Kicking off tomorrow, AFI FEST 2022 features transformative stories from innovative artists, including producer Christina Dow (AFI Class of 2015) who is set to return to the festival for a second time with her new film MONICA. Christina began her career with ties to art history and theater – most notably producing “The Blue Room,” by Academy Award® nominee David Hare, before turning her attention to producing feature films.
After graduating from the Producing program at the AFI Conservatory, Christina forged a close collaboration with Italian writer/director Andrea Pallaoro, teaming with him on the acclaimed film HANNAH, which stars Charlotte Rampling and played at AFI FEST in 2017. Now, she is back at the festival with the poignant drama MONICA, also written and directed by Pallaoro, about a trans woman (Trace Lysette) who returns home to help care for her ailing mother (Patricia Clarkson).
AFI spoke with Christina about the casting process for MONICA, her rewarding partnership with Pallaoro, the challenges of shooting the independent production in Ohio, and more.
AFI: Can you talk a little bit about your journey and your trajectory from art history and performing in theater to film producing?
Christina: I graduated from Boston College with a B.A. in Art History and started working for Christie’s Auction House in New York City. Working in VIP Client Advisory, we were exposed to amazing art and amazing clientele, but it felt a little bit removed from being creative, which is what I am drawn to. I left that job, and I started to get into theater acting in New York City, which led me to San Francisco first, and then Los Angeles. I was doing a play, and someone approached me, and said, “Do you want to produce this in a real theater?” I did some theater and short films, but I knew I needed to learn more to produce feature-length films. That’s when I applied to AFI and got a crash course in production, and then had the confidence to go on and make features.
AFI: What did you take away from your experiences at the AFI Conservatory?
Christina: The best thing I took away from AFI was the relationships with my peers. I also went to the Conservatory a little bit later than most people. I think when you enter at a later age, you appreciate it even more because you know what the real world is like in terms of the entertainment industry. I was so grateful to be in this bubble where I knew I was safe to make mistakes, and I was surrounded by other creative people who came in at a high level of excellence.
At AFI, you also work in so many different positions when you have to crew on cycle or thesis films. You’re not just the lead producer; you’re the second AD, or the UPM, so you’re learning all these different facets of physical production. Because AFI holds everyone to such a standard of excellence and makes you follow the rules so strictly, you walk out with this respect for those rules. It’s important to know the rules, and it’s also important to know how and when it’s safe to break them.
AFI: Can you talk about how you first started collaborating with Andrea and established this successful partnership on both HANNAH and your latest film MONICA?
Christina: I first met Andrea through a mutual friend who knew he was looking for a producer in the States. At the time, I was about to shoot my thesis film and he was about to go shoot HANNAH, which ultimately got delayed and that’s how I became involved. When I read the script for the first time, from page one I was interested. Andrea and his co-writer Orlando focus on the emotionality of things. It’s less about the dialogue and more about the experience, and they’re very visual people, so that’s something that I related to right away.
Before we went to shoot HANNAH in Rome and Brussels – which was this magical experience, I agreed to sign onto MONICA. I think why our relationship has worked for so long is that there’s mutual respect and trust. I was completely committed and on set for the duration of making HANNAH because I wanted to make sure this was going to be a good working relationship, and it was. Then after we shot our first film together, it took a long time to get MONICA made because we needed to secure financing and put together the cast.
AFI: Speaking of casting, can you talk about how you cast Trace Lysette as Monica and how Patricia Clarkson and she were able to convey their mother/daughter relationship onscreen?
Christina: We wanted to be as authentic as possible and find a trans actress that was right for the role. We did an international search for someone to play the part, but it just took a really long time. I remember seeing a picture of Trace on Instagram. She was already on TRANSPARENT at that point so people knew who she was, but her part was quite small at that time. I saw a black and white photo of her on her Instagram page, and I was like, “What do you think about this woman?” We auditioned Trace and she blew us away with her performance, and we knew we had to make it happen.
As for her and Patty’s onscreen dynamic, they didn’t know each other before filming but they’re both fantastic actresses, so they can make anything believable. I’ve also heard Trace say that there are aspects of Patty – or Patty in her performance – that reminded her of her own mother. And, interestingly enough, we shot in Ohio – because we had a tax credit there and the film was written for a small Midwestern town – and Trace is from Ohio, so there were all these parallels to real life.
AFI: What were some of the challenges you encountered while making MONICA?
Christina: We shot for six weeks in the summer of 2021 during COVID. Like most independent productions, we didn’t have as much money as we wanted to make the film. But we just had to start because we had an Ohio tax credit that was granted to us well prior to COVID, and you have to use it at a certain point. We ran up against having to make things work with the budget that we had and also dealing with all the COVID protocols.
Everyone did the film for the love of the script and Andrea, and worked for scale. We were shooting at the same time as two other films in Ohio, including BONES AND ALL. We were the smallest film, and they had begun filming first, so we ended up having to source a lot of crew from New York and Los Angeles. Everyone was top notch, but that was a big challenge.
AFI: You founded your production company Solo Five Productions in 2016. What projects are you drawn to personally and what kinds of films do you hope to produce in the long-term?
Christina: I am open to a variety of different genres. Right now, I’m producing a live action animated feature film called ROMEO. We recently shot a proof of concept with the animation team behind ISLE OF DOGS and FANTASTIC MR. FOX. The movie is based on a true story from my life, and I found a screenwriter to write it in London. The doors just keep on opening, and I’m so grateful. It’s a new kind of experience because at AFI and with HANNAH and MONICA I worked completely in live action. I’ve never worked in animation before, but it’s kind of like this magical world that I didn’t know existed. That’s my next project and I’m dedicated to making it happen.
Above all, when I’m looking at a potential project it has to move me because making movies is so hard. You have to want to live with these stories and these people that you’re working with for years, so it better be something that really hooks you.
AFI: What advice do you have for aspiring producers coming out of AFI?
Christina: Maintain your integrity because it will support you and your reputation always. Integrity is so important and so overlooked. When you know who you are and what you’re able to do and you have that kind of integrity, people will remember that.
And then the second piece of advice I can give is that I’ve seen a lot of people who are friends who want to work together – directors, producers, writers – who start to get involved in a project and they make assumptions and then other elements are introduced, and feathers get ruffled. You need a good entertainment lawyer and to get everything in writing no matter what. It doesn’t matter how close you are or how much you think somebody’s your best friend. I’ve seen it ruin relationships. It’s a lesson that I’ve had to learn myself, but now would never go back. I don’t care how close I am to somebody or what they’re promising me. Then it’s like, “Perfect. Let’s get it in writing.” Have that paper trail with signatures because it will hold up, and it will also protect those relationships.
MONICA screens Sunday, November 6 at 3:30 p.m. at the TCL Chinese Theatre in Hollywood, followed by a conversation with director Andrea Pallaoro, producer Christina Dow and actors Trace Lysette and Patricia Clarkson. Buy tickets.