Mary Ann Rotondi: 5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me When I First Became A Filmmaker

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Faith in yourself takes a lot of effort, and the universe isn’t always there for it. Do everything you can to own and cherish your own gifts and not let people undermine you.

We had the pleasure to interview Mary Ann Rotondi. Mary Ann is an award-winning, executive level producer, writer and director with diverse and versatile professional skills and strong leadership experience. She has expert news and documentary reporting and editorial skills. Mary Ann has developed and produced cross-platform programming for NBC News, Dateline, TODAY and other prestigious media outlets. MARY ANN ROTONDI: QUEEN OF THE DESERT was inspired by visits to my home state of Montana, where it is frequently encounter the Confederate flag, despite the state not having a large black population or any meaningful connection to the Civil War.

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Our readers would love to get to know you a bit better. Can you tell us a bit of the ‘backstory’ of how you grew up?

I grew up in Butte, Montana, one of five kids. My parents were New Yorkers who moved to Butte because of an opportunity my father (a urologist) was offered there. My mother was a pianist, and we grew up in a home filled with music and art, in a setting surrounded by incredible nature. It was in many ways the best of both worlds.

Can you share a story with us about what brought you to this specific career path?

I was the kid who read deep into the night under the covers with a flashlight and had super thick glasses by 4th grade. I loved stories, and I think from my earliest moments I knew I wanted to be a storyteller.

Can you share the funniest or most interesting story that occurred to you in the course of your filmmaking career?

Wow, where to start? Making movies can be grueling with extremely long hours, and I’ve been blessed to share those hours with amazing people who have a sense of humor and make me laugh when I might want to cry. I’m not sure I’m going to share any details here, but a lot of funny things happened when I was doing hidden-camera reporting about bedbugs for Dateline.

Who are some of the most interesting people you have interacted with? What was that like? Do you have any stories?

My work has brought me into contact with many, many fascinating people. I’ve been most touched by the ordinary people I’ve encountered who, in the midst of hardship or tragedy, bring incredible grace to my projects. I’m thinking of a man who worked in a brick factory in China years ago — his job was to haul heavy bricks on his back into the kiln, where the heat was ferocious. It was backbreaking work. He let us film him all day. As we were leaving, he shook my hand, and wished me safe travels. I’ll never forget it.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

I am very grateful to my film teacher at Stanford, the late Ron Alexander. He saw and celebrated my talent very early and that has kept me going. The program was very hands on — he gave (loaned) each student a 16mm Bolex on the first day and that set a tone for immersive learning. He laughed at my mistakes, deep rolling laughs that taught me a lot about life and filmmaking. One of those mistakes required re-syncing by hand all 89 drumbeats in a two-minute movie about a Buddhist nun. He stayed up most of the night with me as I worked the splicer, sitting on the floor and talking me through each drumbeat. He was generous, and extremely committed to not giving up in the pursuit of excellence. Every filmmaker who encountered him knows they’re better for it.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

I’ve recently thought a lot about how strong the pull is for filmmakers to give up. On many days it feels like the world is against you, and your project will absolutely just not ever get made. But I’ve also realized that the only thing I can control is whether or not I give up. So that’s my quote. “The only thing you can control is whether you give up. And don’t ever ever give up!”

I am very interested in diversity in the entertainment industry. Can you share three reasons with our readers about why you think it’s important to have diversity represented in film and television? How can that potentially affect our culture?

Every human who wants to be a storyteller deserves to have his, her or their story told. The world, and our projects, are better for hearing from and including everyone. Our lives — and our work — loses meaning if it doesn’t include and reach others. I’m not sure I have three reasons, I just have one: if you are human, you have a story that will inspire others. It’s a fundamental human right — if you have a story and you want to tell it, you have a right to tell that story, and a right to expect others to make room for it.

What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now?

I’m developing Queen of the Desert into a feature. I’m also working on a new script about a tango dancer and have two romcoms I’m working to find development deals for. They are light and funny with a lot of heart. I’m excited about all of it!

Which aspect of your work makes you most proud? Can you explain or give a story?

I’m most proud of the way Queen of the Desert seems to be sparking important conversations about race, listening, and finding shared humanity in others. People seem to be searching for ways to heal our divides right now, and this movie seems to be touching a chord. I think that matters, that was my hope in making the film, and I am proud of it.

Ok super. Here is the main question of our interview. What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.

~ You need to manage up. Just doing good work isn’t enough — you need to make sure your supervisors (or investors or whomever) know you’re doing great work and what you did to make it happen.

~ Faith in yourself takes a lot of effort, and the universe isn’t always there for it. Do everything you can to own and cherish your own gifts and not let people undermine you.

~ Deep breathing techniques really help!

~ Find a good writing group.

~ Limit your time with people who don’t believe in you and make more and more room for people and activities that support your work and dreams. And always support those people and their dreams right back!

When you create a film, which stakeholders have the greatest impact on the artistic and cinematic choices you make? Is it the viewers, the critics, the financiers, or your own personal artistic vision? Can you share a story with us or give an example about what you mean?

I care most about what is on the page and my own personal artistic vision of how to bring that to life. This doesn’t mean ignore the other stakeholders, but it is the only part I can control. Doing everything I can to create a great story is the best thing — and in some ways the only thing — I can do for everyone else.

You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

In part because I love both Montana and New York City, and both are in my bones, I care really deeply about finding ways to help bridge our red state-blue state divide. I think a lot of good would come of any success in creating more and better dialogue in the US.

I’d love to help find a way to feed every hungry child.

We are very blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might see this. 🙂

Dave Friedberg or anyone at The Production Board. I’m fascinated by TPB’s ideas and reach and am interested in talking about implementation — and the intersection of new technology with people’s way of life.

I would love to have breakfast or lunch or coffee or even water with anyone who wants to help me make great movies!

This was very meaningful, thank you so much! We wish you continued success!

Mary Ann Rotondi: 5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me When I First Became A Filmmaker was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.