12 April 2024 The Irish Film & Television Network

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Features & Interviews

Jessie Fisk on Producing
20 Jul 2020 : Nathan Griffin
Producer Jessie Fisk
With the IFTA Awards Season in full swing, we showcase Irish talent who are blazing a trail across our industry, working in front of and behind the camera.

Hosted in association with IFTA, this Q&A Series connects with Irish talent who represent a range of disciplines across our industry. 

We find out what they look out for in the projects they take on, what their approach is to filmmaking and on-set collaboration; what inspires them; what current trends and techniques they like, and dislike in the industry.

We spoke to Producer Jessie Fisk of Feline Films, whose most recent production, Tom Burke’s Losing Alaska (2018), was selected to receive its international premiere and feature as part of the Frontlight Strand at the International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam (IDFA) in 2018.

Fisk’s previous credits include Pat Collin’s IFTA-nominated feature documentary Song of Granite (2017), which was Ireland’s entry for Best Foreign Language Film for the Academy Awards in 2018; Mark O’Halloran’s stage-adaptation, Rialto (2019) starring Tom Vaughan-Lawlor and Tom Glynn-Carne; Inside Apollo House (2017); and Forever Pure (2016), which won a News & Documentary Emmy Award in 2018.

Upcoming productions under her new production banner, Feline Films, which Fisk established with writer/director Nathalie Biancheri (Nocturnal) include Carlo Lavagna’s Italian thriller Shadows (2020), which stars Saskia Reeves, Lola Petticrew, and Mia Threapleton, and Biancheri’s latest project Wolf, starring George MacKay and Lily-Rose Depp.

What do you look out for in a story for you to consider developing it into a film?

“I think bold and brave ideas are the way to make memorable cinema, which is always what grabs me when we bring a project onto our slate. If I hear a pitch in literally one or two sentences and I'm still thinking about it days later then I'm sold as long as the team/talent marries the pitch well.”

How did the idea to explore the subject matter behind Losing Alaska first come about?

“Tom came across a piece about the village (Newtok) in the Guardian in 2014 and had to explore further. He travelled over in early 2015 to scope the place out and speak to some locals and then I began to work with him and the production team in late 2015.”

What was it that attracted you to the project?

“I was instantly hooked on the project. It was right up my street telling the story of an indigenous community tragically impacted by a global warming disaster; exactly the kind of underrepresented content that I wanted to push in front of audiences. It’s hard to imagine that just 5 short years ago there really was little appetite for environmental content and representation of native communities was even poorer than today so it was a very new and daring idea to me.”

Can you shed some insight on working with director Tom Burke?

“The problem with working with Tom at the beginning of my producing career was that it sets a precedent. Tom is also a producer so he was incredibly self-sufficient. He is really collaborative and genuinely values my input. The whole journey was wonderful and Tom and I remain very good pals to this day. I hope in the near future we will collaborate on another meaningful project.”

Tell me about your experience with this project, and your favourite moment during production?

“As I mentioned, Tom is super self-sufficient so he would travel to Newtok alone; to a village that could fall victim to a devastating flood at any moment. Tom was always so relaxed about it; he sort of made it sound like he was off to his second home for a few days! But this allowed me to become complacent, and one day while I was in the throes of production on another project, Tom informed me that there was a huge storm coming and he was going to get some footage from a small plane.

“It was about three days later when I actually put together the reality of what he had said and quickly realised I had not heard from him since and had that horrible pang of panic every producer knows, I still couldn't get a hold of him, I felt awful I was about to call Liz, Tom's wife, when he got in touch to say the storm trip went great and he had been seal hunting with the locals and gotten some brilliant footage. Not my favourite moment, but certainly one I have learned from (as well as laugh about quite a bit)!”

Talk me through the journey of securing funding, support and investment to make this film.

In 2015 there was an awareness of the impact of global warming and the environment, but I really don't feel on the scale we have today. Screen Ireland were straight in, and were hugely supportive throughout. We also had the tax credit of course but it was a challenge to secure the kind of support I felt and still feel the project deserves from an international perspective.

North America seems like the natural home - American citizens whose homes were about to fall into the sea, of course there would be a financier who would jump on it! Sadly it was not the case. We fought super hard; hustling at markets, sending out decks and teasers; the works. We got far with plenty of potential partners, everyone ‘wanted’  to get involved but there was always the same spiel, ‘environment is hard to sell, it’s too 'arty', we JUST did something kind of similar’... but then one guy, working for a huge broadcaster was about to change job so felt no guilt about being incredibly honest he said (and I will never forget this) ‘I'm just going to be really honest with you guys, there are not enough white faces in this film for (the broadcaster) to consider it’ and that is it in a nutshell, really.

In the end we made the film super low budget, Tom took on so many key roles and we had amazing support from others who wanted to collaborate to ensure even on a shoestring this film would have mega production value. Steve Fannigan and Brendan Rehill took on the mix and sound design, Dave Hughes did the grade and Gerry Horan composed one of my favourite scores. And plenty more to thank but those guys really just brought us to the next level.”

What was your first paid role as a producer, and how has your approach to projects changed over the years?

Are you saying producers are supposed to get paid??! Technically that was SONG OF GRANITE, my first feature narrative, all fees went back into the film but the company was backed at the time by a larger corporation so I did have a (very small) salary. My attitude towards projects has completely changed my ambition and work ethic is still there but experience allows you to really move things forward in the right way.

Starting the company with Nathalie (Biancheri) changed things hugely we started Feline from scratch two years ago, which was terrifying. We had no money and only a moderate amount of experience but it's honestly been the most freeing thing I've done. We don't try to fit into a certain way of doing things. We take each project as it comes because we want to work on it not because it fits a market gap or trend. So far it's worked well: we have one co-production SHADOWS complete, the doc I WAS HERE on the festival circuit along with Sophia Tamburrini's focus short MAYA, and we are about to shoot WOLF; Nathalies own film she has written and will direct starring George MacKay and Lily-Rose Depp. Things are looking up.”

Is there an Irish film over the last few years that you wish you had produced...?

Hmm.... thats a tough one. I think the only time I felt like that was NORMAL PEOPLE a few weeks ago, I loved the book both myself and Nat read it quite early on before there was a lot of hype around it, we contacted the publishers about it who very nicely explained Element Pictures had the option on both Sally's books, but at least our instincts were right! I also have yet to see HERSELF, not to fangirl over element too much but from what I have read and seeing the journey the film took I would have loved to be a part of it. VIVA is another Irish Film I adore and would have loved to be a part of.”

The age old question: What (in your view) is the role of the Producer?

I think the simplest way I like to explain it is the responsibility of the narrative of the film beyond just the actual narrative, essentially the big picture of the life of the film. It's bringing an idea to the cinema screen. Understanding what the idea needs to get to the end goal and discovering what that end goal is.Close collaboration with the writer/director is so important - once you are on the same page and respect one another's goal for the film then I think you have all the tools. It's a hugely creative role that goes far beyond "getting the money" but takes a lot of understanding of industry and market to really work.”

What Director or Actor would you most like to work with and why (Irish or international)?

Not to sound too corny but I feel incredibly lucky to be working with Nathalie, I think there's a huge mutual respect and a shared vision that works super well right now. Although not to say if Celine Sciamma called me up I wouldn't be flexible. Honestly, I'm super excited to explore new talent with Feline films finding a director with a clear vision and a great drive is where I want to put my energy next.

We often are our own worst critics. What is your approach to constructive criticism and inward reflection?

It was a huge challenge for me a couple of years ago. I'm still at the beginning of my career and learning every day but one of the hardest lessons I've learned is that being a young female producer is very challenging. Being young is a challenge and separately I think people (particularly men) feel it’s appropriate to try and patrontise and manipulate women.

“I was really self-conscious in my work and felt like I was doing everything wrong. I mean one f's up a lot at the beginning of a career but understanding it's human and blocking the insecurities other people projected on me took time. I now know its key. I also practice a lot of cognitive skills when self-doubt and vulnerability kicks in, which I couldn't recommend more.

What is the best piece of advice you’ve been given in your career thus far that you would share with aspiring producers?

Jane Doolan has been the most incredible mentor to me, one thing I have really learned from her is how not to take things personally, which you can't just instantly be able to do, you have to learn it and it's not easy. Having someone you can validate any uncertainties you have about situations that you feel personally triggered by is amazing.”

I've definitely had to pick myself up and get back in the race a few more times than I'd like in the last few years and the people that surround me have enabled me to do that, we all need a little film tribe that has the Janes, Nathalie, and Toms of the world in it. I think my advice(s) to aspiring producers is: don't take things personally, surround yourself with good people you trust. Be brave, be bold but take every day as it comes. Being a producer needs a lot of commitment and its good when your job is a big part of your life, it's not good if it's your whole life. Look after yourself and your mental health.”

How have you channelled your creativity during lockdown?

Trying to get a film back on track during a pandemic is relentless, my days have been more than filled with making sure WOLF (which was in the first week of prep when we locked down) gets going again safely in august, which is now on track - again thanks to good people and collaboration. So I haven't quite had the time I thought I'd have at the beginning but I have read quite a bit which I think is one of the most important things we can do to grow and understand this world we live in a little better. I also got on board the sourdough train and nailed it, if I do say so myself - always good to have a career back up.”

Click here to read more of our interview series.

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