We had the good fortune of connecting with Jenna Suru and we’ve shared our conversation below.
Hi Jenna, we’d love to hear about how you approach risk and risk-taking
Risk and risk-management are key in our creative lives, all the more when your goal is to bring a positive change in the life. The most risky thing you can ever do as a creative, is probably not to take any risk. Likewise, even the number 1 company must adapt and take risks, otherwise it is likely to become uncompetitive sooner rather than later. Taking risks have played a major role for me to upskill at various steps of my career. The first reason why you should take risks as a professional is for yourself: it takes you out of your comfort zone. While budgeting and meticulously working on every aspect of production on my debut feature The Golden Age, I asked my client for my freelance fee to be doubled, and because of the value I’m bringing to the companies I work for, it worked great for everyone. They could have said no – in that case I was losing the client – but I analysed the risk and decided it was the right time for me to level up as a freelancer and at the same time, step up to producing my period drama feature film.
On a more global scale, it is necessary to take risks to support others and bring change. When I was 19, I after organising a 3-day event in the heart of Paris with 10+ associations and 2,000 attendees to raise awareness around homeless children and homelessness, I flew to New Delhi, India, to pay homage to their incredible resilience, directing a short documentary, The Sparkling Homes, about the Tara Foster Cares. The film helped attract new sponsors to curate these foster cares, is informative for previous investors already involved and raises awareness on child protection. I’m proud that The Sparkling Homes has contributed to finance the “Forfaits Casse-Graine” in particular.
Without a doubt, risk is inherent to our creative lives, as it is the fuel of what makes our art so unique and its messages appealing to our audiences. However it is essential to manage risks, and there are many ways you can do that professionally. As a producer and director, safety is my number one priority, no matter how small or big the risk seems to be. Risk assessment is a major part of pre-production and preparation plays a key role in managing risk and reducing it to a minimum. For instance, when in production for The Sparkling Homes, I filmed in various locations in New Delhi, from the 2 foster cares, Tara Tots, Tara Boys, to various streets in the city. I had extensively prepared for risk assessment for the filming, starting with the vaccines and health (this was before Covid times) and looking through every risk with the associations to make sure I would bring in the right material. I would travel in rickshaws whenever possible, which was a good balance: safer than filming directly on the street, budget-friendly, and an immersive way to discover the city. I had extensively prepared the filming phase with the association, and planned my filming with them so that I could limit the footage to what was actually needed for the documentary, to manage the budget.
Ultimately, a wonderful strength of our creative lives is that it gives us the resilience and energy to fight for the new, even when it is scary. Taking risks is an adventure, it is essential to hire a professional safety company on shoots, making safety a priority, and to manage and reduce risk wherever it is in your scope of responsibilities. Not only will it make you succeed and grow, but it also builds your knowledge and experience, enabling you to take new risks.
Alright, so let’s move onto what keeps you busy professionally?
I had been working at the international departments of 2 top distributors in France, Gaumont and SND, when I founded Belle Époque Films, in January 2015. From day one, my goal for Belle Époque Films was to produce and distribute quality content with 3 main values: authenticity, diversity, and eco-friendly. A great – not big – French company which is all about positive international collaborations! Belle Époque Films acknowledges that there is a golden age of film that has yet to be reached. Our mission is to bring La Belle Époque back somehow, in a stronger, modern way.
La Belle Époque was a period in French and Belgian History which started in 1871 and ended with World War I in 1914. It was a period characterized by optimism, peace, new technologies and scientific discoveries. The prosperity in Paris allowed the arts to flourish, and many masterpieces of literature, music, theatre, and visual art gained recognition. In the newly rich United States, emerging from the Panic of 1873, this era is called the Gilded Age.
I opened Belle Époque Films with a play and two films. The play is Happy, written by the brilliant Robert C. Caisley, published by Samuel French. From first reading, I was convinced this play would be successful. As a result, the Los Angeles Premiere of Happy I produced sold-out and received the most fantastic reviews.
The first film is The Bigger Picture, a romantic drama filmed in London on 35 mm with an Academy Award Nominated DP, stars Robert Sheehan (for those binge-watching The Umbrella Academy on Netflix!). The second film is Spitball, was financed by the Northern Ireland Screen and stars Elliot Cowan and Shauna Macdonald.
When committing on projects, quality is the hallmark. Working with A-level actors is also key, and I am looking forward to working with Robert Sheehan again and more top talents. I kickstarted the company with these 3 Franco-international projects to set the tone for the future of the brand, not only in terms of quality and using newest technologies – which were key under La Belle Époque – but also in terms of values. Belle Époque Films signed the Ecoprod Chart as soon as it was created, a reference in Europe for eco-friendly filmmaking.
This all happened within the first six months of Belle Époque Films and was the beginning of a wonderful adventure – the company turned six years old earlier this year.
Ultimately, it is an extremely competitive industry, and I believe the success of my brand comes down to the passion and hard work put into it. It may sound a little extreme, but I’ve always worked on my craft as an athlete. For The Golden Age, I had built a huge, detailed shot list, storyboarded all the film scenes, rehearsed with the whole cast, written documents with recommendations for every department and discussed prolifically with each crew member prior to the filming, which hugely contributed to making this filming so special for us, as every dimension of the film had been anticipated and discussed in advance. This is when the magic happens! Likewise, the film provides a beautifully nostalgic look at 1960’s France, complete with a soundtrack featuring legends such as Chuck Berry and Jimmy Reed, which I had licensed and recorded with the band prior to filming. All these elements and details contribute to recreate that unique 60s Douce France atmosphere for our audience to enjoy.
Managing your budget, be it personal or professional, is also key. A useful method I find to budget my personal life is to break out spending into categories: housing, food, health, transportation, gas, insurance, professional material, subscriptions, entertainment, pensions… and contingency. One of the first elements to cut whenever possible are subscriptions, it is important to calculate their cost and either justify its necessity – IMDb is a popular one in our industry – or quickly update your subscriptions, all the more as those are recurrent costs. Also, try and cut all the unnecessary expenses that come up here and there – this is where monitoring our accounts becomes very valuable, especially in a post-covid world, where contactless payments are more frequent. As natural as it may seem, you may be surprised by the budget for magazines and chocolate bars, you thought were kept to a minimum! Moreover, having a clear idea of our expenses, helps us better set our goals in terms of our rate as a freelancer, or salary (remembering as a freelancer, we are likely not to work 365 days a year, either, because of the time spent on training, networking, etc).
Eventually, my decisions in spending money come down to this: is it truly eco-friendly (low carbon footprint), is it authentic, is it top quality ?
In terms of lifestyle, I am all about minimalism, which encourages me to invest in things I love, instead of accumulating things I only like. In other words, when you have fewer options, you force yourself into a positive mindset!
Minimalism began as an art form in the 1960s and suits me well as by owning less, I free up the time, energy, and money to get the most out of life. Regardless of lifestyles, the pandemic forced us to reconsider many aspects of our lives and expenses. You can also try and apply minimalism to any part of life, and see the positive impact on your confidence, as well as on your carbon footprint. Committing to a minimalist wardrobe is an easy place to start.
If you had a friend visiting you, what are some of the local spots you’d want to take them around to?
Leaving my friend’s suitcase at the Château Marmont or Roosevelt Hotel, filling in with the high energies of those places full of stories and history, I would invite my best friend to relax around one of their platters of cheese, Then, get in the car and hop on Angel’s Flight to pretend we are Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling in Damien Chazelle’s La La Land! We would spend a full day in Venice, skating in the day and watching the stars in the night, then head to Mama Shelter for a drink on their rooftop. We would eat Croissants at Café Gratitude in the morning, stroll on Santa Monica’s pier in the evening, and attend some of the best Festivals in town like AFI, the Downtown Los Angeles Film Festival, the Valley Film Festival, or another drive-in screening!
Who else deserves some credit and recognition?
Thanks so much for having me on! Training is an essential in my eyes. I check the Screenskills website regularly to apply for training schemes and get myself updated on the changes of our industry. It’s also a great way to connect with top industry talents and bounce back with ideas on your upcoming projects.
It is important to stay connected with the industry, « be there » at the virtual events, take, listen and exchange with your peers, surround yourself with the very best people. Festivals are key for you to find your tribe and build your community. I have been serving on the Jury of the 30th edition of Cinequest for the recent Documentary Competition, with Festival Alumnus Nicole Jones and Megan Huggins at Gravitas Ventures. The 14 feature documentaries in the competition are outstanding, and I would like to congratulate Holly Tuckett, who picked up the Best Documentary Award this year at the Festival. Big thanks to her for making such an essential, meaningful documentary about female firefighters, their achievements protecting America’s wildlands, and struggles. Alex Liu picked up the Audience Documentary Award for A Sexplanation, a positive reflection on how we approach sex in America.
The Valley Film Festival, directed and founded by Tracey Adlai 21 years ago, also are hosting some wonderful conference week-ends, I have recently had the opportunity to speak on their 3-Day Conference about Supporting Self-Care and Career Wellness for Filmmakers and Creatives, More are being set in the coming weeks.
You can also join some fantastic organizations like WFTV, or Film Fatales, they’re a fantastic community to support and network with.
Belle Époque Films