The Backlot Episodes

Tova: Hi and welcome to The Backlot. I’m Tova Laiter, moderator and director of the New York Film Academy guest lecture series. In this episode, we will take an in-depth look at one of my great guests and hear about his experience in the entertainment industry. And now, Eric Conner, will take you through the highlights of this Q&A.

Eric: Hi, I’m Eric Conner, senior instructor at New York Film Academy. And in this episode, we bring you an Oscar winning cinematographer. If you’re a lover of cinema from the past 30 years, well, you have definitely seen his work. Lincoln, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, Saving Private Ryan, Jerry Maguire. He’s a DP who went from shooting Cool as Ice, starring Vanilla Ice, to Schindler’s List in a short two years. And he’s been Steven Spielberg’s goto cinematographer ever since. We are talking about Janusz Kaminski. Mr. Kaminski came from Poland to the United States 40 years ago with little knowledge of the country or its language. Though his solution for learning English quickly was, well I’ll just say inventive.

Janusz Kaminski: I came to America in 1981. I spoke no English. I went to Chicago first and I started learning English little bit for a year and a half. Then I started dating my teacher. That was really helpful. Jill Rosenheim. She dumped me. She said, if you were somebody I would have marry you, she ends up marrying Joel Horovitz. Broke my heart. But nevertheless, I managed to go to film school. So I went to Chicago, got my B.A. in Chicago, moved to Los Angeles in 87, went to AFI. And when I was in AFI, I started working for Roger Corman as a gaffer little bit shooting B camera, shooting second unit, you know, then eventually I went outside Roger Corman, shot a feature. Come back to Roger Corman, shot a few features and I did a couple of television films. And I was just gradually getting ready to have an interesting career. I was just about to do Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. That movie was already given to me, which was my first bigger budget movie. And then, of course, simultaneously I met Steven and as he was making Jurassic Park one, I was making Huckleberry Finn. And after that, I made a movie with him, which is Schindler’s List. Right? So Roger Corman was great because in two years I’ve probably done 25 movies as a gaffer and I shot three or four movies for him, you know, which is really interesting experience. Right now that kind of organization doesn’t exist anymore. During that time, in the early 80s and 90s, there were some independent studios, you know, Cinetel and Roger Corman, and there was another one, Motion Picture Corporation of America. So there were few independent entities that would make this low budget semi-exploitation movies. You know, I don’t know how you start right now. I have no idea, although some of the interns that I’ve had, they became bonafide, some photographers and they’re making, you know, okay. Living in them, making movies, you know. So there is this entire world of independent cinema that I have no contact with, you know, although I did win Spirit Award.

Eric: Working for Roger Corman, the legendary producer of over 400 low budget movies, is one of the best hands on experiences a filmmaker can get. Just ask Ron Howard. Francis Ford Coppola, James Cameron, and the countless other directors who worked with him. But Janusz Kaminski also deepened his education of cinema by attending a traditional film school, too.

Janusz Kaminski: I went to Columbia College, which is very much of a hands on school. It’s a relatively formal school where you don’t have to commit to any particular field. You know, I happen to like cinematography simply because it was the first thing I’ve done. When someone says you’re good at it, you know, you’re coming back from Eastern Europe, you know, you’re not being rewarded as a child, you know. And someone said, you good at it. Right? And I just fell in love with it and gave me very much of a concrete profession. You know, as an immigrant, you need a profession. You cannot be director because you’re unemployed. Right? Unless mommy or daddy puts the money in. Now you can make your own films, right? With little digital camera and stuff like that. You still need a good story. Right? So but as a cinematographer I learned about electrician and camera assistant. It was horrible camera assistant. Very good electrician. Very good grip. Very good dolly grip. So I had a concrete profession that would allowed me to go and do a commercial during my school year and make 250 bucks and my rent was 280. So it’s pretty good, right? It was all about making little bit of money so you can pay the rent. And believe me, nothing changes. You still just making the money to pay the bills.

Eric: And part of this learning process requires making mistakes. A lot of them.

Janusz Kaminski: There are always mistakes. You learn from mistakes. You know, I’ve made a career out of mistakes. Out of focus, you know, shaky camera, you know, flares, all that stuff, you know. A shutter that’s weird, you know. Mistakes, if you have a movie that makes sense to apply the mistakes, you know, you could tell a nice story. But you learn that if you put a half filter and it’s red and looks great in the sky. But then you tilt up, everything changes, right? Or you pan across the red filter goes across someone’s face, you know. Oh I better don’t do that no more again.

Eric: A great way to avoid some of the mistakes is working with the right people. For a cinematographer that means finding a trustworthy gaffer, the person who is most responsible for realizing the DP’s vision.

Janusz Kaminski: The scope is way too large. You can’t really demand every light to be placed on the set according to your desire. So you have a gaffer who is knowledgeable, who is interested in doing lighting, and he gets some gaffers who are more intellectual and others are much more, you know, technical and just do the lights. And then on the shooting day or day before you talk about the specifics of each scene and you change the light, in particular, the lighting of the main section of the scene, or you adjust the lighting or you do the lighting with the gaffer on the given day, right after the rehearsal. But if you lighting three city blocks, you know, you can’t really generalize. You know, don’t make a backlight. I don’t want to be backlight-ish or you say I want a backlight. I want this to feel romantic. I want to be blue-green.

Eric: And of course, a great DP will be somewhat limited if the director’s not on board as well.

Janusz Kaminski: For me, it’s very important that he tells good stories, you know, whatever that story is. Doesn’t have to be linear story. But I just like a director who is interested in storytelling, not necessarily in just entertaining people, but telling the stories, you know. And sometimes you get the chance to work with other directors outside Steven who are good storytellers and sometimes not. And I don’t want him to be my friend. I also want the director to respect me, respect my work and realize my contribution and realized my years of experience and not to be afraid. And the fear is a paralyzing thing for many directors. I want him or her to have good aesthetics or whatever it means.

Eric: That Steven he’s alluding to? Steven Spielberg. I think you’ve heard of him. It’s a remarkable collaboration that’s now spanned over 25 years, twenty films, five Oscar nominations, and two Oscar wins. And it’s a union that began thanks to Mr. Spielberg’s love of television.

Janusz Kaminski: I shot a little movie directed by Diane Keaton. That was I think 1990. It was a television movie. He likes television, you know. And that’s the way he connects with the world by watching television. He loves television. And he saw it on television. He really liked the movie. Stephen liked the work called my agent. We met and he offered me to do a television movie for his company. Television movie directed by Gregory Hoblit called Class of ’61, which was a civil war movie that deals with the West Point graduates in 1861. And after that, he offered me Schindler’s List. So pretty much like that. I was a really hard working boy when I was in film school. So it wasn’t just like he found me on the streets of Krakow, you know, and brought me to America. I mean I was here for 13 years and I’ve shot six, seven movies, you know. So I was rather experienced. I just didn’t have that little push. You know, he’s the most hardworking person that I’ve ever met. The moment we finish the movie within two weeks from the wrap, he’s got a pretty good final cut. So he works weekends, he works during lunch, he works after work. All the fame and the money he deserves. The other ones not necessarily deserve, but he really deserve it.

Eric: Most people would be completely intimidated working with a true titan of cinema for the first time. How could you not be? But Janusz Kaminski didn’t overthink it.

Janusz Kaminski: I was pretty naive when I started working with Steven. I really didn’t know what it meant for my career and for my life in general to be associated with him and work on the movies with him. So I was very naive. Now I’d be very scared. But at that point, I was just, you know, I saw another filmmaker whose work I admired and liked. I knew that I’ve got something offered to him that he liked and admired. So that was the base of our relationship, which was trust, a little bit of infatuation with each other’s work. And that relationship evolved in a bit of a friendship that lasted since 1993. I mean, obviously, I knew that his visual sense was superb and still continues to be superb. And I like the cinematographers he worked with but I wasn’t really intimidated or or afraid or felt out of the league. I just knew that I have to do good work. And that’s what he respected. You know, good work. Whatever that means, good work.

Eric: I think it’s fair to say Schindler’s List is more than just good work. The movie won a slew of Oscars and remains one of the most heart-wrenching stories ever committed to film, only deepened by its stark and gorgeous use of black and white. For Mr. Kaminski, it was a major step forward for his career while returning to where it all began.

Janusz Kaminski: Well, I mean, it was very emotional simply because I’ve not been to Poland for 13 years. I left as a young fellow with pretty much zero in my pocket and I came back with Spielberg to make a movie. And I left during the communes. Came back at the early stage of democracy. It was very emotional, very much interested in being in Poland. And I learned a lot about Holocaust. You know, we as the Poles, we’re not being taught about Holocaust. You know, we’re being told about the Second World War and the destruction that the war created on various ethnicities, such as Gypsies, Slavs, Germans, Russians, and Jews. But we were not really focusing on Holocaust or Jewish people, right? So that was extremely revealing experience. You know, it was very emotional at first. And then pretty quickly, I realized that it’s basically it’s the same country that it used to be. You know, I still have the same sentiment to some degree. My generation is the generation that is running the country and your generation will improve the country. Right now, it’s still a little bit tough. There’s some great people there, 40 million people. You’re bound to find some great people.

Eric: One of the film’s most indelible images is Oskar Schindler, noticing the girl in the red coat. It’s the only bit of color in a sea of black and white. A remarkable visual moment that actually began with the book.

Janusz Kaminski: It was not my idea. The movie’s based on a book and the little girl in the red dress was written into the novel right? Steven wanted to retain that aspect simply because it was metaphorical and created this certain symbols. And, you know, as you know, symbols, their interpretation is very individual, right? Technically, how we’ve done it, we’ve done it with shooting a color film. And then the image would be rotoscoped, which I don’t know if you guys know, but each frame would be hand painted and the color was was taken out and then each print was hand spliced because obviously you cannot print color negative and black and white negative on the same print stack. So each print was hand spliced at least in the primary market. And that’s the technique. That’s how we achieved the brief moments of color in black and white movie. Now, the meaning of it, whatever you think it is.

Eric: At this point, Janusz Kaminski preparing for a film with Steven Spielberg is a streamlined process. A little conversation about what they’re going after and for Mr. Kaminski knowing what to avoid.

Janusz Kaminski: Well, the preparation is very simple. We go look at the locations, him and I once. And then he comes back and we shoot the movie. That’s the preparation. We may look at one film or we may not. That’s the preparation, really. Lately, when he’s doing big movies like Indiana Jones, he would spend weeks and weeks and weeks in animation studio where he would do the previsual – previsual-ation. What it’s called, you know, he gets like a, like a animated storyboards, you know. So that’s what he would do. That’s his preparation. But you know, he just, sometimes we just don’t talk at all. I don’t know, I mean we don’t we don’t go to intellectual about things. But between Steven and I, very little preparation. We don’t talk much about it. Very little until I start doing the tests very early of tests where I’m doing some test and I’m beginning to show him certain things. And the way I, I work is not necessary that I know what this movie will look like. But I definitely know that’s not going to look like like a Robert Redford film. I don’t know what it’s going to look like, but it’s not going to look like that. So I work by elimination. I eliminate what I don’t want this movie to look like. It’s the trust, you know and knowing that the guy who you’re working with is the guy that is really good for your movie. But there’s another way of working. You can sit and break down every single shot, create storyboards, create visual references and I’ve done that. I’ve done that with Cameron Crowe on Jerry Maguire. Where we sat through the entire movie and we did shotlist list and he did storyboards and stuff like that.

Eric: Part of Mr. Kaminski, his preparation is revisiting the imagery from his stories’ time frames, how people remember and identify those eras. He found that especially useful when capturing the 1970s for Munich.

Janusz Kaminski: The whole color palette. You have to work with certain color that represents the 70s and of course, what represents the 70s are the movies of the 70s. It’s Vanishing Point, Panic in Needle Park, Midnight Cowboy, Taxi Driver, French Connection. French Connection, I think was one of the bigger influences because of the color. But then you’ve got The Ipcress File, which is pretty amazing film. And then you get Get Carter. So a lot of inspirations. Not necessarily that I was borrowing the scenes, but all those great movies in the 70s that basically made me wanting to come to America because my perception of America was built based on watching American movies from the 70s. So I kind of remember what that felt. You know what that felt when I was sitting in Poland watching movies in the 70s so I kind of imagine what America must have been. So when I was just watching this movie here I’m thinking, wow, this movie really feels like the 70s. Oh, it takes place in the 70s. So I felt just for me, I succeeded in creating or recreating that kind of a feel of the 70s, you know. And the cars. I mean it’s not that hard to create period look. You put a couple of cars. You put people in funny haircuts and wardrobe, and you’ve got a sense of the period, right? What’s interesting is to restrain yourself from going too far. Like what Harry Savides did in the movie with Denzel Washington about the drug dealer. What was it called? American Gangster. I think Harry did a fantastic job. He totally restrained himself. He wasn’t flashy. He wasn’t really showing off. And he really conveyed that period. Nobody paid attention to his work because it was just so right and so perfect, you know, so you have to be little bit flashy so people can look at it and see, wow, this is it good work, you know.

Eric: Though there are limits to this research, especially for films set before photography, or if he wants to get certain shots that nobody dared capture in real life.

Janusz Kaminski: What influences me are the images that hopefully were taken during that particular period. Right? I mean, of course, you’re talking about 1890 and slavery there are not that many photos and the images were very deteriorated or period movies. But if you’re talking about Second World War, there’s a very large library of images that you can use as your resource, right? But the problem with those images is that, you know, if you’re a combat cameraman and you’re sitting there in the field, you’re not going to be running with that camera because you’re going to get shot, right? So you sit behind a rock or behind some kind of obstruction. You’ve got a long lens and and you capture the images that way. Well, we were not creating dangerous situations, so I was able to come up with visual style that allowed the audience to feel like they participating in the war. So the camera was hand-held. Usually the camera was just one single camera following the actors. You know when the actors fell down, the operator would fall down, that kind of stuff. The explosions were happening left and right. So you had this immediacy of the war that frequently combat cameraman would not be able to convey simply because they would not exposed himself to that kind of a danger. You’re looking at documentary footage and of course, you understand intellectually how powerful the war was, but you’re really not feeling emotionally what that war feels like. And then again, our recollection of periods, you know, that, you know, 1890,s warm, 70s, fluorescent and ugly. That kind of stuff. So war is usually black and white, particularly the Second World War. But they just discovered recently a large library of George Stephenson’s color movies, and they were amazing. It’s amazing to see war in color. And I did an interview a few years ago about the beauty of the war and war an be beautiful. Well intellectually it cannot be beautiful because people are dying and all that stuff. But visually, it’s a stunning experience. Explosions, blood, colors, you know, and the grit. You know, it’s just really, really visually stimulating. It’s not beautiful. It’s just visually stimulating, the war.

Eric: Janusz Kaminski also takes color inspiration from where his various movies are set, which helped audiences orient themselves during Munich‘s globe trotting set pieces.

Janusz Kaminski: Greece was very yellow, which is very interesting, this movie to play with the colors because you have to let the audience immediately identify where they are. So if you’re not using some strong, very strong visual metaphors I guess, you will lose the audience. So the first explosion was very yellow. Then we go to France, it’s a bit more bluish. Then we go to Israel, it’s very steel blue, you know, that kind of stuff. Italy is very warm and fuzzy. France is very warm and fuzzy. So using those visual cliches that we as the people identify with specific countries, you know. Israel, warm, sunny, you know. Iceland, you know, all day you get light, you know, dark, and at night, you know, blah, blah, blah. Russia, gray and smoky, you know, France, you know, bluish kind of, you know. So, yeah, you let the gaffer do as much as he can on his own, because if he doesn’t, then you’re going to fall behind and you have to do more work. So surround yourself with the best people you can work less. And I want to work as little as possible. You know, except when I’m on the set, then I work as much as I can, but I don’t, I don’t like preproduction. I like going on location scouts and walking. Let’s talk about the sequences from inside the car and shooting through the back window and seeing the people. Then you rack focus to the mirror in the foreground and that mirror sees. It was a bit of a nightmare because you have to constantly balance and you lose light in the mirror. You lose it in the glass. And you have to light the people outside and you have to light the people inside. It becomes problematic.

Eric: When determining the look of each film, Mr. Kaminski actively tries to avoid the obvious choices or clichés surrounding the use of color.

Janusz Kaminski: Color is a part of the artistic expression, right? Up to some degree, black and white is much easier because you don’t have color, so you don’t operate on that level. When you have color, you have to organize colors and make some kind of a story. Right? And Storaro was like the first cinematographer who really brought the whole intellectual concept of using the color in movies. Right. And he was not inventing the genre. Anybody who reads a little bit about psychology will realize the influence of certain colors on our behavior. He was just the one who verbally explain it to most of the viewers what he was doing in terms of the colors. So blue is sad, red anger, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. I’m more interested in what happens when you change things, you know. Where you don’t make the blue to be sad, but blue could be happy as well, right? What happens when you do a period movie and rather than having beautiful period images, you go into hand-held and you do it really gritty and ugly right? I’m interested in those things, you know? So I use color, I know color, and I try to organize color in in some kind of a manner that tells the story. But it’s also to go against the cliches and against the expected results, you know.

Eric: Many cinematographers prefer to have complete lighting control on their sets, but Janusz Kaminski enjoys the creative challenges and prefers the limitations of a practical location over a soundstage.

Janusz Kaminski: Particularly in Malta, some of the stuff that was shot at the safe house was really difficult because it was just basically a rundown building with not really great access to the windows and stuff like that. You just simplify, you just make a one light that’s really hot. Let it bounce from the walls and makes a interesting style statement and also works for you in terms of the storytelling, you know. It’s better on location than in the studio because in the studio I’ve got all the freedom, all the equipment. Not necessary at the time, but all the freedom to move the walls and so forth. But you don’t have is actually the limitations and you don’t have the background, no matter how much you work on putting artificial background outside the windows it’s always tiny bit looks artificial, you know. Locations are great. I love locations. Actually more than the studio.

Eric: Perhaps no collaboration with Spielberg was more challenging than Saving Private Ryan. Janusz Kaminski found himself throwing away many of the conventional rules of filmmaking and just kept waiting for the legendary director to call him out on it.

Janusz Kaminski: Well you do tests and you know, all that stuff that seems to be unprepared was very prepared and very rehearsed for one reason. You know, it takes about a week and a half to lay all the explosives. So if you blow it, you just blew it. You don’t have a take. So it was very much rehearsed. Everything was rehearsed. What was not rehearsed was the speed of the actors as they’re traveling through the scene. And just, you know, everything happens slightly different when you, when you actually have explosives blowing up next to you and you get the stuff flying, everything gets a bit more adrenaline. In terms of the visual preparation, I have done very extensive tests in terms of how I’m going to manipulate the image, what is the technique I’m going to use, to what extent I will manipulate the images so they still look like you can follow this story but they so disjoint that you almost feel like you’re looking at something that’s documentary, you know. So I knew what I can achieve, what I had to do, not necessarily convince the director, because the director was very easy to be convinced, but to make him to fall in love of it. And he did, you know, which was great. You know, actually, there was one instance when we started making the movie, which is the Omaha landing. We shot for three days and we didn’t get the dailies for three days. And Steven usually looks at the scenes where he’s got the entire scene filmed. And I’ve seen the dailies and I knew that we were verging little bit on student filmmaking here in terms of what I was doing, because the images were very disjointed and look closely, look oh there goes Tom Hanks, you can’t even see him. And I was still, you know, working out on the treadmill. I had my treadmill losing weight. You know, his assistant comes in and says, Steven wants to talk to you. And he had his own editing room assembled on the location. So I’m going All right. There we go. See you later. And he just loved what we’ve done. And he says, can we do it more? I said yeah. What did you do here? I did this. Okay, let’s do it more. Okay, let’s do it more. And that’s what you want from director. You don’t want director to say, whoa, this is scary. I don’t know. Will the studio like it? You know, you want the director to really like what you’re giving him or her, you know. And that’s when you fly. That’s when you become the most productive and free. And I think that’s Steven’s trademark. He gets what’s best in people because he doesn’t allow us. We’ve got it. But he gets what’s in us. And he positively reinforces our desires to be better. And I think one of the good traits of the director is to hire great people who can make the movie for you. Of course, if they make a really bad movie, you tell them, well, you know, I told him not to do it. But if the movie is good, yep, we all did it.

Eric: Around this time, Janusz Kaminski began experimenting with what’s known as bleach bypass. It’s a process that enables the silver of the film to be retained in the emulsion, which then changes the color palette. Notable examples include Minority Report, War of the Worlds, and Ready Player One. It’s a unique process which Mr. Kaminski gravitated towards because the story called for it.

Janusz Kaminski: I think during the Amistad, which was 1996, I was looking for a way to de-beautify the image. You know, it’s a slave history. It will be totally wrong to have, you know, beautiful firework with pretty warm colors while the guys are getting chained up and locked up in the prison, right? So I started investigating different processes. And the practice that I started using is not the practice that really was invented for me. It was invented for Storaro hence why his movies look so great, because he was the only one who was doing it for so many years. And once they did little test, I realized, wow, I’ve got a little bit of advantage over other guys because it just becomes so much more beautiful. The whole images become more interesting, more beautiful. They have unique quality. The color saturation becomes different. The shadows become different. Everything becomes more velvety, more gorgeous, you know. There are problems with it. But you learn that if you do it. And pretty much since 1995, every single movie I’ve done was with bleach bypass.

Eric: While staying true to the needs of each story, Janusz Kaminski still manages to put his own visual stamp on each film he shoots. As he explained, even Steven Spielberg himself is guilty of that, too.

Janusz Kaminski: Well I think each story has its own representation. Of course, I’m the one that puts my own little imprint. Not consciously. I’m not sitting there thinking, OK, this is what I’m going to do, because that’s what I do. It’s just, I express myself through cinematography. And it’s apparently to you and others, it’s very obvious that there is a certain resemblance from one movie to another or certain motifs or elements from each movie to another. But at the same time, you know, he makes essentially the same movies. You know occasionally, when he makes Jurassic Park or War of the Worlds. But War of the Worlds is nothing but guy with strength to connect with his kids, you know. Schindler’s List is about guy who who discovers humanity. E.T. is about this little kid who discovers tolerance. So, I mean, all these movies are essentially, they’ve got very similar theme. And few years ago we watched Baretta and I think he directed a couple of Baretta, I think. And I was just laughing as we doing the same shots. I mean, the same shots as in Baretta. So, you know, we don’t really change dramatically. We just refine certain things, you know? But, you know, as a filmmaker, I think he he expresses himself through directing even when he’s making these high budget, extremely commercial movies. There is still part of him that he allows the viewers to learn about. It’s the same to my work.

Eric: Well, if it was good enough for a 70s cop show, it’s good enough for Bridge of Spies. Though the art of filmmaking has changed a great deal in the five decades of Steven Spielberg’s career. For instance, nowadays, very little filming is actually done on film.

Janusz Kaminski: I think digital is getting better. I think it’s, in Europe it’s the norm. Nobody has the money anymore to make movies on film. It’s getting better. People are saying it’s fantastic, you know. And what’s interesting is we’re not comparing it anymore. Digital has its own language and you tell the story and the images, they don’t necessarily look like film. But they look great, right? And now you do something on film with the DI. You know, it looks like bad digital. That’s going to be the norm. You know, in five years, there’ll be no more film, you know. It’s like the typewriter. Bye bye. That’s my take, you know. But what do I know? I have very little experience with digital.

Eric: So what parting words of wisdom does one of Hollywood’s biggest cinematographers have for the next generation of storytellers?

Michael Pessah: I know you make it look easy, but you’ve had incredible longevity to your career.

Janusz Kaminski: Not much longer, baby. All these young people coming up. And I will die, by the way, so they will be opening. That was my thing when I came to Hollywood. I’m thinking, all those guys will eventually die. Well, they dying, but I’ve made it a bit sooner. We will die off and there will be opening. Half way serious, half way joking. Tremendous amount of room at the top.

Eric: Well, Janusz Kaminski is not going anywhere anytime soon, except maybe back to set. His next to Spielberg collaboration’s are already in the works. The Kidnapping of Edgardo Mortara, and a remake of West Side Story. We want to thank Mr. Kaminski for speaking with our students. And thanks to all of you for listening.

This episode was based on the Q&A moderated and curated by Tova Laiter, co-moderated by Michael Pessah. To watch the full interview or to see or other Q&As, check out our YouTube channel at This episode was written by me, Eric Conner. Edited and mixed by Kristian Heydon. Produced by Kristian Heydon and myself. Executive produced by Tova Laiter, Jean Sherlock, and Dan Mackler. A special thanks to all our staff and crew who made this possible. To learn more about our programs, check us out at Be sure to subscribe on Apple Podcasts or wherever you listen. See you next time.


Tova: Hi and welcome to The Backlot. I’m Tova Laiter, moderator and director of the New York Film Academy guest lecture series. In this episode, we will take an in-depth look at one of my great guests and hear about her experience in the entertainment industry. And now Eric Conner will take you through the highlights of this Q&A.

Eric: Hi, I’m Eric Conner, senior instructor at New York Film Academy. And in this episode, we revisit the coming of age tale,The Edge of Seventeen, previously featured in our episode with actor Hayden Szeto. If you haven’t seen the film, well, you should. It’s great, but that’s OK. Here’s the trailer.

Clip: There are two types of people in the world. The people who radiate confidence and naturally excel at life.


What’s up.

And the people who hope all those people die in a big explosion.

Life isn’t fair sometimes Nadine OK? You got to get over it.

My life isn’t perfect either. The one person who makes me happy I can’t have without completely destroying you.

Life’s about taking risks. Don’t be afraid to put yourself out there.

Nick, I like you.

Eric: This time, we bring you the film’s writer director whose directorial debut attracted none less than James L. Brooks as a producer, a writer whose first screenplay got turned into a feature starring Alexis Bledel, Michael Keaton and Carol Burnett. And who will soon be bringing the beloved novel, Are you there God? It’s me, Margaret to the screen. We are talking about Kelly Fremon Craig in The Edge of Seventeen. Ms. Fremon Craig captured the teenage voice with remarkable precision and gave herself a chance to revisit all the heightened emotions that come with being a highschooler.

Kelly Fremon Craig: There’s something about this age that has always really interested me because I remember the feeling of it so vividly. Like the other day I was driving along with my husband and a song came on the radio that was very popular when I was in high school. And it was like, I mean, it just knocked me over. I felt like I was going to die. It was just so just lonely and awful. And also, like, you experience the lowest lows, but also the highest highs. Like I remember other moments of that age where I felt euphoric. It felt like anything was possible. I love, I guess, the drama of this age. Like I feel like in some ways you’re never quite so alive as you are this age when everything feels like life and death because you really don’t know. You haven’t had enough life experience yet to know like when something bad happens to you, you’ll live. Like it’s OK. It’s going to go away eventually and you’ll get back on your feet like you really think it’s the end of the world. And that’s just interesting to me.

Eric: It also brought her back to the time when she first gravitated towards her eventual career.

Kelly Fremon Craig: When I was like 13 or 14, there was, I don’t think like these even really exist anymore, but like the thing was music videos on MTV. So you’d be, like, really bored all summer. And all you’d do is sit in front of the TV and watch music videos. And so I feel like I kind of got indoctrinated to the idea of like images and music. And it just, it was cool filmmaking. It was like they were little short films. And so around then I started to make a little music videos with my friends. But interestingly, like, I never thought I could do this as a career. It was just it was fun. And then later when I started to write, I realized that film is really such a director’s medium. That’s sort of when I came back to, hey, you know, I’ve always thought this way and I write very visually. Like as I’m writing I’m seeing shots a lot of times.

Eric: Long before there was YouTube or TikTok, music videos cornered the market on inventive short films. Similarly, years before Kelly Fremon Craig wrote a feature, she created a series of shorter projects. Until her passion for storytelling, took her into a new medium.

Kelly Fremon Craig: At the time, I was actually writing like spoken word poetry, like slam poetry, which is. Yeah, and I’m now like, it’s a totally different side of myself. It’s hard to imagine I did it. So anyway, I was writing essentially like monologues, you know, little characters. And then I read my first script and I was like, oh, this is so, you can make these different characters talk to each other. And that was exciting to me. Cause I really didn’t know what I was going to do with my life writing these little monologues, essentially. And then basically I got really good advice right off. And I really think this is true. Somebody said to me at the very, very beginning when I was twenty one or twenty two, they said, if you write a screenplay that’s good enough, you can throw it off the side of the 405 and somebody will find it and they will make it. And I loved that that like gave the power to the writer. Like, there’s so many things you can’t control. But if you really can focus on writing something good, the right things will happen.

Eric: Part of giving her script the best chance to succeed was not showing it to the entire town until it was ready to be seen.

Kelly Fremon Craig: First of all, I think it’s so important that, especially when you’re at the beginning stages where your your idea is just a little seed of an idea. It’s just like a little sprout. You know, it’s very fragile. Let only very select people in. People that you feel like are going to nurture it and not squash it. And I think that’s so important because you’re at a stage where you’re not confident in it yet because it’s just a little thing and you’re not sure and who knows if it’ll grow into a tree. And I’m just trying to get this thing to work, you know? So it’s, I think it’s really important who you choose. Producers essentially, like that’s their job to be kind of the person going, yeah, it looks good, it’s growing. It’s doing the right thing, you know. And then once you kind of get it on its feet more than you can go, OK, I feel a little more confident about this. I can kind of send it out to a few more people and get feedback and sort of let your team grow from there.

Eric: Ms. Fremon Craig went on to write her first feature script, which had that magical Hollywood journey. It got her representation and it was produced as a feature film, albeit one that she is less than a fan of.

Kelly Fremon Craig: I finished my first script and then like I did the thing where you give it to everybody you’ve ever met and asked them to pass it along if they like it. And it somehow through that chain ended up in the hands of like a real young agent at APA, who had just like gone from being an assistant to an agent, and she took the script out and then I ended up getting work off that script and then basically, like, as soon as that happens, you know, you go on a million general meetings and you meet sort of everybody. And then that film was produced into, like it was turned into a movie that I just hated, like, desperately. So everything was great. And then it was just like the rug was ripped out. But yeah. That was the thing. I actually think, like, you have to get beaten down a little bit.

So anyway, that experience just made me want to direct. You know, made me want to hold onto the material. So then I sort of was at this juncture where I was so upset about the movie going so badly on the first one that I sort of went, OK, I’m either gonna move and just be done with this or I’m going to go back to write something I really care about. Because at the time I was also, once you sort of get a script out there and get the meetings, then you start doing little rewrites and stuff like that. You start doing paid gigs. But that’s really, you’re always writing for somebody else when you’re doing that type of work. So anyway, so I said, all right, I’m going to give it one more shot. And that was this film. And so I got together with my same agent and I said, there’s nobody in the world I love more than Jim Brooks. Like he is the reason I wanted to be a filmmaker. And she said, well, we’ll send it over there. It’s a black hole. It’ll never happen. But you know, we’ll send it. And it turned out that it was just, it was luck, I guess. You know, he was between movies and he was in his office long enough to actually read it. And then one of the producers, Julianne Sell, was she was a great champion of it.

Eric: Jim Brooks, also known as James L. Brooks, has had a hand in at least one film or show that you love. The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Terms of Endearment, The Simpsons, As Good As It Gets, just to name a few. His name as a producer ensured the movie would get made, but it was his mentorship and guidance that ensured the movie would be done right.

Kelly Fremon Craig: Two things he said to me that changed everything forever. The first thing is when I sat down with him and we first started to go over the script, I started to go into this, sort of this thing that you do as a writer where you go, OK so the second act crisis is here and. But, you know, and talking all this sort of like screenwriter speak and he sort of stopped me and he said, the first and most important thing you have to do is figure out, what are you saying about life in this story? And it was the first time a producer, someone in Hollywood, had said something like that. Something with weight like that to me. You know, usually everyone’s like, but what’s the trailer moment, you know? And so it was really, it was such a gift to me because it was just, it was essentially, what’s the point? What’s the point? Why do we go to this movie, you know? And so I sort of took some time and then figured out what that was for me and then started writing again.

So that was the first piece of advice. And the second was always do research, like always do interviews. So I went and I like I hung out at high schools and every teenager I can possibly get my hands on, like I’d be like, can you talk to me? I would just ask them a bunch of questions and ask if I could kind of be a fly on the wall and just hang out. And it was, um. I mean, it’s amazing cause there’s so many little details that you get out of that that you can’t make up. And for me, it just changed my sense of of what I wanted to do because I started out and I was, the tone of the script initially was just, the comedy was broader. It was laugh every other line. It was really pushing into the comedy. And then when I sat down with all these different teenagers, I found that it was also really painful and heartbreaking and funny, but also heartbreaking. So I felt like I wanted to go back to the drawing board and get both those pieces.

Eric: Part of creating the right tone for the script was finding the voice for its lead character played to perfection by the Oscar nominated Hailee Steinfeld, which meant capturing even her less than sympathetic moments.

Kelly Fremon Craig: That was always the biggest challenge of the film and of the writing because I really wanted to allow her to be every shade, you know, and for when she was in those moments where she’s a jerk, for you to be able to forgive her because you see another moment where she is in a lot of pain and you see why she was a jerk, you know? Those are my favorite characters. You know, it was interesting.

So in the writing, I was always sort of aware of the moments, the moments we feel for her and the moments we go, oh too much. You know, I’ve been trying to kind of do this push pull thing the whole time. And then in the actual shooting of it, it was always in the back of my mind, how do we keep this really delicate balance? Because it felt like in some moments a high wire act. And by the way, so much of the credit for why I think she works is Hailee, because she can seamlessly move between those moments where she’s a jerk and then those moments where she’s just heartbreaking and soft and in a lot of pain.

So I would a lot of times, do the takes on a spectrum. So essentially, I would say, OK, let’s push it real into the asshole zone. And now let’s pull you back so you’re softer, you know? You know, one of the greatest pieces of advice that I got from Jim Brooks and that I always pass along is to get choices when you’re shooting because you think as a writer, you think, you know, well no it’s this. This is the delivery. I know. I’ve heard it in my head a million times. I know this will work. But the truth is, until you get into the edit, you don’t really know. And you want to be able to have a lot of different options to be able to shape the movie and feel it and go, this is, it’s getting to be a little too much here. We need to pull it back or we need we can go further here. Let’s see what else we’ve got.

Eric: So much of the research into the teenage world goes back to Ms. Fremon Craig’s main goal with her writing. Do the characters’ moments actually feel real?

Kelly Fremon Craig: Whenever I sit down to write I’m always, there’s always this voice in the back of my head saying, but is this as true as it can possibly be? Sometimes you’ll have somebody say a line or there’ll be a moment and sometimes you’re like, Am I writing this because I’ve seen that somewhere? I’ve seen that in a movie or I think that’s what they should say. But if I really, like, jump into this person’s body and imagine myself there, how do I feel? What do I want to do? What’s the truest thing that would happen here? Like, that’s a thing I’m constantly trying to do. And I’m always also trying to go, like if I have an instinct to push a character one direction, then I will always go, OK but what’s the opposite of that that we don’t see? You know what I mean, if publicly they’re, you know, like Mr. Bruner seems like he doesn’t give a s**t about life or anything, you know? And then I liked the idea that you found out that privately he has this really sort of warm, great life that he cares a lot about, you know, that he actually does have a big heart. So I’m always, I guess, looking for those things that feel antithetical to each other, because I think somewhere in there, that’s where the truth is, that we’re constantly like opposites all the time. We’re just, we’re contradictions all the time. And that always feels true to me.

Eric: With the Edge of Seventeen, Ms. Fremon Craig put a lot of herself into the story, though she is very quick to say it is not an autobiography.

Kelly Fremon Craig: You know, I think as a writer in some ways, like every moment you’re writing, it’s coming from somewhere, you know what I mean? You’ve got to be able to feel into it, you know, and little moments and they’re all coming from a personal place at some point. The beautiful thing about writing is that you get to make up the ending. You know what I mean? You get to make up the parts that weren’t that great in life, you know? And there’s this great Nora Ephron thing. She’d always say everything is copy. And by that, she meant like every bad, humiliating, awful thing that happens to you, the great thing is, it’s material, you know? And she talks about how if you slip on a banana peel, everybody laughs at you. But if you tell the story of yourself slipping on a banana peel, suddenly they’re laughing with you and you own the story and you’re in control of it. And I think that’s one of the most wonderful things about writing, is that you are able to truly make lemons into lemonade. Like in high school, I was probably more, I think I presented myself probably more like Darian, like I had it together, but inside I was totally Nadine. So I related to both of them. And she was really therapeutic to write because she’s just got to say anything. She’s just letting it all hang out, which was which was nice.

Eric: And once the therapy of writing the script was done and the characters were created, Ms. Fremon Craig had the challenge of finding the actors to bring her characters to three dimensional life.

Kelly Fremon Craig: Really every role in this, there was no second place. There was no like, okay, this person, but then this person could work. It was like the character that we cast and then everybody else was just miles away. And, you know, in a lot of ways it’s subtlety, it’s the listening, you know. It’s the moments in between the lines that I’m always watching, you know, sort of what’s happening behind somebodies eyes sort of being alive and every moment, which I think the actors do so well. Particularly, I think um, I mean everybody but Haley Lu Richardson who plays Krista, you know, she has less lines, but she’s, a lot happens on her face. It’s not like she’s stealing the show, but like exactly what should happen on her face happens.

Eric: In fact, one of the first people cast was New York Film Academy alum, and recent podcast subject, Hayden Szeto, who was no stranger to auditions but knew this one was big when he saw who was in the room.

Hayden Szeto: In the room was Kelly the director and three producers at the back. I knew they were producers because they’re older and they’re judging me. And so I went in and I did the scene again with Kelly. And she laughed and she looked at me for a second and she’s like, OK. Thank you. Thank you very much. And at that time, my visa was about to expire. So I had bigger things to worry about, like going back to my own country, Canada. And they called me. They’re like, hey, you’re the choice. Like, what? What, what? What does that mean? I’m the choice. What do you mean? What does that? What does that mean? That I have the job? Like what? What does the choice mean? What’s choice? What’s choice? And they’re like, yeah, well see, you’re like the first person to be cast. We don’t even have a DP yet. We don’t even have any money yet. But we really like you.

Kelly Fremon Craig: He’s so lovable. He’s so lovable. And he is in real life, too. And he was, you know interestingly, like he was one of the first people we cast before we ever cast Hailee or Woody or anybody. And, you know, we were sure we were going to have to search forever to find him. And he was like a third guy who walked in the door. And you’re like, thank you, God. Yeah.

Eric: Steven Spielberg himself stressed that once he casts a film correctly, most of his work is complete. For Kelly Fremon Craig, casting meant bringing in people who could show her countless new possibilities for her own material.

Kelly Fremon Craig: The best part is that you have these incredibly talented people and they are all coming with their own ideas, you know? And my favorite thing was to show up and have an actor come with an idea that I never thought of. And you’re just like, wow, that is so much better than what I thought. Thank you. That’s the best day. That’s the best day when you show up. And it’s it’s something you didn’t even think up. And there are a million cases. Hayden, who plays Irwin. He’s such a talented improviser. And so, you know, I was constantly just sort of giving him room to play and try things. And so a lot of his stuff, like where he yells off the Ferris wheel, like, can we get off the f**king ride? That’s just him improvising because he was just, like, sick of going around the Ferris wheel.

Clip: Hey. Excuse me. Can we be let off?


Can we please? Can we stop the f**king ride? Can we just stop it? I’m sorry for, I didn’t mean to raise my voice.

Oh, my God, Irwin.

Kelly Fremon Craig: And then she laughs and that was her real laugh and you know, we ended up using it. So he was just so wonderful because of all these great little in-between moments, his little asides, like, I would just let the camera roll. Like, I would just let it roll, like, way past when the scene was over because he’d just be really uncomfortable and trying to think about new things to say, which was perfect for the character.

Eric: The film was cast, financed, and had the Oscar winning James L. Brooks behind the scenes. But now came the potential biggest obstacle for a first time director. Self doubt.

Kelly Fremon Craig: I will say this. Like if anybody says that they’re not experiencing that, they’re lying or they’re not doing very good work because that’s part of it. It’s, it’s torturous. And sometimes you hate yourself and that is part of it. So, know that’s just par for the course. Like hourly. I mean, really, like, that’s so much of the job is getting out of your own way. Like getting away from that voice that’s like, this is terrible. You suck. And so, you know what I mean, like, you have to somehow tie that little person up and throw them in the closet, you know? Yeah. I mean. Absolutely. All the time. And writing, especially because it’s such a solitary activity – you can go to the dark place really easily, you know. But yeah, I mean, I think so much of it is just showing up the next day to do the work. Just showing up. Just saying, I said at 9:00 I’m gonna start. I’m gonna start. I don’t know where I’m going to go. I’m a little scared, but I’m gonna show up. Not waiting for the inspiration. Not waiting for the mean voices in your head to go away. You know, if you wait for that, you’ll never do it. So you sort of just have to. Just show up.

Eric: A first time director might not have all the answers, but they still need to answer all the questions they’re going to get every hour of every day on set.

Kelly Fremon Craig: I hope these people don’t know, like, I don’t know what I’m doing. You know, you just, you show up and you fake it. The great thing is, you figure it out pretty quickly. The hard part about being a first time director, for me is, I came from writing, so I like was on a set maybe one time ever. So for me, it was like, OK, so this guy does that and, you know, like it was all new for me, but it only takes a couple days to know, like, OK, I get how everything works, how sort of all the machinery works. And then the great thing is, once you get past those first day jitters, you are just like, you’re in a sprint. So you do not have time to have any self-consciousness. Like, in fact, I feel like I entered like a weird Zen state because I was so busy that I was like, I had no concept of myself. It’s just you’re just serving the film and you’re you’re just trying to keep the ball rolling, you know?

Eric: So what did Ms. Fremon Craig learn as a first time director?

Kelly Fremon Craig: I always kind of go back and I think, how could I have been a better communicator as a director? How could I have empowered people more? How could I have gotten the best out of people? Because that’s so much of what the job is, too. It’s about getting the best out of the people that are around you, you know. And that’s a specific skill in a way, like I think writing and editing are very similar. Directing is very different than those two things, because it’s much more about drawing people out of themselves, like setting the stage so that people can do their best work. It’s more managerial. It’s more nurturing. It’s a different skill set. So I feel like I’m always trying to improve that.

Eric: All of which makes me look even more forward to seeing what she does with Are you there? God, it’s me, Margaret. We want to thank Kelly Fremon Craig for casting one of our alumni and for sharing her experiences with our current students. And, of course, thanks to all of you for listening.

This episode was based on the Q&A, moderated and curated by Tova Laiter. To watch the full interview or to see or other Q&A’s, check out our YouTube channel at This episode was written by me, Eric Conner. Edited and mixed by Kristian Heydon. Produced by Kristian Heydon and myself. Executive produced by Tova Laiter, Jean Sherlock, and Dan Mackler. A special thanks to all our staff and crew who made this possible. To learn more about our programs, check us out at Be sure to subscribe on Apple podcasts or wherever you listen. See you next time.

Tova Laiter: Hi and welcome to The Backlot. I’m Tova Laiter, moderator and director of the New York Film Academy guest lecture series. In this episode, we will take an in-depth look at one of my great guests and hear about his experience in the entertainment industry. And now, Eric Conner will take you through the highlights of this Q&A.

Eric: Hi, I’m Eric Conner, senior instructor at New York Film Academy. And in this episode, we bring you an alumni of our school, an actor who only a few years after graduating, found himself starring opposite Oscar nominee Hailee Steinfeld in The Edge of Seventeen.

Clip: Life isn’t fair sometimes, Nadeen, OK? You got to get over it.

My life isn’t perfect either. The one person who makes me happy I can’t have without completely destroying you.

Life’s about taking risks. Don’t be afraid to put yourself out there.

Nick, I like you.

Eric: A performer who’s also appeared in what we do in the Shadows, Lodge 49, Truth or Dare, and the upcoming drama Tigertail. And he is just getting warmed up. I’m talking about Hayden Szeto. Mr. Szeto screened Edge of Seventeen and got deep in the weeds about what it takes to not only start acting career, but to succeed with more. So all you performers out there listen up. For before his time on the big screen, Hayden Szeto was a young man from Vancouver who had to convince his family that he could make this work.

Hayden Szeto: I did high school theater and I really liked it. And then I also come from very traditional Chinese family. And they’re like, all right so we got you to this country. It was a lot of work. And, yeah, it was a lot of work so you’re going to be successful so do something lucrative, you know? So what are you going to be Hayden? I’m going to be an actor. Going to throw all of that away! And he’s like, oh, great. Can you go to college first? So I did. I studied sociology. But my electives, I took public speaking. I took film studies still, you know, keeping one one foot in the door. And when I finished and like, look, mom, I still want to do this. Mom and dad and I still wanna do this. And I mapped out a whole plan like I had no idea how I was gonna do it. But everything that I’ve said, I’ve accomplished everything that I wanted to do. I said I wanted to go to this school and an after school, I’m going to get this visa and I’m going to get this visa. And in the time that that visa grants me, I’m going to get a big movie.

I was not a big believer in energy and and speak it and it’ll happen. But it f**king happens. If you have the courage enough to say that I’m going to frickin do this, you do. And when I was in school, my friends. They were like oh, man. So like after school, we’re going to find an agency, you know, like what agencies are you looking at? And I was like, no, I want this three letter one. This one. They’re like, oh yeah. Hayden, yeah. Right. I’m like no that’s the one want. And that’s where I’m gonna be. I straight up said it. Not in a cocky way. I’m just like, well, that’s what I want to do. Like what do I need to do? And it just shows you in filmmaking and in acting. How do you have a good scene? Right. A strong objective. Your objective needs to be the strongest thing. It’s the most important thing. And anything you learn from acting should bleed over to your life. And that’s what it what it taught me. And I just set myself a really, really crystal clear objective that I want to be there.

Eric: What made here New York Film Academy so appealing was the school’s hands on approach to performing, including improvisation. Work which paid off dividends for its comic turn in The Edge of Seventeen.

Hayden Szeto: I like how you guys have, you know, behind the camera training. That’s very, very important. Audition technique. Like everything – this is one school that has everything complete. And in back in Vancouver, film schools wasn’t that great for for acting. We didn’t have a complete program like this. It was more known for animation and we had a lot of scene study classes here and there. They’re kind of like fight clubs in Vancouver, you know, these underground acting classes. So we didn’t have that. And I saw this. And that’s what it really drew me. And I you know, we’ve got to use the backlot and it’s pretty cool. So that’s what really, really drew me here. I started improv here. I studied with Suzanne Kent. She’s like one of the co-founders of Groundlings. She taught me. She started out teaching me. And I liked it a lot. I didn’t spend any more time on it than anybody else. It’s just something that I figured out that. OK, I have a knack for this. And that’s your job here, too. You explore like, what areas are you good at? And you’ve got to capitalize on that. You know, this is like like an appetizer sampler for all of you. NYFA that’s what it is. Because after this, you guys are not done yet. You guys gotta continue. But you got to find out here what you’re good at. And then after school, you got to build on that.

Eric: Mr. Szeto’s drive began even before he graduated. He knew that nothing would be handed to him, so he had to map out his career, especially if he wanted to stay in Hollywood.

Hayden Szeto: Once you have a clear objective, right, all your tactics makes sense to that objective. Right. So I want to get to this three letter agency. First I need manager or some agency to start you up. So I’m like, I need to get their attention. So what did I do? It’s simple. I went back to just being the best student I can be in class. And I worked and I asked the questions. I stayed after school. I was that annoying scene partner that wanted to rehearse for hours and hours and hours and hours. To a point where they’re like, people, Hayden you’re crazy. You know, why are you doing all this for? I just worked my ass off. There’s no shortcut. There was absolutely no shortcut.

How many of you are not from the USA? A-ha! And you guys. You guys. You guys know what I’m saying. You guys hear that clock ticking. That’s an advantage not being from here. You don’t want to go home! Right?! You don’t wanna go home. The weather’s great. Robek’s Juice is awesome. Right?! You don’t want to go home, but you got to earn your stay. I knew it the first day I got here. I love acting. I love L.A. I love America because this is where change happens. It is the heart of propaganda and media and like here is like how we can we can change things. We can change people’s hearts and minds. I’m like, I’m not going home. I decided I’m not going home. So in the whole two years, like every day was like my last day in class. And I hustled, hustled my ass off. You know, I surrounded myself with people that had the same goals and they still remain my friends today. So it’s just making the right decisions and working and making sure that every day you arrive in class that you’re improving. That you’re not making the same move. Like just coming to class and making the same mistake over and over and over again is not paying your dues. You’re just not learning, you know. I mean, being in school is learning how to learn. How do you learn? You probably learn differently from the person sitting next to you. How do you learn? Is it repetition? Or is it like mixing it up? Like you got to figure that out. And this is the gym for you to do that. And it’s your job like every time you got to police herself. I’m like, wait, I’m doing the same thing I did last class. And that’s when you know you’re not making progress and you gotta switch it up. You got – gotta learn how to be a student, you know, and don’t discredit your your teachers. In the industry so full of question marks, how do you count on anyone for advice? How do you count on anybody? Like it’s so easy to say no you don’t know what you’re talking about. But there – I’m telling you, I’m a product of just working on one thing. And it is possible if you know what you’re doing and you make sure that every day you’re growing. And that’s important. You got to be hungry. You got to be watching the right movies. I mean don’t watch Shadow Hunters or watch watch like watch movies like – why, why, why are why are movies good? Why do people say this movie’s good? Is it why do people say this actress is good? See what she does and then can you analyze it? Can you articulate why she’s good? Why is this director good? Why she’s so hyped? Why is he or she so hyped? You got to answer those questions. You gotta articulate. And that’s your job. You’re a student of this. And I think a lot of people that I went to school with didn’t think of it like that. They’re like, oh, I’m just gonna sit here in class for two years when I’m out – degree’s not gonna help you. It’s not going to help you. It’s how much you put into it in these two years. And any certificate in art it really doesn’t guarantee you work or get your work at all. You think that you walk into a casting directors office, they’re gonna be like oh my God. You’re just like everybody else, you know what I mean? Like I know people that went to Juilliard that still haven’t found work. They’re still struggling because they think they can carry that certificate around. It’s not gonna help them.

Eric: In a city built around dreams, Hayden Szeto was tuned into the reality of what an actor needs to break in, even viewing Hollywood’s frustrating lack of diverse casting from a different point of view.

Hayden Szeto: Here’s the thing that I did differently. Like my mindset was different from my peers. I felt like a lot of them – they have a little bit of a chip on their shoulder just because they see that, you know the white actor gets all the good parts, and I’m like, OK, well, why? You don’t ask the right questions. Do you see what I’m talking about? Ask the right questions. You know they talk about Scarlett Johansson being in Ghost in the Shell. I mean that that’s f**ked up. But like Scarlett Johansson is a f**king good actress. Like, you got to ask why. And you’ve got to respect it. You don’t see Jeremy Lin go and be like, yo LeBron James why are you LeBron James? He’s LeBron James. You don’t ask him why he’s LeBron James. Like you gotta know where you are. You got to respect it. And that’s how you grow. Like nobody owes you anything because of your skin color in this industry. Nobody owes you like they’re like, oh, great, you’re trans. Oh you’re gay. Oh, you’re Asian. Oh, great, great, great, great, great. Can you do the job? Show me. You can’t do it? Don’t get the job. As simple as that. You have to deliver. Your best day in class? They’re gonna take all that power away from you in the casting room. You’re gonna have none of that. You’re not gonna have your teacher. You’re not gonna have your your your peers telling you you did a good job. You just get one shot like 15, 20 seconds. That’s it. That’s all you get. Like, how good do you have to be to be in that room? You got to show them they’re shooting you all these s**tty little cameras and you get their attention and they’re watching you audition, eating lunch without sound. You got to be so good, so good. I can’t stress it enough. So work, work, work.

Eric: So much of the work of an actor is constant auditioning, which were even the most talented performers, means hearing no a lot. Though at least in Hollywood, they put it nicely.

Hayden Szeto: Leading up to that day it’s year after year after year of thank you for coming. Thank you for coming. Very good job. Very good job. And it’s it’s like a mental fortitude that you just have to build over time and just never lose your cool about it because it’s not about you. I mean, it’s deeply I mean, you – as an actor, it’s deeply about you, but it’s not about you. You’re too short. You’re too you’re too tall. You’re like, you you look too much like the the director’s wife. Like who cares? Thank you. There’s so many factors you can’t affect and the only factor that you can affect is how good you are. Good news. You can work on that. And that’s the only thing you got to got to work on. And I got to say, you know, with everything that’s going on in the world right now and, you know, stuff on Twitter and stuff on – people tell you how you should feel about the world and how angry you should be. And I’m telling you, you can make a difference if you just do your job. America is a place where if you do your job, you can get the job. And that’s when you start making a real difference, not retweets, not followers on Instagram. People will follow you if you do a good job. And when I was in school, I had law students focusing on the wrong things. They’re like to make it in this industry, you gotta know people got to know the right people. So you start discrediting everything they teacher’s saying. Oh you don’t know s**t. You don’t know s**t. You don’t know s**t. You don’t know s**t. But you have to realize in a school for the arts, it’s a collaboration between teacher and student. You got to ask the right questions. You got to be hungry for this. You know what I mean, you got stop focusing on everything that’s online because that’s not going to make you a better actor. Be a better actor, be a better director. Be a better writer. Write. Go act. Go do all this s**t.

Eric: Part of his approach to auditioning is finding his connection to the role and trusting his instincts and hoping the director or casting director will be straight with him. Which in Hollywood is not always the case.

Hayden Szeto: What catches my eye? The character I have to see that I can relate to them. I think that’s first and foremost the most important that I can understand where they’re coming from. And I’m like, how can I give this character dignity? And where does he fit in in the story? Do I like the story? And I think a lot of that comes down to, you know, I have to meet the director and I have to meet the writer as well, because there’s something you should learn right now. And this will help you with, you know, calming your nerves in the audition room. You’re not auditioning for them. They’re kind of auditioning for you, too, because if you guys can’t work together, there’s no movie. If he doesn’t like you, if you don’t like him, like today, I went in for an audition and big, big project, lots of money, lots of big names, not feeling the director at all. So, like, I want you to do it again. But, you know, like how you did it, but not. Like I’m sorry, what? Like I like I grew up doing sports, so I’m like, just tell me if I’m sucking. And tell me to suck less. Like, what do you want me to do? Faster, slower, what? Like I’m like I can already see I’m like, I don’t like I don’t want this, I don’t want to be a part of it, you know. I mean it has to be – there’s so many factors, but it all starts with the writing and if I can relate to the character.

Eric: For an actor, starting out auditioning is like a full time job, one which requires planning, organizing and prioritizing. And in the case of Hayden Szeto, maybe a bit of obsessing, too.

Hayden Szeto: I obsess about it. I go like human airplane mode when I have an audition. The only person I talked to is my lovely girlfriend sitting in the back. She runs lines with me like on the phone in person, and then until she and she’s like passed out and I have to like resurrect her. I’m like, Hey, again. Run it again. I obsess about it. I live in it. You know, I find the time and I take a day, like usually I get a day between between auditions and that’s all I’m doing. And the good thing about today’s day is you can answer texts or you can not answer texts. You can answer it later. You know, if it’s important people will call you. Your true friends will call you. But right now, you got to work. You gotta like police yourself. Can you handle it or can you not? Because sometimes you can have four auditions and are all like two pages. That’s fine. You can do that. Right? But when they’re all fifteen. And this happened to me during pilot season, I had five auditions in one day which should be illegal and they were all fifteen to eighteen. No, one was – three were 15 pages, one was 28 pages. And you want me to go into a room and show you what you want to shoot? And I had to prepare for it in two days, you know, and and sometimes you have to do that. But I urge you, you should try it to see if you can. And also you gotta have some balls to say, look, agents, I only have a finite amount of energy. Can you space these out? And if they can’t, they cannot get mad at you for not booking them. You gotta pick and choose, either do all them mediocre or do two of them extremely well or say, hey, I want to go to these two and I want take these two. Can they be due on the weekend? You got to know your limits and you’re like, okay, no, I tried that last time. Not a good idea. Try to space it out. So sometimes I had to do that. And in pilot season I got damn near pulled my hair off because I’m like, I can’t book anything like this. It’s impossible for me to do good work and mental fortitude -I keep talking about that is it’s something you just got to work on. You gotta know your limits too.

Eric: And if you prepare, study, work hard enough and maybe have a bit of luck. You get into the room. That can change everything. Like when Hayden Szeto auditioned for The Edge of Seventeen.

Hayden Szeto: I just auditioned like everyone else. I was one of four auditions that day. Didn’t think much of it. And they didn’t even have a title. I just read it off the page pretty much. But of course I worked on it. Come on, I worked on it, but I wasn’t confident enough to put it down. I just had it in my hand and they laughed. I’m like, haha. Everyone always laughs and nothing ever happens. Something you’re gonna get used to. And I walked to my car and when I got to my car, I got a phone call from a number I didn’t recognize. And it was the casting director like, hey, are you free tomorrow? Can you come back tomorrow? I’m like, Yeah, sure. Same place? Yeah, same place. Came back the next day. And in the room was Kelly, the director and three producers in the back. I knew there were producers because they’re older and they’re judging me. And so I went in and I did the scene again with Kelly and she laughed and she looked at me for a second. She’s like, OK. Thank you. Thank you very much. And it’s a sentence you’ll hear a lot. Thank you. Thank you for your time. Thank you. That was nice. And I left and at that time my visa was about to expire. So I had bigger things to worry about, like going back to my own country, Canada. And they called me. They’re like, hey, you’re the choice. Like, what? What, what? What does that mean? I’m the choice. What do you mean? What does what does that mean? Do I have the job? Like what? What does the choice mean? And what’s choice? What’s choice? And they’re like, yeah, well see, you’re like the first person to be cast. We don’t even have a DP yet. We don’t even have any money yet. But we really like you. Well see, I’m about to go back to my country because of the law and it was really funny I mean, they they wrote up like a mock contract. And I signed it and I gave it to the immigration lawyer. And I’m like, hey, I need to go film this movie. And so I called production. I’m like hey, where are we filming this, by the way? Oh, in Canada. So I had to get a temporary visa from immigration to go back to where I was going to go back to anyway and filmed the film in my hometown, shooting it in the same Ferris wheel I rode when I was 14. So that’s my story. That’s how that’s what happened.

Eric: After years of thank you’s and small roles, Mr. Szeto finally got his big break. Thankfully, he discovered that his illustrious colleagues were just as human as the rest of us. Albeit, really talented humans.

Hayden Szeto: Good news. Woody Harrelson messes up his lines too. Hailee Steinfeld needs to run to the corner with me to run lines as well. She’s – they’re not – they’re not these like dieties, OK? Like, we’re all actors, right? That’s the good news. Just because they have a Golden Globe, Oscar, whatever, they still need to run lines just like every other actor. You know, they just been doing it for a longer time. So it’s your job now to just pay those dues. Just keep doing it. And I didn’t realize anything. She is insanely charismatic and she’s been doing it since she was like seven. And this girl has the ability to just tweet and then they’re setting up the shot. Shots ready, throws her phone, assistant catches it and then she just like, blah, kills it. Goes back to tweeting. Like, she can do that. You know, I don’t necessarily operate like that. I kind of have a stay in it. Morgan Freeman works on his scenes quite differently. He likes to, you know, just sit with his scene partner and just talk about the scene. Not even working on the lines, but he likes to talk about, like, the backstory and everything and get into the relationship. And at the same time, he’s bonding with you. You try all these tactics with your scene partners next time. Yeah. Like, I didn’t notice anything that was different. Woody was exceptional, exceptional improviser as well. Just to watch him work – it’s, it’s hilarious. Like when he puts the VHS tape in for the class, like he made up so many different titles. He’s like the KKK a musical, you know, like he’ll like make up s**t. It’s so funny. He’s so funny. He’s a hilarious guy.

Eric: Once an actor finds himself shoulder to shoulder with Oscar nominated greats like Hailee Steinfeld and Woody Harrelson. Well, that’s not necessarily the happily ever after, because that’s when the pressure kicks in. Thankfully, Hayden Szeto received valuable mentorship from producer James L. Brooks and director Kelly Fremon Craig.

Hayden Szeto: Tell you the story I was gonna tell it like before I left, but I’ll tell you now, it was a challenging experience because I went from getting parking tickets in Hollywood and going to audition to audition to one day, being on a set where they drive me everywhere. They pay for everything and they treat me like a goddamn king, OK? And I got to set and I’m like, I gotta perform. I got to let them know that I own my space. I got, why I have the job. And when I was thinking like this, I couldn’t perform. And I was like, I think I’m doing a pretty good job. Think I’m doing a pretty good job right now. Nobody’s saying anything so I think I’m doing a pretty good job. And I get a phone call from James L. Brooks and Kelly Fremon Craig. And they’re like, can you come back a bit earlier from lunch and we just want to talk to you for a little bit? I’m like, oh, no, this is like a principal’s meeting. I’m in trouble. You just felt it. You know, the feeling you get when you walk into a room with your girlfriend sitting a certain way, your mom sitting a certain way, you’re like, oh, s**t. You know, I mean, it’s it’s like that’s how I felt. And then I’m like, uh oh, what’s going on? They’re like Hayden, do you feel like sometimes the character leaves you and the character doesn’t come back? I’m like, so what you’re saying is in a defensive mind, I’m like, you’re saying sometimes I suck and sometimes I suck less. Is that what you’re saying? You’re saying I’m sucking, I’m sucking, I’m sucking right now. Right. So freaking out. And they’re like, so what’s going on? I’m like, OK, I was gonna lie. I was going to say, you know what? I’m fine. Where’s my money? I could’ve done that. But I’m like, no, we’re a team now. I’ve got to be honest. And this is what you gotta do in class. If you’re not feeling something, you got to articulate why. Articulation is everything. So I’m like, OK, here’s what happened. I can’t believe I’m on set right now. I’m overwhelmed. My grandma just died. So many things have just happened in my life. And I can’t access this because I’m all the way up here. And James L Brooks is like, OK, bring it in. I’m like bring what in? What? He spoke into, like his cell phone or something. And his assistant comes in with an iPad. I’m like, what the f**k is going on? And he holds the iPad, he’s like, that’ll do. And the assistant leaves. I’m like, this is so dramatic. And he was like, I just wanna show you something Hayden. And he turns the iPad to me and it’s a video of me. This is your audition tape and I want to show you why we hired you and he played tape. Me, Kelly and James watched it. I was clutching a pillow, crying my eyes off. And they’re like, Do you remember this guy? I’m like mhmm. Do you think we can get him back? Yeah. So how can we help you Hayden? Just give me five minutes and some space. And James L. Brooks was like, all right, clear the room. Clear the room, everybody out. He’s like, shot is ready. I want you to come out whenever you’re ready. The scene is yours. The day is yours. Don’t you worry about a thing. And then before he leaves, he turns around. He says, like, you know, I work with a lot of actors in my career and I just wanna let you know it’s not often that somebody finds their voice so quickly in their career. And this, this is your voice. This is your mirror and want you to bring it every day to set from now on. And he leaves. The lesson is you got believe that you’re doing this. You got to believe yourself, because when I was in school, I’m like, oh my God, I can’t believe I’m moving from Canada. So I was always living in the past one step. And if there’s one thing that I learned from this movie is that now I’ve caught up with myself and I’m here and I’m centered and that takes time. So it’s okay if you guys feel that along the way, it’s totally, totally normal. So that’s one of the most challenging experiences that I had to overcome on set so far. And one of the things I want to play in the future is continue doing characters like this, giving characters dignity and, you know, people of color, dignity. That’s all we ask for. I mean, isn’t the bar so low? Just dignity, you know? Well, that’s that’s a start, right? So that’s what I want to do.

Eric: When one of the creators of The Simpsons gives you advice, you listen, though, Mr. Szeto already came into this business knowing one major life lesson. Balance is everything.

Hayden Szeto: One thing you got to have, it cannot just be about acting, because sometimes you do need a break from it. You can’t just obsess about it that much. That’s your only outlet, because for a long time, you know, you’re going to be paying for classes. You’re going to pay for your opportunity to stand on the stage to practice, essentially. Right? and then you gonna be like, this is stupid. Why am I paying money to act? I came here to be paid to act. Right. But it’s going to feel stupid. It’s going to feel stupid for a while. OK? and you got to have a hobby, something that you really suck at. This is what really helped me. I found something that I really, really, really sucked at, which is getting hit in the face. And I love boxing so much, but I’m like, all right. And we’ll find something. I’m really stuck at home with excel at that. And that’s going to be my outlet outside of acting. And I’m going to find the throughline between the two. And what I learned from boxing helped me put the throughline back into acting. It’s kind of like Dodgeball. Everyone’s seen Dodgeball here? “If you can dodge a wrench, you can dodge ball.” Right? It’s like there’s something profound in that. It sounds stupid, but there’s something profound in that. You know what I mean? If like you can get hit in the face and recover, you can recover in acting. You’re fine. But you gotta find something that you really, really suck at outside of acting and try to be good at that. You know, you just constantly have to have the practice of be chasing something that’s so far away from you, because that’s what this career path is. So you’ve got to have a hobby that’s a mirror to that that you can have easily accessible on the side. I think that really, really helped me. It’s like a form of meditation for me too.

Eric: Another part of Hayden Szeto’s holistic approach to his life and career is not allowing himself to be defined as an actor only by his ethnicity.

Hayden Szeto: I won’t do it if it sucks. No, straight up. Here’s the, here’s the thing. Being an actor of color, like you’re going to have people in your community are going to, it’s going to be a mixed bag. Some are going to say you owe us something because of your skin color. I’m like no, I don’t. I’m an artist. I’m here to do good work. I’m only going to do good work. You got to know your worth. You know what I mean, if it’s about the Asian-American experience and it’s written well, it’s directed well, hell yeah, I’ll do it. But I’m not just gonna do it for that reason. You understand what I’m saying? There’s a differentiation. So I want you to know that, like, make those choices now. You don’t owe anything because of how you look like. You know the quality of work that you want to achieve. You go out and you do it. Don’t let anybody tell you that. Hey, you’re Asian, right? Here’s an Asian role. You got to do it. You’re Asian. No, no. I spit on that s**t. Toughen up. That’s all I gotta say. No, because when I when I was in class, I straight up had people like, look we got this Asian part, it’s stereotypical. Even in film school I was already like, no, I was going to go do that. He’s like, you don’t want footage? No, not that s**t. I’m not going to have that s**t on my demo reel. I’m going to have some goddamn dignity. Right? So you got to know how to pick and choose. You gotta see past all of that.

Eric: So now that his career is up and running and he’s accomplished so many those goals he set out, what is Hayden Szeto’s favorite part of his career?

Hayden Szeto: The best thing? Honestly? Talking to you guys. It’s no, it’s the best it’s honestly the best part. Being able to just sit in a room and talk to people that love the same thing and want to do the same thing that are much younger than me. And I love that. Like oh man, like let me tell you, I was just there. I was just in the trenches. I get to tell you guys how to avoid that. All the stuff that I had to avoid. And I think that’s that’s really cool. And I think it takes a lot of balls wanting to be an actor because nobody really needs you. We need doctors. We need hamburgers. We don’t need actors. Like nobody saying, oh, my God, we need more actors here. You know what I mean, it is a goddamn blood sport out there. It’s not a joke. I mean, and it’s it’s fun to say, oh, there’s a job for everybody. No, there’s not. You got to fight for it. You gotta, you gotta kill somebody. No, don’t don’t kill anyone. But it’s something you have to own. That’s one of the things that I love about my job, is I get to talk to younger actors or other actors and being able to do this for a living, something that I’ve dreamt about since I was a kid is extremely fulfilling, extremely fulfilling.

Eric: Hopefully, his words inspire others to approach their training and their careers like he has. We want to thank Hayden Szeto for taking the time to meet with our students and for doing our school proud. And thanks to all of you for listening.

This episode was based on the Q&A, moderated and curated by Tova Laiter. To watch the full interview or to see our other Q&As. Check out our YouTube channel at This episode was written by me, Eric Conner. Edited and mixed by Kristian Heydon. Produced by Kristian Heydon and myself. Executive produced by Tova Laiter, Jean Sherlock, and Dan Mackler. A special thanks to all our staff and crew who made this possible. To learn more about our programs, check us out at Be sure to subscribe on Apple podcasts or wherever you listen. See you next time.

Tova: Hi and welcome to The Backlot. I’m Tova Laiter, moderator and director of the New York Film Academy guest lecture series. In this episode, we will take an in-depth look at one of my great guests and hear about her experience in the entertainment industry. And now Eric Conner will take you through the highlights of this Q&A.

Eric: Hi, I’m Eric Conner, senior instructor at New York Film Academy. And in this episode, we bring you an actress who’s truly having her moment. Only four years since her supporting role in neighbors 2, is now the star of Caitlin Moran’s How to Build a Girl. She was Lady Bird’s BFF, part of the dynamic duo in Booksmart. And will be playing the country’s most legendary intern as Monica Lewinsky in Ryan Murphy’s American Crime Story. Anyone who saw her opposite the divine Bette Midler in Hello Dolly can attest she can sing. Yes, we’re talking about Beanie Feldstein. Miss Feldstein spoke to our students at length about How to Build a Girl. So if you get a chance to rent it or stream it, please do so. If not, it’s OK. We got the trailer for you right here.

Clip: [How To Build A Girl trailer].

Eric: Before her movies, TV shows and Broadway debut, Beanie Feldstein was one of those L.A. rarities. A performer actually born in L.A.

Beanie Feldstein: I grew up in Los Angeles and I like when I say obsessed with musicals. I mean, I don’t know another two year old that knew all of funny girl backwards and forwards, but I did. I just it was all I ever wanted to do. And so starting at seven years old, I started doing community theater in Santa Monica and I just did community theater. My whole upbringing, I stumbled into this amazing community theater and I really kind of grew up there. That is where I learned everything that I know. And then my high school had a beautiful kind of arts department overall and and specifically theater. And so I got to continue doing stuff there. And throughout that time, because I grew up in L.A., there were opportunities for me to maybe audition at a certain point. But my parents were really beautifully kind of they really parents at us each differently. And what I love so much about that is that they looked at me and they said, Beanie you love school and if you were to be a child actor, we’re not going to stop you. But you would not be able to go to school in the same way. And you love being social. You love being with your friends and learning together. And that’s such a part of who I am that they said, we want for you to keep that experience in your life and you will have your entire life to act. And we can’t wait for you to do that. But they sort of made me think about what that would really mean if I were to be a child actor. And so I together with them, we sort of were like, if something theater based came up, it would be maybe a three, four month commitment. But to sign six, seven years to a TV show, if I were ever lucky enough to get one, which I didn’t I didn’t audition. They just were like, do you want to spend your whole high school year in a show and not be around other kids? And I was so grateful that they sort of they were like, we will try to support you in every way that you want, but we just want you to think this through. So I decided to just kind of be in school. And then again, I made that decision for college, I ended up going to Wesleyan, and I majored in sociology. And I just I really do have a very academic side to myself and to my brain. And I just I’ve always known I wanted to be an actor. Like I came out with jazz hands. I just knew that’s who I was. But I did think to myself, at this point, I was old enough to make the decision for myself. And I was like, I’m not going to get another four years to just do academia. And that was something that I thought I would miss. So for me and I truly believe every single person has their own path. So many of my family members and best friends didn’t go to college or went to a conservatory, etc. So everyone kind of needs but they need for their own lives. But I, I decided to go to school to do a B.A. and part of me – so I wish I could pick all of your brains because I didn’t get that conservatory experience and I wish I could have done it all. But for me, because I had done so many, I think I’d done like 60 musicals by the time I was 17, I just sort of thought, what do I need to balance out myself? And I was so lucky my whole life to have such a beautiful arts education that I felt that the academic side was not sort of fully realized.

Eric: Her extensive time on stage deepened her lifelong appreciation of musicals, but also taught her what was needed to be a true working artist.

Beanie Feldstein: Well, first thing I thought of was doing Into The Woods. I am a student – forever student and an obsessive fan of Stephen Sondheim, I think. I say that his music is sort of the soundtrack to my humanity. I think I think what I love so much about musicals, which very much helps me in acting that isn’t musical, is musicals externalize emotion like just naturally. That’s what songs do, is they’re externalizing the interior. And so often I find it’s it’s so amazing to externalize it so you can put it back in verse something like film, which is much more intimate and close up. You don’t need to externalize it as much. But for me, I have to put it out there to understand it and then bring it back in. So I believe musicals are very crucial to that process for me at least. I was also in my high school improv troupe. I was never good and I want to make that very clear. And I’m not being self-deprecating. Trust me, I was never very good. But I think training the muscle of how to be on your toes and support another person is great for life in general, but also amazing for other kind of artistic experiences that you will you’ll be a part of. And also maybe trying something different. I think high school or even a program like this, it’s such a great way to kind of explore a different side of creating that you don’t want to pursue as a profession. So in high school, I produced our festival of student written plays and that was like a completely different, amazing whirlwind than acting. And that were producorial side and seeing what goes into it and and keeping tabs on all the directors and everything and just trying something, something not necessarily a whole another type of thing like painting or something, but just trying a different aspect or a different side of what you want to do. So I would say if you’re planning to direct, try producing. Try acting. Try doing tech. Whatever aspect of it is available to you in your learning experience, whatever that might be, whether it’s high school or college or etc., because it’s not often that you get to step into someone else’s shoes. In the working world. And I think it creates empathy when you understand what other people are doing in their jobs.

Eric: Speaking of Stephen Sondheim, Miss Feldstein will be appearing opposite her best friend, Ben Platt in the screen version of Merrily We Roll Along. Coming to theaters around 2040. No, that’s not a joke. Director Richard Linklater is upping his own Oscar nominated Boyhood by filming this movie over 20 years to capture the aging of its leads. So mark Your Calendars? Beanie Feldstein already accomplished another one of her dreams by appearing on Broadway in a legendary musical with an even more legendary star.

Beanie Feldstein: I had such a unique audition process for Hello Dolly. They had cast and announced the entire cast. Top to bottom, every single solitary person working on the show. And then at the bottom, it said, casting for Minnie Fay to be announced at a later date. And I saw that. And I was like, well, actually, it started months ago. And they announced Bette I was doing it. I was like Bette Midler is coming out to Broadway. It was like my female comic Jewish dreams coming true. So I had been looking forward to the production forever. Believe it or not, I did not grow up on Hello Dolly. So I had seen maybe seen the film once as a child, but it wasn’t a show that I had done, which there are a few that I hadn’t done as a child at my community theater. But the producers of Lady Bird produced Hello Dolly, and we were filming the scenes in Lady Bird, where my character sings and they thought, well, maybe I mean, the character is never played by someone like Beeny, but maybe we could have her audition for Minnie Fay. So on the weekend after we filmed the Merrily We Roll Along scenes in Lady Bird, I learned the entire Minnie Fay packett. And I was in L.A. filming the movie. And I went in to the casting office here and it was just me and a casting assistant and a pianist just that in a room and I did the whole packet on a camera. I mean, it’s such a unique experience. Usually you audition for theater life. And I did it and I came home and I got a call from my agent and I thought the tape didn’t work. And I answered now, as I did the tape not work like I can drive back. And he was like, You got it. And I was like, no. I literally was like, What? And I fell off my bed and I started crying and I ran downstairs and I told my I was like one of those magical days of my life. But then I made my agent email it to me in writing because I thought I dreamt it. I made that up. You have to write it down for me to tell me that it’s true. So to say it was my lifelong dream coming true is an understatement. And then for Bette Midler to be there was insane.

Bette Midler, there is a reason that she is who she is, and it’s because there is no one that works harder. And that was, I mean not surprising because, of course, she would work so hard, because that’s why she’s so good. But she’s just effervescent. She could walk on stage and have the audience in the palm of her hand in an instant. But the reason she’s as good as she is, is because she never sits down. They would call a break because equity rules, you have to have a break. And she would not stop at all of us. I was like twenty three. I would be like chugging my water, like shoveling a snack. She was rehearsing her lines. She was working on a dance step. She was figuring out how to take off her coat in like the, like every the specificity of her performance to get to be in the room while she crafted it was one of the most surreal joys of my life. But I think the greatest thing I learned from her is to never stop working hard, because even at seventy one and the Divine Miss M, she read the script cover to cover. I think before almost every performance she so fiercely hardworking and generous and funny as all hell.

Eric: It was a fantastic experience and a Tony winning revival, even though Miss Feldstein’s time on stage with some of her film work a bit more complicated.

Beanie Feldstein: One of my favorite stories of myself kind of overcompensating, was I was doing Hello Dolly and I had to do ADR for Lady Bird. And I remember saying to myself, because, Hello Dolly was it’s not only a musical and it’s live but it was it’s a farce. It’s so larger than life that I remember saying itself. When I walked into the booth, I was like, just don’t scream. Like, just don’t because not that I would scream, but don’t project, you know, like don’t give that kind of boost that I had been giving for two hundred performances up until this point. And I hadn’t done a film since I shot Lady Bird. I was kind of nervous to get back into that kind of feeling. And I will never forget we were doing it. And Gretta was like Bean like over the mic. And I was like, yeah, and she was like, can’t hear a word you’re saying, like, I overcompensated so much that I was like like a mouse whispering into the microphone. And she was like, well, I mean, we can’t we’re not getting any of it. She was like, just relax. You know what you’re doing, like she was I mean, she’s my favorite person on planet Earth. But she was just like, OK, you’re overcompensating. Like it back to a normal speaking tone. So there are definitely moments that going between the two. It’s the greatest joy of my working life is to get to do that. And I, I look to Laurie Metcalf and Tracy Letts and all of these Allison Janney, all these incredible actors, and also Casey Tracy, Pulitzer Prize winning playwrights, that kind of go wherever they want. Like, the medium is not their main focus, but rather the story they’re telling and the people they’re telling it with. And I hope to be like them for my whole life and kind of get to move about between. I took a class, as I said, I’m such a student brain that for me, the biggest piece of advice I could say is don’t be afraid to ask questions. Ask any person on any camera department that I worked with. I ask nine thousand questions. The camera still is so, it’s like a new friend that I love but I don’t yet feel like totally comfortable to tell everything to yet. Like, I still kind of every every experience you work on has a different crew, a different tone, a different piece of equipment. Sometimes you’re filming on film and sometimes you’re working on Alexa. There’s so many different kind of ways to make a movie or to make a television series that I ask ten thousand questions. I try to kind of be proud of that fact. Sometimes it can be intimidating around some of your heroes to continue to ask that question, but I think that would be my biggest piece of advice.

Eric: Miss Feldstein further detailed how acting for theater versus film necessitates finding a different source of energy.

Beanie Feldstein: The biggest thing for me is the battle of adrenaline. So when you’re doing theater and you can attest there is so much adrenaline coming from the audience that gets into your body from the audience. There’s so much energy that you are taking in. And I did Hello Dolly, for a year. I did over three hundred performances. And every night you get that adrenaline. I mean, these are people there to see Bette Midler. So you can only imagine the adrenaline coming from the audience and the energy that turns into adrenaline. But at the same token, you are doing the exact same two hours of material night after night for 300 plus shows. So there is a push and pull there. You feel this jolt of new energy every night, but you’re also doing the exact same thing, every single performance. Whereas for film, the battle of adrenaline is completely different in the fact that you only have these maybe five hours to give this moment to this person’s story. All you can get, because it is the only time you ever get to do it, but you have to do it over and over and over and over. So it’s so funny because to me it’s almost like, OK, you’re a singer, but are you an opera singer or are you a country singer? The mediums are so different in some ways. And I think the biggest would be for me. Like, again, the adrenaline thing. Like, if you’re on a set, you have to create that adrenaline feeling for yourself. But you also can’t let it boil over because it is a much more intimate medium. Whereas on stage you feel the audience, but you also in your own self. Your body’s going. You’ve done this 300 times. So it’s this push and pull of where the energy comes from and then how many times you have to give it your all. In that day.

Eric: Before she made her leap from stage to TV and film Beanie Feldstein learned how to bring that energy into auditions, never an easy process, especially when you’ve got finals.

Beanie Feldstein: I started formally putting myself out there and auditioning my senior year of college because I thought all my other friends are taking the cat or going on job interviews. And if I don’t start to kind of meet casting directors and get to audition, I will feel behind. So it was like the fall of my senior year. And then I was so lucky I got a one liner on Orange Is The New Black. While I was still in school, I was in my, like, thesis class for sociology when I saw my phone go off and I was like and I was like, can I go to the bathroom and I ran outside and you got the one liners and then doing that one line on Orange Is The New Black. Got me like a small role, but still a guest star role on a Jenji Kohan pilot. So my senior spring break, I did this pilot, which never made the air. And I can’t believe it. I can say that objectively because I truly had like six or seven lines. But it was a crazy cast. It was like Eddie Izzard, Karen Gillan. I mean, the list goes on and on. It was extraordinary. And it was Bruce Miller and Jenji Kohan and Gus Van Sant directed it. So it was just like I was just like how did I get here and it was about Puritans. So we were all like full Puritan garb. And then I just kept auditioning and I was so lucky. I just keep saying that. But it’s the truth. And I think it’s important to continually acknowledge it because I am so lucky. But I auditioned for and got Neighbors 2, which is the sequel to the movie with Seth Rogen and Rose Byrne about two months after I graduated from college. So I just luck. The answer is luck. I’m a kind of intensely hardworking person. Like I’m extremely dedicated. And so I, I don’t take any experience for granted. And that’s a very crucial part of who I am.

Eric: Her resumé and experience continue to grow, eventually leading to her audition for How to Build a Girl. Clearly, Miss Feldstein nailed it, despite the fact that the character comes from an entirely different part of the world.

Beanie Feldstein: The way How To Build A Girl came into my life was I was in New York doing Hello Dolly on Broadway at the time, and I got an email from my agent who always gives me, like, incredible kind of long descriptions of who’s working on a project, what the story’s about, what the character is about, his or her opinion, like they’re always really collaborative. And one of my agents, Daniel, he called me and he said, you have to read this script. And I was so intrigued as it was so kind of like he was like, I just need you to read it. I’m not telling you anything about it. Excellent to read it today. And I was like, OK, what is this going to be? So I sat at my kitchen table, which is where I always read my scripts. The first time I read Lady Bird was in this one specific chair. So I sit in the chair and I had heard of Caitlin Moran, so I knew kind of generally her spirit and her ethos of her work. But I had never read the novel I’m ashamed to say I’d ever read the novel. And so I read the script opens on a 16 year old girl with a huge imagination and a huge spirit, and she’s sitting and swinging her foot in a library in Wolverhampton in England. And I could not have pointed Wolverhampton to you on a map. I would not have known anywhere in relationship to London or anywhere where it was. But I knew this girl. I just as I went on reading it and sort of this this intense, overwhelming too much. She’s too big. She’s too much. She loves the world. She loves to write. She’s really giving imaginative spirit. And I just knew her. I just I had no reason to. As you said, I’m from Los Angeles. I’m from such a different I grew up in the 90s. I mean, I was born in the nineties. I didn’t grow up in the nineties. So I just had no real reason. But Catlin’s writing is so deeply felt and I always say it kind of it sparkles like there was just this energy moving through it, this really beautiful connective energy that I felt from the script. And I called him back and I said I’ve never been more scared of anything in my life ever, but I have to try. So then it was sort of this process of asking the creative team to take a chance on auditioning me. Allison Own who’s one of our producers who’s incredible. She was at the Savannah Film Festival that year and had seen Lady Bird, but it wasn’t going to come out in the UK for about five more months. So if she hadn’t been in Savannah and seen it, I would never have gotten this opportunity because she watched it and thought that girl could be Johanna. But she’s very American. So, you know, we have to figure this out. So I Skyped with the creative team and Coky our incredible director and I got to talking and she was explaining Wolverhampton to me, and she lives in London and has lived in London most of her life. And she said, you know, even I couldn’t begin to do a Wolverhampton accent. The West Midlands is such a specific area of the country with its very specific way of speaking. And she was like, even from London, I wouldn’t really be able to do the accent. I said to her, I really took a bold swing. I’m I’m not usually this bold, but I said, well, then wouldn’t anyone be doing an accent? Like, unless you found someone from the exact town that Katlin was from, Ireland would be doing an accent. So why not me? And I remember her head sort of she did like one of those. And she was like, I never really thought of it that way. I mean, even even someone from London will be doing an accent. And it’s sort of like I did. I just secretly in my head was like, yes you did something right. And they took a chance to audition me. So they flew me to London. And I had the most extraordinary audition experience I’ve ever had, which I really, especially to a setting like this, I would love to kind of touch upon as it’s just so rare. Typically, auditions are at least for me, they can be really nerve wracking. And it’s often like you get one chance, you know, if you’re down to the wire, they put like 40 people behind a desk with their arms crossed and they’re just waiting for you, you know, to impress them. And I landed in London and was greeted by this all female creative team that was so welcoming. And they wanted the experience to be really holistic. So they took me on walks around East London, which are most similar to what it looks like in the nineties and what Johanna would have been seeing. And then you she would have been going to and Coky and I just talked about the character. And then at the end of the day, we did sort of the formal audition, but it was around a kitchen table and they set up a camera kind of in the back. It was very just relaxed. And they hired another actor to read with me. So it wasn’t just kind of a cold, sterile someone on the other side. It was a really kind of incredible scene partner. And they just they set me up for success. And I would not be here speaking to guys about this movie if it wasn’t for their approach, I think, to the audition process. So I’m so, so grateful for that. And then I went back home and I had nightmares for two weeks that I didn’t get it. And then I got it.

Eric: Her stellar acting aside, Miss Feldstein also brought her. Years of professional experience to the set. All the more important since now. Her name was on top of the call sheet.

Beanie Feldstein: When I was going to do How to Build a Girl. It was the first time that I had ever been given the task of being at the center of a film by myself. And I was really, really nervous and really excited, of course, but also very nervous. And I just thought, what? What do I want the crew and the cast and Coky and the creative team to remember me by. That was like sort of a an important thing for me. I can be a little existential sometimes. And I remember just saying I’d rather be kind than good in a scene. So that is sort of my my ethos as an actor. I would say. But I think there’s this sort of twisted energy in this business that, like, really talented people can be rude. And I don’t believe in that. I think the only thing that matters at the end of the day is like kindness and respect. And movies don’t happen. We all know this. Everyone out there knows this, that movies don’t happen if one actor shows up on set and no one else shows up. Movies are if nothing but an incredibly collaborative experience. And if you don’t have an incredibly talented person setting the set or pulling focus or all of those jobs, you don’t have a film. And so I really wanted when I was finally given that opportunity alone to lead a film, to be a part of something that was positive and that had an energy on set, that people were excited to go to work to be a part of and everyone was working so hard. We did not have a lot of money and we did not have a lot of time. So I just I really and I stand by that. I am always like first in the van. First on set. Always memorized. Always ready. Because there are so many talented people in this world. I know hundreds of them and I got to be here. So that’s like the kind of the message that always goes through my head. And I think it’s important because I do think we kind of, you know, the stories of people not coming out of their trailers or not being memorized. I hate them because I think there are so many people that are just as talented that would. And so I always try to be that person. And that’s very important to me. I’d rather them be like, she wasn’t that great, but she was very sweet because I think it’s you know, I think that that’s just important to who I am.

Eric: Beanie Feldstein, work and temperament were even more impressive when you consider that this was her most intimidating role to date.

Beanie Feldstein: When I told you that story about when I called my agent, I said I’ve never been more scared of anything in my life. I have to try. That was exactly what I said to him. I mean, if you watch the film there are a lot of very vulnerable, scary moments. I bet I could you could start anywhere, you could start with the accent. You could start with the wardrobe. We could start with the sexuality of the character for so many kind of different aspects to Johanna on her journey that really intimidated me. But every time I got nervous, I just came back to this feeling of if someone had been brave enough to make this movie, what the industry, the creative team, the person acting in it, if they had been brave enough to give this movie a chance and create it, how much it would have meant to me at 14 or 15 to see it and how it would have really changed the way I look at the world. And I hope for you all and I hope for myself and the rest of my career that we all make things that would matter to us, because I think that is what we should be doing to put a story into the world that is fresh and new and will help craft who you want to be and who you were and who you are and How to Build a Girl couldn’t have been not more for me. So whenever I got nervous, I would just think about either myself at that young age. But if I was still nervous about didn’t help enough, I would think about. I don’t have nieces, but I have nephews. And their best friend is named Emma. And she’s like my niece. And I would just think about Emma. I was just like, this movie is for Emma. And one day she’ll watch it. And I hope it makes her feel braver and I hope it makes her feel less alone. But in order for her to feel that, I have to live these moments honestly, as Johanna. So I just sort of came back to who we were making the movie for and whatever project you’re about to do or you acted in your career. I hope that that’s a helpful thing for you to just sort of think about why you’re making it. And then I think the fear turns into excitement or pride. But the biggest moment of fear was the final monologue. And for those of you that have not yet seen it, I’m sorry to spoil it, but my character does a direct address. So she speaks. She breaks the fourth wall and she speaks into the lens and it fights every instinct you have inside of you. I mean, all of the work I put in to go from theater to film to stop looking at the lens and then all of a sudden they’re like go right down the barrel what I was like. And the monologue was, to this day, one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever read and gotten to say and powerful sort of specifically meant to give a message to the audience. So that was a moment of pure fear. And it is sort of funny to do and also exhilarating to do those things that we’ve trained ourselves out of a kind. It’s like those moments when we grow and we push ourselves into a different space.

Eric: All of the cast and crew needed to work that much harder to capture the deeply personal tone of Caitlin Moran’s beloved novel.

Beanie Feldstein: The film is such a comedic, joyous kind of beginning. And then as Johanna’s life gets darker, the film gets darker, which which, of course, makes sense. And there is moment, trigger warning to those that haven’t seen it. There a moment of self harm in the film. And it is a really sort of Katlin writes about it so beautifully in the script, was so beautifully written around the scene. I was really nervous for it because in most of the work that I’ve done, I have never explored something like that. I had never been asked to kind of go to that place before. And I was really nervous. And just personally, I have so much genuine respect for every method of acting or filmmaking that there is, because I am not personally someone that has a very specific one that I go to or that I am a student of. But for me, it’s easier on myself to get to that place if I allow myself to come out of it. Between takes, between setups. So when I’m in the scene and when I’m doing it, I can just focus. So tunnel vision on that feeling. But then when we’re having like a 30 minute, 40 minute turnaround, it is too emotionally kind of exhausting for me to stay in that place. I feel like it gives too much energy to the break and doesn’t give me enough energy to do more later on. So for me, I found personally I kind of joke that I’m like a snack and a laugh between takes kind of girl. Like it’s it’s easier and more helpful for me to relieve pressure of the situation than to stay in it. And that was the lesson that I kind of solidified for myself during that scene. One thing that I asked Coky to do while we were filming it was to play Alfie Allen’s song as John Kite. I find silence in general kind of unnerving. But specifically, the idea of going to that place and being that vulnerable on a set with everyone kind of silent staring at you. I thought music would sort of be able to take me to that place because I’m thinking about the character. I’m not someone that thinks about something in my own life. I’m just kind of reacting as the character. So Johanna has betrayed every single person in her life. She is alone. She has nothing. And the person she loves that she’s in love with. She’s betrayed. And so I thought the song would kind of trigger me into that feeling for her. And so I asked c to play Day Making Girl, which is the first song that he sings in the film. And then they ended up in the edit writing another song for Alfie and getting him to record it so they could play it during that moment. So it’s a really beautiful kind of full circle to see that and to learn that they had done that because we played his song while we were filming it. But I will say it’s it’s one of my favorite memories of filming the movie in a specific way, which was, as I said, one specific person on the set can get nothing done. And I think that scene is a testament to that because Huber, our DP, shot that personally hand-held. And it was such a beautiful safe space that Coky had set up. For me, it’s a tiny little room. She didn’t almost like the intimacy scene. She didn’t allow anyone else in the room. So it was really just like her. And Huber and me and and we didn’t even need sound because she didn’t say anything. So it was so intimate. And Huber and I had gotten to know each other so well. And he’s a very intense Polish man and he’s a man of very few words. And he was like, you do you and I will follow you. So they set me up for such success because they didn’t say, you have to hit this mark. You have to do this eyeline. Like some of those technical things can be difficult or can get in your head, especially in a moment like that. So Hubert said, it’s a dance between us. You go, I’ll follow. And vice versa. And it felt like a dance when we were filming it. Coky would just gently call out like, OK, now can you take a swig of the bottle? Can you rip up the newspaper? Can you look at a picture of John Kite and I was again set up for success, which I think is such a hugely beautiful gift as an actor.

Eric: Another gift being a Feldstein’s received over the course of her career has been the chance to work with multiple female directors.

Beanie Feldstein: To get to learn from extraordinary people and work with extraordinary people is sort of why I love to do it. I think that Lady Bird changed my whole life in so many ways. I would not have been in Hello Dolly, if it wasn’t for Lady Bird, I would not have been. And how a little girl if it wasn’t for Lady Bird. But more specifically, I think being a part of something that resonated so deeply with me as an audience member and reading the script for the first time and then getting to be a part of creating it in a way that kind of filled my heart in a way that I just I never knew I would get to be a part of something like that. I could never have dreamt to be a part of a story and bringing a story to life in a way that would have meant just the entire world to me as a viewer. So it set a very high expectation for me very early on in my working life of what I wanted out of each project. And so I been just searching and will continue to search for the right projects that give me that same feeling and also have assembled a group of people as talented and inclusive and brilliant as both Lady Bird and Booksmart. But I think Booksmart is a direct reflection of I waited for Booksmart, I read things and I didn’t feel connected to them. And when I read books, I thought, this is the same feeling. This is it. It’s a completely different energy in a different genre and a completely different character. He put it has the same same morality. It has the same gift to the world, I think, and a gift to myself getting to be a part of it. So I chase that feeling. And I do think sort of you can see it in Lady Bird and Booksmart and How To Build A Girl. And also just to know that I’m a part of a generation that will get to say I’ve worked with mostly female directors or a majority of female directors. It’s very important. There are so many slightly older actor and actresses or directors and writers that say, I did not get that I mean, I did not get that. I didn’t work with a woman until I was in my 40s. I didn’t know. And it’s it’s crazy. Olivia Wilde said so beautifully and I think of this three times a day. She always says it’s not for lack of talent, it’s for a lack of opportunity. And it’s so simple. But it’s so clear and it’s so true. It’s not for the fact that there aren’t talented directors or writers of every different sexuality and gender and race and everything else, it is for lack of opportunity, it’s for people giving their power over to those people, extending their hand, pulling them into an experience. And I want to be a part of projects that do that. And I just feel really proud because it’s kind of a surreal feeling to look to the women that have given me those opportunities. And for them to say, I didn’t get to say that. I didn’t get to say I worked with exclusively. Female directors are almost, you know. And I’m just so lucky to be entering the industry at a time when that shift is starting to happen. I hope to continue through the rest of my whole life and career to be pushing the industry much farther because there’s still so much farther to go, as we all know. But I do feel that the shift is rumbling and I’m very proud to be a part of that.

Eric: Beanie Feldstein’s also been fortunate to work with actors and directors like Greta Gerwig and Olivia Wilde, whose approach to Booksmart made that tale of two best friends feel that much more real.

Clip: You talk a big game and then you give up just when things get uncomfortable, like you jumped in the pool and now you’re sad that you’re wet, like.

That’s bulls**t Moll. That’s bulls**t.

If I didn’t drag you to do things, Amy you just, you wouldn’t do them.

You you don’t drag me. You force me to do whatever you want to do.

What does that even mean?

You decide what we do and when we do it. And then we always have to do it together.

Yeah I have to decide because you literally decide nothing like I do all the heavy lifting in our friendship, you never take charge.

Beanie Feldstein: Well Olivia told us. Told me and Caitlin from the beginning of preparing to do the film, that she wanted to do it on Steadicam in one. She wanted the entire scene. She gets out of the pool and does a whole walk through the house before she even meets me. And it’s all done. Steadicam Chris Harhoffe, our camera operator, shot Birdman. And so he was like, I get to kind of live my dreams with this shot. And I think that’s also a beautiful thing about Booksmart is it takes kind of cinematic grace within this teen comedy that is so fun and interesting. But without Chris – Chris is really our third scene partner in that scene because his beautiful camera operating is determining who is talking and who is listening. So he is kind of editing the scene because it is all in one. And so it is it is his beautiful emotional operating that is conducting the flow and the feel of the scene. And it was actually the only scene that Caitlin and I did not rehearse together. So Caitlin and I lived together the entire filming process and before and we rehearsed every scene. And Olivia had no script on set rule, no sides on set rule. So we had to be word perfect on everything. We were not allowed to, like, take a sneaky peek and remind ourselves of something. And what was so beautiful about Katie Silberman are incredible screenwriter who I love more than anything was. These girls are so smart. So we knew from the beginning that the way they spoke had to be very, very, very specific. And so for most of the film, it was not improved. It was very specifically to the script. But there were moments where Olivia and Katie asked Caitlin and I to sort of improv. So if you’ve seen the film, the scene at the beginning where we’re sitting on the lunch tables at school and she’s pointing out her crush, that scene, Olivia was like, feel free to add whatever you kind of let loose. So there was improv throughout the film, but there are certain scenes, specifically the picnic table at the beginning and this scene that are exactly word perfect from Katie’s writing to our mouths, because you’re watching two people that have never fought before, that had never even thought an ill thought of the other person before explode at each other. And it’s really heart wrenching to watch. And it’s very cutting. And it’s also so beautifully captured in Olivia’s choice to cut the sound, as you said, at that point, because when you’re fighting with someone you love that much, you get to a point where you don’t mean what you say. And I think the film and the filmmaking of that is so poignant and beautiful because they’re just they don’t even mean it anymore and they’re going at it. And, you know, when I kind of lay it on her at the end, it’s worse to not hear it in some way. But that is, again, like a pure collaborative moment, because without Chris Harhoff, we would not have been able to do it in one. That’s the second take that you see in the film of what we shot. We did four, but also every single background actor has to be fully present and engaged. So it was such a communal kind of moment because if one person’s looking in the wrong direction or not committed, it takes away the power of that moment. Part of it is that they’re being so watched. So it’s a testament to every amazing background after that came to be with us that day. And as someone who has fought with their best friend and not meant it, and it’s been so painful, I think we all kind of aren’t thankful for that depiction. But yeah, it was. It was fully, fully word for word.

Eric: So what advice does Beanie Feldstein give to our students looking to break into the industry?

Beanie Feldstein: I don’t know if I have any specific concrete advice for you other than the fact I would say, like I always will be a student of this. This feels very crazy to me to be speaking to you guys with sort of some sort of authority, because I still always feel like a student. And I think that is what is going to get you the farthest. So I would say continue to grow and learn and push yourself outside of school, because from there you will meet all these other people that you can collaborate with and create opportunities with. So whether it’s the Groundlings or UCB or Second City or any of these other amazing kind of comedic forces in L.A. get be a part of that, me people get to know people start writing with them, create opportunities for yourself. Mindy Kaling. Mindy got her start by writing a play for herself that her and her best friend performed together and then performed it in a tiny theater in New York. And it gained notoriety. And that’s how she became Mindy Kaling. And sometimes there aren’t yet in our industry opportunities for everyone, and it’s not fair and it needs to change. But what we can do is take control of that and write opportunities or collaborate with people that are talented to create opportunities. I always say when I audition, but also in my life, in my personal life, they either want the bean or they don’t want the bean. And that has been my life motto since I was about 16 years old. And I think it really I mean, to those of us that are artists and want to be artists as a profession. It’s such an important thing to remember that only you can give what you have to give. You are the only person. And it might be perfectly right for something. And if it’s not, it’s the other girl or guy or their it’s their best day of their lives. Like, if you don’t get something, it is the best day of another person’s life. And I always think about that. And that always makes me smile. And I think the greatest gift of my career has been collaboration and learning from other people. So I would say just put yourself in opportunities to do that as much as possible.

Eric: Sounds like book smart advice to me. We went to thank Miss Feldstein for sharing her amazing journey with our students. And thanks to all of you for listening. This episode was based on the Q&A, moderated and curated by Tova Laiter to watch the full interview or to see our other cute names, such as Beanie Feldstein’s brother, Jonah Hill. Check out our YouTube channel at This episode was written by me Eric Conner, edited and mixed by Kristian Heydon. Produced by Kristian Heydon and myself. Executive produced by Tova Laiter, Jean Sherlock and Dan Mackler. A special thanks to all our staff and crew who made this possible. To learn more about our programs, check us out at Be sure to subscribe on Apple podcasts or wherever you listen. See you next time.

Tova: Hi and welcome to the backlot. I’m Tova Laiter, moderator and director of the New York Film Academy guest lecture series. In this episode, we will take an in-depth look at one of my great guests and hear about his experience in the entertainment industry. And now, Eric Conner, will take you through the highlights of this Q&A.

Eric: Hi, I’m Eric Conner, senior instructor at New York Film Academy. And in this episode, we bring you the first Jack Ryan, the man who defended his home from Beetlejuice, who told Jack Lemmon in Glengarry Glen Ross to put his coffee down. He’s played Liz Lemon’s boss on 30 Rock. Ethan Hunt’s boss in Mission Impossible. And a Boss Baby. Yes, I’m talking about The Alec Baldwin. Like many Emmy winning Oscar-nominated actors, Alec Baldwin got his start in college as a poly sci major.

Alec Baldwin: I had gone and taken an acting class in college when I was at George Washington University and I was taking political science and I wanted to go to law school. And the idea of spending my academic years studying acting sounded ridiculous. You know, so I was gonna go get a real degree and get a real job. And I took an acting class at GW, which was like a gut class take just to complete my semester. And we did a scene study class. And then I went to visit a friend of mine. Then I didn’t do that badly. I mean, you can tell right away, you know, you’re there. And the teacher will say, try this, try that. There’s a little directorial exchange there that if you can take direction and change and see and be open to how you can improve then I think you have a potential aptitude for that. So I went to visit a friend of mine who was at NYU. She had transferred from GW to NYU and her roommate was in the drama program and she said, oh, you should audition and you should audition and you should audition. And you you’d be so wonderful on the program. I think you’d be great. And I thought that was just the dumbest idea. Cause I thought I don’t want to spend all that money to go to NYU, especially to get a degree in acting. And I went in there and I auditioned and I got a scholarship they gave me a full scholarship to come to school. And I went there. And so it actually cost me less money, even though NYU’s more expensive, this is critical because my family had no money. My dad and my mom were apoplectic that I was going to leave GW to go study acting, but my dad got it. My dad especially said to me, you’ll never be young enough to do this again. So I went to NYU. I went to Strausberg, threw them for a year. Jeffrey Horn was my teacher. And Marcia Haufrect was my teacher and Elaine Aikin was my teacher. And I had one more semester to go because they wanted me to do three semesters to transfer my credits. And then I just got a job. I just kept getting jobs. I got on a soap opera. I moved to L.A. I did nighttime TV and slowly over the course of like six or seven years. Did a lot of TV and pilots and some theater in New York. And then I got into the movie business and made movies that, you know, back then a few of them were successful and made some money. And once you star in a film, make some money, things become a bit easier in the business, at least for that lease for a period of time.

Eric: Before things got easier, before the blockbusters, the Emmys, the Tony and Oscar nominations. Alec Baldwin was a working actor who didn’t look down on any role he was fortunate enough to land.

Alec Baldwin: I think for me, it would just do what’s in front of me. Just do it’s put in front of me. I did a soap and I was on that show for almost two and a half years. And of course, the material on daytime TV and there were so many more soaps back than there are now. There were quite a few and a half hour and one hour. And, you know, that’s its own animal. You’re there and you have to try to make this material, you have to fight the urge. You have to resist the urge to comment on it and to send it up and to make fun of it. And because, you know, writing a fresh script every day for five days a week is a terrible task for those people. I grew to be very sympathetic toward the writers, and the task is to try your best to make it work. And eventually I learned that I watched the other people around me who they tried to find something to play and they could make it work. And then when I got in to nighttime TV, I think that you reach a point where everyone on the set has made more movies than you have. Everyone on the set knows more than you do. Everybody has more experience than you do. And slowly that changes. And in the beginning, you have a kind of a boyish gratitude. You’re like, oh, I’m so I’m so happy to be here. I’m so thankful that you hired me. Can I get you some fresh coffee? You know, you’re very much of a guest in someone else’s house, so to speak. And then slowly that changes where the next thing you know, you’re on the set of a film and someone says something to you and you go. No, I think it’s this. And they go, Huh? Okay, let’s try that. You know, we eventually you built up a bundle of experiences, practical experiences, where you’re beginning to understand what’s going to make the scene work. And I think I got to that point. You know, at some point I got there where I really kind of knew what I wanted to do when I didn’t want to do, you know, but it’s a process. And for me, it was drama. You know, I did I did the movie Miami Blues. That was funny, but very violent. I did the movie Beetlejuice, which was funny, but kind of weird. And I’m certainly not the thing that’s funny in that movie. And all his little films, I did them. I did the movie Hunt for Red October, which was really kind of a, you know, a military drama, if you will, an action film, if you will. But slowly, you know, right after that, like you get toward the early 90s and see, I was making movies for about five years. Then I began to be much more clear on what I thought was necessary. You know, I developed develop some experience.

Eric: Part of becoming a bigger star meant well, he got more interesting roles, but maybe just as importantly, it put him in the position to know what parts he didn’t want.

Alec Baldwin: I try to look at the whole piece. I trying to read the movie, and the first thing I try to decide is, is this a movie I think is a good movie, you know, because why would you want to be the tree falling in the woods and there’s nobody there? Why do you want to give a performance that no one’s going to see, even if there’s a great scenes for you and good writing for you the movie doesn’t work. So I try to ascertain, does the movie itself work? And then I asked myself, is it a movie that I want to make or a movie I want to see? So if you say that my character is a psychopathic killer who walks on to a kindergarden bus with a flamethrower in the opening scenes of the movie, I might not want to do that movie. I might not want to be that guy. I mean, I have been offered parts where I said, well, I don’t necessarily want to be that guy, somebody who’s, like, really just a complete monster or a complete jerk or whatever. I don’t mind doing those things if it’s in the service of a good movie. And then the thing I asked myself is the last thing I ask myself was my character. And I played parts in films where my character wasn’t the biggest role. It wasn’t the most well served in terms of the page count. It wasn’t the lead role, let’s say. But there was an opportunity for me in terms of that character. I thought that character could have an impact on the film and be if it was well-written. It made a difference. There’s movies I’ve been offered where you kind of think you can get anybody to play that part. There wasn’t anything special, too. There wasn’t anything I could bring that was really unique. So I look at the film in terms of the quality of the writing in the film and the story. I look at the film in terms of do I want to put myself through that? You know, there’s a you do put yourself through something in some films you do. And then the third thing is, this is my role in the film, just superfluous. Some people will always ask you to come do a film and do something that you did another film. You’ll come to their film and they’ll say, well, that thing you did in that film do that in my film, and you’ll think, well, maybe not. I don’t make a lot of movies anymore because of my kids. And I got remarried and my wife and I have a lot of children that we have a lot of little kids. And so going off and shooting films is always a difficult proposition. But I always say the same corny line. I say acting is like sex. When I was young, I would do it with anybody. I mean, and now I’m a lot more particular about what acting I do and why and with who.

Eric: One hallmark of Mr. Baldwin’s career that showed his. I’m afraid to call it experimentation was his ability to jump from one medium to another. Take 1990 in the same year he’s starring in The Hunt for Red October, produced by the founder of New York Film Academy, Jerry Sherlock. But you could also see him in the off Broadway premiere of Craig Lucas’s Prelude to a Kiss. He can go from playing Stanley Kowalski in streetcar to battling the Bear and the Edge. And on the small screen, he’s battling Steve Martin by hosting Saturday Night Live. For a record 17 times, he makes it all look rather easy. Even if the needs for performing for film, TV and stage are exceedingly different beasts.

Alec Baldwin: Movies, typically, and this is just my interpretation. Movies, typically, they exist inside that one framework and there’s a frame to the painting. The movie is 100 minutes long and the story starts and ends. And your task is all inside of that construct. And you have to really, really movie making us a lot of pressure. Movie making is very intense if it’s a drama because you want to make sure you’ve exposed every aspect and you’ve turned over every stone in terms of what the possibilities are and also narrowed it down to what’s worthwhile, what works. You can have all kinds of crazy ideas, but they don’t really work for the story. Like, how do you get down to what works? TV is different because it’s week after week after week. Even if you did a limited series of twelve episode, there’s more time you can spread your arc of your character and the things that they want to say. What the characters purposes in the storytelling can be spread out over more times. You have to look at it with more. I don’t want to say patience, but more complexity because there’s things you might you might have a very quiet episode. You might have an episode where you’re not featured unless you are the lead in the show. You are part of a cast of people. And your relevance and your significance in the story may go like this through episode after episode. So some episodes will be strong for you and some episodes will not be strong for you. And so you have to kind of parse that and really, really factor that in in a movie. You’ve got to give it everything you got. You know, you’ve got to really focus and lock down and get those takes really the best you can. Because, I mean, unless it’s some movie, which is a huge budget, you’re not going to go back and shoot it again. When you’re in front of that camera and they say the action. That’s the time for you to get in on. And you’ve got to be ready to do it. Then you turn to them and go, oh, I have a headache, I don’t feel good. Can we do this tomorrow? It’s unlikely. You know, movies are just so much more intense. The shooting of movies and TV is a little bit more of a stroll through the character.

Eric: Mr Baldwin claims that his most legendary role is serving Jack Donaghy from 30 Rock was more of a stroll than most, thanks to the brilliant mind of Tina Fey and her superb writing staff.

Clips: I can get you into a restaurant where you watch your child play with a bunny. Then you eat the bunny.

Clips: As I was taught at Six Sigma, analyze, strategize, succeed. A. S. S.

Clips: I wasn’t really going to fire you. I just wanted to remind you that I could.

Clips: Why are you wearing a tux?

Clips: It’s after six. What am I, a farmer?

Alec Baldwin: Well, I think 30 Rock is probably one of the ultimate examples of maybe the beneficiary of very good writing. You know, if it’s not funny on the page, it’s unlikely you can make it funny. The writing was the best I’ve ever seen in terms of comedy, was very fast paced. It was very weird and quirky and clever and topical or not. It had the right amount of heart into the story some times. And some of my favorite scenes were with Elaine Stritch, who played my mother.

Clips: If you were my kid, I’d mail you back to the stork.

Clips: She’s not kidding. When I was eight, she took me to the post office because I spilled juice on a couch reserved for the pope, which is still never been used.

Clips: But I am sorry. I tried to mail you.

Alec Baldwin: The whole idea is it’s a character that’s given to you where the character is, you know, one way on the outside, there’s a membrane in between how he is in public and private. In public. He tries to be very commanding and very together. And sometimes he is genuinely expert at something. I said it’s not going to work if he’s completely full of baloney and he doesn’t really know anything and he’s just a FOP. It’s not going to work. He needs to be somebody who is very good at business. And the thing is, is that he’s a, you know, kind of widget executive who’s come to the creative world. So it’s a it’s a horrible match. And as I try to widgetize the TV comedy business, there’s a lot of funny and horrible things that result from that. But I think that when I did the show, you just had to I hate to say this. You just had to just say the words couldn’t get out of the way. Don’t put a lot on it because it was so well-written that it was really pretty effortless. I think the only thing that was hard was to remember the words, because sometimes they gave me that really long speeches and I had to drink like ten cups of coffee in the morning to get myself ready to go. You know, it was a very, very it was a lot of words to memorize.

Eric: Even more so than caffeine. The right attitude and approach from a director can make all the difference for how Alec Baldwin tackles a role.

Alec Baldwin: What I’ve learned to do over time is to try to get more of a clearer sense of what the director wants. And if I don’t see eye to eye with them, I don’t do the film or if they’re incapable of articulating to me what they want. I don’t do the film. And before I wanted to work so I couldn’t get too picky about directors. I mean, there are some actors who at a very early age worked with phenomenal directors. You know, Sean Penn did Falcon and the Snow Man with what’s his name who did Midnight Cowboy? Schlesinger. You know, I mean, there’s some actors who are very early on. They work with great directors and they’re very, very fortunate. You know, Leo DiCaprio with Scorsese and so forth. For me, I think my experience is more ordinary where I want very much to be directed. I want very much for you to tell me what you want me to do in your movie, because it’s your movie, you know, you and you have to take ultimate responsibility for the fact that it’s your movie. I can’t make the movie. I’ll come in and I’ll fight sometimes or I’ll be very vivid about what I want for the character sometimes. But in the end, I want I don’t want to tip the whole canoe over just in terms of getting what I want. I want us to go on this journey together. And I want you to get what you want to go into the cutting room. So directors need to be in charge. They need to be very clear. If you can’t describe the film to an actor in under three minutes, then it’s a failure. Should be able to say this is a story about a guy who goes on a whaling ship and he meets this crazy captain Ahab. And Ahab had his leg bitten off by the white whale. Whatever go. This is a story about Atticus Finch. He he’s a lawyer in the south. And this black guy, Tom Robinson, boom. You just this is a story about Terry Malloy, and he’s a longshoreman during the corrupt days of the unions. Boom. You lay it out there. If you can’t do that, then I think most sensible actors don’t want to work with you. You have to be able to say, this is the movie I’m making. This is it. And everyone will join you in trying to because a filmmaker sometimes doesn’t accept the fact that they’re like a conductor in the symphony. You wanna make sure we’re all playing the same piece in the same time. Actors tend to kind of off road and go do this. And they want to do this. They want to draw attention to themselves. They want to draw attention to their performances. They’re not necessarily doing the film. The director has to make sure everybody we’re all doing the same movie. Let’s all do the same movie together. And the director has to be responsible for that. I’ve done movies where I literally walked to the director and I said, you’re going to let him do that like that. There will be somebody doing something just horrible, just abysmal. You know, I mean, thankfully, it wasn’t often, but there would be some that would do that. You could see there were directors who they didn’t want to confront the actors. They didn’t want to instruct the actors. And you have to you have to you have to know what your film is and stick to that mission and stick to that path. So is that helpful?

Eric: That is helpful. Thank you, Mr. Baldwin also stressed out students how important preparation can be before you even step foot on set in his case. There is one key element of a character. He needs to understand to do the part justice.

Alec Baldwin: I think the first thing I think about I’ve always said this many times, and some people find this helpful. Some people don’t necessarily find that helpful. And that is the disposition of the character. The nature of the character is very important to me. Is the person someone who is confident in the world? Do they lack confidence? Are they someone who is strong in the world or the weak in the world? Are they someone who is very verbally fascile? And the words come flowing off their tongue and they speak very eloquently. They’re good speakers or they’re not. They’re always reaching for a word. They’re fabricating what they say. There’s pauses in there. They’re not as articulate are they people who are very sensitive and in the now and very responsive to people with their in their own world. You know, I always use that example of Robert Duvall played Boo Radley in To Kill a Mockingbird. And he doesn’t have one line. He doesn’t have one line. And he plays this very tender, very damaged guy. He looks so damaged. But he becomes the hero of the film or one of the heroes of the film. And I think Duvall is on screen minimally, but he just rips your heart out, you know, because he’s so true to that character, that weak, damaged, kind of just terrified, like an animal, like a terrified animal, you know? And I think it’s just one of the most beautiful performances ever. And the movie is Duvall and To Kill a Mockingbird. But all those things like Pacino, when you watch The Godfather Part two and see how much Pacino lays back. Don’t act. Don’t act. Don’t push. Don’t push. Just say the words. Here’s my offer to you, Senator. Nothing. Here’s my offer to you, Senator, and don’t sit up and scream, you know, think about how other actors might have played those scenes and Pacino just stayed very dry, very dry just said the words. The words had the power. What made it even more chilling was the less emotional he was. He goes the other way. He’s not yelling. He’s not screaming. You have to ask yourself about that. About the sound of the character, the voice of the character. The movements of the character is a character, somebody that sits in a chair and is a very kind of sedentary person. Is he a guy on the the balls of his feet? You know, very animated. There’s a whole list of things you can do. But if it’s good writing, the writing will tell you what to do. The writing tells you what to do.

Eric: When asked about the importance of stretching and taking risks, Mr. Baldwin was exceedingly candid about one of his performances that he felt didn’t quite reached the level of the writing.

Alec Baldwin: I certainly have had periods in my life where I wanted to try different things, and I did Macbeth at the Public Theater in 1998 and I did a Shakespeare play in New York. When I look back on that, I think to myself. I got half of it right. The other half I didn’t get right. There’s some scenes I didn’t quite get what I imagined in my head. I always find this work is more easy to gauge in the theater business because, you know, you. I’ve done new plays, but I’ve done a lot of revivals. And you sit there and say, well, the material works. We know the material works. If you do a streetcar or I did 20th century or other plays, all my sons, Equus, things I’ve done like that where the play is worthy. The question is, can we come up to the right level? I have tried. You know, when they ask did you Trump? I thought, oh God, I do. I don’t want to do that. I don’t want to do that. But I gave it a whirl.

Clips: Thank you very much, everybody. I’m here to declare a very urgent, important national emergency. It’s the big ones who I don’t wanna waste any time. That’s my first. I’d like to blow my own horn a little bit. OK. I just had a great health exam. I’m still standing.

Alec Baldwin: But I think there are people who they find something that works for them. That tends to be more the universe of movie stars. You like big movie stars who they’re being paid to do the same thing over and over again. There’s a kind of a tone they have in their acting and they’re asked to replicate that again and again. I think you should try everything.

Eric: If ever an actor has managed to try everything. Alec Baldwin, be his name. He was even the narrator for Thomas the Tank Engine. An important piece of advice he gave our students was that studying acting provides a strong set of skills. But it’s only one piece of the puzzle.

Alec Baldwin: I think it’s great for people to take a year and join a rep company because it’s one thing to be in a classroom. Classrooms are important, but eventually you move beyond the classroom. You don’t want to become a classroom actor. And there is such a thing I think as a classroom. You want to study and give it everything you can. And the point is, make your mistakes outside of the white hot spotlight of the business, grow out of that spotlight. It’s very difficult to grow. Once you find somebody that works in the business, people want you to stick with that and your growth may end. And I think that you should do like a, you know, a season of rap. You know, go to Louis, though, La Hoya. Seattle. I mean, obviously, this is a post-COVID notion, but the Guthrie find a place, Williamstown go somewhere where it’s just about you and a bunch of people immersing yourself in this work cause it’s sad for me sometimes, although it’s understandable that I talked to a bunch of young people sometimes and they say, how do I get an agent? How do I make it in the business? There’s a part of me that thinks, you know, that is written. You’re going to make it or you’re not. It helps to be talented, but you don’t have to be. But I think it’s great when you’re really young. 22, 23, 24. Before you’re 25 years old. Just really, really do as many shows as you can. Do as many plays as you can. Play roles. You do as many roles. And I know that there’s a limitation on the roles for young people that are worthwhile. Good roles are tough in every age group, except, you know, when you’re usually in your 30s and 40s, but do as much theater rep theater and kind of off the beaten path. Theater work as you can.

Eric: In other words, if you want to act, go act, which is also good advice for writers, directors and all artists. We want to thank Alec Baldwin for his decades of amazing performances and for not only talking with our students, but really teaching them as well. And thanks to all of you for listening. This episode was based on the Q&A, moderated and curated by Tova Laiter. To watch the full interview or to check out our other Q&As go to our YouTube channel at YouTube dot com slash New York Film Academy. This episode was written by me. Eric Conner edited and mixed by Kristian Heydon. Our creative director is David Andrew Nelson, who also produced this episode with Kristian Heydon and myself, executive produced by Tova Laiter, Jean Sherlock and Dan Mackler. Special thanks to our staff and crew who made this possible. To learn more about our programs, check us out at Be sure to subscribe on Apple podcasts or wherever you listen. See you next time.

Tova Laiter: Hi and welcome to the backlot. I’m Tova Laiter, moderator and director of the New York Film Academy guest lecture series. In this episode, we will take an in-depth look at one of my great guests and hear about his experience in the entertainment industry. And now, Eric Conner, will take you through the highlights of this Q&A.

Eric Conner: Hi, I’m Eric Conner, senior instructor at New York Film Academy. And in this episode, we bring you the man who showed us what a real house party and pajama jammy jam were like.

The man who helped turn Eddie Murphy into a romantic lead, a writer, director, producer who’s worked in TV film award shows, documentaries, comic books, and produced the Oscar nominated Django Unchained. Yes, it’s Reginald Hudlin. Mr. Evans film education began at Harvard despite the fact that the elite Ivy League institution wasn’t particularly interested in having their students create mainstream films.

Reginald Hudlin: Harvard is kind of embarrassed to have any arts programs at all. So they have the thing called visual and environmental studies. And it’s like honors only you have to have a certain GPA, even be in the program.

And it’s multidisciplinary. So you study film, photography, graphic arts, architecture – it’s actually a really good program. Right. But they really just did documentary film. Like Ross McElwee was like, my favorite professor, and he makes really interesting documentaries that you should see. And I said, I want to make a fiction film.

And they were all, no no no. In my whole our whole year, we were kind of rebels. Like, my same year with Johnathan Mostow who did Breakdown and U-571, you know, it was a bunch of us. We all eventually kind of made our way to Hollywood. And I think they changed the rules and make sure that would never happen again.

That was that was a bad batch of Hollywood hacks instead of suffering for their art. What was that about?

So but, yeah, I did a short film of House Party and like a 20 minute thesis. I mean, I get the idea.

I mean, make a Shrek movie that I can see.

And I look I can tell a story of why his classmate, Jonathan Mostow went on to direct you U-571, Terminator 3, and the terrific Kurt Russell thriller Breakdown.

Eric Conner: Reginald Hudlin clearly had the talent to also succeed in this industry. He just needed to be in the room where it happened.

Reginald Hudlin: I wrote a script that I worked in advertising, I taught. Whatever kind of job you give me access to equipment so I could just keep making little things. And then She’s Gotta Have It came out. And certainly there was a window of opportunity. And I went to a party at Nelson George’s house. So everyone was there, like Russell Simmons was there. He was getting ready to make Tup at 11. I was like, oh, please, let me direct Tup at 11. Was like some kid from Harvard. Beat it. What do you know about hip hop? And then. And then Spike was there. And then I got this script for the Otis Redding story. I don’t want to do it, but I told em they should call you. Yes, I called them on Sunday. I had no idea what I was doing. So they called me back and said, we don’t wanna do the Otis Redding story. But we did double the Janet Jackson and The Time except The Time they had big hit records. And you’re both like, well, who are either of them? And that was my first professional job, like writing that script, which went nowhere. But I made enough money from writing that script to buy a computer. And on that computer, I wrote the spec script for House Party as a feature, and I was prepared to make it independently. And then an exec at new line called and said, I saw your little short. And do you have a movie? Yes, I do.

Yeah. I mean, opportunity is a cubic millimeter that does this (gestures), right?

So when that happens, do you feel you’re ready to jump through or I’ve got to put my sneakers on? Window open.

Oh, I’m in my drawers? Window closed. I sleep with your clothes on – there’s the window!

Eric Conner: This successive house party led to Boomerang starring Eddie Murphy, Ladies Man, countless TV projects and becoming president of entertainment for BET. And then a few years ago, Quentin Tarantino made him an offer he couldn’t refuse.

Reginald Hudlin: I’ve been friends for a long time and I mean over 15 years. And when you’re friends with Quentin, you’re talking about movies. Big surprise.

And one night he was at the Oscar Party. We got on the topic of slave films, and I expressed how I hate it, pretty much all of it.

And they were all movies about being victims. And for me, there was only one great movie about slavery.

It was called Spartacus.

Clip: Spartacus. I’m Spartacus.

Reginald Hudlin: And until there was a movie like that about the American experience, I just wasn’t interested.

And we kind of kept going back forth, back and forth. And I said, look, I get it.

And those movies you’re mentioning, they were made with the best intentions in the world, but from my personal satisfaction, I rather see Fred Williamson and The Legend of Nigger Charlie. And that’s not a movie anyone in this room has seen. I said, you know the truth, that I can’t remember frame of the The Legend of Nigger Charlie. They could try. So when I was a kid. So when it came out in the theater. But I remember how it made me feel. Made me feel great. And I just thought, well, why can’t I feel like that? So that was just a conversation. You know, we have them all the time.

And, you know, again, one of the nice things about being a friend of Quentin is you get invited to the editing room to see the movie when it’s still ninety nine but not a hundred percent finished or get to read his new script. So he calls me last April and says, hey, it’s a publication day party, you know, having a bunch of friends over come by, get the new script. Great.

So come over and I see friends and he hands me the script and goes, you plant the seed.

This is the tree.

So I then went home, read the script and kept calling, calling, you read it, you read it, . Yeah. What do you think. I really love it. Really. I really love it. You have notes. Yeah, I have notes. So we like talked with all my notes. Yes. All those are good notes. Thank you. Glad to help. Can’t wait to see the movie. Oh no, no, no, no. This one we’re we’re you know, we’re doing this one together really at this point.

I was like Yeah, right. I know.

I talked to Stacy Sher. Everyone thinks a great idea for you to be on board. So three days later, we’re meeting with studios and a week after that, we were in Louisiana scouting locations of that.

Eric Conner: Quentin apparently, has the fastest green lights in all of Hollywood. When Mr. Tarantino decides he’s going to do a movie, it happens. Though he collaborates really well, his writing remains a solo journey.

Reginald Hudlin: Quentin just writes alone, and the only person who is aware of the screenplay being developed was Pilar Savone of all of the three producers, because she you know, she works with Quentin all the time. Stacey And I did not know we were going to be involved until the night of that party. But, you know, so we read it and we loved it. And then, you know, we would just talk about it. We would talk about the content of the script endlessly. You know, he and I had long conversations talking with the actors and, you know, you know, Quentin says, you know, he writes a novel and then he adapts as a novel every day. You know that you deal with the reality of the location. And like, you know, do you get a new idea? Is that impractical or shall we merge it? And he also shoots in what he calls the emotional order, which is not quite continuity order, but who he likes to shoot key scenes in a certain way. So he can decide where he needs more or less as he makes those nips and tucks every day. Absolutely. He’s the maestro on the set. You know, he’s the boss, but he’s very sensitive and listens to his actors and to everyone on the set.

He’s he’s taking input from everyone and processing it, you know, in his own way.

Eric Conner: Even though Reginald Hudlin has known him for years and collaborated closely with him on Django, he still is not quite sure how his friend comes up with his remarkable ideas.

Reginald Hudlin: He’s a genius, and the genius is never more evident than his writing. We don’t talk. This is still a lot about the technical side of his writing. Other than, you know, he’s a self educated guy. All right. I mean, he dropped out. I don’t know at what point. But there’s certainly no college degree going on. But he’s smarter than almost anyone I know.

And he has read so much and seen so much and written so much. He has written books of film criticism on his favorite authors that just sit there.

They are not published. He just writes them as an exercise. So he understands craft thoroughly. He knows it so well. He knows when to abide by the rules and he knows when to break the rules.

And it’s all done with full knowledge of the one thing I do know is that he doesn’t work from an outline. He comes up with themes and ideas and characters like he wrote the opening scene of this film. You know, where Schultze rides up and, you know, and encounters the chain gang.

Clip: My good man. Did you simply get carried away with you? Dramatic gesture or you point to your weapon at me with lethal intention.

Last chance, fancy pants, very well.

Reginald Hudlin: And when he wrote that first scene, he knew he had to write the rest of the movie to find out what happened next. And that’s what’s amazing about him, is that he is master filmmaker and audience at the same time. Of all the magic tricks of Quentin Tarantino. To me, that is one of the greatest, that he’d never loses sight of that, because sometimes as we get caught up in whatever our technical craft tricks, we lose sight of the end goal, which is to rock the house. And he never does it. And, you know, he’s ruthless about never taking the easy way out. And that’s one of the reasons why the shoot out happened, because originally, you know, he was gonna get swarmed and knocked out and wake up. Hanging upside down. And he just thought, that’s kind of cheesy.

And when he was rehearsing the scene, Jamie said he has a well, what would you do?

Oh, you know, my man just died. I would go to him. Oh, you wouldn’t go to your wife cause, you know. You know, Jamie’s really big on protecting the love story aspect of the film, which is the heart of the film, is it? No, not in this moment. In this moment.

It’s about me and my best friend. And he said, really?

And that was really like the [snaps fingers]. Now I have to rethink everything. And, you know, and rethink everything means like, well, what would you do then? You would take his guy and you would do this. And you would. And but, you know, could you really get out? No, you couldn’t really get. I mean, you know, so he just played it through and he was not scared of throwing everything up in the air.

He’s always willing to surrender himself to the organic moment.

Eric Conner: In order to find these organic moments. Quentin Tarantino works tirelessly with his performers, all of whom are willing to give sweat, tears in blood for their performances in the case of Leonardo DiCaprio that last part turned out to be literal.

Reginald Hudlin: I wasn’t literally on the set when it happened, but it absolutely did happen. He had done the scene a hundred million times and that time the glass was a little off and his hand slam was a little more and it went down and it disintegrated the glass. I mean, he literally was like a magic trick. Like, poof. And all the teeny shards just went into his hand.

Clip: Now lay your palms flat on the table top! If you lift those palms off that turtle shell table top, Mr. Butch is gonna let loose with both barrels of that sawed off!

Reginald Hudlin: And I talked to him after it. I was like, So what were you thinking? And he was like, oh, I messed up. And then he was like, well, I just going to keep going to it. And then it was like, am I bleeding? Yeah, I’m bleeding.

I mean, he’s still doing the scene. He’s killing it. He’s got it. And then he goes, well, do I play it because I’m a ham? And he’s like. And then he started playing the blood.

And then he finished the take and the actors were just like in awe, you know, kind of like this split feeling of we want to applaud and we want to get you to a hospital.

And you can see when you look at the take later.

The actors are like, oh, right. And we took him to the hospital and came back. And because the blood was a pretty extreme thing, Quentin wasn’t sure if he wanted to play the blood or not. So from that point on, he shot everything both ways.

Eric Conner: With bloody hand, without bloody bloody hand, only deepened DiCaprio’s performance. It was a thrilling, dramatic moment for the audience. But when you’re trying to produce these blood soaked, organic moments of inspiration, it’s not so easy. But when making movies. Sometimes it’s necessary.

Reginald Hudlin: You know, it’s challenging because when he comes in and goes, you know, this scene is wrong.

I’m going to shut down for a day and let’s think about it. OK?

And then the next day comes back. You know what I need? I think we need to I think I need every stuntman, every, every stuntman. OK. Let’s get every stuntman man here. And that became the big shoot out scene that you saw that was not in that script.

Fortunately, at this point, my career, I’ve been at every point in the circle. I’ve been a writer and a director and a producer and an executive. I ran a network for several years. So a big part of it is literally understanding the other person’s problems, you know, because if you’re a jerk and you’re like, hey, man, we’re just doing our thing, you just got to deal with it.

Oh, you’re being a jerk.

So you have to say this is why this is going to work, how and how we’re going to manage it financially.

You know, you had to provide sanity in in a fundamentally insane business, you have to say there is sanity and reason going on here. We are not unreasonable people and everything we’re doing. I’ll be an unconventional is towards success. And we we want you to buy into our reasoning. And that’s today. I mean, look, a couple of times in my career, I’ve had eight hundred pound gorillas. I mean, when I directed the movie with Eddie Murphy, where it’s just like you said, you can’t have a helicopter. All right. OK.

So I was talking with Eddie when describing the scene, I didn’t have a helicopter. But it’s OK. We have this new idea. And I know you said you want a helicopter. Yeah, Eddie but it’s fine. I got a whole new ideas better. And he goes. Get him on the phone, OK. So the helicopter. And then what happens? Just because he’s just like, no, you you see if that’s what you originally wanted. You should have it. And, you know, Quentin is a guy with final cut. Quentin, a guy with one of the best track records in Hollywood. He’s just made nothing but hits. And he is ruthless in protecting his vision because he knows his artistic vision is what made all that other stuff happen. At the same time, he’s very aware of being a partner. And, you know, like he can’t just leave his partner’s high and dry. They are writing very large checks to make this happen. So our job is to facilitate that relationship and send those messages.

The fact is, when you’re a jerk – like in life, right, – when you are a jerk and you have all the leverage, then there’s those who were waiting for the window of opportunity.

Hey, you’re no longer in so high. You are close enough to stab.

Eric Conner: One collaborator who is close enough for the director to stab her to be a shoulder to cry on is the editor. And ever since his first movie, Quentin Tarantino had relied on the wonderful Sally Menke to his movies, to life. Unfortunately, she passed away before Django, forcing him to find another editor he would trust with his newest baby.

Reginald Hudlin: Well, I was the you know, losing Sally was a huge blow for us on every level. I mean, she was a wonderful human being. And, you know, you just look forward to being with her.

She was an extraordinary person, an extraordinary editor, deeply respected throughout the industry and a key key key part of his team.

So, you know, there was a lot of concern about, oh, hey, well, now what? What does that mean? So when he chose Fred, you know, everyone felt great. But I especially felt great because Fred was an assistant editor on Kill Bill. And that’s where we became friends because he’d be around. He seemed really cool. And then after, you know, a screening, kids pulled me aside and we’d have a comic book conversation. Again, you know, this is back when if you read comic books, you had to be in the closet about it. So, you know, you’re, you’re cool with Dennis? Yeah.

And so it’s like, oh, we share this secret important thing. So Fred and I were always really cool and I knew that Fred was ready for it. And, you know, Fred had gone on to become editor himself from one of the one of the two editors on the last Fast and Furious movie. And I had been building a great reputation. So there was a lot of, you know, concern because we had a very tight post-production schedule at to finish the movie in seven weeks. One hundred and thirty days worth of footage to be cut down in seven weeks.

And, you know, the challenge of now is getting a coherent story. But tone, tone, tone, tone. The biggest challenge in this film. Right. How to not shortchange the shocking nature of slavery. Right. To not undersell the horrors of the institution. At the same time, to make it a film that was watchable, even entertaining. Right. So it was a very short amount of time to do very delicate work. And Fred accomplished it. So, you know, an amazing, amazing piece of work.

Eric Conner: Fred Raskin’s accomplishments are all the more amazing considering the scope of this project, cutting even the lowest budget film in that timeframe is tough. But add the grandeur of Django and its many locations, and it is borderline miraculous.

Reginald Hudlin: Candyland we built interior and exterior what we went scouting and, you know, Don Johnson’s mansion we found. I think it may have been the first.

They had what’s called Plantation Road. They have all these preserved plantations and they’re all like a half hour from each other. So we went there and we just loved it right away. Like the double stairwell was just crazy. Ridiculous. This is perfect. Lincoln’s back yard.

So we’re just looking around and we’re trying to figure out how many different scenes from the movie could we shoot at one location without having to move. So we went to the back of the plantation, which was just huge sugar cane fields. And we were looking and looking around and I said, Quentin, look at that road, which is this big red dirt road that just went on, you know, into infinity. Isn’t that the road to Candyland?

And he said it is. And we said, well, let’s just build a mansion back here. Wow. And we knew we had to build it because we’re going to blow it up. Yeah.

Right? So you couldn’t use this real one. So we built the exterior there.

And then on soundstages in New Orleans, we built the interior. And we didn’t blow up the interiors. But by the last month, they were literally just drenched in blood. I was just like this huge – like working in a Jackson Pollock painting every day. I mean, there was no digital blood ever. All the blood you see is Tarantino red.

He has his own blood color. And you know, the same guys who do Walking Dead those are his effects guys. And almost all the effects are private so he just does blood just kept piling up, piling up. So you just were walking.

Eric Conner: When Django Unchained was released, the copious amounts of bloody carnage do not pose anywhere near as much controversy as the film’s language.

Reginald Hudlin: The language is strong, but for me, the linguistic violence is the least shocking, provocative things in the film. I mean, when the whole oh, my God, you we’ve kind of the number of times you say the word n*gger in the film, I’m like, did you see the movie?

Did you see the movie? That’s the first thing you want to talk about. You didn’t see a man get eaten by a dog.

Really? I don’t get that. That wouldn’t be the first thing I want to talk about.

But as I was saying earlier, the issue is you have to tell the truth about the subject.

You know, I mean, there are a lot of films about the Holocaust, which is good because I believe in what the Jewish community says, that we should never forget, that they should never forget this horror and they should draw strength from it and the world should never forget. So we can remember what we as human beings, what we’re all capable of doing. And slavery is a Holocaust. And shooting on a plantation is no different from shooting at Auschwitz. All right. So you have to be true to the horror of what you’re doing at the same time if you make this powerful statement that nobody wants to see if it’s a bad time at the movies – I mean, because at the end of the day, people work all week.

They work real jobs. So if you’re working at a car factory in Detroit – Okay – And you’ve got a day off and you’re going to spend thirty dollars on tickets plus popcorn, plus get a babysitter and all that stuff. Like you’re not paying to see the bad time you’re going to go see Taken 2.

I’m not knocking Taken 2 to a big on Takens.

So I’m saying at the end of the day, you have to make a movie that people want to see, especially if you’re trying to send a message. Right. So if those are your two goals, then everything else is execution

Eric Conner: For Reginald Hudlin, Django was one of the most special projects he ever worked on, even before its critical and box office success, thanks in no small part to how Quentin Tarantino would run his set.

Reginald Hudlin: He’s a big family guy. He loves shooting movies. His joy at what he does every day is radiant. And if you don’t feel that, say – I mean, you’ve got to be a Grinch not to have that kind of spirit. So you just, you know, every hundred reels, that’s a shot – you know, on the weekends, we convert one the soundstages to a screening room. He brings movies from his collection and we watch and we discuss. One of the best rules he has – and you guys can try this yourselves – it’s a it’s a bold move. There’s no electronics allowed on set. No phones, no laptops, no tablets, nothing.

Because his thing is like you don’t need to check your Facebook status in between takes.

We’re here to work. Let’s work. And it’s a withdrawal for a few days. And then you really have a great time because you’re focused on your job. And as one actress said in the film, I made friends on the set that never happened.

Talk to people.

So part of it. I mean, that keeps the spirit together. And the spirit is really key. You know, people need to feel that they’re doing something special and unique and different and that this is a unique experience.

And the other is to keep your eye on the ball. What is the movie? And a lot of times we would talk about that, you know, quit. And I would just go, really? Is is this the movie? Is this what’s important? You know, and we would talk about it sometimes. The answer is yes. Sometimes the answer is no. Cause he can go down any rabbit hole and make it really entertaining. Right. But you’ll never get done. So you have to do is keep going back to finding the heart of the story.

And also, like you said, that’s a conversation. We all need checks and balances and that’s where the team comes in.

One of the saddest things about this movie, almost being over is that I have to go back to the real world because Quentin Land is spectacular. It’s this purely creative environment. It’s literally playing in the sandbox at the highest level of craftsmanship. You know, you’re on the set there. No studio executives there. There’s nothing. And anything goes as long as it makes the movie better.

Eric Conner: Like Reginald Hudlin, Tarantino is very much his own man and definitely has his own voice, which Mr. Hudlin encouraged our students to strive for as well in order to launch. Our own careers.

Reginald Hudlin: Tell the story that you want to tell as opposed to, you know, this is what’s commercial and this is what’s hot and now that kind of thing or what my friends like. What is your story from deep in your soul? Because you know what? This could be the last thing you ever make. This is your first movie. Could be your last movie. So, like, this is it. You make this movie and then you’re driving a taxi for the rest of your life. So like this is your epitaph for the twenty third century. And the second thing is, and this may be slightly contradictory to the first statement, is make the movie that isn’t being made, meaning that, you know, there’s so many copycats and kind of audition reels for Hollywood. And, you know, I’ve always for better, for worse, tried to zig when others have zagged. Right. You know, like, you know, when I first started making movies, you know, I was like, you know, Spike was doing his thing and John was doing his thing. And I was say, wow, I don’t want to make that kind of movie. I want to make like I want to make risky business.

And, you know, and from that impulse came house party, you know, so there’s an audience for everything. Right. So question is, where do you fit into the universe of things and what makes the audience want to see your movie versus everything else? A. It’s got to be from your heart because I feel like that sincerity and that integrity resonates through the screen, even through whatever flaws you may have in your filmmaking. They’ll feel you and make a movie that no one else is making. So you’re different. By your very nature.

Eric Conner: And just as important in helping to launch a career, remember to be nice.

You know, people talk about how short life is. Life is not short. Life is long. Life is really, really long.

And here’s the thing about life. People don’t die fast enough.

Like those people you don’t like. They’re still around. I’ve been in this business 20 years. Those mean so many of those people are still here.

So you have to conduct yourself with that knowledge because so many people didn’t. And like, I see them paying the price. And like, I’m always thinking to my parents for home training. Right. Just be a decent, reasonable, well-behaved person. It will really, really save you in ways you cannot imagine.

Eric Conner: With House Party and Boomerang, Reginald Hudlin helped usher in modern black cinema that managed to be both representational and universal.

Reginald Hudlin: To this day, I can still quote both those movies to death. And with Django Unchained, he has only continued on this path. We want to thank Mr. Hudlin for speaking with our students in the middle of his Oscar campaign season.

Eric Conner: And thanks to all of you for listening. This episode was based on the Q&A, moderated and curated by Tova Laiter , c0-moderated by me Eric Conner. To watch the full interview or to see or other Q&As  check out our YouTube channel at This episode was written by me. Edited and mixed by Kristian Heydon. Our creative director is David Andrew Nelson, who also produced this episode with Kristian Heydon and myself, executive produced by Tova Laiter, Jean Sherlock and Dan Mackler. A special thanks to all our staff and crew who made this possible. To learn more about our programs, check us out at Be sure to subscribe on Apple podcasts or wherever you listen. See you next time.

Eric Conner: Hi and welcome to the backlot. I’m Eric Conner senior instructor at New York Film Academy. Today, we have noted film critic Peter Rainer. He is the critic for the Christian Science Monitor. He’s also written for The New Yorker, for L.A. Times and a lot of other publications. And he has been a finalist for a Pulitzer. And if that’s not enough for you, he is also the author of the book Rainer on Film 30 years of film writing in a turbulent and transformative era. It is available for sale on Amazon, Barnes and Noble and all the other booksellers online. So thank you so much for coming Peter Rainer.

Peter Rainer: Thanks, Eric.

Eric Conner: One thing you had talked with me about before is this idea of in essence we all think we know what a critic does because we read their stuff like, oh, they see a movie, they write a review. But obviously there’s more to it than that. So I was wondering if you could talk about maybe your typical day?

Peter Rainer: Yeah. Well, a day in the life, it does vary. But I would say on average, if we’re not talking holiday seasons or, you know, run up to awards, Oscars or festivals, I guess I see at least a movie a day more often than not in theaters. But sometimes, you know, in home viewing situations, the way I find out if a film is opening is you go on various sites to see what the schedule is of openings. You know, often out of date, almost immediately, the various movie companies and publicists will send invites to me and now almost exclusively online invites saying you and a guest are invited to so-and-so movie. And a lot of the smaller, independent foreign films, documentaries and so forth, they often screen them months in advance, sometimes key to when the so-called talent is in town. Studio pictures increasingly either aren’t ready until pretty close to opening date, which is generally on Friday, or they don’t want you to see them all that early for bad word of mouth.

Eric Conner: Right right right, the embargo until.

Peter Rainer: Yeah, the embargo thing is fairly recent development.

Eric Conner: One minute before it comes out, right?

Peter Rainer: Yeah. They say, you know, 12:01 a.m. the Wednesday before the Friday opening the embargo is lifted and so forth. My reviews generally come out day and date with the opening, so I’m not really looking to break embargoes anyway.

Eric Conner: Right.

Peter Rainer: But the embargo extends even to blogs and just sort of online commentary of any kind. Although I notice it doesn’t seem to extend to the publicist contacting you the day after the screening to ask you what you think. That doesn’t seem to have been embargoed. And my response is always, you know, I think it’s somewhere between Creature from the Black Lagoon and Citizen Kane. But beyond that, I’m contractually unable to answer that question, which is sort of vaguely true. I mean, I don’t like to feel like I’m part of the PR system, but anyway, so then I show up at the screening and I usually take notes, with a pen and pad, which I can’t read afterwards, but it’s kind of useful.

Eric Conner: You don’t have like one those little light up pens.

Peter Rainer: No, I probably should get one that they use be more common than it is now. People going with their computers. The lighted pen thing. I always thought was kind of obnoxious, not to mention, you know, you’re sitting next to someone and the light keeps clicking on and you say to yourself well, what great insight that I miss, you know? I mean, the light came on.

Eric Conner: The man with the pen knows.

Peter Rainer: What did I. Right. Yeah. What are they seeing that I didn’t see?

Eric Conner: Well, though probably less obnoxious than a monitor. Like an actual computer screen.

Peter Rainer: Yeah.

Eric Conner: Illuminating half the theater.

Peter Rainer: Yeah. You know, people say, gee, you’re so lucky. You’re a critic. You can go to these screenings. And there aren’t all these people who are like texting and talking around you. And I say, are you kidding? It’s worse in some ways. I mean, a lot of critics say if if they’re bored by a movie or they’re making deals or they’re doing whatever they’re doing during a screening, it’s just as bad. I mean, that personally kind of drives me up the wall.

Eric Conner: Yeah. When you’re at an advance screening too, not everyone in there is going to be a critic, right? I mean, it’s also sometimes like I don’t know, friends, family.

Peter Rainer: Yeah I don’t know who any of these people are.

Eric Conner: Like they tried to fill the seat sometimes like, yeah, you know, you’re in there with regular citizens.

Peter Rainer: You never know. Yeah, no. The dentist of the of the gaffer, you know, I mean, they just bring all these people in there, especially for the big ones, but. OK. So then I, so I take notes and then I, I generally don’t review a movie like right after I’ve seen it, unless for deadline purposes I have to do that. If I’m at a festival like Toronto where I’ll see maybe four movies a day sometimes or more. A lot of those movies don’t open for many months or a year or more later. So I’ll do sort of an overview of the festival, but I’m not going to get specific or write full take reviews on anything.

Eric Conner: So you don’t. Because I know sometimes like.

Peter Rainer: Well the trades do that.

Eric Conner: Yeah yeah the trades will do reviews when they’re at the festival. Right. But like Christian Science Monitor and NPR, like you don’t.

Peter Rainer: No, not really. And part of the reason for that, I think I mean, it’s it’s good that. I mean the trades are sort of, they’re the trades. So I guess the they have to be on record as saying something about the film at the time that it opens. But if I were to review a movie, a full length review of a movie that’s in the Toronto Festival that then opens in December. You can’t re-review it, so you’re reviewing a movie that won’t be released for several months, just from the filmmaker’s point of view. If you’re not going to run the review again in December, then they’ve lost whatever you said about the movie because it ran too early.

Eric Conner: Now is there a way you can – let’s say you saw something at Toronto and you think it’s great and maybe it’s like a sort of a smaller prestige pic. Is there something you could do to help build buzz for it.

Peter Rainer: Oh, sure. Yeah. I mean, when I do the overview, I single out in critical terms what I thought of many of the movies. It’s not like I just sort of say what’s there? And that’s it. you know, if if there’s a really great movie or if I discover something or whatever. Absolutely. That’s the main purpose of why I’m there, actually. But I’m not going to do a separate long review. So I’ll see a movie. I’ll write it up based on my notes and recollections and whatnot. And I try to keep the films in my mind strongly enough so I don’t have to see it again. I don’t really like seeing movies twice within a fairly short timeframe at least. I find that I don’t get that much out of it the second time because I’m already kind of bringing to it what I saw the first time. You know, on the other hand, there are almost by definition, a great movie or a difficult or innovative movie is not something you’re likely to pick up altogether on a first viewing. But, you know, I see 250 something movies a year.

Eric Conner: Yeah you don’t have much to.

Peter Rainer: Yeah. I mean, it’s very difficult for me to go back and look at something again, even if I want to watch, which on occasion I do. And eventually I will. But, you know, after the reviews out and all the big change for me as a critic is that when I first started out in the 70s, mid 70s, there were maybe six or seven movies maximum that opened in a given week. Now, not just because of streaming and whatnot, but also there are often 20 plus movies per week that play in theaters.

Eric Conner: Right and you have such a wide range beyond just like different platforms.

Peter Rainer: Yeah. I mean, sometimes films a lot of the the lower end movies that are part of that 20 are films that for contractual reasons.

Eric Conner: Right they have to.

Peter Rainer: They have to show it, you know, theatrically to get a better sale on the screening or whatever.

Eric Conner: But yeah, there’s so many movies where it’s like day and date where they’re on OnDemand or Netflix or whatever. Well more on demand, but they might be in a handful of theaters that same day.

Peter Rainer: Yeah. I mean a lot of VOD movies are before the theatrical opening. You know, and then there’s the whole issue with Netflix and whatnot.

Eric Conner: Actually what are your thoughts on that with. I know there’s been such a blowback against Netflix films playing the festivals.

Peter Rainer: Right. I sort of disagree. I think that Netflix movies should be in the mix. If they have a theatrical release, this argument that Spielberg and others have made that a TV movie is in the end a TV movie, you know, it doesn’t quite hold water because there are a lot of movies that aren’t particularly well designed for the big screen either. You know they’re just that’s the way they were made.

Eric Conner: Smaller scale.

Peter Rainer: And they could look, look just as at home on a TV screen as anywhere else. But I mean, it is a little sneaky to essentially make a TV movie that you play in the theaters to boost the Netflix viewership and get awards. But you know what else is new? I mean, there’s always a scam. Also, I think even if you agree that these films should not be part of the awards mix, I just think it’s a losing battle. You know, I don’t think that you can rule out so much product that is coming out. You know, a corollary argument was when the O. J. Made in American documentary, which was ESPN.

Eric Conner: Right.

Peter Rainer: They showed it in theaters either just before or day and date with the initial TV airing. And I thought it was the best film of the year of that year. I thought it was an extraordinary film. Absolutely extraordinary. And it won the Oscar for Best Documentary, at which point the documentary committee said we’re not doing this anymore. The argument there was that on the part of other documentarians, you know, Ava DuVernay had a strong, socially conscious documentary that year. That was.

Eric Conner: Right the 13th, was that?

Peter Rainer: Yeah. So their argument was, you know, O.J. is a great film. Congratulations, you know. But if I’d had eight hours at my disposal to make my movie, it would have been significantly more powerful. You know, that argument says that longer is better by definition.

Eric Conner: Well, it’s funny. It’s it’s like the opposite of the argument. Remember when Emmys started really recognizing HBO shows like The Sopranos and, you know, and and the networks were like, well, if we only had to do twelve episodes a season, we would make ours better.

Peter Rainer: Right.

Eric Conner: And I don’t know how much water that holds that argument.

Peter Rainer: Yeah no.

Eric Conner: It’s like blaming like the fact you have more money, more time, more staff and like but we can’t create more good product.

Peter Rainer: Most writers will tell you, you know, journalists and critics that if you have like two months lead time to write a review, it doesn’t mean that you’re going to write a better review than than when you’re on a tight deadline. Sometimes that forces you to really be more creative and come up with stuff on the spot that, you know, the sloth would erase otherwise. So it’s complicated. You know, Netflix, when this movie Okja came out about the pig. So that was sort of their big push, at least for critics and for awards to position themselves as a movie studio, sort of an odd movie to be using as a test case.

Eric Conner: Right.

Peter Rainer: You know, and the experiment didn’t quite work on that level. Some people liked the film more than others, but I think they’re just going to keep trying to do it. You know, a lot of TV shows going back, you know, a lot of Colombo’s and, you know, Spielberg’s Duel, they were all shown theatrically as feature films in Europe.

Eric Conner: But were on TV.

Peter Rainer: Here were on TV here. Yeah.

Eric Conner: Yeah Spielberg’s first real massive movie that kind of put him over.

Peter Rainer: Yeah Duel.

Eric Conner: You know, the top, Duel. Yeah. Yeah, it was. Yeah. That was a TV movie here.

Peter Rainer: Absolutely. It was a Universal TV movie.

Eric Conner: And I mean it aged pretty well in that as TV movies go, it looks like a heck of a cinematic TV movie, especially for that time.

Peter Rainer: Right. I mean, I would think that that probably works better. I’ve never seen it on a big screen but but I would think that it’s gonna come across better on a big screen.

Eric Conner: Right and if you haven’t seen Duel, it’s the movie that got him Jaws. And so, I mean, technically remarkable what he pulls off with what I imagine is a rather small budget.

Peter Rainer: Yeah. I mean, it was it was a pretty incredible film. It’s kind of like Jaws, only a giant truck instead of a shark.

Eric Conner: And I think that’s the thing, too. It’s like a lot of these stories won’t get out otherwise.

Peter Rainer: Yeah, it’s if it plays in a theater, I think it should qualify.

Eric Conner: Yeah.

Peter Rainer: However it got there. And I mean, you have to make some kind of rules. Otherwise, you know, you’re going to start, you know, Game of Thrones best picture of the year. You know, you have to make some distinctions.

Eric Conner: It might, they actually might pick up a lot of technical awards.

Peter Rainer: Yeah right.

Eric Conner: Well, you know, actually, before you mentioned some of the kind of unusual choices your critics group made, but the movie Brazil had kind of a legendary.

Peter Rainer: Yeah.

Eric Conner: Troubled journey. And if I remember correctly, I think the L.A. critics had named it like the best picture of the year.

Peter Rainer: Yeah, there’s a very interesting story behind that.

Eric Conner: And were you part of that?

Peter Rainer: Yes.

Eric Conner: Oh, great. Do tell.

Peter Rainer: I mean, I like the movie a lot. I don’t think it was my best film of the year, but I wasn’t dissatisfied that it won. And particularly given the circumstances, I thought it was great. What happened was Terry Gilliam had made Brazil for Universal and Sid Sheinberg, who was the head of Universal, didn’t like the movie. And he just kind of sat on it for a long time. And Gilliam, who is not a shrinking violet, was doing everything he could to make this film happen. Took out a full page ad in the trades saying, you know, ‘Dear Sid Sheinberg, when are you going to release my movie Brazil?’ And then Scheinberg had people come in and do their own cut of the film. They really, by all accounts, messed it up. And that was what they were going to release. And contractually, I guess they had the right to do that. So Gilliam knew one of the critics who was at the L.A. Times at that point, Jack Matthews, they arranged a clandestine screening for the L.A. critics of Gilliam’s cut of Brazil, which technically was illegal. So the critics saw this movie, they said this is a great movie. So now we’re voting that day for the year end awards and Brazil wins best picture Gilliam’s cut of Brazil. So Sheinberg had no choice but to release Gilliam’s cut after that, it was activist criticism at its finest. You know, I mean, you never.

Eric Conner: It was a protest vote.

Peter Rainer: Yeah, I mean, that’s how that came about. And Gilliam was, you know, forever grateful. Because his, there’s a very good chance. That is certainly theatrically at that time, his film would never been released. And the Sergio Leone movie, Once Upon a Time in America is a classic example of a film that was released in a butchered version. I think 40 minutes were taken out of it.

Eric Conner: I think, I’m going to say even more than that. I think it might have been an hour and change might have. Cause like, yeah cause the full cut’s close to four hours.

Peter Rainer: Yeah, I mean, Leone’s cut that eventually was shown is a terrific movie and considerably longer and better and more complicated in terms of the editing and whatnot.

Eric Conner: Yeah and very poetic the way it transitions in and out of scenes.

Peter Rainer: But his movie was originally hacked up by some guy that cut trailers in New York. And that’s what was shown. And a lot of critics. They saw both versions. And I remember I think it was Kael or someone said, you know, I’ve never seen a worse butchering job than was done to this movie.

Eric Conner: I was wondering, you know, we were talking before about some of these movies we like that they don’t quite come together as much. And yet we still have this kind of a soft spot in our heart for them. Guilty pleasures. Even that term might be a bit of a misnomer, because if you like it, why should you be guilty?

Peter Rainer: Right.

Eric Conner: I was wondering if there were some films in your vast collection that maybe hold a special place for you but didn’t hold a special place for pretty much any critics.

Peter Rainer: Well, the most recent example is the movie Mother, Darren Aronofsky’s film which I normally don’t like his movies, and most people do. Mother, which I saw in Toronto, was loathed by my colleagues almost exclusive. Didn’t make a dime. People hated it. It was loathed. I thought it was a really fascinating movie. It goes off the rails completely the last 15 minutes or so. But, you know, I won’t bother to give my defense to the jury. But it was. And I don’t feel guilty about it. I just feel besieged when I say it to people. They say, ‘really? You like that film?’ and I say yes, and I didn’t like Black Swan. I didn’t like blah, blah, blah. I like smart dumb comedies a lot. I seem to be more tolerant, just like I like bad standup. Sometimes I enjoy watching too. But, you know, Dumb and Dumber when new line. They had a trailer for it, but they weren’t going to press screen it. And I thought, this looks really funny. What’s the problem? You know, bad reviews aren’t going to have any effect on this movie and good reviews will bring people in who would not normally see it. And it’s really funny. So they did press screen it. I just kept after them. I said what do you have to lose? So in that vein, I go every year to the Alex Theater in Glendale for the Three Stooges marathon that they have.

Eric Conner: And now I have to go.

Peter Rainer: Well, yeah. And your kids would. I mean, it’s kids love that stuff. It’s, you know, don’t try this at home. But I think, you know, the Three Stooges is sort of the essence of comedy. Right. You know, it’s just about poking and bashing. And I mean, you know, Curly is a comic genius.

Eric Conner: Jerome Horwitz, right?

Peter Rainer: Yeah.

Eric Conner: The artist formerly known as Jermoe Horwitz.

Peter Rainer: Yeah, they were. The larger thing here is that I think that if you really like something, whether you’re a critic or, you know, just an audience member, you know, you should go with it. This idea that there’s something guilty about liking something, there may be a very good reason why you do like something. It’s more important to be ostentatiously wrong then self censoring yourself to the point where you, you know, you know I mean.

Eric Conner: Yeah well, I think Mark Twain said taste never should be defended. I’m paraphrasing him. And Sheryl Crow said, if it makes you happy, it can’t be so bad. And I agree with both.

Peter Rainer: Yeah, yeah. But I do think, you know, as a critic, there are some types of films that I might enjoy, even though I know they’re not good movies. And as long as I’m up front about that, you know, it’s OK to enjoy these movies but don’t enjoy them as something that they weren’t meant to be or aren’t.

Eric Conner: You’ll say that in your review, like upfront that. Yeah. Fair warning. I enjoy this kind of thing.

Peter Rainer: Well, I’ll say, you know, I, I enjoy this kind of stuff because it’s kind of kitsch, probably in ways that the filmmakers did not intend. Sometimes the films are good in ways that are intended to be good. There’s some parts of Towering Inferno as I recall, it’s been many years, that are first rate for what it’s trying to do.

Eric Conner: I was wondering then. So one thing that’s definitely happened is over the years, the phrase everybody’s a critic has taken on grand new proportions because, you know, on YouTube, that’s where a lot of people are getting their reviews. And sometimes, like, you know, they can go from crass to comical, you know, hilariously crude, but also really astute. Yet at the same time, some of these are just fifteen year old kids with Facebook Live. What are your thoughts on sort of that end of the critic sphere? You know, the idea of really, truly, because of the Internet, people are getting their sort of critical takes from those who really don’t even have a writing background.

Peter Rainer: Yeah, well, I mean, what you’re describing impinges on the professional life and careers of actual working critics because there’s less and less incentive for publications to go with critics when there’s this whole gabble of voices out there. I don’t know. I think there’s nothing wrong with being, quote, elitist and saying that not everyone is a critic in the sense that not everyone brings to the fore the kinds of ideas and whatnot. That is what criticism is all about. You know, I’m not putting down blogs. I myself am not really a social media person. But, you know, I’m past the point where I think that if you have a blog that you have nothing to say or you’re just blathering. You know, there are a lot of fine critics now who write exclusively on the Web for various publications. You know, my own publication is primarily online now. So I don’t think that by definition, if you’re a blogger, you’re not a, quote, critic. But I do think that the odds are highly stacked against you because people think that, you know, criticism is not just opinionating. That’s the thing. Everyone says, well, if I just. It’s just my opinion. It’s as good as your opinion. What makes you any better than me? Well, that’s one way to look at it. But the thing is, speaking as a writer, I think you have to be able to be a writer, a real writer to be a critic. I don’t think that just opinionating is what it’s all about, because in the end, everything that I say about a film could probably be reduced to a couple of sentences on a blog and convey essentially the same message. You know, I like the acting didn’t like the direction, the story was sucked, etc.. You know, it’s how you say it. And the arguments that you deliver in the course of the criticism to support what you’re saying that makes a criticism. Not to mention that movies are kind of the, I mean, they encompass so many different things, not only all of the other arts, but what’s going on in society, a reflection of society. I’m not saying that to be a critic, you have to have a comprehensive knowledge of the history of film and have seen all the great movies. It can’t hurt. But I don’t think that just, you know, if someone says, well, I’m a critic because I’ve seen 4,000 movies. No, some of the most interesting articles I’ve read on film have been by people who are not professional critics who are often in the English and American lit departments or sociology or philosophy, you know, people who bring a whole other thing to the table.

Eric Conner: Right.

Peter Rainer: That is much more interesting in many ways than the, you know, the so-called professional critic who’s too often insulated. So, you know, for me, the great critics have been the ones who have covered the waterfront and broaden the spread, talked about films in much larger ways while never forgetting the fact that the critic is first and foremost a member of the audience.

Eric Conner: One thing you’re saying that I think is great is that, you know, the fact is it’s not so much about who’s giving their review. It’s like, are they informed or not? Can they shine some light on their review? Reading Roger Ebert’s longer reviews when I was young, I remember they didn’t always have stars or thumbs up, thumbs down and New York Times still doesn’t do that. You know, I think a lot of really reputable publications, they invite you to read the whole thing because it doesn’t sum it up for you.

Peter Rainer: Right. Well, I mean, it varies in my career. Like you know at the monitor in some of its iterations now, I do have grades, which, you know, if I had a choice, I probably wouldn’t go with. But, you know, nevertheless, it is a way for people to at least latch onto what your overall opinion is and maybe drive them to read the full review.

Eric Conner: Kind of puts in a frame at least.

Peter Rainer: Yeah. Or not. You know, in in a sense, all reviews have implicit grades. You know, where it gets a little nutty is like Metacritic and Rotten Tomatoes where they they sometimes will contact you. You know, that that review read like a B minus. But you gave it a B plus. It’s like, well, please.

Eric Conner: Like like they’re grading your grading, basically.

Peter Rainer: Yeah. Right. See, the thing is true criticism, I think is not about the value judgment in the end. In other words, you can read a critic and disagree with everything he or she is saying and still think that it’s it’s it’s an exhilarating read. You know, that that, you know, I disagree with everything you said, but I really enjoyed reading you. That’s to me a better compliment than someone that comes over you and says, I loved everything you said about that movie because I agree with everything. You know, it’s not the value judgment. It’s how you get to that judgment that I think makes for a critic.

Eric Conner: Well, has it changed your approach as a critic that initially when you started people you knew were reading the whole article or, you know, it was in.

Peter Rainer: Yeah.

Eric Conner: A brick and mortar newspaper so to speack. And now most of your audience is clicking.

Peter Rainer: Yeah. I mean, it does it. I mean, there are all kinds of ramifications. It’s very easy on the Internet to just click around. And I mean, I myself have some difficulty in reading long articles still, you know, on an iPhone or a computer. But I know that for the next generation, that’s not going to be an issue at all. Whether that means that there’s gonna be less extensive criticism by virtue of people’s viewing habits on the Internet. I don’t know. I mean, that’s a good question. I hope not. But I think it all comes down to what do you want from film criticism? If you just want value judgments, if you want to know what movie I should see on a Saturday night. That’s a perfectly good rationale for reading a review and writing a review, because in the end, a lot of reviews. I mean, I don’t like reviews where they go on about everything and then you’re like, yeah, but what’d you think of the movie? You know? I mean, I think that’s part of it. And if you have no opinion or if you’re mixed, which is often the case, then that should be in there. That’s generally how it is with with most movies, you know, that I write about. And I don’t like this notion that criticism is something, you know, that sort of comes down from on high. I don’t see it so much anymore. It’s partly because of the Internet. But it used to be that a lot of publishers and editors would say, you know, well, don’t use the first person when you review, really. But, you know, for me, criticism is is very personal. And you’re writing out of your own experience. You’re writing out of who you are. And that that’s another thing you have to connect certainly with movies. It’s, you know, because movies have a way of really hitting you in places that you, you know, aren’t defensed for. And, you know, it’s it’s it’s a very powerful medium and it affects people in very powerful ways, which is why, you know, if you say you really hated a movie that someone loved, on the one hand you could say, well, that’s just the way it is. You like some films I don’t. But, you know, a lot of people take these personally. And I can understand that if you really love some movie and someone says ah it’s a terrible movie.

Eric Conner: Worst movie ever.

Peter Rainer: Yeah. I mean, there’s a way in which, you know, you’re going to take that personally because films are a very personal medium. It’s important to put all this in perspective and realize that that a critic is first and foremost a person, you know, who is reacting to what’s up on the screen and. It’s a very personal medium, and so writing about it, I think, should also be a personal thing. You know, not in the worst sense of of, you know, the extreme bloggers who just, you know, like I said, opinionate about everything without backing anything up.

Eric Conner: You know, one of the things I’ve always really enjoyed about film criticism and really, you know, criticism of the arts is it introduced me to movies I never would have seen otherwise. And so on that end one thing about your book is that you found sort of room for these lesser known things. We talked before about, you know, the sort of underseen gems.

Peter Rainer: Right.

Eric Conner: But even I I don’t think we talked about this before. But one documentary you brought up that I wish more people knew about was the stone reader.

Peter Rainer: Oh yeah.

Eric Conner: I’ve got a few of these, but a couple thoughts and stone reader and.

Peter Rainer: You’ve seen it?

Eric Conner: I have. And I saw it a long time ago. But yeah, if you can talk about this like kind of little lesser known documentary that sort of went under the radar of everyone.

Peter Rainer: Yeah, it was a terrific little film. You know, the director had read or started to read a book by a writer named Dow Mossman. I believe his name was the Stones of Summer. But he had written nothing since. So the whole movie is sort of trying to track down this guy. Yeah, it was a fascinating movie in general. I love to discover films for other people to see. I don’t know that he’s directed anything since. I mean, I worked on a lot of political documents.

Eric Conner: Yeah. I don’t know if he did. Because I don’t think he necessarily.

Peter Rainer: Was a filmmaker.

Eric Conner: Yeah he wasn’t a documentarian, but he just.

Peter Rainer: Right he’s not not primarily known as being a filmmaker that I have no problem with that either. I think there are a lot of people who discover film and maybe they only make one or two movies, but they bring something new.

Eric Conner: Right.

Peter Rainer: To the mix. And it’s particularly true in documentaries. I always tell people when they go to a film festival and they want to know what to see. Of course, the program says everything’s a masterpiece. How do you decide? I would choose a documentary over a dramatic film, sight unseen, because documentaries are often made by people who who really care about the subject. They know they’re not going to make much money on this film. You know, there’s just more passion involved. And and if nothing else, you’ll probably learn something that you might not have learned from a dramatic film about a particular subject.

Eric Conner: It might be your only chance to see it too.

Peter Rainer: That too.

Eric Conner: Some of those don’t get distribution, then that’s it.

Peter Rainer: Right. You know, I have a whole section in my in my book, Rainer on film, on documentaries. For me, Fred Wiseman is the greatest living American director of any kind with a body of work that’s unequal. He’s made 40 something movies. He’s in the mid 80s, makes a movie a year, and his films are absolutely extraordinary. The early ones are more accessible because they’re not so long his films tend to be rather long. You know, it goes to what makes a film great. I think to to explore the film in the process of making it in many ways a luxury that not every filmmaker has of any stripe.

Eric Conner: You know, one of the filmmakers you mentioned in I think it was in your auteur section, Richard Linklater, I feel like he’s sometimes not given the credit he deserves, even though I think critics like him. But in terms of a general, maybe the general population, like, doesn’t gravitate to his films, like they might some others. And he is one that for me, and I don’t know, maybe it’s because I saw before sunrise my last night in Europe, I’ve always just found his stuff, even his misfires, so personal and so unique, you know, even boyhood, which got such a response. But he’s been doing this for.

Peter Rainer: Yeah.

Eric Conner: He’s managed to do this.

Peter Rainer: Yeah. I’m not nuts about more recent, more conventional work that he’s done, but he really is an extraordinary filmmaker who is incredibly versatile. You know, Boyhood has a lot to recommend it. He did a film that hardly anyone saw called Me and Orson Welles.

Eric Conner: Oh, yeah. Yeah.

Peter Rainer: Which I that was one of the best sort of coming of age in the theater.

Eric Conner: Yeah Zac Effron.

Peter Rainer: You know a life in the theater. It’s a terrific, terrific movie. And then there’s, you know, School of Rock, which is a great, very funny commercial film.

Eric Conner: Yeah. And still somehow personal.

Peter Rainer: Yeah.

Eric Conner: You know, that one. I felt like he managed to go big without losing anything that makes it Richard Linklater.

Peter Rainer: Yeah. Yeah. I mean, he’s he’s an extraordinary filmmaker, you know, incredibly self prepossessing person. But I think that humility kind of works to his advantage as an artist because he’s not all over the place with you when he makes a movie. He he works rather subtly, which is maybe one reason why he doesn’t have a more widespread public acclaim, because he’s not one of these directors who assaults you and you know jumps all over you. Look at this. Look at this. Like Tarantino or somebody.

Eric Conner: In some ways he might be the exact opposite of Tarantino.

Peter Rainer: Yeah. I mean, I like some of what Tarantino does also.

Eric Conner: Me very much so yeah.

Peter Rainer: But I do think that that there’s room for yin and yang in that world. And Linklater, he works cheaply enough so that he can do these kinds of films on a regular basis. I think he took a page from Robert Altman in that regard.

Eric Conner: Which it’s funny I was about to say we got to talk about Robert Altman. I mean, one of the all time greats who somehow never won an Oscar as best director. I think he got an honorary Oscar.

Peter Rainer: Honorary Oscar, yeah.

Eric Conner: Do you count those?

Peter Rainer: Yes and no.

Eric Conner: It’s a little bit of a consolation prize.

Peter Rainer: I mean, it’s it’s a great consolation prize, but it’s outrageous that he never got any. Of course, that’s true of Cary Grant. That’s true of.

Eric Conner: Oh yeah the list is long.

Peter Rainer: Charlie Chaplin. Unless you count his Limelight Oscar for the music.

Eric Conner: Right.

Peter Rainer: Hitchcock. All of these guys.

Eric Conner: Kubrick right? Kubrick didn’t win best director.

Peter Rainer: And I don’t think he ever got it. No.

Eric Conner: Yeah. So he he joins a healthy list of some of the.

Peter Rainer: Astaire.

Eric Conner: Some of the best filmmakers we ever had.

Peter Rainer: Yeah Keaton.

Eric Conner: And performers.

Peter Rainer: Yeah. No, I mean, it’s it’s almost a better you know, it’s a better club to be in than the one that.

Eric Conner: Though I’m sure winning an Oscar in a bad club either but.

Peter Rainer: No. No.

Eric Conner: Yeah. And he’s he’s so went to that. He spanned decades too. And it’s kind of amazing that in essence, like his style didn’t change.

Peter Rainer: Well, yes and no.

Eric Conner: Discuss that. So yeah. Let’s talk the yes and no of it.

Peter Rainer: I mean, there’s a long essay on him in my book, and I knew him somewhat over the years. I did probably his last interview for the DGA magazine when he was in New York cutting Prairie Home Companion. He used to have his own movie company in Westwood called Lions Gate, no relation to the current company. And he would invite people there sometimes to see rough cuts and stuff. It was a little awkward and, you know, stopped doing it after a while. But.

Eric Conner: Awkward just because, like, what if you don’t like it?

Peter Rainer: Well, it was awkward for me because I admired him so greatly. But I also didn’t want to see him, you know, I mean, it’s well known he would have a joint in one hand and a bottle of whiskey in the other, and he would as the evening went on. Finally, one of his people came over to me. He says I think if Bob were in better shape now, he probably wouldn’t want you to be seeing the rest. I said, I agree with you completely. I’m out of here. But that was during his low period where he did films like Quintet and Perfect Couple and Health. But he started out doing well, he Kansas City, and he did industrials and promos and all sorts of weird stuff. He came to Hollywood. He did a very low budget movie, completely off the radar that had Tom Loughlin of Billy Jack in it. He did a film called The James Dean story. Not terribly good movies, to put it mildly. Then he went back to Kansas City and did other stuff. But one of those films brought him to Hitchcock’s attention. So he did some Alfred Hitchcock Presents TV. So for about 10 years, he was doing episodic TV, you know, Whirlybirds and Sugarfoot, Bonanza. All this stuff, very traditional stuff.

Eric Conner: Yeah kind of straight down the middle.

Peter Rainer: Yeah. You know, and he was one of the great innovators in American cinema, and yet he had a good 10 or 12 years of doing this stuff. And by the time he started directing features, he was I think he directed MASH when he was in his early mid 40s. So even though he was part of that, you know, Spielberg, De Palma, Coppola, he was a good 15 years older than any of them. So, you know, That Cold Day in the Park was, well no, his first feature was for a studio was was a film called Countdown for Warners. It was an astronaut movie with James Caan and Robert Duvall. And he got fired by Jack Warner because he had the two of them speaking over each other in some scenes. And Warner was like, what is this? You know, they’re talking over each other.

Eric Conner: Right.

Peter Rainer: And so that was when Altman first became a little bit of who Altman was, but he was.

Eric Conner: Right that became like his hallmark eventually yeah.

Peter Rainer: Right but you would never, ever know that he he he made masterpieces like McCabe and Mrs. Miller or Thieves Like Us or Nashville or Long Goodbye. Based on the first 20 years of his career, it’s one thing I think that distinguishes film from some of the other arts. You can look at the early writings of Virginia Woolf or Mailer or Austin, you know, and and you can see glimmers of the real artists in those writings. But in movies, for some reason, you know, can you draw a line between Dimentia 13 and The Godfather?

Eric Conner: Easily. No of course not.

Peter Rainer: Or, you know, I mean, there’s a million. So. So Altman.

Eric Conner: Well all those guys came out of the Roger Corman world like that.

Peter Rainer: Yeah. But I even, you know, went when Boxcar Bertha came out Scorsese’s film, I was in college, so I, I hadn’t seen any of his movies. Saw it in a Grindhouse on the second half of a double bill with 20 convicts and a woman on forty second street. And then I wrote about it for my college newspaper and I said, this is like the best directed terrible movie I’ve ever seen. It’s like incredibly well directed. You know a Corman knockoff of Bonnie and Clyde, but and everyone said, ‘oh, you’re just trying to make a name for yourself and discover someone you know’. And then when Mean Streets came out I said, you see. But Altman, you know, MASH is a terrific film, very funny, very hip, very loose. But even there, you couldn’t draw a line between that and because when McCabe and Mrs. Miller came out a couple years later in ’72, I just thought, my God. I mean, if you can really do something like this in Hollywood, then it’s not all corrupt. I mean, it was just unbelievable that he was able to pull that off.

Eric Conner: Although I do feel like even though like maybe he kind of genre jumped, I do feel like you could look at MASH and McCabe and Mrs. Miller and see the same director behind the camera.

Peter Rainer: Well yeah, there’s an iconoclasm.

Eric Conner: Even even like Gingerbread Man, which I enjoyed, actually. But yeah, I mean, to that end, like, he definitely had his stylistic devices and touches that would kind of tell you who was behind that camera.

Peter Rainer: Yeah and and, you know, the Nixon movie that he did a Secret Honor. It’s just a staged play reading. But it’s so cinematic. He didn’t really work from scripts in any traditional way. But at a certain point in his career, when he was at a low point, he became known for directing plays. And so he did films like, you know, streamers Come Back to the 5 & Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean. There were about six or seven movies that he did that were based on plays. And you thought of of all the directors to be doing that, Altman would be the least likely, you would think.

Eric Conner: Right.

Peter Rainer:Come Back to the 5 & Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean is not a very good play, which somehow became an extraordinary movie. And I’m not quite sure how he pulled that off.

Eric Conner: I guess he was almost like a visionary, but also a bit of a Willy Wonka. He’s always like kind of testing things and seeing what.

Peter Rainer: Yeah.

Eric Conner: What could he get away with?

Peter Rainer: Yeah, he was very iconoclastic. He didn’t. With very few exceptions. After MASH, he didn’t really like working in the studios. His big comeback, quote unquote, was The Player.

Eric Conner: The Player in ’92.

Peter Rainer: Yeah. Yeah. Which was a terrific movie.

Eric Conner: Fabulous.

Peter Rainer: But it’s kind of like his love hate letter to Hollywood.

Eric Conner: Yeah.

Peter Rainer: Because the paradox of that movie is that it’s a great Hollywood movie about the inability to make a great movie in Hollywood. You know, I mean, he’s saying this is what the industry has become. And yet it’s a terrific movie.

Eric Conner: Amazingly, too. It’s a good thriller. You know, it’s great satire. It’s funny. It’s dark, but, there’s a thriller in there that really works.

Peter Rainer: Yeah, it’s a terrific film. But, you know, he he never liked to do the same thing twice. He. I think I’ve seen every one of his movies even. But actors loved him for obvious reasons, you know, because he’d just say, let me see what you’re thinking. You know, try anything you want. If I don’t like it, we won’t it won’t be in the movie. But he didn’t say, you know, hit your mark here, do this to that. He allowed them to be very much part of the creative process, which if you have creative actors and you’re a director who can really work that way, is is the best.

Eric Conner: And is it true, like actors didn’t always know if they’re being filmed or not?

Peter Rainer: Right. If he I mean, the way he used sound, he had so many different mics going that there’d be like, I think 14 different that he could pick up on. People always complain, well, I can’t hear what people are saying in his films. Occasionally, I think that was a valid criticism. But mostly he was trying to get at a kind of poetic naturalism or some way in which, you know, because it wasn’t just a lot of gabble. And that’s what, he was very selective in, what he made you hear and what he what you didn’t hear. Yeah. I mean, when you saw his movies, you always felt like you were in for something. You know, you aren’t just going to see another product. And, you know, I thought that it was it was heroic, the career that he had, basically, because it was such a difficult thing for him to do. And especially since, you know, like I said, he came out of episodic TV in the 60s. And to be able to have that and then do the kind of work that he did after that is some kind of heroic thing.

Eric Conner: That’s an artist at its most pure. Right. You know.

Peter Rainer: Yeah. Yeah.

Eric Conner: Just wanted to tell the stories and he would keep telling them his way and he somehow managed to keep making them. And I remember when when he passed away, too. It’s like you feel sad, of course, because loss of life, he’s gone. And then you feel this weird, selfish sadness of like, I don’t get to see anymore new films from him. But, luckily for you people listening, beauty of a book like Rainer on Film, it reminds you all these movies are out there. And back in the day, some of these were like impossible to get. And one of the great things about the technology we have is like now a lot of these movies. You can get you know, you can find these things in the annals of the iTunes and Amazon libraries. And they’re out there. And the hope is with film criticism, it might bring you to things you otherwise wouldn’t have seen and might make you appreciate things you might not have otherwise thought about or noticed. And I think that’s a thing that that Peter Rainer has done with his career for decades now. Peter’s still doing this and still has new reviews available. What Web says should they go to to check out your material?

Peter Rainer: Well is for the reviews, which can also be picked up on Metacritic and Rotten Tomatoes and on the radio Podcast of the shows that I do for a film called Film Week. But the book I feel is, you know, it does collect I think much of what I really.

Eric Conner: Yeah there’s a breadth to this book. Well, a massive thank you to Peter Rainer for talking with us. And thanks to all of you guys for listening. Remember to check us out to learn about our school. And also we have some of our Q&As a whole, actually a lot of Q&As on our YouTube channel. That’s This episode was edited and mixed by Kristian Heydon. Our creative director is David Andrew Nelson, who also produced this episode with Kristian Heydon and myself, executive produced by Jean Sherlock and Dan Mackler with a special thanks going out to our staff and crew who made this possible. See you next time.

Tova Laiter: Hi and welcome to The Backlot. I’m Tova Laiter, moderator and director of the New York Film Academy guest lecture series. In this episode, we will take an in-depth look at one of my great guests and hear about his experience in the entertainment industry. And now, Eric Conner, will take you through the highlights of this Q&A.

Eric Conner: Hi, I’m Eric Conner, senior instructor at New York Film Academy. And in this episode, we bring you a writer, producer, director and Oscar nominated actor Jonah Hill, a man who got his break as part of Judd Apatow’s comedy stable before showing his depth with dramatic turns in Moneyball, Cyrus, and The Wolf of Wall Street. Even though he’s now known for his work behind the camera, Jonah Hill might never have gotten into acting if his initial forays into directing went better.

Jonah Hill: I was into music and films and I wanted to be a writer director like I’m sure a lot of you guys do here and girls here want to do. And I started acting because I was really bad at giving directions to the actors. I had very poor tact and grace and when they didn’t do what I wanted them to do, it upset me. You know, I just was like, why aren’t you doing it the right way? And a friend of mine was like, you really shouldn’t give direction like that. There’s a real art to that. And so I took acting classes in order to hear how I would want to be spoken to by a director. And then when I started acting, I really fell in love with that as well as the other stuff, you know.

Eric Conner: Mr. Hill’s writing also got off to a rocky start, at least with his college administration. But thankfully, that obstacle wound up being a blessing in disguise and launched his career as a performer.

Jonah Hill: I would write these plays and a lot of them they wouldn’t put up because of the content, whether it be language or overtly – yeah, really sexual. No. Sexy dramas. They were just trying to be aggressive, I think, or trying to be controversial in some way. And so I think I liked that. I think I liked pissing people off and stuff like that and so they wouldn’t put them up. And so I was 18 and a friend of mine. There was this bar called Black and White. It’s still there in New York in East Village. And they had an open mic night where people would do poetry and weird stuff. And I would put up the plays at the bar. We would clear some tables out and do the plays Sunday nights at the bar. And so that was why I started performing. And then it actually kind of got a small following in New York City around that time. This was 11 years ago cause I’m f**king old and but it was eleven years ago. And people started coming in and they really encouraged me. And a couple of times I would be like at a party or something and someone would have heard about it, like without being a friend of mine. And then I was like, okay, that’s really cool. I’m going to keep doing this. I think my instincts were more comedic. At first, you know, like I think I’m completely a product of two things, The Simpsons and Goodfellas. But those are, like, where I get my taste from when I was growing up. I think those are the two things that completely shaped my sensibilities. So there was part of me that had this real passion and knowledge for comedy. And Simpsons is just the most brilliant. And if you guys are interested in working in comedy in any regard, you should study every single episode of The Simpsons cause it’s the best comedy writing of all time. And then Goodfellas and and Scorsese films were the movies that got me interested in the other side of things.

Eric Conner: Mr. Hill’s early work proved the old adage that there are no small roles. Even his brief turn as an eBay store customer in the 40 year old Virgin is really memorable.

Clip: So I guess I’ll just give you some money and you can give me these shoes. And.

You know, I know it seems so strange.

Yeah so I’d just rather buy them from you straight up.

Yeah, I know. I wish could be that easy.

I wish too but you’re making it extremely difficult for me. I’m just trying to get these shoes back to my house so I can wear them.

Eric Conner: No matter the role, no matter the size of the role Jonah Hill showed what he could do.

Jonah Hill: I think the most challenging part of being an actor comes from the days where something really bad is happening in your personal life. Like, let’s say, some death or breakup or friendship thing, whatever, some personal thing that’s going on outside of work. And you have to show up that day and give your performance like none of that is happening. So for me, that has been the thing that actors just have. That’s part of the gig. You know what I mean? So even if something really awful is happening. You have to be able to block that out and focus on your performance. It’s a weird part of the job for sure. Like, if you have a normal job, you can be quiet for the day or whatever, you know, or you can just focus on your computer or whatever it is. Like you have to be prepared that when you go there, you’re there to act and give your performance you know?

Eric Conner: Part of the preparation for Mr. Hill is knowing when to let his comedic side loose and when to stick to the script.

Jonah Hill: It’s honestly depending on what the director is cool with. You know what I mean? The director doesn’t want you to improvise, then you shouldn’t just be like f**k it I’m going to anyway. You know, you have to respect, you know, who’s running the set and everything like that. It’s interesting because Cyrus and Wolf of Wall Street, the comedy stuff is heavily improvised. You know, it’s so much of the fun of it is that you don’t know what’s going to happen. You know what I mean? But what’s interesting. I mean, Moneyball, we didn’t improvise a lot. Not very much at all. But, Wolf of Wall Street, we did so much improvisation, you know, because that’s what he likes, you know, and he supports that. So the comedy stuff for me, if I was running a comedy set, would always encourage people to improvise and come up with new jokes and new attitude as long as it’s about the character and not just trying to be funny, you know, but I think improvisation is great. The point is, is that it’s so cool that new stuff can happen that no one knew about ever and that makes the reactions real because the person is actually hearing it for the first time. So go for it.

Eric Conner: Mr. Hill’s ability to communicate so well with directors and other performers gave him a terrific network of collaborators, one that he has been fortunate enough to work with ever since.

Jonah Hill: The truth is, I’ve just been really lucky. All the guys I started making movies with, like Judd Apatow and Seth and Jason and Paul Rudd and all those guys, they just happened to be amazing people. And so it was not a challenge to maintain those relationships, because I think in all of this, I just gravitate towards the people that I, A, share the same taste with. And that breeds and when you’re in school, like especially in this environment, as I’m sure you guys are doing. But this is such a great way to be around all these people and meet the people and have the same taste as yourself and able to form those those friendships become based on wanting to do work that you all believe in, you know. And so whether it was starting out with Judd and those guys or moving on to Cyrus with the Duplass brothers or Moneyball with Bennett and Brad or Wolf of Wall Street with Martin Scorsese and Leonardo DiCaprio, it was always people that were into something creative that was the same. And then those relationships and friendships build from there. And I’ve just been lucky that those people all happened to be great people as well as artists. You know, you find the people that you’re creatively in tune with, you just do. It naturally happens. It’s like finding a girlfriend or a boyfriend or a best friend. It just like you can’t force it and it will naturally happen as you go through the creative process.

Eric Conner: Just like dating the first time could be a nerve wracking experience, especially if the performers or directors or people you idolize. That’s enough to make even a talented, trained performer like Jonah Hill feel the pressure.

Jonah Hill: I guess the first time would have been John C. Reilly and Marisa Tomei in Cyrus, where I was really intimidated to work with actors that were so profound.

Clip: Who do you think she’s gonna believe? Her son who needs her now more than ever after his battle with panic and anxiety, or this new guy who clearly wants her kid out of the way?

You listen to me you little weirdo. If you want to mess with me, I’m going to mess with you right back.

Jonah Hill: But each time you do it, the first few rehearsals or the first few scenes. You’re incredibly nervous. And then there’s a point where it kicks in where you’re like, I have this job and if I want to keep this job, I better put all that stuff away and focus on just doing what I came here to do and giving the performance I came here to give.

Eric Conner:  Cyrus was a small indie film, but it turned out to be a massive turning point for Jonah Hill’s career and helped him get the role that showed all of Hollywood he could do a lot more than just comedy.

Jonah Hill: You know, I really wanted to make all different kinds of films. And even when you get some success making movies, they try and convince you to just keep making that same kind of movie, you know? And for me, it’s just important to always push yourself to do stuff that you haven’t done, even if it’s uncomfortable for other people, like people running the studios. But honestly, like I did this movie, Cyrus and Bennett Miller, who directed this film, he’s one of my best friends, saw that film and gave me the opportunity. And Catherine Keener actually helped me a lot because she was in Cyrus with me and is best friends with Bennett. And, you know, Brad Pitt and Bennett Miller were really supportive. And Amy Pascal, who runs Sony, who I made Superbad and Moneyball and 21 Jump Street, and This Is The End. So we have a really deep relationship. And she was really supportive of me getting this part. And it changed my life in a lot of really great ways.

Eric Conner:Though getting the biggest role of his career added its own share of pressure.

Jonah Hill: Same with Moneyball when we were rehearsing Bennett and Brad Pitt and Philip Seymour Hoffman, and it was the four of us in a room. I was incredibly intimidated. And eventually you have to be like they’re going to hire somebody else and fire me if I just act all nervous and don’t start acting well, you know, so there just has to be that thing. You like I said, if something bad happens in your life, you have to kick that stuff to the curb while you’re there doing your job. And I think Scorsese was a different thing all together because, yeah, we did a month of rehearsals and it would be me and him Leonardo DiCaprio in a room rehearsing. And I’d be like, what the f**k am I doing here. And I think I constantly in my life, whether it’s Moneyball or even the first movie set I was ever on or whatever it is, it’s a constant thing of what am I doing here? And I think that’s the best attitude to have, is to always feel like you are the person who doesn’t belong because it will drive you to do the best you can. Not like I belong here, but I want to make sure that I do the work that allows me to be with these great people.

Eric Conner: One of the ways Jonah Hill made his character in Moneyball so believable was basing it on a real person he knew extremely well his dad.

Jonah Hill: Like like how to make the decisions about how to play the character? For me, it’s usually just thinking, do I know a person like this in real life? Like for Peter Brand, the character in Moneyball. He’s based a lot on my dad, like my actual dad. But my dad is an accountant. He’s a wonderful, wonderful, amazing guy. We’re incredibly close. But we couldn’t be more different as people. But he sees the world a lot more numerically and logically than I do. And so I thought a lot about him. And then luckily, this film and the Scorsese film and a couple other films have done had been based on real people, too. So you have, you know, their actual life and you just try and figure out simply what kind of person they are. From a psychological standpoint, like what? What makes them happy? What motivates them to make the decisions they’re making? And if you read any books on psychology, those have helped me a lot to understand is why people make the decisions they’re making and kind of go from there.

Eric Conner: The aforementioned score says a film, Wolf of Wall Street, might be Jonah Hill’s finest performance to date, one that fully channeled the legendary director’s dramatic intensity and crackling energy.

Clip: I tell you what, you show me a pay stub for seventy two thousand dollars. I quit my job right now, and I work for you. Hey, Paulie, what’s up? No yeah, no everything’s fine. Hey, listen, I quit. Twenty two million dollars in three f**king hours. Can you believe it?

Jonah Hill: The thing about Mr. Scorsese who honestly, the fact that I got to make this movie with him is the crowning achievement of my entire life. I’m so lucky I even got to, like, ever be in the same room as him. And I think the reason why his movies are so important to me, especially Goodfellas. But every one of his movies is that they’re completely dangerous in that you do not know what’s going to happen in a scene from second to second. It shifts from being funny to very scary to very you just are very uncomfortable in a lot of ways. And I think that’s amazing. You know, and like like obviously the greatest scene in any movie ever, in my opinion, is in Goodfellas, which is very obvious, the famous scene where Joe Pesci’s like, you think I’m a clown. Do I amuse you? And because it’s so hilariously funny. And then in a millisecond later, it’s it’s the most tense, scary thing and then goes back to being funny and and back to being very tense. And if you can create that kind of spontaneity in any way, and capture it on film, that’s what we all should be striving for. To have people watching it going. I don’t know what’s going to happen in the next second. And that is so exciting, you know, so. Same with, you know, King of Comedy and Casino and Raging Bull and Taxi Driver, all of his films. They just have that thing where you are very uncertain of what’s going to happen moment to moment.

Eric Conner: Jonah Hill was destined to work with another famed storyteller, Quentin Tarantino. Even when it seemed like the fates were going to keep them apart.

Jonah Hill: Quinten Tarantino is so cool and obviously super, super genius. And he had called and asked to meet with me. And I was like, no, thanks. No I literally almost jumped through the phone and into his office. And there was a there was another part that they were interested in me for. And then I wasn’t able to do it because I was doing another movie and the schedules, conflicted. And the movie was like way s**ttier than a Tarantino movie. Oh, my God, I’m doing this movie and not able to do a Tarantino movie, not against the movie I was making, just like, oh my gosh, I’m not going to be able to work with one of my heroes because I’m not available. And so I was really upset, you know, sad because I miss this opportunity to work with Quentin, who’s one of my heroes. And so they were already almost done shooting the movie. And we were at Summer of Sony, which is this thing like where all the Sony movies, they go to Mexico and promote the films internationally. And Channing and I were there for 21 Jump Street and we got to the hotel and all the Django Unchained people were there and they were like, the other part is gone now, obviously, but we have another scene that still has not been shot yet and I want you to come do it. And I was like, this is the coolest thing ever in the world. And I wrote him a letter. I wrote him a really long, handwritten letter about why it was, like, heartbreaking that I didn’t get to work with him. And he said it was because of the letter that he kept me in mind. And I told him. Yeah. Write people letters. Honestly. Seriously, though, it’s so nice. It’s it’s like the nicest thing. Whenever someone’s written me a letter, I’ve always remembered them so positively in my mind. There you go, I guess write letters and, you know, people and go from your heart.

Eric Conner: Of the 60 plus roles, Mr. Hill has played one of the most rewarding roles was portraying Jonah Hill in Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg’s satirical This Is The End.

Jonah Hill: What was it like to make This Is The End? Well, it was great because Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg, who were the writer directors, are really old friends of mine. They wrote Superbad. And, you know, I was just so proud of my friends that they were directing their first film. And like all of you guys, you know, it’s like it’s like to see your friends progress and do new things and to take that responsibility on – I knew they would be great at it and was just excited that they were pushing themselves in that direction. And it was great. You know, like James Franco and Craig and everyone, Michael Cera, these guys I’ve known all these people for a long time. And like, it was really interesting to get to play a version of yourself, like to create that version that’s not me. It wasn’t like I actually am, but it was fun to make fun of that and play on that. So for me, it’s actually one of the performances I’m more proud of because it’s this super weird version of me. You know what I mean? But it’s not me that makes any sense. And Seth and I haven’t had originally written the character where everyone was really mean to each other, you know? And my only note was I think my character should be super duper nice and then turn out to be evil, like later on, you know, so it was a really fun experience. And those guys are the best comedic screenwriters working today Seth and Evan hands down. They are so brilliant. And they’ve worked on so many movies that you don’t even know about that their names are not on. And they just those guys are working at a very high level right now. And I have a lot of love and respect for them.

Eric Conner: Mr. Hill has worked with a wide variety of filmmakers, each with their own style. But they all still have one thing in common.

Jonah Hill: They’re all different. All the directors that have been wonderful that I’ve worked with have all been wildly different and not comparable to one another. That’s what’s so interesting. So the things I admire the most as an actor from a great director, it’s like personally like Scorsese is like separated from everybody else just because he’s like the master and like no one will ever come close to him, in my personal opinion, of anyone I’ve ever worked with, Judd and the Duplass brothers and Bennett Miller, they’re also different. But the one thing they share in common is they all care so much about what they’re making to the point where they will f**k up the rest of their life to make sure this movie is great. You know what I mean? Not any of them specifically. But you get the sense like that this is what is the most important thing to them is making this movie great. And so I think you just have to care so much.

Eric Conner: This approach helped Mr. Hill as his career expanded behind the scenes, including writing and producing the 21 Jump Street reboot and directing the indie film mid 90s. But the most important advice he got from his colleagues was not about vision.

Jonah Hill: Wear comfortable shoes. That’s what every director. No, I’m kidding. But every, if you ask any of the coolest directors I’ve worked with and you ask them about directing, they all say where comfortable shoes. It’s like a famous term I guess cause you’re standing all day. Let me think of the real answer to that question. John C. Riley and Brad Pitt and Leonardo DiCaprio and Judd and Seth and those guys, they’ve all imparted a lot of wisdom on me. And there’s not like a specific sentence or something I could really say. But the essence of what all of them do is kind of what I was talking about before is like shooting from the hip, like making decisions from your heart, you know, doing things that you care about for the right reasons. And I can’t stress that enough because all you guys are great and smart and you’re going to be so talented and successful. It’s just like don’t let anything penetrate what you feel. You know, your heart knows what’s up. And so don’t you know, don’t go against that you know, because it’s just, always think about when you were a little kid and you wanted to do this and like, what made you want to do that and keep that with you for the rest of your career in life. I wish I had, like, one cool sentence to say but none of those guys ever taught me s**t so it was like really hard. They were just focused on themselves the whole time. It was really hard to.

Eric Conner: He’s joking about the famous people he’s worked with, at least I think he is. But Jonah Hill seriously cautioned our students about getting into the industry for the wrong reasons.

Jonah Hill: I think the main thing I say to people that I meet who want to do this in any way is like take the word fame out of your vocabulary forever, because I definitely never did this to be famous. I do not even like being famous. I love making movies. And I love meeting people like you guys. You know what I mean? And so if your goal is to be famous that sucks because it’s like you should be here because all you can do is act or write or direct or whatever. I know that’s what you meant, but that’s a secondary thing that I think about a lot, because a lot of kids come up to me like I want to be famous and you’re like, oh, man, you have the wrong outlook on what this actually is. Because what this is, is like you get to make stuff with people you care about, that you’re passionate about. And as far as decisions, the only decisions I’ve ever regretted were ones I made for impure reasons, like to do a movie because I thought it’d be a big movie or it’d be popular or something instead of just really feeling like it was the right thing to do creatively. So I just think every decision you guys make should just be completely from your heart. You should only make stuff you would want to show the whole world forever and constantly just go from your heart and don’t have anything else cloud your judgment. I know it sounds really like straightforward and like cliche, but purity in your decisions just should come from what you feel all the time.

Eric Conner: Jonah Hill’s decisions have not only been pure, they’ve been smart, a mix of blockbusters and indie films, comedy and drama. Sometimes he’s in front of the camera and sometimes behind. Sometimes both at the same time. And that right there is his plan for the rest of his career.

Jonah Hill: What I’ve been doing the past couple of years and what I hope to continue to do is to do all different kinds of things. It’s no declarative thing like I’m done with comedy and I only want to do dramas like it’ll never be that way because there’s such a big part of me that loves to make people laugh. Loves to entertain people in that way. But there’s also a part of me that loves to tell all different kinds of stories and play all different kinds of people. And so the idea is just to do whatever you feel passionate about. Again I’ve said this about fifty thousand times, but if I feel connected to something emotionally, then that’s what I want to do, you know? And until they kick me out, that’s what I’m going to keep doing.

Eric Conner: My guess, Hollywood is not kicking out Jonah Hill anytime soon. We want to thank Jonah Hill for taking the time to talk with our students. And, of course, thanks to all of you for listening.

This episode was based on the Q&A curated and moderated by Tova Laiter. To watch the full interview or to see your other Q&As. Check out our YouTube channel at This episode was written by me Eric Conner. Edited and mixed by Kristian Heydon. Our creative director is David Andrew Nelson, who also produced this episode with Kristian Heydon and myself. Executive produced by Tova Laiter, Jean Sherlock, and Dan Mackler. A special thanks to all of our staff and crew who made this possible. To learn more about our programs, check us out at Be sure to subscribe on Apple podcasts or wherever you listen. See you next time.

This episode is dedicated to the memory of Eileen Conner, my mom, the woman who introduced me to comedy by letting me stay up way too late when I was way too young so I could watch Saturday Night Live. Thanks, Mom.


Trailer: If you had never seen a Larry Cohen film, you’re going to be in for some really radically unique entertainment.

Trailer: Larry started as a writer, eventually became a director to protect Larry the writer.

Trailer: Pow, what was that?

Trailer: Larry Cohn is so much the invisible man. It’s entirely possible to have seen a lot of his work without knowing you were seeing his work.

Trailer: His movies have this energy and this attack.

Trailer: He’s a mad man but he makes these great little films.

Trailer: There’s a brilliance, there’s a childish naughtiness about him.

Trailer: He would do things that were dangerous. Larry would not only shoot in the streets of New York, he would drive cars up on the sidewalk on the streets of New York.

Trailer: This is New York City. They just get out of the way when you’re coming. Let’s face it, anybody would put up with anything if they think a movie is being shot.

Eric: Hello, everyone. Welcome to The Backlot. A very special episode we got today. I’m Eric Conner senior instructor at New York Film Academy. A couple months ago, we were going to have one of Hollywood’s most legendary filmmakers Larry Cohen come to speak at our school. In promotion of the documentary about him, King Cohen, created by Steve Mitchell and Matt Verboys, Verboys.

Matt: That’s good. That works.

Eric: How do you pronounce it?

Matt: I say Verboys. But you could say Verboys or. I’m back and forth on it myself so.

Eric: OK, then I feel less bad.

Matt: Yeah don’t worry about it.

Eric: So as you can tell, at least Matt’s here. Steve is here too.

Steve: I am.

Eric: See now I’ve got proof both of them are here. Cat’s out of the bag.

Steve: We are.

Eric: We will be talking about their documentary about Larry Cohen, King Cohen, and really taking a look at Larry Cohen’s career. And so he was going to come here with them to talk about the documentary. And unfortunately, he passed away.

Matt: Yeah it was very quick.

Steve: Was yeah, I was very quick. Very quick.

Eric: And I mean, I was looking forward to meeting him. But also, one thing I’m always pushing my students to do is like get to know the films that came before the films, like when we were kids we had UHF. And you would catch like kung fu theater, horror movies, sci fi, all of this stuff that was from before my time, but was so much part of my time as a kid before really cable and video and everything else. And so I was so excited to bring Larry Cohen, who represented so many eras of Hollywood and was so sad to see that we had lost him. And you guys have created such a beautiful tribute to not only the work of Larry Cohen, but also to the work of a bygone era of Hollywood.

Steve: Yeah, that was it’s it’s interesting. We started out making a movie about Larry, but as we were cutting it, one of the byproducts of the cutting and and, of course, when Larry was working is that we’re sort of tipping our hat to a way movies used to be made. We were tipping our hat to the way, I guess, in some way movies were being exhibited in those days. I mean, Larry had said that if the movie got made and it was remotely coherent and commercial, it was going to get in a theater. And growing up in New York City, one of the things that was really interesting was old Times Square, not the current. Times Square was a place where major studio pictures would open. But when they stunk and they weren’t making money and they weren’t selling popcorn, these Larry Cohen type pictures could sneak in. And so Larry loved the idea that, you know, his movies were playing on Broadway because Larry was from New York like I am.

Eric: And but Larry wasn’t only from New York. He was New York. Or maybe New York was him. I don’t know.

Steve: Well, the DNA is, you know, it’s in there and it’s part of who he is. I mean, as Matt can agree, Larry could be very blunt, which is a New York trait, or at least people perceive it as a New York trait. But, you know, Larry was, you know, a New Yorker. Someone once asked me what is the sort of connecting tissue in his movies? Took me, I don’t know, a whole bunch of interviews to figure this out. But Larry was a critic. He was a social critic. And all New Yorkers are critics. And so that was part of what made a Larry Cohen movie a Larry Cohen movie. You know, you don’t have discussions about movies when you’re a New Yorker. You have arguments. He once told me, he says, if I wanted to know what you thought, I would tell you what to think. And and it wasn’t a shock to me because I that mindset was know part of my own DNA. So I get it.

Matt: Yeah sure, that’s a director’s, you know. What is it like when they would ask Hitchcock if something didn’t make sense? Well, why are you doing this? And he would be like, the audience is going there because I’m taking them there.

Steve: Right.

Matt: You know and that’s that was Larry. And yeah, he, his movies would certainly reflect whatever his thoughts on any given topic were. And I think that’s that’s how he would come into genre sideways from a different angle than most people would. He’d kind of attack genre, usually sort of straight on. He’s more like, well, you know, New York City politics are screwed up. So what if there was a giant, you know, lizard on the. You know, the way he would work these things in or, you know.

Steve: Larry wanted to have asses in the seats.

Eric: Yeah.

Steve: And Larry turned to genre after Bone, which is a great film. Had it been a success, we might have had a whole different Larry Cohen filmography. But it wasn’t. And Larry somehow realized that he can do the kind of work he wanted to do through the camouflage of genre, you know, his social criticism. You know, he can take on a subject that he wants to take on. I remember him saying to me or to us that he said sometimes a script would start with an idea for a scene and not like the opening teaser or something like that. It would be maybe a scene in the middle of the picture might be, you know, having a moral argument about something.

Matt: Right.

Steve: You know, a lawyer is arguing with a cop or whatever it is. And somehow he had the ability to just take a nugget and expand it into a tapestry that was a film script. I just don’t know how the hell he did it. But he did. And, you know, Landis, John Landis says in the movie that – or was it Dante who said that he was an idea machine?

Matt: Yeah Dante said it.

Steve: And and he was a machine. Landis said he was very fertile. That’s what Landis said. And both were correct. I think that’s what made him kind of a unique creative voice is just the way he thought about story.

Eric: Well, even like It’s Alive? I heard him say he saw one of his kids I guess in a crib. It’s like if the kid could get out of there, he’d kill us all. And he’s like, that’s my next film. You know, just by looking at his baby and out of that comes one of the great horror films of that decade.

Matt: It’s iconic. Iconic creature, iconic idea.

Steve: I always felt that the form followed the idea that he never tried to crowbar the idea to the form of filmmaking. He just he had the idea. He improvised all the time. And so.

Eric: Yeah did he ever do storyboards?

Steve: Oh no, no. Bite your tongue.

Matt: I don’t, I don’t know if in the doc, but you know, producer Paul Kurta, who made a number of movies with him and, you know, there’s probably some embellishment here, but not much. He doesn’t think there was like a call sheet on Larry Cohen movies. And Larry knew it, too, which is why he knew at a certain budget level he wouldn’t be directing. Because once you cross a certain budget level, the studio obviously is not going to put up with. We don’t know where we’re shooting today. That’s not how they operate.

Steve: He also he was the producer and he wrote the checks. And so he just controlled everything. And for Larry, you know, call sheet was meet me at Grant’s Tomb at seven o’clock at night.

Matt: Yeah. And that’s what we’re doing. I think the fact that he worked in the industry, in television for, you know, quite a good while before he even started directing the movies. It’s like a two headed beast. He knew the ones he produced and directed were completely under his control. They could be improv’ed. They can go the way his desire wanted them to go. And then at the same time, he can write, you know, guilty as sin for Michael Eisner and would go through the rigmarole of shaping the script. Because I would see this. We did a script reading that’s in the documentary where some people read one of his scripts and you could sort of tell within two pages, oh, this one is a really polished one, that he had rewrite, rewrite. But it also, though, wasn’t as bonkers as, you know, the Larco script, which was always just sort of a rough draft and they would just kind of use it as a springboard.

Steve: Well, one of the drafts was the shoot. And then the final draft, of course, was the edit. You know, when Larry was at his best, he had the outrageousness of the ideas, but he was always wired into who people are. I mean, Q the wing serpent is is as good as it is because of Moriarity and without Moriarty’s character. That movie isn’t that movie. So Larry had the ideas, but they were always grounded because Larry, you know, Larry liked actors and he liked performers and stuff.

Eric: And they liked him.

Matt: Yeah. They remember coming to play. I mean that that was kind of the main thing was, Man, those were fun days. You know, I really got to flex my, my muscles.

Eric: It’s like being at camp. It’s like being at camp or acting school.

Matt: Right yeah. Yeah, right. That’s exactly what Eric Roberts said.

Steve: Eric Roberts said that very thing, yeah, about being at camp.

Eric: Seems like actors who worked with Larry Cohen. There was like true love there. I mean, it it feels like this was so much about like a family that he created. A repertory of actors and performers.

Matt: Yeah he did and the movies he directed he really kind of worked with the same cinematographers, same editor, same, you know, close knit group.

Eric: And not afraid to work with actors who were a little, quote unquote, past their prime. And it’s like, well, they they say in the documentary have an Oscar, but the phone’s not ringing.

Steve: Well, they were maybe past their prime in terms of younger executives casting them in movies, but they were immortals in Larry’s mind because Larry was an enormous film fan. It was a chance to work with, you know, some of his heroes. It was a treat for Larry. But also, Larry was the producer and he knew that they were good. Somebody once told me who worked for Roger said that Roger is really a producer first and a director second. Roger, the producer, always hired Roger as director because he was the cheapest guy in town and the fastest he could control them. And, Larry, you know, all of these guys who work in low budget knew about speed and efficiency.

Matt: I was just having flashbacks of, you know, us taking 30 minutes to set up our, you know, shot for the interview. And he’s like, I could have done a movie by now. What are you doing? You know, and we loved.

Steve: What’s taking so long?

Matt: We loved every minute of it.

Eric: Oh I’m sure.

Steve: Part of why Larry always wanted to hire good actors is he knew that he probably could get them to do what they could do in one take and move. And then he also worked with creative actors who could give him more than he would put on the page. I mean, Moriarity. I mean, he worked with Moriarity five times. And Moriarty loved working Larry’s way. You know, having the ability to sort of flex his muscles and play.

Eric: Yeah. I mean, Michael Moriarty, like what he adds to those films is like he takes a role that on paper might be just the cop, but find something more something interesting. You know, and I love it. That section of the documentary about his hairpiece and the argument of whether or not Larry Cohen bought him hairpieces I think is one of the comedic highlights of a very funny documentary.

Steve: Well, you know, we we had that, Larry, Fred Williamson, he said he said thing. And then I noticed I had the material with Moriarity to do one of those. And then the back third of the movie, we had yet another one. So it was a motif that just kind of presented itself. You know, when you cut a documentary, you have, if you’re lucky, a ton of stuff to work with. And just with Larry alone, we had a ton. I don’t know, Matt, what did we have? Between 15 and 20 hours or so?

Matt: At least.

Eric: Just pure interviews of him?

Steve: Well, part of it was interviews than I had. And I did about three or four hours of b-roll at a convention where I just followed him around with a camera for the weekend.

Matt: But, you know, we went back after our first three days of full interviews. We were back at that house like five additional times, doing just more.

Steve: It was great to have a subject like Larry who would always say, Come on over to the house, you know, whatever you need.

Matt: You’re always going to get something too, because, you know, he’s he’s just such a encyclopedia of stories and film history. It’s like just when you think you’ve got him on as many subjects as you, you know, figure there is, there’s stuff that comes up in interview number eight. You’re like, wow. You know, why weren’t we talking about this originally, you know?

Steve: Yeah. I mean.

Matt: It’s that kind of thing.

Steve: For as many stories as we got. And then as many stories as we’ve heard, Larry took a bunch of stories with him to the great movie theater beyond, you know. But I think we were pretty good in getting a lot of it.

Matt: We miss him a lot. And it’s part of because he – I think it was Chicago. We were at a festival in Chicago and we were just at a coffee place. And Bobby Darin came over the – Mack the Knife was playing. And I was like, if I ask Larry Cohen about Bobby Darin just off the cuff, ninety nine percent, I’m gonna get an amazing story. So you give it a shot, you go, Hey Larry, Mack the Knife, you know, did you know Bobby Darin? Know him? We were friends, you know. And you go off on this wonderful. But it wasn’t it wasn’t an a showman. Like, he wasn’t bragging. He loves entertainment and he loves old movies and he loves people. And it’s it’s he greatly admired these performers, whether they were movie stars or singers. He was excited that he got to intersect with them in some way. He was a fan.

Eric: And I’m sure for them, you know, like he talked about how in the 80s, 90s, how the model of Hollywood changed and suddenly you had more guys with MBAs and JDs making creative decisions.

Matt: He made an interesting comment in a conversation. It wasn’t in the doc. It was just something he said. And it was about, you know, writing for television. And they were talking about the writers room. And he just sort of was like, I don’t. Like there was no writer’s room. I wrote Branded, you know, I wrote, you know, there was no. What are you talking about, writers room?

Steve: Well, and those were the shows he controlled. I mean when he did, he did a show called Blue Light, which was a World War II espionage show with Robert Goulet, of all people. And I think he wrote every single episode and he used to dictate the scripts. He dictated the scripts to the secretaries and wore them out. They had to be constantly replaced because he was just a, my nickname for him has always been the Energizer Bunny. You know, Larry, the Larry we met was not young, but still the energy was there. And I can only imagine what he was like when he was really young. The other thing was when he pitched shows that he wasn’t running, I’m sure Larry could just extemporaneously just throw a story together and they would say, yeah, okay, that sounds fine. And he would go write it. Now, yeah. What was it? He made some reference where he’s talking about, oh, you go into a room now and there are all these legal pads and they’re writing things down and and and he’s going, who are they? And why are they entitled to an opinion? He just didn’t want to deal with people. I mean, he always said he wanted to do it himself. He didn’t want anybody to tell him what to do. And Larry is, I’m surprised I didn’t think of this early, but Larry’s one of the very few people who dictated his own career for the better part of 40-some-odd years. His career was on his terms. And as Larry would often say to us, get paid. You know, he wrote a lot of scripts that weren’t produced and he got paid. And so he was able to sort of have it both ways. And he’s very fortunate because almost no one can say that they’ve had it both ways.

Matt: It’s like he’s got this unworldly combination of an independent producer’s mindset and ability married with the fact that he’s a really good screenwriter. That’s the thing is like, you know, hey, I can’t get a movie off the ground. I can always write. I can always pitch. I can always. And he had the ideas to back it up. His ideas were were sellable. They were commercial.

Eric: And he could write himself out of a corner.

Matt: Yep.

Eric: You know the section about Betty Davis, when she quit the picture, he was like OK, well.

Matt: Well I think he liked that. I think he was, I think on the set, certainly the movies he produced, right? He was constantly writing. He was always writing himself out of corners.

Steve: Oh sure.

Matt: Because stuff was just always happening.

Steve: Larry has this, I don’t know if this is a New York thing or not, but I’m going to I’m going to say that it is. Larry willed things to happen. You know, New Yorkers don’t accept what they don’t want to accept. OK, Betty Davis is leaving the picture? Fine. I’ll solve that problem. And he was also able to figure out a way to convince the money people that it was a way to solve the problem. Larry never was in a corner. You know, when he was running around New York City and, you know, without permits and stuff like that, he always figured out a way because he would not accept anything else. People don’t do that now. Even, you know, if you’re making a 200 thousand dollar movie today, God, it’s life and death and everybody worries about everything. And Larry’s whole attitude was, you know, screw it. I’m going to do what I want to do and I’m going to solve my problem because he figured that somehow he was going to make it work in the editing room. You know, as a young, I know everything about movie making fan. You know, I would say oh well his movies aren’t really terribly well made, you know, yet I always remembered them. And it’s sort of the imperfection of his pictures, made them edgy and made them Larry Cohen movies.

Matt: Yeah distinctly his pictures.

Eric: His thumbprint.

Steve: So now all these, all these years later, you know, I realize that it’s all part and parcel of what a Larry Cohen movie is. The first card at the end of all of his Larco movies it says A Larry Cohen film. And that credit is earned. It’s all through him. It’s all through his filters.

Matt: And we tried to take because that energy is unique and that kind of leaked into the doc, too. I remember the conversation, I don’t know if Steve does, but we had early conversations when we were doing this. As to, you know, traditionally traditional doc, you, even though you’re doing the interview over the course of months or maybe even years, you’re replicating your backgrounds and the clothing is the same. And we just kind of thought, well, if Larry was making a documentary would, because it kind of came up. We were moving locations and we’re like, well do we redress. And it was like, no, because he, the energy of it takes you through his pictures and.

Steve: There’s a natural unforced quality, everything. And it’s spontaneous. Listen, there is no crazier movie in his canon than Hell Up in Harlem.

Matt: Yeah.

Steve: Hell Up in Harlem was the, we got to have a sequel fast, and Larry would say no problem. And he literally rushed into it with. I don’t even know if he had anything close to a script. He knew stuff he needed to get and he was shooting it concurrently with It’s Alive. He was shooting It’s Alive. And by the way, he’s working seven days a week. So he’s doing It’s Alive Monday through Friday in California. And then he’s going to New York.

Matt: On the weekend.

Steve: And grabbing stuff for Hell Up in Harlem. What did he tell us? Like, the editor didn’t know what movie he was cutting.

Matt: Oh, yeah.

Steve: At some point he was like, what? Which movie? Which one is this?

Eric: Was that the one where they were in the airport?

Matt: Yeah.

Eric: They’re on the baggage claim and they’re fighting on that. There’s a gun. They go up into the belly of the beast, climbing up to where the bags get put on the conveyer belt. Like that isn’t, and the idea where he had no permits for that.

Steve: Not at all.

Eric: That is miraculous. How did no one ever get shot making his movies?

Steve: That’s that’s a really good question, actually.

Matt: He did say at one point, a lot of it is just the bravado of doing it. Like sometimes people back in the day wouldn’t question you because they figured, well, you had to have gotten permission. There’s no, like it must have already happened.

Steve: He said when he was shooting on the streets of New York and shooting in the 70s was very difficult. I don’t think they had the mayor’s office at that time. So it was a lot harder to get away with shooting in New York. And whenever he would see a cop drive by, what Larry would do is he would look at them, smile and wave. And the cops figure, I guess they must be kosher. So they would drive on and Larry would get his shot and then probably hop in a cab with his cast and crew and get out of there.

Eric: You know, obviously this is a film institution and so on one hand, it’s like the bravado and the chutzpah. It’s like, ah you got to love him. And on the other hand, for me, as an educator who works with these students. I’m like guys, this is the kind of stuff that can get you arrested. This is the kind of stuff that can create so much trouble and yet, Larry Cohen found a way.

Steve: Well, he also did it 40-some-odd years ago which helps. I mean, we live in, we live in a different world. But still, the lesson that you learn from Larry, I mean, speaking to filmmakers is, believe in what you’re doing. Make sure you get it. Be brave. Be bold. Don’t be crazy. But Larry was crazy. I mean some of the stuff that he did was just legitimately crazy.

Matt: And it was also like everything was how can it help me in the movie? So if waving to the cop didn’t work, then option B was, does the cop want to be in the movie?

Steve: That’s true.

Matt: They’d do that a lot. You know, hey, will you help us out? Would you like to be? Or you know, one of my stories that I love. I think it was on special effects. At the end of the day, they needed a police car to arrive at the location as part of the scene and they just didn’t have the budget for it or they didn’t have it set up. So I think it’s one of those instances, it’s got to be a first, where he called the police on his own production so that he could shoot the police arriving.

Steve: Larry was very clever, in fact, on that scene and special effects, one of the things we had to do was we had to tear a lot of scenes apart for the clips and using clips to illustrate moments in the picture. And I got the impression that once the cops showed up to answer the call and they said, oh, there’s no real problem or anything like that, I actually think a couple of the cops performed, in that scene.

Matt: Oh no he said he did. He said they did. Yeah.

Steve: So he actually.

Matt: So he did both.

Steve: He got the cops there on a, on a false pretense and then said, hey you know you’re here. Do you mind just sort of taking your guns out and pointing them? And you look at the cops and if you’re from New York, you go, those are real New York City cops.

Matt: Yeah.

Steve: You know, Larry was resourceful.

Matt: And he enjoyed it. That stimulated the writer in him, too. So he would arrive at a location even if it wasn’t the location he had originally planned, and he would just rewrite all the dialog for that scene. He was just open to any kind of possibility. If the actor turned out to be a musician, like Moriarty did, then it’s like, you know what, we’re not doing this office scene. It’s gonna be at a bar now and now the whole character’s changing. If it could be better or could be changed or it could work, he would he would do it.

Steve: Well it was still his choice.

Matt: Yeah, it was up to him. Sure.

Steve: Larry’s confidence was just innate. I mean, it was it was who he was. Probably never had an unconfident moment in his life, certainly on a set. And so he was able to improvise. And being able to do that is kind of a gift. But it’s also a learned craft, skill, whatever you want to call it. And if you want to be a filmmaker, you have to be able to say, you know, Larry could come up with a solution immediately, but you might have to take a couple of deep breaths and think about something for a couple minutes and say, OK, why don’t we do this? And Larry was always totally available. And that’s a gift. People don’t always think that good on their feet, especially if they’re surrounded by big crews. Now, when he made some of these movies, especially special effects and perfect strangers, those were Larry’s two New York underground movies.

Eric: So it was like a skeleton crew.

Steve: Yeah. I mean, if he had more like.

Matt: Or like non-union, really small.

Steve: Totally nonunion, if they had 10 people on that crew, that would be a lot. In fact, he wasn’t even using SAG actors at the time. It’s interesting, I think special effects, given the lack of resources that movie has. It’s actually in many ways, I think one of his best pictures. I mean, it’s actually more designed than his movies would tend to be.

Eric: Like you brought up after hours. And I feel like there’s kind of like a stylistic sort of connection between those two films.

Matt: There are definitely, Steve’s very right, like if Larry actually does have the time in his schedule and the location is solid or he has a little bit more money, which was not the case in special effects, and a great DP. Glickman really shot that picture.

Steve: And creativity doesn’t cost money. The use of red in that movie. There was a color scheme and temperature that we don’t usually see in Larry’s pictures.

Eric: More stylized.

Steve: And yet, I mean, that movie cost I mean, nothing even on the terms of the budgets of the day. And Larry, listen, Larry wrote, produced, and directed it so Larry got paid. Larry always wanted to be paid. Larry was a capitalist. He was as an artist, but he was a capitalist.

Matt: And that’s something, I think that his television work taught him that when he, instead of starting immediately as an independent filmmaker, he had a lot of industry experience before he started.

Eric: I think that’s key, yeah.

Matt: So he was like, oh, I’m getting myself. I’m paying. You know, if he got a budget from AIP or, whatever it was, Larry wasn’t skimping on his script fee and he wasn’t skimping on his director’s fee. He’d skimp on the movie as long as he provided what the producers or the people paying for the movie wanted.

Eric: He didn’t put his own money in?

Steve: It was one of those, it was one of those interesting situations where he was spending money like it was coming out of his own pocket. And in point of fact it was. Because the extra 50 dollars he might spend on something is fifty dollars that is not going to go to him. But Larry was also fortunate, you know that luck and timing thing is he made a good living pretty much out of the gate. After a somewhat short period of time in the 60s, he was able to sort of know that he wasn’t writing for money to survive, which is what a lot of writers have to go through. He was writing to make a living.

Eric: So in terms of talking about how this documentary even started, I was surprised that it sounds like you didn’t necessarily. You knew his work really well, but it sounds like you didn’t necessarily have a personal connection with him.

Steve: Not at all.

Eric: When you started this. That that surprised the heck out of me.

Steve: Well, I was looking at his IMDb page one day and I knew all his feature credits. I knew a lot of his television. But what surprised me was all the stuff I didn’t know that there was a much bigger Larry Cohen portfolio of credits, produced credits, than I even knew. And I was thinking about trying to do a feature. And I had worked for Roger. And Roger had his own documentary, Corman’s World. And I said, I don’t know, maybe there’s something here. But I didn’t know, Larry. And I had originally thought about doing it through crowdfunding. But you can’t start a crowdfunding type of thing unless you have a subject who says, yeah, okay, I knew somebody who I think knew Laurene Landen and Laurene gave this person that I knew Larry’s phone number so.

Eric: Oh you didn’t even go through his representation, just through personal connection?

Steve: What representation? You know, I don’t think, I don’t think at that point he had any representation and I had to sort of gird my loins and get up the courage. I mean, I’ve talked to a lot of celebrities. I’ve interviewed a lot of celebrities. But still, you’re calling a guy up and said, would you let me make a movie about you? And the phone rings twice and Larry answers. I mean, I knew Larry’s voice from commentary tracks and interviews. And I said, hi, I am who I am. I want to do what I want to do. He says, come on over to the house. And I went over to the famous house and had deja vu all over again.

Eric: You recognized it immediately?

Steve: Yeah. No, it was, it was, it was kind of weird actually.

Eric: It’s in Bone. It’s in Black Caesar.

Steve: It’s in everything.

Matt: It’s in everything.

Steve: So he answered the door. You know, he said, You want a cup of coffee? I said, yes. We talked about it. He said he’d be very flattered if you can get it financed. Great. And then. OK. So Larry was on board. And then, you know, my my Kickstarter thing was a huge flop. So I had met Matt socially at Comic-Con and our friend says, hey, Matt, this is my friend Steve Mitchell. And and Matt goes, Steve Mitchell? Are you the Steve Mitchell wrote Chopping Mall? And I said, yes. And then he goes. I’m a huge fan of Chopping Mall.

Eric: Match made in heaven right there.

Matt: You just got to say shopping mall and I’m there.

Steve [00:28:45] Yeah so that was very flattering. And and we became friends socially. And I found out very quickly that Matt and I had cut from similar cloth. We’re both movie junkies. I’m a big film music fan and his label La La Land has put out some great, great scores, beautifully produced. So for, I don’t know, it was months before I even had the idea of of calling Matt and and suggesting this as a project, because Matt had said to me months earlier that he was thinking about doing other stuff, you know, trying to expand the La La Land empire.

Matt: You know, and true to being pragmatic it was like, you know, because my business partner, M.V. Gerhard and I were like, well, we’ve been doing the soundtracks and we love doing that. We’re going to continue doing that. But it’ll be, maybe entertain some other ideas. And it was always like, well, we don’t really have any development money, though, so what can we really do? And so, you know, I always kind of had well, we want to do stuff, but, you know, I don’t know what we can do, kind of thing. So Steve had to do a little convincing.

Steve: Well, I didn’t have to do a lot, though. You know, you said.

Matt: No I’m happy to have lunch with him.

Steve: Yeah. Well, that’s exactly it, you know.

Eric: So much convincing.

Steve: He said I don’t, I don’t know if. I don’t know if now’s the time, but let’s have lunch. So you go have lunch and I literally finish what I’m eating. And I said, all right, here’s my idea. I want to do a documentary about Larry Cohe- before the N got finished he says, I’m already interested. And then we talked some more about it. And he said, I don’t know how we’re gonna do it, but we’re gonna do it. And we began this this piecemeal.

Matt: There were two things. Yeah.

Steve: You know, raising of the money.

Matt: There were two things that sort of galvanized it. One was just timing and luck. I’d been watching a lot of clip docs is what they call them, like Corman’s World where it’s, you know, interviews and movie clips. And I had noted that the production companies making these movies were not big companies with deep pockets by any stretch of the imagination. I said ope, something’s changed in documentary filmmaking that this is able to be done. So that opened up how fair use now is incorporated into E&O insurance and how there’s an actual procedure you can go through to get these things accomplished without, you know, having to pay millions of dollars to make your movie.

Steve: And let me just interject. I actually did some pricing on the cost of clips and everything like that. It was this incredibly Machiavellian process where you would buy domestic clips for a year or two or you would buy it for X amount of years and then in perpetuity and worldwide, and intergalactic and interdimensional.

Matt: So the good news is there and already about a decade’s worth of fair use documentaries. So we knew that there was a tried and true procedure. And you have to work with a very specific kind of legal team. We worked with Donelson and Caliph, who were sort of the the grandfathers, the top dog of this type of fair use.

Steve: And kind of at the vanguard of all of this stuff so, so we knew we were in good hands.

Eric: And that took your budget from an astronomical amount to amount that was something produceable.

Matt: Well something that was, that was manageable. And then the other, the other factor, was, was our producing partner, Dan McKeon. Dan and I worked as a team to raise the budget, and we did it a number of different ways. But a documentary was ideal because we could raise some and then shoot some and then raise some more and shoot some more. And we were blessed that people wanted to come out to talk about Larry Cohen. So the more that they did, every time we go back to either other investors or partners, you know, by the time we got to Martin Scorsese saying he would be in the picture. It became a lot easier to get the rest of what we needed to do.

Steve: You know, you have an idea. An idea is just an idea. But all of a sudden you’re starting to say, yeah, we have an hour with this guy, an hour with that guy. People are going, oh, this is real now. We had a big name cast. I mean.

Matt: We did.

Eric: Fabulous casting.

Steve: And that helps.

Eric: J.J. Abrams right up front, by the way, is such a smart.

Matt: Well, you know what, can I can I tell the truth on that?

Steve: Please, tell the truth.

Matt: Larry Cohen strikes again. We originally were going to put that as kind of like the Marvel movies do as the end credits start. And then they stop and surprise. It’s J.J. Abrams.

Steve: Larry was like, what are you talking about? That goes in front before anything else. He’s a big name. You don’t. People are leaving the theater. People are leaving the theater. They see your name at the end and they are going, as you know.

Matt: So Steve goes off and does his edit and comes back and we’re like son of a bitch. Yeah, he’s he’s completely right.

Steve: No, he was totally right.

Eric: And JJ Abrams holding up the doll from It’s Alive. I mean, it’s such a, you know, that opening speech is your movie and the heart of the movie in a can right there.

Steve: You know, and it’s interesting what you’re saying is by doing that, it was a tone setter.

Matt: Yeah.

Steve: Larry’s attitude was so famous. He’s, everybody knows who he is. Why are you saving him for the end? I mean, and and when I’m getting, like, out of control here, that was Larry. Larry wasn’t like, you know, you shouldn’t save him for the end. No he would get, you know, he was waving the arms and flailing and yelling at us with the implication that we’re complete idiots. But that was Larry and you know, dammit it was right, you know.

Eric: Well, and I think to one thing that’s interesting is oftentimes a documentary you have an antagonist or antagonistic forces. And there’s some in this in terms of, you know, he’s working against an establishment. But really, in the end of day, there’s not. This is the story of a guy who triumphed repeatedly. And yet it feels like a full story. Like it doesn’t have a traditional narrative on that end and yet I very much feel like I’m taken on the journey with him.

Matt: Steve really presented Larry as really Larry is. Larry, you know, has his grumpy moments or his temper moments like any creative force has. But by and large, Larry’s heart is really big. He was never mean. He can be difficult sometimes, but he’s got a big heart. He truly likes people. He’s interested in them. And he’s got that spirit of the stand up comedian that he always originally wanted to be. And Steve put that guy front and center and, you know, he’s had some tragedy in his life. He’s had dark periods in his life. But that’s not really what Larry Cohen’s about. Larry Cohen is about his work and he loves movies. That’s the guy.

Eric: He’s the kid who would try to stay in the theater all day.

Matt: That’s the guy.

Steve: And he was that kid, actually. He would stay in the theater all day. The thing about, Larry, it’s it’s very interesting is I think other than film and television and creativity, I think Larry only cares about one other thing, and that’s politics. I think, Larry, you know, Larry doesn’t play golf. Larry doesn’t have a lot of, you know, bizarre hobbies. He doesn’t go skydiving. He loves to travel that much. I know. But the thing. Larry is very focused on his work and creativity and always coming up with something new. Again, a form follows content. And it was pretty obvious to us right away. In the larger sense, where we would go with the material, it was how we got there, which was the process, and we were lucky we didn’t have a deadline. That’s the other thing that we had going for us. We had no deadline on this movie. And so the whole attitude was, let’s get it right. Let’s not get it done in a hurry. Let’s get it right, because we’re making a first impression.

Matt: Fast, cheap. Good. Pick two.

Eric: Yes. You only get two and three.

Steve: Yeah, exactly.

Eric: Well, as we’re about to wrap up here, I obviously want to make sure we talk about you guys and what you have in the pipeline now and what you’re going to be working on next now that you have conquered the travails of a documentary. Are more documentaries coming? Like what’s next for La La Land Records or is it La La Land Entertainment? Like do you have.

Matt: We have sort of a. It’s La La Land Entertainment is is sort of like the umbrella. But really it’s the the record company that’s the driving engine of the whole enterprise. And that’s M.V. Gerhard and myself. But it’s really M.V. who’s helped craft a 17 year flow of soundtrack releases that have kept the lights on. We’d love to continue with things like this. I’d love to produce another documentary with Steve. It’s a steep learning curve. The learning curve continues because great. You made a movie. Now what? You’ve got to sell the movie. Right. You know, and so that is an ongoing process. We’re happy that it’s widely available. Now, people can see it either VOD, through iTunes or Amazon, or if they’re on Shudder, they can watch it on Shudder or they can buy our Blu ray, which is from La La Land Records, or you can get it on Amazon as well. And Steve put together really great extras for the Blu ray. There’s almost like, you know,.

Steve: About an hour and twenty. There’s like an hour, 20 minutes. About 45 or 50 minutes with the king. And then a bunch of other stuff with his subjects. and and there were still plenty of things that I didn’t use. I mean, I was very fortunate. I had a lot of good stuff, you know. What’s next? Well, we’re starting all over again. I’ve got about five or six different ideas. I got one specifically that we’re kind of focusing on now. But there are a couple of others. They’re all going to be mostly film related because in addition to, you know, doing this stuff, I do a lot of commentary tracks on blu rays and stuff like that. So I’m like, you know, Larry and I are very kindred spirits. I mean, you know, I’m I’m totally into film and film history. And so any other documentaries I would do would be mostly on that. Not entirely, but mostly. Again, he’s always sort of in our in our minds and our hearts and our conversations, you know. And look, he’s one of those most unforgettable characters. And he was a character.

Eric: And I think King Cohen is this beautiful love letter to him and really everything he represented, everything he fought for and really also to all the people he fought for. He fought for his material. He fought for his art.

Matt: And the other thing, too, is like the canon just speaks for itself. So, our documentary aside, people are talking about Black Caesar and It’s Alive and The Stuff. And these movies are 40, going on 50 years old in some cases. That’s when you know there’s a legacy there because there’s plenty of wonderful A-list great movies or movies that come out at the time. And they’re really well-received and people are talking about them. But are people talking about them decades later? So there’s something there.

Steve: To augment that. I think Larry always wanted to be Hitchcock or Michael Curtiz. I think he wanted to be a mainstream old school Hollywood director. And I don’t know sometimes if he was as proud about what he had done as he might publicly say. But he said to me, he says, you know, I’m glad I did these genre movies because they’re still talking about them, you know, an A-list movie comes out one weekend and, you know, it’s forgotten about by Monday. So I think even Larry kind of came to terms with how he felt about his own career. Larry, you did okay. What an, what an incredible legacy you’ve left behind. What a creative force he was on the planet, the likes of which, of course, will never see again.

Eric: His footprint was large.

Steve: Oh, yeah, very much so. And I think if you’re looking for a primer to get into the world of him, start with King Cohen and work your way outward from there.

Matt: That’s the thing, too, is that that’s something the project, you know, really highlighted for me. Like, there’s people that love the invaders. There’s people that love branded, who never watched the horror stuff. But are fans of Larry, because of that.

Eric: You could mention Columbo.

Matt: Well, that’s the thing, too, is when Larry passed and we were kind of handling some of the tweets and the social media of that whole thing. You know, we were getting messages from, oh, it’s the Colombo fan club and we’re so sorry to hear. So it’s like at the one hand you got you know, I can’t believe the stuff is the greatest movie ever made. Then there’s the Colombo fan club or people that like branded or the invaders or. And then there were thriller fans. You know, there were people that just love, you know, phone booth.

Eric: And then there’s you guys who loved it all.

Matt: Yeah. I was like Steve was, I was surprised at the breadth and the width of. There’s very, very few of those guys left.

Eric: Well, and we lost a great one. So when we’re tired about doing a, you know, something in tribute to him, one thing I’ll say is as bittersweet as it is, as wistful it is, there’s so much joy still in his work, exploring his stories, you know, across the realm from the early days of TV to Joel Schumacher’s phone booth. You know, we were talking like, you really can’t get more diverse than that. And he was such a trailblazer. And I think you guys have really done that, that remarkable thing with your documentary of getting it all in there. And so hopefully this helps get you some more eyeballs, but really also gets Larry Cohen’s work, his legacy is all these things he did. And you only added to his legacy with King Cohen. So guys, thank you so much. And thank you for coming back, by the way.

Steve: Oh, our pleasure.

Matt: Any time.

Eric: Guys, thank you so much.

Matt: Oh my pleasure. This was fun.

Eric: And thanks to all of you for listening. You want to check out some of our other Q&As you can go to our YouTube channel. That’s This episode was edited and mixed by Kristian Heydon. Our creative director is David Andrew Nelson, who also produced this episode with Kristian Heydon and myself. Executive produced by Jean Sherlock and Dan Mackler, with a special thanks going out to our staff and crew who made this possible. To learn more about our programs, check us out at You can subscribe on Apple podcasts or wherever you may listen. I’ll see you next time.


Tova Laiter: Hi and welcome to the backlot. I’m Tova Laiter, moderator and director of the New York Film Academy guest lecture series. In this episode, we will take an in-depth look at one of my great guests and hear about his experience in the entertainment industry. And now, Eric Conner, we’ll take you through the highlights of this Q&A.

Eric Conner: Hi, I’m Eric Conner, senior instructor at New York Film Academy. And in this episode, we bring you a man who was one of Hollywood’s best known child actors before graduating to George Lucas’s American Graffiti and the sitcom Happy Days. But his acting is only a small portion of a career that’s included over 50 credits as a director and 100 as a producer. Yes, we’re talking about the Ron Howard. His directing credits alone reads like a one man Netflix. Need a comedy? Try parenthood or splash. Drama? How about A Beautiful Mind, Frost/Nixon? Fantasy? Willow. There’s Backdraft and Rush for action and Cocoon if you want emotional sci fi mixed with breakdancing senior citizens. Which all makes a little more sense when you learn he had an eye on directing from the time he was a kid.

Ron Howard: Well, my dad never directed film, but he directed a lot of theater here in L.A. and he even used to run an improv group. And so as a little kid, my earliest memories are actually watching my dad direct summer stock. And then he also, you know, acted and continues to act. So I think I was always aware that there was this other job. But really on The Andy Griffith Show, so many of the directors that we had had been actors and they would start sort of saying to me, I bet you’re going to mind being a director someday. And I didn’t really take that to heart, but I did find it fascinating to understand what everybody else was doing. And I loved it all. You know, it was a The Andy Griffith Show on the culture around the show was very hardworking and yet playful. And there was this sort of energy which was very creative and also collaborative. So actors were allowed to participate. Even I was as a kid, you know, allowed to speak up in rehearsals and things like that. The writers were very present. So you could see what that process was all about. There were a lot of laughs, but there was also this feeling that, you know, there’s a right way and a wrong way to do every joke, every moment, every scene. And Andy was just leading by example. Made it matter for all. All of those eight seasons. And when it was over, I realized that I’d loved every aspect of what I was seeing and the people that I was kind of growing up with and that the director was the person who basically got to play with everybody. And the job started to look good to me, really, when I fell in love with movies. As a fan, which didn’t really happen until, oh, I don’t know, probably like The Graduate, Zeffirelli’s Romeo and Juliet. There was this tremendous couple of years there. In the heat of the night. Wild Bunch, Bonnie and Clyde. And it was just my early, early adolescence. And it just. The Professionals was a fantastic movie, Dirty Dozen, just just blew me away. And I began to really read about directors and understand that filmmaking could transport audiences. And I never really thought about it. I mean, I as a kid growing up, I don’t even really think about what it meant to be an audience member. You know, I mean, the only thing I watched other than The Andy Griffith Show was like Felix the Cat cartoons early in the morning.

Eric Conner: By the time American Graffiti rolled around, Ron Howard had already appeared in dozens of movies and TV shows. But that didn’t make getting the role of a lifetime any easier.

Ron Howard: The casting director was a guy named Fred Roos, who was Frances Copel is coproducer, a great guy, and he had been the casting director on, among other TV shows, The Andy Griffith Show. So I think he really lobbied for me, but it was a very arduous casting process. Over a period of time. There were like six callbacks. In fact, the first interview was just a quick meeting. And I remember going in and no one knew anything about it. No one had seen a script. And all my agent said was, you know, it’s a musical. And so I went in everybody, you know, sort of between the age of, I don’t know, you know, fifteen and 30 were they were all trying to go in and meet on this project. And I met George Lucas, who I knew a little bit about because I was still in high school, but I’d been accepted to USC Film School and THX 1138, was already lore. And so every people you know in my circle knew George, but I’d never met him. He’s very quiet. He talks a little bit more now than he did then. And I said, George, well, I didn’t say George. I said I said, I think I should disclose the fact that I really can’t sing. And I know I was in The Music Man, but I think they cast me because I couldn’t sing.

Clip [Gary Indiana]

Ron Howard: I don’t know if you need singing, I hear it’s musical. Can’t dance either. And he said, well, it is a musical, but there’s no singing. You don’t have to worry about singing. But the reason later when I asked him about it, was that he had written a screenplay and conceived of the whole thing based on music. And so each of those scenes was written with one of those songs in mind, and most of them were the songs that he was able to get the rights to. And the original title was Rock Radio is The American Graffiti. And so in his mind. It was a musical and the soundtrack was a key character.

Eric Conner: Once you’ve seen the non-singing musical American Graffiti, you simply cannot imagine it without its remarkable soundtrack.

Ron Howard: You know, it hadn’t been done before. I mean, there was a lot of music, a lot of Hank Williams and things like that in Last Picture Show and a few popular tunes in like Summer 42 nostalgic tunes. But the odd thing was that in making the movie in 72, to me this was ancient history. It was just a strange thing. And, you know, the last the postscript explaining how much we’d moved on and what we had moved on to, which was really, you know, a revolution and Vietnam and political upheaval and all those things had so changed the culture that 10 years later this was really beyond, you know, even my sense of really understanding these these tunes were ancient, ancient. And so the oldies radio was not what it is today. And in fact, it surprised everyone the way the soundtrack sold. And everybody just thought it was a movie that was going to play in the drive ins. I mean, it was really was made for $650,000. There were no stars. You know, Fred Roos lobbied for me. We went through this process of six different callbacks over a period of months, improvs, tests. He was very meticulous. He later told me that he cast the cars as meticulously as he cast the actors. Those details really mattered to him.

Eric Conner: As a director on only his second feature, the force was already strong with a young George Lucas and his low budget, do it yourself approach to making American Graffiti was unlike anything Ron Howard had previously experienced.

Ron Howard: It was revelatory to me to be around this movie because I had grown up really within the Hollywood system and it was very much a completely male dominated system. There were a couple of high profile female film editors. There were no executives at that time. Very few female producers and crew members, you know, the women were maybe this script supervisor, maybe wardrobe and hair, and that would really be about it. It was a male dominated, not here on American Graffiti. And there were hippies actually working on movies. And I still came from a world where all everybody looked like they were kind of a sailor or a cowboy or Madison Avenue. And that was the look. But it was his attention to detail. And he, because he didn’t talk to the actors very much. But later, when I got to know him better and we always did have a kinship. He knew I was going to USC, he knew I wanted to be a director. And I one time I was in fact, we were doing the scene sitting there in the booth there at the diner toward the end of the movie. And I said, well, how’s it going? You know, you’d only say much about the scenes except terrific. And he had a pattern. He would do three takes of every angle, and that was it. And he’d say terrific every time and then move on. So you really didn’t have any idea and he, he wasn’t giving any direction, particularly unless something was going horribly wrong. And he his only real rule, he was doing a kind of a documentary style, even known very little of it was hand-held, was that there were no marks. And the whole lighting approach that Haskell Wexler design was revelatory, the low light levels, it was nominated for best cinematography because it was an absolute cutting edge breakthrough approach. He used Super 16. He split the 35 millimeter frame in half, and he wanted the grainy look. He wanted the darkness, that naturalism. And there were no marks. So instead of stepping in and knowing that this was your shot, and now it’s your close up or over the shoulder or whatever, it was always two cameras shooting and you never really knew what lens was working and he wouldn’t tell you. And he just wanted you to do the scene and wherever you would move, one time, Dreyfuss walked over by some lights and the camera operator cut. And George, the only time I ever heard George get upset about anything, he said, you never cut. We’re not cutting. I don’t care. I won’t use that part. And he later told me, he said 28 days schedule. He cast the actors very meticulously. He felt like we owned our characters and he was going to make all of his directorial decisions in the editing room. And unlike a film today, he had a full year to edit the movie before it was released.

Eric Conner: Despite the immense talent behind the scenes and on the screen, the studio still thought they had a bomb on their hands. Fortunately, Lucas and the movie had their own Godfather as protection. Legendary director Francis Ford Coppola.

Ron Howard: Almost every director, I mean. Ninety seven percent of the directors have to leverage their way in. For me, it was acting. And George Lucas had kind of a godfather there in Francis Coppola, a big brother who helped him with THX 1138, helped him with American Graffiti. I mean, here’s how much he helped him. The studio hated this movie. It’s kind of a famous story that the head of the studio at the time really hated it and he went to a preview and he said, you know, you should be ashamed. This isn’t even professional filmmaking because again it was it was gritty. It was low light. It was no. No stars. An unusual narrative framework. And he said, I don’t even know what we’re going to do with this. And Francis, fresh off of The Godfather, is famous. And this is true. I wasn’t there. But I know it’s a true story. He took out his checkbook and he said, I will write you a check for seven hundred fifty thousand dollars right now for this movie. If you don’t believe in it, I’ll buy it because you’re wrong. And he meant it. And they backed away. And they wound up having it, you know, one of the most profitable movies, but more so than ever. You should be making your own stuff and just putting it out there. And the other thing is writing. It’s so important to write. It’s great to be able to go out and stage scenes and make a three minute short or get a funny joke that you can build into a cool little film. That’s all great. But the writing is so important, so valuable, even if you’re never your own screenwriter. And the other thing that I would say, and I say this to every class that I talk to and all my daughter’s friends who are making their way in right now is one spec script is, you know, just join the 189 million people around the planet who have one screenplay. The way you prove something to an agent or someone is, is if you have six screenplays, you know, if they think you’re a writer, then they’re not only interested in your screenplay, but they’re interested in you, your passion and what your voice and talent might be.

Eric Conner: For Ron Howard, American Graffiti was like going to film school before he went to film school. It was a fabulous and surreal experience, one that even he wasn’t quite so sure would turn out right.

Ron Howard: For me, it really was a kind of a coming of age story. I mean, I was suddenly I was in San Francisco, I just graduated from high school. Went up to San Francisco. Our job was to stay up all night, whether we were working or not. You had to stay awake and stay on that pattern. So, you know, you’d wander into San Francisco, you’d get kicked out of the strip clubs if they caught you. Or you’d wander by and watch whatever George was filming. There were no individual dressing rooms or chairs. There was one makeup and wardrobe trailer, and that’s where everybody hung out. It was extremely low budget, you know. I mean, it was like doing a Corman movie. Only we had this great script to work with that we all really believed in. And we believed it was something fresh and original still when it took off the way it did. It surprised everyone and it was astounding. So it was all upside for me, because seeing the way George didn’t pay attention to the actors and paid so much attention to the background, the frame, the texture, seeing how bold Haskell Wexler and everyone was with the look, seeing the way the music was used, seeing the different styles of acting come into play. It was mystifying to me. I didn’t know what they were really getting. I just was trusting the screenplay. But when we wrapped, we all saw like about 10 minutes of cut footage and it was clear that there was just something that really had not been done before. And now, look, you watch the movie and it’s nostalgic and it uses the music. And it’s like a lot of other TV shows and a lot of other movies, but it really was absolutely cutting edge.

Eric Conner: Audiences came to the film in droves, turning this pre-indie indie into one of the biggest box office hit to the year. Its success even gave a second life to a pilot that Mr Howard had assumed was already dead and buried.

Ron Howard: I mean, this was a huge thing for me. And although I had done a television series after The Andy Griffith Show and I’d done a lot of other movies and TV guest shots on TV shows and, you know, films for Disney and things like that, this American Graffiti was fantastic for me in that regard. And in fact, Happy Days didn’t come from American Graffiti. I had done the pilot for Happy Days before American Graffiti. It didn’t sell. But it was I think one of the things that George might have looked at also in thinking about casting me. And then when American Graffiti was such a big hit, then they dusted off this failed Happy Days pilot sort of rewrote it, reinvented it a little bit, invented the Fonzie character a little bit, trying to be like Big John. I mean, originally they were supposed to be more that kind of a character. And then those bastards made me audition again. But I, I got the part, you know, really pissed me off. I mean. But, you know, I never felt that I had a great deal of range as an actor. I mean, I thought I was a good, solid actor. But I really believed by the time I was in my teens that my future in this medium really was behind that camera. And there I could probably go further, take more risks. I somehow intuitively, I just I felt like I was limited.

Eric Conner: Only a few years after American Graffiti, Ron Howard got the chance to direct his own feature film for low budget maestro Roger Corman. Mr. Howard attempted to over-prepare for this big break and he quickly discovered that was actually a problem.

Ron Howard: You know, my first film was we started shooting the day after my twenty third birthday. And I was in it in order to get it made. It was for Roger Corman, Grand Theft Auto. But I was very insecure and the first few movies. I was very, not dictatorial in a nasty way, but the budgets were tight, schedules were tight, and I just sort of told everybody what to do. And I felt like my preparedness was my safety net. And and it was it was kind of my insurance policy against exposing myself to the crew or the actors. But I was not really happy with the performances that I was getting and the work that I was doing. And I just began to loosen up a little bit and listen a little bit more. And I began to develop this point of view that that I wanted to come with a plan. Yes. A well-prepared, well thought out plan. And that if nobody else had a better idea on that day, our plan would succeed. But I wanted to create an environment that would allow for inspiration and stimulate that. And my films improved immediately when I relaxed it. Now, the problem with it is that when you create that it’s still not a democracy, you still have to decide. People accept no a little more readily. If they know you’re ready to say yes, then it’s not a point of principle or ego. It’s just a process and it gets a little bit easier. But nonetheless, you do create a kind of a soundtrack of a lot of people with a lot of opinions, and it sometimes can be a little overwhelming. But if you’ve established that suddenly it’s not so hard to just turn around and say, everybody, shut up. We’re doing it this way. But you sort of don’t have to. It requires a little extra measure of patients, but it yields a great benefit to me. And I also love that creative energy, probably because I did sort of grow up around it. But for me, I mean, I like making movies about families and teens, mostly because I I understand those dynamics. And so the teen spirit means something to me. I enjoy exercising that.

Eric Conner: This former child actor really knows how to make his youthful exuberance for cinema appear on the screen, and that includes how he approaches working with his cast.

Ron Howard: I would say it’s the combination between creativity and maintaining enough of a relaxed state so that you can respond to input, whether that’s direction or whether it’s a change in the scene. You know, that’s coming from one of the other actors or it’s a new line of dialogue so that it’s a kind of a a real deep, interesting, creative understanding of the character. And then there’s sort of this ability to be free, be loose and be creative and be able to respond in a spontaneous way. It’s one of the reasons why I think that improvisational training, whether you think you ever want to be in a comedy ever. It’s so, so valuable. Vince Vaughn, brilliant improvisational actor, but he really is an actor. I mean, you know, we all know him as a big comedy star, but very interesting for me to see that he is alive in every single moment that the camera is rolling. And I don’t care whether it’s a more serious scene or whether it’s a comedic scene or whether he’s on script or improvising dialogue, because that same sort of sense of absolute connection to the moment in a spontaneous way and trusting that makes him alive. Whether he’s doing the script. And you know he often does the script verbatim. It’s not like he’s constantly only improvising, but that’s a remarkable talent and that’s something that I think that you can build the muscle for. I think it’s important to do it.

Eric Conner: Despite his years of experience as a performer, Ron Howard’s been mostly reticent about throwing his hat back into the acting ring. But that might be because of an agreement with his wife.

Ron Howard: Now that my children are all raised, my wife Cheryl is giving me the green light to take acting jobs if I want. Every once in a while, somebody would offer me something and she would say, Oh, really? Between your directing, you wanted to one movie after another. Imagine films. You know I love you, but I never expected the mini mogul thing. Do me two favors. Don’t dabble. If you have three weeks to be in somebodies movie, you know, would you mind hanging with the family? Maybe. And please don’t do MTV. Don’t do videos. Your future career doesn’t depend on you doing videos. And those were only two requests. I thought they were very fair. But a while back to all the kids raised and she said, yeah do whatever you want now. I don’t care. But now nobody cast me so.

Eric Conner: Considering he was an actor, it’s ironic to learn that Mr Howard finds the whole casting process really stressful.

Ron Howard: I love making films. I really do, I continue to. It’s as interesting as ever. Maybe more so in a lot of ways. But the two areas that I dread are the casting and then the promoting. I just find that is embarrassing and you’re being judged and it’s all very uncomfortable when you’re promoting. But the casting, I really lay awake nights agonizing over it and it really does help. I don’t always do it, but it really, really helps to video the auditions or even the meetings, because for me, I’m kind of falling in love with everybody who walks in. I’m rooting for everybody who’s there, you know, and I don’t really have a great perspective. I have a reaction and I don’t discount that. And I keep notes. But it is great to be able to step away from it and just review the tapes. And there are some people like Clint Eastwood. He won’t meet an actor. He only only looks at what their audition offers. And then he carefully builds his cast around that. And he trusts that if they were that good in their audition, they’re gonna be that much better when they’re filming. But I could live with that in our scene would work. And that’s a pretty good fundamental approach. I think you have to be methodical. You can’t just cast your friends. You know, you’ve got to build chemistries. And in meeting them, I think the only thing you want to look for are personalities so that if you think somebody is, you know, can’t listen, that’s why it’s nice to do auditions and actually gives some notes, see if there’s some flexibility there. You know, if you find that they have some personality trait that you think’s gonna be incompatible with other actors or with you, you have to take that pretty seriously. But it’s crucial to be methodical about the casting.

Ron Howard: Though once the tension of casting has passed, Mr Howard greatly appreciates collaborating with his actors. When it came time to rehearse the Oscar winning A Beautiful Mind, this veteran director even sought out advice from his friends in the biz.

Ron Howard: Right before A Beautiful Mind. I’d always done a lot of rehearsal, but I’d always thought about just solving the the logistical problems, the staging so that we wouldn’t get stalled when we were filming. So was creative. But a lot of it was pragmatic. But I started thinking about the complexity of beautiful mind and this rehearsal period that we were gonna have. And I actually I don’t do this all this often, but it was a great day for me. I called on the same day Marty Scorsese, Sidney Lumet and Mike Nichols separately. And I said, when you’re rehearsing, what do you look for? And it was very interesting. They all sort of had different points of view. Lumet was a little more pragmatic, but there was one common thread. Mike Nichols expressed it the most articulately, he said, if you can discuss the scenes and of course, discover any problems in the writing, any snags that the actors have. But there’s another thing that you should be doing, and that is by asking enough questions about the actors and the characters, you need to begin to understand the bridge between the actor and their character so they have their own subconscious connection. But if you can begin to understand it at some key moment, you might be able to say, oh, this is like when you were in the third grade and your dad, you know, thought you were lying and you weren’t, you know, and you can help bridge these moments, these key moments when the actors stall out or when they hit some kind of an emotional wall. And I thought that was incredibly helpful. But it’s it’s really all of them basically said help the actors trust that you understand their characters and their take on the characters. And you’ve been able to also influence that so that there’s clarity between you.

Eric Conner: Ron Howard’s more technically ambitious films require a tremendous amount of collaboration and trust to make them fly in directing Apollo 13. The director used a combination of new school wizardry and old school magic to recreate the awe, wonder, and tension of the almost doomed mission.

Ron Howard: Apollo 13. We used models. It’s one of the last films to use models and the digital technology was available. But it’s such a hardware movie that Rob Legato, the visual effects supervisor there at Digital Domain, really believed in using models and the only digital enhancement really are things like the ice in the launch and some particles around the explosion and and some things like that. And then we were able to shoot master shots inside an airplane called the KC 135 that did these parabolas, which is the way astronauts used to train and they still run certain scientific experiments. You can gain about 20 some seconds of weightlessness. And I found out that they used to bolt the Gemini capsules down and practice opening the hatch for EVA’s. That’s when they leave the capsule for the spacewalks. That’s the way the astronauts would practice opening the hatch and exiting. And when I realized that, yeah, of course, if you bolt set down, it will look solid and move with the aircraft and everything else is floating. And so we did the masters that way. And then we did the close ups in the coverage on a set with the actors on usually on teeter totters or just moving around, but after they’d been weightless. They really knew how to act it and recreate it and it was. So that was fun. When I’m preparing a movie, you know, it depends a little bit on the nature of the film. I didn’t have to invest a whole lot of energy planning the shots on Frost/Nixon. I certainly did. I shortlisted it. I had points of view about each of the interviews. You know, I had ideas about trying to shoot each one in a different way, sort of suggesting a different aspect of that interview, sometimes isolating the actors, the characters from the crew and the camera so that you’d sort of forget that it was a television show other times featuring the cameras. So you’d remember that it was all still showbiz, you know, depending on on each of the scenes. So the visuals are important and I’m always planning, but I it’s usually a gradual thing. I start taking notes in the margins of the script. I start talking to the cinematographer when were out scouting locations, and I create these building blocks. And then when I go to shot list, I then think editorially and I build around key compositions or visual ideas that I know we’re going to want. And then I sort of build whether we can link the two ideas with a single camera move or do we need the coverage? What kind of control am I going to want later in the editing room of the rhythms of the scene? That dictates how much coverage I need to do and those kind of things. But they’re gradual step by step. I divide my time usually between script and actors and logistics.

Eric Conner: Even though Ron Howard gets to work with some remarkable and expensive digital effects in films like Solo and in The Heart of the Sea, he cautions against letting the technology overpower the story.

Ron Howard: You know, look, it all boils down to a story and it always does. And Zemeckis said the smartest thing about five or six years ago is that a digital technology spectacular. He embraces it. He’s on the cutting edge of all of it. But he said now everybody can do everything. So spectacle in and of itself is not going to be commercial and it’s going to all the more put the pressure back on the writers, the actors, the storytellers to try to take people on a journey that’s borne out of character and narrative. What I really like about films, though, is that it’s broadening so much internationally, regionally, in terms of the subject matter that, you know, yes, the big formulaic movies are probably the only thing that the studios feel really safe about investing in. But that doesn’t mean that other movies, other tones aren’t succeeding in their own right and influencing the mainstream in ways that are are meaningful. And I think technology really is the filmmakers friend and is creating a more and more stimulating experience for audiences. But I also have reconciled myself to the fact that it’s not going to always be a big screen experience. You know, you’re going to tell your stories and people are going to find them in the way that’s most convenient, most interesting, most, you know, for them. I’m not a person who believes you should try to force people to not watch the movie on their iPhone. If they want to watch the movie on the iPhone. You know, at least they’re watching your movie and it’s your story. So I’ve reconciled myself to that.

Eric Conner: After two Emmys, two Oscars, 60 years in the biz, and enough credits to fill up most of Hulu. What advice does Ron Howard give to achieve a career with longevity?

Ron Howard: Keep writing and keep shooting. Really? I mean, Charlie Martin Smith, the guy who played Terry the Toad, is a very successful director. He did a movie that Sam Peckinpah directed, Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid. And Bob Dylan was in it acting in the movie. And Charlie said that Dylan was constantly writing. He told Charlie he tried to write a song every day and he thought of himself first and foremost as a writer. I don’t write every day. In fact, I’m just fooling around with trying to write a screenplay again. And it’s really scary. It’s really hard. But I do try to make notes. I try to keep just dealing with stories, dealing with characters and cause I’m involved in imagine films. So there’s always a lot to read there and a lot to respond to, but it really is just a matter of carrying on. And I do think that if you have a circle of friends and you can call people up and say, hey, read this, I’m stuck. And experiment. Don’t don’t be afraid to write a draft that you think you’re probably gonna throw away. And as far as the shooting goes, keep shooting and keep editing. It’s so important to really get a great sense of your own editorial style and the way you want to shoot for the editing room, because that’s where, as George would say correctly. That’s really where you make the films in the editing room.

Eric Conner: We’ll try to remember that advice when cutting this episode together. We went to think Ron Howard for his wonderful legacy of storytelling, for speaking with our students. And, of course, thanks to all of you for listening.

David Nelson: This episode was based on the Q&A, curated and moderated by Tova Laiter. To watch the full interview or to see our other Q&A’s. Check out our YouTube channel at This episode was written by Eric Conner. Edited and mixed by Kristian Heydon. Our creative director is me, David Andrew Nelson, who also produced this episode with Kristian Heydon and Eric Conner. Executive produced by Tova Laiter, Jean Sherlock and Dan Mackler. To learn more about our programs check us out at Be sure to subscribe on Apple podcasts or wherever you listen. See you next time.