We had the good fortune of connecting with Emilie Svensson and we’ve shared our conversation below.
Hi Emilie, have you ever found yourself in a spot where you had to decide whether to give up or keep going? How did you make the choice?
I think in light of recent events with the pandemic, this question is weighing especially heavy on all of us, regardless of the work we do, or lives we live. With the film industry in particular, I think everyone, both masters, and green people, have often thought about throwing in the towel. A few of my idols, including Roger Deakins, Rachel Morrison, and Bradford Young, DoPs and masters of their craft, discuss this in interviews and podcasts. They talk about the immeasurable sacrifices they make to do what they love, how the industry can leave them with little time to be with their families, or the lack of control when choosing direction in life, financial juggling, the hardships of freelancing even after having achieved full acclaim for their work, or even occasionally being strong armed by politics in the industry and how that can sometimes stifle their creativity or limit their options.
When I chose to become a writer / director in dark comedy, I was not naive- I knew that I would be met with resistance, but as I write this, I could never foresee just how much that resistance would be.
I’m originally from the east coast, and from the beginning, I couldn’t afford to go to a proper film school, so I went to a local university with a film theory program and tried to attend indie film sets outside of school. Immediately after graduation, my parents and I moved to Los Angeles so they could retire, and I could pursue the elusive American Dream, chasing my passion for telling stories through intelligent comedy. Being half Swedish, I was able to set up an interview with Tori Skoglund to work with Jonas Akerlund, one of the best commercial and music video directors of the 80s, 90s, 2000s- to present. He hired me right away as a PA, and suddenly I was on set with A-list talent. I’d worked on set with him for two weeks, running errands, driving a rented car, and using a phone that barely held battery charge. Everything was big, new and scary, but I was resourceful and persistent so I completed every task under the warm care of his assistant, Diana Seerman. Once that job ended, he left to shoot in the EU. Unaccustomed to freelancing, I was suddenly left unemployed. I had no connections, and no skills, but I worked every job I came across, as a PA, an editor, and sometimes shot corporate videos as I patiently waited for Jonas and his team to return. A lot of my days were empty and terribly lonely, but I was able to freelance with his team on and off for three years. Through this, I was able to acquire a mentor, DoP Par Ekberg. He could see that I had a passion, but was really struggling to get my footing. He’d mentored three before me, and eventually asked if I wanted to be ‘next in line’. Suddenly, I was in the action and getting on set with the camera department shooting top-tier talent- Not forced away to run errands all over the city. I was tasked with rigging smaller cameras for coverage, and that pushed me to learn the walkie channels and collaborate independently with other departments. It kept me on my toes, made me think ahead and to think visually for shots and angles. It was really hard to jump into the deep end, but I managed.
After these three years, the reality of paying rent to my family and still surviving in such an expensive city set in. I found a job as an intern at a new media company. I had applied with the intention of being able to practice narrative storytelling at a level that suited me, but the company shifted to something more corporate, seeking viral Internet content instead. I used it to pay the bills, but my heart wasn’t in it and I couldn’t create viral hits so I was let go.
At this point, I applied for unemployment having never done so before, and then immediately got hired back to freelance for the same new media company that had let me go. Everything collapsed when I did my unemployment paperwork incorrectly that created some serious trouble, and my family and I got evicted from our one-bedroom apartment due to an obscure law in the state of California claiming that property owners can take back property for personal use. Suddenly, I had to help my (older) parents look for a new place to live in a city we couldn’t afford; I had to commute from LAX to Hollywood every day to work at a desk-job, and try to get right with the law to fix my unemployment issues. I was about 25 and couldn’t handle it, so I started abusing alcohol. It was the only way for me to numb myself and cope with the insurmountable stress of feeling so utterly out of control of my life.
Roughly a year later, my parents and I began to see the light at the end of the tunnel. We bought an affordable place in an up-and-coming neighborhood, I paid off my debts, sorted out my unemployment issues and vowed never to rejoin the system, and with savings from my contract job at the new media company, I left to recuperate and backpack for two months throughout Europe, Australia and New Zealand with a couple of my life-long best friends from high school. Finally, at the end of 2019 I decided to quit drinking.
Upon returning from my travels, I went back to freelancing with my mentor, and started working on a few indie projects with friends that I had connected with at the new media company. One connection led to another, and I started making friends who taught me how to graduate from Camera PA, to AC and operator. Marja Lewis Ryan, Kwanza Gooden, Tony Marquez, Mannon Butt, Jennifer Lai, Salma Loum, Jean Denegar and Daphne Wu, have all consistently trained me and kept me fed throughout the last four years. Bigger wins started to happen- I met Jasmine Chiong, Sarah Tither Kaplan, Lulu Jovovich, and everyone at Island Creek Pictures, through mutual friends, and we created a nine-part anthology series, all written and directed by 15 female filmmakers, to which I was able to direct a dark comedy short film. It was encouraging to receive several film festival awards, personally and for the series. Shortly after, I’d partnered with DoP Justin Aguirre, writers, Autumn Palen and Sophie Lundberg, and producers Dani Adaliz, Jeremy A Pappas and Steven Aripez to shoot dark comedy spec ads, and two short films safely through the pandemic, including an infrared music video for Pink Roses with DoP Jean Denegar. And in December of 2020, my mentor saw that I was ready to receive my big break, giving me the opportunity to direct a music video with the legendary Usher.
The wins, both big and small have kept me going, along with my loving family who support me even though I feel terribly delayed in achieving every possible ‘life’ benchmark, my mentor who is always so loyally in my corner cheering me on, and my friends who are the most diverse, caring, collaborative, and generous people. I feel like I’d be nothing without my friends, and I’d have made nothing without my friends. Working in the industry can be a real slog, and there’s no justice, rhyme or reason as to how or why some people can achieve greatness, seamlessly with short-lived or minimal struggle- Sometimes it’s luck, hard work, and / or simply their time; sometimes it’s nepotism and classism. And sometimes others suffer through grit and struggle for years to harness their one so-beloved dream with personal stories to share that are likened to mine.
My experiences have hurt me, shaped me, given me a lot of material for dark comedy, but they have not broken me. And living in Los Angeles, I’ve been able to witness first-hand the nepotism, classism, egos, lack of equality in the industry, and what’s achievable through privatized funding, but gate-kept from those in outer circles. It still feels like everything is stacked against you- the unions are expensive and out of reach or often don’t return the value, the labor laws in the U.S. need reform to maintain a better work / life balance, getting in touch with a production company in hopes of getting something made is considered submitting unsolicited content and is not legally feasible without having representation. But the Catch 22 will dictate that getting representation means you still need to independently make things on your own time and dime, to which, most of us have neither, or not enough of one to supplant the other. Cold-calls, and cold-emails for representation are most often left unanswered, or met with ‘Sorry, but our roster is full’. Sometimes rejection feels like the only constant.
I’ve thought about letting go, and changing trajectory in hopes of a happier, more stable life, but I don’t love anything else as much, and I’ve come too far to get this far. It’s not in me to give up even when I’m met with resistance at every corner. I’m half Armenian and half Swedish- both strong ancestors and survivors. I did martial arts for almost 13 years in my youth where ‘discipline’, ‘commitment’, ‘perseverance’, and ‘always finishing what we start’ was rigorously drilled into us daily.
I’ve had a lot of time to think about what I really want during the time of the pandemic, and I’ve made the decision to continue pursuing my dream of writing and directing dark comedy. But I will be heading overseas to Sweden to look for more equal opportunities. Nothing is promised anywhere, but I do look forward to what will hopefully be a fresh start, a positive change, and a breakthrough in my career with this next chapter.
This is a long-winded answer, but I feel that for my answer to hold any weight, it needs context. I once read that ‘Hell is energy without expression’. A lot of us carry on because we simply can’t stop, nor do we want to. We have something we need to say.
Often, in the process of maybe pulling away from the industry, there’s always a project or a phone call that pulls us back in because it gives us hope to move onward and upward. I hope that by getting back to my roots in Sweden, I can pursue my passion because I love telling stories, not because I need to claw my way through survival.
On a lighter note, Patty Jenkins said, ‘You’ll succeed through dogged tenacity’. And Lady GAGA, circa 2014, at her ArtPop concert while playing the piano and singing, ‘Born This Way’, in acapella said, ‘The ones who make it, are the ones who can withstand the obstacles’. They’re both right, and I intend to stay.
Alright, so let’s move onto what keeps you busy professionally?
I definitely answered this in the first question, but what sets me apart is my love for dark comedy. Thanks to my mom, my grandpa, my aunt, and their brilliant sense of Armenian humor, paired with my punk / nihilism Scandinavian side, I was exposed to the best comedy very early. Without a hidden agenda, my mom had me watching female-led comedy, often from the UK. I was obsessed with ‘Absolutely Fabulous’, ‘A Fish Called Wanda’, ‘First Wives Club’, ‘I Love Lucy’, and anything Jim Carrey did.
As I got older, I started to get into stuff by the Wayans Brothers like ‘Scary Movie’, and watching comedy specials by Sarah Silverman and Kathy Griffin that I rented from Blockbuster.
Today, I’m still very partial to dark humor from the UK with stories like, ‘Fleabag’, ‘Flowers’, ‘A Young Doctor’s Notebook’, ‘End of the F***ing World’, ‘Sex Education’, ‘In My Skin’, ‘We Are Lady Parts’, ‘In Bruges’, ‘Three Billboards’, and from Sweden, ‘The Square’. I think America has a much larger audience and it’s harder to translate this humor over here in the States, but the younger people, Gen-X, millennials, and Gen-Z are really latching on to it, so I’m excited and very hopeful that I will soon catch a wave that is inevitably coming.
I know comedy these days can cancel people, and dark comedy especially is hugely controversial, but I think that by laughing at the human condition, we can better cope with the hardships. If we don’t laugh, we’ll cry.
Let’s say your best friend was visiting the area and you wanted to show them the best time ever. Where would you take them? Give us a little itinerary – say it was a week long trip, where would you eat, drink, visit, hang out, etc.
Well in true dark comedy form, a lot the best places to go after the pandemic are closed now. Taking a friend to the Hollywood sign, Griffith Park Observatory, The Broad museum, Santa Monica Pier and getting a corn dog at Hot Dog Stick is a given. I might drive them through Melrose because it’s wealthy, clean, and fun to poke around the shops, but if you want good food, you HAVE to go toKorea Town. K-Town is hands down the best place for food, karaoke, and cheap delicious beer. I’d take them to my secret spot in Palos Verdes for great views and the beach. Don’t get me wrong, Malibu is awesome, but it’s always so crowded, there’s nowhere to park, and most of the houses block the view of the beach, so PV is where it’s at. Lastly, I’d take them to a show- everyone plays here and in NYC, so the accessibility to live music is chef’s kiss.
The Shoutout series is all about recognizing that our success and where we are in life is at least somewhat thanks to the efforts, support, mentorship, love and encouragement of others. So is there someone that you want to dedicate your shoutout to?
I mentioned quite a few of them in my previous answer, but I’d like to give an extra special shoutout to my parents Erik and Carol Svensson, my aunt Nancy, and my uncle Mike. Their support has been invaluable.