Tell us your backstory. How and why did you get into the filmmaking?
My filmmaking started at a fairly early age: 7th grade. My family bought a video camera for Christmas. We opened it before Christmas, though, and immediately after taking it out of the box, I decided to make a movie. I dressed up my brother as Santa and our neighbors as elves and made a little Christmas adventure. We even tried some effects using a gingerbread house as Santa’s home with popcorn packing material falling as snow. The movie was terrible but I decided then and there that I was going to be a filmmaker. I spent all four years of high school making a Star Trek epic where my cat attempts to take over the universe. That one had model spaceships on strings being pulled by model trains in front of a rear projection screen, laser and explosion effects projected on a beam splitter (these were the days before digital effects), sets built out of cardboard and Christmas lights and a cast of all my friends that changed dramatically throughout the four years of shooting. Again, it was a pretty dreadful movie but it got me through school. After studying film at USC, I became an apprentice under an amazing cinematographer, Allen Daviau, and really learned about the art and true business. I’ve been on that same quest since 7th grade.
What are the specific qualities that, in your opinion, make a film great?
For me, I want to be transported to a another place when I watch a film. I love how movies can take you to different worlds, times and emotions. But what makes that happen is really more than just the script and actors, it’s the music and cinematography. Those elements can be immensely grandiose, which I personally love, or subtle. Either way, when those arts combine they create the true cinema experience. When I come out of a theater saying “wow” and having the musical theme in my head, that’s when I think a movie is great.
What films have been the most inspiring or influential to you and why?
Thinking about movies that have influenced me, it’s a pretty eclectic range. Back in junior high when I started making films, “Star Trek: The Motion Picture” was on TV and it really inspired me. Looking at it now, it’s kind of boring, but it still blows me away with Jerry Goldsmith’s music and atmosphere. I not only started making my own Star Trek imitation, but also started collecting film scores and attempted to write my own music. “Edward Scissorhands” and “Batman” were also huge influences because of the operatic style of filmmaking, again with the music and cinematography. “Bram Stoker’s Dracula” is one of my favorite movies because of the incredibly abstract and artsy way to tell the story and emotions. I can’t get enough of that movie. But, way on the other spectrum, I can’t get enough of “Pee Wee’s Big Adventure” or Buster Keaton movies. I can go on, but as you can see, it’s a pretty strange list of influences. All of which, somehow have influenced my work, I’m sure.
What’s harder? Getting started or being able to keep going? And what drives you to continue making films?
I think getting started with a film project is the most difficult. I may have the story and inspiration, but thinking of the process of making a film is daunting. I think ahead to the challenges of shooting, the logistics of crew and locations, what equipment is needed, the time frame, etc. and will certainly question if the project is worth all the pain. Because making a film is painful. I think I’ve scrapped a lot of ideas simply because I start thinking of those things. But, when I decide that yes, this project is worth the pain, then I dive in. Once that first step is made, it becomes an obsession. You will go through a lot of difficulties but you have to see the project completed as it really turns into your life.
Years ago, I got to see Warren Beatty speak after a screening of “Dick Tracy.” He said something like: making a movie is like vomiting. He doesn’t want to vomit but he knows he’ll feel better when he’s finished. I love that quote because its so true for me. It feels good to get that project done and show people.
How do you know when your story’s finished, when to walk away?
Sometimes a story is finished simply because of a deadline. The Breckenridge Film Festival takes place on certain days and they need all the films for tech by a certain date. If left to my own vices, I could probably have worked on that festival trailer for years. But a deadline says otherwise. Other times, I think it is simply instinct that tells you when it’s time to walk away. The goal is to make the best film possible. When you follow your original vision and see it come to life, I think you know when you’ve reached that goal.
How many films have you completed? What is your favorite project you have worked on and why?
I’ve lost track of actual numbers. I’ve done many short films, a documentary feature, and a bunch of commercials on my own since 7th grade, but as a cinematographer for others, the list is much bigger with feature films, tons of documentaries, more commercials and some music videos.
It’s hard to pick my favorite, but one that stands out is a little no budget trailer done for a festival called the “Going Green Film Film Festival.” Realizing it was impossible to film in Los Angeles, I decided to film in my hometown of Hanford, California. I brought a few of my friends and crew from LA and my own equipment (it was shot on Super 8mm film) but recruited cast and other crew members from Hanford, some of whom were my friends. The town was excited about it (we were featured in the newspaper), the location was excited to be included (an old mill, which was perfect for a noir setting), and the cast was excited. We didn’t have fancy equipment, in fact, we used a borrowed wheelchair for a dolly. My guys were used to working with me and work fast and efficient. For the others, we got to go into teaching mode, which I enjoy. That was downright fun. And that’s really what I want in a shoot. It’s so much work to make a film that if there’s not fun involved, I don’t think it’s worth it. I think this shoot was really the epitome of independent filmmaking and took me back to the film school days.
Where do you get your inspiration from?
My official answer is: I don’t know. Sometimes inspiration comes from real life. For my short film “Adonis,” the inspiration was not being able to get a date. Throwing that idea of frustration around with a friend on a set, the idea evolved into needing a dog, which became the premise of “Adonis:” a dog is an agent for a dating service. I was working for the Durango and Silverton railroad when the thought of making a commercial for a local restaurant, “Grumpy’s, came about. I thought: who is grumpy? Immediately one of the train conductors came to mind. So, that idea is completely based on him and stars him, actually. Sitting in the bar at Handlebars restaurant in Silverton, a crazy place, I was staring at a jackalope with a mustache and the idea for their commercial came about. I have no idea how I thought of the Breckenridge trailer. It came to mind as I was driving to Breck to meet with Janice, the festival director. So, pinpointing where inspiration comes from is difficult. Somewhere inside is the answer, but I’m not sure how that comes about. I’m sure all artists would have a hard time with an direct answer.
What is your favorite aspect of film production?
My favorite part of making films is actually production. It’s also the part I have the most anxiety about. It’s the part that I fear and sometimes even dread because of all the unknowns. I don’t think I ever sleep before a film shoot because of all the thoughts and fears racing through my head. Yet, when I’m on set, that kind of changes. There’s something about working with the crew and figuring things out that is kind of cool. I love working with actors and seeing them bring the characters to life in ways that I didn’t think of. Seeing a vision come to life is a lot like playing with toys as a kid. It’s fun. Now, it’s also very hard, time consuming and exhausting, and sometimes things go wrong. But making movies is mostly about solving problems, and when working with a team, solving those problems is fun. I like getting to the end of the day and having a feeling that we accomplished our plan and had fun. Of course, then I won’t sleep a wink because of all the thoughts of the next day, but it’s still fun.
Why did you choose to submit to the Breckenridge Film Festival? What do you look for in a festival where you hope to show your film?
I submitted my short film “Adonis” to the Breckenridge Film Festival because it was in a beautiful location and reviews said it was a great atmosphere for filmmakers. And it is. When submitting to festivals, I admit that I look for places that I want to visit. But, more importantly, I look for places that would have an appreciative audience. As a filmmaker/artist, you really want your work to be seen and appreciated. There are festivals that supposedly have chances of agents and distributors being there to hire filmmakers and license films, but experiencing many festivals now, I appreciate ones that have receptive audiences and treat filmmakers like royalty. Breckenridge was one of my favorite experiences with “Adonis” for these reasons. I’ve been to festivals where there are two people in the theater: me and the projectionist. Breckenridge is the opposite. The theaters are full and the audiences are enthusiastic and friendly. “Adonis” got all the responses I dreamed about: laughter and cheering in all the right places. I remember the Q&A’s in Breck being incredibly fun and energetic. And on top of that, filmmakers are treated quite special. I’d say it’s everything filmmakers should want in a festival. My experience was so good that I ended up moving to Colorado less than a year later.
What are the next project or projects you are beginning work on?
I’ve got two immediate projects that I’m working on. I’ve just finished shooting a promotional short film for the Silverton Chamber of Commerce. Instead of being the usual tourism video with nice drone footage and scenery, this is an actual story. It’s about a family arriving on the train but the kids imagine they are in the old west. So, the old west as seen through the eyes of kids has turned this into an epic adventure where we kind of brought some of Silverton’s old west and mining history back to life in a fun way. The other project also takes place in Silverton, it’s a documentary, or as I’ve been saying, a “rockumentary.” One of the rites of passage in the town is that kids sell rocks to the tourists. It’s like a lemonade stand except, being a former mining town, there is a lot of history behind this and the tradition goes back a few generations. I spent most of the last two summers with a group of kids as they collect and sell their rocks as well as interviewed former rock sellers from the 40’s to now. Beyond that, there are two scripts I’ve been working on with a friend as well as two children’s book ideas that I want to make happen. But maybe there will be some surprise projects between.