Screenwriter/Playwright/Theatre and Film Director, Dr. Sophia Romma is the screenwriter and producer of the Garnet Grand Prix Award-Winning international art-house motion-picture, Poor Liza, starring Emmy Award-Winning and three-time Golden Globe winning actor, Ben Gazzara and Obie, two-time Emmy and Academy Award-Winning actress, Lee Grant. Poor Liza, directed by the émigré cult director of Liquid Sky, won honorable mention for best original drama phantasma at the Cairo Film Festival, took second prize for revival of surrealism and mysticism in film, won first prize at the 21st Moscow International Film Festival for the Bunuel Film Series Tribute and was awarded the Garnet Grand Prix Bracelet from the St. Petersburg Literature in Film Festival, which is equivalent to receiving the coveted Oscar.
Tell us about your background and when did you decided to become a filmmaker?
I arrived on American shores as a six-year-old child and had witnessed my mother face the gruesome challenging fate brought on by immigration, the dislocation of the émigré soul and the eventual rather heart-wrenching assimilation which is the fate of the émigré who stands obliged to blend into a society that is not often welcoming and in fact quite frankly unapologetically judgmental of differing cultures and customs. I am a child of the Cold War and having fled Soviet Russia due to religious and ethnic persecution, as most fledging immigrants; I found immense and infinite escapism in fantasy with the unfolding of slow seductively intricate and sublime images on the screen at the very moment that I had set foot in the Film Form in Bohemian Greenwich Village, New York. I was captivated and enthralled by the sheer elegance of these mystical alluring 24 frames per second captured for an eternity on celluloid and mesmerized by that sin in soft focus unraveled by the motion-pictures. Film, in my humble opinion, is a creative medium in which much like crooning the blues or playing jazz notes, the soul of humanity is exposed frame by frame before the lens of the human eye. Hence, one is immersed in that cinematic thrilling whirlpool as the human condition in unveiled, hopefully resonating with a global multitude. I cannot righteously admit to instantaneously deciding to become a filmmaker like Poof! Rather, I decided to write for film, to be a screenwriter which is a special beast, and to paint in stark images, employing descriptive words to sing the songs of life, light, death, pain, pathos, drama, love, lust and the eternal suffering of the human condition by depicting lives spun in tales via the craft of film. The first film I had seen at the Film Forum was a Knife in the Water by Roman Polanski. It was anything but a film shot taking into account an impressionable youth’s sensibility. However, this uncanny psychological thriller was a wet and wild drama and being so young it had ignited my spirit to explore that delicate volatile dynamic between intense intimate uncomfortable spaces occupied by gripping spirits entangled in the septic verse of the vespers encroaching upon solipsistic minds. Since the epistemological position reveals that solipsism entails that knowledge of any aspect of life outside of one’s own mind is a grave uncertainty—I have felt the longing desire to explore the internal and external world of the mind which cannot be truly known and which does not really exist outside of the mind of the beholder. I wanted to make films so that I could probe into the epistemic theories of truth. In portraying verisimilitude—I attempt to treat film as a lyrical composition which is an excursion into the principles of truth-like-ness. After all, cinema often mirrors our lives to the point of precise excruciation thrust upon us by the very act of living which is an artform in itself.
Films that inspired you to become a filmmaker?
The cinema of the former Czechoslovakia, as well as the current Czech Republic and Slovakia, is indisputably some of the most richly visual cinema ever made in the history of the motion-picture industry. I was definitely inspired by masterpieces such as The Shop on Main Street, Pacho, the Brigand of Hybe, The Feather Fairy, Let the Princess Stay with Us, Closely Watched Trains, Ragtime, Man on the Moon, and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. I have also been greatly inspired by Au Hasard De Balthazar, The Nun (1966), The Diary of a Chambermaid, Summer of Sam, Mean Streets, The Piano, Agnes of God, Fanny and Alexander, Virgin Spring, Cries and Whispers, When Harry Met Sally, Cleo from 5 to 7, The Bicycle Thieves, Pierrot Le Fou, and Pickpocket, merely to name a few masterpieces of cinematic integrity wrapped in coils of fantasy. I would be remiss if I failed to mention the films of Martin Scorsese in particular, as he taught film at my Alma Mater, Tisch School of the Arts at New York University. I am fan of his films, Casino and Goodfellas. I also greatly admire Spike Lee’s films, especially Jungle Fever, Crooklyn and Malcolm X. I have been immeasurably impressed by the films of Ingmar Bergman such as the ingenious Persona, Wild Strawberries, and The Seventh Seal. This is most definitely not an exhaustive list of films that have egged me on to become a filmmaker and a screenwriter. I fawn over Andrei Tarkovsky’ metaphysically dark films such as Mirror and Stalker. I cannot fail to mention Akira Kurosawa’s brilliant films such as Throne of Blood, Drunken Angel and Stray Dog. Mr. Kurosawa innovatively utilized the Axial Cut and the Cut on Motion shots, which I admire. In terms of acting, I like to appear in cameo roles, preferably in black and white as I am not terribly photogenic and the camera simply does not love me. However, acting in my own films, is challenging and somewhat cryptic. I appear as the master of suspense, Alfred Hitchcock did, in some phantom scene as a backdrop so that the audience may acknowledge and hence emphatically exclaim at some point in time: “Look, there’s the director, Sophia Romma!”
Who is your biggest influence?
Robert Bresson. Robert Bresson is the epitome of ecclesiastical cinema bordering on a manic adherence to the concept of God’s existence and the toll that human suffering takes on those who expatiate for their earthly sins. As one of my other film icons stated about the cinematic craft of Mr. Bresson; I too feel as does the artful ground-breaking Jean-Luc Goddard: “Bresson is the French Cinema, as Fyodor Dostoevsky is the Russian novel and Mozart is German music.” Bresson’s films are imbued with the presence of Deity underscoring a baffling mysticism and a celestial lyricism. Hence for me, Bresson is the essence of film as he skillfully mines the touchstones of humanity and reaches the epicenter of the heart and soul of a singular cinematic frame elevating the medium to a cathartic opera before a weeping in sync audience. I also deeply admire Otto Preminger who directed more than thirty-five feature films in a five-decade career after leaving the theatre, simply because I hail from Off-Broadway and Off-off Broadway where I had commenced by writing and directing career. I am a fan of Mr. Preminger’s film noire mysteries such as Laura and Fallen Angel. I found his film, Anatomy of A Murder simply brilliant, especially for those who had graduated from Law School, as I have. I found his movie, Advice and Consent, an American political drama, to be most moving.
What were some of the challenges you had to face in making your films?
I would have to say that the most challenging film I had worked on was my most recent labor of love, Used and Borrowed Time. We were shooting on a very tight budget. We were obliged to shoot in the dead of winter with snowfalls and raging whiplashing winds. Our post-production Estonian team was riddled with the dilemma of working during the height of the Covid-19 pandemic where the entire world was paralyzed by looming death, an economic crisis and a medical calamity which taxed healthcare systems to the maximum and altered the lives of each member of society on a multi-faceted level. This film was indeed a labor of love during the time of cholera called Covid. I found my film, Poor Liza, to be quite torturous in shooting as well, since it was the first film to be shot on location with breathtaking scenes in the center of the Red Square in Moscow (back in 1998), in the former Soviet Union, and our producers had to obtain special permission from the Kremlin to shoot those scenes by Saint Basil’s Cathedral, which was no small feat, obviously. Furthermore, my esteemed actor, the Academy Award Nominee, Ben Gazzara, an icon in Hollywood, had indulged in a bit too much vodka since it was frigid and in shooting one of our main scenes in which Mr. Gazzara was lifted sky high against a blue screen with some markers, engaged in the act of a flying narrator named Karamzin, Ben kept hollering at the crew as he was hoisted: “Be careful of my balls, they are precious!” The rest of the cast, including the fabulously talented Lee Grant, burst out in boisterous laughter and had some great fun, however the filming was riddled with chaos from military incursions to curfew impositions. We were all so thrilled to return to the United States when the shooting of the film had culminated that we cried tears of pure joy.
Do you have a favorite genre to work in? Why is it your favorite?
I like to work in the genre of sentimentalism, allegorical symbolism, mystic fantasy, surrealism, absurdism, and expressionism. I am a steadfast disciple of the La Nouvelle Vague, German Expressionism and Italian Neo-Realism. The Golden Age of Italian Cinema has insidiously inspired me in that oldies but goodies mannerism with stories set amongst the poor and the working class, filmed on location, often employing the talents of non-professional actors to bring forth that authentic quality shamelessly portraying the concept of our tormented human nature while by the same token our propensity of unspeakable atrocities as people against others who are less fortunate. Themes of everyday life, including poverty, oppression, injustice, and desperation are all too familiar to me as an émigré and as the daughter of refugees. However, in order for the audience to swallow the harsh pills of reality; I attempt to add the water of baptisms so that universally speaking—unbearable reality is laced with the hope of surrealism, escapism and a false sense of spiritual heroism—a recipe for a tolerable yet engaging cinematic experience without having to wallow in the pain of others to the extent of desiring the death of one’s own persona in the face of human misery without the prospects of certain redemption and resurrection. German Expressionism entices my abstract sense as a filmmaker. Film ought to express itself in shadowy, enigmatic landscapes of mystery to convey nightmares of the heart, longings of the passionate and the obsessions of the haunted screen where actors play out the lives of their living counterparts—those who actually watch films reveal their own social circumstances behind veiled scrims as the camera roams wild through decrepit purple stocking slums, evoking images of pimps smoking cigars, femme fatales swinging off monkey bars and brute deceptive cads playing poker in the dingy cobblestoned alleyways. I admire the French New Wave genre and those respective directors for their unconventional cinematic language which broke the barriers of French Cinema. Revered directors such as Claude Chabral, Jean-Luc Godard, Jacques Rivette, Eric Rohmer and Francois Truffaut were my greatest influences in film. I also work with repetitive dialogue, jump cuts and time lapse to hammer in the auteur’s distinctive and discriminate point of view and to deliver the plot in a staccato manner. Low budget, location shot films, free style editing, loosely constructed narratives, spontaneity and non-politicized cinema has fascinated me from the onset of my film career. I accept the dilemma of taking unpopular stances but shun away from appearing as a stooge dictating on the edge of a soapbox, perched at the pinnacle of pretentious pompousness. Cinema is art and art should not preach—it should move and shake, capture and overtake, consume and exhume. I do not mean to sound crass but as corpses may be exhumed from the ground so may stale emotional states that have long been put to rest. Film allows for the blooming of intense sentiments so that a holocaust of lost souls can be reclaimed in the form of embers from flickering motion-pictures.
What’s your all-time favorite movie and why?
Stanley Kubrick’s Doctor Strangelove Or How I learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, is perhaps the greatest film of all time. I take a keen and a sort of depraved pleasure in watching this film’s unique cynicism burgeon on film and overtake the most unsuspecting and naïve spectators with its prophetic commentary on war, the burden which nations carry in a race towards unattainable exceptionalism while nursing the psychosis of competitive warfare among ambitious actor states willing to subdue and crush the temperament of their own citizens solely to rule the world stage. This dark comedy satirizes the Cold War panic of a nuclear conflict between the Soviet Union and the United States. This film is a comedic tragic triumph over the perversity and dementia of power-tripping. Kubrick’s sardonic heavy-handed direction is no subtle attempt to socially and astutely comment on the absurdity of space wars and on the detrimental pain that war creates, scarring and disfiguring future generations both mentally and physically.
If you could work with anyone in the world, who would that person be?
I have admired Spike Lee for decades. He was also my professor at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts. The screenplay for Mr. Lee’s iconic film, Do the Right Thing, was my screenwriting bible. It was a perfectly tailored film in which Brooklyn, New York’s simmering racist culture was brutally exposed on a hot summer day. I admire filmmakers who set the tone—the ambiance of a socially significant motion-picture while steadfastly keeping to a plastered season and are exquisitely able to spin a lamentable tale within the confines of the stifling beaming sun, ferreting out those rat racists of Brooklyn equipped with undertones of such sadness brought to the forefront in bitter sweet notes of comedy. Mr. Lee is a master of this fading genre.
Tell us something most people don't know about you.
Most people who do not know me well, or those who attain merely a faint glimpse of my character do not have an inkling that I suffer from debilitating anxiety. I have battled this fear of apprehension regarding the future, excessive nervousness and worry about not being accepted by my colleagues or my friends and family ever since I began to express this hounding angst as a child of ten, whence I commenced upon my poetical escapades and decided to become a poet or a lady of verse. I presume that those who come across this interview now know that I am an anxious being, so it is no longer my secret.
The one person who has truly believed in you throughout your career?
My mother is the one person who truly believed in my work throughout my career by supporting me through the harshest of financial times and the trying meanderings of an artist’s youthful follies to succeed in this most challenging industry riddled with hurdles at each turn. My Mama and might I add, my grandmother, have held this burning torch of faith in my artistry and in my cinematic craft which I so deeply appreciate. I am a mother myself and have come to the realization of how pivotal it is to support your children’s dreams whatever they may be. While my aunt always called me touched in the head and mad, my mother and her mother in turn, recognized that I had a spark of talent. I admire my Mama so much for believing in me and supporting me in my sincere and unfaltering desire to make movies. I would never have had the courage to make Used and Borrowed Time, had it not been for the support of my beloved Mama.
What was the most important lesson you had to learn as a filmmaker?
Films are the most sacred form of artistic expression, but a director must not make a film out of revenge or hatred. I learned that filmmaking is an art of love and not an art of the battle-axe. While I do not necessary believe that a director ought to shoot a film as a therapeutic experience—making a film, recounting a sad true story or conceptualizing a fairytale means that you must be married to your craft and that translates to never having to settle for mediocrity or insincerity but to shoot the film that you wish to make while keeping your artistic integrity in tact through the passion and admiration that you possess for this unique craft. In other words, directors warrant a committed relationship to their film projects, to their cast, crew and to their producers—there can be no mistresses involved, that’s sacrilegious to the art form and desecrates a film project from its conception with a dishonest approach. For an actor, I believe it is most important to believe in your character’s existence and to fancy yourself as that character. If the actor strays from the poignancy of the specific character trait that he or she must portray—the truth in that specific portrayal is lost and that is a grievance to the nature of the actor. For screenwriters, I feel that the profession calls for a preponderance of stamina in creative but structured writing—it’s a craft and one that beckons a blue print outline with a definitive theme, plot points and solid drama. The screenwriter needs discipline—if a writer procrastinates it may consume the project and send the artist into a drinking stupor—at least that is my personal experience with that particular inadequacy.
Is it harder to get started or to keep going? What was the particular thing that you had to conquer to do either?
I firmly believe that it is much harder to begin. There you are, staring at a series of blank pages, mortified to commence the creative journey. You are not certain where the ebbing paths shall take you and where your artistic choices will lead. The debris—thick with heaviness way upon your soul and the obstacles mount against your hide with each blank hill of a page. In order to conquer that debilitating fear in the pursuit of screenwriting, I have to clear my mind, find the inspiration and let my fingers do the talking. Then my heart will pour itself onto those taunting pages and I find that I can sustain this fighting feeling for as long as I need to finish the screenplay. With filmmaking, I feel that once on set, the sustenance of continuing to shoot for lengthy periods of time in different turbulent locations is fatiguing and so one must call upon the muses to harness stamina in order to keep inspired and motivated. A director is the master of his own ship but there are pirates on deck to watch out for lest they hijack your entire film production and you are left with a grip devoid of an artist’s dream.
What keeps you motivated?
Writing and shooting a compelling story keeps me motivated. Memories from the heart are like souvenirs to share with the audience. Film graces you with the favor to hold an audience captive while unleashing a story of a human struggle, a tender desire, or a wanton ill which shackles and stifles society. If I can move a soul to ponder over humanity’s plight; that serves as my sincere motivation. Naturally, I aim to entertain, above all, but I do not wish to reel an audience hook line and sinker with frivolity. There exists a plethora of mundane works of art that circulate in the sphere of cinema and that’s a pity because it diminishes the beauty of capturing that sacred art form on celluloid or during these progressive days, on digital. I wish to tantalize a spectator’s mind or to touch the soul of a viewer through submerging the audience in Dante’s Inferno and seeing if the audience can forgive me for the gratification of presenting life as I see that life, entangled in the webs of its virtue or entrapped by the horrors of its vice.
How has your style evolved?
My passion for film shall never dissipate and while I have been writing plays for the theatre for nearly twenty-five years, when I commenced my writing career, I dabbled with themes of sentimentalism, deep romanticism and drama phantasma for the screen. After attending Fordham University Law School and majoring in International Human Rights Law, I have seen my writing gain a socially conscious purview. I seek to make movies which call for social change, an adherence to the rule of law, and a plea for equality and tolerance. I am distinctly aware of the injustices, racism, bigotry and biases which dog our contemporary society and it is my goal to shed light on these inequities while refraining from preaching like a charlatan, pastor upon a soap box. I am not a politician nor a talk show host. I want to show and recount the truth which we face as marginalized folk, as those working on the periphery of time and slaving against the grain of what is expected, even if it is ruthless in cinematic presentation. Even if a spectator cannot fathom swallowing their meatloaf after what I have shown on the silver screen—and if that’s the effect of my work, I’ve moved a spirit to quit eating and start thinking with a cause for change settled in the crevices of the mind. My favorite author, James Baldwin, did not shy away from dragging the will and shrieking sound of defiance to the forefront to take swords up against discrimination and intolerance. My style has evolved to face the music but not to simply listen to the sound but to hear the words echoing in the halls of the heart, screaming for societal change and equitable justice.
On set, the most important thing is:
On set, the most important aspect is to be cool, calm and collected. As a director, I seek to unleash effective convincing performances from my cast. I must be endearing and leisurely while at the same time I must be ready to crack a certain whip so that momentum is not lost. A director should be versatile, sensitive yet bold, a commander in chief but not a fool and eager to listen to suggestions—open to ideas. I believe a director should learn from the cast and crew by using soft words when needed, gentle persuasion where expected and brash domineering force when required, especially when seeking a momentous performance or when imprinting for cinematic posterity that once in a life time Gone with the Wind Love Scene shot atop of the emerald hill overlooking a field of chaos whist still awaiting paradise to march in and salvage that day for night shot on the set, before the director shouts: “Cut!”
The project(s) you’re most proud of…
I am most profoundly proud of my film, Poor Liza, which starred Academy Award Nominee Ben Gazzara and Academy Award Winner, Lee Grant. Although the sentimental tale revolves around a young peasant girl who is romanced and then deplorably abandoned by a callous nobleman in the 18th Century—it is a lamentable tale of how class struggles within the constraints of society conscript a true act of love to utter and insufferable futility. I was very proud that this film had won the Grand Prix Garnet Bracelet for Best Motion-Picture at the Gatchina Literature and Film Festival in St. Petersburg, Russia and that I was able to gift my beloved mother with this coveted film award at such an early stage in my film career. I am also significantly proud of my three stage-plays which were produced while I was under contract at La MaMa Experimental Theatre in New York. “Love in the Eyes of Hope, Dies Last,” was an auto-biographical play which dealt with the hardships of immigration and assimilation. “Coyote, Take Me There!” was a folkloric biblical musical which also revolved around the dislocation of refugees from Eastern Europe and the impoverished wise asylum seekers from Mexico and Latin American countries. “Defenses of Prague” was an Obie Nominated mystical play in verse which was about the legendary Golem of Prague coming face to face with the Roma of Prague set against the backdrop of the brutal invasion of Czechoslovakia by the Soviets in 1968.
What are your short term and long-term career goals?
To be perfectly candid, I do not hold long-term career goals. My late sister who passed at the tender age of eighteen and to whom I have dedicated practically all of my work in the theatre, had written in her diary that she was going to eat the most delicious Granny Smith apple on Saturday afternoon but she had passed on Friday. I’ve learned not to make plans lest God holds other plans for me and for those around me. Perhaps God even snickers at my plans so I am resolved to adhere to short term career goals. I would like to make another socially conscious change seeking film within the next two years, should I live so long. It would also be lovely to work with some actors whom I thoroughly admire, such as Adrian Brody and Marisa Tomei.
What are your upcoming projects?
At New York University, I had a professor who had taught a class on Vladimir Nabokov and the students were assigned to read practically each of his novels. I was a young lady who was touched by the story of Mashenka which in my opinion served as a prelude to Nabokov’s infamous banned novel Lolita. In Mashenka, a young man, recuperates from typhoid fever, clenched in the clutches of boredom and thus conjures up his ideal love—a girl whom he actually meets a month later. Mashenka is the love of his life. Nabokov describes the lass: “a girl with chestnut scythe in a black bow, burning eyes, a swath face and a rolling carted voice.” Once the protagonist, Ganin, catches a glimpse of this girl, he is instantly smitten with her much like the lewd character of Humbert Humbert was possessed and consumed by Lolita’s underage visage and licentious aura. Mashenka and Lolita are primary examples of young girls who are victims of solipsism. The two young girls exist only in the sole minds of Ganin and Humbert Humbert as they appear as clip-on identities and not as real youthful ladies imbued with distinct individual characteristics. In a sense, these unfortunate girls are victims of a contrived perverse imagination. I am currently engaged in writing a screenplay revolving around Lolita’s perspective regarding Humbert Humbert in which I depict her every reaction to his haughty elicit sexual advances towards such a young girl. I believe that as a woman I am equipped to ascertain and portray Lolita’s version of Humbert Humbert’s infatuation with a twelve-year old Dolores Haze and to express Lolita’s vision of this rather sick seduction of a pubescent girl. While the term “Lolita” has been sadly assimilated into our popular culture as a description of a young girl who is “precociously seduced….sans the wicked connotations of victimization,” I aim to prove on the contrary (drawing from a similarly situated experience) that Dolores Haze is indeed a victim and not a seductress, at least not a conscience one due to her obvious inexperience, fickle pre-teen posture, youth and fleeting innocence which is prone to serve as sensual prey of worldly educated men like Humbert Humbert. I feel that a film based on Lolita’s response to Humbert Humbert’s despicable physical and emotional advances may be timely in the era of meaningful social change movements seeking female empowerment while holding guilty men accountable for their horrendous acts against women, such as the #metoo movement demonstrates. I would also very much like to shoot an adaptation of my play, which premiered at the 13th Street Repertory Theatre, entitled, “The Blacklist,” which is a quirky yet prophetically poignant political satire about an afterlife party hosted by the Grim Reaper during our flamboyantly tumultuous, politically divisive times.