The Guerrilla Rep: American Film Market Distribution Success on No Budget

Guerilla_Rep_Front_Cover

In 1909, the first feature film produced in the United States was a four-reel production of Les Miserables. Producers, however, didn’t think that the American public could sit still for any movie lasting more than an hour and, consequently, released it that year in separate one-reel installments between the middle of September and the end of November. Over a century later, movies continue to captivate us…and that’s without even knowing the multiplicity of elements that not only go into getting those films made in the first place but also getting them in front of an audience. Ben Yennie, author of The Guerrilla Rep: American Film Market Distribution Success on No Budget, gives us a peek behind the magic curtain of modern cinema.

Interviewer: Christina Hamlett

**********

Q: When did you first know that you wanted to play a dynamic part in the making of movies?

A: Despite the fact that I’ve always loved movies, movie making came to me in a very roundabout way. For most of my high school years, I wanted to be a Special Education Teacher. I had spent a lot of time volunteering with the kids in the high school’s program and I thought that was the direction I wanted to head in. At the time, my high school required every senior do a senior project. I had taken a video production course at the beginning of the year and decided that I would do a video on how to take care of one of the kids who was transitioning into a nursing home. While I was editing the video, I realized that I liked the process of filmmaking more than I liked the subject I was making the video on. So, I decided to go to film school.

Q: Did you originally see yourself as an actor, director or producer?

A: As with many others who enter film school, originally I saw myself as a writer/director. I had a knack for writing scenes, but pretty shortly into film school, I realized I was a really talented producer. I loved the social end of producing, and enabling creative people to be creative. As I went further into film school, I found that I understood finance very well for a filmmaker. The processes behind distribution and finance fascinated me. With that in mind, I transitioned more towards the deal-making end of producing. One thing led to another and eventually I ended up as a Producer’s Rep.

Q: Who or what were the influences that crystallized the choice for you?

A: One of the biggest influences was my first producing teacher, Bill Brown. He was also the person who got me to go to the American Film Market the first time. It was really under his tutelage that I took those first steps towards being a producer. There really aren’t many people who go to film school to be a producer. It’s not all that surprising, given most film schools’ producing programs aren’t all that good.

Q: What’s the best industry advice anyone has ever given you?

A: It’s cliché, but it really boils down to this: the film business is really about who you know more than what you know. The film industry relies heavily on social capital. If you are well liked and have good relationships with powerful people in the industry, you’re going to be far more likely to find success. The reason you go to the American Film Market is to meet the people you want to know and establish relationships with them. But remember, while you want to know a lot of people, the real trick is knowing the right people. In order to know the right people, you need to build a good reputation.

Q: So tell us how you made the transition from filmmaker to entrepreneur.

A: Well, if I’m honest, it’s not much of a transition to make. Filmmakers and entrepreneurs have a lot of the same skills. They’re both able to assemble a team, lead that team through long hours, and overcome any obstacle to create a product. However, filmmakers often lack a thorough understanding of marketing, sales, or financing. I happen to be fascinated with these aspects, so the transition was pretty natural. After putting in some time at The Institute for International Film Finance, I was able to see where the existing educational system was lacking and help to create a company that enables filmmakers to pursue a career independent of the studio system.

Q: What do you know now that you didn’t know then?

A: There are two things. The first, success is not a sprint, nor is it linear. It’s a long journey with many ups and downs until eventually something takes off. You just need to keep going, keep trying, and do whatever you can to pursue your goals. It’s not about your daily progress, or even your weekly progress. It’s about your monthly, quarterly, and yearly progress. The most important thing you can do is keep your long term goals in place, and try to move them forward a little bit every day. You can get discouraged if you don’t feel better off than you were yesterday. If you keep building, you’ll grow a little bit every month and year.

The second thing is that as you go, you’ll realize your own imperfections and want to change them. If you really want to move past them, then just decide to do so. Committing to massive behavioral modifications overnight is unlikely to stick. It’s far better to focus on being just a little bit better every single day. Even if you’re only 1% better, it will accumulate over time into massive, sustainable transformation.

Q: Tell us how you ended up as a producer’s rep and what, exactly, does this involve.

A: I have a few relatively rare and highly valuable skills in the film industry. Agents tend to like me, as do many of the distributors I’ve worked with. When it comes down to getting the film in the can, there are thousands upon thousands of details that need to be sorted out, and I lose interest. So, I focus my efforts on helping filmmakers navigate the waters that are generally choppiest, and require a highly specialized skill set that I happen to have a knack for. There are plenty of filmmakers who can make a great film, there are far fewer who understand how to market those films and help them actually make some money.

I shifted focus to enable people to create films and get them distributed. And that’s what a producer’s rep does. He or she’s essentially an agent for filmmakers and films, helping them get packaged, funded, and distributed. I’m still new to this, so I concentrate on packaging and distribution over financing. Financing is a place I’d like to move into in a few years though.

Q: Since you focus on distribution and finance, do you ever miss making films?

A: I do occasionally. But, honestly, I’m more interested in episodic content at the moment. I think that’s the way the market’s heading and I have a few ideas that I’m currently developing. Nothing will be ready for prime time for quite a while, though.

Q: Why did you decide to start going to The American Film Market?

A: I started going to AFM on a recommendation by a friend and mentor, Bill Brown. It took a few years, but eventually I took his advice and booked a greyhound bus ticket to LA. I stayed in a shared bathroom hotel with my then producing partner, and did it on as tight a budget as was humanly possible. The next two years I attended were even more successful. By my fourth year, I had 55 screener requests for the 5 films I was repping. Success builds upon itself.

Q: This month marks the debut of your first book: The Guerrilla Rep: American Film Market Distribution Success on No Budget. What inspired you to write it?

A: A lot of the inspiration was from some continual good-natured ribbing from another good friend and mentor, Tony Wilkins. I attended a workshop of his, where he spoke of how he wrote his first book and then encouraged me to write my own. After a few months, I finally decided to write it. Now, just under a year later, I’m a published author!

Q: So where did the name for it come from?

A: I was on the floor at AFM introducing myself, and I met a fairly powerful series creator who ran a fairly big crime show on Fox. I introduced myself as Ben, and said I was a Guerrilla Rep. He loved the name, and we entered into a bet on who could make money with it first. Well Tony (different Tony), I win.

Q: Give us a brief teaser of what readers can expect to find inside its pages.

A: My own ego aside, the most useful things in the book are probably the parts I didn’t write. The contributions from the 6 distributors and the extended interview with Daisy Hamilton are the best part of the book. It’s practical advice on distribution straight from the horse’s mouth. The first 16 chapters are relatively in depth pieces of practical advice on how to find success at the American Film Market, mixed with some personal anecdotes and advice garnered on the floor of AFM. However, the really useful information is the tips from the distributors and financiers.

Q: What did you learn about yourself over the course of writing the book?

A: I had a fair amount of detractors when I started writing who said that there’s no way I could add anything useful to a book. I almost caved to them. What I learned over the course of writing the book was that I really do understand the subject matter, and on this particularly narrow field, I am something of an expert. It’s definitely a bit of a transition to that role, but it’s an exciting and rewarding one. There’s an excellent quote by Flannery O’Conner that says “I write to discover what I know.” Writing this book allowed me to discover that I know a lot more than I thought I did.

Q: The film industry is really tricky to break into. What motivates you to keep going?

A: That’s a really good question, and I honestly wonder myself sometimes. There’s this sort of compulsion some people have to create. Storytelling is just in some people’s blood, and some of those storytellers gravitate towards the tools that only visual media have. Personally, I love the feeling of being plopped into a sensory deprivation tank and being told a story with moving images, and being a part of that is really exciting for me. I think within every filmmaker lies a dreamer, and it’s the dream that keeps us all going. For me personally, I love being someone who helps people’s dream come true. There’s a certain magic in that.

Q: What qualities do certain filmmakers have that make you want to represent them?

A: There are a few qualities I look for when considering whether or not I want to represent a client. The first is honesty. If you lie to me, I’m not very likely to work with you. If you continually misrepresent yourself, then I’m not likely to invest my time in you either.

The second is stamina and dedication to a project. Filmmaking is a marathon, not a sprint, and if I’m repping you, I need to know you’ll be there to help us promote. The world of filmmaking is becoming more and more about building a community and a fan base around yourself, and if you want to have success, you need to make yourself a part of it.

The third, and the holy grail, is some sort of talent and creativity. Just because you have the tools to say something doesn’t mean you have something to say. However if you have this in spades but not the other two, I can’t help you. This is a business, and business relationships rely on trust.   I need to be able to trust you and know that you’ll deliver on what you say you will. So while you need to have all three of these things for me to work with you, talent and having something to say is not the be all and end all of my search for good clients.

It’s surprising, but it’s not always the best film that lights up the festival circuit. It’s the one that can generate the most buzz. This factor needs talent and creativity, as well as hard work and dedication.

Q: If you could change anything about the industry, what would it be?

A: Honestly, I hate the current power structure. The fact that the industry functions on back room dealings at restaurants and film festivals is far from desirable. The general lack of transparency is alarming, and keeps new money from entering the business at the rate necessary for sustainable growth. If you don’t have an in to the industry, it can be very difficult to break in. I really don’t like the fact that if you piss off the wrong guy then your whole career can be kaboshed. I suppose this is true in any industry, but it’s particularly egregious in the film industry. One of my life goals is to disintermediate the industry, even by just a little bit. If I can do that through my ventures, then it’s a career well spent.

Q: Where do you think film production will be in the next 10 years?

A: At this point, even three years out is hard to predict. Ten years is nearly impossible to estimate, even for the most involved in the industry. But, since you asked, I’ll give a guess in broad strokes. If current trends continue, I think the really quality content is going to shift towards the episodic format and there will be an ever increasing focus on mobile and home based viewing. I think that finding success as a filmmaker will involve getting listed on some of the bigger aggregators and growing your own personal fan base to the point that you can build a stable income stream from selling your content to your fans. Then, the filmmaker will need to continue to grow by getting listed in festivals, larger aggregators, host community screenings, and work primarily independently of the major studio system.

Success will require filmmakers to build a cult of personality around their work, even more so than it currently does. The really difficult part will be rising above the ever-increasing level of white noise and oversaturation that’s flooding the market. In essence, the most valuable asset any aggregator or promoter will have is a truly engaged list. I think community and niche market distribution will be increasingly important, and a new realm of community screenings in atypical screening locations will become prevalent. Screenings in the backs of restaurants, schools, anywhere with chairs and a projector will be more and more common, and it will be on the filmmaker and promoters to spread the film.

Q: What would people be the most surprised to learn about you?

A: I’m absolutely addicted to Karaoke. I’m pretty far outside the standard demographic for it, but it’s probably my biggest vice. In fact, the launch party for The Guerrilla Rep will have karaoke. Just because I like it.

Q: What’s next on your plate?

A: Quite a lot. We’re really stepping up the game at The Producer Foundry, and I just got promoted to Vice President of Sales at Taal, a mobile app that enables employers to take video interviews on any iOS or Android device. I’m also still repping films, running a blog, and starting to develop the next book. I’m really excited about all of it, but less excited about the lack of sleep it’s sure to lead to.

Q: Anything else you’d like to share?

A: I’d just like to thank everyone who made this book possible. I’d also really like to thank you for interviewing me. I’m looking forward to reading Office For One. *

 

Interviewer note: Ben is one of several dozen experts who contributed fantastic chapter content to my upcoming business book targeted to today’s sole proprietors.

Shakespeare for Screenwriters

IMG_0001

I’ve been a fan of William Shakespeare ever since freshman high school English class and, coincidentally, our study of Hamlet. That this prolific playwright could not only stitch together so seamlessly a multitude of complex characters – and swiftly move them about in a minimalist set – but also explore timeless themes that would still resonate hundreds of years later was astonishing to me. Had he lived and worked in this century instead of his own, The Bard might have dabbled in screenwriting, a whimsical “what if” I encouraged students to explore in my writing and drama workshops back in the 70s. Shortly thereafter, these speculations gave way to new conversations with actors in my theater company (coincidentally named The Hamlett Players), a touring troupe that echoed Will’s own creative approach to “less is more.”

It was, therefore, exciting to recently meet a kindred spirit in J.M. Evenson whose new release, Shakespeare for Screenwriters, will continue to fuel the discussions about enduring plots and archetypes as well as that longstanding debate of whether he really, truly authored all those plays and sonnets himself.

Interviewer: Christina Hamlett

**********

Q: Let’s start with some brief background on who you are and what you do.

A: I am both a writer and a scholar. I received a Ph.D. in Renaissance literature from the University of Michigan and an M.F.A. from UCLA’s famed School of Theater, Film and Television. I’ve been a writer in LA for the last 5 years. As a screenwriter, I’ve worked with a variety of studios and production houses, from DreamWorks to Focus Features. In addition, I’ve kept up my scholarly work by teaching Shakespeare, composition, and film part-time at Pepperdine University in Malibu, California. This book is, in fact, a perfect meeting of both my most passionate interests.

Q: How and when did you have the epiphany that a playwright who lived so long ago could impart creative wisdom to aspiring screenwriters in the 21st century?

A: I remember it clearly. One day, after finishing up with my teaching at Pepperdine, I was trying to come up with ideas for a new story. I thought to myself: if only I could write like Shakespeare! And it dawned on me: if I spent some time analyzing his works to see how he did it, or what they might call “reverse engineering” his writing, perhaps I could learn a thing or two. The idea for this book was born that day — I knew I could not be the only person who could learn a thing or two from the greatest writer who ever lived!

Q: Controversy continues to simmer among scholars regarding the true authorship of The Bard’s 37 plays and 154 sonnets.  What’s your own position on the debate?

A: I believe the debate is motivated by class politics. Edward de Vere, the man most often identified as the secret writer of Shakespeare, was a cultured aristocrat. Shakespeare was, by contrast, relatively low-born. In fact, the class difference is a main part of the argument: how could such a low-born person possess such unrivalled genius? In their minds, genius is the purview of those with money. This is an argument I simply do not buy.

Q: In your book you make the point that Shakespeare is one of the greatest writers of all time. What do you believe is the secret to Will’s sustainability and modern-day popularity?

A: I think Shakespeare’s unique creative genius transcends barriers of language, culture, time, and place. He never goes for the small story. Love, family, power, war — these are the issues Shakespeare addresses. His plays touch a nerve because they are raw, human, and utterly timeless.

Q: What’s your favorite Shakespearean play?

A: I love them all, but my personal favorite is “Hamlet.” I wish I could explain why this is in terms that made sense. I can’t. It just grips me tight and holds me from the first words until the end. It’s love!

Q: What is your favorite Shakespearean speech or catch-phrase?

A: I think probably the famed “to be, or not to be” speech from “Hamlet.” I’ve read the speech a thousand times — maybe more — but I find something new every time.

Q: Numerous film adaptations have been made of Shakespeare’s work. Which one resonates the most with you?

A: I actually love many of the adaptations. Some of them are excellent all around, such as Branagh’s “Much Ado,” which literally made me fall out of my chair laughing in the theatre; some are landmark films, such as Olivier’s “Hamlet”; some are of sentimental value, such as the Zeffirelli’s “Romeo and Juliet,” which was the first Shakespeare play I’d ever seen; some are of special interest, such as the ultra dark version of “Macbeth” directed by Polanski right after his pregnant wife’s murder by Manson. Each one offers new insight on these amazing stories.

Q: Which do you think lend themselves better to screen adaptation – Shakespeare’s comedies or tragedies?

A: There have been dozens of remarkable adaptations of both his comedies and tragedies. I think directors like Joss Whedon, with his fabulous recent version of “Much Ado,” prove that Shakespeare’s comedies are as timely today as they were 500 years ago. Kurosawa’s “Throne of Blood” shows that Shakespeare’s tragedies are powerful no matter which language they are filmed in. The history plays are also marvelous — Branagh’s “Henry V” is absolutely riveting, one of my top favorites. No matter what the genre, Shakespeare’s plays continue to speak to each new generation. It’s truly amazing.

Q: Give us an example of a modern movie that demonstrates the writing principles you see in The Bard’s scripts?

A: Let’s take an example from the most famous of all Shakespeare’s heroes: Hamlet. Far from a typical hero, Hamlet is actually best known for questions and doubt. He is a psychologically complex character — smart, introspective, angry, despondent, euphoric, and possibly insane. The key to building psychological complexity into your heroes is giving them an inner conflict. Watching a hero struggle with inner conflict generates sympathy and creates psychological depth that audiences recognize as uniquely human.

For Hamlet, the struggle begins in the very first pages. He is visited by the Ghost of his father, who tells him that he was murdered by Claudius, the reigning king. His father’s Ghost demands that Hamlet kill Claudius in revenge.

If Hamlet were a typical avenger, he would go do it. But Hamlet is a thinker. In a moment of pure anguish, Hamlet asks his famous question: “To be, or not to be? That is the question.” In this passage, we discover the true nature of Hamlet’s dilemma. Why do bad things happen to us? Is it better to die than to suffer? What happens to us after death? These are real questions — ones that humanity has struggled with since the dawn of time. The directive from the Ghost thrusts Hamlet into a moral quandary, and from that moment on, Hamlet is ripped apart by an agonizing internal conflict. Should he, or shouldn’t he, kill Claudius?

Audiences love watching characters be torn apart by inner conflict. Take Jim Stark (James Dean) in “Rebel Without A Cause” (1955), for instance. We watch Jim battle both his inner demons and the treacherous world around him. As he tries to cope with Buzz and his gang of bullies, Jim looks to his father for help. Over and over again, Jim asks his father: “What can you do when you have to be a man?” The question becomes central in the most famous scene, when Buzz forces Jim to play a game of chicken. Jim knows it’s a dangerous game, but if he doesn’t play, how can he be a man? When Buzz’s jacket gets caught on the door handle, accidentally dragging him over the cliff to an explosive death, Jim goes into an emotional tailspin. His anguished guilt erupts when he screams out the celebrated lines: “You’re tearing me apart.”

Many screenwriting manuals will tell you to find a single motivation and make sure your hero stays on point. But what we learn from Shakespeare is that sometimes it’s better to not to limit your characters to one motivation. Let your characters struggle with their inner conflicts. Let them have flaws, and let them overcome. Above all, let them be human.

Q: How does Shakespeare’s five-act structure correlate to what we’ve been hit over the head with in three-act structure?

A: Here’s an interesting but little-known fact: there’s no such thing as a five-act structure for Shakespeare. The five-act structure is purely a construction of modern editing practices. If you look at the original works printed in the Renaissance, you will see that there aren’t divisions into acts or scenes.

I do think there is something to be said about Shakespeare and structure, however. Shakespeare wasn’t beholden to formulas. Some of his plays obeyed the set-up, rising action, falling action model; some do not. “Othello,” for instance, rises in action to (what we call) Act 3, Scene 3, when Iago convinces him that Desdemona is cheating on him. This is the turning point of the play — not unlike, say, the turning point in “The Godfather,” when Michael embraces his family (and The Family) and kills Sollozzo. Other plays, like “King Lear,” are structured like an avalanche: the play begins at a high point, with Lear happily dividing his empire, but then immediately begins an inexorable march into shocking tragedy. It ends with Learn naked and insane, holding his beloved dead child, with his empire ruined and everything lost, before he dies. It’s an unusual structure now, and it was unusual in Shakespeare’s time. But Shakespeare was a maverick — he was then, and will always be, unique.

Q: If you could take any of his plays that have never been adapted to the medium of film, which one would it be, how would you define the new context in order to appeal to mainstream audiences, and who’s your dream cast for it?

A: Amazingly, there are no plays from Shakespeare that haven’t been committed to film. Some of the less well-known plays have not gotten the big release treatment from Hollywood, but all of them have been filmed at some point. The BBC has been diligent!

Q: What’s the most important thing modern writers can learn from Will?

A: I think a lot of writers these days are worried about making their ideas fit into standardized formulas. They give up on their voice and everything that makes them unique in the hopes of making it.

I’d just remind them that Shakespeare was a maverick. Instead of adhering to formulas, Shakespeare made every single play exactly what it needed to be without worrying about whether or not it broke the rules. What Shakespeare ultimately teaches us is to do whatever it takes to make your story right. If you need to, break the rules of today — just as Shakespeare broke the rules of the sixteenth century.

Q: Shakespearean plays were typically light on the number of female roles in the cast (primarily, of course, because those roles were played by males). In your view, which of his works could best be adapted to a film – regardless of setting or circa – in which the cast was comprised of a majority of females?

A: I don’t necessarily believe that his works are light on female roles — or at least no more so than Hollywood today. In almost every play, there is a strong female character. In “Macbeth,” it’s Lady Macbeth; in “Lear,” it’s Cordelia; in “Antony and Cleopatra,” it’s Cleopatra. The list goes on. In some of the plays, the female characters steal the show, as is certainly the case with Lady Macbeth. Almost all of Shakespeare’s major female characters are fascinating in their own right, regardless of whether or not they are or were played by men or women!

Q: Let’s say, hypothetically, you could sit down for lunch with the world’s most prolific playwright. Where would you go and what three questions would you most like to have answers to before that meal is over?

A: This is a difficult question. I am not sure what I’d ask him. Probably the first question would be if he’d read my screenplay! (I’m kidding. Sort of.)

My first inclination is to say that I would ask him detailed questions that have been bothering us for 500 years: Why does Hamlet delay? Why does Iago do it? What drives Macbeth? But the truth is that I like the fact that we don’t have solid answers to these questions. I like the fact that there are ambiguities in the way these characters were written. Every time I read Hamlet or Lear or Othello, I see something new. The characters seem to change and grow as I change and grow as a person. It’s like the Mona Lisa: if we could change her smile, would we? She’d lose part of her charm.

Q: What’s your best advice to new writers who dream of making it big in Hollywood?

A: I had a wonderful teacher at UCLA, Professor Howard Suber, who told me that the most important determining factor in how well a writer will do in Hollywood is not their talent or their networking skills; it’s how they handle despair. It sounds depressing at first, but the hard truth is that you will encounter setbacks in this town. Everyone does! You just have to learn how to handle it. The most important skill you can have in Hollywood is persistence — never, never, never give up!

Q: So what’s next on your plate?

A: I have several projects in the hopper. First, I’m gearing up to teach an online class through ScreenwritingU on specific lessons that writers can learn from Shakespeare. Second, I’m finishing up a children’s book that I just wrote. Third, I’m almost done with the proposal for my next book on writing, about which I am very excited — stay tuned for that one!

Q: Anything else you’d like to add?

A: I just want to say how delighted I am to be doing this interview here with you! Many thanks!

 

 

 

 

Master Shots, Volume 3

IMG

Back when I was 10 and forced to endure a week of Girl Scout camp in the Pacific Northwest (for parental reasons that, frankly, still escape me), I recall a gaggle of us trekking into the woods on a quest for blackberries. “Do you think we’ll get lost?” one of my friends nervously asked. “No way!” I replied, proudly informing them that, “I have a compass!” It was new. It was shiny. It even had the official Girl Scout trefoil stamped on the back as testament to its authenticity.

The fact I had absolutely no clue how it was supposed to work – never having read the instructions which came in the box – was a moot point. Somehow, I thought, if (1) darkness fell in the forest, (2) bears started chasing us or (3) we came upon a strange village where no one spoke English, all I had to do was flip open the lid and it would magically tell me what turns to take in order to get us safely back to camp.

Technology, of course, has given us tools far more advanced than the humble compass. Movie cameras, for instance. Yet how often do the uninitiated fall into the trap of thinking that if they just point it at something, it will always yield picture-perfect results worthy of the finest cinematography?  For aspiring filmmakers of any age, Master Shots, Volume 3 by Christopher Kenworthy is a must-have title for their resource library. Here’s what he has to say on the subject.

Interviewer: Christina Hamlett

**********

Q: You’ve had quite a “storied” career as a writer, director and producer. How did each of these roles in your creative journey come about and what would you have done differently if any of them were subject to a rewrite?

A: There’s story in everything I do. Whether I’m creating a tutorial, running a workshop or shooting a music video, there is story, and that’s what keeps it interesting.

I made films and wrote stories as a kid, but it’s difficult to know which came first. When I was 17 I decided I wanted to be a novelist, and spent the next 15 years working on that. While writing my second novel, I kept picturing the shots I’d use if I ever had the chance to direct. So I bought a camera and made a film based on my novel. Within a year I was making a living at film.

I did an OK job as a producer, but it wasn’t my calling. I can’t say that I regret it, because it’s made me a better screenwriter and director. Producing my own feature was a mistake. It was probably the only way to raise the budget, but it meant that by the first day of shooting I was already exhausted from 18 months of intense work. My directing wasn’t as good as it could have been, and I swore never to produce a large project again.

Q: Should wannabe cinematographers go to film school to learn their craft or just get a camera and start experimenting by trial and error on their own?

A: The only way to learn is to shoot. If people read the Master Shots books, and then hardly ever shoot, they won’t be able to put the ideas into practice. You need to get hold of a camera and shoot. If you find a film school that’s going to give you a lot of shooting time along with the theory, that’s a good thing. If you go it alone, make sure you read every book that’s relevant, and get onto as many film sets as you can. A good mentor is as good as any film school.

Be careful of being too precious. If you wait for the perfect time or the perfect budget or the perfect script, you’ll wait too long. Shoot something, anything, and shoot it well. So long as you have access to a camera and a handful of lenses you can learn a lot.

Q: What are the three most common mistakes in composition that beginners tend to make?

A: 1. Forgetting that good shots make the most of space by having a foreground, background and middle ground.

2. Over-focusing on the subject. The subject exists within a world, at a time and a place, in relation to other people, and the shot should show that.

3. Assuming that shooting handheld will give it a naturalistic look. It doesn’t. Handheld shots can work, but I get very tired of seeing camera operators hosepipe all over a scene, while claiming that this somehow reflects how we see the world. The same is true of bad lighting. Many newcomers think that underexposed is meaningful, when in fact it’s just dark.

Q: Can great work behind the lens make a mediocre actor look better and, conversely, can a poor job be to the detriment of a stellar performance?

A: When you’re working with weak actors, you can try to hide their lack of strength. By hiding their flaws you can make them look better, but only within certain limits. A wooden performance will still look wooden. You can do a lot in the editing room, but on set it’s difficult.

Ideally, you should rely on your relationship with the actor, rather than on a camera setup. Sometimes, though, no matter how good you are, the actors come up against the limit of their talent, and then your job is to shoot in a way that makes the scene work. To explain how to do this would require a whole book, but in essence you find the weakest point in their performance – whether it’s eyes, mouth, body language – and shoot in a way that emphasizes something else.

Brilliant performances are often lost due to poor camera setups, and because of traditional film-making approaches. Most of the time people shoot a wide master, then some medium shots and some coverage. By the time you get to the close-ups the actors have burned out or got bored. It depends on the actor, because some warm up over time, but many lose their energy. When that’s the case, you need to start with close-ups.

The best shots capture the space, the person within it, and let us see their entire performance. This is really what the Master Shots books are trying to show. How to shoot actors in a way that reveals the meaning and emotion of the scene.

Q: Alfred Hitchcock is credited as saying that the test of a good film is if you can watch it with the sound off and still be able to figure out the plot and the relationships. Can turning down the volume and, thus, not having the distraction of voices and music be instrumental in focusing on angles, distance, lighting and background/foreground elements?

A: This is something I’ve been recommending for years, but I never knew it was Hitchcock who first came up with the idea. It’s not always true, but I’ve found that most of my favorite films work without sound. A great example is Children of Men. The visuals are simple, but so strong, you can tell what’s going on from watching. When they’re hiding, you can see it. When they’re scared, escaping, doubting, or discovering a great secret, you see it all, without a word needing to be spoken. The same is probably true of Gravity, by the same director. It’s worth trying this with any film, though. Just about anything that Spielberg’s directed works without sound, so even if you don’t like his films they’re worth watching without the audio, to see how well he directs attention and lets the visuals do half the work.

Q: Which do you personally consider more of a challenge: to shoot a commercial, a music video or a full-length film?

A: There are always restrictions and there are always opportunities. The challenge with a feature film is holding an overall image in mind for months.

Commercials are generally easy because you’re working to such a tight template. The downside of that is there’s very little room for creativity.

Music videos tend to be quite easy, because you’re left to your own devices.

Q: What was the inspiration behind the Master Shots concept and how did it go from one book to a trio?

A: I’d always sensed that there was a hidden language that directors were using. Consciously or not, they were using setups and moves to create feelings. For years I wanted somebody to read a book that decodes these techniques so I could use them. When nobody wrote the book I wanted, I started watching three films a day until I was able to write Master Shots Vol 1.

It was so successful that it was published as a 2nd Edition. That’s the same book reprinted with enhanced images and a few revisions to the text. Then came Master Shots Vol 2, which looks at dialogue. I really wanted to write that book, because there is so much you can do to make dialogue interesting, to really tell the story and catch the performance. That book was a passion of mine. I loathe those scenes where actors look at each other and talk their lines out. I wanted to cure directors of that.

The popularity of those two books made me wonder if we could create a third, but only if it really went beyond the first two books. So I created The Director’s Vision, which looks at the more advanced setups, so you can learn to create your own signature style. Without style, you don’t get hired, so this is a book that can help directors to make a real breakthrough.

Q: Tell us about the transition you made to an ebook format and how the latter expands on what is already some very comprehensive content.

A: The first two books were made available on the Kindle, but that was just a way of reading the same books on a tablet. We wanted to do something much more inventive, using video to illustrate the shots.

So we took the best 75 shots from the print books, filmed them, and made three enhanced eBooks: Master Shots: Action, Suspense and Story.

The eBooks aren’t meant to replace the print books, but they give you a deep insight into the workings of the shots. Even if you’ve read the books, they can help you decode the shots. If you’ve never read the books, it gives you the core techniques in a much more immediate way.

Q: Despite the fact that movie cameras continue to come down in price, what would you say to a struggling young filmmaker who laments that you can only craft kick-ass images if you have the most high-tech and expensive equipment?

A: The best thing I ever made was a music video I shot on a Canon 7D. I used available light and shot it for $400. We always want more money and better equipment, because it can help, but unless you interpret the story in a creative way, no amount of equipment can save you.

Q: In what ways do you envision aspiring screenwriters using the Master Shots books when there’s such emphasis to not “direct on paper” as they’re writing a script?

A: The better you understand storytelling, the better you will be at screenwriting. Every scene tells a story, every shot tells a story. The better you understand how filmmakers work, the better you will be at crafting scenes for them. It’s not your job as a writer to picture every shot, but if you understand the scale of a scene – whether it’s vast and airy, or close and intimate, you can communicate that without ever directing on paper. When you do, you’ll fire up the director’s imagination and possibly have a hit on your hands.

Q: What’s the difference between a fourth wall and a fake wall?

A: The fourth wall is the imaginary wall that the audience sits behind. In film, that’s the camera lens, which is why – most of the time – you don’t want the actors to look into the camera. It breaks the illusion. We fall out of the story and remember we’re watching people pretend. Fake walls have many purposes. Often they’re used to tighten up a location and make it feel more claustrophobic, or simply as set dressing. In studios, all the walls are fake, and they can be rolled out of the way to make room for the camera. It’s worth remembering this when you’re shooting on location. You can ask yourself, if this was a studio, and you could swing that wall out of the way to allow the use of a longer lens, would you? If so, is there any way you can reposition the actors and camera on location, to get that result?

Q: What’s your favorite opening scene in a movie and what should readers be looking for in order to enhance their understanding of the cinematographer’s craft?

A: The first few minutes of Juno are stunning. They are extremely simple setups, but every one is carefully thought out to tell the story. Within seconds you know everything you need to know, and you care. It would have been so easy to kill this film quickly, but the opening is a wonderful mixture of familiar, strange, mundane and beautiful, which is the perfect setup for the story.

Q: Your books feature squillions of compelling frame grabs for study. Do you have a favorite image and, if so, what is it that particularly resonates with you?

A: There is no single image, because these stills are there to suggest the motion and emotion inherent in the shot. I like images that remind me of the story, and make me remember the feelings associated with the film.

Q: In order to have an effective collaboration, how much should a director know about cinematography techniques and how much should the person behind the camera know about directing the action? (I can’t help but picture the two sides getting into a shouting match of, “No, no, I think it looks better my way!”)

A: Directors can get away with knowing very little, but they are then carried by the cinematographer. If you want to work with the actors and don’t care how the shot looks, that’s one approach. But I think that if you really care about performance, you need a full understanding of how the camera relates to the actors. That’s the only way to capture performance. And if you want your film to look beautiful, why leave that to the cinematographer?

It should never be a competition and the best way to avoid that is to establish how you like to work in early meetings, before you hire anybody. Both people need to be clear on who calls the shots.

A good cinematographer will constantly suggest ideas, but should not shout you down unless you’re so tired you’re missing something obvious. Equally, a good cinematographer should be happy to let you choose the lens, say where the camera goes and even set the frame. If you can show that you’re competent, they should respect your choices and make sure they light the scene in a way that captures what you’re trying to get across.

If you are prescriptive about camera moves and lens choice, give the cinematographer as much scope to work with lighting as possible, or they feel like a hired hand rather than a creative collaborator.

It’s also vital to listen. If there’s a better idea, use it, no matter who suggests it to you.

Q: Thanks to the magic of technology, there’s no question that the look and texture of movies –especially with the incorporation of CGI and 3D – have come a long way in the past century. The question is, where do you see the filmmaking industry going next?

A: I find that advances in technology are usually pushed for commercial reasons, rather than because they help storytelling. 3D was pushed in the last decade, not because it was new – it was ancient – but to force people out of their homes and into the theatres again. High Frame Rate was introduced on The Hobbit supposedly to make 3D easier to watch, but to me it made everything look really fake, so my suspicion is that it was one more way to convince people that going to the theaters was more important than waiting for the DVD. And CG is becoming tiresome. It can be used well, but if I have to watch one more city being destroyed by giant monsters I am going to walk out of the cinema.

The real challenge, however, is dealing with changes to the way movies are consumed. As David Lynch pointed out a while back, art house is now dead, but internet distribution hasn’t really settled into something that’s working for anybody, and blockbusters feel like they’re running out of steam.  Most people are more excited by the latest HBO series than the next big feature film.

It’s impossible to say what will happen, but my hope is that the focus will return to storytelling rather than more spectacle.

Q: So what’s next on your plate?

A: Purely for pleasure, I’m going to make a short film called Catching Sight. It’s about a young girl who catches a disease that gives her great talent, but at the cost of her happiness. She has to decide whether to take the cure and lose her talent, or remain a depressed genius.

Q: Where can readers learn more about you and your work?

A: Just about everything you could need to know is summarized at www.christopherkenworthy.com

Q: Anything else you’d like to add?

A: These are difficult times for people who want to be directors. It used to be the case that if you made a film, you were one in a million. Now, everybody is a film-maker. There is so much material being produced that you have to look brilliant to stand out, so I hope filmmakers do everything they can to learn the craft behind their art, and create a signature style.

Make Film History: Rewrite, Recut, and Reshoot the World’s Greatest Films

Make Film History

On September 16, 1890, Louis Aimé Augustin Le Prince boarded a Paris-bound train, his first stop en route to New York to present an amazing invention that would radically change the way people saw the world. Not only did Le Prince never reach his destination but his body (which seemingly vanished overnight) was also never found despite exhaustive inquiries by the police. Fortuitously, his legacy – a camera that recorded the first motion picture – seized the imagination of kindred spirits who saw the device’s enormous potential as a medium for mainstream entertainment.

In his remarkable new book, Make Film History, author and film expert Robert Gerst, PhD. invites aspiring moviemakers of all ages to learn from the techniques of 25 cinematic game-changers over the past century and recognize how to apply the innovative lessons of sound, color, texture, music and editing to the development of their own projects.

Interviewer: Christina Hamlett

**********

Q: What ignited your passion for movies and what’s the first one you ever remember seeing? In what way(s) did that first movie “speak” to you?

A: High Noon! (1952) is the first film I remember seeing. My mother took me. What she thought a little kid would get out of an adult-oriented revisionist cowboy movie I don’t know, but my mother was someone who ignored what most people conventionally thought. She was willing to go anywhere and try anything. She gave me, I suppose, the capacity to see things my own way.

The film came on the screen.  “Do-Not-Forsake-Me-O-My-Darling” thumped along in the sound track.  I was enthralled. For years, I dreamed about that movie.  At school, when the teacher said, “Draw something,” I drew again and again my version of the landscape of High Noon. The movie, of course, is set in the American southwest, but I imagined it as a New England style foursquare house at the end of a sinuous road. Cactuses and mountains surrounded the house.  Above it, a bright sun with rays pointing to the cardinal points on the compass hung in the sky. (I now live in a house in Massachusetts that could double for the house I saw as the house of High Noon.)

When I viewed the film again a few years ago, it seemed a bit hokey. But when I saw it with my mother, it spoke to me. I remember High Noon, and remembering that movie inspires me to thank my mother for standing by me as I slowly became who I am. I only wish I had told her so while still she was among us.

Q: Are there some particular movies that speak to you today?

A: I like films that affirm, movies in which every element beats with the rhythm of a living heart.  Affirmative movies don’t necessarily talk happy talk. Lives of Others, for instance, is a very sad film. But the movie affirms that you liberate yourself when you liberate others. Writer and director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck
infuses that theme into the tiniest features of the music, the camera angles, the costumes.

In Lives of Others, a surveillance man in East Germany begins as a high-ranking officer and ends up, after the fall of the Berlin Wall, a lowly postman. The film ends when he enters a bookstore and reads the dedication in the novel written by the artist he surveilled.  The bookstore clerk asks if he should gift-wrap the book. “No, it’s for me,” man replies. Freeze frame. It’s a poignant ending, an ending as affirmative as the final shot of Bicycle Thieves, where the man and his son walk off into the crowd together.

Q: You’ve come a long way from the days when you first cut movies standing at a Moviola. What are three high points along the journey that you feel most strongly shaped your approach to inspiring the next generation of filmmakers to go forth and be creative?

A: At college, Richard Wilbur, America’s first poet laureate, taught me what I know about poetry, and writing poems and stories and novels—all safely tucked away now in a drawer—taught me how to write prose.  Students I taught in a classroom at Mass Art taught me that people learn by doing.  Fatherhood invested me in the next generation.

Q: What would prospective film students be the most surprised to learn about you?

A:  I never went to film school. My film school was bird watching. When you watch birds, you wait and listen. You never know beforehand what you’re going to encounter, so you attend to whatever moves or twitters. That’s the state of mind in which to watch a movie and make one. I recommend bird watching to film students.  And I spent a couple of years learning to cut and shoot film. As it turned out, I didn’t become a professional filmmaker. I earned a Ph.D. in literature instead. But hands-on work making movies taught me how the most miniscule change in a line, a shot, and a soundtrack moves a film in a new direction.

Q: Make Film History: Rewrite, Recut, and Reshoot the World’s Greatest Films isn’t the first book to be written about film history but it may be among the most distinctive. Tell us why – and how – you went about developing and researching this project.

A:  I wrote the book to help you unleash your inner filmmaker. “You” probably started with me. The digital revolution reawakened me. When I had practiced filmmaking years before, movie making felt as esoteric as alchemy. But suddenly a filmmaking studio was opening in everyone’s computer. In my computer, I had this second chance to fiddle with movies. The tug I feel, I realized, others also feel. People who once would express themselves in poetry and dance now crank out You Tube videos. Some of them might want to learn about how actors act, how editors mix sounds, how filmmakers in general gestate movies.

I proposed an early version of the book and interactive website to Ken Lee and Michael Wiese of Michael Wiese Productions.  Michael suggested that I recast the book/webpage introduction to film that I first proposed into a historically oriented introduction to film history and filmmaking.

I blurted, “Twenty-five moments that transformed film history!”

Michael blurted, “Zelig does film history!”

Zelig is that 1983 movie where, with optical printing, Woody Allen, chameleon-like, slips into historic footage from the past. I spent about two years researching and writing.  I spent some time in the Margaret Herrick Library of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in Los Angeles and visited the film archives and the restoration school at George Eastman House in Rochester, New York.  I thought about the films I was screening for my film history students.  I read printed and digital sources, many contradictory. I tried to distill all this lucidly and accurately.

Once I submitted the manuscript, I worked for roughly another half year getting the web site to a state where Make Film History readers would find it engaging. On the site, reader’s access historic film clips, view film history photographs, and read related documents. The site features film clips that readers can download to solve or re-solve the question a chapter’s exercise poses. To enable even novices to experience the joy of building a movie moment, the site provides step-by-step editing instructions written for the entry-level software already installed in most computers.

Make Film History is a glimpse at twenty-five moments when movies changed. But it’s not an encyclopedia. It’s a love note.

Q: I love your interactive website (http://makefilmhistory.com). How did you come up with this and what was the most challenging aspect of developing it as a complement to the book?

A:  A long ago Mac Plus HyperCard computer game—Cosmic Osmo—inspired the website. Cosmic Osmo was an early attempt by Rand and Robyn Miller to enable people to slosh through a humorous, joyful universe.  Later they created Myst, which became so popular newspapers took to printing daily tips to help wanderers in Mystland progress from location to location. I myself never advanced past the Mystland dentist chair, but in my foursquare New England house my wife and son went everywhere.

Cosmic Osmo was my game, though. It was pure play—a cage operating according to rules that, once you discovered the bars, seemed to disappear and set you free.  Playing Cosmic Osmo felt like dreaming.  There were rooms to click around and planets to visit. The magus of this imaginary universe was one Cosmic Osmo himself, who pervaded the place.  The voice of Osmo, or one of his avatars, would sometimes and chant, “You’ve traveled through spaces, through all kinds of places, now please don’t disgrace, please play with our faces…”

If this sounds like Prospero’s cell, it was. In drawers and under objects you came across what you felt was Osmo’s presence. If there was a higher purpose to this game I never discovered it, but just playing this game unleashed my imagination.

I wanted the website for Make Film History to inspire similar feelings. The sequential chapters constitute a path.  Clicks take you to outlooks. You interact with film clips in the exercises. I developed the site in stages, first creating the navigation bar, then roughing out the master page for each chapter of the book, then adding content as I thought of it. Beyond the chapter structure, I certainly followed no outline. The pages just grew. They continue to grow. The site runs about 350 html pages today, probably about double what it was when I first put it up. Yesterday I put up a couple of pages about the Brox Sisters of the 1920s and maybe tomorrow I’ll add another page about video on the Internet.  I don’t know. Subsidiary pages begin with an image that mesmerizes me. Then I open a blank file and explain what I see in the image. Then I add sound or video for users to activate. I wake up in the morning and rarely know what glen of this forest I’ll be entering. But I know I’ll go somewhere. I use Dreamweaver.  I’m bird watching.

Q: Okay, here’s something I’ve always wondered about silent movies. We can read on the title cards what the characters are saying but they’re obviously speaking to each other during scenes for which there are no cards. Were silent movies fully scripted or would the director instruct them from the sidelines to “act like you’re upset,” “explain that you’ve lost something,” “convey suspicion,” etc.?

A: Silent movies traded in feelings, as music does. But no one feels a comma in an emotion. So no one wrote out scripts for silent films. If you think of a silent movie as a dance, you immediately sense the uselessness of a script. Directors would shout or whisper directions—“Move towards her slowly… Tell her you love her.” Beside the camera, violinists and other musicians often played to summon feelings out of actors. (Garbo favored a violin and cello duet). Directors made very long silent films without consulting a word of script. D.W. Griffith used no script to create The Birth of a Nation. Sometimes, one of his camera assistants asserted, Griffith would step onto the set to dance with Lillian Gish—“Miss Geesh” he called her— and then start shooting. Silent movies are dance or maybe semaphore. Motion makes them.

Though they weren’t scripted, most silent films were certainly written. There were two kinds of silent movie writers. One sort created what they called scenarios—story summaries for directors to chop and frame into bits of story played out in scenes. The other sort wrote intertitles. An intertitle was, in essence, a silent movie tweet. You said it fast and you said it first. The first shot of Sadie Thompson is words on a plain black background, “In Pago Pago—in the sultry South Seas—where there is no need for bed clothes—yet the rain comes down in sheets…” That’s title writing.

What actors said to each other in silent films they pretty much made up in the moment. Sometimes they said unprintable things. Profusely and obviously, characters cursed each other in What Price Glory?, and lip readers supposedly complained. Usually silent film actors tried to say what they felt their characters would say. Improv actors now work that very way.

Q: A recurring theme throughout your book is to “learn by doing” but even more so is the message to “learn by imitating.” Doesn’t this just perpetuate the cycle of reinventing the wheel through remakes, prequels and sequels and, accordingly, becoming predictable?

A: You can never predict where an exercise in imitation will take you because, however obvious the destination, the road keeps changing as you travel it: your own hand is always on the wheel. You start out imitating Fritz Lang and, if you’re made that way, Adam Sandler arrives. Michelangelo leaned to sculpt by copying statues from ancient Greece. Imitating teaches technique and it unshackles you.

Q: How does today’s movie business compare to what it was like in the past?

A: We’ve returned to the earliest years of movie making. It’s as if we’ve stopped the movie history feature mid-reel, rewound it, and George Méliès and the Lumiere Brothers have taken over where Edison left off.  The king is dead and the little guy is king. To me, this moment is unbelievably exciting. The twentieth century factory studio has vanished. Studios mainly market films now, not make them. Today, the studio name preceding a film is a Cheshire cat smiling into thin air. An ad-hoc production company of agents, producers, directors, and mother-in-laws actually made the film.

In today’s film world, you can shoot a major motion picture with a digital camera. Danny Boyle and his cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle shot much of Slum Dog Millionaire on Silicon Imaging SI-2K digital cameras. The camera head weighs 1.2 pounds. You can rent one for a day or week at your local video equipment vendor. Used ones sell on eBay. You can edit your movie on your lap top computer using Final Cut Pro.

There’s a dark fringe to this brightness. The film business, like the book business, has no clear view of where the industry is going. So people can’t make long-term commitments. In its heyday and even afterward, the studio system was more stable. In a documentary about film editing, film editor Paul Hirsch says that he walked into the editing room and when he looked up, thirty years years had passed. People just entering the film business now won’t experience that.

Q: If someone came to you and said, “I want to break into this business,” what would be your three best pieces of advice?

A:

1. “Only connect…” reads the epigraph to E.M. Foster’s novel, Howard’s End. If someone offers you a job, take it. Grip. Sub-titler. Assistant caterer. Whatever. Get yourself an offer. Then take it.

2. Don’t call yourself —don’t think of yourself—as an ARTIST. That’s for someone else to judge. Think of yourself as someone who cuts shots or applies makeup.

3. Live with compassion. May I reblog wisdom Anthony Burgess evidently offered in Inside Mr. Enderby?  Laugh and the world laughs with you. Snore and you sleep alone.

Q: Technology was quite a bit different even as recently as 50 years ago. What are some of the things that today’s moviemakers – who now have access to an impressive array of high-tech tools – learn from past approaches to lighting, sound and cinematography?

A: Watching the light, sound and cinematography in old movies teaches you that there really isn’t any such thing as “progress” in movies. Movies get easier to make and simpler to distribute, but they don’t necessarily get better. Contemporary film making tools are fantastically empowering. Even in software like iMovie, you can transition between shots in about twenty different ways. The great montagist of the 1930s, Slavko Vorkapich, couldn’t achieve more than one or two of those effects because optical printers then were unable to create most of them. But Vorkapich’s montages were diamonds. They express his sensibility, so they continue to communicate, regardless of how dated his films may be. Hearing César express his love for his son in Fanny is affecting, even if the sound track crackles in that early talkie. Watching the early filmmakers teaches you humility. Humility is the great teacher.

Q:  Have all the advances in eye-popping CGI and 3D come at the expense of weaker plots, poorly developed characters, and contrived dialogue?

A: Filmmakers may be de-emphasizing plot, character, and dialogue because movie viewers enjoy all kinds of things that CGI and 3D do well. Filmmakers seeking markets abroad find that memorable dialogue doesn’t translate well. Other elements of a movie—like action— travel better. In a comic book adaption I viewed this spring, the hero kept endlessly slipping in and out of his CGI skin. I struggled just following the story, but millions of people love this film.   The plot conforms, I’m sure, to the three-act structure paradigm that everybody quotes: Something bad happens. Something even worse happens. You deal with it. This movie almost certainly underwent an exhaustive plot point analysis to guarantee that, on page twenty, action required by the three-act formula happens. Good story bones must be there. But when I left the theater, I couldn’t remember what the movie was all about.

That movie is earning prodigiously. In two months, people in America and elsewhere have coughed up four hundred million dollars to view this film. That’s a pretty compelling reason to keep making movies like that. Save us, please, from the culture police. But I confess, my heart isn’t there.

May I float a possibly heretical thought? Plot may not be the be all and end all of movies. People have all kinds of reasons for enjoying performances. Spectacle can often be enough. Masques had minimal plots in the seventeenth century. Movies of the future may not be stories at all. In Brave New World, Aldus Huxley looked into the future and, instead of movies, he saw “feelies.” CGI spectacle movies may be moving the mainstream business closer to the non-narrative poetry of the avant-garde. CGI and 3D do not portend the end of movies. Martin Scorsese’s 3D Hugo, for instance, was beautiful.

Q: Many a black-and-white film has been colorized in an attempt to give it less of an “old” feel. What’s your reaction to this practice and what, if anything, do you feel gets lost in the transition?

A:  The actual number of movies colorized is miniscule. Of the thousands of films made by professional filmmakers since 1895, about two hundred seventy black and white movies—roughly one hundred sixty of them from the 1930s—have been digitally colorized since the early 1980s. For me, even one is too many. I understand why people who own rights to old black and whites consider colorizing them:  many people today say they’d never watch a black and white movie.  Maybe the 2012 Best Picture Academy Award for The Artist converted some of those people.

Black and white movies intrigue me as poetry sometimes does. Myth is universally understandable. Poetry isn’t. Poetry exists in a particular language and doesn’t survive translation. “Fuzzy-Wuzzy was a bear…. Fuzzy Wuzzy had no hair. Fuzzy Wuzzy wasn’t fuzzy, was he?” is untranslatable. John Ford’s The Fugitive would be just as untranslatable. Black and white infuses the worldview of that film. When a director uses black and white effectively, colorizing harms his movie. Maybe movies made by visually uninventive directors don’t suffer much from colorizing. But could you imagine Citizen Kane in color? I gather that Jean Luc Godard once toyed with the idea of colorizing Breathless. Thankfully, he didn’t.

Q:  Your book sets forth the premise that there are 25 pivotal points in the timeline of movie history. What do you predict will be the 26th?

A: The book stops at twenty-five points on a continuum. I think of them as freeze frames in a very long take. I’d love a chance to write about others. The Paramount Pictures School of 1925.  The last days of 35 mm projection in 2012. It’s endless. As the twenty-sixth, however, I foresee smaller, more modular and haiku-like movies. We’ll return to the ten-minute one reeler standard. Nine-hour movies are over. Twitter already circulates films that run six seconds.

Q: Your book contains lots of nifty exercises at the end of each chapter. I’m curious, though, whether a reader has to have extensive experience with digital filmmaking software in order to get the most benefit from the lesson.

A: You need to spend a few minutes familiarizing yourself with basic features of the digital editing software installed in your computer if you’ve never done that before.  Beyond that, you’re good to go. The exercise instructions are written for iMovie and Windows Movie Maker, and I’ll be putting up Adobe Premier instructions shortly. The exercises work fine in more advanced digital editing software, too.  The goal is to unleash the filmmaker in everybody.

Q: Some people think that digitizing movie editing, shooting, and projection portends the end of movies as we know them. What do you think?

A:  I am excited about the future. Ending “movies as we know them” might be a good thing, if what supplants “movies as we know them” is movies we never thought of. Giving more people more ways to experience the joy of making, viewing, and loving movies is an absolute good.

Q: Hypothetically, you’re having a small dinner party and can invite any three of the visionary filmmakers referenced in your book. Which three would they be and what question would you put to each one that has never before been addressed in interviews or biographies?

A: To David O. Selznick: How did you feel about your father? To Dziga Vertov: Did you really believe that movies can make a new humanity?  To Georges Méliès: What do you think truth is?

Q: Can learning about movies help ordinary readers— who aren’t going to be movie professionals—live more imaginative and fulfilling lives?

A: There is an artist in everyone. We enter dreamland every night. Artists are just people who, when they wake, continue dreaming. Learning about movies induces in you the feeling, as love does, that you are not alone. That is, of course, an illusion. You are alone. But we live by that illusion. Movies are the meeting place of souls.

Q: So what’s next on your plate?

A Striped bass and blue fish, I hope. I’m going fishing.

When I finish with that, I’d like to write about husbands and wives who made movies together. Martin and Osa Johnson. Federico Fellini and Giulietta Masina. Phillips Smalley and Lois Weber, for instance, were once the most esteemed movie couple in Hollywood. Now nobody’s ever heard of them.

Q: Anything else you’d like readers to know?

A: Like me on Facebook. Put in a word on my blog. I love to talk movies.

 

 

Writing the Science Fiction Film

IMG
IT CAME FROM OUTER SPACE! IT CAME FROM BENEATH THE SEA! IT CAME FROM THE PRIMEVAL WORLD! IT CAME FROM THE LABORATORY OF A MAD SCIENTIST!

Whatever its origins, there’s nothing quite like a good Sci-Fi flick to get us wondering, “Could this really happen?” In his new book, Writing the Science Fiction Film, Robert Grant not only dissects what makes this genre so popular with audiences of all ages but also provides aspiring screenwriters with the tools, insights and allegorical viewpoints they need to create their own plots that are out-of-this-world.

In addition to his accomplished background as a filmmaker, screenwriter, critic and script consultant, Grant is Literary Editor for SCI-FI-LONDON and serves on the jury for the Arthur C. Clarke Award for Science Fiction Literature, the UK’s most prestigious award. If you’re going to be warding off alien invasions, disabling evil robots, battling mutant crab monsters or tweaking around with time-travel, this is the go-to guy you’re going to want in your corner.

Interviewer: Christina Hamlett

**********

Q: Were you a fan of science fiction flicks when you were growing up? If so, what are some of the movies that have stuck with you to this day?

A: Absolutely, I watched lots of Sci-Fi, some early favourites being Invasion of the Bodysnatchers, The Day the Earth Stood Still, The Time Machine, Day of the Triffids, Sleeper, Dark Star, Planet of the Apes, Logan’s Run… I could go on forever! And it wasn’t just films because, of course, there was lots of Sci-Fi on TV – Land of the Giants, Time Tunnel, Lost in Space, Space 1999, Thunderbirds, Star Trek and even The Jetsons!

I do think that I started to take it more seriously as I reached my mid-teens. Films like Fahrenheit 451, It Happened Here and A Clockwork Orange started to resonate more as I understood the subtext and what the stories were actually trying to tell me.

Q: Let’s talk a bit about the influence that the Cold War had on Sci-Fi movies during the 1950s; specifically, using aliens from other planets as a metaphor for Communist invasion.

A: Well the influence of the Cold War on science fiction is undeniably huge. It was the time when the military-industrial complex came of age. Rockets and rocket power became more and more important on the battlefield and at the same time the proliferation of nuclear weapons brought the possibility of horrors like Hiroshima and Nagasaki to everyone’s doorstep along with the dangers of exposure to nuclear fallout. Science fiction used all kinds of horrors from shape-shifting aliens to giant ants to represent foreign invaders taking over the US and destroying everything that Americans hold dear and audiences were happy to take it all in.

Q: Flash forward to the 21st century. Who’s the enemy that the themes of current Sci-Fi films want to keep us paranoid about?

A: I think right now we are our own worst enemy. If you look at the current crop of science fiction films there’s a huge tendency to depict apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic scenarios, usually triggered by our own wanton hubris. Films like Children of Men, Splice, Contagion, 28 Days Later, The Road, I Am Legend and so on explore what happens when technological advance goes on unchecked and unmonitored, and how much of a knife edge we’re on when it comes to the difference between success and disaster.

Q: Sci-Fi and Fantasy are two genres in which plots unfold in alternative universes/realms and with characters that possess non-mortal looks/abilities. What elements and distinctions should a writer consider in deciding which category his plot best fits?

A: Well science fiction and fantasy are two entirely different and separate genres and the clue is in the name. A good science fiction story will rely on the ‘science’ part of that moniker in order to work, and the closer to present day your Sci-Fi is set, the more your science has to make sense. Ultimately if the science isn’t coherent, cohesive, and at the very least feasible then your story will very quickly fall apart. Very crudely – and there are exceptions to the rule on both sides – fantasy doesn’t need an explanation for why something is the way it is or how something happens, it’s just ‘magic’, but science fiction demands explanation.

Q: What do you feel Sci-Fi offers to both writers and audiences that other genres do not?

A: Science fiction is known as “the genre of ideas” and that really does sum it up. Sci-Fi lets us examine big issues and pose difficult questions, putting a spotlight on them and saying “Look at this! Look what’s going on!” in order to get people to start talking about it, but importantly, it can do this without pointing fingers directly at any individual or group.

Think about what currently keeps people up at night. Global warming? Environmental damage? Terrorist threat? Erosion of civil liberties? CCTV and the lack of privacy? Rampant corporatisation? The poverty gap? GM crops? More than any other genre, science fiction deals directly with these kinds of changes and the effects they have on society. It flips us out of our own cosy existence and forces us to think about society in different ways, showing us that the usual way of doing things might not be the only way, that there may be a better way, but – and it’s a very important but – science fiction rarely gives us the answers or preaches any kind of solution, it just gets the conversation started. Solutions are up to all of us to work out.

In the end it comes down to this; if you want to write about the nature of humanity and its relationship to the world around it, you pretty much have to write science fiction.

Q: What are some of the most common mistakes that beginning Sci-Fi writers make (and how can they fix them)?

A: Unlike any other, science fiction is both a genre and a setting and unlike other genres it comes in all shapes and sizes. Romantic Comedies are romantic and funny, horror films are horrifying, dramas are dramatic and thrillers are thrilling. But science fiction can be all of those things and be science-fictional. For example:

Star Man (1984) is a romance and a science fiction film
Alien (1979) is a horror movie and a science fiction film
ET (1982) is a family movie and a science fiction film
The Terminator (1984) is an action movie and a science fiction film
Never Let Me Go (2010) is a drama and a science fiction film
Logan’s Run (1976) is a thriller and a science fiction film
Sleeper (1973) is a comedy and a science fiction film

You can see the dilemma straight away. What exactly are you writing? Are you writing a western set in space (Firefly) or a noir detective story set in the far future (Blade Runner) and, as you might suspect, the truth actually lies somewhere between the two.

All genres have their particular story beats, a romantic comedy has to have the “cute meet”, action movies have their “hamlet moment”, thrillers generally have a compressed time frame and those things must be observed. When figuring out your story, you will save yourself a whole lot of time and trouble if you figure out your primary genre and then write to the beats of that genre to start with. If you’re writing a science fiction revenge thriller then I would suggest that you actually plot a decent revenge thriller first and then as you re-write – and assuming the science is crucial to the story – build up the science fiction elements slowly, revealing your world through action and character rather than trying to build a Sci-Fi world and shoehorning a revenge thriller plot into it. You’ll be rewarded with a far better screenplay if you do it that way, believe me.

Q: Give us some examples of Sci-Fi movies that embrace similar themes but are totally different from each other.

A: Good question! The easiest examples of this are how we typically represent ‘the alien’ in Sci-Fi and the two polar opposite approaches here. One way is the simple alien people, living their lives in peace and of no threat to anyone until we show up – usually to colonise their lands and exploit their resources – in films like Avatar (2009), Planet 51 (2009) or Terra (2007). The flip side of that are the films where we are attacked or invaded by aliens that are bent on wiping out humankind, which we see in everything from The Blob (1958) to Independence Day (1996) to Mars Attacks (1996). The themes are the same in both versions, the taking away of liberty and of freedom, loss of identity, the destruction of a way of life in pursuit of advancement, the loss of control to a dominant power, the ‘win at all costs’ mentality. These kinds of films rose to prominence during the paranoia of the Cold War but they crop up time again, regardless of whether we are being invaded or doing the invading, with the same warnings. They point to suspect foreign policies, global corporatisation, erosion of civil liberties and just basic greed whether the method is stealthy and insidious (Invasion of the Body Snatchers) or brash and uncaring (War of the Worlds).

Q: There’s no question that technology (and especially 3D) has given Sci-Fi movies a completely different look and sense of realism that didn’t exist decades ago. Has all of this high-tech eye-candy, though, come at the expense of weaker stories, poor dialogue, and characters that aren’t fully developed?

A: That’s a complex question and a difficult one to answer, in some ways yes and in some ways no. Around the world a lot of smart, challenging well-written, engaging, science fiction films come out every year but don’t make it to the local multiplex and that’s where festivals like SCI-FI-LONDON do a lot to showcase Sci-Fi you won’t see anywhere else on the big screen. In a number of cases the money to make those smaller films has come from studio funds raised on the success of some blockbuster hit – the one paying for the other – and so we need those big films to help prop-up the industry at all levels. A director of photography, gaffer or post house will often look more favourably at working for basic fees on small projects coming off the back of a big project that was a success.

I think people forget that this is the film ‘business’ – with ‘business’ being the operative word. Box office earnings are up – mostly due to the escalating cost of seeing a film, especially one in 3D – but audience numbers aren’t growing as much so the big studios have to find different ways to maximise the revenue streams they can get from a property in order to make the most profit they can. This is why adaptations these days come from everywhere, not just novels but toys, comic books, video games and even theme park rides, because any way of leveraging profit from a film has to be explored. The downside of this is that if the decision makers don’t understand the audience properly, their ‘films for teenage boys’ get dumbed-down by sacrificing character, plot, dialogue and so on in favour of pretty girls and explosions, films that are expensive to make but are filled with eye-candy. Great if they’re a hit, very costly if they are not. But it doesn’t have to be that way, love him or loathe him Christopher Nolan has shown that if you treat the property with respect and credit the audience with some intelligence then science fiction films can be well written, complex, nuanced and challenging while still being filled with eye-candy and turning a big profit.

Q: A common cliché in movies of this genre is that as soon as the supreme bad guy is killed off, his minions always scatter. A wounded – or even dead – good guy, however, has loyal followers who will continue to fight. Is it that evil minions aren’t all that vested in the cause/outcome or that they just can’t function without a leader?

A: I’m not sure that it’s a common cliché of Sci-Fi movies or just a common cliché of movies in general, you could equally be talking about a James Bond film or Lord of the Rings. The practicality of writing is that minions don’t get any more screen time than they need and films are generally about the good guy vs. the bad guy so they stop once that story has been told. There are probably exceptions to the rule but….

Q: How much do you have to know about science, math and physics to write a plausible Sci-Fi plot?

A: In reality, nothing, but if you want your film to stand up to scrutiny then it at least has to be plausible and that’s where research comes in. Start online and Google the relevant science that relates to your story, then find a scientist and ask them if they’ll answer questions for you. Use Twitter or Facebook to track them down – they’re out there, they’re usually nice as pie and love to chat about their work. The trick for the writer is to figure out how much of the science the audience needs to know or understand for the story to work. If the answer is ‘absolutely nothing’ then great, don’t get bogged down in it, but if the story depends on the science to work – which is true for a lot of things that centre around contagion, genetics, environmental change, space flight and so on, things close to home – then you owe it to your audience to make sure you understand the basic mechanics and get it right. The mantra though is “only as much as is necessary”, you don’t want to be boring, but it’s worth pointing out that quite often you’ll find that the research conveniently helps with plotting, turning up things you might not otherwise have thought about.

Q: Aren’t Sci-Fi movies awfully expensive to make these days? What if someone is passionate about making an indie Sci-Fi film but has a really small budget?

A: Go ahead and make it! The world has changed and it’s never been easier or cheaper to get the technology at your fingertips to make any film, not just a science fiction film. But the best Sci-Fi is not always the big budget extravaganza. Primer famously cost just $7000 to make but other notable low-budget Sci-Fi films include Mad Max, Cypher, Pi and more recently, Moon, Attack the Block and Monsters. If you have a great story and a great script, then good costumes, interesting locations and great acting will take you a long way before you have to think about special effects, and these days there are a plethora of crowd-funding/crowd-sourcing sites to showcase your project and get help or raise extra funds. Be brave, be bold and go for it.

Q: In a Sci-Fi tableau, which villain would you personally rather do battle with – a mortal without any conscience or a computer that is sentient?

A: I think that a mortal villain would be easier and more predictable. We are creatures of habit and if your villain has no conscience they can always be relied on to do the wrong thing. This makes them emotional, vulnerable to manipulation and thus defeat. Additionally physical strength and mental agility would play a part and I would take my chances on both counts. An AI on the other hand would not be susceptible to tricks or manipulation and physical strength doesn’t apply. An AI would only ever examine the data and take the most advantageous course of action regardless, making it almost impossible to beat in terms of mental agility. All in all I think I’d rather take on the mortal.

Q: How do you find ideas for out-of-this-world Sci-Fi plots? Hasn’t everything already been done?

A: We will never be all done with telling stories! Whatever idea you can think of can always be told in more than one way with more than one outcome. As most writers will tell you, ideas are all around us; you just have to start looking for them and you’ll be amazed at how often you’re turning them away rather than struggling to find them. I use news channels online or RSS feeds to track the types of stories that I’m interested in and then file them away with a clipping tool to re-use later. I also read a lot, watch documentaries and find new people to chat with – all of these are fuel for story ideas. Once I have my basic ideas I use several of the techniques that I outline in the book to flesh those out into outlines and eventually complete stories. I’m never short of ideas!

Q: In your view, would it be harder for a Sci-Fi time-traveler to go back in time or to go forward?

A: I think forward. Projecting yourself back in time means you are placing yourself into a physical space that did exist so you know the size, shape, conditions etc. and your biggest issue would be not displacing any of that and changing anything. Going forward in time means trying to predict the shape, size, condition and location of the physical space and hoping you get it right. Like trying to fire a bullet at a moving target while blindfolded and with no idea what direction the target is, how far away it is or how big.

Q: What’s the best Sci-Fi film you’ve ever seen?

A: Couldn’t possibly say, I like so many. There are perennial favourites, films I’ll watch whenever they’re on but even then it depends on my mood and whether or not I want action, adventure and derring-do or quiet, introspective contemplation. I’m probably far more likely to reach for something new to watch though than go back to something I’ve seen.

Q: And the absolute worst?

A: There are many, many candidates, and I’m not that cruel…

Q: What films do you recommend aspiring Sci-Fi filmmakers watch in order to understand the craft?

A: I would start by watching the AFI’s top 50 science-fiction films, first to see what you’re up against and to learn the themes and tropes that crop up time and again. But I’d also watch the top films of the type you want to write be it thriller, action, drama, comedy, romance etc. because as I said before, if you start by writing a terrific thriller and then work on the SF aspects, you’ll get a better thriller than if you build a Sci-Fi world and then try to shoehorn a thriller into it.

Q: So what’s next on your plate?

A: I have two feature scripts I’m working on currently and I’m just about to start on a very exciting web series with a Director/Producer team here in the UK.

Q: Anything else you’d like readers to know about you?

A: I’m a big fan of cake.

Alfred Hitchcock’s MovieMaking Master Class

Hitchcock

Sir Alfred Joseph Hitchcock may have left the building over 30 years ago but author Tony Lee Moral puts the legendary director/producer’s expertise at every reader’s fingertips in his new book, Alfred Hitchcock’s Moviemaking Master Class. Moral’s admiration for his subject matter is no secret; this is, after all, the third book he has penned about the iconic Master of Suspense.

The amount of detailed research he has done is well evidenced and covers a career that spanned an enviable six decades. (Even though the book doesn’t come with a soundtrack, I’ve been unable to shake the TV show’s theme music out of my head ever since I finished reading it; during the late 50’s, Alfred Hitchcock Presents was one of the few shows I was allowed to stay up late and watch.)

Interviewer: Christina Hamlett

******

Q: When did the writing bug first bite you?

A: From a very early age, I’ve been writing ever since I started reading. I loved adventure stories as a child, particularly the Alfred Hitchcock Presents series, such as The Three Investigators, and the Willard Price books. As a teenager, I wrote many short stories, and by the age of 16, had written my first novel (unpublished). Since then, I’ve written three non-fiction books and four novels. 

Q: How about the desire to become a producer/director?

A: Along with my interest in writing, I’ve always been interested in film, and first discovered Alfred Hitchcock at the age of 10 when I saw I Confess. I loved the moral dilemma faced by Montgomery Clift in the lead role and even at that age could recognize Hitchcock’s craftsmanship in storytelling. At college, I really immersed myself in Hitchcock’s Films. My first job after college was working for the BBC where I spent many years working myself up to being a Producer/Director. I’ve now been working in television for half my life and all my professional life.

Q: In addition to Hitchcock (obviously), who were some of the filmmakers that you would say had the most influence on the development of your own vision and style?

A: I would say Ingmar Bergman, Anthony Minghella, Yasujuri Ozu and Quentin Tarantino have been inspirational to me after Hitchcock. Some of my favourite films are Persona, The English Patient, Tokyo Story and Pulp Fiction.

Q: Inquiring minds want to know: What inspired you to write not just one but three books about Alfred Hitchcock?

A: Hitchcock’s films span the history of cinema, so for me, Hitchcock is cinema. After I wrote my first book on the making of Marnie, it seemed natural to follow it up with a book on the making of The Birds for the 50th anniversary this year. The Masterclass book came as an idea from MWP to encompass all of Hitchcock’s films and it’s very timely because the last year really has been the year of Hitchcock with all the biopics and Vertigo being voted number 1.

Q: What do you feel distinguishes Alfred Hitchcock’s Moviemaking Master Class from other books on the market that have been written about him?

A: It’s like a manual or text book on how to make a movie in the style of Alfred Hitchcock, using his principles of suspense, mystery, counterpoint, contrast and putting the audience through it. It’s not a biography – though you learn a lot about Hitchcock the director along the way – and it’s not an academic book – but I think it’s insightful because it’s told through the voice of Hitchcock and his many collaborators, with some great anecdotes.

Q: What was your favorite chapter to write?

A: Interviewing the actors who worked with Hitchcock for Chapter 4, as I was able to interview screen legendaries such as Kim Novak, Doris Day, Eva Marie Saint and Norman Lloyd. All wonderful and gracious human beings.

Q: Conversely, what was the most challenging section for you to pen?

A: I would say the first two chapters because it’s essential to hook and engage the reader so they want to keep on reading. I spent more time and effort on the opening chapters and rewrote them continually.

Q: Who were your favorite people to interview in the course of doing research?

A: I went to interview Norman Lloyd twice at his home in LA. He’s 98 years old, but very sharp and quick witted with an amazing memory. He truly is a classic and classy gentleman and as well as being an actor in Saboteur and Spellbound, he was a producer on the Alfred Hitchcock Presents series for 10 years.

Q: Hollywood has a propensity for cranking out prequels, sequels and remakes of successful films, and Hitchcock’s impressive body of work is no exception, In your opinion, what were the best and worst remakes of his most popular films? Which one has yet to be remade and who would comprise the dream cast to make it a success?

A: The worst remake was Gus Van Sant’s Psycho, because it’s foolhardy to replicate a classic even in the form of a homage, and the original cast is irreplaceable. I don’t think there is a best remake, but I’ll say Rear Window because of Christopher Reeves’ bravery to continue in film after his accident. I’d remake Strangers on a Train with Zachary Quinto and Henry Cavill in the lead roles.

Q: You’ve indicated that your appreciation of Hitchcock’s talent deepens every time you watch one of his films. What’s the latest thing you’ve discovered?

A: I recently interviewed the Assistant Director on Torn Curtain, one of Hitchcock’s lesser movies, who said that Hitchcock took great care to get realism in the reflection in the ship’s dining room window. I’ve never noticed that before which shows that even when working under less than full steam, Hitchcock paid attention to the smallest details.

Q: What’s your favorite Hitchcock movie?

A: I would say the definitive Hitchcock movie is North by Northwest because it has everything that you expect from his films, wit, polish, humour, panache, the wrongfully accused man, and Cary Grant’s star charisma and athleticism. My personal favourites are Vertigo and Marnie because of the psychology of the characters and what those films meant to Hitchcock.

Q: What’s your take on the way he was portrayed by Anthony Hopkins?

A: I enjoyed Hitchcock the movie, I thought it was a humorous and affectionate portrayal and I didn’t feel that the movie was mean spirited. Obviously there were dramatic licenses taken by the film, and Hitchcock is an enormously complicated character to define, but Hopkins brought sympathy and comedy to the role.

Q: If you could sit down for lunch with the late Master of Suspense, what question would you most like to ask him that could not have be answered by anyone who ever knew him?

A: I’m curious to why he was never able to repeat the success after Psycho. It seems that with that film’s monstrous success with the public and also financially, Hitchcock reached his creative peak and I’d like to know why he wasn’t able to top that.

Q: What’s your best advice to the next generation of screenwriters and filmmakers?

A: Know what the studios are looking for, watch a lot of films, develop your own voice, listen to people, work on distinctive dialogue. Nurture relationships as well as your talent. The best stories are out there and it’s all about finding them.

Q: What’s next on your plate?

A: My fourth (and probably final) Hitchcock book on his reputation and how he is perceived over 30 years since his death. This is going to be very interesting and revealing and I’ve already gathered many interviews from people who haven’t spoken out before.

Q: Anything else you’d like readers to know?

A: My steps to a Hitchcock education are watch The 39 Steps, Notorious, Rear Window, Vertigo, North by Northwest and Psycho.

 ***

Tony Lee Moral is a writer and award winning documentary film maker who has written three books on Alfred Hitchcock: Alfred Hitchcock’s Movie Making Masterclass, The Making of Hitchcock’s The Birds and Hitchcock and the Making of Marnie. He has produced and directed over a 100 hours of television for major broadcasters in the US and the UK, including behind the scenes documentaries on films and television.

Onward & Upward: Reflections of a Joyful Life

Onward and Upward

Okay, by a show of hands, who thinks they have the craziest answer to the question, “Where did you spend your 21st birthday and why?”

A guy toward the back who looks like a tall, introspective Dustin Hoffman responds to the challenge.

“And your name, sir?”

“Michael. Michael Wiese. I just wrote a book called Onward & Upward that I’d like to talk about.”

“Do you have any special credentials for being here?”

“I make meaningful films, I publish the works of talented writers, and I live on the Cornwall Coast.”

“Anything else?”

(beat) “Well, I know The Great Ken Lee. I mention that on page 164.”

“Seriously?”

“Seriously. I don’t make this stuff up.”

“Now about that 21st birthday story…”

Interviewer: Christina Hamlett

**********

Q: At age 12, you had every expectation of the secret of life being revealed to you on Confirmation Day. If as the adult Michael you could travel back in time and whisper in the ear of your younger self, what would you say?

A: There is no death.  The Earth is your paradise.  Look within.

Q: One of your childhood aspirations was to grow up and be an ice cream man. Would you have sold cones straight off a truck and had little kids cheer your arrival on their street or had your own soda parlor and invited ice cream lovers of all ages to sit and linger? (and what do you think your choice reveals about your personality?)

A: Selling ice cream from a bicycle.  I like the element of surprise – showing up unexpectedly with a treat.

Q: You spent your 21st birthday in an unexpected venue and for a reason that could cause many people to raise an eyebrow. What was it, did you ever do it again, and what did the experience teach you?

A: I was in court standing before a judge with my film crew after being arrested shooting a nude scene of a dancing couple in a field.  Did I ever do it again?  Yes.  What did I learn?  To be more careful and never shoot in fields that Girl Scout troops walk through again. (laughs)

Q: Music is a recurring theme throughout the chapters of Onward and Upward. If you were involved in the music scene today, what would you be performing/producing?

A:  Indian tabla, of course.

Q: What was your inspiration to become a publisher and launch Michael Wiese Productions?

A:  Necessity!  Twelve publishers rejected my first book, I had to do it myself.  It sold 50,000 copies and I started publishing other writers as well as my own books.

Q: With so many screenwriting and filmmaking books out there on today’s market, what do you feel keeps MWP sustainable? In other words, do you ever worry about running out of topics to cover?

A:  We provide information that has – until now – been closely held film industry secrets.  We kicked open the doors with our books.  Like Mother Nature, we will never run out of ways to express ourselves creatively.  There are many facets on a diamond.

Q: You recently launched a new imprint, Divine Arts. Tell us about it and the correlation to your own spiritual journey.

A:  We are in service to provide a conduit for sacred knowledge, both ancient and emerging.  Divine Arts books demonstrate how one can bring mindfulness to daily life and reconnect with the sacred nature within.

Q: Having spent so much time behind a camera, which is the greater challenge for you – to direct the energies and skill sets of other people to deliver your vision for a documentary or to exercise the solo discipline of putting your thoughts on paper every day and writing a book as deeply introspective – and humorous – as Onward and Upward?

A:  Having Parkinson’s has made me refocus and reduce my energies toward a one-man band kind of filmmaking.  I no longer have the stamina for crews and 14 hour days.  I may hire assistants to carry the gear or an editor to help put the film together, but my challenge nowadays is to make small, personal, sacred journey films on a micro-budget.  Books or films all require a disciplined and committed approach.

Q: Documentaries that seek to introduce the world to little-known cultures often do so at the price of foisting “civilization” on tribes that were perfectly happy being ignorant of modern trappings and technology. What is your advice to aspiring documentary filmmakers insofar as doing no harm in their quest to bring home a compelling story?

A:  Walk softly.  Don’t leave a footprint.  Be very respectful.  Bring as little equipment as possible.  Leave the ‘video circus’ at home.

Q: How does the Balinese connection to the divine that you observed and experienced in your 20s help you to stay focused and positive in dealing with your recent diagnosis of Parkinson’s?

A:  I focus on the daily miracles of what I can do:  Seeing and smelling the flowers in my garden.  Hearing the ocean and birds singing. Feeling the breeze and warmth of the sun.  Like the Balinese with their constant offerings, I give gratitude daily.

Q: For you, what are the distinctions between being religious and being spiritual?

A:  Religions ask you to believe.  Believing what someone tells you to believe is not very useful.  Having an experience of the divine makes the spiritual real for you.

Q: The chapters of Onward and Upward are replete with anecdotes of famous people with whom you have crossed paths and drawn inspiration. Is there anyone you wish you could have met and if so, what question would you most like to have asked him or her?

A:  I’d like to ask Robert Johnson if he really sold his soul to the devil at the crossroads?  Of Einstein I’d ask how many dimensions are there and who lives there?  And I’d ask Carl Jung why he didn’t publish The Red Book when he was alive?

Q: When you learned that you were going to be a father at age 45, what was your first thought?

A:  Forty-five is the new thirty-five!

Q: Had you met your beloved soul-mate Geraldine 20 years earlier, what would your approach to parenting have been?

A: No difference.  Babies didn’t come with an Operating Manual then either.

Q: Parents often tell their children, “Do as I say, not as I do.” Has Julia shown signs of emulating the wild and crazy days of your own youth? If so, what’s your response going to be?

A:  You bet she has!  It’s natural and healthy to experiment and test the world.

Q: What’s the most recent movie you saw and what did you most love/hate about it?

A: “The Cave of the Yellow Dog”.  A wonderful Mongolian film about a nomadic family.

Q: What inspires you the most about living on the Cornwall coast?

A:  It’s elemental magnificence.  It’s like Big Sur on steroids.

Q: What would most people be surprised to learn about you?

A: Just about everything I write about in Onward and Upward.  I’ve been many people and had many lives.  Most people who know me see only one face.  The book reveals all!

Q: What’s next on your plate?

A:  An esoteric quest in Sicily. An interactive e-book.  The first screening in London of my latest film, “Living with Spirits: 10 Days in the Jungle with Ayahuasca”.

Q: Anything else you’d like to add?

A: I thank you for your challenging and insightful questions.  Sorry to ramble on so. 😉

Onward and Upward is available now through www.mwp.com or Amazon.