Renaissance woman: Meet New Zealand filmmaker Charlotte Larsen
Charlotte Larsen is poised to become a household name. The New Zealand native has found success as a producer and actress on popular films like Gloria (2014) and Great Expectations (2012). Larsen is currently working on a dazzling array of projects under her production company, Random Films, which include the 1980s sitcom Legends, the web series Square Brains, and the tech documentary We Need to Talk About A.I..
Larsen gained a BA in Film and Theater in her native country, before relocating to Los Angeles to study at both USC’s Producing and Directing Program and New York’s Film Academy’s Acting Program. She moved back to New Zealand after graduation, and has made huge steps to increase opportunities for other aspiring filmmakers. She founded the Emerging Artists Trust in NZ, which grants scholarships to local students, and she currently serves on the advisory board for the Stella Adler Academy of Acting.
Film Daily had the pleasure of chatting with Charlotte Larsen about her production company, her upcoming projects, and her desire to push other New Zealanders towards their dreams.
Can you tell us a bit about your history as a filmmaker and actress?
I was in a play at school when I was 10 and I got the bug then! I did a few plays in school and then went to college to study film and theater. After college I started my own production company and fell into producing that way. I still really wanted to act, so I moved to LA and attended Stella Adler Academy of Acting.
What drew you to filmmaking?
I wasn’t really drawn to it in the way that I pursued it, more like I fell into it. I wanted to act, so when I started my production company, I ended up looking for projects, but in order to get them made, I ended up producing them!
I’ve always been interested in film but was more wanting to be in front of the camera than behind it. I’m interested in all kinds of art – theater, film, literature – my family is very artistic and I got a lot of inspiration and encouragement from them.
You own the production company Random Films, can you describe what you do there? Does Random Films have any specialties?
We are a full-service production facility based in New Zealand. We are known for doing everything – behind the scenes, editing, production space, equipment rental – we can pretty much facilitate anything you need either directly or through our contacts.
I also freelance produce, and being based in the US I can connect filmmakers with services in NZ when they want to shoot there and advise on the filmmaking community too!
You currently have a number of projects in the works right now, how do you balance everything?
I learned the hard way to delegate! I’m also fortunate that I surround myself with the right people. I have worked with the same people a lot, and knowing them well makes the job a lot easier.
Could you tell us about your web series Square Brains?
I play Permea, a half mouse half human detective! I basically eat a lot of cheese and solve crimes. It’s a fun series shot with some friends and I think people will love it when they see it!
You created a scholarship for New Zealand students to study at the Stella Adler Academy of Acting – why was it important to you to do that?
When I started at Stella Adler there had been, I think 1 New Zealander that went to the school. I arrived day one and found that there was another one also in my class! Little is known about the school, so I started to let people know about it. The school is more than a school – it’s a family.
They support you in every way not just in the classroom but they are always encouraging you and cheering for you when you are out in the world working. The teachers trained under Stella herself and they pass on her words from first-hand experience. I felt it was important to be able to support New Zealanders to go to the school because it can be expensive, not just tuition, but living costs as well.
The exchange rate with the U.S. dollar, the fact that you cannot work on the student visa, and that you have to leave friends and family behind makes it a hard choice to go there, so I wanted to make it a little easier if I could.
You don’t just work on fiction projects, you also have a documentary called We Need to Talk About A.I., what’s this film about?
It’s a documentary, as the title says, about A.I, artificial intelligence. It asks a lot of questions about humanity, technology, and looks at where we have come from and where we are going with it. There’s a lot of ethical and moral questions that get debated and it’s really interesting to hear all the points of view.
What inspired you to make We Need to Talk About A.I.?
This was a project that the filmmakers had already planned out and got into production. I was hands off on this one. They came to me and said we’re ready to go, so I managed to help facilitate some behind the scenes and some other small things to help them.
The inspiration and the credit all go to Leanne Pooley the director, Matt and Fraser the producers and all the crew and cast who made it happen.
What part of filmmaking do you geek out about the most?
Being on set. Acting or producing, if I am on set, I am in my happy place! I love seeing it all come together, and seeing everyone doing their job to make it all happen. It’s such a large complex machine and it’s so inspiring to see everything moving the way it should.
What’s your filmmaking mission? Name the most important thing you want viewers to experience when watching your movies.
If you leave the movie thinking about it, then my job is done. If you relate to the story, that’s great. If it’s something you never knew or thought about and your mind has been expanded, that’s great.
If you watched the movie for two hours and you didn’t have to think about picking up the kids or getting groceries for that time, because you’ve been taken into a world outside your own, that’s great. I like my audiences to think, to experience, and to be taken outside their world for a brief moment in time. If I hit all three, even better!
You’re very hands-on with your projects. How hard is it wearing all the hats?
I’m a good multitasker, which helps! It can be hard but I quickly learned to delegate, so that makes it a lot easier. I wear a lot of hats, but sometimes I have to take the hat off and give it away to someone else and pass on the project, or let someone else borrow it for a while!
Can you describe your creative process when starting a new project?
It depends on the project. Sometimes it comes to me ready to shoot with the production set in place. Sometimes it’s a script that needs to go into pre-production. Sometimes it’s already completed and they need help getting it out there.
My creative process, whichever way, always starts with “does this story move me or make me think”? If not, I pass.
What’s your favorite film of all time, and what did you learn from it?
I don’t have a favorite, but I have a few go-tos! Goodfellas is one of my favorites – the characters are so great and there’s a lot of comical moments within the violent nature of the film. I also love The Unbearable Lightness of Being – Juliette Binoche and Daniel Day-Lewis are just so magical together.
Who or what would you say are your current filmmaking influences?
I draw a lot from any sources. If I’m making a comedy, I go to sitcoms that are similar, or if it’s a period piece I might go to books or movies from books of that time. I let my directors and writers take the reins mostly, as they are the ones that are going to create the world they see. I don’t want to influence them or make the movie worse!
You’ve taken on the role of mentor previously, how would you recommend people go about finding a mentor?
Find someone whose career is similar to the one you want – what director has the style you want? Which producer has produced a movie like one you want to make? Email them! Ask if they will take you on.
You can also check out film schools and see if there are any teachers there who might need an assistant – they often make their own work outside the classroom and you could always volunteer to help out on their next project or maybe even in the classroom.
Do you have any advice for people considering a filmmaking or acting career?
Start small. It’s going to take a lot of time to get even halfway to the top. Do as much as you can – student film, theater, commercials – take classes, find friends, and make your own short films. Anything helps.
If you could have someone create a soundtrack for your life who would you choose to compose it?
The team behind The Greatest Showman soundtrack, [Benj] Pasek and [Justin] Paul, or anyone who composes Disney music. It’s all my jam!
What’s your five-year plan?
Make more movies, do more acting, and encourage people to attend or donate to Stella Adler Academy of Acting! I have an amazing TV series I am working on written by my amazing best friend Michael Benzaia, and I feel that really deserves to be made (if anyone out there works for streaming or network TV haha!). Maybe some awards sprinkled in there too, just for fun…
What do you do when you’re looking for inspiration?
Read, watch TV or movies, go for a walk, or talk to people who might inspire me in that moment with a glass of wine, naturally!
And finally, an easy one, cats or dogs?
I grew up with a dog and a cat, I love both, but right now I need a dog in my life. Anyone is free to let me borrow theirs anytime!