Wednesday, May 25, 2011

The Five Hardest-Working People I Know in Hollywood

I work really hard at being a filmmaker.  Really, really, ridiculously hard.  But I have my limits.  This is a post dedicated to the five people I know for whom the word "limit" is meaningless.  Their seemingly endless devotion to their craft and their industry is exhausting.  However, it is also inspiring, and if you're a filmmaker in need of a direction or a role model, you'd do well to pick any one of these five people.  No, I'm not listing them in any specific order.
James Duval of Continuum PicturesJames Duval Jim is a producer I met while I was waiting tables at Mel's Diner in Berkeley during the summer between my junior and senior year at Cal. Since then he has become one of my mentors, as well as one of my business partners.  Jim's innate knowledge and understanding of the film industry is, for lack of a better word, ridiculous.  He has done every job one could ever do on a set, either in front of camera or behind it.  He has also done every job you can ever do related to filmmaking off set.  And he doesn't just do all these things, he's never NOT doing these things.  There is not a moment where I have ever seen Jim awake and NOT somehow working on moving his career forward.  And not just his career, but the careers of everyone he works with.  Jim is one of those people for whom his own success is unimportant if it doesn't also include the success of people he cares about.  So naturally, he does the work of about fifteen people.  And he just never stops.
Danny Torres of Continuum PicturesDanny Torres I met Danny Torres when I was a sophomore at Cal, through one of my dorm mates who had gone to high school with him.  Long story short, I pulled Danny into "Wrestling Days", originally as a featured bit part member of the wrestling team.  But it was clear from Day One that his destiny lay on the other side of the camera.  When I had to step away from my producer duties so I could focus on my role in the film, Danny picked up the slack without anyone even asking him to, and he more than made up the difference.  From that point on, he was doing anything and everything to become a better writer, director and producer.  He even wrote his senior history thesis on "Steven Spielberg and World War II."  He is constantly observing industry trends and working them into his career plan.  He is also continually reviewing, evaluating and revising his technique as a writer, director, and cinematographer.  The only times I ever see him NOT thinking about filmmaking, or the film industry, or improving a film he is specifically working on, is when he's watching sports.  And even then, he's subconsciously thinking about how to work what he's watching into his film career.  Somehow.
Picture of Jason Durdon taken from some random website.Jason Durdon I have not known Jason nearly as long as I have known Danny or James, since the first time I ever worked with him was on "The Absents", which he directed and in which I had a bit part. But since then, I've had the honor of working with him on several projects, from pre-production through post-production.  He has a huge wealth of knowledge when it comes to equipment and other technical things, but that doesn't get in the way of his youthful exuberance for creativity in filmmaking.  I always hear him talking about this new idea he has for something really cool and really fun, be it a story idea or a post concept or a special effect, and he always seems eager to explore that idea as soon as he can.  All this while working a full time job at a post house, and doing other random production jobs on the side.
Picture of Liz Saydah from her website.Liz Saydah I don't have a whole lot to say about Liz, since I've only worked with her once, and I only ever see her when I'm at Jason's for some work-related somethingorother.  But I will say this much: I have never seen her NOT working.  Except once, when she was watching a tennis match.  But aside from that one time, I only ever see her promoting herself via some online method, looking for gigs everywhere you can possibly look for gigs, submitting to gigs, editing photos, making voice-over demo tapes, etc.  It's as if her motor has no "off" switch.  If she's not doing one thing to promote herself as an actor, she's doing something else, or practicing, or doing research.  Sometimes, when I'm out of ideas on what to do next in my career, I just think back to something I saw Liz doing, and it gives me some sort of new direction.
Picture of Chelese Belmont taken from her website.Chelese Belmont I've had the good fortune to work with Chelese on multiple occasions.  My first experience working with her was on "Troubadours", when the girl who was going to play the female lead bailed last minute, and Chelese, who had been cast as the female lead's best friend, stepped up and the production didn't miss a beat.  She already had all the lines memorized, she had already done the character work, and, most importantly, she was already prepared to deal with acting opposite me...  Since then, I have never seen another actor get nearly as involved in their roles as I have seen Chelese get.  I've seen her put together not just pages, but BOOKs of character study work.  The only time I ever see Chelese NOT doing something to make herself a better, more versatile actress, she's watching a movie.  Which, knowing her, is simply just studying for some other character she's playing, or will play someday.

If the term "raise the bar" had a corporeal form, it would be these five people.  Look for them at the Oscars someday.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

A Note on Cancer

I will talk more in depth later about my experience with cancer as it pertains to my journey in film, but right now I just have some general thoughts I'd like to share.

A lot of people I know (possibly everyone I know) has had some sort of experience with cancer.  Be it a distant relative, a close relative, a friend, a friend's relative, or one's self.  And a lot of that is going on right now, for myself, my family, and some of my friends, which has gotten me thinking.

Cancer can be several things, and different things to different people.  It can represent a challenge, an obstacle, a milestone, an inspiration, a unifier, a new beginning, an ending, or many other things, and many of them at the same time.  But regardless of what it is, it is an experience that changes everyone who endures it.

I would like to pretend that I was courageous and optimistic during and after my ordeal- that I rose to the challenge, beat the obstacle, and began anew as a better person.  But the reality is that I was none of those things.  It may have appeared that way because I had the uncanny ability to emotionally detach myself from my situation and convince myself that it wasn't affecting me negatively, and being a hyper-rational person, I could justify my position to myself (or anyone else) and ignore data that would suggest otherwise.  I was fine.  I didn't need help, I didn't need encouragement, I didn't need hope, or support groups, or counseling.  Because I was going to beat it and then move on with my life, and it was as simple as that.

But an inescapable truth is that no matter what you convince yourself of, and no matter what cancer represents to you, or who you know that's going through it, it is a traumatic experience.  It's traumatic on your body, it's traumatic on your mind, and it's traumatic on your emotional self, no matter how far down you've crammed it (and I might argue that the deeper you suppress your emotional self, the more it is affected by trauma).  Especially if there is loss involved in your experience.  How you deal with that trauma and that loss will affect you for the rest of your life.

I first started my treatments for cancer six years ago, and completed them roughly five months later.  A casual observer would say I handled the experience very well.  And for a long time, I believed I did.  But as time progressed, I very slowly devolved into a depressed, hopeless individual, idling through life and angry at the universe without even knowing why. 

About a year ago, I explored the possibility that it might be related to my cancer, and I eventually discovered that I did experience a loss during that ordeal.  A great, traumatic loss, that I never admitted to myself.  What I lost was something I considered a great personal strength and asset, and was such a defining part of my identity that I was unable to cope with that loss, to the point where I refused to recognize it ever even happening.  But recognize or no, it happened.  And the longer I ignored it, the more it ate at me, and the deeper I sank.

The moral of this story is this: all of you who are experiencing this ordeal in some form or another, whether you admit it to yourself or not, and whether you recognize it or not, you are experiencing a traumatic event.  You do not have the power of choice over this.  The simple fact that you are human has taken that choice away from you.  So the best possible thing for you to do is accept that this is traumatic and seek appropriate counseling.  Here's the catch: YOU CANNOT COUNSEL YOURSELF. 

Do not be afraid to be human.  Do not be afraid to be afraid.  Find a therapist.  Go to support groups.  Cry.  Hug a family member.  Hug a stranger.  Do yoga.  Say and do cheesy, foolish, and/or seemingly pointless things, recognize your need to do them, and be ok with it.  Do all these things I wish I had done six years ago.  Not because they're good for you, but because believe it or not, you need to.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Taught in Cold Blood

I'm going to be periodically jumping off the "story of my film trajectory" train to bring you a "story of my right now" post.  It could get crazy.  But I'll try to keep it chronologically coherent.

As some of you know, and all of you are going to find out very soon, I'm currently producing a film called "Taught in Cold Blood".  To bring you up to speed, it is a horror film written by Darien Harte, and I'm producing it with my team from Continuum Pictures.  P. David Miller is doing a fantastic job in his directorial debut, and I can truly say he is an actor's director.  It helps that he's a seasoned actor.  Especially since a good portion of our cast is relatively young (and therefore green).  Don't let this fool you though.  Their performances are solid, and only getting better as the shoot progresses.

In the starring role of "Cameron" we have Luke Lippold, who I previously worked with on 'The Absents'.  Luke does a great job of finding and suppressing Cameron's subterranean fury, and his internal struggle between genuinely warm and gentle innocence and unforgivingly cold and inhuman malice really shines through.

Guiding Cameron in his journey is "Tony", played by Mesindo Pompa.  I have worked with Mesindo on a number of things, first in the Continuum Pictures / Filmplane Spanish language feature "Mano a Mano", where he brought a raw grittiness to his performance that drew me in to the story despite my inability to speak Spanish.  I look forward to seeing where he takes this character as the shoot unfolds.

Pulling Cameron toward the more human direction is "Amy", an infatuated classmate played by Sara Drust.  This is my first collaboration with Sara, who came highly recommended by P. David.  Thus far she has been nothing but professional, and I can say her performance reflects her reputation.

In the role of "Luke", Amy's artistically-inclined little brother, is Justin Hoffmeister.  This is also my first collaboration with Justin, who is not only a talented actor, but also a bright young filmmaker who I suspect will grow into a solid producer.  As Luke, Just has impressed me with his eagerness to step outside the box, and his capacity for taking direction and using it.

Perhaps the most influential driving force in Cameron's trajectory is his mother, Linda, played by Loydene Williamson.  I have known Loydene for many years, and though she appeared as Geordy's mother in the Filmplane drama "Convict", this is my first time personally working with her.  Linda is a character who has pure, unapologetic disdain for her child who does nothing but care for her, and Loydene absolutely nails this character, filling her with an absolute rancor and a chilling intensity that spews venom into the very core of your existence.

As you can see, this project excites me, and I will talk a lot more about it in later posts, but right now I have to get to sleep, since we are headed down to Costa Mesa in 12 hours to shoot out the rest of the "Cameron's House" scenes, and I still have a fair bit of "producer work" to do before we leave...

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Welcome to My New Blog

After a long hiatus from blogging, I have rejoined the blogosphere.  One can say I left because I was too busy to write, but the reality is that I simply didn't have a central focus.  It was hard for me to think of topics, and hard for me to develop forced ideas.

But I've been doing a lot of thinking lately about my career and my journey as a filmmaker, and I'm discovering that this reflection is empowering.  The more I organize my thoughts about what I do, the more confident I feel about doing it.

Yes, my journey has been a bit of a roller coaster, but that should simply make for more interesting reading.  I hope.  So it is with that in mind that I begin this blog- a blog to chronicle my development as a filmmaker, to organize my thoughts about filmmaking, and to possibly provide insight to or inspire other new filmmakers who may find themselves in places I have once been, fighting battles I have fought (and will continue to fight), and enjoying victories I have enjoyed (and will continue to enjoy).

I'll also probably write some other stuff, too.

Even writing this entry has been somewhat empowering.  Though that could be because I'm listening to "Ecstasy of Gold" and "The Trio" from the soundtrack to "The Good, the Bad, the Ugly" as I write it.