Spotlight: Arielle Cimino, Filmmaker and Improv Artist

Cimino attends YouthMin‘s first ever screening at Cinema Salem, October 2016.

By Pamela Ross, Editor In Chief

Arielle Cimino is an emerging film director, producer, and improviser based on the North Shore of Massachusetts.  Originally from Waltham, Arielle studied Communication Arts at Gordon College and directed its improv troupe The Sweaty-Toothed MadMen (whose ranks once included Pete Holmes).  After graduating, she continued improvising with Cape Ann Improv (and now serves as its Artistic Director) and joined the FirstNames Films team as a director and producer.  Their feature-length debut, YouthMin, won the IFFBoston Audience Award for Best Narrative Feature in May.  It documents a self-centered youth pastor’s attempts to dominate that summer’s Bible Camp competitions while contending with his group of teen charges, a new co-worker, and a rival church. Arielle graciously answered some questions about filmmaking challenges, strategies for aspiring creatives, and why improvising keeps her sane.

 Q: What motivated you to continue pursuing improv after college? For a lot of people it’s just a fun activity they abandon after graduation. 

A: My older sister Tori has always been a huge motivator for me when it comes to performing! With her being an actress, I grew up watching her perform and she was the one who pushed me to audition in college. After college I thought about taking a break but my sister didn’t think that was a good idea.  She knew I had to continue improv because the year after college is ROUGH and making new friends can be really hard.  It’s so easy to find yourself just scraping by, living paycheck to paycheck—all work, no play. Part of taking care of myself mentally and physically is providing myself with a balanced life; improv for me kills two birds with one stone. It feels super clichéd to say, but improv for me is therapy.  Not only does it bring me great joy, but it also challenges me and forces me to explore myself creatively; it keeps me artistically awake. It gives me a wonderful family of people who can split my sides while simultaneously being some of the most genuine and trustworthy people I’ve ever met. Improv is something I’m not sure I can ever truly abandon at this point.  It supplements my life and career in numerous ways.

Q:  You shot all of YouthMin locally on a modest budget, as far as films go. What challenges did you encounter during production? Would you do anything differently the next time around?

A: My co-creator Jeff Ryan and I have been working together since college and have developed a network on the North Shore of Massachusetts. This network is filled with so many talented young people that we felt we could film a feature in roughly 15 days and for under $15,000 (not including the major post-production expenses).  And we did it! This was only possible due to that amazing network of artists who were so willing to put in the time and talent for free. To them I am forever grateful.

Even with an amazing community supporting us, Jeff and I still had our producer/director work cut out for us. We found ourselves wearing not several but rather dozens of hats. There were times when the cast and crew would be taking a much needed break and Jeff would be logging footage or solving mic issues while I made runs to the store and cooked ziti and broccoli for 30-40 people.  Having only a few key people wearing that many hats increases the chance of sloppiness and poor time management, which can really break a movie production.

We could have avoided wearing some of these additional hats if we were able to fill more of those jobs on our production team sooner. So next time: put more time in pre-production organizing and finding people to take on specific responsibilities and making sure they are equipped to handle those roles. Adding those people would have made our production so much smoother and more efficient! For the EXTREMELY independent filmmaker, you can never be too organized and you can use all the help you can get.

Q: Does the skill set you’ve developed as an improviser feed into your skill set as a filmmaker and vice versa?

A: The skills I’ve learned from my six years of improv have been invaluable when it comes to producing and directing.  While studying film in college, I never thought of myself as a director. I would always jump at the more specific jobs, like cinematography or editing. I thought the role of directing was a self-serving job. I hated the idea of being someone who said things like “Well, MY VISION for this PIECE is more like this or that.” It didn’t seem like a job for someone like me who always thought of herself as more of a collaborator or supporter. For one of my classes in college, my film professor Toddy Burton told me she wouldn’t let me do any other role than directing. I was mortified. I felt like it was too much pressure. She told me I would be surprised by how wrong I was about directing.  She recognized I had a gift for getting people together, getting them inspired and making sure everyone was heard and happy. She was right.  While directing my first short Scientific Research, I discovered that directing was totally something I had the tools for.

The director’s job is not to be a dictator.  It is about seeing the big picture and inviting a team of artists to be part of that big picture.  A good director listens and says “Yes, and…” to her team of collaborators.  A good director thinks, “If that’s true of this world, then what else is true?”  A good director is focused not only on visual presentation but also on characters, relationships, conflicts, the justification of actions and STORY, all of which you can learn from the world of improv. Jeff and I really started to get to know each other through improv in college.  It is in our blood.

Jeff and I, being inspired by the heavily outlined and improvised movies of Christopher Guest (like Best in Show and Waiting for Guffman), we wanted very badly to make a feature length film that used a lot of improv. We had our writer Christopher O’Connell write a full script of the movie, which we would base the scenes on; then on set we allowed our actors to improvise based on the fully written script. Some of my favorite scenes in YouthMin were completely improvised. Improv gave this movie so much life and it was super fun to make.

Q: What’s your dream creative job? 

A: My “dream creative job” is pretty much what I’m already doing. I made a feature and I plan to make more. I would produce and direct TV and I love the idea of directing sketch as well. I would love to one day make some money making movies… but I’m not about to let money get in the way of making compelling and fun stories. Don’t get me wrong; if we get recognized by a network or company that would obviously be AMAZING. But in the end if Hollywood never comes knocking at my door, I’ll be content knowing I’m doing what I love regardless of who is watching and who is paying me. For me the most rewarding thing is providing myself and my community of collaborators an opportunity to use their talents, and working together to make creative and compelling content. I’m not in this for the money, but it wouldn’t hurt.

Q: What advice would you give to women interested in pursuing film?

A: I personally chose not to uproot myself from my hometown of Boston and move to New York or Los Angeles because I got a taste of “climbing the ladder” and personally I hated it. It probably works for a few people, but I didn’t feel creatively motivated or encouraged when I talked to people in “the industry.”  I also saw that I had so much of a network where I was in Massachusetts. So if you are like me—a little rebellious and stubborn—and want to have some creative input in the projects you make, the best thing you can do is find some like-minded people and do it. It’s not easy, but it’s totally worth it.

PA jobs will get you knowledge and occasionally a solid contact, but the best thing you can do for yourself is to start creating your own content. You want to direct? Direct.  Don’t wait for the opportunity to be handed to you.  Find people you trust and can work with and hold onto them. Make a network. Encourage and inspire each other. Invest in other peoples’ projects. Put your friendship with them before anything else. When things get tough, Jeff and I constantly remind each other about how our friendship comes first. When you have a network, you can expand your resources. Start small and get bigger. Make a 5-minute short for $0 (you have a smartphone, yes?).  I’ll guarantee you will learn a lot and have a lot of fun. So many artists wait for someone to give them an opportunity. Why wait for you an opportunity when you can give one to yourself? This applies to men and women alike.

As for you creative-talented-funny ladies out there: there are many people (male and female) who will think of you as inferior based on your gender.  You don’t need those people; don’t work with them.  It is also sad that many women suppress their sense of humor and believe they cannot be as funny as guys, or that they can’t lead because they don’t want to be perceived as a “bitch.”  That thought train stops right here. Male or female: make content, share content, trust and rely on each other to better your craft and better your network. Please don’t treat other artists like competition; be friends instead! Don’t follow the cattle in front of you. Don’t be a cow! Help the creatives around you find options and paths.

A lot of what I believe is good advice for filmmakers comes from Mark Duplass’s speech he gave at SXSW 2015:

Q: How can people keep up with your future projects?

A: Website (where you can sign up for our newsletter):

IG: fnfilms

YouthMin site: