NYFA LA

A Q&A With NYFA Los Angeles Director of Admissions Ragga Thordarson

New York Film Academy Los Angeles MFA Producing Alumna and Director of Admissions Ragga Thordarson was recently spotlighted in leading Icelandic publication Morgunblaðið for her impressive roster of accomplishments as a filmmaker, artist, and educator. Originally hailing from Iceland, Ragga has mastered many transitions: between nations, between careers, and between student and professional life in the film industry. Check out her inspiring insights, below.

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NYFA: First, can you tell us a little bit about yourself and what brought you to the New York Film Academy?

RT: I am Icelandic-American, born in Reykjavik (Iceland´s capital) and raised in a small fishing town in Iceland called Stykkisholmur with a population of 1,000 people until I was almost nine. I then moved to the States and have lived extensively in both places.

I grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area and in the Los Angeles area (moved a lot). When I finally came to NYFA, I had been working in TV and radio in Iceland for several years (hosting several shows) and I had been thinking about going to graduate school for some time. I kept coming back to the idea that I wanted to go back to school. Although I had a career which involved a few years of broadcasting and producing and had made and directed one film (a documentary called “From Oakland to Iceland”), I wanted to learn more.

I was essentially a self-taught filmmaker and producer, and felt there were some elements missing from my film education. School was the answer for me in that regard. I also happen to love school and being a student, so college and graduate school have been some of the most rewarding times of my life.

NYFA: What was it like moving to the U.S. from Iceland?

RT: The immigrant experience definitely marked my life. I didn’t speak a word of English until I was nine years old. I remember being in a Montessori School classroom all of the sudden and not really understanding anything, but within three months I was speaking English pretty well. I also went from walking to school in Iceland in the dark in a snow suit covered from head to toe all by myself to wearing shorts and T-shirts in Berkeley, and being driven everywhere. We were more on our own in Iceland, there is a lot of freedom there for kids. Here everything was bigger and there were more moving parts; bigger cities, skyscrapers and freeways, more rules and regulations, more people! These are different worlds. It is great to be able to experience different cultures and then the interesting part is that when you grow into a bicultural individual you take parts of each and then that becomes the evolved version of you. Certain sensibilities are very Icelandic and others very American for me. Also, I don’t  have an accent when I speak English, so often people assume I´m from here … but I grew up in a household speaking Icelandic and celebrating Icelandic customs. My brothers and I gravitated toward and had friends that were also from bicultural households, Iceland, Iran, Thailand, East Germany, Romania, Tanzania.

NYFA: Do you have a favorite NYFA moment from your time as a student? And now, a favorite NYFA moment as part of our staff?

RT: I had many such moments while studying at NYFA, most which involved me learning something new. Screenwriting classes are really where I found my producer voice as creative producing is my favorite kind.

My top favorite moment was likely when I finished my thesis, it was definitely thrilling, and when my $500-budget sketch “Carlos & Brandi,” that started as a class project, was featured on Funny or Die´s front page.

I also loved the pitch fests in the producing program. I met people there that I ended up working with later on, so the networking really started in school for me. Those were important moments that turned into relationships down the line.

As a staff member, I always enjoy the feedback from excited students that are coming into the programs. When I read pieces about countless former students that I remember running around campus that are out there doing well in the industry, that is always inspiring and makes me happy.

NYFA: What advice can you give to fellow NYFA students who are adjusting to life in the U.S.?

RT: I think being open-minded and a little bit outgoing, frankly, is important here. It is such a large, diverse market and environment (at least compared to Iceland). In order to create relationships and opportunities here I found just good-old taking initiative was the way to go. Also, seeking out like-minded people who are in the same adjustment phase or have similar goals. Building a little community around oneself is great, and school is the perfect place to start.

NYFA: What do you think is different about working in the arts in the U.S. in particular? What should international students do to prepare?

RT: There are differences both as far as content goes (some of the stuff in Iceland would probably be considered more “arthouse” vs. commercial, etc.) [and in the market size]. The U.S. market is so big and there are scores of people from all over the world trying for the same goals, so it´s hard work.

When possible, show up early, stay late, don´t complain, and be easy to work with. Always keep your word with or without what you consider having success, which rarely happens overnight. Focus on the craft, the art not just on the end goal. It´s easy to caught up in a game of comparisons, but I say focus on the work itself.

NYFA: You went back to study at NYFA after living a little life out in the workforce. What was your experience like going back to NYFA for continuing education to make a career shift? Why did you pick NYFA?

RT: The New York Film Academy had a philosophy that I connected with: the hands-on approach. The do-it-yourself Icelandic part of me definitely found that appealing. The thought of graduate school had been looming for a long time, as I felt I was missing some stuff being a self-taught filmmaker and I wanted more knowledge.

Also, I liked that the teachers are industry professionals, and they were truly the best part of my NYFA experience. I still see some of the producing, screenwriting and film instructors around that I connected with, and it really marked my time here. The instructors truly are phenomenal.

NYFA: What inspires you in your creative work? What kind of stories do you want to be a part of telling?

RT: I write and produce comedy when I am doing my own stuff and have done producing and consulting of various kinds of projects for others, or as a freelance producer. If I really look at the stuff I´ve made personally, most of it is a bit female-centric and in fact a lot of it is about my bi-cultural life experiences. The Scandinavian sarcasm and cynical humor is definitely visible in there too.

NFYA: What advice can you give to our students who, like you, are passionate about a profession in the filmmaking industry, while also juggling parenting?

RT: Before we have families, working up to 17-hour days at something is entirely possible and it is something I personally did for years. After kids, it’s all about balance. Having said that, some days are longer than others and obviously production by nature is time consuming. It´s about time management and truthfully perhaps some things you did before you simply won’t do unless you can make it work on multiple levels (appropriate assistance with childcare, etc.). I say write for your budget and according to time while in film school! I.e: Shooting minimal amounts of locations, etc. Anything to simplify production without compromising the material.

The New York Film Academy would like to thank Ragga for taking the time to share a bit of her story with the NYFA community. Ready to learn more about filmmaking? Check out our many programs at NYFA.

 

A Q&A with NYFA’s Screenwriting Chairs

In honor of International Screenwriter’s Day a few weeks ago, resident NYFA reporter Joelle Smith sat down with the New York Film Academy Screenwriting School’s three program chairs to discuss what their craft meant for them, their hopes for the future, and what students are bringing to the table. Here, read our dialogue with Melanie Williams Oram in New York City, and Nuncio DeFilippis and Adam Finer in Los Angles

NYFA: What makes the craft of screenwriting unique from all other forms of writing?

Adam Finer: Screenwriting is the blueprint for a uniquely visual form of storytelling. Without that strong blueprint, nothing gets built. Motion pictures, television series and web series all require storytellers who can visualize the world and create three-dimensional characters that drive a compelling and engaging story that can be told on-screen.    

Nunzio DeFilippis: Two things make it unique. The first is that a finished script is not a finished product. It’s only meant to guide in the creation of a different finished product (a film, or TV episode).

NYFA: What inspired you to become a screenwriter?

AF: I have been working with screenwriters for nearly 20 years now, helping writers develop their material, unearth characters, discover story worlds and find their personal voices. Those are some of the things that drive me. My mission is to help creative artists, and especially screenwriters, uncover the tools and skills to achieve their goals and find success in their chosen fields.  

NDF: Watching “Star Wars.” When I saw that movie (I was seven when it came out), I knew I wanted to write movies.  I did have some variation — thinking I might act as well as write — but I knew from seven years old that I wanted to write, and it had to be movies.

Melanie Williams Oram: I am a screenwriter because I love to tell stories. I decided to pursue a career in film and television because I am committed to telling stories that feature women, people of color, and other minorities and that celebrate the universality in diverse experiences. 

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NYFA: What do you see in your students today that is new in the field of screenwriting?

AF: Our department has a strong emphasis on finding the right medium for your story. It’s one of the reasons that our degree students learn about New Media or Transmedia storytelling. Our students are being prepared for the changes in the industry and are learning to create stories in the medium that best supports them.  

NDF: Younger writers don’t view the storytelling world in the same limited way that my generation did. When I went to film school, none of my classmates wanted to take classes on TV. It was beneath them, as they wrote films and only films.  

Students today are drawn to TV, but even better, see themselves as able to jump between the two forms. There is some resistance to other forms of visual storytelling (like web series and comic books) at first, but only from some of them.  

Many students are not only able to jump between film and TV, but they’re ready to tackle these new forms. I love their open-minded approach, and I think it serves them well.

MWO: The proliferation of digital media makes it easier for my current students to get their stories in front of an audience. In our screenwriting classes at NYFA we push students to develop unique characters that serve as the starting point to creating stories that are entertaining and that leave a powerful impact on their audiences

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NYFA: What’s one thing everyone should know before starting a screenplay?

AF: Understanding screenplay structure and format are essential for people in the industry to be willing to read your scripts.  

NDF: What they want the story to be about. Why are they writing it? Why is it important to them, and why are they the person to write this story?  

If you don’t know the answers to those two questions, you will burn out halfway through.  And the answers can’t just be “because it’s cool” or “because it’s popular right now.”  

If you don’t know what you’re writing about, and if you don’t connect with it, the work of creating a feature film script (or the entire world of a TV pilot) will be too much.

MWO: Conquering the demon of the blank page is the toughest thing about being a writer. Slay your blank page dragons by refusing to self-edit. Just let the ideas from your head flow onto the page. No judgments.

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NYFA: What makes a great screenplay?

AF: There are so many elements that go into a great screenplay. Well-developed and defined characters. A unique, yet relatable world (and unique doesn’t have to mean another planet, it can be a local sports story but from a perspective that’s unique). Strong dialogue that feels believable for the characters. The writer’s voice coming through in a story that they felt needed to be told.  

NDF: Characters who want something, and who face real stakes if they fail to achieve it. The greatest mistake I see in students and young writers is creating characters who are apathetic and want nothing. That’s a very hard character to hang a story around.  

Characters who want to be left alone have to pursue that goal as vigorously as other characters pursue their goals.  And even if they do, their stories risk a lack of connection to the audience.  What we connect to as audiences is desire.

Evil characters can still be compelling if the things they desire resonate with us.  Characters we have nothing in common with can generate empathy if we have something in common with what they want or need.  

Always build your story around this basic template:  “Someone wants something and something or someone gets in their way.” Then add consequences for failing to get that something (and not always physical ones, emotional ones will do) and you’ll have a story.

MWO: People connect to stories because they are able to identify with protagonists. There’s a common misconception in Hollywood that people can only identify with film characters who look like them. I believe that films with strong stories that explore human themes can connect people across racial and gender lines. Good stories make audiences forget that they are watching a film. Good stories allow audiences to become completely immersed in the struggles and the triumphs of the protagonist. 

Thank you to our Screenwriting School department chairs for sharing their insights with the New York Film Academy community! To learn more about the Scriptwriting track at NYFA click here.