A Conversation With Award-Winning Filmmaker Théo Mahy-Ma-Somga On Being A Frenchman In LA
Théo Mahy-Ma-Somga has just won a screenwriting award for his script ‘Ubuntu – An African Story’, even though he wrote it in his second language. The Frenchman is based in Los Angeles, where he has written and directed the films ‘An American Life’, ‘All We Have Left’, ‘The Audience’ and ‘Awakened’ and ‘First World Struggle’.
He spoke to us about his experiences in LA – positive and negative – and how his next adventure might be back in Europe.
Théo, tell us more about winning The Big Apple Screenplay Competition?
“It honestly is a huge surprise for me, especially as I wrote ‘Ubuntu – An African Story’ in my second language. This script is very personal, and I dedicated it to my grandfather, who left us a few years ago. The action takes place in France and Africa, so I wasn’t expecting it to resonate with an American audience – I’m very honored. I won in the drama category, which is funny because I thought of my script as a comedy, but everyone who reads it cries before the end! My sense of humour must be quite dark and cynical, I guess.”
Tell us about your experience as a European working in Los Angeles?
“It’s all about the accent! I’m joking – there are always pros and cons of being an outsider. I am grateful I had a fantastic group of creative friends already here when I moved, as it helped me get acclimatised quicker. I understand why it can be such a tough city for a lot of foreigners, you can feel isolated pretty fast. I also find LA a little bit sad, I see a lot of people with broken dreams in this town. A wrong turn and you see such misery in the downtown streets, another turn and you find houses as big as a football stadium. It doesn’t always feel right. The quintessential example would be Jamie Foxx’s character in ‘Collateral’.”
How does your filmmaking and writing process work?
“I tend to write in the morning. I wake up around 5am – I feel the most inspired when everything is still quiet. I feel like my mind isn’t polluted yet with all the craziness of my day. I write stories based on life, people, human connections; I love to tell the underdog’s story. I usually have the story mapped out in my head, like a beat sheet, then I write every scene on index cards, trying to highlight conflicts and emotional changes. Then I start writing the scenes, one at a time. If I am thrilled about an idea, I will write half of it and keep the rest for the next day, which helps me not to bounce my head against the wall in the morning. I used to struggle with rewrites a lot. I couldn’t really approach it properly, I needed to build up my confidence. I still learn and work on my craft daily.”
What are you like on set?
“On set, it’s all about the energy. I’m the captain of the team, I need to lead by example every minute. I’m the first one to say that I know nothing – I learn every day and I feed myself from everyone around me. I’m trying hard to create a safe and fun environment. We are making movies, not trying to find a medicine for eternal life, so let’s have some fun!”
What’s your next project?
“In the spring I’m shooting a feature film that I wrote, called ‘Thanksgiving Mascarade’. I’m excited about it. I had this idea of a Frenchman going to his first Thanksgiving in my mind for a while, and now it’s finally happening. It’s all about cultural differences, societal issues, family conflict. I’m fired up!”
Are you planning to work in Europe too?
“Yes… I have been thinking about it for a while and I can’t wait to try it out there. I started to write my first screenplay in French, another very personal story that revolves around love, which I find myself unexpectedly at the right time to tell. In my life, I want to be closer to my roots. I had such an incredible journey, leaving my country for this adventure in big America. It has been amazing, I have achieved so many things that I’m very proud of. I also look back at all the sacrifices I made, and the person I loved who I couldn’t spend the time I wanted with. I’m lucky enough to do this job that can take me anywhere, so why not be closer to home?”