Growing up between Italy’s quiet countryside and the outsized cities of China gave transnational producer Selena Leoni a unique view of the world. Her love for art and technology lead her to City University of Hong Kong, where she earned her BAS in New Media in 2015. After graduation, she worked as a Multimedia Content Producer in Hong Kong for over three years and developed several Multimedia VR projects that focused on improving social inclusion. In pursuit of further personal and professional development, Selena attended UCLA’s Producers Program, where she earned a Masters Degree in Film and Television in 2020. She is currently a Producer fellow in Film Independent’s Project Involve 2021 and works as an independent producer. She has several projects currently in development, and her most recent credits include Wayfarer Studios’ feature film Smile or Hug. Selena’s interests lie in developing globalized character-driven stories that give underrepresented groups a platform and a voice. Her passion is for female-led thrillers, biopunk, dark comedy, and crime dramas. Selena resides in Los Angeles with her two cats, Whiskey and Sour.
An Interview with Selena Leoni:
What inspired you to pursue a career in film producing?
I was born in a small town in northern Italy of mixed Italian-Chinese parentage. Since the age of three, I began spending my childhood back-and-forth between Italy and China and therefore had the privilege to experience the east and west cultures from a young age. Growing up in two distinct cultures, I have always been curious about other cultures and religions, and the reasons why different people act in the way they do.
Due to my love for culture, art, and technology, after graduating from high school, I decided to continue my education at the City University of Hong Kong, pursuing a Bachelor’s degree in New Media. This journey led me to a career in multimedia, where I worked as a Multimedia Content Producer for over three years, overseeing the development and production of three educational-based virtual reality projects that aim to enhance social inclusion in Hong Kong.
During this period, I had the opportunity to work intensively with different ethnic minority groups, NGOs, and various religious centers. All these experiences made me even more passionate about raising awareness on human rights, gender equality, LGBTQ rights, and the need to recognize and critique all forms of inequality. They ultimately influenced my decision to apply for the UCLA Producers Program in 2018, hoping to become a creative producer raising awareness on these subjects.
Since moving to Los Angeles, I have developed and produced multiple television and film projects on social advocacy and humanistic storytelling, including my first feature, SMILE OR HUG. SMILE OR HUG won the ‘Six Feet Apart Experiment’ by Wayfarer Studio, and we are currently in post-production.
What do you look for when deciding to attach yourself to a project? Any particular qualities in terms of collaborators or content?
Most importantly, they need to have a good story, and I believe the most critical element of a good story is the characters. A great story needs to have memorable and developed characters who people can relate to. The audience needs to feel something about them, it doesn’t matter whether it’s love or hate, in order to care about their story. Additionally, other than a good story, I look for projects that enhance diversity and give underrepresented groups a platform and a voice.
Can you share a challenge you’ve encountered in your career so far and what you learned from the experience?
In the short film THE BOND, one of the most important scenes is when the main character, Aria, gives birth to her baby Noelle. Therefore, we needed to cast a newborn baby for the film. Unfortunately, the casting directors we reached out to have no experience in casting newborn babies. At first, we put our casting call on various social media groups and websites such as craigslist but didn’t receive any response. That’s when I suddenly came up with the idea to reach out to a bunch of newborn baby photographers in the area. We eventually received positive responses from one of the photographers and found our newborn baby. This experience has taught me always to be creative when a problem arises because you never know what or who can help you.
What’s one of the projects you’ve produced that you’re most proud of and why?
I would say I’m proud of all of them. However, if I have to choose one, it will be the first film I produced after moving to LA, titled HEARTLAND. Though I have been working as a multimedia producer for over five years, producing films was a brand new experience for me. Not to mention producing in another country where I wasn’t familiar with the rules and regulations. Nevertheless, I was able to adapt to the new environments quickly and successfully produced the film. And we have recently just received the excellent news that HEARTLAND has been selected to premiere at the prestigious Santa Barbara International Film this year!
Any projects in development that you can tell us about?
I’m currently in pre-production for my next feature film YOUNG KINGS about a young man trying to re-adjust to civilian life after returning home from Iraq during the height of the Iraq war in 2005. Additionally, I have a diverse slate of projects, including a feature film and podcast in development and as well as a short film about mental health currently in pre-production to shoot in September 2021.
What are your hopes for your producing career moving forward?
I hope to continue producing and developing diverse projects for the large and small screen in the next few years. Eventually, I want to open my own production company focusing on developing globalized, female-led, and character-driven stories that give underrepresented groups a platform and a voice.