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After a brush with Oscar fame, filmmaker (and risk-taker) Pia Clemente is sticking to the biz and sticking to her gut.
Talent. Most define it by great ability or aptitude. But in a place as exhausting and fickle as Hollywood, a place that thrives on passing trends, plastic glamour, and above all, big bucks, you need more than talent to succeed. Or at least a different definition of it.
“Talent is staying in there,” producer Pia Clemente told me, and she should know. Pia Clemente has been in the Hollywood film industry for over a decade now. Her resume boasts major commercials, a landmark Filipino American feature length film, an Academy award winning student film, and most recently, an Academy nominated short film that made Oscar history.
This past March, Pia Clemente became the first Filipina woman ever to be nominated for a major Oscar when she received a nomination for co-producing Rob Pearlstein’s short film Our Time is Up— a film about a psychiatrist who turns brutally honest on his neurotic patients after learning he has six months to live. Though the Academy nomination brought Clemente new job opportunities and new fame, Clemente claims that she is most grateful for the “process of getting the Oscar” and above all, her renewed confidence in the career that she almost left just two years prior.
In 2004, after ten years of mainly producing commercials, first for a major firm and later by freelance, Clemente was having doubts about staying in the film industry. “I was really questioning, ‘I mean I really like it and I do enjoy it, but I’m not sure if this is the direction I want to be in, if this is what I want for myself,’” said Clemente. “Sometimes when you do something you get tired and you wonder.”
But Clemente didn’t have to waste too much time wondering. It turns the film gods were listening because Clemente got her sign to stay— Rob Pearlstein approached her with his script for Our Time is Up. While he couldn’t offer her a salary (or the rest of the cast and crew for that matter), he did offer her a story that was too funny and too clever to turn down, and well, Clemente’s a sucker for a good story. “I love working in the commercial industry,” Clemente says. “But I love to tell stories. I love to read literature and I love hearing people’s stories. I just love talking to people.”
So Clemente took a chance on the small budget project and joined its cast and crew for the two day shoot. Armed with some resourceful ideas, Clemente helped to meticulously transform the home of Rob Pearlstein’s parents into the fictional world of the anal retentive Dr. Stern. “We tried hard not to break anything,” assures Clemente. The grassroots process took the producer back to her first days as a filmmaker, wandering around strange locations in New York. “It reintroduced me to my craft, “Clemente remarks. “I was like yeah, this is what I want to do again.”
And Clemente’s instincts and efforts were rewarded. Critic Steve Pond from the LA Times called Our Time is Up “polished, professional and very amusing,” and the Academy agreed. The dark horse of the live shorts, Our Time is Up was also the only American project to be nominated for the Best Live Action Short Film Oscar this year and the only comedic entry among its dramatic foreigner competitors.
In recent years, short films from overseas have dominated this category, most likely because they receive more support from their respective countries. Many foreign countries actually subsidize and broadcast short films, according to Clemente. It’s a stark contrast to the U.S. short film scene where projects are generally viewed only at film festivals or on independent cable channels if they’re lucky. As a result, U.S. filmmakers often aspire to make full length features rather than short films, which are viewed as stepping stones to larger projects.
Consequently, the success of Our Time is Up marks a much needed revival in American short films. Years ago, silver screen heavyweights like Brad Pitt and Phillip Seymour Hoffmann acted in short films. Our Time is Up brings back this tradition, showcasing the deadpan humor of film actor Kevin Pollack alongside up-and-coming television actors, Jorge Garcia (Lost) and Johnny Messner (the O.C.). Clemente and Pearlstein’s short is also aiding the popularization of the short film format through its availability on ITunes.
“That’s a big deal,” remarks Clemente about their contract with Apple. “It’s so much more accessible. That’s how the new wave of filmmakers are getting their stuff out there, so it’s really important that there’s good quality work out there and that they’re getting recognized.”
Still, it shouldn’t be that surprising that taking a chance on a good story ended in recognition for Clemente. Even in her rookie days, Pia Clemente seemed destined for some kind of Hollywood success. During her undergraduate years at Barnard College, a fateful athletic injury barred Clemente from pursuing a career in professional tennis. Unable to hit the courts, Clemente found herself in theatre class and loving it, and moving onto film. Her first short Christmas in New York (1997) won a Student Academy Award in 1997.
Immediately after receiving her B.A. degree in English from Barnard, Clemente moved to Los Angeles to pursue her M.F.A at the American Film Institute and establish her career in Hollywood. In 1997, after graduating from AFI, Clemente line produced a feature length independent film—the Filipino American flick The Debut. Ten years later, the Filipino community still talks about The Debut perhaps, because thus far, it’s been one of the only major Filipino American films to hit national theaters. “It’s a part of history and its very exciting,” says Clemente. “I hope it inspires people to keep creating history, to open the floodgates.”
Clemente has always been proud of her cultural roots and ready to motivate others to do the same. She was born in the Philippines and moved to New Jersey when she was three years old. Producing The Debut gave Clemente an important opportunity to reflect on her own experiences as a Filipina American and the difficulty of bridging two very different backgrounds. “We all go through that change, that time in our lives where we question who we really are in terms of our ethnicity – our Asianness vs. our Americanness,” says Clemente. “It’s sort of like you have the duality and you start questioning both of them and you try to figure out where you fit within them.”
Clemente plans to continue her cultural explorations in the future with what she calls her “passion projects”— a documentary and a fictional feature length film, both set to be filmed in the Philippines. She describes the feature length project as a coming of age movie about family and identity. She hopes to shoot it in Bulacan where her family grew up.
“When I go to the Philippines, there’re so many emotions and so many things hit me and I just love the reality of people’s lives there,” says Clemente.
As evidence that these films truly are “passion projects,” Clemente plans to make them independently to avoid the delays of external financing. “It gets more exciting that way,” Clemente explains. “I’ll deal with the adventures that come with that.”
Clemente, after all, has a penchant for the risky, the exciting, and sometimes, the potentially dangerous. She found herself stranded on a hectic film set in Atlanta a few years ago. Clemente needed an assistant badly, but there just weren’t a lot of people in Atlanta’s small film industry and she just didn’t have a lot of time. The producer hurriedly made some phone calls and appointed the first person available: no resume, no background check.
“What if they were a serial killer?” Clemente’s sister-in-law asked. “I’ll drive in a different direction,” Clemente replied.
It was a classic case of Clemente’s confidence and sometimes, capriciousness. One could call it carelessness, but Clemente calls it trusting her instincts and she encourages young filmmakers to do the same. “Just keep doing what you’re doing. Don’t stop writing. Don’t stop making films. Don’t stop writing your stories. Don’t stop telling your stories,” Clemente advises. “If you know you want to stay in it, you have to stay in it and keep trying and getting it out there.”
Yes, it sounds clichéd. But then again, it earned Pia Clemente two Oscar nods and with more film adventures ahead, she might just earn a third.
Official website: http://www.ourtimeisup.com/
Date Posted: 8/22/2006