Taking on the world: Meet Australian filmmaker Ellenor Agyropoulos

Sometimes personalities come along that you can’t help but want to get to know, and Genero filmmaker Ellenor Agyropoulos is one of them! At only 24 years old, Ellenor has had her work screened at Cannes and festivals around the world, travelled extensively for various clients and recently directed a film selected by Qantas as part of their ‘Feels Like Home’ campaign.

We were keen to know more about her work ethic, so we caught up with the filmmaker to chat about her processes, getting inspired by travel and still calling Australia home.

Qantas is as one of the strongest brands in Australia. What’s it like to be selected as a runner up for this huge campaign?

It feels amazing! I got goosebumps down my spine and my face and ears went red when I found out I was selected! To be selected to work on a film for a company that has been so ingrained in my Australian life, that is so prestigious and that is so iconic, and especially since its an airline that has been my g- to since I was born, its really one heck of a feeling! I was absolutely honoured to be creating a film for Qantas!

Your film is such fun celebration of young people’s travel culture. What was the inspiration behind it?

Thank you! Well for me the piece is a personal reflection of how Qantas has supported me in a way. Im an avid traveller and I often travel alone. Through the experiences I’ve had in various cities and places I’ve been, I’ve always had moments I wanted to share with friends and loved ones and had that moment going “gosh, I wish you were here!”. Whilst it’s exciting to have all these wonderful experiences in these often magnificent places, I’ve always enjoyed the moment when you get to share it with your friends when you get back home and that feeling of anticipation that comes with it when you’re on the plane waiting to arrive.

So essentially thats how the piece started. I wanted to translate that feeling that I’ve always had about travelling and bring it to life in a fun relatable way through this piece.

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You were lucky enough to receive a grant to produce your Qantas film. Do film ideas come naturally to you or do you have a process for brainstorming ideas and writing treatments?

It depends. I’m a very visual person so I’m inspired by the films I watch, but more specifically, I’m really inspired by photographs. I love photography, I used to just sit on trains and photograph people or just people watch (creepy I know..). But I love watching and listening, and looking at an image and trying to nut out its story, figure out its character, get in the subjects head.

Ideas don’t always come naturally, you have to work at them every day and allow yourself to get bored in order for them to flourish.

When I start writing I write it as a poem, a poem written from the central character’s point of view. From there I begin to formulate the basis of my ideas. Ideas don’t always come naturally, you have to work at them every day and allow yourself to get bored in order for them to flourish. For this pitch in particular the theme revolved around home and came from a brand that I know, that I love and that I have a certain feeling towards so immediately knew a lot about the characters I wanted to create.

I gathered inspirational images first via Pinterest and Flickr and Vimeo and also delved into my personal collection of travel images to paint the picture (I always get my inspirational material before I write). Once I know how its going to look, then I put pen to pad and start writing. Writing the script is almost always the last thing I do in my treatments.

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Tell us about putting together the video? 

Putting this video together was insanely fun. I had a very big idea and not a lot of time and budget to put it together so it was a bit ambitious. On top of that I made life really really easy for myself by setting each scene in a different country… so it was definitely one of the biggest challenges I’ve faced. Pre production is always my favourite, I really enjoy nutting it out and seeing it start to come together. I decided to shoot over 2 weeks which didn’t give me much pre production time but allowed me to break up each scene and focus on one thing at a time as the script was packed with a variety of cast and locations. Our locations were very dependant on time too, for example the salsa festival only happened on one day between a certain time, and if we didn’t get it then, we wouldn’t have another chance.

I tried to bang out the more involved scenes first, i.e. the roadtrip scene with the boys, the salsa festival etc… then I’d do the less involved scenes and once I had met all the cast and worked with them and gotten to know them, I would do the rooftop scene last. I did this so we could go out with a bang and also so everyone would be comfortable with me and then each other before we started. This would give off a more natural scene, which it did and all I had to do was observe and shoot and give direction where needed. For the most part the cast were out there having a ball. I made time to have coffee with most of my actors before the shoot and get to know them a bit more. This was also to make sure we were on the same page on the shoot because we didn’t have much time to get what we needed in the can. The roadtrip was extraordinary, I got to know my actors at 5am on a 2+ hour drive out to Bendigo driving a Kombi van with one heck of a personality I’ll tell you that. By the time the cameras were rolling it was as if the guys and I were best mates on a road trip together already so it was perfect for the film and stands as my favourite scene.

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The crew basically involved me, myself and I. I enjoyed working one on one with the cast and I love being behind the camera so the only other crew I used were the occasional family members to help out with catering. Amazingly enough this was my first time working with and meeting almost all my cast members and it certainly wont be the last time. I really wanted this shoot to be a friendly smooth familiar affair and by doing that, the film felt more homey to me and less foreign so it was just a fantastic experience.

By the time the shoot was done I had 5 days to edit, grade and sound mix before I sent the film in, so you could say it was a very jam packed 6 weeks of production.

Locations were a really significant part of this shoot, and you have a lot of experience in the travel genre. Are you inspired by different locations and places?

Yes they were. I’d say I’m definitely inspired by locations and places. When I travel it’s actually the time I think and write the most, it’s when I’m most in tune with nature and it’s the only time I can relax enough to stop, slow down and take it all in. I’m most inspired by the Northern Territory, it’s just beyond amazing, so photogenic and so packed with history.

I’ve rock climbed to the to get to the top of rock pools on small mountains where I know no one else will be, I sit there and watch the sunset just thinking. I’m also drawn to places like the ocean where the waves roll in and calm me, I could sit there for hours listening to the waves, thinking about ideas. I’m also drawn to super busy locations like cafes and trams, places that are specific to each city so I can observe what it is about that place that makes it so special. For example trains here vs trains in Paris where French buskers come on and play the accordion. I LOVE those moments. I like learning and discovering…and people watching.. you can learn a great deal from that.

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What did you shoot on for the Qantas brief? 

For this shoot I worked with the Sony a7s, a Blackmagic Cinema Camera and the Blackmagic Pocket Camera. I think the most important thing to pack is a spare camera! In this case I shot all the primary material with the a7s, I liked that it was a small versatile camera that worked well in low light and also had a high frame rate which produced stunning images for me to colour grade with.

It’s an old cliche but I really did have to leave home to realise how it affected me and how much I loved it.

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What is your relationship to the concept of home? What does home mean to you?

I adore the concept of home. Home isn’t a place, it’s a feeling. Home for me is my family and it’s a place I can go and just not think about anything. I travel a fair bit and despite how comfortable I might be in a certain place or how much I love it, it doesn’t beat coming back to a warm bed that I can’t get out of in the morning. It doesn’t beat that home cooked meal my mum has waiting for me. It doesn’t beat going to a new cafe and chuckling at the ever-growing hipster culture. It doesn’t beat going to an AFL game and cheering on my team with my fellow Melbournians and getting that fuzzy feeling of pride that I’ve grown up in such a great city. It’s an old cliche but I really did have to leave home to realise how it affected me and how much I loved it.

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You studied at VCA and then went on to specialise in cinematography. What was the most important thing you learnt? Do you think all filmmakers should try to go to film school?

I’ve always been interested in cinematography and how it can be used to tell a story. During my final year at VCA whilst I was in post production on a short film I wrote and directed called Life Through A Lens, I went to Budapest for a 2 week masterclass with Vilmos Zsigmond and it totally completely threw me – in good ways but I learnt so much. I realised how much responsibility the cinematographer carries, it’s not just making the image look good, it’s about knowing the director’s vision, sometimes more than them and finding a way to bring out the language of the story through moving images in a unique way. The cinematographer can almost be the director’s shrink in some cases! If the director can’t keep it together for some reason or another then I’ve noticed the DP has to keep it together or the shoot falls apart.

I remember when I was directing my short I got quite sick and run down by the end of the shoot from exhaustion and the reason the shoot continued so wonderfully was because of my cinematographer. So what I’ve learnt is that the cinematographer is often overlooked in film and I believe is the single most important person that can make or break a film. People don’t give them enough credit for what they do, it really just isn’t all about how the shot looks like I used to think…

I don’t its mandatory for filmmakers to go to film school at all, I’ve met a number of fantastic producers, designers and director’s who haven’t and are absolutely killing it! If you’re curious and you know you want to be in this industry, just get out there and meet people! Best way of learning. I’ve learnt more about this industry since film school then I actually did there. Having said that film school was a great platform for me to play with ideas. Its a place where you can freely meet people who you share the same interests with and often become your life long collaborators. So in that respect, I’d say a film course is handy but doesn’t necessarily give you street cred straight up, you have to work for that.

Some people specialise, but you cover a range of creative roles in filmmaking – Do you like being hands on with every aspect of production?

Yeah definitely. I think its really good to have an understanding of all the roles in filmmaking, it helps me as be a better director when I’m on a shoot because I can think like an editor for example and I know what I’d be looking for in post so I make sure I get it on set. On smaller shoots its fun to play all the roles and it can be very rewarding in the end if all your work pays off. Even on slightly larger shoots where I’m directing, I still like to co-produce and co-edit and I spent a lot of time with my cinematographer in pre discussing the shoot. When you have an idea in your head its hard to completely let go and focus on one thing specifically, actually it would drive me nuts if I did that, so I like to duck my head into all major departments when I can… I learn a lot that way. Except for maybe sound, Im rubbish at that and would gladly hand it off to someone who knows what they’re doing.

You’ve created a lot of documentary content. What are the most important elements of telling a good story and bringing real people to life on screen?

Unscripted. Communication and always always let the story tell itself. I think you should definitely have a bit of a plan of what you’re trying to say and WHY you want to say it, but sometimes that in itself can distract you from some golden moments and opportunities if you’re too focused on the structure. To me the most important part is to have a very casual conversation with the person I’m documenting, or speak to the people about the subject I’m working on. It can just be a coffee session with them. That’ll give me a really good understanding of who they are as a person straight up before I start shooting. It also gives the person a chance to get comfortable with me as a person before I put a camera in their face! They feel like they know me a bit more and so they’re not as stiff… thats awkwardness (if any) is out of the way when we have coffee before shooting.

One of the most important things I’ve learnt though is to really know when to make yourself noticeable and when to hang back a bit and make yourself invisible when shooting, especially if you’re working with someone who isn’t used to being on camera. Take breaks, be relaxed, direct when you need to if there’s a shot specific to the subject you think would be worth getting but follow that person and let them tell you the important parts first. There’ll always be room to finesse if you need to later on.

This year you headed to Cannes! Tell us a bit about what work was screening there and the experience of being at such an iconic film festival?

Cannes was a surreal! Its hard to describe the experience in words, in some ways it was the most incredible experience of my life and in others it was completely tough to wrap my head around. I went over because my film ‘Life Through A Lens’ was screening there and I was also accepted into a filmmaking program with The Creative Mind Group. It was my first time in Cannes so I went over to find my feet and see and do as much as I could. I don’t think anything could have prepared me for what it was like, it was a completely different world. Everyone you could ever want to meet is there and its surreal and at times overwhelming. I tried to get to as many premieres and screenings as I could, 10 + days running on 2-3 hours of sleep a night, I noticed a trend that the best time for an opportunity to meet some pretty important people was at various bars at around 3am. It was great!!

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What would you say was a defining moment for you as a filmmaker?

The defining moment for me as a filmmaker was when I completed ‘Life Through a Lens’. That was when I realised, “yeah, I can do this, I can really do this”. It was the biggest film I had worked on and when it started getting accepted into festivals and it began receiving warm receptions, people wanted to talk to me about it and people wanted to tell me that it touched them on some level, that was when I just knew I was on the right path, I knew I could make it someday. It was truly amazing, I had gone through a lot with that script and I had received barely any support with it in uni, a lot of people had an opinion and told me not to include some of the things that I did in the film, but I stuck to my gut and I went at it alone for the most part. When people tell me today how much they loved some of those elements I kept in the film, I started to really gain more faith in myself and my abilities, not just as a director but as a writer as well. So yeah, that film is what keeps me grounded to this day, its what keeps me in check and its what keeps me going and pushing further.

What is the best advice anyone has ever given you?

Be positive. Simple as that. Its something my mum had always taught me and its something I never forget. Making a film or working on a short production of some sort can be one of the biggest emotional roller-coasters you can put your body through and often easy to stress, doubt yourself and lose sight of the end product. Positivity is what keeps the ball rolling. I once had a cinematographer bail a couple of days before shooting and he was one of the few people who could operate the 35mm camera we were working with. I just felt completely empty when that happened, there are no words, but you have to find a way to make it work.. even if you end up shooting it yourself! I picked myself up after a short panic attack and thankfully found someone who I clicked with and understood exactly what I needed and what to do and the film turned out great. Because of that I now have 2 great friendships with 2 really amazing cinematographers, so there’s always a positive, you just have to find it! If something goes wrong, be it in pre or on set, its not the end of the world, it can be fixed, so just breath, stay calm, find your happy place, envision your end goal and then you’ll find a way to turn it around and make it work.


A huge thanks to Ellenor for chatting to us! Meet more Genero filmmakers here.