Name: Christina Kallas
Title in the biz: Writer / Director
Social Media Handles:
IG / Twitter: @chriskal666
How long have you lived in the NYC area?
I first came to NYC in 2010—for six months. Before I had only known the city as an accidental tourist. Somehow, I lucked into living in Kate Millett’s loft, just across La Mama, and giving an improvisation workshop at the Dramatic Writing Department at NYU. I remember coming out of another magical session in their wonderful black theater on the 9th floor and walking out on Broadway. It was snowing and I walked past St. Mark’s Bookshop, and in the window was a copy of my book, Creative Screenwriting: Understanding Emotional Structure. A book with my name on it was in St. Mark’s Bookshop! I went in and bought one, and then walked down to my place. Kate’s place. Living in Kate’s loft was like living in my childhood dream — a true East Village loft full of first editions and original art. I believe I was sleeping under an original Mapplethorpe! It was an incredibly inspiring environment for me and even more so for my son, who was 11 then and whom I had taken out of school back in Europe for a trip to NY—he was taking the subway each day to go to the School of the Future. I remember cooking dinner for my actors from the improvisation workshop—who ended up being the first members of my ensemble with which I made three feature films in the following years—and thinking, now this is the life I want to live. It goes without saying that towards the end of the six months I walked into an immigration lawyer’s office and started the application for a green card as an alien of extraordinary ability. Six months later we were back. This coming August will be our official 10 years anniversary in this city, and hopefully by then we will be both American citizens.
What area do you live in now?
Harlem. You know, one of the main reasons I fell in love with this city—from a very young age—was that idea I had of it, as the home of so many different people from so many different places and races and ways of life. It didn’t disappoint me. Do you know that in the New York metropolitan area alone people speak more than 600 languages? Six hundred! Isn’t that something? I never understood why people want to be among people who all look, think and feel like they do. I feel suffocated when that happens. Harlem is the place where you hear the most languages in the street right now. This is why I moved here. And because of the Paris Blues.
You’re a transplant from a different film market. Where did you come from?
I was born and bred in Greece—in Thessaloniki or Salonica, City of Ghosts, as Mark Mazower calls it in a book I sometimes dream of turning into a TV series. My hometown was once a fascinating crossroads metropolis of different religions and ethnicities, where Egyptian merchants, Spanish Jews, Orthodox Greeks, Sufi dervishes, and Albanian brigands all rubbed shoulders. It was a true cosmopolitan and tolerant city where all religions would co-exist more or less peacefully—until the twentieth century wars, that is. Maybe multiculturalism is in my blood. But I am also a Berliner. I lived in Berlin for many years. I went there to study film and music, and then I became a stringer for a newspaper back home, and then I started working for German TV, somewhere in there I got in a PhD in film studies, and then I started producing and writing screenplays, and before I knew it I was producing the first feature film I wrote. The Commissioner was a pretty big production—a political thriller shot in London and Brussels, and starring John Hurt and Armin Mueller-Stahl. It premiered in the main competition of the Berlin Film Festival. It was my first red carpet, and I remember it in a haze because I had just given birth and I was breastfeeding but cellphones and babies were forbidden in Zoo Palast—so I would smuggle my baby under my big coat to go see films. I had worked on this screenplay for so many years, and then it took so much more effort to raise what was a very high budget for a European film, but when I ended up on that stage at the premiere, I blanked. I hadn’t slept for months and I had nothing to tell the world. A couple of months later was the premiere of a comedy I had written for German TV, and I remember the director Uwe Wilhelm complaining that I had written too many babies into the script. All I could think of was babies.
You made a name for yourself in Europe as a writer and a producer. You were writing both for film and TV, headed important film funds, were the president of the European equivalent of the Writers Guild. Why did you ever leave?
When I was 12 I was telling everybody that when I grow up I will be a single mom in New York. I don’t know where that came from but I was watching an incredible amount of films, and so many of them were set in New York. It felt like home, only I’d never been. So I just had to do this. At least for six months. Then I fell in love with New York, and my marriage with Europe ended. Although I’ve never stopped being European, and except for this past year where I haven’t left my Harlem apartment and Central Park, I am always spending several months a year in Europe.
How did you get your first directing job in NYC?
I created it. Listen, nobody knew me as a filmmaker when I came here. America is very America-centered. So I started from scratch. I loved working with a group of actors that I had put together during that workshop I gave at NYU, and when I came back I started workshopping a screenplay with them which I had written while still in Europe. Then the playwright Susan Miller introduced me to my wonderfully creative producing partner, Allison Vanore, and together we pulled it off. It became my first feature film as a director, 42 Seconds of Happiness. Some of the one of a kind actors in it are also in The Rainbow Experiment and in Paris is in Harlem. I love actors and I love working with a family of actors and collaborators, the way Cassavetes or Fassbinder did. You get an intimacy level which is hard to achieve otherwise. Intimacy, vulnerability, authenticity: these are the things I’m striving for.
What is the NYC film community like?
I adore it and I miss it dearly. Most of all I miss the workshop sessions with my actors. What keeps me going right now in terms of being around film people, is teaching. I’ve been teaching film for as long as I’ve been making films, already back in Berlin, then here at Columbia, Feirstein, Brooklyn College, the SVA. This semester I’m back at NYU with a Directing Actors workshop, only this time it’s on Zoom.
What was it like filming your latest project? Did you film during Covid?
We were lucky because we shot the film I am in post with now, Paris is in Harlem, right before everything shut down. If we hadn’t done that this film would have never been made because it is set in a crowded, lived-in Jazz dive bar, and my films are usually multi-protagonist. Paris is in Harlem has 22 characters. It’s now even more important to me and to a lot of Jazz lovers around the world because of the passing in April of legendary Sam Hargress Jr.–the owner of the Paris Blues, also known as the ‘Jazz godfather’. Sam, who was a very dear friend and who inspired this film, was one of the many Covid casualties of the Jazz community in NY, which was hit particularly hard. I hope to be able to finish it soon. Post production under these circumstances is slow, because it’s all remote. In the past I never left the side of my editors or colorists or sound mixers. But our whole lives are online now, and they have been that for more than a year so we’re adapting—and learning new ways of doing things. I’ve been writing a lot too. I wrote what will hopefully be my next film, Caruso. It’s a love story between a man and a woman who cannot be together. The film’s title is inspired by the famous Italian tenor who died of pleurisy, a sickness of the lungs, during a performance of Donizetti’s The Elixir of Love at the Met. It is also a song written by Italian singer-songwriter Lucio Dalla—a song full of Weltschmerz.
Everyone is making TV now. Will you join?
I was staffed on two European TV series before I relocated to New York. I was the only woman in what must have been the first writers room when the fashion reached Berlin. We won some awards. I never directed for TV, but I’d love to. It is a different time now. You can approach TV as a long cinematic narrative. I am toiling on two shows at the moment, which I hope to be able to pitch soon. One is called Insignificant Actors and tells the story of a group of fixers and stringers who are chasing their dreams in the Berlin of the 80s, as the events unravel that will lead to the Fall of the Wall—an intense and hedonistic time that I remember ever so sweetly. The other is called No Dancing Please, and I started working on it while writing the feature film that I am currently finishing. While Paris is in Harlem tells the stories of several characters which converge in a Harlem bar the night the Cabaret Law or No Dancing Law was repealed in New York in 2017, the series is designed to tell the whole story—starting with the Dance-hall reformer Belle Moskowitz, the most powerful woman in Democratic politics of her time, who was responsible for its implementation in 1926. The law was designed to prevent interracial dancing and miscegenation in jazz-age Harlem, and over time it involved such absurd restrictive rules as the prohibition of saxophones (accordions, of course, were fine), or having more than three musicians on stage, or indeed putting an end to musicians’ careers—which is why many of them left for Paris. Later, the law was used by mayors Giuliani and Bloomberg as a tool to shut down gay bars. I’m thinking of the series as my love letter to New York’s nightlife.
What is the best advice you can give a filmmaker who is considering moving to or has just moved to NYC?
Pretend it’s a city. But seriously, it’s so difficult to answer this question right now. We don’t know how the city will be once we come out of the pandemic, do we now? Before, it was easy: come here if you desire constant inspiration. Before, all you had to do was ride the subway, and you would have resurfaced with five characters and three new stories. Now, we’re avoiding each other. And a lot of the old New York, like the Paris Blues, has closed down, maybe forever. I’m excited though. I want to be around for NYC’s next chapter. It won’t be boring, that much I know.
More on Christina:
Christina Kallas is the New York based writer-director of critically-acclaimed ensemble dramas THE RAINBOW EXPERIMENT (2018) and 42 SECONDS OF HAPPINESS (2016) and the writer of the John Hurt starring, Golden Berlin Bear nominated political thriller THE COMMISSIONER. THE RAINBOW EXPERIMENT was lauded as a ’21st Century Rashomon’ and debuted at Slamdance and Moscow Int’l Film Festivals in 2018. It had an impressive run at festivals such as Cinequest, Cleveland, St. Louis and FIRST Int’l FF in China, winning several accolades. In 2016, Kallas scored on the international film festival circuit with her award-winning feature, 42 SECONDS OF HAPPINESS. Prior credits include BBC Films’ hooligan drama, I.D., Toronto and Panorama feature film selection MOTHERS and European TV series hits, EDEL&STARCK and DANNI LOWINSKI. In 2019 she was nominated for Film Threat’s inaugural Award This! in the category of ‘Best Directress’ alongside Debra Granik, Josephine Decker, Jen McGowan, Angie Wang, Mimi Leder and Chloe Zhao. Kallas is a member of the European Film Academy and has served as the President of the FSE, the European equivalent of the Writers Guild of America for eight years.