been truly amazing people and we have worked with them more than once. This is also the case with Rodrigo and his company, Bando á Parte. We are already co-producing another film. Co-productions are what keeps independent companies and producers running as this could be a very stressful, solitary job. And you don’t want to be alone when your shoes get too tight and your back feels like breaking. Co-productions are not just important, they are essential.
Your production company, Pinball London, specializes in films with an author stamp. How do you choose your projects?
P.V.: We are interested in directors with a vision, who have bold ideas and don’t shy away from them. We like to support passionate people as we are also passionate ourselves. I don’t believe in the author stamp in the monolithic sense of auteur tradition, but as a way of saying I want to work with directors who take a stance on the way they see the world and who are creatively not afraid of exploring ideas and collaborating. Each project we choose is either developed in-house or people look for us for specific reasons. We do stories aimed at an international audience with a special emphasis on storytelling that focuses on gender, LGBT, human rights, immigration, minorities, class, and our planet. That has been a pattern. We love all genres to talk about these themes, that is for sure!
Pinball London also provides consultancy on alternative models of distribution, festival strategy, impact producing and training. In that sense, you have also been a mentor, speaker and a workshop facilitator at over a dozen international film festivals and events. Can you talk about this side of your job and company?
P.V.: All those activities are extremely connected to my sense of community and a deep need to build networks that I guess deepens when you are an immigrant. It’s the small voice that keeps telling me: “Share what you know, give it back.” I love to think that all those activities are building blocks of who I am. As for the distribution models, we are dealing with a big conundrum for independent films without distributors embedded in our production model. So, I like to think of alternative ways to venture into old and new roads. There is not only one measure for success in filmmaking, there is not only one road for a film to reach and serve the audience it needs to serve and I am not alone in this, so gathering with other colleagues, creating workgroups to action around new or alternative ways to distribute is just a good exercise and a way to rebuild what does not work for each film. We have been doing it for a long time. Even before Netflix existed, we distributed a film exclusively for iPad as an app. Festival strategies are also ways to think about the road to audiences and strategy in general is a producer’s foundation. Without it, we have nothing. Impact strategy is also a form to create an actionable plan for films that are created to serve a social purpose or to ignite social change to find a plan of action, a possible strategy to reach that road. For the past decade, I have also been teaching and that has kept me on my toes to keep thinking about the way I do my craft. It also springs out from a need to pass and exchange knowledge and create communities of support.
Now that it’s Emmy Season, you have also been an Emmy juror from 2009 to 2015. What was that experience like?
P.V.: It was wonderful! I got to watch many films and got to see what colleagues were doing in many parts of the world. Unfortunately, I am now involved in other voting systems like for instance the European Film Academy or BIFA in the UK, so my time to watch so many movies has become more limited. But I loved it.
Who is your inspiration in terms of producing? And screenwriting?
P.V.: I’ve had many great teachers so it will be unfair to name one. From each of them, I’ve received some secret advice, and some are not with us anymore. I know who they are; one day, I will talk about them all. For the past decade, I have been very inspired by Aaron, my producing and writing partner – and for full disclosure also my husband! He has been a wonderful inspiration in life and work.
What is your dream project?
P.V.: I dream of working in a great writers’ room, led by a great woman. For someone like Veena Sud who builds complex female characters and meaningful stories. That would be a dream job!
There has been a lot of talk about the situation of women in film in the past almost three years. What is your opinion on the matter? Where do you position yourself in this discussion?
P.V.: Many years ago, in Cannes, on one of my early projects as a producer, I was in our sales agent’s office with some co-producers and the director. I was the only woman and we were supposed to discuss a deal that was somehow stuck. Notes had been exchanged, so in Cannes, we were going to iron it all out. It was getting late and someone mentioned we were not getting anywhere and we should meet again the next day. All the men left on their own, one by one, and I went back to my apartment, far from the Croisette. Next to my place, there was a lap dancing club and from my balcony, I heard a familiar voice. It was them coming out of two taxis, joking, laughing. They all entered the club. At that moment, I thought it would be a funny scene to show up and face them, so I went downstairs and did exactly that: entered the club on my own. Nobody was happy to see me, really. Some were married, and somehow my appearance unveiled the rules of the game. A game that excluded me. The next day, I was the one in the office on time, with the notes to our contract and the coffee in hand, ready to discuss, but, suddenly, producing was not that. For some feeble reason, the project was cancelled. Altogether. Later on, I could see they continued doing business together, so producing was about the camaraderie built on the lap dancing club among them all. And that was very clear to me. They all rose up in the power ladder at a much faster pace than I did. They are all still very powerful men who have helped each other many times. They have produced forty, fifty, even sixty projects more than me since then. Do I think they were better? Not at all. They were just more privileged; they navigated a system built for and by themselves.
Because in those early days, women were still told that if we worked hard enough, if we were good enough, if we wrote better, directed better, produced better, all doors would open. Everyone knew a strong female producer who repeated things were OK if you worked hard. That it was a matter of merit and effort. That the best ones were chosen and that we were not many, not there yet, not yet prepared. So, we prepared ourselves more and showed up in hordes and still never got there as fast, etc. We were not made for the lap dancing clubs where trust was sealed. So, I think in the past few years, what has really happened is that the veil has gone and we can see that meritocracy is the biggest lie served to women and minorities all over the world. And that goes for the film industry and any other space that holds power. Because who gets to tell the stories and is celebrated for it owns the narrative, the hearts and the minds of audiences. The system in place has been allowing just a few exceptions to justify the chance to keep going, but those exceptions never changed the system. Now, we can see the system is not broken; it was designed like this. It was designed and sustained – mostly – by white men for – mostly – white men. The narrative is controlled and the gatekeeping, the financing, the commissioning, the networks of power, they all have a male stamp. I think it’s time we seized the power; it’s time those who want to see change become accountable and put their money where their mouth is. Now that we know the truth and we can’t eat this lie anymore, as a friend of mine says: “Bring me your quotas! Bring me your diversity and inclusion specialists! Make diversity hires!” We need more than tokenistic change. We need accountability and the real deconstruction of a system that has excluded those who are the majority of this world for too long. The next frontier is to get into real power, and that is the BIPOC and female producer/writer/showrunner revolution. And we have been preparing our whole life for it.
Do you have a favorite female filmmaker and a favorite film by a female filmmaker?
P.V.: I think Lucrecia Martel is out of this world. Her style, her storytelling, her use of all resources available to Cinema make her extremely superior to most filmmakers out there. She understands the full scope of film and is able to add her own stamp. I love most of her films, from The Swamp (La Ciénaga) to Zama. I recently re-watched Zama and it gets more masterful each time. I love bold female voices such as Crystal Moselle (Skate Kitchen, The Wolfpack, Betty) and Michaela Coel (I May Destroy You). Always hard to name just one!
What are your next projects?
P.V.: I guess like other creators during these times, we had to dig ourselves into development! We started looking at projects from long-term collaborators of Pinball London. Agustina Figueras’ first long feature film – we did her award-winning short Bora Bora – and the comedy series Casa Victoria, from Victoria Cordoba, about a trans woman from Latin America in London. We have also finished writing Aaron’s next film, Secret Dust, a dramatic comedy which we are again co-producing with Bando á Parte from Portugal.
We have a few series in the pipeline including 20 Millones, the first series from award-winning writer-director Eduardo Casanova (Pieles, Berlinale 2017) and I am the co-creator as well as the co-producer with Film Fatal, a company lead by Elena Manrique from Spain.
As creators-writers, we are also adapting Simon Sebag Montefiore’s novel My Affair with Stalin and are developing a series on the life of Italian communist photographer and activist Tina Modotti, starring Monica Bellucci, produced by Fabrica de Cine and AG Studios.
On the documentary side, we are developing a series called 1978 about NYC with writer Darryl Pinckney and producer Neyda Martinez and we are also minority co-producers on a few projects that got us really excited such as Girls and Gods, a documentary about religion and women by Femen activist Inna Shevchenko and Yuma, Sonic River, an environmental musical documentary about Colombia’s Magdalena River, co-directed by Simón Hernandez and Simón Mejía, a founding member of the electro-cumbia band Bomba Estereo.