Lights, Camera, Action: Behind the Scenes with Natalia Guecheva

Text by Silvana Rohner

As a kid, University of Zurich (UZH) alumna Natalia Guecheva (’06) spent many afternoons watching TV while her single mother was off at work. From Japanese anime to horror movies to US series by Aaron Spelling, Guecheva absorbed all of it—the sights and sounds became deeply ingrained into her being.

Her TV obsession, it seems, paid off. Obstinately following her life-long passion, she eventually made her way from Switzerland to San Francisco. Recently, I met her here in the Bay Area to learn more about her California adventures and the path she took to get here since leaving the halls of UZH in Switzerland.

Stage is Set

I visit Natalia Guecheva at her current workplace, Al Jazeera Plus, a news app division within the famous media company. Their San Francisco office is a modern, open space right in the heart of the city. With her short, straight hair and casual outfit, she effortlessly fits into San Francisco’s nonchalant vibe.

“The building, the app, and the IT aspect…it has a bit of a Silicon Valley flair,” Guecheva remarks, evidently enjoying the parallels. It’s the first time in her career that she is not working directly in TV or film production.

Guecheva has her own dynamic rhythm of speech: one thought after another, well-formulated sentences, explanation provided when asked. She’s always sweeping some stubborn hazelnut blond hairs away from her eyes, and she doesn’t seem like a person who likes to repeat things. I ask her about her academic background and work history. How valuable were her studies in achieving her goals? I lean in and try not to miss a beat.

“A master’s degree acquired at a Swiss university certainly is a label of quality and opens doors,” she says in a clear voice. “But did my studies influence my career choices?” she challenges. Maybe. Maybe not. She was always pretty clear about which direction she was headed in.

Opening Act

Natalia GuechevaAt the University of Zurich, Guecheva studied Media and Communication, Film Studies, and Criminology. These choices finally provided an intellectual justification for her insatiable TV and film cnsumption, she says.

A compulsory internship required early on in her studies was her first foray into the behind-the-scenes world of film and TV. Guecheva chose LAVA Productions in Zurich and worked as a production assistant. She soon learned how to talk to cameramen, entertain guests, cast actors, convey deadlines to the team, draw up a budget, and decorate film sets.

From 2002 to 2007 she was involved in the production processes of reality shows such as the Swiss versions of Big Brother and Who Wants to Be a Millionaire, as well as political talks shows, sports shows, and even a comedy sitcom called Café Bâle for the Swiss National Television channel SF2. All the while expanding her expertise as production manager and coordinator.

“I was often in the right place at the right time,” she says, explaining her ability to get steady gigs in her desired field. In fact, it rather seems like she earned her way to where she is now through hard work and indefatigable zeal.

Guecheva gained a lot of experience over the years working in small, low-reputation, and tight-budgeted companies. “The seedier a company is, the more you can benefit professionally,” she explains. “You see how a company operates and the likelier it is that your opinion matters.”

Always challenging personal and professional boundaries, eagerly knitting tight bonds with the people she works with, and never willing to conform, Guecheva tenaciously chooses her way in life. Seldom shedding a tear, she prefers to keep her good humor against the odds.

All the way through her studies at UZH, Guecheva immersed herself in her work and balanced classwork with real-life experience. “This probably explains why I studied so long,” she states half apologetically, then adds with a shrug, “but once I graduated I went immediately from part-time to full-time. All this struggling finally paid off and I was holding a degree in my hands.”

Staring Role in San Francisco

Guecheva recounts how, back in Switzerland in 2010, she worked as production manager for the Swiss Films Foundation, planning and organizing annual events such as the Swiss Film Awards (the Swiss version of the Oscars), the Locarno Film Festival, and the Short Film Night Tour, before letting her travel bug take over and leave everything behind for a new world and experience. Around the same time, friends from San Francisco convinced her to visit.

She arrived in San Francisco first as a tourist, stayed as volunteer, then finally set down some roots as a citizen with a job (thanks to her father being a US citizen).

As she waited for her US passport, she volunteered for the Green Film Festival, which then led to the Jewish Film Festival (conveniently located in the same building). But she made sure to get paid sooner rather than later.

“You volunteer, they use you, but after a certain time it’s your job. You have studied, you have a degree, and you have job experience. You have to speak up and say ‘Give me a good salary because I am worth it!’ Never be afraid to slam your fist on the table and ask for more. It’s your right,” she says this with determination while looking straight and fiercely into my eyes.

After receiving her US passport in 2011, she became a hospitality coordinator at the Mill Valley Film Festival, where she was privileged to watch a screening of Life of Pi sitting just one row behind her favorite director, Ang Lee. She was tempted to tell him in grand, California fashion, “I love your films!” but she opted for restraint. She thanked him in silent recognition, she says.

Encore Performance

Natalia GuechevaGuecheva still has dreams to one-day work on a major US film or TV production. She says she enjoys watching reality shows, trashy TV series, and certainly movie blockbusters, but absolutely revels in how much fun they are to produce. They require much more preparation, exotic locations, exciting casts, and larger crews. Her sweeping gestures and joyful chuckling give away her enthusiasm for the subject.

“A blockbuster would be a fascinating production to manage! If Spielberg offered me a job, I would do that for free! Not forever, but for a few days!” Guecheva offers, rolling up her sleeves in preparation for this imaginary feat.

“Filming a movie with Arnold Schwarzenegger and five elephants in the middle of the jungle and what not, that’s a challenge. An indie movie is beautiful to watch, but boring to produce.” We both laugh at this rather accurate hyperbole.

Since our interview, Natalia Guecheva has gone back to work for the City of Zurich for a few months. But she says she has not yet had enough of San Francisco nor has she given up on film, TV, or the App industry. She will continue to immerse herself in what she loves and expand her knowledge. She nurtures what the University of Zurich ignites in all its students—passion.

********

Every Tuesday when she’s in San Francisco, Guecheva meets up with her friends Gianmatteo Costanza (who happens to be the local ETH Alumni chapter head) and Brendon for dinner and a movie.

“She is a tigress in life. She devours life!” Costanza states matter of factly, to which Brendon adds more softly, “She is a spring of life!”

Guecheva reddens and smiles, feeling a bit ill at ease being complimented. She’s apparently more comfortable behind the camera even when she’s in the spotlight.