Staying A Step Ahead: Interview With Producing Grad Dorottya Mathe

NYFA producing grad Dorottya Mathe

Photo provided by Dorottya Mathe.

NYFA: Would you mind giving us some background information and what drew you to the producing program at NYFA?

Dorottya Mathe: After working in the television industry for thirteen years in Hungary I wanted to challenge myself and was curious to find out what my knowledge was worth on the international market. As a foreigner with no connection in the American entertainment business at that time it was very appealing that NYFA’s producing course offered internships built into the curriculum. It was also paired with hands-on education offering an insight to all aspects of film production—besides producing—including screenwriting, directing, camera operating, editing, and even acting, which were completely new territories for me.

At the age of thirty-two, making quite a decent living in Hungary, I left behind everything and landed on US soil in 2007 with two suitcases and some savings. I was relentless and determined though I did not know that within a few years NY would be my new home.

Eight months later I graduated from NYFA with ten short films that I produced [including short fiction, music video, commercial, reality and documentary], one non-fiction film in production, switching between two internships, and trying to survive on a shoestring budget.

NYFA: You originally received your degree in economics; what inspired you to work in the entertainment/arts market?

DM: I started to work in the entertainment industry part-time almost right after high school at the age of 19—before having any degrees. I was in the audience of a huge entertainment show in Budapest and seeing the synchronized work of all the crew members and being attracted to the atmosphere of the TV studio I decided on the spot that this is where I want to work. A few months later I started college and [at the same time I] began to work part-time at that TV production company, which produced the above mentioned show. After graduation I stayed there as a full-time employee and left for New York literally from the office.

I have a degree in hotel management, event producing, tour guiding, and economics. I am using all the acquired knowledge combined in producing, since this profession requires a rather versatile skill set.

NYFA: What opportunities or career goals did you see as being obtainable in New York that inspired you to stay here after your studies?

DM: Due to the size of the market (Hungary’s entire population is only 1.5 million more than NYC’s) the opportunities in “The Big Apple” are truly endless. Regardless I had to realize that it does not necessarily make life easier. On the contrary, coming from a former communist country where even in my childhood I had to sit in the school straight, with my hands behind my back, always being told what to do it is overwhelming to have such a wide variety of choices. And there is no right way, no beaten track, you have to find what works for you. Every single day has its challenges though and it is like an aphrodisiac, which makes you move forward since you are attracted to the unknown. New York keeps you alert, it never allows you to fall into a routine, you always have to improve your skills, network endlessly and try to be a step ahead of others.

NYFA: What was the biggest challenge that you had to face?

DM: The biggest challenge for me was to leave my professional life behind and start from scratch as if I was freshly graduated with no financial stability only with years of work experience, which was not necessarily compatible with the job requirements here.

Of course, it is very liberating to know that I can always go home to Hungary and switch back to a “comfortable life” there—but that is my retirement plan.

NYFA: What lesson or lessons did you learn in the NYFA producing program that you continue to apply to your own work?

DM: The best advice I got was:You will get many refusals before the first opportunity will arise, so regardless how many times you’ll hear ‘no’ for an answer you should keep believing in yourself and move forward. If you stick around long enough without giving up you will eventually succeed.” Well, sometimes “eventually” never seemed like it was coming, therefore I would mention three important qualities: patience, persistence, and perseverance. Looking for a job I was considered over-qualified and over-experienced in my field so I simplified my resume and cut back the years I had spent working in Hungary indicating only 2-3. When I got my first internship my biggest challenge was to pick up the phone and understand the LA accent, and the company’s clients constantly hung up since they did not understand my Hungarian-seasoned English accent and thought they had dialed the wrong number. Even though it was a great experience to understand how an entertainment company works on a day to day basis, after a couple of months I decided to switch to freelancing, which worked out much better for me. It allowed me to produce a wide variety of eclectic projects including music video, theatre, opera, art installation, documentary, etc. I enjoy taking on assignments that force me to step out my comfort zone, require me to get familiar with various aspects of producing, and learn new skills. I can work with different circle of people and expand my network, which is one of the crucial assets of a producer.

NYFA: Throughout the years, you’ve worked on a large number of art projects through An Films that have included the documentary Sing for Hope’s Pop-Up Pianos and you also work regularly with David Michalek on his slow motion video series. What are the different challenges you face working with arts institutions as opposed to production studios and companies focused on making feature films?

DM: Artwork fuels your heart but not your pocket. That is why I carefully chose what are the art projects that I am getting involved since it requires the same amount of work from a producer as any other film project—if not more due to the lack of finances.

I always preferred to watch independent movies from all over the world rather than blockbusters. I purposefully avoided getting involved in big budget studio productions. If that had been my goal I should have had gone right away to Los Angeles from Budapest instead of New York. I am a very hands-on producer who likes to know everyone on set and be involved in all aspect of the producing at all stages of the production both creatively and logistically. I found it very exciting and rewarding to see how an idea that only existed on paper ends up being on the screen and follow the transformation it goes through.

I regularly work with Brock Labrenz, the artistic director of New York based production company An Films. We are a great team, we share the same taste in choosing projects and our approach in executing tasks are very similar which makes the creative process really enjoyable. Our short documentary, Sing for Hope: Pop-Up Pianos is one of my favorite films that I have been involved as a producer. It is about New York City’s largest and most beloved public art project that takes place annually in the summer for two weeks. Namely almost 100 individually designed pianos are scattered all over the city—indoors and outdoors as well—reaching more than 2 million New Yorkers and making art available to all. It was fantastic to witness and capture the power of music as it brought together total strangers on the street creating an immediate community around the instrument. Regardless of their musical education, age, gender, ethnicity, nationality, or profession anyone could play the piano or embrace the moment by clapping, dancing, singing to the rhythm. For me that pulsation is what New York is about.

I truly enjoy the creative collaboration with director Paul Warner, who is also my colleague [and former acting instructor] at the New York Film Academy where I teach producing as part of the Documentary Faculty. I produced his project Women: The War Within, a multi-media dance-theatre-opera, which dramatized the parallel stories of four influential women in history. Throughout the production I was collaborating with a team of renowned artists—including Obie Award-winning librettist Matthew Maguire, internationally acclaimed choreographer Stephen Petronio, New York City Ballet’s premiere ballerina Wendy Whelan, Obie Award-winning actress Ching Valdes-Aran.

I often produce David Michalek’s high profile slow motion video portrait films such as Portraits in Dramatic Times that premiered at the Lincoln Center Festival in 2011 featuring Alan Rickman, William H. Macy, Liev Schrieber, Holly Hunter, Ludivine Sagnier etc. and Figure Studies that was commissioned by the Edinburgh Fringe Festival and recently the retrospective Dries Van Noten video series which is exhibited at the Louvre till August 31, 2014—unveiling the extensive work of the famous Belgian fashion designer. These projects gave me the opportunity to work with high-profile actors’ agents and managers and synchronize our production schedule with their clients’ limited availability. Maneuvering our rehearsals and shoots trying to squeeze them into the talents’ agenda was definitely a challenge.

NYFA: To follow up, you’ve worked on a number of documentaries focused on the work of individuals that have covered such a diverse gallery of people that includes Andy Kessler and The Fleshtones. Is there something in particular that drives you to the stories of the creatively successful and have you found something universal in these stories that you’ve been able to apply to your own life?

DM: I try to chose projects that are somehow related to New York or if I am fascinated by their character or if I pursue a collaboration with one of the creators or the director.

Grandmaster of 108 is a short documentary featuring veteran skateboarder Andy Kessler [44] that I produced with one of my classmates Nadia Jeronimo at NYFA. It was rather unusual to be a pro-skateboarder at his age therefore we wanted to find out what made him keep going especially that he barely had any bones that had not been broken before. Little did we know at that time, that years later the film would be very popular amongst his fans after Andy Kessler had died unexpectedly—oddly enough—due to an allergic reaction to a wasp sting. As it came out there were hardly any footage of him, so besides the skateboarding community his family was also very grateful to see our film.

I worked with director Geoffray Barbier on Pardon us For Living but the Graveyard is Full about The Fleshtones. He has been a huge fan of the garage rock band and followed their career since he was a teenager. As a co-producer it was exciting for me to get to know all the artists who were major players of NYC’s music and art scene in the 70s-80s. Especially The Fleshtones, who almost unprecedentedly have been playing together for nearly 35 years, still enjoying each others’ company, making their fans dance though still struggling to pay the bills.

NYFA: Any parting words of advice for aspiring producers and women looking to realize their career goals in producing?

DM: Do not change what makes you different in order to fit in, you should attempt to find your niche which makes you stand out. Living abroad for such a long time helped me to realize what makes me Hungarian and I try to use it for my advantage. We are all very lucky to do what we are passionate about and actually making a living of it and call it “work.” To be a producer is a lifelong learning curve, therefore in our attempt to excel in it we should not forget to enjoy the process!

NYFA: What are your professional plans for the future?

DM: Ideally, I would like to “create a bridge” between Budapest and New York and bring independent American films to Hungary and Hungarian productions to America. Voices of Change a Hungarian music video that was shot entirely in New York featuring the Harlem Gospel Choir—besides the Hungarian musicians—is a great example of this. I am also developing an American romantic-drama that will be shot in my native Budapest. This English speaking film will give me the opportunity to provide exposure for Hungarian talents abroad and to introduce contemporary Budapest to the foreign audience—not disguised as Berlin, Rome, Paris etc. but to reveal its real current beauty.

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