INTERVIEW: Siena Oberman: Making Waves
We always strive to support the women in film movement here at JumpCut UK, by highlighting the outstanding women making waves in the industry. Our focus here is Siena Oberman; a producer hailing from Los Angeles, a woman on a mission, hoping to inspire and effect change whilst telling the stories that matter. Her latest short film ‘Iconoclast’ just got accepted into Cannes 2017, and she’s got plenty more where that came from.
JLB: Is there a specific moment you can pinpoint as the moment when you realised you wanted a career in the film industry?
SO: I grew up in LA and started making films when I was 13, just for fun, and I haven’t been able to stop since; I loved experimenting with each aspect of the art of cinema. While making films as a teenager, I also volunteered with the Red Cross and it was during this time that I realised my skills were leadership and storytelling.
I received the Red Cross Navin Narayan Humanitarian Scholarship, for exponentially expanding the US youth volunteer program and teaching international human rights through media, documentaries, and commercials. Upon receiving that award I had this moment where I realised that film was not only something I loved, but also something I could use to raise awareness, inspire, and progress real life issues.
JLB: You’ve dabbled in a wide range of filmmaking roles so far, from acting to directing, producing to writing, but is there a particular role you enjoy the most? And are you hoping to try your hand at any other areas of filmmaking?
SO: Consider being a teenage girl making short films – I had to know how to do everything. I went on to study business and cinema at USC, so my focus is certainly on being a story driven producer. Right now, I’m focused on mastering the business side of media, and eventually I’ll move more into the artistic side.
JLB: Your short film ‘Iconoclast’ just got accepted into Cannes 2017. Tell us a little about the experience of making this film, alongside directing partner Alex Haney?
SO: I loved it! I worked with one of my favorite directors (Alex) to explore something we felt passionate about: the loss of identity in a world facing increasing intersectionality. Alex and I both grew up feeling like we didn’t fit in many social stereotypes, or boxes that are popular in youth, because of our diverse backgrounds (be it race, religion, gender, sexuality or disabilities etc). With ‘Iconoclast’, we have hopefully created a visually stunning film, and one which uses surrealism and narrative storytelling to inspire people to realise that we are all individuals who should embrace our unique, weird, authentic selves, rather than feeling like we need to superficially try to fit into one of society’s boxes.
JLB: You are making the move to feature films now, with upcoming films ‘The Odd Essay’ and ‘The Mad Whale’. How did this challenge differ from your work on short films?
SO: I worked on these two feature films at the same time. One thing’s for sure, feature films require a lot more stamina, patience and planning than short films. My upcoming third feature is an experimental, coming-of-age drama countering bullying and promoting LGBTQ equality. It’s looking like my fourth through sixth features will address the US education system, the current pain killer epidemic, and a true war story. There’s so much more scope for the things you can address with a feature film.
JLB: What can audiences expect from ‘The Odd Essay’?
SO: It’s a college comedy based on Homer’s ‘The Odyssey’. We focused a lot on casting in an attempt to build in the marketing for this movie since it was micro-budget. We had quality up-and-coming indie actors, and brought in digital influencers for comedic roles. I loved producing this because I had to be creative and analyze the direction of marketing and viewing patterns. Essentially, we bridged digital and traditional entertainment. I’m excited about this one, as we have a built in audience of 9.4 million through casting, and hopefully that can lead to some real success here.
JLB: Here at JumpCut UK, we feel strongly about closing the gender gap in Hollywood, and we constantly look to support and follow the work of women filmmakers. As a woman working in film, have you personally faced any gender inequality? And if so, how did you overcome this?
SO: I’m happy to hear that. I’ve overcome the gender gap by focusing on what matters: collaborating not competing, working hard, and telling high-quality, meaningful stories. I motivate myself to overcome the gap by being inspired by the incredible work of the many female filmmakers that blazed the gender gap before me.
One of the best compliments I’ve ever received was a tweet from a film student saying: “I honestly believe Siena Oberman is going to be responsible for a renaissance that will give women the voice they deserve in the film world.” While I’m happy to be a small part of this gender equality renaissance, I don’t focus on being female. I wasn’t raised to judge people’s potential based on their gender so I treat everyone, including myself, equally.
JLB: Despite increased awareness of the gender issue in Hollywood, that issue certainly still exists. What advice, avenues and opportunities can you recommend to other females who want to work in the film industry?
SO: I’d say read the book ‘Start With Why’ by Simon Sinek, so that you’re intrinsically motivated to not pay attention to the sexism that exists in the industry. Pro-actively make small films to see what roles you enjoy, find peers or filmmakers with the same passions as you, and reach out to people you admire and work for them – even if it means years of getting coffee like I did. I think anyone wanting to work in film should develop a strong sense of who they are so they have thick enough skin to focus on what matters.
I know a lot of people perceive me a certain way because I’m a young female, but I don’t have the time to care about other people’s preconceived notions. I let my work speak for itself and I have a strong network of people that know me for my dedication to my work. We support each other. I built this network by interning at 12 companies through college (such as Paramount Pictures, United Talent Agency, Plan B Entertainment and IM Global) and helping friends produce their short films and thesis projects that went places like Cannes Film Festival and Hulu. The best thing any female can do is just start somewhere and focus on constantly improving her work.
JLB: You’ve been busy on the festival circuit lately; how has that experience been? Have you seen any great films, or met any great people?
SO: Sundance and Berlin were great! I loved meeting up and coming actors and filmmakers and expanding my knowledge on the industry. I love festivals because there’s lots of panels about the future of the industry, hosted by current experts. At Sundance I was most impressed by the ‘Mudbound’ film team, and their Google parties, the Oculus and Facebook story studio, and how the UTA team repped so many different films at Sundance.
At Berlin I loved seeing Annapurna expand the reach of their quality productions with their new indie studio approach, and international sales partnerships with Mad River and Insiders. I really respect their films and team. These festivals also brought Asia on to my radar – I’m hoping to go there next.
JLB: What does the future hold for Siena Oberman? Where do you see yourself in five years, career-wise?
SO: I was a Futurist on board USC’s Cinematic Honors Fraternity, so you can expect innovative film business models from my work and content that explores the future of technology and addresses social issues. I’m currently working with ventures in Silicon Beach, and consulting as a transmedia producer, so I hope that in the next couple years I can help bridge the gap between Hollywood and Silicon Beach/ Valley.
I like making films that have a high artistic quality, are technologically innovative and are socially progressive. I have about 15 projects in development, so I could see myself making some cool sci-fi movies, documentaries, psychological thrillers, or historical dramas. I’d like to keep helping directors and writers that I believe in, grow through their work.
In the future I’d love to be able to help any of the companies I’ve worked with in the past and any filmmakers I admire. My inspirations currently are Christopher Nolan, David Fincher, Angelina Jolie, Kathy Kennedy, Steven Spielberg, Ava DuVernay, Dede Gardner, Megan Ellison, and Jeremy Kleiner, so to work with any of those would be amazing. And once I’m much more established, I’d like to get back into humanitarian work with the Red Cross or United Nations. I miss it.