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Hi I'm Emily Maguire

I'm a UK career coach and business coach for individuals in the creative and entertainment industries and passionate about helping people achieve their career goals. I'm also a top voice on LinkedIn for the Film Industry and a podcast producer and host.

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Emily Maguire UK Career Coach and Business Coach for the arts, creative and entertainment industry

Cannes Actor to AFI-Award Winning Director: Interview with Stefano Da Fre

Updated: May 19

In episode 3 of the podcast Inside Entertainment Industry Careers, we explore not only the career of a director but also the career of a film producer with the co-owner of Rosso Films International, Stefano Da Fre. Enjoy the inspiring journey of Italian-born Stefano Da Fre as he shares insights from being a Cannes film actor to becoming an AFI-award-winning film producer and director.

Cannes Actor to AFI-Award Winning Director: Interview with Stefano Da Fre

Stefano Da Fre shares his career journey in acting, producing, and directing. He emphasises the importance of clarity and coherence in art, the need for distinguishable and unique work, and finding your signature style to help you stand out from other artists. Stefano also highlights the challenges of being an artist, including the need to build the emotional resilience required to navigate the ups and downs of a vocational life.

He encourages aspiring filmmakers to learn from other art forms to enhance their work and to be prepared for the financial uncertainties of pursuing a career in the arts. He also believes that developing strong work ethics is just as important as talent and the need to build strong relationships with actors and create a safe and trusting environment for collaboration. As a director, Stefano believes in the importance of teamwork and that everyone on set is important in creating a positive and productive working environment.


Introduction and Background


Hi Stefano, Thank you so much for joining me today and sharing your career journey in the world of acting, producing, and directing.



It is my joy to be with you. As you know, it is a long journey, and I'm happy to share as much information as I can.



And you're over in America at the moment, aren't you?



I am in the heart of New York City on the Upper West Side. I can see Central Park from my window right now.



That's so cool. It makes me think of friends and all those typical sitcom movies and TV shows.



When I was a struggling actor, I lived in Harlem. As I started to earn a living a little bit more and work professional jobs, I moved closer and closer to the park. So, I always oriented Central Park towards my success, whether I was distant or closer to it.



Did you always know you wanted to work in the entertainment industry from a young age?



Yes. I think that all of us who are creative, painters or writers, like to sketch or have a big imagination, don't know per se that we want to make a living in the industry. The reason is that you don't know whether you want to turn your hobby and what you love into your job or into your life. I think I was always a creative kid. I have always been involved in arts programs and creative writing programs. And I think there was a sense of turning it into a career. When I was studying philosophy, I was doing a very traditional academic degree, and I loved studying philosophy. Still, I didn't think I would end up teaching philosophy or becoming an academic. I realised then that I would probably go to a vocational school, whether it was acting, theatre school, or film school. It was around that time, after I graduated with a philosophy degree that I knew I would work in film.

The Influence of Philosophy



And you use the philosophy in your film career, don't you?


Absolutely. The last film that I made was a feature film called Stolen Dough. And it's a crime docudrama. And when you're examining parts of a film, you have to have the scope of your entire humanity when it comes to sound design and interpretation of actors because you're working with real actors and real scenes. I also wrote the feature film.

I always found my philosophy background extremely helpful because it asked the question, why are we telling this story? What is the reason for the audience, and what are they going to learn from this? What's the point of seeing this scene and then connecting it to the next scene? I think that keeping that background of philosophy really helped me with the nuts and bolts of making a film and understanding it and how it would reach audiences.



It's a perfect example in terms of career as well, as something unrelated can easily become part of your future career as you go forward and influence the things that you do.



That's brilliantly said because individuals, when they're studying something, don't know what their lives are going to become if they don't follow the traditional path. If you're in chemistry, does it mean that I have to ultimately become a chemist? What does it mean if I become someone who studies history? Does it mean that I have to become a historian and write research papers on history or ultimately teach? And the answer is no.

The answer is that there will be many opportunities in your life and so many different technical and career jobs that will require specifications of these fields that you learned, whether you have a bachelor's degree or a master's, to move forward into doing other practical things. And what I want to say about filmmaking is that, ultimately, what I love about it is that it's a practical job. You have to set your schedule for the day, locations, and hard, practical things in terms of using cameras, the amount of time on the card, and how you're going to practically get away with shooting something.

The practicality of that really anchors you in a sense of modesty and, I think, groundedness so that when you become creative in a practical environment, you're really at the precipice of touching art. That's the most crucial thing.


Cultural Identity and The Importance of Universal Stories


You grew up in Italy. Then you moved to Canada, and that's where you pursued the acting side.



You know, when I was dating, I would always tell girls that I was very Italian, and I love to say that I am Italian and I have an Italian passport. I speak it with my family, and I love to go back to Italy. I was just in Rome with my wife. And then, I grew up, which I'm very proud of, in the French part of Canada, in Quebec, which I would consider its own culture, a distinct culture from Canada because it inherited the sort of French kind ideas of, you know, that wanting to be different and being factually different from the rest of Canada.

And if I can just tell your listeners this: when you're becoming an artist, and this is certainly the case with the younger generation, be careful that identity doesn't become an addiction. In other words, we're living in an environment now, specifically in the generation right below us, the Gen Zs, where we are, through identity politics, separated from each other. It's important that when you're making movies and ultimately when you're creating characters, you're tapping into something hopefully beyond identity, something that is universal and human.

You don't want to get caught up in the last parts of overly identifying, overly labelling oneself, and overly labelling other people so that you can't bridge that connection. I think if I grew up in this generation of kids who are going to film school right now, the obstacles to becoming a clear artist would be much worse. I would just caution your readers to remember that it's very good to be a proud Italian and a proud Quebecer, but at the end of the day, they're just labels. Your culture is important, but it's your humanity, and what exists and what you create as an artist has to transcend that culture.



That sounds very much like the influence of your philosophy degree.



Yeah. There needs to be a diversity of thoughts rather than just a label of diversity in our humanities. And certainly, the film industry doesn't have it the worst. I would say that there's a lot of diversity of thought in film. I actually applaud all the different filmmakers from different backgrounds who are not resting on whatever country they're from, whether it's Yorgos Lathimos, who just came out with Poor Thing, or David Fincher's films are Dark, they certainly are American, but they're something beyond being American. So, I think that it is important thing to keep aiming for universal stories, and I feel strongly about that when I look at my material, my characters, and my casting.

Overcoming Challenges in the Entertainment Industry



So, in essence, we should keep pushing past any boundaries.



Yeah, there are a lot of things that hold you back. Money and labels hold you back. There are a bunch of reasons not to make a movie. What you're trying to look for are reasons to make it, to step aside from all the reasons. This is a green light. Let's make this movie. Let's make this, write this script, and move forward with production.



I suppose that would translate to our listeners as telling them that there are no limitations, regardless of their background.



Yes, I think that is very important. Your background helps you be gritty in terms of what you bring to a production. I've had a production company for ten years now with another co-founder, Laura Pellegrini, who was a co-founder of Rosso Films, and when we started ten years ago, we had no connections to the film industry. Our parents weren't in the film industry. I think that being an outsider is an advantage if you think of it as an advantage because you'll orient yourself to use the qualities you've had to develop as an outsider to being resilient and being scrappy and try to put that into your business and to put that into your work ethics your work habits and your y work ethics are the most important the more important than designing the greatest shot or the greatest script without your work ethic you don't have anything, and that's so important to tell people. It's even more important than talent. Talent comes second. Your work ethic comes number one.



That reflects the other people I've been speaking with as well. When they choose people to work with, you might have this amazing portfolio, but it's more about you as an individual and how you work with each other and as a team.



That's absolutely right. I even meet the grips who some people in the film industry would consider them, you know, individuals at a medium level who are just moving lights around and working with the gaffer. I like to meet my grips because every individual who's on set has a personality. And so I need to know that I want them, first of all, to feel heard that the director's taking time to spend with them, that I care, not just I know their name, I know a little bit about them, I know why they're working with me, and then I get a sense of who they are as people.



Again, many people can learn those core work skills—adaptability, flexibility, good communication, and teamwork.



That's right. I don't know a better way to look at it, but it's sort of like an army. The procedural breakdowns of an army. You have a captain, you have a lieutenant, you have an admiral. There is a hierarchy of structure when making a film. And it's really important to be able to know what every department is doing and to be able to give them enough flexibility to do their job, but overseeing enough so that you know when something is going wrong.

I think that's critical in the job of a director. I don't want to make the full conversation about nuts and bolts and technical things. I almost feel like, it's like, okay, Stefano, when are we going to talk about the really cool shots and the incredible shooting at golden hour and like that's only possible when you know what you're doing with a team, so that then you have the ability to achieve success. And I think about that now as I'm about to go into a TV pilot, and the amount of just work into the team that I'm placing is everything; the right team is everything to me.

Favourite and Challenging Acting Roles


You started your career as an actor and have worked in many different roles, but what's been your most favourite and challenging roles so far in your career when it comes to the acting side?


My favourite roles as an actor were two. One was working with a director who heavily influenced me. His name was Kelly Beam, and he became a friend of mine. It was a crime film called Animal. It was a very slick film in which I played a young man. There was a whole psychological profile of neglect and abuse from his father. You don't necessarily see that stuff, but I created and worked on the backstory a lot.


I met one of my best friends in that movie, who's about ten years older than me, Russ Camarda, the other lead in Animal. So Russ and I are in Animal, and then Kelly, the director, was actually about the same age as me when he directed Animal; when I was getting ready to do Stolen Dough and edit it, he was dying, and he passed away last year. And I think about him, I think about him as a director a lot. Not only is it one of my favourite roles playing Ben in the movie Animal, but I also love the experience of working with Kelly.

Now that he's gone, it really puts perspective. You know, you work with some creative people who push you to another level and inspire you. I don't think I would have started directing had it not been for Kelly. I learned a lot about him. He was a better director than I was, obviously, at the time, and I look up to him all the time, and he was actually a little bit younger than me. And I think there are certain people that are put into your life that will help you reorient yourself to becoming a better artist. And that was one of my favourite roles.

Lastly, I worked with an Oscar-winning director, Ang Lee, who directed Life of Pi, and I also got an Oscar, I believe, for Brokeback Mountain. I was in the film that Ang Lee did right after he wrapped Brokeback Mountain, which was called Taking Woodstock. It was the first time that I went to the Cannes Film Festival. It was in competition for best film at Cannes, the movie Taking Woodstock. It was my first speaking role. And it was just an amazing time to get a speaking role and be at the Cannes Film Festival. I was in my early 20s, and it had a huge impact on my life, and that was outstanding to me. That was just one of the most mind-blowing experiences that could have ever happened, and those are my two favourite acting roles.



Those are two very inspirational projects for you in terms of your career and where you've gone after that.

The Challenges of Directing



I feel like I shouldn't approach the challenging side after two inspirational projects. But have there been any challenging projects that you've worked on, and how did you overcome those challenges?



Well, I think the movie, the feature film that I just finished, my first feature, Stolen Dough, which you can see on Apple TV and Amazon Prime, is featured on the Roku channel for top films and crime documentaries in the month of March. You can get more information on This movie was a big challenge, even though I had got funding from the Russo brothers, who are famous from the Marvel Marvel comic universe, for Avengers Endgame and doing Captain America Winter Soldier.

The challenges that I had for them required me to enter a rough cut out of a very, very quick deadline. That means that I was filming the movie at the very end of April, and I had to deliver a cut for them at the very end of August. And for your listeners who are filmmakers who know, that is like a crazy deadline for a feature film. I mean, it's a lot of pressure.

You're not certain whether this film is going to work. You don't know whether you have all the material. You don't know how the edits are going to go. There's so much you don't know. Making that deadline for August 31st for the movie and handing that movie to the Russo Brothers was so stressful for me. That was probably one of the most stressful things.

Now, in hindsight, as my wife Sierra, my friends, my cinematographer AJ, and my producer Laura would say, that worked out to be a blessing because it made me and everybody know there's no time to joke around. You guys have to get this done and handed in; otherwise, you'll lose the financing for it. I think that's the first challenge.

The second challenge, and if I could just tell your listeners the story, is about an inventor who had a patent, an actual real-life patent for stuffed crust pizza. He had it patented and then went into business and conversations to use that patent with the corporation Pizza Hut. Pizza Hut had reviewed the patent two times and said that they were interested in going into business. After about a year and a half of negotiations, they finally wrote to him and said, you know what, on second thought, we're actually going to go at this alone. But what they do is copy the exact same patent.


So begins a $1 billion lawsuit. This was the biggest lawsuit in food history, in patent history for food at the time. Stolen Dough is a crime docudrama that basically follows Anthony Manganiello, who is the real-life inventor of Stuffed Crust Pizza and the patent holder, and follows his journey. I think the hardest part of that, Emily, was how you make patent law exciting, dramatic, dark, gritty, and understandable to an audience.

I really focused on my editing, making it comprehensible, understandable, clear, and bite-sized. You know that you really understand what the patent is about, what they're arguing about, and you want the audience to really understand what's going on. It's easy to lose an audience with a topic like that that can become so technical, right? So that's a challenge.

Advice for Filmmakers



I'm into crime documentaries, so it's definitely one that I'll be popping on my watch list. From what you're saying, then, starting out as an actor and moving into directing and producing was just a natural progression for you, inspired by those around you.



That's exactly right. I went to film school and spent time there. There is a kind of movement—a no-film school kind of movement—that is going around. It's been going around for the last five or six years that you don't need to go to film school. You can certainly pick up a camera and shoot. Whether it's going to be good, whether you have any comprehension of assembling footage and understanding why you're shooting, what you're shooting is a completely different story.

I found going to film school extremely helpful, and I will always love the time. After I had worked professionally as an actor, I attended a school called the School of Visual Arts in New York City on the Lower East Side. I went to SVA, School of Visual Arts on the Lower East Side on East 23rd in New York City, and that helped to not only build relationships with people I still work with to this day, cinematographers and camera operators and creative collaborators, but also gave me a sense of grammar. And having cinema grammar is really important.

And on top of that, I was on set with a lot of, as an actor, with a lot of directors. And when you're an actor being directed by many directors, you can tell as an actor that the ones that you know don't have their stuff together. They're not ready. They're incoherent. They're overwhelmed. They're not prepared. And so you have worked for seven, eight, and nine years as a professional actor, and you think, okay, what qualities do I want to emulate? What are the role models that I have of directors that I'd like to be like in my experience, and what are the types of qualities that I want to avoid ultimately? And that's what helped me: those two combinations—being an actor and seeing directors work—and going to film school—were everything.



So it sounds like film school and your experiences on set with other directors have informed how you now interact with the actors you're directing. Is that correct?



That's exactly right. And it's a great point to bring up because when you have actors that you need, sometimes five, six, or seven actors in a scene, they're all going to ask you different questions in terms of their backstory and also, why am I saying this? Why is this happening? What happened before before this occurred? As an actor, you think about these things all the time because you're preparing for your role, sometimes weeks and months in advance.

I've met brilliant directors who are older than me and who are incredible in terms of composition, but they tell me, Stefano, I'm terrified to talk to actors. And I say, why? They say, well, it's something I've never done. So I don't know how to explain it to them. Certain things explain why I want them to move in this direction or behave this way. As a director, looks and behaviour are everything. It's everything on camera. It's everything in terms of personal relationships. If you can be very clear with your actors, you guys are creating an alchemy of a role together.

That's really the most important thing I would say when it comes to talking to actors: they want to give you a great performance. And so, making them feel safe and making them feel that you understand their process, they'll give you 20 takes of different interpretations of the material if they trust you. And I think that's really the most important thing to create that relationship where you're talking to them and they feel that, okay, they've got someone who is driving, you need a pilot for the plane. You know, Stefano really understands this. He understands what I'm doing. And so that respect carries over into a successful production, I would say.

Wisdom for Aspiring Artists



That's interesting. So, when you look back over your career, is there any piece of advice that you received that stuck with you?



I'll give you two pieces of advice. The first and most important piece of advice is that it's extremely important to make clear art. In other words, make sure that your art has clarity and that you value clarity and coherence. If you have to over-contextualise it or over-explain it to someone, it doesn't work. That's a feeling, and it should be understood. If you're aiming for universal ideals, those universal ideals should be felt with clarity.

So make sure that your films have that clarity as an ultimate value and that you're striving for that, right? And that also includes the pacing of your films. If someone gives you their eyes for an hour and a half or two hours or one hour, they're giving you their eyes; they're giving you their ears. Don't belabor that time. Make sure that you are treating their attention and their attention span with respect. So clarity and pace are among the most important things. Make sure that your pacing has that speed as well. And that pace that takes into account the viewer's attention span. That is essential. Don't fight against that. Work with it. Work with it. That's a very specific piece of advice.

The second piece of advice I would give, and it's very, very important, is the following. When you're creating art, and this is hard to do, make sure that your art is distinguishable. Try to have your art distinguishable from other artists. It's going to be one of the few things that allow you to stand out. If you're creating work that is indistinguishable from Jane to Tom to Bill to Bob to whomever, it's very hard to reach a level of artistry that is in the realm of uniqueness.

And if you'll notice, all artists that you look up to have a signature style. Now, you don't have to start with a signature style. I would not start with that. I would first start with trying to get good at what you're doing. But think about that question, right? Think about it. Hold it to yourself and say, okay, I'm not yet at the point where I'm doing everything great or as good as I can be. But let me think about what I'm doing that is unique to my style. Make sure that you try to develop that because that's a good thing.

The third thing I would say, and this is the last third thing, is that if you're going to be a filmmaker or any type of artist, look at other disciplines. If you're painting, look at dance. If you're writing, look at films. If you're dancing, look at modern art. Try to learn from other art forms.



And really, going back to what you were saying, all experience feeds into your career. So, when you think back over your career, some of them might be just starting out, or maybe they're still at school; what's a piece of wisdom you could share with them?



I would say the most important thing is to know that if you're making art and you're starting off, it's a vocational life. It's like being a priest or being someone who has any type of vocation where it's a calling. And if that's a job that you really feel is your calling, be prepared for the ups and downs, the challenges, and the disconnects.

There will be moments in your life over a long period of time where there will be people who are able to put the work aside because they are done work at five o 'clock or they start work at nine o 'clock and they have, you know, maybe free weekends and they have all these different things. If you're going into a vocational type of job, such as filmmaking or being an artist, be prepared for those challenges so that you're emotionally resilient and can continue on your path without seeing those things as surprising you.

It's part of that distance that pain, whatever that is between yourself and regular society, the insecurity of where the next dollar will come from, that's a very important thing to become friends with because it is a real thing that all artists, and the questions you're asking yourself of where that next dollar is going to come from, all the great artists that you look up to, all the role models that you have, have all asked themselves the same thing.



Thank you. That's been a really insightful conversation, Stefano, and I think there'll be a lot there for our listeners who are considering directing, producing, or even acting. They'll be able to learn some things from what you said, so thank you.



It's been such a pleasure talking to you, Emily. I've had such a wonderful time—it's flown by. Thank you for having me on your show.


Short Biography:

STEFANO DA FRE is an AFI-Award Winning Film Director and Screenwriter. His Films and Documentaries have been streamed on NBC Universal, MSNBC, Apple TV, and The Roku Channel.

Stefano's work has premiered around the world, specifically at the Cannes Film Festival (where he earned top recognitions for the 'Coup de Foudre'), NBC's Meet-The-Press (in collaboration with AFI), WorldFest Houston International Film Festival (Canadian Screen Qualifier), Carmarthen Bay Film Festival (BAFTA-Qualifier), St. Louis International Film Festival, and Festival REGARD (Oscar-Qualifiers).

Notably, Stefano is the award recipient of a Filmmaking Grant by The Russo Brothers Italian American Film Forum, sponsored by the National Italian American Foundation (NIAF), the Italian Sons and Daughters of America (ISDA), the Russo Brothers and AGBO. He was given this grant for the Feature Film "Stolen Dough," a crime-docudrama on Apple TV.

Apart from filmmaking, Stefano is an experienced media personality, having appeared as a recurring guest on Court TV (1.14 Million Subscribers), MSNBC's Andrea Mitchell Reports, Scripp News, The Grio TV, ABC Network's Law & Crime, and other news outlets.

He is currently in Post-Production for his second Feature Film, "A Dream Beyond The Dark," which stars Clara McGregor (FX's American Horror Story) and Jacopo Rampini (Netflix's The Medicis).

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Want to know more about Stefano Da Fre?

You can find out more about Stefano on his website or Wikipedia.

Or view Stefano's film credits on IMDB.



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