Naomi Lisner has never been to Greece yet her empathy for people and things Greek was such that the film script of her fourth feature film Twenty Last Summers won first place receiving the Cosmocinema Award Screenplay at the 15th London Greek Film Festival and Screenplay competition.
The award for Best Fiction Feature Screenplay for Twenty Last Summers, a “dramedy” about a group of friends in their 50s and 60s who take stock of their lives and how they must live it to the full, while they still can. While the story begins in Australia, it moves to Athens and ends in Santorini – one of the places on Ms Lisner’s bucket list.
“The script is a reflection of my love of Greek culture and I am so thankful it won best screenplay,” she told Neos Kosmos. While she may not have, as yet travelled, to Greece, she has many friends within the Greek community, some of whom she has worked with in the performance world, such as Antonios Baxevanidis and George Donikian who are involved in the COVID-interrupted feature film project on the last years of Lord Byron entitled Heart of Fury. Ms Lisner is co- producing and acting in the film which was written by her business partner Derek Erskine and is another project that is connected to Greece.
And she sees some common themes between Greeks and her own Jewish background.
“It is a similar culture, we overfeed people for a start. A person cannot come into our homes without being plied with food and drink. Any time I have needed something, the Greek community have been there for me,” she added.
The idea for Twenty Last Summers came to her following a conversation with a friend who had recently lost a parent.
“She said we should travel and enjoy life while we still had 20 years of good life in us. The friend is now walking the Camino de Santiago (the walking pilgrimage to St Iago di Compostella ini Galicia, northwestern Spain),” said Ms Lisner.
“I wrote Twenty Last Summers as soon as I got off the phone with her. I can be out and hear someone say a sentence and that triggers a line of thought,” says Ms Lisner.
COVID interrupted many of her plans to attend film festivals around the world but it allowed her to carry out extensive research on Greece to add to the script’s authenticity.
“I read up on Greece, its history, I studied the streets (where the story takes place) and the different things I would do as a tourist. There was no other country that I could envisage for this film. I invented characters that live there and I am glad that the story resonates. ”
“For me as a kid growing up in Australia, most of the milk bars of that era were owned by Greeks. The local fish and chips were also owned by many Greek and Italian families and when they talk about diversity, I think sometimes it’s forgotten, Australia is a multicultural society.
“I went to a public school in Sydney and my classroom was very diverse. The class was mixed with Greeks, Italian, Indigenous Lebanese, Asians and of course Aussies. I had lots of friends, but in many ways coming from a Jewish background, I was the odd one out, especially at Christmas and Easter.
“When I think about Twenty Last Summers (it asks the question) ‘if you don’t do what you want now, when will you do it?’. I don’t want to be an old woman looking back on what might have been. Don’t wait for the right time because that might never happen.” she warned.
Ms Lisner developed a love of the theatre at an early age – she was eight when she began studying speech through the Trinity College of London. She was to appear in a production of Peter Pan as Tinkerbell.
She grew up in Sydney and continued her acting training at the Ensemble Theatre under direction of the late Broadway legend Hayes Gordon, among others. She acted on television, theatre and film.
She moved to Melbourne 20 years ago and continued studying her craft at the Melbourne Actors Lab with Peter Kalos.
After she married, she suspended her career to focus on her family, she has two sons. She resumed her career after her children had grown and her 28-year marriage had come to an end in 2013. There are, she said, “little opportunity” for an actress in her 50s and it is one of the reasons she turned to writing screenplays and setting up a film production company.
“For me, leaving a marriage without that security and sense of purpose has not been an easy road. It is still incredibly hard and often anxiety filled. To find regular income with no references, or tertiary education, well let’s just says, its slim pickings out there. I think that is why I started to write, and why people relate to my characters, because they are real.”
In late 2015, Ms Lisner created DFUA Productions with the aim of producing and co-producing projects close to her heart.
In 2017, she made her directorial debut in the short film Hannah Rosenthal which she also wrote, produced, directed and acted in. Another well-received short film was L’Chaim in which she was again involved in at all levels of its production. Both films received awards at festivals around the world.
Besides Twenty Last Summers, she has also written feature length screenplays Apparently So, The Imbalance, The Imbalance 2 – all of which have garnered awards. She has earnt over 70 awards and nominations in film festivals around the world but only one in Australia.
The drive is to get the screenplays taken up and winning the festivals helps in that direction.
“If you can win with a variety of works, it shows your versatility, and it opens doors if people see that you can tackle different genres. The first question producers ask is ‘have you won any awards’.”
But she is not waiting just for that to happen. Besides visiting film festivals during the year, Ms Lisner will be working with director Derek Erskine to complete Heart of Fury, the feature length film on the last years of Lord Byron and his role in the Greek War of Independence which was interrupted by the pandemic.
Derek Erskine who is directing the film and is in the lead role as Lord Byron. As well as co-producing, Ms Lisner plays Margarita Cogni. the wife of a Venetian baker with whom Byron had a brief affair with in 1817.
“Derek and I have worked on several projects together. He starred opposite me in both Hannah Rosenthal and L’Chaim and edited both,” she said.
“There is only about half a dozen scenes left to do. While we know some of the actors are wondering what is happening, for us we look forward to finishing filming over the next two months.”