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Status Update: Livia De Paolis on Emoticon ;)

Emoticon ;)

In Livia Di Paolis’ Emoticon ;), the actress-turned-first-time-writer/director plays Elena, a thirtysomething graduate student whose thesis revolves around “modern means of communication.” She’s dating Walter (Michael Christofer), a nearly AARP-eligible divorcee whose extravagant ex-wife Julia (Christine Ebersole) isn’t terribly involved with their kids. Perhaps Elena can be? Adopted teenagers Luke (Miles Chandler) and Mandy (Diane Guerrero) are closer in age to Elena than her new(ish) beau is.

That doesn’t mean she’s any good at communicating with them though; they spend all their time on their computers and smart phones, staring into the electronic clouds of their devices, proving they aren’t going to be easy to win over. Elena isn’t the first much younger girlfriend Walter has brought home. But when Luke knocks up his girlfriend and Mandy becomes obsessed with meeting her Mexican family that gave birth to her, the siblings warm to Elena — at least until their father gets her pregnant. Although she wants to keep the baby, Walter’s not so interested. Neither is her mother (Sonia Braga), who consoles her after a miscarriage by suggesting she get highlights.

Emoticon ;) world premiered at last year’s Gen Art Film Festival. Indican Pictures opens the movie in New York and Los Angeles today.

Filmmaker: Why’d you choose to direct this film after a career working mainly in the New York theater world?

Depaolis: Yes, I was working primarily in the theater in New York. A friend of mine that I worked with in the theater, Sarah [Nerboso], she actually came up with this story in 2009, I believe. She told me that she thought we should write something together. I don’t know why Sarah wanted to write something with me, but [laughs] she thought I always had interesting stories I suppose. I wanted to make a movie, it had been a fantasy of mine for a very long time. We discussed this thing, because I had just broken up. I had a relationship with an older man and had to adopt a kid. I thought that was interesting as a set-up, but then we didn’t do anything about it for about a year. A year later I called her back. I said, “I really want to do this, because I think I want to actually make this movie.”

I wasn’t really thinking at the time that I was going to direct it. I wanted to act and I wasn’t acting enough. I wanted to act in a role that made sense to me, one that wasn’t the foreign prostitute or something. [laughter]. You know, it’s just hard to go in and you say a line, say, “Hey baby what’s up?” and that’s that. I was going in for those roles and I wasn’t even getting those roles. So it came out of a desire to act more, but then it kind of escalated into a whole other chapter of my life. I thought that Sarah was going to write it and I was going to produce it and act in it. That was my idea. Then as she was writing it, I couldn’t just sit and wait for her to write my story. So we ended up really writing the script together.

Filmmaker: How long did that process take to get it to a point where you liked it?

Depaolis: We started writing it in the beginning of 2010. We had a first draft in June. I really started to rewrite and rewrite and rewrite. It took a year to write the script. January the next year we actually had a script where I was okay with it. I continued to rewrite and rewrite. Then I started to look more for a director. This guy Tom O’Brien, who made a movie called Fairhaven , I was talking to him through a friend of mine, they were together. We were talking about this, we were trying to put the movie together, it was stressful and I’m interviewing all these directors and it’s very hard to find somebody that is so attached to the material. Tom was like, “Look, it happened to me, I ended up directing it myself. I think you should do it too.” I was interviewing people and interviewing people and interviewing people and I couldn’t find anybody; eventually there’s a part of you that doesn’t want to give it up. It’s a personality thing or something. So in the end I directed it myself thanks to Tom. He encouraged me to do that.

Filmmaker: How quickly were you able to put it together at that point?

Depaolis: Casting director James Calleri read the script, he liked the script. I was trying to make a bigger movie really. I wanted him to come on as a producer. Even with the little bit of money we had, I wanted to make an offer to Kevin Kline! I was like I’m going to get Kevin Kline, I’m going to get a bunch of money! [laughs] He passed, of course, with this kind of script and a first-time director that hasn’t even gone to film school and hasn’t even got a short film. So James was like “Here, why don’t we have more realistic approach to this. Let me see who would want to do this, I’m sure there’s plenty of actors that would want to do this.” Michael Cristofer came on board first. And then that kind of gave some of kind of legitimacy to the project. After that, we had Carol Kane and Sonia Braga, it started to come together and so it was easier for me. Then I had a little bit more of a project. I raised the money to shoot it from friends and family. I just asked for money and for favors.

After we shot, another friend named Dana Shapiro, who did a movie called Monogamy, he put me in touch with a friend of his that worked on Monogamy and he was working at this post-production house in New York called The Station Media that’s owned by his brother. They basically finished the movie for free. I didn’t pay for post. That’s how we put it together. It’s a difficult thing raising money for movies. I know that it’s often sort of a fruitless situation. We pulled things together. A lot of begging and then a lot of luck. I think it’s always like a miracle.

Filmmaker: Were you immediately at home behind the camera? What was the most surprising thing about the skill set you needed to have that you weren’t aware of beforehand?

Depaolis: I overestimated my ability to multitask. I’m really good at multitasking, but in this case I underestimated the production aspect and how many things actually need to fall into place for anything to happen. The amount of people that you actually have to deal with is enormous. The part that I was the most comfortable with was working with the actors. I’m an actress and I was very comfortable directing young actors especially. I was a little less comfortable in directing the older actors and that’s another lesson. I was a little intimidated. It was a little bit harder for me to actually get exactly what I wanted out of them. I kind of let them do their thing and they did great. Michael really wanted to talk to me in-depth about the script, and he did his thing, and it was wonderful. And the kids, they’re really the best. I got what I wanted out of them and they were fantastic. My director of photography was very helpful.

Filmmaker: Are there aspects of the story that evolved into more or less significant parts thematically during the making of the film?

Depaolis: We really shot the script. The part I couldn’t really make work on the page that got better during the shoot was the whole story thread with the professor played by Carol Kane. She made that so much better because it was a little clunky the way it had been written. I think that that part was the most problematic part of the script and she really made it work; she’s so committed to what she does that you believe her, it’s organic. I think she made it work. With the experience that I have now I would’ve been more discerning beforehand, noticing, “Oh, there is a problem here and I really need to rework this part before I do anything else.” But, you know, I wanted to shoot! I wanted to shoot at all costs. I’m ready, I want to shoot it, the time has come!

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