On a beautiful summer day in Los Angeles, we sat down with Nina Kramer around ice-cold sparkling lemonades to discuss her ambitions and projects as a young filmmaker fresh out of the University of Southern California (USC) School of Cinematic Arts. Nina is a Scorpio. She was born in Chile, grew up in the Bay Area, and is currently based in Los Angeles. She’s a big comedy fan, and during her free time, she enjoys surfing, reading, and performing.
Hey Nina, nice to meet you! What is your usual role on set?
I’m pretty split between being a performer, a director, and a producer. On set, I’m usually the director, but I sometimes produce during my free time when making projects for friends. I don’t love producing, but I’ll do it and it feels good to do it so it’s nice to have that skill set. But directing is definitely what I like doing the most.
So, you just graduated from USC. How was your experience in film school?
I did my first two years of film school in Chicago at a school called Columbia College of Chicago, and the education there was great. However, I felt like I wasn’t learning exactly what I needed, so I started doing independent projects. Since I was 10, my dream was actually to go to USC. I didn’t get in the first time, and I was so angry that I opened the window and threw my sweatshirt into an orange tree. Two years later, I transferred and ended up going to USC where I spent two years, and I loved it there. USC is a pretty traditional school. In Chicago, I learned that in order to be better, you have to fail.
When you compare film schools, a lot of it comes down to the resources of the school. The education I was getting in Columbia was equally as good as in USC, but in the latter, I was getting more access to professors working in the industry, and high-end equipment. For example, when you walk into the courtyard, you have “the George Lucas building” or “the Steven Spielberg building”, and it’s amazing. USC has a very specific approach to film where they lean more into drama, whereas I studied comedy, so I was quite frustrated when I came in and wanted to pitch sketches, short films or ideas related to comedy. However, it didn’t mean I didn’t get anything out of it, as I got to learn more about drama. But overall, it was a great experience and I feel very lucky that I went there.
Are there certain qualities that make a film better to you?
The films that speak to me the most are dramas that incorporate comedy. Some of the moments where I laughed the hardest were during some of the worst moments of my life, so I look for that and truth in films. The films that speak to me the most are the ones that are actively trying to say something. I grew up watching Stephen Colbert and Jon Stewart, so I love political stuff. The films that I love are Y Tu Mamá También, which offer a great look at lessons. Silver Linings Playbook is a great look at mental health, and I just love the filming style. The one thing that makes a film better, especially at this level, is audio. If you have terrible sound, that’s going to be it. Also, I come from a background of improv, and although too much improv can be bad for film, the right amount can make a film much better than just sticking strictly to the script. The first rule of improv is that you have to listen to people, and if you’re listening, it means you’re involved in the scene and you’re paying attention instead of just waiting for your line. I also appreciate risk-taking and films that do something different.
Can you tell us more about your upcoming project(s)?
The project I’m currently working on [that I booked on Wrapal] is called Bum One, a series of six different shorts about smoking culture. I don’t smoke, but what I find interesting is that when you give someone a cigarette, there’s that openness to talk when they’re smoking. So I wondered, what would a scene between Obama and his secret service be if they were smoking a cigarette and all the pressure’s off? People smoke for different reasons: anxiety, joy, to relieve tension, or to just take a break. The story is a “La Ronde”, a French style of theatre, which means that if the two of you were in a scene together, one of you continues in the next scene, and it goes on like that. Each scene explores a different topic, but all are connected with one another. I shoot next month and I’m very excited about it.
What is your most important project to date?
During my freshman year in Chicago, I contacted my best friend and my producing partner, Anthony Abaci, telling him how I’ve been watching this show House of Cards. I thought, “how fun would it be to explore Frank Underwood beingin middle school, running for student body president?” We mapped the project, called it Playhouse of Cards and re-created all the characters with a cast of kids. We were 18 and didn’t know what we were getting into, and decided we had to raise $25,000 to make this happen. For three months, we called people every day to get money, and Anthony took care of production. It was the biggest project we worked on at the time, so it was quite stressful. We built out this whole crew; some of them are still my closest friends. Tehillah De Castro, a brilliant cinematographer, shot Playhouse and we still work together. She shoots many of my projects. In the end, we made it, it went very well and we even won an Emmy for Best Script Series.
Do you do your own location scouting? If so, what’s your process?
I do a lot of my own location scouting, but I’m at that stage where I don’t really get to be picky about my locations. I couldn’t just go to Prague and choose a location I like. I will normally go see a location and write to this location, so I’m constrained by availability. Or I try to look for free locations. When I’m writing, I usually have very specific ideas of what I want. Although I mostly do my own location scouting, of course it would be amazing to have someone do it for me.
What’s the most annoying thing about finding a location on your own?
Definitely money. When we did Playhouse of Cards, finding a middle school in Los Angeles that would let us shoot and that wasn’t the price of a car commercial was almost impossible. We ended up finding an Armenian school in Little Armenia, so we got lucky. They were so generous, and we found it because Anthony is Armenian and the community is so tight-knit and helpful.
How did you come across Wrapal?
I went on Google and Wrapal was the first to show up when I searched “alleyway location”. I loved how much cheaper the rates were than the other sites and how easy it was to talk to property owners. The guy I rented the location from is super cool and has really helped us out with our production!
Who is the most influential person in your life?
Phoebe Waller Bridge, who also just wrote Killing Eve. She’s a huge inspiration. People like John Early and Kate Berlant who are comedy performer inspirations. Obama? I don’t know, he just seems happy. Right now the Obama’ just in general, they have such a beautiful foundation and are just people who I really really admire. Also, my mom obviously. I love Katherine Hepburn, an actress in the 60’s. She is incredible and I love her because she was really big into gender politics. Like instead of wearing dresses she was wearing slacks and I love that. I love this kind of female power woman that she represents. She’s someone I look at and think, “I want to channel that energy”.
What’s your worst pet peeve?
It drives me nuts when people bite their silverware. I’m usually polite and nice to people but the minute they bite their silverware… I can’t sit here unless they use their lips. Another one is specific to Los Angeles: when you get out of a social event, a show or screening, you’ll be talking to somebody and as soon as you engage, their eyes will start to wander and start looking for someone else. In these moments, I’m thinking, “who do you think you are?” because everyone here wants to be seen.
What’s your favorite ice cream flavor?
There is this ice cream place I used to go to in Chicago and it’s here now too… it’s called Jeni’s Splendid Ice Cream, and they have Brambleberry ice cream and also Salted Caramel with the salt chunks.
If you could be two animals combined, with all the advantages and disadvantages of both, what would it be?
Shark-bird. Actually no. I would be a shark-lion, so I could be top predator of the land and sea.
What is something you recommend other burgeoning filmmakers to watch or read?
I just read Little Fires Everywhere, which is a book that Reese Witherspoon is going to make into a series. Really good. Also, Wild Tales. It’s so good. It came out in 2014 and was nominated for Best Foreign Film. Fleabag, that’s my top recommendation. Phoebe Waller-Bridge is a writer/performer from England. It’s an amazing six-episode series on Amazon and she is the most inspirational person. The way she films is very interesting; she will break the fourth wall and then come right back into real life. It’s just a perfect little series, so few people have seen it but everyone who has, loves it.
Last but not least, do you have any advice for young filmmakers like yourself?
Failure. It drives me crazy when I see 18-24 year-olds being so precious about their work like it has to be perfect. I’m guilty of this too, but we’re just kids. If you’re a young filmmaker, it’s okay to mess up. If someone says you shouldn’t do that and your gut says you should, then just try it. You’ll be happier if you do. You’ll learn something too.
Nina’s Social Media: