Ella Gabriel’s latest short film, Lifting Nick subverts the local clichés that dominate South Africa’s box office. It explores iconic movie themes like love and survival, and although the context is familiar, the plot flips the racial stereotyping that’s become ingrained in collective psyches over years of perpetuating a singular and oppressive worldview. Lifting Nick is Ella’s fifth short and was selected to premiere at RapidLion (The South African International Film Festival) earlier this year.
Taking a moment to trace the beginnings of Ella’s film and stage career it’s evident that as an actress, writer and producer she has the talent, vision and ambition to “make it”. In her first year out of acting school, she was nominated for a Fleur du Cap for Best Supporting Actress for her portrayal of 12 characters in Philip Rademeyer’s critically acclaimed play, The View. For the same roles, she scooped Best Supporting Actress at Aardklop and was nominated in the same category at the International Dublin Gay Theatre Festival.
If her life were a scene in a movie, then after this promising start is where a minor plot twist took place in the form of her packing her bags and heading for Tinseltown. As if this doesn’t already sound like the exposition for a blockbuster, where in the final scene the protagonist, clutching an Oscar, reminisces about how they came from “Africa” and made it big, perhaps we should mention that her father, Ian Gabriel, is the director of Four Corners which was South Africa’s Official Selection for the Oscars in 2014. Therefore, having a grown up in family of successful filmmakers, the inevitability of pursuing a career in film seems like an understatement. And winning the most esteemed acting award seems entirely possible.
A lot of Americans assume her choice to move to Hollywood was because she couldn’t make it in South Africa which, if her CV is anything to go by, isn’t true. It’s simply that Ella has always felt a pull towards the States which she attributes to having lived there when she was very young. After completing her BA in Theatre and Performance at the University of Cape Town, she knew that the later she left it, the more difficult it would become to leave Cape Town’s nurturing industry. Through university she had begun to build a network of actors and creatives she could consistently collaborate with and was already making steady career progress. LA isn’t a forever, it’s just a for now, and coming back to South Africa to share and practise what she’s learnt is part of her future plan.
“People in South Africa ask me if I’ve made it yet. What does that mean? My feeling of making it in the industry is just doing what you love and making a living off it. Here, I might at the level I am, be able to get a decent supporting role on an unknown indie film that will be well made. Whereas in Cape Town or Joburg, the opportunities are fewer but in some ways bigger,” she tell us over Skype.
A case in point is when she flew back to Cape Town in April to play the part of Rose in The Dark Tower starring Idris Elba. Speaking about the experience she says, “It was weird being in LA when my agent called and asked me to send a self tape. Here I am hustling to get a minor guest star role in Grey’s Anatomy, and then I land a speaking role in the South African industry shooting an international film”.
Her original plan was to study a Masters at one of six major acting schools. After a gruelling audition process filled with excitement and uncertainty, she succeeding in being accepted into the Actors Studio. However, reflecting on the intensive nature of the four year degree programme she’d just graduated from at the University of Cape Town, she knew that other than building a new network, studying another three to four years wasn’t conducive for her. The better option was to make work and find an acting coach.
“If I’m honest, around the time I was auditioning for my Masters I know that level of recognition [of winning an Oscar] was beneath the reason. My acting coach Howard Fine, who coaches some Oscar winners, always says that sometimes after they’ve won, they feel they need to be brilliant or else it’s like they’ve fooled everyone. You aim for everything your whole life and then you get it and have the pressure to be just that. I found that an interesting perspective. Good work is good work and it’s nice to be acknowledged, but it’s not the be all and end all,” Ella explains.
From shooting her first film Two Actresses in her back garden, she’s since progressed to producing her first full-length feature called Hold Fast, Good Luck written by Denny Wong. As an indie filmmaker, she’s consistently strives to get the best product from the resources available to her and emphasises that the through-line connecting all her work is sticking to her vision without compromising.
Her initial impetus to make shorts was to create material for a showreel and share work with family and friends on YouTube. With the films that followed, she then began to look at ways to broaden her audience and started submitting them to festivals. From Lifting Nick she’s learnt to be more selective in picking which festivals to submit her work to. “Some of my films would be better suited to the African continent or South African festivals,” she says.
For her upcoming feature Hold Fast, Good Luck she’s trying to secure a main talent that will beget further funding. Up until now, all her films have had little if no budget. Ella makes it clear that with her family background, although she has access to an enormous amount of knowledge, all her films have been made on her own steam.
The experience of moving from Cape Town to LA has come with its fair share of surprises. It’s not as Barbie and Ken plastic as we might imagine. The back-stabbing, nail-biting, Colgate smiling, gym fitness freakishness is present but can be found here too. She attributes the darker side of the business to being industry and not location specific.
To immerse herself in a place where film is the backbone and livelihood of people is an indescribable joy. Sitting in a restaurant around the time of the Oscars and overhearing everyone talk about the medium in a critical and insightful manner is delightful. Of course, building a new network has taken time, and living in LA which is brimming with aspiring and seasoned filmmakers has also exposed her to a wealth of both terrific and terrible work.
Throughout our conversation, she mentions the significance of taking incremental steps to building a career. She understands that like films, careers are built second by second, frame by frame. “What I am finally starting to get to now is a place where I can make content that I feel passionate about. My greater goal would be telling stories as a writer, an actor and eventually director. Lifting Nick is the first step in that direction to make people think differently about how they view others. I’d like to make people look inside and recognise their own prejudices. I’m interested in civil rights and this will eventually surface in my work, but my overall plan is to make stories in whatever creative capacity I like about things that really matter to me.”