Lady Filmmakers Festival honoree Risa Bramon Garcia
is a leader and a living example of excellence for women in the world of film. Her experience and wisdom comes from 35 years as a director, producer, casting director, writer and teacher. Her open mind, hard work and versatility has resulted in an amazing career in film, television, theatre, and explorations in new media.
Her seemingly endless list of accomplishments span from directing dozens of plays in New York and Los Angeles, “200 Cigarettes” and “The Con Artist
”, to casting for more than 65 films including “Desperately Seeking Susan
”, “Fatal Attraction
”, “The Doors”, “Benny
and June”, and shows including “CSI: NY
” and the new Showtime series “Masters of Sex
Risa’s newest and exciting endeavor is The Bgb Studio - in partnership with Steve Braun
– a home where actors train, workout and evolves their careers in transformative ways.
Risa shares her journey and perspective on how to approach mentorship as a filmmaker.
How did you begin your film career?
I came to film later than most filmmakers do, because I came via my theater life. I always dreamed and imagined that my life as a director would be in the theater. What was interesting is that I started casting in film while I was directing theater – casting was my waitressing job and frankly, it still is. It’s something I’m good at, and it helps me to make money. It allows me to stay a part of the business, so I can support myself and do the things that I love - which is really directing and running my studio. The studio makes me much happier than I ever imagined would be possible. I always thought that if you teach, you’re at the end of your career and it has failed. That’s what I always believed it, but it’s not at all true.
Regarding film, I studied theater in college, dipping my toe in film, but devoted myself to the theater. I ran to New York for the theater. In my early New York days I realized that a number of people I worked with were casting movies, and that seemed like a good way to make money. And I wouldn’t have to tough it out all night at a rock and roll club called The Bottom Line
in the village anymore. I could actually support myself in the business. Things started working with “Desperately Seeking Susan
”, the first film that Billy Hopkins
and I cast. It didn’t fall in our laps, but it was one of those “put it out to the universe and the universe answers” kinds of things.
We knew some people who were big casting directors in NY who relied on us for fresh ideas. They recommended us for “Susan” when they couldn’t do the film. That was a real break and my entrance into the film business.
In the beginning of my casting work I was lucky enough to be mentored by some big filmmakers who allowed me to be on set and to be in process with them in a way that most casting people aren’t allowed. I didn’t know anything different. I didn’t know that you weren’t supposed to go to the set everyday. I didn’t know that you weren’t supposed to be in rehearsal and work with actors on the script, but that’s what I did because that’s what I did in the theater as a director and producer.
I was lucky in that they allowed me to do that, and it taught me everything about movies.
The thing that I didn't develop as quickly was visual storytelling. I'm incredibly intrigued by it, but because I worked with actors and new scripts in the theater, those areas were my first strengths. I learned to tell stories through people and words.
How did you find your mentors?
I always found mentors because I went to the work first. For me, if you’re the last one standing and working incredibly hard, if you are willing to put in 150% and do what no body else will do, and be smart about it, mentors will find you. Because you’re the one doing the work, and often strong work.
That’s what happened to me. I just showed up, worked hard, and was always the last person to leave. The mentors found me. I never really thought, “Oh, you’ll be my mentor.” That’s what happened at the Ensemble Studio Theater, which was the theater at which I came up in New York. The artistic director there saw something in me and decided to mentor me. I didn’t know he was mentoring me - I just knew that he believed in me, schooled me, challenged me to do my best work.
My mentors were mostly strong-minded, somewhat misogynistic men, but I just felt like they were giving me an opportunity. They were taking me seriously. They were willing to teach me, and they all gave me the same message – don’t wait for someone to hire you. Go out and make your own work. That’s how I’ve done it, and that’s what I’m doing now. It was always the way that I found success. I created it.
When I was casting, directors like Oliver Stone
and Adrian Lyne
were really generous. They allowed me to be on set and learn from them. They took me seriously and asked for my input. I was able to watch and learn from amazing cinematographers at work like Bob Richardson
. Funny enough, when I did Desperately Seeking Susan
, it was Ed Lachman
, the cinematographer, who I watched and learned from. I so crave that mentorship still.
I don’t know what that means when people come to me and ask me if I’ll be a mentor. Show up and work hard. Show yourself and rise up to it, and when we’re in a working relationship, then I can mentor you. I don’t know what it means otherwise. I think young people make the mistake of thinking they’re going to go out and find a mentor. Do the work, and a mentor will find you.
Is there any other advice you have for new filmmakers?
Just keep making your own stuff, but also make things that are also going to be commercial. I don’t mean commercial in a slick way. Tell a story that you think the world wants to see. Be provocative; be commercial in that you’re trying to reach an audience - even if it’s a specific audience – work that’s going to be both provocative and entertaining. Entertaining doesn’t have to be ‘fun’. It can be something that’s emotionally challenging, but get in there and don’t be afraid to do something really thought-provoking. Many people either play it safe, or do something that nobody is interested in. Just keep making stuff, over and over… because every good filmmaker made a lot of crap before they got here.
What are you working on now?
I’ve been casting, which has been great. I have a few films that I’m developing as a director, but the thing that I’m most interested in is the work I’m doing with my partner, Steve Braun
, in the studio that we have – The Bgb Studio (see website here). It started off with just a few acting classes, but now we’re doing a lot more. We’re creating an artistic home, a safe haven for actors in Los Angeles, where they can come and explore their artistry in a number of ways. A lot of our actors are taking our writing classes. We’re doing everything from yoga, writing classes, intensive Meisner workouts, to high-end rehearsal and audition classes. Steve and I are writing a book and have launched an online training business. It’s exciting and very rewarding. Really, for the first time in my career, I’m my own boss. Writing is really interesting to me now, and that’s where my heart is. And being able to be in the work with fellow artists every day.