Life After Film School: Ellie Foumbi ’17
In this series, we catch up with Columbia filmmakers who have recently graduated to chat about their time in the Film Program, what they’re doing now, and their goals for the future. This week, we spoke with alumna Ellie Foumbi ’17.
Ellie Foumbi is an award-winning Cameroonian-American filmmaker whose debut film, Our Father, the Devil, went on to win 25 prizes at international film festivals and was nominated for Best Feature at the Independent Spirit Awards. She's a BAFTA Breakthrough USA Fellow and was named one of 25 New Faces of Independent Film by Filmmaker Magazine. Ellie’s stories often explore pressing social-political issues within the African diaspora through a genre lens, aiming to shine a light on marginalized populations. She holds an MFA from Columbia University’s School of the Arts in Directing.
During this series, we’ve heard from some amazing filmmakers whose paths to film school were all different. Tell us about the journey that led you to Columbia.
Ellie Foumbi [EF]: Before Columbia, I was acting. It's still miraculous to me that I have a career in film. I grew up watching and loving a lot of movies, but it felt like such a faraway fantasy to me. I fell into acting with my sister's help. She knew I was interested in it, and when she saw a casting call, she recommended me to the director and that was the beginning. I started pursuing acting in between the jobs I was working to survive, and then towards 2011, things started to go well for me as an actor. I had a short that was licensed by and distributed by HBO, I'd been booking more and more jobs, and had started to do a lot of voiceover work, which I still do to this day. I was starting to make money as an actor, but yet, I felt so unfulfilled.
I didn't see the future. I didn’t see life beyond booking the next job. The industry was also very different back then. It was at a moment before the breakout success of Lupita [Nyong'o, Black Panther, Us, 12 Years a Slave] and the push for more diversity. Most of the roles I was seeing were the same thing, and I was getting typecast as the ‘African character,’ which I didn't even mind, because at least I was working; but I saw so much more for myself.
I was a writer. I was always writing for fun, but I never thought it would turn into something. Part of the reason I took to acting so well is because the work is steeped in developing characters and figuring out their motivations. It’s the same work you do as a writer. A friend of mine asked me why I wasn’t writing my own stuff. They told me I shouldn’t wait for somebody to offer me the part I want, but rather write whatever it is that I envision. That's how it all started. From there, I knew I wanted to go to film school.
You’re not only the writer, but also the director of your debut feature film, Our Father, the Devil. Did you always plan on concentrating in directing when you first arrived at Columbia?
EF: I started in the screenwriting track, even though I knew I was a director. I think I was very insecure because I was much more of a natural writer. It was comfortable. It was easy. There was also the financial question: if I am a director, then how am I going to pay for these films? I was nervous. Then I realized, fear is not a reason to not do something you want to do. Especially during school.
At Columbia, there is a certain kind of safety net. It’s easier to make films while you’re a student, and I thought, if I don’t make these films now, with the advantages that come with being in school, it will only be harder when I leave. I knew I was a director at heart, I just didn't have the confidence to claim it. When I selected the screenwriting concentration, it just didn’t sit well with me. I felt like I was making a decision based on fear. The minute I realized that, I started to talk to some of my directing teachers. I knew I needed to push myself out of my comfort zone. I switched my concentration to directing right before leaving for an exchange program at La Fémis in France.
The program was a collaborative workshop in which we made a film in just a couple of weeks. We did everything backwards too. We picked our teams, chose locations, cast actors all before we wrote the script. At first, I thought the process was insane, but it was so smart. Working that way forced me to be more creative. The film I made during that program was, up until that point in my life, the best short I had ever made. I came back from Paris with so much confidence. I jumped right into preparing my thesis. I knew exactly what I wanted to do and focused on putting one foot in front of the other in terms of getting it done. [Professor] Bette Gordon became my advisor, and [Professor] Tom Kalin and [Profesor] Hilary Brougher were also two really key mentors for me, whose teachings stuck with me and I felt I brought with me to France. I took the lessons I learned at La Fémis and blended it with everything I had taken from my classes at Columbia. It was a big turning point for me.
What was it like to make the transition out of film school?
EF: Film school can be a bubble. I don’t know if it’s because of my background as an actor, but I always had one foot out of that bubble, which I think was very helpful. I felt connected to what was happening in the industry, outside of school. I also interned quite a bit at the end of my time in the program because I wanted to put my ear to the ground. I interned at different production companies, did script coverage, and even had the chance to sit in on bigger meetings where they would discuss projects that were coming in, how they were considering them, and why one project might be deemed successful but not another.
Being able to have an insight into those conversations was a game changer for me. My writing also got so much better by doing all that script coverage [the process of reading and providing critical feedback on screenplays]. It gave me that critical business perspective of the industry. When we’re in film school, we can lose sight of that because the stories we’re trying to tell are so personal to us. The gift that my time with these companies gave me is that I took a step back and realized I needed to be a businesswoman. I needed to have something to offer. I needed to understand what I’m offering as a product, and that there needs to be a space in the market for it. I know that sounds very unromantic, but it didn’t take away from my work. My work is still very deep and personal; but I started to understand how the industry was evaluating my work. That’s the biggest gift I gave myself when I was leaving school.
Graduating was very bittersweet. There was a part of me that couldn’t believe I wouldn’t be coming to campus every day anymore. Who was I going to be? What was I going to do with myself? But there was another part of me that was relieved that I had gotten through it all. It was time to tackle the next part of my life. I was also totally freaked out and panicked. I was doing a job that I hated, and I thought, “Oh my god, I just spent four years at Columbia and I’m back where I was before I started.” But I needed to create time for myself to work. I gave myself two years at that job and decided I would move on after that. It was a survival job, and if in those two years I didn’t get something going for myself, then I needed to change my plan. And four months shy of that two year anniversary, I was able to quit that job when I got my first paid writing assignment.
What insight can you give students who are about to graduate and are trying to break into the industry?
EF: The thing you’re going to be doing the most—especially if you’re a writer—is pitching. There is no part of this industry that you get through without pitching. You need to understand how important it is to be able to talk about yourself and your projects. It took me a while to get my confidence in pitching. Initially, I was so nervous, but then I realized that, as an actress, pitching was just like getting up and doing a performance. I would pretend I was a character coming in to pitch, and that’s how I locked into it. It made it a lot easier to think of pitching as performing in front of an audience. It was the only way I could get through it. My natural disposition is very shy. Now, I’ve pitched so many times I could do it in my sleep. I also think the “elevator pitch” is really important. People have short attention spans, and you have to be able to convey the hook of your story concisely and efficiently. I’ve gotten a lot of meetings because during a short conversation, I was able to talk about my work in a way that got people excited about it. I understood what the hook of my story was and was able to express it.
It’s also such a steep learning curve once you’re out in the real world, and opportunities are very fleeting. For example, if you have a short film that does extremely well, all of a sudden, you could have the industry at your feet, asking what other projects you’re working on next. And if you don’t have an answer to that question, you risk losing that chance completely and the window of opportunity closing. Preparation is also another key element. When I would go into a meeting with a new person, I would learn as much as I possibly could about them and their work. I would listen to interviews they’d done, and if we had something in common I’d discovered, I’d bring that up during the meeting or use it as an icebreaker. It made people remember me and want to meet with me again. For example, the first writing gig I booked was because of a general meeting that happened two years before that job. The meeting went really well, and I developed a relationship with the producer that I still have to this day. While that first meeting didn’t lead to a job right away, it led to a great professional relationship that eventually led to a job that enabled me to join the WGA.
Your film, Our Father, the Devil, has been doing so well. Can you tell us what inspired you to tell this story?
EF: My dad worked for the United Nations, and so, my whole life, I was surrounded by my dad’s work and the issues it touched on. My dad worked in Africa, and I think it was my way of staying connected to the continent. I was born in Cameroon and moved to the states when I was a kid. Growing up, I didn’t have such a strong bond with Cameroon. My siblings and I grew up here and felt very American. My dad’s work being in Africa, and the things that were happening there and around the world, became a way for me to be connected to that heritage.
In the early-to-mid 2000s, my dad worked in Rwanda. During this time, I became really curious about the work he was doing and how the country was being rebuilt after the genocide. That led me down a path of exploring the national forgiveness program in Rwanda. I remember my younger sister visited the country, and she felt like there was still a lot of tension. You had all these people who had lost family members. People who had been maimed. People who wanted retribution. People whose entire lives had been ruined. There was also a fear that the country could revert back to another civil war at any moment. The concept of instituting a national forgiveness program in order for the country to move on was so striking to me. How do you actually do that? How do you say “Ok, we’re all going to forgive?” I’m simplifying it, but I became very interested in the entire concept of forgiveness. Is it possible to forgive this kind of crime? What would that look like? I was interested in violence and whether this kind of violence is forgivable. That’s what I hung on to, and that is how I developed the story of Our Father, the Devil.
Did your approach to directing change at all when you were making this film?
EF: Overall, I’ve always been a visual writer. I just needed my confidence behind the camera to catch up to the confidence that I had on the page. When I’m writing, I can see it so clearly, but when I first started directing, I would second guess myself all the time. When I look back on my work, including directing Our Father, the Devil, I don’t think it's changed, but rather become more pointed. More refined.
I look at the short film I made right before, and I see how we were playing with things that I knew would be in Our Father, the Devil. The short was very different. More poetic. But the core of who I am became more clear in the directing from the last project to the next. Now, I’m moving on and developing a few projects simultaneously, and one of them feels very similar to Our Father, the Devil in terms of visuals. The visuals are always in my head. I wake up with them. I go to sleep with them. As I develop that project, I’m taking the things that worked in Our Father and applying them to a new story.
But every story is its own thing. I admire directors that are not stuck to a specific film language. Directors who can shift with their stories. To me, that’s what directing is. Your approach should come from not only the story, but the goal you bring to telling the story. What you want to leave the audience with. How you want to make them feel.
Do you have any more advice for aspiring filmmakers?
EF: Something that helped me was understanding and then wielding my unique point of view. I had stories people hadn't heard before, and that became the thing I leaned into. Whatever that specificity might be for you, find it, and lean in.