We had the good fortune of connecting with Thea Mercouffer and we’ve shared our conversation below.
Hi Thea, can you walk us through the thought-process of starting your business?
Honestly, I think I was afraid nobody would hire me, so I figured I’d have to go it alone. Some days I wish I had a company above me, to do all the nitty gritty work. But most days I relish the freedom to set my own pace. It takes a lot of discipline and willpower to get things going, especially on a new project.
Alright, so let’s move onto what keeps you busy professionally?
I’m a documentary filmmaker, constantly trying to reinvent the form. I tell stories about social and environmental justice – a very serious subject – with humor and verve. I look at all sides of every issue, and try to build a complete picture. This, I think, is what sets me apart. Right now, I’m looking for a fresh way to tell the story of the battle for LA’s streets between unhoused people living in tents, homeowners, business owners, and policy-makers. As a documentarian, I can’t purport to have a solution, but I can synthesize the many voices shouting over each other, and try to make sense of what’s going on, how things could be addressed.
I started out as a professional actress (always considering the terms “professional” and “artist” in contradiction, by the way), and moved into documentary filmmaking when I could no longer compete in the “She: model type, slender, organized, beautiful, young. He: middle aged guy-next-door, scruffy, no prospects, lost.” casting paradigm. After working with some of the world’s most recognized theatre directors, I wanted to move into telling my own stories. A theatre teacher once told me: “You see the world through a crooked window. Never give that up.” Honestly, I wouldn’t know how to give that up. But that’s how I tell my stories: through a crooked window, which is why, in my films, no story is devoid of larger context, history and multiple perspectives.
Documentary filmmaking is 75% fundraising and administration, 25% creative. At least for independent filmmakers. I’ve tried quitting many times, but I keep returning, I can’t help it. Making films is the best way I know to be meaningfully engaged in these captivating conversations. But since it’s not been a financially feasible occupation for me, I finally made peace with the idea that I will have to find a different way to make money, and documentary filmmaking will remain my creative outlet. I’m much happier with this arrangement, and more free to create what I really want.
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.
I moved to LA by mistake, in a way. My husband and I were living in Seattle, and decided to friend-hop around the country the summer before our son was to start kindergarten, and we never made it past LA. We loved the weather, the ocean, and even the people! We found our tribe here. Yes, it’s messy, and super ugly in some parts, but also vibrant, and super beautiful all around. I still have a kid in school, so my life is seriously centered on the West side, where we live.
For a first culture shock encounter with LA, I’d recommend Venice Beach. It brings together every type you’ll ever encounter in the city. It’s loud and funny and scary and mesmerizing. There are lots of boardwalk cafes and bars, where you can sit and people watch all day. Look for Henry, a guy dressed in white, on roller skates, playing quitar. He’s our main fixture. And the near naked guy rolling a metal ball all over his gorgeous body.
For a dramatically different sensory experience, take a stroll through the Venice Canals, a romantic man-made mini version of its namesake, filled with stunning homes. It’s peaceful here, and you feel far and away from the city. If you have younger kids, try to find the mini-park with play structures. That’s also a duck-gathering place.
Not too far is The Museum of Jurassic Technology – a unique place that collects the most bizarre of human creations (physical and mythological). Have tea on the magical top terrace, surrounded by cooing doves.
By now you’re hungry. We can go to my favorite Thai place, Night+Market Sahm on Lincoln Blvd. (they have a location in Silverlake as well), where they serve northern Thai street food – deliciously spicy. The place is loud and crowded and lots of fun.
After that, we may have to take the obligatory Abbot Kinney stroll, window shopping the many boutiques and restaurants, and again people watching. This is where The Trendy come to be seen. On Friday nights, the place is swarmed by food trucks and visitors from all over.
My favorite women’s clothing store is Sumiko, a small room on Santa Monica’s Main Street, crammed with what I suspect are rejected designer seconds. Nonetheless, they’re designer clothes, at super bargain prices. The place is run by a quirky woman who will tell you straight up what looks good on you and how to wear it.
For men, I like Enda King on Abbot Kinney – they have good sales, and the staff is really helpful,
If you like thrifting, my favorite store on the west side is the Council Thrift store on Santa Monica Blvd. and Granville. A small shop with lots of gems. Staff there is firm but helpful.
For a great view of the sunset, we’re gonna grab my dog and head to Mandeville Canyon: a great hike with breathtaking views of the Ocean, Beverly Hills, Downtown and even the Valley. The trail goes for miles, and has varying degrees of difficulty.
We will end the day with a great dinner at The Mar Vista, a modern place in my neighborhood, with eclectic decor and a superb menu.
If you’re young enough to still go clubbing, you’re on your own, I really don’t know where to take you for that.
Who else deserves some credit and recognition?
The person who always, unfailingly believed in me was my dad. At times, that belief was almost a burden: you don’t always feel like you match up to the great trust that your parents put in you. But it also makes you want to rise up to that expectation. Aside from him, I’ve had amazing mentors all along the way, teachers, professionals who are highly regarded in their field, who believed in me and nurtured me along. I started out in acting, so they are mostly theatre directors: Catalin Naum, the Romanian director who was my first mega-mentor, Bill Doan, my first theatre director in the US, Steve Pearson, the Head of the Acting Program at the UW in Seattle, Andrei Serban, world-famous theatre and opera director, who supported me in the US and in Romania. (I realize now, they are all men. Huh!)
photos by Omalina Wolfe