FILMMAKER WINS BEST SHORT FILM FOR AWARD-WINNING 'WHERE'S LILLI?!'
FEMALE FILMMAKER WINS BEST SHORT FILM FOR AWARD-WINNING 'WHERE'S LILLI?!'
PRODUCER, WRITER AND ACTRESS TAKES THE INDIE FILM CIRCUIT BY STORM WITH LATEST SHORT
Johanny Mota is an multi-talented actress and a diverse writer from New York City that grew up in Rhode Island where she attended the University of Rhode Island and received a degree in Social Work. After graduating college she made the tough decision to pursue her true passion in the city that never sleeps. She attended the William Esper Studio where she completed their two-year conservatory under the direction of writer/actor David Newer. In addition, she attended the Primary Stages Einhorn School of Performing Arts (ESPA) where she took several writing courses and scene study. Developing her love of writing, she created a web-series title Internet Affairs about Internet dating where she was a triple threat and wrote, produced, and starred in the comedy. She continues to create original content and officially made her directorial debut on the short film Cheryl & Denise. Her latest project, Where’s Lilli?! has been gaining traction in the festival circuits with her recent win of Best Short at the Hang Onto Your Shorts Film Festival in Asbury Park, New Jersey. And we had a moment to catch her and discuss her win and experiences.
- Mary Swanson
NIE: Thank you for taking your time and having this interview with us. Congratulations on your film ‘Where’s Lilli?!’’ for winning Best Short at the ‘Hang On to Your Shorts’ Film Festival. What can you tell us about this project?
Johanny Mota: Thank you so much, “Where’s Lilli?!” was an idea I had about three years ago. I wanted to write a positive and uplifting story and after a lot of re-writes and not securing funding for it I decided to fund the film myself. I am the writer/producer, on set I was the AD [Assistant Director], craft services and I also had one of the lead roles in the film.
NIE: What originally attracted you to first write the project? And then decide to produce and star in the film?
Johanny Mota: Originally the film was a 10 page script which I wrote for a screen writing competition. The winner would’ve gotten a 10 thousand dollar grant to have the film produced. I didn’t win but I loved the idea and I really wanted to do it so I re-wrote it, used all my savings which wasn’t much and barrowed some money to get it done. Production was sometimes stressful I had a very small budget and couldn’t afford to hire a full crew so I ended up having a lot of hats.
“It is not going to happen overnight, so have patience.”
- Johanny Mota
NIE: What was your favorite part of filming this movie? What have you learned specifically from this movie that will help you in your profession in your various filmmaking positions?
Johanny Mota: My favorite part about filming was working with my friends. I have a lot of friends who are actors so it felt good to create work that they could be a part of. I learned to have someone else pay for it, LOL so I could hire more people to help.
NIE: What was your experience working with Best Actress-nominee and child actor Leah Janvier?
Johanny Mota: The role of “Lilli” was the only role we had auditions for and we knew it was Leah the moment she walked in to auditions. She’s very talented and easy to work with. She was so prepared on set which made production go smoothly. As an actor, it was a joy to share the screen with her. This was her first lead role so I was really impressed with how professional and talented she is.
NIE: What does this film mean to you and how has this role helped you as an actress?
Johanny Mota: I’ve produce five films and a webs series, and “Where’s Lilli?!” by far has been my favorite. I spent so much time and dedication working on it. It’s been my biggest production yet, and I am so proud of myself and everyone who helped. It has given me so much confidence in my work and my abilities to make films.
NIE: Where did the desire to be in the film industry stem from?
Johanny Mota: Well, I started out as an actor. I attended a two-year conservatory in Manhattan and after I graduated I wasn’t getting much work or auditions. I was really frustrated. So, I took a screen writing class and I wrote a web series for myself, which I ended up producing. After that, I kept writing and learning more about the industry, and I kept creating more projects.
“I think every role is different, I like to usually look at the lesson of the film and see how I can apply that in my real life.”
- Johanny Mota
NIE: What techniques do you use to write your characters verse playing them? What position in the industry and what role, either writing or acting, have been the most challenging for you, and why?
Johanny Mota: When I have an idea, I sit down with a pen and paper, very old school, and I write out a scene about the idea and just flush it out. From there I start focusing on who the characters are and why they do what they do. When I am playing one of them, I separate myself as the writer and look at the characters as a blank canvas. Writing has been the most challenging aspect of producing films because, well, I want my work to be good… so I put a lot of pressure on myself.
NIE: What obstacles do you face as an actor and what do you do to overcome and achieve your goals?
Johanny Mota: Because I am an actor of color I am often placed in a box. That is the most frustrating thing, because I know I can do so much more than the roles I go in for. This is why I started writing. To create roles for myself.
NIE: What do you personally take out of a role and what impact does it have on you?
Johanny Mota: I think every role is different, I like to usually look at the lesson of the film and see how I can apply that in my real life.
NIE: How do you prepare yourself before a scene? And how do you overcome your nerves? What helps you perform to the best of your ability?
Johanny Mota: Well, I attended the William Esper Studio and they focus a lot on how to emotionally prepare before starting a scene, so I always think of my training. Overcoming my nerves is something I have not mastered. I just accept that they are there and once I start the scene they just go away.
NIE: What would you say is the biggest asset for any filmmaker in the industry to achieve?
Johanny Mota: I would say having a strong social media presence, and having a built-in audience that appreciates your work and continues to support your films.
NIE: What are some of your secret tips that help you in this industry to keep grounded and focused?
Johanny Mota: Well I wouldn’t say this is a tip, but my friends keep me grounded. It’s good to have people around to remind you where you come from. What keeps me focused is my desire to create original stories that everyone can connect to, and to help and inspire people through my storytelling.
NIE: What made you decide to ultimately leave your previous profession as a Social Worker and dive right into acting?
Johanny Mota: I’ve always wanted to be an actress, but I never thought it was possible for me. Not until I took an acting class in college as an elective, and I fell in love with it. It was hard to leave my stable job but I didn’t want to look back at my life and wonder “What if?” I wanted to go after my dreams because even if I don’t make it, at least I know that I tried.
NIE: Since you were originally from Rhode Island, how was the transition of moving to New York City? And what informative advice would you give someone who wants to move to the Big Apple in pursuit of living his or her dreams like yourself?
Johanny Mota: Moving to New York was a bit scary, but I was lucky I had one friend here who moved a year before me and she helped me a lot. My advice for anyone who wants to move here would be, don’t be afraid. As soon as you get here, take some sort of class and start building your own network.
NIE: Who inspires you?
Johanny Mota: Jennifer Lopez and Salma Hayek have always been an inspiration to me. They were the first Latinas I saw on American television and film and they’ve accomplished so much and have opened so many doors for Latinos. They inspire me to one day do the same.
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NIE: What advice would you give to someone who wanted to pursue a career in the field?
Johanny Mota: It is not going to happen overnight, so have patience.
NIE: What are the most impactful words of wisdom someone told you and who was it?
Johanny Mota: My acting teacher used to tell me “Trust that it’s in you and let it go”. That’s something that I always tell myself before a big audition or scene or any situation where I need a bit of confidence.
NIE: What are three things you would say to your younger self that you know now?
Johanny Mota:  Don’t fall sleep on the subway or you’ll miss your stop and end up in Coney Island LOL  Don’t do things you don’t want to do just to please others.  Don’t get so caught up with working and see the world a little more.
NIE: So insuring minds want to know, what’s next?
Johanny Mota: With “Where’s Lilli?!” we’re just starting the festival circuit, our next screening is at the Big Apple Film Festival in Manhattan on 5/18/19. I am also finishing up some re-writes for my first feature film, which I hope for Disney to produce. So Disney, if you’re reading this, call me!
NIE: Anyone you would like to stop and thank at this time?
Johanny Mota: I would like to thank Michelle Martinez who directed “Where’s Lilli?!” for believing in my script and helping me create such a beautiful film, and to my friends who volunteered to help during production.
- Mary Swanson