Award-winning filmmaker Théo Mahy-Ma-Somga on being a Frenchman in LA
Théo Mahy-Ma-Somga traveled from France to New York City to Los Angeles to pursue his artistic dreams as a filmmaker. He has a unique perspective on the business, and that is leading him to tremendous success. He’s previously directed films like ‘An American Life’, ‘All We Have Left’, ‘The Audience’ and ‘Awakened’ and ‘First World Struggle’, and he isn’t slowing down any time soon.
Mahy-Ma-Somga’s latest script “Ubuntu – An African Story” just won a screenwriting award and is currently being shopped around to production houses. At this exciting moment, we wanted to get a hold of Mahy-Ma-Somga to get a deeper sense of his success and relationship to filmmaking.
What first made you fall in love with film?
Early on in my life, I found that films were a good way to escape the sometimes harsh reality of life and at the same time a real depiction of what life was about. The same way literacy opens dialogues about topics we would rather keep shut, films were in my eyes stories not just meant to entertain us but to start discussions about our society, life, and human behaviors. I grew up with my maternal grandparents, he was an immigrant from Cameroon and she was from Provence. Quite the stretch at the time! However, what I quickly learned is that Africans and Provençaux have one thing in common for sure, their love for people, for the human piece of life. No matter what you have or don’t have, you owe yourself to fight for what is right. That’s probably why I’m deeply drawn to Italian Neo-realism and the French New Wave – La Nouvelle Vague. In Italy, you really had a generation of filmmakers that gave a voice to the concerns and struggles of ordinary people. As bittersweet as those films can be, they capture the poetry and drama of everyday life. “Umberto D.” fascinated me. In an hour and a half, it captures the despair of elderly people. It felt like I was watching across the window of my project bedroom those old souls wandering around in a quest for a solemn end of life. “La Strada” was a punch in the gut, highlighting the brutality of life, with this Zampano character wearing down Giuletta Masina’s gentle spirit. At the same time, I saw on the screen a dichotomy of timeless resonance between the childlike wonder and the heartbreaking reality. I knew then that I wanted to tell those stories. Then when I started watching movies from the French New Wave, I realized how I wanted to tell them. I was amazed by this generation of rebels, we French love to rebel let’s be honest. Those guys broke down the codes, unapologetically telling stories the way they wanted, without being held by anyone or anything. Those films are just an explosion of creativity. François Truffaut has always been my favorite, we will never know what his career would have been if he had not passed away early on. I find his movies deeply romantic, “Jules et Jim” is, despite the tragic ending, an ode to love, friendship. “Les 400 coups” felt really close to home to the opposite. My grandparents were fantastic, I’m so grateful for them, and in the movie, Antoine has to deal with some aloof parents. That movie was a real depiction of the hardship of growing up and I swear to myself to do my best to keep my childlike flame up and running as long as I could without forgetting about the reality of what was ahead.
What are some of your favorite movies?
I just talked about Jules et Jim, La Strada, and Les 400 coups, they are up there for sure. To sound a little more modern, anything that Martin Scorsese touches will have a particular place in my heart, “Goodfellas” especially. Growing up in the south of France, in a project that felt almost close to the Lower East Side tenements shown in that picture. I couldn’t tell how many times I watched that movie, his cinematic technique has always been a level above his contemporary, same as the French new wave, he didn’t care about codes and would pull up shots that would transform a film in a split of a second without having to explain himself . His collaboration with De Niro is also something to look up for. We often talk about a director and a muse, but a director and a best friend that understands you the way they were working together is priceless. “In the mood for love” is without a doubt one of my favorite movies. I could put many of the Wong Kar Wai movies in my all-time fav list, The Shakespeare of cinema, love to its fullest, with a meditative soundtrack. “Persona” also has a special place in my heart, again any Bergman movie would deserve to be talked about. This movie is psychologically so deep, full of nuances, such a slap on the face, an essay on emotions. Where Wong Kar Wai is the Shakespear of cinema, Bergman could be our Aristotle. We should show that movie in any school to explain how it is important to be connected to ourselves. The list could go on and on, “ Rashomon” because Kurosawa is a genius, “Daisies”,” Rear Window” “Casablanca”, “Pulp Fiction”…
Who are some of your favorite actors?
Here again, I could go on and on. Let me tell you that for me, acting is such an incredible performance, incredible being a very weak word to represent the work that is required. People and especially fans never realize what is demanded of actors to do what they do on screen. It’s easy for people like me, I put my name at the end of the film and if people don’t like it “Oh well, too bad” but being at the center of the frame for hours, being looked at from every angle, being told that you are too pretty, not pretty enough, too frowny, too chubby, man this is so hard! Actors are not respected enough, obviously we see the big A-list stars on top of the magazine and we think that acting is that period. But acting isn’t just Hollywood stars. 95% of actors are working or struggling actors, trying to make a living, being treated like the last piece of the puzzle. We don’t talk about this enough, acting is being naked, not only physically sometimes, but your soul, showing every vulnerability that makes who you are, acting is taking your ego and making a little paper plane with it and sending it to the camera.
Here is my all-time favorites: Toshiro Mifune for his explosive physicality, Jeanne Moreau for her chic-unfussy style, Denzel Washington for his live-wire intensity, Monica Vitti for her effortless allure and modernity, Will Smith for his humanity, Robert De Niro for his surprising tenderness, Maggie Cheun for her hypnotic presence, Olivia Colman for her comforting vulnerability, Amy Adams for her amazing versatility, and Samuel L Jackson for his voice.
How did you get into writing?
No one was going to hand me a movie to direct when I had just started in the industry. For me, my entry was to write, to make my own stuff, and be able to share that as a proof of concept. I wrote my first short film following my own experience of moving to New York City. I wanted to show the reality of what it was to be an immigrant in the 2010s in this city. And especially that being French we are considered the “fancy immigrants” in a way, we have more ease to adapt than people coming from other countries but that doesn’t make it easy at all! There is no book telling you that you need a credit score to have a credit card and a credit card to have a credit score. No one tells you that dating is different overseas. No one tells you that smoking is badly seen when you start smoking at 12 in a country where everybody smokes! Some differences that I encountered were funny, others were tough. I was twenty-something and you just realize that life is even tougher than you thought. I couldn’t have health insurance because I wasn’t making enough, and let’s be honest to understand the health insurance system in America you better get a double MBA. The things that should be the most accessible to people are the most complicated to understand. So I wrote. I would say that writing wasn’t too much of my liking at first, I didn’t believe in myself enough so I was scared to be judged, I was afraid of what people would say, so I was trying too hard, my scenes description were always longing. It took me a while to overcome that fear but the truth is I never really stopped writing, even when I didn’t want to. I remember at the time reading Brian Jay Jones’s biography on George Lucas – A Life, and at some point he talks about Lucas was going in his attic room at the same time every morning to seat at his desk and started writing, his wife was locking him up in the room so he couldn’t do anything else than writing. So I continue to write and I’m still writing every morning at 7 am and every night before going to bed. Some days I don’t want to but I believe in consistency and discipline. No one is doing it for me, so I do it for myself.
What do you love most about creating screenplays?
Freedom. The ability to embrace my story and tell it in my way. It’s such a creative moment where I can let my mind roam free. The research process is super fun because it’s a time dedicated to analyzing and trying things out. I feel like a kid making a puzzle, happy with myself and excited for what’s next. Seeing the pieces come together is so rewarding.
Are there particular kinds of stories that you’re drawn to?
Stories that depict the reality of life. Sometimes based on real events. Growing up in a project I came to be fascinated by humans flaws and vulnerabilities, and the truth that came out of people when put under pressure, in time of crisis. Living with my grandparents, the person I loved the most, I saw them be real, it wasn’t always pretty but it felt so safe and it was a reality for everyone around the block. Because over there you can’t avoid the reality of life, you have to face up challenges regardless if you are ready for them or not. It was a place where we could still be ourselves. That lead me to be drawn to story about the underdog for a start, tell the story of the guys that isn’t meant to succeed but will do anyways, the story of ladies that struggle to find their place in the society, the kid that is bullied at school but will kick back and stand up for himself . I always want to be as close to reality as possible. Some people will tell me that they are not watching a movie to see what they can see in the streets, well I’m happy for them, don’t go see my movies. I’m all about what life is. Feelings, emotions, family dynamic, love dichotomy. Everything that defines us as human beings, walkers of this earth is something that I’m interested about. There is no answer to what the meaning of life is, however I believe we owe a little bit of gratitude to be here and to try to understand ourselves is a good place to start.
Can you walk us through your creative process with a screenplay?
It’s not as well-oiled as I would like it to be but I guess it’s what makes it interesting. I’m pushing myself to write at least one page a day, regardless of where I am. I write in the morning, early on, after waking up, and after my coffee. There would not be any screenplays if it wasn’t for my morning coffee. That thing is life saving! I don’t always write in order, but I always know where I’m heading. First, I just take notes, on my phone or in a notebook at home. I send myself emails with dialogue bites that I found compelling, I simply start by immersing myself deeply in the environment that I’m creating. Once I feel ready I start writing scenes, I often have too many scenes, and need to cut some down. I wrote them on index cards. Those cards are also life saving. It’s a way for me to visualize my story better. I analyze and visualize a lot, taking a step back on anything. Since I like to tell stories in a nonlinear way I have more room to juggle with my format but still I impose myself to respect some kind of rules to not lose any grip on where I’m heading. Then I start writing, it’s often quick, the first draft can come in a month or so. The rewrite is more daunting, but necessary. I used to hear that you don’t know how to write if you don’t know how to re-write, I believe it now. Writing can be easy, rewriting is a pain. But a good fulfilling pain.
Tell us where you got the idea for your latest screenplay Ubuntu – An African Story.
In 2007, I went to Cameroon with my grandfather. I had no idea what I was getting myself into. It was the first time and still to this day the only time I went there. My grandfather left Cameroon in the 60’s, for him to go back that many years later was an amazing opportunity, I didn’t realize at the time how powerful and important that trip was for him. As the first male descent after him, I had to go through an initiation process. I had no clue of what was going to happen to me. I had to walk naked through the jungle, a shaman beat me with tree leaves and a chicken, a real chicken, no joke. I slept in the middle of spiders. This is not even 20% of what happened to me. It was so intense. That trip changed my life, no doubt about it. Because despite all the crazy things that I had to do, it was a way for me to connect to my grandfather, to my ancestors, my soil and roots. It was a way to surrender myself to something that was totally foreign to me. It gave me strength and confidence to get on in my life, to accept the difficulties, the storm and mountains to pass by, knowing that on the other side of the hill things will get brighter. I wanted to bring that story to paper and then to the screen, this is a story that in a way everyone can relate to, it’s about family, love, transmission and showing up for the person we love. It’s also a homage to my grandfather who passed away a few years ago.
Did you expect to win a screenwriting award for the work?
Not at all. It’s not the way I operate, I’m doing the work for myself focusing on what I can control. Because I know that I can’t control what’s out there, if someone likes my screenplay or not, if someone is giving me a deal for the next projects, if someone is giving me an award or not. We live in a society where we are constantly focusing on what others think of us. It’s sad and disconcerting, we are unchained seeking the approval of others. If I start to worry about winning or not, life is going to be hell, my work won’t be as good because my priorities will be shifted and biased. However, I can control myself, my actions, intentions, and thoughts, my process. And by showing up every day for myself, I already won the deal I made with myself to give me the means to success.
Will the film be going into production any time soon?
I’m shopping it around but haven’t found a production house for it yet. Anyone interested ?!
You traveled from France to LA to pursue filmmaking. What was the biggest challenge for you making that transition, and how did you overcome it?
Language to start with the obvious, I used to speak English like a cat in a washing machine, that wasn’t convenient. I lived in New York first, that was a good step before moving to LA. New York is much more European than LA, there are a lot of expat there, always something going on with the community which made the transition easy. LA is much more of a lonely city. A place where hope and despair coexist in a very strange way. It’s also a place where joy and sorrow are inseparable. It feels like a land of broken dreams but filled with so many dreams nonetheless. I was lucky to have friends in both cities when I moved, which helped me feel settled a little quicker. The biggest challenge I would say was to acclimate myself to what it means to work in the movie business in Los Angeles. It’s not pretty, it’s a hard industry to navigate, especially now, we are living in a time of a revamping of the industry with all the streamers. Going to the movies isn’t what it used to be sadly. It doesn’t matter if you create in Los Angeles, you need to put yourselves out there, to meet people, to make a name for yourselves. Everyone goes out. Screening, bars, events, private parties. You are constantly meeting people but you have no idea if what they are saying is true or not. You hear so many stories all the time. People love to talk in LA, that’s why most Americans are not too fond of Southern California I guess. At a barbecue someone will say they work for so and so to try to get something from you, then they disappear. For me that was complicated because I love to connect with people, to have fun, go out but you have to be guarded in LA. There is a saying in LA that when you arrive in town, you could cross two of the most famous thresholds of Hollywood life, the first one once you go to a party in the hills and the second one if you’re still standing the next day to gossip about it. I see my friends and family in France having this image of LA, the city of angels, blah blah, yes it can be. It’s definitely amazing if you are hanging out with the right people and you’re actually working and not waiting to work but there is a lot of bullshit in LA. A lot and it’s important to be aware of it.
Do you see yourself moving back to France in the future?
I’ve lived in different places that I called home. France is the place where my memories are, where my family lives, where love is. I’ve always felt that my biggest strength was that I knew exactly where I came from. And that knowledge is very important to me to define myself as the person I am. I have some tattoos on my body, 4 of them are swallows. According to the legend, a swallow tattooed means that the sailor will return home. With 4 of them, you can imagine that Home is calling! I’m about to move back, I’m currently writing in French for the first time, a story about love that couldn’t be closer to my heart. That doesn’t mean I’m leaving everything behind, but there is a time for everything. 10 years away, I have lived an experience I could have never imagined. It has been incredible, there is a time for everything. A new chapter to start. I’m very excited about what life could be back home, more surprises to come!
What are some of your biggest career goals?
It’s one thing to think about career goals, but I’m afraid this will make it more selfish. I want to think more globally how to create the most meaningful life while constantly learning and never stopping to be creative. It’s very important for me to be able to give back to the new generation, to leave after me a better place. Be there for the older ones and give back. To share experience and knowledge. I came to that realization when I actually stopped chasing career goals, because when you chase something you are like a racing horse, only looking ahead but doing so, there are many things that are left behind. I don’t want to leave anything or anyone on the side anymore.
Who would be some of your ideal people to work with in the movie business?
I don’t have an ideal person to work with, I’m more after interesting people, who have something to say, who bring their own story to the project and are not afraid to push the limit of possibilities to change the statu quo. It’s how I like to surround myself in general.
Do you have any advice for filmmakers who are trying to find a start in the industry?
Yes. Don’t listen to any advice. Me or anybody else, don’t listen.
Think about what you want to do and why you want to do it, then do it. If I had listened to everything that was buzzing in my ears I would have never started. Everyone has an opinion nowadays. When the elections are coming, suddenly everyone is a politician, the pandemic starts, you find a bunch of scientists everywhere, when you talk to someone about movie making, suddenly they are professionals of your industry. The reality is that when you want something badly enough to put you in a situation to get it, you will get something. So my advice is to start somewhere, anywhere, doesn’t matter, stop talking about starting, just start, not tomorrow, today.
What has been the biggest success of your career so far?
Winning best screenplay for Ubuntu was obviously a major win. I’m proud the story resonated to people and I’m looking forward to being able to bring it to the screen.
Where can people keep up with your work?
I got off most social media recently. It felt like a rebirth, so I’m not too much on the internet and I finally have time to live, but you can email me at email@example.com.