As a part of my interview series with popular culture stars, I had the pleasure of interviewing Nena Eskridge. Nena began her professional life in Texas where she founded a theater group which also produced short films. She left Texas to study film at Ithaca College and graduated with honors. Nena relocated to New York City where she worked in all areas of film production. She now resides in Philadelphia where she recently completed her directorial debut with her feature film, STRAY.
Thank you so much for joining us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
I was a hippie in the 70’s in a small east Texas town where I owned and ran a record store. I became bored and eventually began messing around with film. A friend of mine owned a super 8 camera so we started making little films. One of our shorts won an award in Houston. After that I was hooked. So, I sold my record store, moved to Ithaca, NY and enrolled in film school. After graduating, I moved to New York City where I learned the art of film production. It took me many years, but eventually I managed to scrape together enough cash to write and direct my first feature, called STRAY.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started this career?
Gosh. Just about every experience in the film industry has been interesting. I did get fired a lot. My first professional film job didn’t happen until I was 33. At that ripe old age, I was settled in my ways, and found it difficult to play with others! It wasn’t intentional, I was just used to being my own boss and tended to express my opinions. I would venture that 100% of the time, no one asked or wanted my opinion. In any event, I eventually figured out it would be best if I worked alone and, after many years in production, settled into screenwriting.
So, I guess the answer to the question is… surviving (starving and struggling) in New York City for 18 years was the most interesting thing I’ve done during my film life.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
No doubt, I’ve made every mistake possible, and then some. None seemed funny at the time. One dumb thing I remember doing, long ago, was to send a 3/4 inch video cassette to filmmaker Susan Seidelman. She was a hot commodity at the time after releasing “Desperately Seeking Susan.” I had just graduated and moved to NYC, and decided it would be a good idea to send her a copy of my amazingly brilliant (it wasn’t) multi-layered (it wasn’t) short from film school. She was SO kind. She actually returned the tape with an apologetic note saying something about “not owning a 3/4 inch machine, so she couldn’t watch my film.” Nobody had 3/4 inch machines. Don’t know what I was thinking. Those cassettes were HUGE. It cost a small fortune to mail those suckers. Seidelman was one of the very few female feature filmmakers at the time, and she went to the trouble of going to the post office, for me.
What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now?
I finished my first low-budget feature called STRAY a couple of years ago. Believe it or not, I’m still doing PR/marketing for it. Low budget filmmakers are responsible for their own marketing these days even if the film has a distributor. That still keeps me pretty busy. But I am working on a screenplay that I hope to shoot next summer. One thing I learned from STRAY, now that I’ve added “marketing expert” to my resume, is to write a script that encompasses every genre possible — for marketing purposes. So, this new script is a dramatic lesbian, horror, love story with comedic elements.
Who are some of the most interesting people you have interacted with? What was that like? Do you have any stories?
Well, there was the time I worked with the late great director, Bill Sherwood. He was editing his low budget feature, “Parting Glances,” a great film, Steve Buscemi’s first film role I think … Anyway, I stepped in to assist Bill with the edit. I told him I had experience, which I did — with the amazingly brilliant (not) student film mentioned earlier. Now, remember this was back when we used actual film, which is very fragile. And Bill had no money, so we were actually editing the master, which of course you never do. Bottom line, editing celluloid is tricky. The Steenbeck flatbed editing machine was not my friend, and I snapped the film (original) into several pieces on several occasions throughout the three hours I worked on that job. I’ll never forget the look on his face. Still, he paid me and the film was released to great success. I, for some reason, did not receive a credit.
Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?
Don’t go to film school. Take that money and make a film. I’m still paying off my student loan. Go to lots of AA meetings, meet someone wealthy or already entrenched in the film industry, and grab hold. If you can’t pull that off, specialize in one area of production from the get-go. And be the best you can be at that job. When you’re looking for a film job, no one wants to hear that you are a writer or want to direct. You can definitely do these things, but it takes a long time to hone these skills, and you need to pay the bills while waiting for the big break.
You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)
End hunger. Seriously. If all A list actors/producers/directors pooled together a fraction of their wealth, it could happen. Look what Angelina Jolie has accomplished.
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.
Actually, I’m glad I knew very little about the business or I might not have jumped in. I can’t think of anything else I’d rather do. Still, there are a few things I wish I’d known in advance. Like:
Move to LA not to New York. EVERYONE told me this. I just didn’t listen. In reality though, I’m glad I didn’t. I’d be a different person today if I had. And not in a good way.
Explain in detail the function of a producer. One of my school professors told me at graduation that I should be a producer. I had no idea what that entailed. I am one now, but it took me a long time to figure it all out. It just sort of happened. If I’d known it was an actual job, I would’ve done it sooner.
Join every film group you can afford. It may sound obvious, but I didn’t and missed out on so much . Women In Film, Women Make Movies, IFP join them all and go to the meetings. It truly is a collaborative industry and you need to interact face to face. Facebook is great and necessary, but human contact is even better. I promise that every person you meet will have something to offer.
Take vacations/breaks from the industry. It’s a rough business. It changes the way you look at everything. Never forget that there is actually a world outside of the film business.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“You’re gonna need a bigger boat.” I’ve found this to be true throughout most of my life. Probably has something to do with growing up in a land-locked state.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
I lost my parents when I was a teen. Being a hippie, as I’ve mentioned, my life could’ve easily taken a different path. But all three of my sisters kept me on track. Got me into film school, kept me fed and clothed, and are my biggest fans. They make me feel special. But most importantly, my wife. She’s supported me every step of the way — literally. I am a very lucky person.
Some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might see this. :-)
So many. Gale Ann Hurd because she’s a bad-ass producer; Abby Disney because she’s cool; Jennifer Kent to thank her for Babadook; Kimberly Pierce because I like her films; Angelina Jolie to give her a big hug for doing all that she does; Jennifer Lawrence because she’s from Kentucky, so am I, and she’s hysterically funny. Bob Garrett because he taught me to love film.
How can our readers follow you on social media?
Facebook, Instagram, Twitter. We all know the drill. Or just GOOGLE me. I’ll turn up somewhere. So will my little movie STRAY. Watch it for free on Amazon Prime and TubiTv. Also, PrimeVideo.com in most other English speaking countries.
Thank you so much for joining us. This was very inspirational!