The War Back Home: An Interview with Creative Polymath Nina Ljeti

Nina Ljeti is prolific. She is a writer, filmmaker, actress, and musician. Just a few of her many projects include: starring in films directed by and alongside James Franco; co-writing and co-directing the feature length film Memoria with Vladmir de Fontenay (which is out in theaters now); performing in her band, Nani; and shooting a biopic about Jerry Garcia. She has the creative output young artists have wet dreams about. But Nina Ljeti is prolific in another sense of the word. She is the daughter of Bosnian immigrants (who came to Canada at the start of the Bosnian Revolution) and a high school punk stoner; a film buff who loves Titanic and Coppola alike. Her richness isn't just in practice; it's in spirit and history as well. We got to ask Ljeti about memory, filmmaking, ghosts, and getting to play Patti Smith. Read it here.

Autre: You were born in Bosnia and Herzegovina just before the Bosnian War. Do you have any memories of that time? Did you grow up there? What was that like? 

Nina Ljeti: No. We left in 1992 when I was still a baby. We immigrated to Canada- my parents had never been there before and they didn't know the language. They were in a completely foreign setting, and they left everything they had and worked for to start a new life for me. I remember the daily struggle my parents dealt with just so we could eat and survive. And I remember them watching TV every night for any news of the war back home.

Autre: When did you know that you wanted to act and make films? Was it acting or filmmaking first? 

Ljeti: I started off wanting to be an actress/singer in high school, but I was also making films at the same time. I made my first movie when I was 14. They went hand-in-hand for me. As a kid, I was also writing a lot- poetry and short stories, mostly. I don't really act so much anymore- I'm primarily a director now. 

Autre: You've written and directed a number of films as well as acting, including co-writing and co-directing for Memoria. What's it like to be behind the camera? Do you prefer writing and directing to acting, or is it nice to be holistic in that way? 

Ljeti: I enjoy directing way more. The only time I really perform as an actress is if I'm collaborating on a project with James. My true passion is writing and telling stories- I love writing scripts and songs.  All I do in my spare time is read and write.  

Autre: What was it like co-directing and co-writing Memoria with Vladimir de Fontenay? 

Ljeti: I love Vlad. When we made Memoria he was much more experienced than I was as a director, so it was wonderful to learn from him and he was very supportive of me. He's my baguette. 

Autre: Memoria seems like your classic bilungsroman - a teenage guy struggles to find meaning amongst friends and family that "just don't get him." Did you find this was your connection to the film as well? Did you empathize with Ivan? What is your coming-of-age story? 

Ljeti: I connect with Ivan a lot. I wrote the script and a lot of the characters in the film are based on kids I knew in high school. My coming-of-age story is pretty classic. I got bullied a lot. I liked punk and thrash. I was overly sensitive and always skipped class to hang out with kids who 'understood me better.' I wrote a lot in my diary and smoked pot everyday at lunch but still got the best grades. I was also really depressed and sad all the time but, who wasn't? 
Memoria also has a great deal to do with memory (hence, the title) - is elusiveness and subjectivity.

Autre: What connections do you see between memory and writing, or memory and filmmaking?  

Ljeti: As a writer and filmmaker,  I draw from my memories as the main source for my work.  I always notice that small details will change in how I remember something---- I think to keep the feeling I felt in that moment alive so I never forget (i'm talking about memories of love) and then this memory will replay in my head over and over even after I've used it (and this part is torture).  

Autre: You've worked with James Franco on Rebel, Memoria, and the upcoming film Zeroville. How did you two meet, and why do you think so work so well together? 

Ljeti: We met at NYU seven years ago. It's really rare to meet someone who shares your passion for creating and exploring. He's the only person I met who is as curious as I am. I think that's why we continue to work together- there's always something new to try. 

Autre: In Zeroville, you play Patti Smith. That's amazing. Did you do anything to try to get into her head? 

Ljeti: I was just performing on stage as her, so I really just tried to emanate her performance technique. This bit of study did help me a lot with performing in my band (that I sing and write the lyrics for).  

Autre: Zeroville deals with the ghosts of cinema, how they can haunt us despite their fictions and weave their magical thread into our daily lives. Have any films affected you in that way? 

Ljeti: Titanic. I watched it when I was 6 and it set a very unrealistic standard of love for me. Also Coppola's Dracula. I wish vampires were real. And I wish Disney movies were life. And that Marlon Brando could live forever.

Autre: Along that same vein, Hollywood can be kind of this ghostly, mythical place. Have you found that in your time in Los Angeles? 

Ljeti: No, I haven't found any ghosts in Los Angeles. All the ghosts I've seen are back in New York. That's where my heart is. 

Autre: What projects are you working on now? 

Ljeti: My next film is the biopic of Jerry Garcia, which I wrote and will be shooting this July. I also have a band called Nani, and we're going to be releasing our first EP sometime this year. 

Memoria, written and directed by Nina Ljeti and Vladimir Fontenay,  is out now in select theaters. Text and interview by Keely Shinners. photographs by Kevin Hayeland. Follow Autre on Instagram: @AUTREMAGAZINE