Interview with Selena Leoni (Producer, Writer and Director)

Hi Selena, thank you for agreeing to be interviewed. The first question I’d like to ask is – what got you first interested in film making? 

As an only child, television has always been my best friend and mentor – I explored different cultures worldwide through documentaries, learned Chinese by watching hours of Chinese soap operas, and made tons of imaginary friends from animations. When I learned that working in film and television can be a career path, I jumped right into it.

How much do you feel your Chinese and Italian heritage has influenced your work? Or do you feel that your work hasn’t been influenced by your background?

My heritage has definitely influenced my work as a producer. Because of my background of growing up in two distinct cultures, I have always been curious about cultures and religions, and the reasons why people behave in the way they do. Therefore, I’m often drawn to projects that discuss topics that I personally don’t know much about or want to learn more about. 

Additionally, as a queer third-cultured kid growing up moving back and forth between Italy and China, I also experienced firsthand the importance of seeing representation on screen and how it can affect an individual’s confidence and identity. Growing up, despite my obsession with all the fantastic worlds on the television, I never saw myself being represented on the big screen, and in some way, even in real life. I never really “fit in” in both my cultures’ mainstream media and struggled with my identity as a teenager. I remember clearly the astonishment and delight I felt when I watched Callie Torres from Grey’s Anatomy discovers her sexuality as a bisexual woman, and how grounding and validating it felt to see myself being represented. 

Therefore, I often keep that in mind when I select my projects. I am passionate about representation on and behind the screen and the need to reduce stereotypes of underrepresented groups. 

You wrote and produced The Follower, an intense thriller released in 2021 about a social media influencer who has a secret follower who is a threat to her privacy. What inspired you to write the film? 

The Follower was inspired by a funny incident that happened when I was living in an apartment building with a shared laundry room. As someone who just moved to Los Angeles from Hong Kong, I only brought a very limited amount of clothing with me. Therefore when I began to notice that my underclothes had gone missing one by one, I eventually realized that the only way someone could get to them was in the shared laundry room. This incident eventually inspired The Follower as I began to research deeply into personal safety and online safety. 

Nowadays with social media, it’s so easy to track someone unnoticed and find out where someone lives. So what can you do to protect yourself when you realize that you have a crazy follower who has been watching you without you knowing? With The Follower, I want to warn people about the dangerous of oversharing and the importance of protecting your privacy. 

How did it feel writing and producing The Follower? Did you find that the decision-making process as a producer was in any way different when you were working on a film you had written? 

The Follower is the first film that I wrote and produced. Usually as the producer, I am more objective and very level-headed when it comes to balancing the creative and logistics. But during this process, I found myself a bit more “indecisive” on things that might require creative sacrifice due to the limitations we had with budget and locations. Because I already had a strong vision in mind about certain scenes, it was hard for me to let go even though I knew that it was important to do so. This experience made me more considerate when making similar decisions on future projects, and I now will spend more time trying to find the best solutions before making the final decision to make sure it is really in the best interest of the film.

You produced Heartland, an incredibly hard-hitting film about death and the digital world we live in now – did it change your attitude towards technology at all? 

Nowadays it’s really easy for us to be glued to our phones 24/7 and we are all so used to the quick access to information. After producing Heartland, I am now more mindful of the time I spend on my digital devices and try my best to reduce my dependence on them, especially when I am with friends and family. I now always keep my phone on special focus modes for different occasions to minimax getting distractions from my phone. For instance, I have a “personal focus mode” that will only notify me of important messages so I can spend quality time with family and friends without being distracted by work emails or social media.

How well understood do you think the role of a producer is for the general public? Do you think there needs to be more public recognition of the role producers play in making films? 

The role of producers is really not well understood by the general public in my opinion, especially those that are not in the entertainment industry. Frankly, before I became a producer, I didn’t really have a good understanding of what producers do because there isn’t much discussion about it in mainstream media. It wasn’t until I started producing myself that I began to grasp the importance of producers.

Therefore I definitely agree that there should be more recognition for producers (as well as other roles in filmmaking). Often time when we submit our films to festivals, the festivals tend to only focus on the directors. For instance, most festivals will have awards for directors, but we rarely see awards for producers or other important roles in filmmaking such as editors and cinematographers.

How influential do you think other producers have been on how you’ve approached your work as a producer, or do you feel you haven’t been influenced by any other producers? 

A lot! I have learned so much from my fellow producers over the past few years, and I love learning how other producers work. Everyone tends to have their own style and strength when it comes to producing, and I think it’s important to learn from each other and collaborate with each other so we can maximize our strengths and make better films.

How do you feel short films compare to features? Have you found short films to be more liberating at all or do you think that there is more pressure because you’re trying to tell a story in a shorter amount of time? 

There is indeed a big difference in how stories are structured and told in short films, vs in feature films. With short films, we often only see a slice of the character’s life, and we won’t have time to learn much about the characters’ backgrounds. Because of that, it’s important for short films to be unique, simple (focus on one major theme only), and about a universally relatable concept that doesn’t need explanations.  Whereas with feature films, you can dive deeper into the characters and touch on other topics besides the main theme of the film.

What has been your proudest moment as a producer?

The proudest moment for me as a producer is seeing my films being embraced and loved by the audience. For example, my recent short film All I Ever Wanted has been receiving a lot of positive feedback from festival attendants and has been invited to a couple of youth film showcases such as the LGBTQ+ Short Film Showcase (presented by NewFest) at the NYC Department of Education’s 2023 GSA Summit. It means so much to me that our film is being seen and enjoyed by people around the world and is making a positive impact on their life.

You were recently invited to join BAFTA Newcomers – how does it feel to have membership of BAFTA Newcomers? 

BAFTA has an excellent reputation for creating valuable mentorship for the next generation of filmmakers, and it was a huge honor to be invited to join BAFTA Newcomers last November. As an emerging producer still finding my place in the industry, I know there is still so much more to learn in this robust industry. I am eager to learn more, and I am more than ever looking forward to the support and guidance from my peers and experienced industry mentors at BAFTA. 

How do you think covid has impacted the film industry? 

When COVID was hit, it was hard for the film industry as productions were all paused and unions scrambled to create new regulations to protect their members. A lot of people lost their jobs for months. However, now that we have learned to live with COVID, I think a few positive changes also emerged from it that made filmmaking more efficient and healthy. For example, in the past we used to drive across town to have production meetings in person, and it was so hard to find a time that worked for everyone. But after COVID, most meetings nowadays happen on zoom unless it’s absolutely necessary to meet in person. It’s easier to coordinate, and honestly a lot more time-efficient. Moreover, people are now more mindful of maintaining a clean and healthy environment on set.

What future projects have you got planned?

I am currently working on finishing my second feature film Young Kings which is about an African American soldier trying to re-adjust to civilian life after he returns home from Iraq during the height of the Iraq war in 2005. As he copes with the scars of war, he increasingly becomes a threat to those he cares about the most – his family. We plan to start festival submissions for Young Kings later this spring and I look forward to sharing this amazing film with everyone.

Additionally, I am developing two feature ideas, and I’m producing a couple of shorts that will be in the festival circuit this year in festivals such as Pan Africa Film Festival, BFI Flare, and Tribeca Film Festival. I look forward to sharing these projects with all of you soon!

If you want to find out more about Selena be sure to check out here website here. You can read my interview with Jahmil Eady, Director of Heartland, here.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.