Happy International’s Women’s Day! May we keep seeing more and more of the world through women’s eyes. May we keep hearing our stories and shifting the narrative to build a future where all girls can dream and dare to be whatever they want to be.

Today, I am excited to have a very special guest, my dear friend from school Ellie Foumbi, who just did her first feature and premiered as part of the Biennale College Cinema at the Venice Film Festival, which is amazing. “Mon Père, le Diable” is a film about an African refugee whose quiet existence in a sleepy mountain town in the south of France is upended by the arrival of a charismatic Catholic priest whom she recognizes as the warlord who slaughtered her family.

Here is a link to the podcast if you prefer listening and don’t forget to subscribe!

Here are links to specific areas of the interview if you are interested in jumping around:

About the director

Story and writing process

Budgeting and financing


Lessons and advice

FILM MAMMA (FM): Congratulations, Ellie! I’m so happy that you’re here with us today and that you’ll be able to share your experience with us. It’s great to see you and talk to you.

Ellie Foumbi (EF): Thank you so much for having me and thanks for doing this, I think this is an amazing thing that you’re doing for female filmmakers, by the way, because when I was working on my first film I was looking for this kind of thing. 

FM: I’m so happy you say that because I really hope it’s going to help people get inspired and fired up to tell their stories. Let’s start with you telling us a little bit about yourself. How and when did you decide to be a film director?

EF: I think it really happened in stages for me. I fell in love with movies very young, but I come from Cameroon and we have some well-known filmmakers, but we don’t have a very big industry. Support for the arts was very low for the time being so growing up, I didn’t have people to look up to, it was really like a pipe dream. It was almost more like a hobby for me as a young kid and movies were just something I liked to do after school. It wasn’t something that I saw myself doing as a career and it wasn’t until I started acting after college that being on set, watching directors work, being exposed to what’s happening and how the whole machine comes together, I sort of fell in love with that process. 

And one thing I will say is that I think I always knew that I was a writer. I started writing very, very young. I was the girl that was reading books and rewriting the ending of a book that I like. I’m like – it shouldn’t end this way. I should rewrite that, you know? So I always had that in me. And I think I just needed a little bit of encouragement and a little bit of people to believe in me and say –  Hey, why don’t you try this? And I found that in some of the young filmmakers I was working with. Mostly NYU filmmakers, I was doing some of their thesis films and I have to say they became my community, and they really encouraged me. Nikyatu Jusu, who just won the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance, is one of my closest friends and she was really one of the biggest reasons I decided to go to film school and to become a director. And it wasn’t until I was in film school that I realized – Oh, yeah, this is actually what I want to do.

FM: That’s great because it kind of came in little parts and pieces, and you were building your way to it without even knowing it so it’s a very organic kind of journey for you. Can you please tell us how many shorts you directed before embarking on your first feature?

EF: I made 8 shorts. One of them has never seen the light of day, probably the first one. I’m always trying to make something every year if I can. Even if I have no money, I try to shoot something with friends and family. 

FM: Yeah, before there was this idea that you made shorts first and then you graduated into features, but with the way that media works today, I feel like it’s not necessarily the case anymore. Stories live in different formats, right?  There are some big directors that have done many features and go ahead and do a short or a VR experience. I guess there’s not that sense of graduating anymore, but my question is –  How did you know you were ready for your first feature?

EF: That’s such a good question because I still don’t really know how this happened. I was really lucky to have been hired to direct an episode of television. This was back in 2019 and it was an hour long episode. I think it was right after getting through that because it was such a stressful, and scary process, but I realized it’s like anything else you do – you put one foot in front of the other. You have more pressure, of course, but it’s not that different from making a short film if you break it down into parts. And I think after I conquered that, I really felt ready. I felt like – Okay, it’s time for me to step into this bigger monster, you know?

FM: That is a great bit of knowledge because the feature sounds like this monumental feat that we think is extremely hard to achieve. It just seems like an enormous mountain. And it is, but we all could climb it if we decide to. 

You’re also a writer and you wrote the script. It’s such a great story. How did you decide to tell this story? Where does it come from?

Still “Mon Père, Le Diable”

EF: It was something that I actually had started working on when we were in school at Columbia. My dad worked for the UN for almost 30 years and I was very exposed to his work and he worked predominantly in Africa. He spent seven years in Rwanda, in particular, right after the genocide and my sister went to stay with him for like, a year or two, I can’t remember how long she was there. But I had a lot of contact with them and I became very interested in what my father was doing. And somehow I don’t even remember exactly how, I think it was a woman who was working with my father, who told me she was working with survivors of the genocide. And I got in contact with a young guy who had lost his entire family. We talked and he said something to me that really kind of struck the chord, which was that he realized that he was in his mid 20s and he had never had a significant romantic relationship. He was sort of blocked. And part of the reason he was blocked was because he had so much rage and anger. He said that since his parents died, he thought of nothing but revenge, and nothing but getting back at the people who murdered his parents. And he realized at some point, he’s now in his early or mid 30s, that he was never going to be able to have a normal life if he did not let go of this anger and forgive. So he started getting therapy. And I thought – wow, this is so deep. One of the things he said to me was that during the genocide there were so many children who were committing atrocities. A lot of the people who were committing murders were under the age of 21. So that kind of got me interested in this idea of how do you move past such a traumatic event? 

I wanted to understand the civil war in Africa, in general, I didn’t want to write specifically about Rwanda. I started doing a lot of research on the civil war in West Africa, in Liberia, and Sierra Leone in particular. And then really looking at child soldiers.There are already a lot of films about that, but one thing I realized was that almost all the films like Beasts of No Nation, which is on Netflix, were talking about how children were recruited and talking about the war in particular. And I really wanted to know, because of my conversation with this young man, how do people heal? How do you get out of that? How do you pull your life back together? How do you forgive? And so that kind of very quickly became the subject of my film. I wanted to put the focus there and I just sort of developed it from that perspective.

FM: How long did it take you to work on the screenplay? How many drafts did you write?

EF: I wrote the first draft fairly quickly, but I think I thought about it for a long time. I thought about it for a few months and then I wrote the first draft over the semester because that was the assignment. The first draft was actually set in America, but it wasn’t working and I wasn’t really sure why so I put the script down. This was 2015, I put the script down until 2019, which is when I picked it back up. And then I realized that culturally it just didn’t work so I changed the setting and I did another draft of it in 2019. I would say in total, I did four drafts of the script. 

FM: There are two important things here I wanted to point out. One is, sometimes people don’t realize that scripts take many, many drafts and you don’t have to be working on a script continuously. You can work on something, put it down, work on something else, and then somehow that script will come back to you, make sense and be ready for you to do it. I think that’s good to know because a lot of people get frustrated with the script when it’s not working at the moment and feel like they’ve lost their time with that project, but it will probably just come back to them at another time. 

EF: I totally agree, I think that’s so important. And sometimes you need to step back, to get a perspective to see what the problem is. When you’re through it you can’t see it because you’re trying to force something that isn’t working. Actually, I was working on another script when this story started to bug me. I was like no, I’m working on something else, but then when I got the solution for the script, that’s when I thought I need to put this other thing down and then go back.

FM: Yeah, that’s great. And then the other thing is being able to take the elements of the story and see that it’s not working in this location, it’s not working in this world so let me try it here and see how that works. And sometimes we think if it doesn’t work there, it just doesn’t work. A change of location is daunting, but that’s sometimes exactly what the story needs. 

You participated in some labs and workshops while you were developing this, the main one being the Biennale College Cinema, I wanted you to tell us a little bit about that experience and which workshops felt useful to you and which didn’t?

EF: Yeah, so the Biennale College just kind of fell on my lap by accident. I did know about it previously and sort of forgot about it. And after spending like three years trying to make a bigger first film, I was so ready to shoot something so I’m like, let me do something smaller. And this came on my lap just at the right time. Basically it is a development workshop for micro budget features under 150,000 euros which is the budget that you’re given. They select 12 films to be workshopped in their first workshop and then they fund 4 of them. And I think what’s really beautiful about this particular opportunity is that you have really incredible mentors. You’re assigned three mentors, but you also get feedback from other mentors so it’s a little bit overwhelming, you’re bombarded with a lot of feedback, but I think what’s beautiful is, you do get that time to step back between the first and the second workshop to sort of figure out what notes work for you. And then you’re supposed to write this draft of the screenplay in that time, and then they decide who they want to fund. What’s beautiful is that during the first workshop, you’re able to just enjoy the other filmmakers and get to know their work. I didn’t necessarily feel this competitiveness that normally you may feel in other programs where you know that one person or only a few people are getting funding and others aren’t and I think that’s a testament to how well it’s run. I think their decision to award the grant after the workshop is nice because you’re just focused on getting to know people and doing your work while you’re there.

FM: That’s great. Okay, so it was a total of two workshops and then we talked about you starting this script back in film school. So if I asked you how long did it take you to work on this film, from inception to completion? What is the timeframe?

EF: Well, there was time added by COVID so I will say, first draft in 2015, put it down for four years, came back to it in the summer of 2019. I wrote my first draft in October of 2019, after the first workshop, and then we had three workshops in total. So if you’re selected, you get two more workshops. And then I was supposed to shoot on April of 2020, which is very fast, but I think for me, because I’ve been living with that story for a long time, it still felt fast, but maybe it wasn’t as fast as for other people. And then COVID happened. And we couldn’t shoot so I had basically an extra year to develop the script. So what I did is I used that time to just work on it with my actors and really deepen the characters with them. That really improved the script even more. So I will say adding another year we ended up shooting in June of 2021 and it took us – I don’t know how we got this film ready for Venice in September, but we basically had a two month post production process. Okay, crazy. Alright, 6 years.

FM: You talked about how this workshop specifically gave you the financing for the film. Was that the whole budget or were there other sources of financing? And how did you get them?

EF: No, so when COVID happened the first two teams to get to shoot raised the red flag that they had incurred extra fees because of different COVID related costs so the Biennale allowed us to raise a little bit of extra money. I applied to The Gotham – it used to be IFP- and I did the IFP film markets where I met an investor who really loved the story and did our gap financing for the COVID costs. 

FM: This is a question a lot of people wonder, while filmmakers are trying to make their first feature, how are they living? How do you pay rent while you are working on your feature?

EF: That’s hard. I’m very blessed because I’ve had an agent pretty much since I graduated from school. I make my money as a writer and I was hired to write a script around that time. So before I did, I had an episode of TV that I was hired to direct and I made some decent money doing that. Then I got hired to write this script that you’ll find out about soon – it’s a remake. So that basically kept me afloat for almost all this time. I’m also a voiceover actor. I do quite a bit of voiceover work and it’s fun. I love doing it. I don’t do it that often, but it’s really good money. So it’s a combination of doing voiceover work, writing and directing gigs when I get them. 

FM: I see you share the producing credit with Joseph Mastantuono. Can you tell us how you went about attaching him as a producer and what was it like to both direct and produce for you?

EF: Joseph and I have known each other for many years, he’s produced a lot of my shorts. And it was sort of a natural progression for us. I think his biggest contribution to this film was, once I decided that I wanted to shoot it in Europe I said to him, it has to be a small town and I would prefer it if it was mountainous, because my sensibility felt like it was the right place. And it so happens he’s from this little town in the south of France called Bagnères-de-Luchon. His mother is a documentary filmmaker and had shot a film there so he sent it to me and I saw the landscapes and I saw this town, and I thought this is the perfect place to set the movie. Then we got a chance to visit it after our second workshop in Venice and the minute I got there, I knew it was the location. So it was a great fit for us, because his family is from there and he knows the place intimately. 

In terms of directing and producing, it’s really really hard. I’ve been doing it for so long, though, because you produce out of necessity and don’t wait for anybody else. I consider myself to be a people person. I like talking to people, getting things done, making deals. I have a little bit of a legal background so I think some of that just came naturally to me. I think, though, where it’s challenging is, you understand as a director, that once you go into production, you can only wear one hat as a director. And this was the challenge for Joseph and I. Before the shoot, we were doing a lot of things together and I would say even up to a month and a half or two months before the shoot, I started not doing as much producing work because I was really in heavy prep. But somehow, I think we were lucky because we shot in his hometown and his family has filmmaking experience. His brother is also a very well established director. We were able to get a lot of support from his family and from the town. I had another French producer on the ground who was there to assist us. So I was sort of able to take off my producing hat while I was in production, and then afterwards, it’s just natural for me to just take over and do stuff. But yeah, it was not easy, but we got through it. 

Still “Mon Père, Le Diable”

FM: You’ve worked with one of your actors before, with Souleymane Sy Savane, right? Both of your main actors are great and I wanted to know what was the process of finding them and your process to prepare for this film.

EF: Yes, Souleymane and I met in 2015  while I was acting with him in a movie, and we became friends.  I’d seen him in Ramin Bahrani’s movie “Goodbye, Solo” and I thought he was fantastic. I actually wrote this film with him in mind. When I first had the idea I called him and we talked about it. So he was on board pretty much from the beginning. And with Babetida Sadjo, I had seen her in a film that a friend of mine was also in in 2014 and I thought she was just magnetic. I always wanted to write something for her. And in a way I kind of wrote this role for her as well. I didn’t know if she would say yes, but once I was ready to approach her, my friend connected us and she immediately said yes, it was just like a match made in heaven. 

The way I like to work is – as an actress, I’m always thinking of how I want a director to work with me and I think the big word is trust. And really, I see actors as collaborators. So very early on Souleymane and Babetida were very involved with my process of how I was writing the story. We had endless conversations about different aspects of the characters. I did a lot of research and would share it with them and I was very open to their feedback. So I think it developed this open dialogue between us that we kept from the prep through production.

FM: So would you say you mainly had conversations about character and about the scene or did you also have some time for rehearsals?

EF: We did. So I pushed to have a few days of rehearsal before we started shooting. But we did so much of the work before we even got there, because again, this is COVID, right? So one of the big challenges I had was shooting in another country, not being able to meet up with people. Babetida is based in Belgium, all the other actors, aside from Souleymane and Jennifer, who played her best friend, were in Europe. So all my prep was basically almost virtual. But I blocked out 4 days before the shoot for us to do a few rehearsals. The script was really solidified by then, there were some changes, but not much. And I think the changes that happened in the rehearsals were more about blocking. We did make a few discoveries, I did cut out a lot of dialogue, because I learned so much from the rehearsal. I think from the time of what I thought was my final draft to the draft that we ended up shooting, I must have caught at least maybe 20 pages of dialogue. So yeah, there was rehearsal, which on such a tiny budget is a luxury.

FM: How many shoot days did you have? Any reshoots?

EF: We had 20 days. With the 4 days of rehearsal and then about three weeks of pre-production.  No, no reshoots. We couldn’t afford that so we had to make sure we had what we needed.

FM: Your camera language is confident and strong. It builds tension and allows itself to build poetic imagery as well. How did you find your DP and what was the process of building your visual language for this film?

EF: So I love my DP so much. Thanks, Chan! He and I have also worked together on many films. The key for us was that we had a trip to the town in March before the shoot, just the two of us. On such a limited budget, there’s a lot of things you can’t change, you have to embrace the location, you have to embrace what you have. So our language was really built from this town, from what we felt and from the landscapes. We are both huge fans of a steady camera. We were always thinking how we could build tension without cutting. That was the point of departure. And the locations that we had, you know, they weren’t always ideal, but we made them work. For instance, I’ll tell you, the retirement home was actually the hotel where we were living. And you wouldn’t be able to tell that because it was just perfect, it had that feeling, you know? But there were some restrictions with the geography of the space and a lot of the language was built out of these restrictions. Since we spent a big part of the film in that place we sort of adapted the language for the rest of the film from there. So we built certain rules for ourselves in terms of the introduction of the characters, in terms of the way we were going to move the camera, in terms of how we wanted to align the audience with the main character and the subjectivity that we were building, so that the audience would feel like our main character, be in her shoes. 

FM: You absolutely nailed that. We’ve talked about a lot of different obstacles you’ve had, specifically with COVID, for shooting this feature. Did you find any obstacles specifically as a female director shooting this feature and how did you overcome them?

EF: First, I was very fortunate that I had a lot of women on my set, I would say we had more women than we had men. However before shooting, when I was wearing the producer hat and setting up my project, having to deal with certain men there were times when I didn’t feel like I was taken seriously and I wish I could give specific examples because I’m sure a lot of women have gone through this I just don’t want to put that energy out there around my movie, but I felt that I constantly had to create a space for me to talk which was annoying. Secondly, other people had a lot of opinions about how I should be making this movie which I never asked for so I don’t know if it’s a combination of me being a woman and it being my first film, but again always feeling like I have to constantly reassert myself and that’s exhausting. We shouldn’t have to be doing that. I don’t think male directors go through this, they’re automatically given a certain level of respect that I felt like I was always fighting for in pre-production. But I did what I had to do and for me it was always about reminding people that this is my movie and that my name is on it and I’m the one responsible for how this film is going to look and not them, you know, respectfully.

FM: Yes, thanks for sharing that with us, it’s good to be reminded that you should take your space no matter what other people’s opinions are. What was your favorite moment during the shoot?

EF: I have a few, but we had a love scene, which was an epic one since we shot it during a whole day. I was really really proud of myself because it was the scene that I was the most terrified of – to be honest with you – before shooting. I had never done a love scene, not one like that before and I was very nervous, but I think one thing that I was very proud of is I felt my goal was to make my actors trust me to make them feel safe enough, especially my lead actress who’s so vulnerable during the scene. I wanted her to feel safe enough to open up for what this scene needed to be and even before we wrapped the scene, the level of comfort that they had made me feel I had done my job as a director.  And this was early on, just after we shot all the cabin scenes the first week. I was extremely proud of myself and proud of them too that they got to that place.

FM:  What a great feeling because indeed intimate scenes are the most challenging. Can you give us specific examples on how you prepared to build that trust?

EF: I took the two actors, Babetida and Franck, to the apartment where I knew the scene was going to be shot. They had never seen it so I thought it would be good for them to see what this place feels like. So the three of us walked through the scene, we talked and then we did a few exercises because they didn’t know each other. Franck had just arrived the day before and I didn’t know him, you know? With Babetida we had months and months and months of getting to know each other, with him I got to know him, but I didn’t know what to expect so just being alone with them in that room and allowing them to play was important. It was a little difficult for them at first even with me in the room so what I did is actually I left them for like 30 minutes to kind of get that rapport and by the time I came back they seemed to be more comfortable with me watching them. Then I would just give them prompts, we would do exercises to build this comfort between them. And then I think the best thing I did – because my DP and I had worked that scene a lot and we had our own idea of the blocking – so after doing all these exercises I allowed them to naturally do the scene and I wanted to see where they would go and then I reblocked the scene with what they did and I think that really helped them feel secure because it was organic to them. I feel that it’s about the actors, it’s not about where we want to put the camera, the camera has to serve their performances, so after that initial private meeting between the three of us I reworked the shotlist with my DP. 

FM: Having gone through the whole experience of making the feature, if you could go back in time and just give one piece of advice to yourself to make it an easier experience or a better experience… Just one thing you wish you knew before, what would that be?

EF: I feel like I knew this, but I didn’t take this advice from myself and my gut – I should have had another producer. Joseph and I talked about this and he felt really confident that it was okay just the two of us and I wasn’t sure and I should have just trusted my gut because I really do think that although we got through it, it would have been so much more enjoyable for both of us if there was someone else to share that workload with. We need a lot of help to make a movie and I think one producer on the ground is not enough, so that’s my biggest takeaway. And one thing I’m very proud of that I did is I was keeping a journal while I was shooting and I forced myself really to be very present every day. Not just get it over with, you know? I really enjoyed every day, every challenge that came that day and every victory. I was present for every scene and that is something I’m going to keep with me forever and I hope I can manage to do that for future shoots.

FM: Finally, what’s next, what are you working on right now? 

EF: I’m working on the same film I was trying to write when this story came back. It’s called “Zenith” and it’s a story based on my thesis short film. I am preparing that and I’m also preparing another thriller that it’s a story that I co-wrote with a friend of mine and he was initially supposed to direct it and he decided that I should direct it so he gave me that script and now I’m reworking it. So “Zenith ” is a story about a black girl who is adopted into a mennonite community and has an existential crisis about her identity. She hasn’t been able to get pregnant, she’s been married for many many years and in this community it’s sort of like your only job as a woman is to give birth and to have a family. Until it finally happens and it sort of opens up this can of worms for her and she ends up leaving the community to go look for her biological mother. So that I think is going to be my next movie.

FM: It’s a great story and you’re planning on acting as well like in your short?

EF: Yes!

FM: That’s beautiful. All right so you cannot miss this great first feature. Ellie, thank you so so much for your time and for sharing all of your experience with us. It’s been great to talk to you and to hear how this movie came to be. Brava!

“Mon Père, Le Diable” just screened at the Ostend Film Festival in Belgium and it has many other screenings coming up that we will soon hear about. You can follow the film and its news on their instagram.

Poster “Mon Père, Le Diable”

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