AWP got to catch up with writer, director, brilliant human being and AWP alum Annika Ciul!
HOW LONG HAVE YOU BEEN WITH AWP?
ANNIKA: I started out at AWP in day camp when I was around 10 or 11 years old, so I think that would put me as a student there 2009-2014 ish? Then I kind of moved to this odd in between thing where I wasn’t really a student anymore but I wasn’t a teacher/counselor/etc either. That was 2015-2018. And of course from then to now I always visit every time I can and I’ve almost never missed camp.
WHAT WAS YOUR FAVORITE PROGRAM/ACTIVITY AT AWP?
ANNIKA: MOVIE CAMP! No question there. Movie camp is really where I found my stride and a lot of my confidence as a person of the arts. It was my first ever sleep away camp, and nothing can keep me away now. But I’ve also spent time in day camp and in a lot of acting classes at AWP, and all of them are favorites because of how fun they were and how much love and support I had each and every day I was there.
DO YOU HAVE ANY HIDDEN TALENTS?
ANNIKA: Um…no? I mean, I have talents but I don’t necessarily think I can call any of them ‘hidden.’ I try to live a life of total honesty with myself, which means accepting the things I love and being open about them with others even when society tells me I should be embarrassed or hide that away. I know that’s not quite the answer to have been expected, so here is also a list of things I consider to be my talents: writing, multitasking while stressed, and playing the piano (sometimes).
HOW HAS AWP SHAPED YOU INTO THE PERSON, PROFESSIONALLY AND PERSONALLY, YOU ARE TODAY?
ANNIKA: I had to skip this question and come back to it last because I could truly write a 100 page paper about AWP and how they’ve impacted me and still have more to say. So I’ll try to keep this succinct but I can’t make any promises.
It’s true when everyone says Camp is Love, but even more than that AWP is my home and the Stallings are my family. In the overview of my life, no one has supported and encouraged and guided me more than they have. I so vividly remember sitting in a frozen yogurt shop with my mom at eleven years old, when she pointed to this little flyer on the wall and said something along the lines of ‘that seems like a fun camp, do you want to go?’ And then my life was changed forever. I went to my first AWP day camp as this shy, nervous kid and absolutely never looked back. Don and Lynn swept me up with open arms and said “You’re special. You can do anything.” And they meant it. They’ve supported every step of my creative journey, as crazy and winding as it has been. AWP has always been there to answer my questions, to teach me, to give me opportunities to try whatever I thought my career path was going to be at the time. Never once did anyone look at me and question what I was doing or why or if it was a smart career decision or if I really wanted to do that with my life. I said maybe I wanted to try something and was always met with an overwhelming ‘how can we help you do it.’ The confidence and the permission that gave me to follow my dreams means everything.
The unconditional love shown to me by not only Don and Lynn but also by the teachers, camp counselors, and friends I’ve made at AWP is what has helped me grow the most both as a professional and as a human person. AWP is the place where I can be my most whole, honest self. No embarrassment, no societal expectations, just the truest form of my personality. And the freedom that comes with knowing I will not be judged for who I am within the walls of AWP gives me confidence to find that freedom wherever I go out in the world. It helps me create spaces where other people can find that freedom too. My personality has changed and grown so much over the years, and I will continue to change for likely the rest of my life. Learning to accept myself, love myself, then be able to turn around and love and accept others for who they are is something I got from AWP. Nowhere else I’ve been so actively practices genuine love the way AWP does, and at its core, that is what has shaped me the most.
AS AN FSU FILM SCHOOL ALUM, WHAT CAN STUDENTS WHO ARE INTERESTED IN ATTENDING FILM SCHOOL FOR COLLEGE EXPECT?
ANNIKA: Every film school is going to be different, and my experience is going to be really different from someone who went to USC or SCAD or the art institutes or anywhere else. The most important thing is to do the research, go on the tours, ask questions to people who have gone to the schools you’re interested in. You need to find the program and the school that works for you. What do you want to get out of school, both academically and personally, and which program will give you that? And then keep in mind that getting into film school can be hard. The best programs are the best because they keep their number of students low. I have friends that applied for film programs two or three years in a row before they got accepted to the school they wanted.
One thing I really want to emphasize is that film school isn’t for everyone. You don’t have to have a college degree in order to work in entertainment. Some of the most successful people I know dropped out of college to pursue their dreams. A lot of people never bothered to apply. I’m not saying don’t go to college at all; if you have the means to go without going into financial ruin then absolutely consider it. I made lifelong friends there and discovered who I am and even learned some stuff. But it’s not a requirement.
DO YOU HAVE ANY ADVICE FOR GETTING INTO/NAVIGATING FILM SCHOOL?
ANNIKA: Be an active learner. If you think you already know everything (which I absolutely swear you most certainly do not), and especially if you act like it, no one is going to want you in their program. If you already know everything then why are you bothering going to school anyways? You should be excited about all these amazing things that you could have the opportunity to learn! Let out that inner excitement that society has taught us to hide away and be embarrassed by. That’s dumb! The most passionate, dedicated people are the ones who are actively doing everything they can to learn about all the things they love, asking questions and having conversations and doing personal research and just spending time being excited because that’s what we as creatives are meant to do. We create these amazing, imaginary worlds that people fall in love with so that they can escape from reality for the length of an episode or a movie. And there are jobs for literally everyone! Not everyone can be a director, and not everyone wants to be. My best friend just fulfilled her dream of becoming a film accountant. A year ago she wanted to be a cinematographer. Dreams change, and that’s ok. If you keep an open mind and learn everything you can about everything, you’ll be one of the most sought after people in the room.
CAN YOU SHARE A BIT ABOUT THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN WORKING FOR SMALLER AND/OR INDEPENDENT PRODUCTION COMPANIES COMPARED TO LARGE PRODUCTION COMPANIES?
ANNIKA: As much as it hurts me to say it, the biggest difference is usually money. Money makes the world go round, especially in film. The bigger the production company, the more money they probably have to dump into their projects. Marvel or Disney or Netflix is going to have a bigger scope of projects than a small company making short films, and they can make pretty much anything they could want happen because they have cash to back it up. They can rent out Times Square or blow up a car or hire all the most famous A list actors. Which is awesome. Who wouldn’t want to do that if they could? But I think one of the biggest things those independent productions have going for them is the heart that goes into it. Don’t get me wrong, people who work on mainstream movies and television still absolutely love what they are doing. No one is going to suffer through months of constant stress for 14 hours a day or more if they didn’t love it. But independent films have passion. They have people who aren’t just there for the paycheck, but because they believe in the project, the story they’re telling, running and gunning and doing everything they can however they can to make the end product everything they could dream and more. And the creative solutions that people come up with when they’re crunched for time and resources are incredible. It brings a life to the story that money can’t match, because at the end of the day the cast and crew are more than just coworkers. A lot of times they end up with close friendships that last a long time.
HOW HAS THE PANDEMIC CHANGED PRODUCTION ASPECTS OF FILM/TV AND HOW HAVE YOU ADAPTED?
ANNIKA: The pandemic has changed so much about filmmaking, and at the same time everything still runs exactly the same way it did before. We’re still groups of people working in their departments to make entertainment. The biggest difference is that doing anything is slow. There are a lot more checkpoints you have to hit before you can get the green light to do anything, but we like those delays, even when they’re frustrating, because they keep everyone safe and healthy. There are things that will likely phase out when the pandemic finally ends, like mask protocols and testing cadences. And there are things that may stick around for a while in various forms, like meals being served instead of buffet style, and single use everything.
Surprisingly, everyone I’ve encountered has seemed to adapt really well. There were some problem people at the beginning, but that’s to be expected with any change, and they were few and far between. Everyone wants to keep working as much as possible, so everyone really does their part to follow the rules and keep each other safe.
WHAT ARE YOUR FAVORITE PARTS ABOUT WRITING/DIRECTING?
ANNIKA: My favorite part about writing and directing is when I’m finished. I know that sounds odd, but it’s true. Everything about both writing and directing is a collaborative process that I love so much. You get to interact with so many people and you always end up with such great stories at the end. You laugh and you cry and you pour your heart into something that means so much to you. It takes a lot out of you and at the same time is so fulfilling. But at the end you get to share it with the world. I don’t have to watch my film when it plays or read something I’ve written when it’s printed. I already know what happens. Instead I get to see other people as they experience something I’ve created. And being able to watch someone’s expressions as they read your work or watch your film for the first time… it’s so scary because it’s personal and important to you, but when they laugh at a joke or cry at the climax or gasp at the twist, my heart jumps into my throat and I’m emotional about it every time because something I created impacted someone. That’s my favorite part.
IS THERE A DIRECTOR OR WRITER THAT INSPIRES YOU AND WHY?
ANNIKA: I don’t know if I can peg one specific person for this. I feel like a lot of my inspiration has come from genres as a whole, specifically fantasy novels and kid adventure movies. By kid adventures I mean things like The Goonies, The Sandlot, etc, not movies targeted to children. Both of those genres have been really influential and present throughout my life, and I aim to create art that can be as important to others as those pieces of entertainment were, and still are, for me. I’m drawn to them because of the huge worlds that often come along with fantasy. And who comes up with better fantasies than children going on adventures? There’s just something so innately joyful about kids wandering unsupervised and using their imagination as they go. My best memories come from those times I jumped in creeks and explored the neighborhood with my friends, pretending we were runaway kids or dinosaur hunters or time travelers. I don’t think anyone should ever give up on play like that, but it’s hard when you grow up and have other responsibilities to worry about first. So as artists we adapt that play. We write about it, paint about it, dance about it, make movies about it. We bring as many pieces of that childish wonder and adventure as we can into our adult lives and in doing so give ourselves permission to continue to play. And sometimes us really lucky ones get paid to play! My whole job is playing with others to create entertainment that will inspire audiences to play as well. What isn’t magical and inspiring about that?
DO YOU HAVE A DREAM CELEBRITY THAT YOU WOULD LOVE TO WORK WITH?
ANNIKA: For celebrity crush reasons, Jake Gyllenhaal and Tom Holland would be my first choices. (Jake or Tom, if you ever read this, ask AWP for my phone number.) In all seriousness, my dream filmmaking team would be something that involved Steven Spielberg as the director and George Lucas as the writer. I feel like they were such a genius pairing together, but most people think of them separately. Both of them were creative masters in their own rights, and the movies both of them made shaped my tastes and passions as a filmmaker. Lucas had so many amazingly creative ideas and a mind full of worlds that I’m constantly inspired by. And Spielberg is an unmatched director I could go on about forever. To be able to work with both of them together on something would probably make my head explode. That would definitely be the dream.
DO YOU HAVE ANY UPCOMING PROJECTS YOU'RE WORKING ON?
ANNIKA: I’m currently working in the health and safety department on a tv show, but unfortunately I can’t say much more than that. But I’m always working on things on the side. Currently I’m in the process of writing my first novel. It’s slow and sometimes painful, but maybe one day many many years from now I’ll be able to say I published a book and cross that off my bucket list!
I was raised by a strong, independent girlboss who used to own a shop with her own girlboss mom. Now that shop is online and sells cute stuff! Link here: Monogramsforme.com
ARE THERE ANY ON SET GOOFS OR STORIES THAT HAVE STUCK WITH YOU FROM ANY PAST PROJECTS?
ANNIKA: Gosh how do I pick just one? I feel like every day of every project I’ve ever worked on has ended up with goofs and stories that stick with me. Maybe not a goof, but definitely in the rankings for the most fun I’ve ever had was on the set of my college thesis film. We were filming at a YMCA on the Georgia/Florida border, and the whole experience had been great. The staff loved us and we loved them. So during our lunch break, one of the lifeguards turned on the waterslide and let us play in the pool. None of us had extra clothes so we were all soaking wet the rest of the day, and it was just an amazing time.