Podcast Episodes

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 YouTube.com/NewYorkFilmAcademy. 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 NYFA.edu. Be sure to subscribe on Apple podcasts or wherever you listen. See you next time.

NYFA: The opinions expressed in this podcast are those of Peter Rainer and do not necessarily represent the opinions of the New York Film Academy staff, faculty or students.

Eric Conner: Hi and welcome to The Backlot. I’m Eric Conner senior instructor at New York Film Academy. Today we actually have someone else in the studio with me, 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. He’s a finalist for the Pulitzer and also a teacher and fellow faculty member at New York Film Academy. He’s a native New Yorker and he’s the writer of Rainer On Film, 30 years of film writing in a turbulent and transformative era. This covers decades of his writing career. It’s a book that’s actually available on Amazon and is a terrific book. So, Peter, first off, thank you so much for coming and joining us in the studio.

Peter Rainer: Thanks, Eric.

Eric Conner: So I figure we might as well begin at the beginning. How you started with your love of cinema. If there’s movies when you were a kid that just immediately made you think like this is a career I want.

Peter Rainer: Right. Yeah. I grew up primarily in Westchester County, which is certainly close enough to New York City that I was able to go in all the time and see movies in the many revival houses that no longer exist in New York. But primarily, I saw movies on television growing up, which was an interesting way to get a film education.

Eric Conner: Sure.

Peter Rainer: You know, you didn’t get to see a lot of the so-called classics. At least not the non English ones. There was a show called Million Dollar Movie, which showed the same movie every night for five nights running. And so in that way, I kind of obsessively would rewatch all of these movies and unknowingly learned about acting and script and camera and all of this stuff just by seeing these films over and over again.

Eric Conner: Right. It gives you more of a critical eye.

Peter Rainer: Yeah, you’re sort of a critic.

Eric Conner: You become a bit of an expert.

Peter Rainer: Right. There were ton of newspapers in New York back then, something like 12 daily newspapers. And they all had critics, you know, many of whom are quite good. And so that sort of gave me the idea that, gee, I’m watching all these movies and I’m sort of thinking about them in ways that aren’t just as a fan. The big thing was when my dad gave me a copy of Agee on film, James Agee was a great writer who for a period of about seven years was a film critic. So I read this and I said, wow, this really demonstrates that you can write about movies and be a real writer. He’s not just, you know, the acting was good. This was bad, you know, a checklist and, you know, plot summary. And Pauline Kael had come out with with her first book called I Lost It at the Movies. And that was exciting in a different way because she was just coming onto the scene and writing about movies that were mostly current. So I would say between the two of them, that sort of got me thinking that maybe this is something that I sort of had an affinity for.

Eric Conner: And you went to, was it Brandeis?

Peter Rainer: Yeah, I was – I was at Northwestern for a year and I transferred to Brandeis. I was there from 70 to 73. I was for a time the editor of my college paper, which was really an excuse for me to control the length of my film reviews because I was the film critic.

Eric Conner: It was just a power grab. So you could.

Peter Rainer: Well.

Eric Conner: You could get as many columns.

Peter Rainer: Okay yeah right. I admit. No, I mean, you know, it’s the only time in my life I’ve ever had the opportunity to be my own boss in journalism. You know, and it was very fortunate because that was a time we’re talking, you know, ’70 to ’73 when movies were incredible.

Eric Conner: Yeah.

Peter Rainer: I mean, I’m not being some old fogy, particularly American movies just broke through. And week after week, I’d be reviewing, you know, The Godfather.

Eric Conner: Yeah Godfather came out in that time.

Peter Rainer: Yeah. The Godfather, Sounder, you know, Mean Streets, McCabe and Mrs. Miller, Sorrow and the Pity. I mean, just, you name it, Last Picture Show. They were all coming out week after week and cabaret.

Eric Conner: I mean, the thing is about that time frame, and really to come of age as a critic in the 70s meant you were there for really the modern golden age of Hollywood.

Peter Rainer: Right.

Eric Conner: It’s kind of like where TV is now is where film was then. I mean, that is such I mean, to be able to go into a theater. I mean, I got to see Godfather years later. But my introduction to Godfather was a VHS copy on a not very big TV, but to be able to see those movies on the big screen for the first feeling too, I’m more than a little envious.

Peter Rainer: Yeah. No, it makes a big difference even now, of course. But I think that’s really what set me on the road, because not only were all these great movies coming out, but I’m writing about them for very literally captive audience, my fellow students and teachers. And I think that’s why so many critics of my generation are critics, because we all pass through the same ether.

Eric Conner: And by the time you finished college, I can’t even imagine how many reviews you’ve written, especially if you were the editor as well, like it’s like you get to enter the professional world, sort of tested, you know, like you’re not.

Peter Rainer: In a way yeah. I mean, what I did was, you know, when I graduated, I said, alright well, now what am I going to do with my life? So I gathered my best reviews together from college and I went to the library and I wrote out a list of about 100 publications and I got, I think, two responses.

Eric Conner: Two out of, I’m sorry. Two out of like 100, you said.

Peter Rainer: Yeah, yeah. One was from Mademoiselle magazine. Long story short, Mademoiselle gave me a shot at their monthly film review column. First time I ever reviewed professionally was Chinatown and it’s been all downhill ever since.

Eric Conner: I was about to say you’re starting with rarefied air right off the bat.

Peter Rainer: Yeah. I mean, that was pretty amazing. So so now I was in the in the bloodstream and it’s very, very exciting. And then The Herald Examiner, which is one of the two daily newspapers, opened up. And this was a chance to be, you know, the critic for a major metropolitan daily was what I always wanted. So that’s what I did. And I was with the Herald Examiner for 10 years from 79 till the day it folded in 1989.

Eric Conner: So then you had to find a new home.

Peter Rainer: Yeah, well, the L.A. Times knew before we did at the Herald that the paper was going to fold. So within an hour of the announcement, there was an editor who used to work at the Herald who was on the phone trying to bring me over. So that was all very nice.

Eric Conner: What is it like for you as a critic then? I’m sure you travel in these circles. I’m sure you’ve made friends with them over the years. But then part of your job is to give an honest assessment of your friend.

Peter Rainer: Right.

Eric Conner: And their work, which might not always be perfect.

Peter Rainer: First of all, you know, when you’re the film critic for a newspaper in L.A., it’s kind of like being the car critic for a newspaper in Detroit.

Eric Conner: Right.

Peter Rainer: You know, I’m a human being. So if I see films by a particular writer, director or an actor that I really respond to, and then you have occasion to be in a social situation with them, you know, it’s very hard to just sort of wall yourself off and not say anything. The downside is that you do often get played even by people who you respect. If you stop giving good reviews to them, then often you find out who your real friends are, if they’re friends. But, you know, it’s it’s tough. I’ve had, you know, people say, have you ever been dissed by an actor or something? Yes.

Eric Conner: Well, especially with Twitter now, where you read a review by Peter Rainer and you disagree, you can go and all of a sudden with a few touches your fingers, suddenly your three, four million followers find out directly what your thought is of the review by Peter Rainer.

Peter Rainer: Yeah. I mean, I’m not crazy about all that, but, you know, there’s nothing you can do about it. But it comes with the territory. And usually people only write when they’re angry about something or they’ll retweet something and they’ll say you’re wrong.

Eric Conner: Although I definitely know some people who, when they get a great review, they feel the need to share that with the world as well so.

Peter Rainer: Well, good. I wish I got more of that.

Eric Conner: What they call the humble brag, you know.

Peter Rainer: Right. Right. Right.

Eric Conner: It’s funny, too, because being an artist, being a filmmaker actor means you’re perpetually getting reviewed. Yet obviously, some artists know incredibly thin skin despite the fact it’s it’s it’s like part of your job.

Peter Rainer: Yeah. No, I mean, I understand it. But if you if you think too much about how you know, you’re gonna be upsetting all these people, then you might as well be a carpenter.

Eric Conner: Although then you have to deal with people complain about your carpentry. And mind you, I haven’t read every review you’ve ever written, but they don’t come off as nasty even when you clearly don’t like a project.

Peter Rainer: Yeah, well, I try not to be gratuitously nasty because I don’t see the point of that. You know, people have this idea that all critics are like Addison Dewitt, George Sanders in All About Eve, you know, sharpening their knives and they’re only in it for the kill. And admittedly, if you really don’t like something or you’re really offended by something, you can get your rocks off by really flaying something in print. But that gets old awfully fast. And in the long run, it’s the films that that are really great that challenge you as a critic. Like when I came out of Blue Velvet, which I love, but it’s very confounding movie.

Eric Conner: Right. It’s not simple to review something that.

Peter Rainer: No, no you say, well, how on earth am I going to do justice to this experience? And, you know, in my book, there’s a section on masterpieces. And to me, the the mark of a critic is how good are they at really praising something? Because there are some critics who are really good at being nasty. But when they praising something, it’s like, you know, the cinematography was gorgeous and the acting was terrific. And, you know, it kind of doesn’t really sing. The thing is, you have to try to back up your negativity, which is not always easy if you don’t have the space to do it. You know, I’m talking in theoretical terms, but a lot of us, you know, space is is not what it used to be. And you can’t stretch out and really do justice sometimes to the full extent of how you want to support or tear down something. But, you know, there are all kinds of stories of, you know, John Simon who’s who’s still writing. He has a blog. At this point. He’s notorious for writing really defamatory personal attacks on how actors looked and everything like that. And he was at a function years ago and the actress goes over to the order table and picks up his big tray of food and goes over and dumps it on him. He says, I’m going to send you with a cleaning bill. But she got presents and kisses from all the Broadway and Hollywood contingent for years afterwards.

Eric Conner: She had the chutzpah to do what they all wanted to do.

Peter Rainer: I guess so yeah.

Eric Conner: Well, you bring up kind of this idea of space. For years these critics, these writers, they had the room, even Roger Ebert, weirdly enough, Siskel and Ebert sort of – I think maybe tilted reviews towards where it is now in that, you know, Roger Ebert’s written reviews of movies were fabulous. I mean, I think he won a Pulitzer.

Peter Rainer: He did yeah.

Eric Conner: Then they had a TV show called At the Movies, where it was Gene Siskel, Roger Ebert, two critics from the Chicago scene. And they then turned cinema criticing into something that was a little bit like a greatest hits collection. Suddenly it was a thumbs up or thumbs down.

Clip: …think about it with Jaws, which had three marvelous characters hunting the shark. Jurassic Park only has Goldblum. The rest of the crew stands around and smiles or schemes. Still, thumbs up from me. The action scenes are really enjoyable.

I gave a thumbs up too and also for the action scenes and I feel that really this movie, though, was a missed opportunity…

Eric Conner: Now we have tomatoes with a aggregate score, Metacritic.

Peter Rainer: Right.

Eric Conner: So it was curious your take on, I guess, where a large chunk of this industry has now gone.

Peter Rainer: When I was first starting out as a critic or reading critics was, some might argue, the golden age of criticism in the sense there were some amazing critics back then. There’s many more good critics now than there were in the 70s. It’s just that there are fewer places to show that you’re good. But when the Siskel Ebert syndrome kicked in, they were originally a local show and then became national and then Disney bought it, et cetera. That created kind of the critic as celebrity. Before that the critics I’d mentioned earlier were celebrities.

Eric Conner: That’s right. I was about to say they had their own celebrity, too.

Peter Rainer: Right. But in a rarefied circle because they weren’t on TV. But Siskel and Ebert, people would tune in to see them who had never heard of Pauline Kael or Stanley Kaufman or anybody. They just want to see these two guys fight, frankly.

Clip:…well I hated this movie more than any other movie on this show. And I’m I’m really surprised at you. You should be ashamed of yourself. First of all.

What, for not agreeing with you? I’ve never been ashamed of that. I’ve been proud of that.

OK, well, in that case, here’s another star for your lapel. OK. This movie is not funny…

Peter Rainer: And then there were knockoffs of Siskel and Ebert. Various other people tried to do it. Look, I knew Roger and I respected him and he was a good guy and a terrific writer. The problem I had with that show was not that it was two guys talking about movies, because if you actually transcribed their words, it’s probably more more words devoted to a given movie than most newspaper critics had in print. But I just felt that, you know, you have thumbs up and you have thumbs down. But most movies are thumbs sideways.

Eric Conner: Sure.

Peter Rainer: Right. I mean, you don’t usually love or hate most movies is kind of somewhere in the middle.

Eric Conner: And there are elements you love elements that don’t work.

Peter Rainer: So I understood why they didn’t have thumbs sideways. But I thought it sort of adulterated the whole concept by pitching it yes or no. Thumbs up, thumbs down. And it became, you know, literally a trademark. Roger copyrighted the thumb. You know, so when people started to see that, hey, you know, you can get on TV and talk about criticism. So suddenly, you know, you would find in the film schools and just in general. I remember talking to this this film class of people who wanted to be critics, a criticism class. And I said, this is awfully photogenic class. Oh I know why that is.

Eric Conner: Right, because they they don’t think of the hunched over the keyboard writing.

Peter Rainer: Right they’re not really. Yeah or they say I want to be a critic and I say, well, what have you written? And they say well I haven’t, I like to talk about film. I like to. I said well that’s not quite it. You know, cause everyone says what a great job. All you do is go to movies all day. And I say, well, yes and no. First of all, most movies are lousy and I see about 250 a year. And second of all, that’s half the job. You know, the real job for me is to be a writer.

Eric Conner: Right.

Peter Rainer: You know, a critic is first and foremost, or should be, a writer. And that’s really what the job is about for me. But the space that we have to do it in, you know, you mentioned is – there are still a number of outlets where you can stretch out. But to really stretch out is a luxury that is not only rarer than it used to be, but in some ways not expected, like what you were saying, the people just sort of want to look for the quick fix.

Eric Conner: Right.

Peter Rainer: You know, is it is it fresh or rotten? Is it this or that? Now at the monitor, I am asked to provide a grade. At least it saves me the trouble of having, you know, rotten tomatoes. People call me up, as they used to say, you know, is this a B or a B minus. But, you know, as far as those sites go, I don’t, unlike a lot of critics, I don’t really have a problem with rotten tomatoes, but I think it cuts both ways. On the one hand, you know, none of the critics whose stuff is being linked on Rotten Tomatoes gets paid for that. However.

Eric Conner: You’re not getting any kind of bump for being featured.

Peter Rainer: Not really.

Eric Conner: Even featured as a top critic.

Peter Rainer: Right. Not that I know of. Also, it’s too easy for editors and, you know, publishers to say, well, we don’t need critics. We can just link to Rotten Tomatoes. You know, if everybody thought that way there’d be nothing to link to because everything that you’re aggregating would be gone. The people who are aggregated on Rotten Tomatoes are people who have individual bylines. But what I like about Rotten Tomatoes is that, you know, in the past, if I wanted to read a critic, say, in Boston or someplace, the only way I could read that critic is if I subscribe to, you know, The Boston Globe or the Phoenix or whatever.

Eric Conner: Right.

Peter Rainer: Now, with the click of a key, you can read anybody. So in a sense, it’s the great leveler. You know, The New York Times and the Podunk Express critic are equally accessible, which is a good thing. It also means that if you’re good, but out there in the wilderness, you don’t feel quite as alone.

Eric Conner: Right no it’s true. Your review can reach so much more of a mass audience than ever. It’s not only limited to that town.

Peter Rainer: Yeah and that’s important. I myself don’t read a whole lot of criticism, you know, hardly any before I see a film, assuming reviews are even out there.

Eric Conner: Yeah I was about to say you also have the luxury of you get to see it early.

Peter Rainer: Yeah. Yeah. I mean, you know, the trades and some publications usually come out earlier than the rest of us, but but for the most part, particularly if I’m at a festival like Toronto, I’m seeing films that are opening two, three months in advance, sometimes a year in advance, sometimes they never open. And, you know, I don’t review a movie right after I see it. Most of the time unless I’m on some big deadline. But I try to take notes just so I have some sense of, you know, what I was thinking. So that when I do review it, if it’s months later, you know, because I do see a lot of movies, I do have the luxury at the monitor of not reviewing everything I see. Thank God, because that’s another.

Eric Conner: You can pick and choose basically.

Peter Rainer: For the most part, I mean, if if if I didn’t wanna review Black Panther for some reason, I would have had to review that just for obvious reasons. But I did want to see it, of course. Or let, let’s say, Transformers movies. I have sort of at this point saying, you know, I just can’t take it anymore. I’m sorry.

Eric Conner: Like you can as a critic then say I think I think my audience is good not to read my review.

Peter Rainer: To some extent. I mean, the reason I have to do some of that is because at least the online version of what I write does reach everybody, not just monitor subscribers, particularly if you’re going through rotten tomatoes and hits matter, clicks matter, all of that stuff. So I can’t just turn my back because, I mean, I wasn’t kidding. There are 20 movies that open in a given week.

Eric Conner: Sure.

Peter Rainer: And the radio show that I’m a part of, Film Week, they sort of like it if the two of us critics see the majority of what’s out there as a great public service to all these people who are listening who then don’t have to see all this crap that we’re talking about.

Eric Conner: I see Transformers so you do not.

Peter Rainer: Well, if Transformers opened on a week when I was on the show, I would have to see the thing. But that’s a classic example of a so-called critic proof movie.

Eric Conner: Yeah.

Peter Rainer: This idea that the studios are clamoring for critics to write about their movies is certainly not true. And there are some movies that criticism has zero effect. It’s not like, you know, I’m going to give a terrible review to Transformers 12 and Michael Bay is going to sit there and go, God now we just lost 12 million at the box office. You know, the only critic who apparently had even the slightest real effect on studio picture box office was Ebert. Where you have an effect as a critic is with the small indie films.

Eric Conner: Sure.

Peter Rainer: That’s the big difference. Studio pictures. Increasingly, you know, they’ll screen it maybe three or four days before it opens at best. Sometimes they don’t screen it at all. If you’re known for not rolling over like me, sometimes you get to see it last. And then there are critics, you know, blurb whores who who see things real early.

Eric Conner: Well, back in the day, Earl Dittman, his stuff was like, you know, you would have a movie that clearly critics did not favor. And then all of a sudden it would say, like, the greatest epic yet. You know, Earl Dittman, what was it like Wireless magazines?

Peter Rainer: Something like that. Yeah.

Eric Conner: Some thing that doesn’t even exist.

Peter Rainer: Right.

Eric Conner: Yeah. I mean, there were so many critics out there that in essence, they’re they’re not reviews, they’re just glorified fluff pieces to just get their line on the commercial.

Peter Rainer: Right. Well, back in the day, you had some critics who were like that. They could always be counted on to give a great review. Very rarely do I get quoted at this point, but for whatever reason, they tend to go to the same people all the time. And, you know, if you use the word Oscar like it’s only January, but this film is going to clean up at Oscar time or, you know, Driving Miss Daisy, “drive this film straight to the Oscars!”

Eric Conner: Straight to the Oscars.

Peter Rainer: Right. You know, and it’s just shameless, you know. And sometimes, I mean, there are certain critics who are quoted a lot who if you actually go back and look at the full review, they’re kind of mixed reviews. But you have these, quote lines stand out in Dayglo. You know, it says, I didn’t think. For some reason I used always it quoted on John Carpenter movies, even though I was very mixed on them, you know, like The Fog, you know, not a very good movie, but a couple of really scary moments. “Really scary!” I very rarely use exclamation points, but they always put them into these quotes. Sometimes rarely they’ll call me up and say, we want to use this quote, which isn’t quite what I wrote or it’s or it’s the headline which I never write for these reviews. you know, that sort of thing. Look, I like getting quoted. You know, my my mom loved it, and it makes you feel good. But if it’s in the service of something that you genuinely liked. But as I was saying, you know, critics do make a difference for foreign films, independent films, documentaries, those movies, because they don’t have any money to promote their frame.

Eric Conner: Right, right. You are there advertising.

Peter Rainer: Right, we are their advertising and they will build a screening room in your home to show you their movie. I’m not big on streaming. But, you know, there’s a lot of stuff now that’s streamed or DVDs, you know, whatever it takes. And with the traffic in L.A., I have to say, if the choice is me driving an hour and 45 minutes to see a movie that’s an hour and a half or seeing it in the comfort of my own home on a film that is going to lose much visually. That’s what we do now.

Eric Conner: Yeah, on that end I was going to actually ask you about. I was wondering if there were smaller films, independent films. You felt like over the course of your career you’re really able to help champion.

Peter Rainer: Right yeah. Oh, sure. I mean, I, I guess I have two success stories, if I’m may say. One was the movie Blue Sky. Jessica Lange, Tony Richardson directed it, Tommy Lee Jones. Yeah. Yeah. So that was that was made and wasn’t released for like a year and a half. Then it came out, it got a an okay review by the first rank critic at the L.A. Times. And I was at the Times at that point as well. And I thought, well, Jessica Lange’s performance is just unbelievably great.

Eric Conner: Yes, she’s terrific.

Peter Rainer: You know I showed it at a NYFA class to acting students.

Eric Conner: Oh, that’s right. I think I saw the poster film like. Oh, cool.

Peter Rainer: Yeah. No, I wanted to pick something that.

Eric Conner: That’s a bit of a gem.

Peter Rainer: Yeah. Yeah. And I write about it in my book too. But the piece in the book is taken from the L.A. Times. So what happened was I wrote this big essay about her performance and the paper played it up, front page calendar, and that was just when the Academy was starting to send out VHS tapes of films. So Orion got behind the film to the extent that they sent out VHS tapes with a copy of my review to all the Academy members of this film that no one had seen. And then she won the Oscar and she, I’m told, you know, has credited me for making that happen. At least getting the film out there. It would have died. Another example was Alfonso Caron’s first English language movie, Little Princess was a Warner’s picture. That was a movie that, again, it got an okay review in the Times. But I thought this is just a transcendent family.

Eric Conner: Beautiful film.

Peter Rainer: Beautiful, beautiful film. So I wrote a long piece on it, particularly cause at the time everybody was saying, well, why aren’t there enough good movies for families, you know? I said, well, here’s one and you’re not going to see it. The Warners campaign for it initially was terrible. So, again, they took out big ads. My review was sent out. They rereleased it on the basis of the review. It still didn’t do the kind of business it should have. And the ad campaign had the little girl’s glowing cheeks in the dark, like I mean, like a Stephen King movie. But I know that Cuarón said, you know, I. I really owe you. So, I mean, that that makes you feel good because you really championing you know, I think I speak for a lot of critics that, you know, it’s not tearing things down that we get off on. It’s championing films that might not normally have a life of its own.

Eric Conner: Sure. Well, and actually gets us into part of your book. I really was say to talk with you about which was overrated or under seen. And we’ll start with the under seen and we’ll we’ll start positive before we work our way maybe to the back of the house there. A few of them that I just jotted down that I thought really deserved some mention that I’m really glad you did the book. Wild Bill with a terrific performance by Jeff Bridges. Joe Gould’s Secret. And I’m going to piggyback on that and I want to talk about Big Night, which I love also. Stanley Tucci directed. Then Babe Pig in the City.

Peter Rainer: Yeah.

Eric Conner: Any of those you want to pontificate on?

Peter Rainer: Well, yeah. Wild Bill. I was the critic at Los Angeles magazine at that time, and I had a lot of space and I thought, you know, Walter Hill’s had a very uneven career, but at his best, he’s a great director. And at that time he was sort of not as highly regarded. And Jeff Bridges, I’ve always thought, was one of the very best actors around. And you know, and here here he is in a full scale starring role. Terrific script. I just thought it was.

Eric Conner: Ellen Barkin was in that too right?

Peter Rainer: Ellen Barkin. Yeah. I mean, it’s it’s an amazing movie that, you know, you and I and eight other people have probably seen.

Eric Conner: Yeah.

Peter Rainer: But it was a classic example of my trying to put into the spotlight a film that was terrific. And I knew needed some help. Babe Pig in the City is is one of the best sequels ever made. I mean, I love Babe. I think this is even better. It’s a turbo charged woop-de-do great. The script is really good. I mean, everything about it is just a terrific movie.

Eric Conner: And I think it like didn’t hit with family audiences the same way because there’s.

Peter Rainer: Dark.

Eric Conner: There’s a darkness about it, but it actually I mean the themes of it are beautiful and it died. Like, it like.

Peter Rainer: I know.

Eric Conner: And Babe was such a hit and such a hit on video too.

Peter Rainer: I think some people who loved Babe felt betrayed that this wasn’t, you know, the same tone. But I mean, if it had been, it wouldn’t have been as good. It was it was just a terrific movie.

Eric Conner: But you really could feel like the first one you like, George Miller worked on that? And then Babe Pig in the City, like ah yeah, there’s George Miller.

Peter Rainer: Right that’s the Road Warrior George Miller.

Eric Conner: Like there’s a scene that looks like it’s right out of Thunderdome towards the end of that film.

Peter Rainer: Yeah there’s some great chase scenes in it.

Eric Conner: And then Joe Gould’s Secret, which directed by Stanley Tucci.

Peter Rainer: Right.

Eric Conner: Inspired by a true story.

Peter Rainer: Yeah it was a New Yorker writer who sort of befriended this this homeless guy who claimed to be writing a million page history of the world. It was just a very touching movie. It was very well done. You know, it wasn’t a great work of cinematic art, but, you know, it didn’t have to be.

Eric Conner: And that’s what I feel about big night. I I’m curious your thoughts on Big Night. Because that’s one of those.

Peter Rainer: Yeah don’t see you when you’re hungry.

Eric Conner: Yeah. That film’s all about food, but but food not just as food. The food is a symbol of of art versus commerce. And two brothers Primo and Secondo.

Peter Rainer: Yeah. Yeah.

Eric Conner: Stanley Tucci co-wrote it, co-directed it, starred in it with Tony Shalhoub.

Peter Rainer: And Tony Shalhoub. Yeah.

Eric Conner: And it’s this beautiful little gem of a film. I you know, I teach writing and I use that film every time I have a new group. If I’m talking dialog I go there. If I’m talking theme I go there. And Stanley Tucci, he’s only directed a little bit, but I feel like he really has a real auteur’s eye and auteur’s heart.

Peter Rainer: You know, Big Night, as I recall it ends with the two guys. They sort of make up, but they don’t say anything.

Eric Conner: It’s it’s a 10 minute scene of them cooking an omelet.

Peter Rainer: And they don’t say anything. Right. Sometimes the best dialogue is no dialogue.

Eric Conner: Oh, yeah, and that’s a lesson I teach.

Peter Rainer: That’s a classic example. You know, just just let it play out. You don’t need to say anything.

Eric Conner: No. No dialogue. No cuts.

Peter Rainer: Yeah.

Eric Conner: So. Well, we talked positive and, you know, without being nasty.

Peter Rainer: Uh oh.

Eric Conner: Some interesting choices for movies that you felt were overrated. Again, not necessarily terrible, but just overrated. And I’ll just list a few. Feel free to riff on any of them. American Beauty, Good Will Hunting, which I do want to talk about. Shine, Fight Club, Zero Dark Thirty. And then you didn’t get into this in the book, but you alluded to Silver Linings Playbook, which I think you just called, and I’m quoting you, “a crock.”

Peter Rainer: I mean, Silver Linings Playbook is entertaining. I called it a crock because I think the way it wraps up, it’s like, you know, mental illness is something that you can literally dance away.

Eric Conner: It’s easy as long as you. Right, right. If you do well in the dance contest, you’re healed.

Peter Rainer: I mean, really.

Eric Conner: But, yeah, I was wondering if any of those particular for you were like American Beauty wins the Oscar for best picture.

Peter Rainer: Yeah that pissed me off. I forget what should have won that year. But that’s actually the first review in my book. I just thought I really wanted to, you know, to come out swinging, you know, with the film that that won all these awards. But I have found that, and a lot of people who’ve read it say, you know, yeah, I kind of agree with you. That was overrated. Sometimes these movies, it takes a while before people really come down from the hype and see these films more for what they really are. You know, Shine, I thought. And we can talk about this in connection with Good Will Hunting also. But, you know, there’s this kind of romance of madness, the genius of, that is very much old school Hollywood, but tricked up in these new ways, people buy it in a way that they might not if it was so nakedly obvious. In the old movies, you know, some great composer tearing his hair out and “I’ve got it,” you know, and aha. You know, there are ways to do that story that are sympathetic and powerful and empathetic without distorting who these guys really are.

Eric Conner: Are there films you can think of that are like the troubled genius? You know, I mean, even Beautiful Mind, which I’m not sure.

Peter Rainer: Yeah, I wasn’t crazy about that either.

Eric Conner: And that one I know got some criticism for leaving out pretty large chunks of who this guy was.

Peter Rainer: Right. You know, all the stuff that’s going to turn people off.

Eric Conner: Yeah, but is there one that you feel like really nailed it?

Peter Rainer: It’s very difficult. You know, the Picasso movie with Anthony Hopkins didn’t work.

Eric Conner: I guess Amadeus maybe to an extent, although it’s not the same category though, right?

Peter Rainer: No and I had a problem with Amadeus too. I’m sorry because the game plan there was that the real Mozart was this amazing genius. But he was this scatological twit in real life, you know, with all this cackling and all that. That’s what people remember, you know, and then somehow out of all of this comes this great music. Now, if you read anything about his life or in general, this notion that he was somehow visited by the gods, I think is a disservice to what genius entails, which isn’t all just, you know, you wake up and you’re a genius. Even geniuses have to work at it and have ups and downs. And there’s more of a psychology to their lives than is allowed for in these stupid movies.

Eric Conner: I think maybe Pollock, I thought might be one. That was good.

Peter Rainer: Pollock was. Yeah, Pollock was pretty strong. I’d have to think about that. You know, I mean, Geoffrey Rush, who was in Shine, was played Einstein in the TV series and he wasn’t bad. But that’s sort of an impossible role to do. It’s very hard to portray genius.

Eric Conner: Well, and I think it, right. And I think Pollock, it’s such a grounded film. You know, in essence, like he was so driven, and he would sort of put his work before all his relationships.

Peter Rainer: Right yeah. No it’s funny because it’s like the ones I think have been sort of successful that I can recall are mostly about painters. With writers, it’s a little more difficult. You know, you’re sitting down and all of a sudden you got. It’s not a very photo, you know, cinematic thing to do.

Eric Conner: A movie you brought up in your book. And this one’s not based on a true story. But Wonder Boys, which is, I think, a terrific movie about writing.

Peter Rainer: Underrated. Yeah.

Eric Conner: Yeah. That, right, that. Was that on your underrated list?

Peter Rainer: No that’s in another. That’s in the Curtis Hanson auteurs section.

Eric Conner: Oh right right. The auteurs section. I thought Wonder Boys if you haven’t seen it, it’s Michael Douglas and it’s that thing Paul Newman was so wonderful at. It’s like it didn’t feel like acting, and you realize how much work into making something look like you’re not doing any work.

Peter Rainer: Yeah, it’s really, I know for fact, that’s one of his very best performances. Yeah. It does capture the writing life in ways that most movies don’t.

Eric Conner: Right. Yeah he doesn’t have writer’s block. He writes too much, which is, that one detail feels so lived in where it has no center because he has no center.

Peter Rainer: Yeah.

Eric Conner: Gosh I want to watch it like tonight again.

Peter Rainer: Yeah it’s a terrific, terrific movie.

Eric Conner: And who, was it like Dede Allen edited it? I’m trying to remember.

Peter Rainer: Oh Anne Coates?

Eric Conner: Yeah, it was one. It was either Dede. I think it was Dede Allen.

Peter Rainer: Might have been Dede Allen.

Eric Conner: But yeah the idea that Dede Allen and Anne Coates were still doing it, you know, and doing such a great. I mean, Out of Sight I think is one of the.

Peter Rainer: Terrific movie.

Eric Conner: One of the best sorta pulpy genre films.

Peter Rainer: I mean out of sight won the National Society of Film Critics award for Best Picture. And I remember, you know, because usually these awards are given to sort of Oscar bait or prestigious movies that fit all the categories, you know. And here was this terrific genre movie. And I was overjoyed that it won. But I got more calls because I was president of the group like The New York Times saying how is it that this film won? In other words, there was some conspiracy or what? What went on? And I explained to them what happened. And then they they published their own version of it anyway. You know, they they they refused to believe that that you could actually. Babe, the first babe, won best picture also from that group. And I remember there was a picture of a pig on the front page of Variety, you know, and people couldn’t believe that.

Eric Conner: I tell you, watch the last 10 minutes of that film. You know, Farmer Hoggett and Babe and his his big day at the at the sheep herding contest. It is like the most beautifully directed scene.

Peter Rainer: Yeah.

Eric Conner: And it is such a, I love showing that movie to my kids. If anything, I wish they would want to watch it more times because some of their movies they want to watch a hundred times I’m like, really?

Peter Rainer: What’s an example of a movie that they want to see hundreds of times?

Eric Conner: I mean, listen. I love Star Wars, but those prequels, it’s it’s rough.

Peter Rainer: Really the prequels?

Eric Conner: Listen, they’re young. I try with them.

Peter Rainer: Empire Strikes Back is for me a great movie.

Eric Conner: Sure. I could watch that a hundred times. I probably have watched that a hundred times. You know, and you actually talked a bit about Irvin Kershner’s work on that and Irvin Kershner directed Empire. He passed away a couple of years back, right?

Peter Rainer: Yeah, yeah, yeah.

Eric Conner: So I was wondering if you could talk even a little bit about him.

Peter Rainer:Yeah.

Eric Conner: Cause he’s kind of like him and I feel like Hal Ashby to an extent.

Peter Rainer: Yeah.

Eric Conner: They’re these like great auteurs who were sort of overshadowed by other auteurs of those time periods.

Peter Rainer: Definitely. Yeah. I mean, Ashby directed a string of terrific movies.

Eric Conner: In the 70s he basically like Babe Ruth up there.

Peter Rainer: Yeah. Yeah. I think even Harold and Maude, I think may have even been the 60s.

Eric Conner: What was that like 68 or 69?

Peter Rainer: Right but his first film I think as a director was, wasn’t it The Landlord? Beau Bridges, a terrific script by I think Bill Gunn. It was a really, really good movie, but he was a marvelous director. I gather he had some, you know, personal and drug issues that did him in early, but he’s not nearly as recognized as he should be now for those films. Kershner even more so. I mean, here’s a director who, you know, he started out he did a Corman movie. There’s a film called The Luck of Ginger Coffey with Robert Shaw and Mary Ure, which is a great newspaper movie. It’s about a newspaper man.

Eric Conner: And he was like George Lucas’s teacher at SC, I think.

Peter Rainer: I believe. Yeah. He he went to SC originally himself. And he was incredibly versatile. He did every you know, from creepy noir, supernatural, you know, Eyes of Laura Mars to Empire Strikes Back. He did a wonderful, very under seen Streisand movie, maybe her best performance, Up the Sandbox. Incredibly versatile and good. I’m missing some, you know.

Eric Conner: Well, one to miss, Never Say Never Again. I believe he directed that.

Peter Rainer: Yeah. Yeah.

Eric Conner: Which was the remake of Thunderball with a slightly older Sean Connery.

Peter Rainer: Yeah. Right. No. There were, you know, he did the sequel to Robocop. I wasn’t crazy about that.

Eric Conner: Oh my god. That’s right. With the. Just stop at Empire and call it a day because. Yeah and I mean, Empire has such – there’s so much more to that. You know, it elevated the whole genre, really. I mean it’s.

Peter Rainer: Still the best, I think, of them.

Eric Conner: And it’s beautiful. I mean, I’ve been able to see it on the big screen. I saw it when I was a little kid. But you see it now. And there is such artistry to that.

Peter Rainer: Yeah. Kerschner had a great graphics sense, too. I mean, really.

Eric Conner: The use of color, the use of framing.

Peter Rainer: Yeah. He worked with Connery much earlier on than than that misbegotten Bond movie.

Eric Conner: Oh yeah, that’s right.

Peter Rainer: A Fine Madness.

Eric Conner:Yeah. Yeah.

Peter Rainer: It’s a terrific movie, which is apparently, you know, recut by the studio. But but Connery is wonderful in it. This is pre James Bond even before Dr. No, I believe. But the word on on Kersh as everybody called him. I only met him a few times briefly. But you know, he said one of the reasons he was more well-known or made more movies is that he said nobody can turn a go project into a development deal. You know better than Irvin Kershner. You know, so. Because he at one point he was going to do a movie with a ninja, and there were always these projects were announced.

Eric Conner: Yeah.

Peter Rainer: But a wonderful, wonderful director.

Eric Conner: And that’s the hope is like you, you know, your book and your reviews. It does. You know, as you’re saying, it shines a light on the ones that aren’t as seen. And that’s honestly for myself teaching at a film school. You know, I try to make a point of bringing in stuff that spans decades and trying to find that balance. And it is hard to sometimes get past the, you know, let’s call it the little bit of aging on top, but there’s these beautiful stories that you as a critic have been able to bring to people and vice versa, which I think is to me, I imagine, the most rewarding part of your job by far.

Peter Rainer: Yeah. Yeah. Well, you know, and Night of the Hunter, I often show that in classes or talk about because it really is is such a difficult movie. In some ways it’s it’s comedy. It’s scary. It’s funny. It’s you know, you really have to sort of be on its wavelength.

Eric Conner: Mitchum is so good in that.

Peter Rainer: Mitchum is incredible in it. And you know, the script is by James Agee. Only film Charles Laughton ever directed. It was shot by the guy.

Eric Conner: Oh that’s right. Right, right.

Peter Rainer: Yeah. It was shot by Stanley Cortez, who did Magnificent Ambersons. You know, it’s it’s just an amazing movie on every level. And another director who’s even more well-known than Kershner but still, Paul Mazursky is a director who I feel is sort of falling out of the landscape, who did some wonderful, wonderful movies.

Eric Conner: Yeah, yeah, yeah.

Peter Rainer: Real humanist. You know, Harry and Tonto, Enemies, A Love Story based on the Isaac Singer novel.

Eric Conner: Oh yeah terrific. Lena Olin and.

Peter Rainer: Great movie. Yeah. Angelica Houston.

Eric Conner: Ron Silver?

Peter Rainer: Ron Silver. It’s an amazing it’s his best work and his early films, too. You know, Bob and Carol and Ted and Alice I saw again not that long ago.

Eric Conner: Oh you wrote about that. Yeah I know you love that film.

Peter Rainer: Yeah. And even Alice in Wonderland, as misbegotten as a lot of it is, has some classic Hollywood satire.

Eric Conner: Was he Down and Out in Beverly Hills, too?

Peter Rainer: Yeah. Downtown Beverly Hills.

Eric Conner: Which which is really good actually.

Peter Rainer: It’s a really funny movie.

Eric Conner: That one aged nicely. Like, some of those you were talking about this, I think with American Beauty, like some movies were great then, and then you watch a little later like.

Peter Rainer: Right. Right.

Eric Conner: That one I saw not that long back again. It was. It really aged beautifully.

Peter Rainer: Holds up, yeah.

Eric Conner: Well, listen, I really appreciate just sitting down and chatting with you. I’ve seen your screenings that you’ve hosted at our school. And I think what you do here for our students is look deeper. Right? Like there’s so much new stuff and there’s so much great television, but you just have to scratch a little bit and you find things like the Criterion Collection.

Peter Rainer: Oh, yeah.

Eric Conner: And I mean, pretty much anything you get in the Criterion Collection, you’re going to be happy that you watched it.

Peter Rainer: Right.

Eric Conner: You might not always get it. You might always like it. But it will expand your film vocabulary and your film knowledge and your film history, all of which if you’re looking to write, direct, produce, act, cinematography.

Peter Rainer:Absolutely yeah.

Eric Conner:You gotta learn from the giants in order to stand on their shoulders correctly, I suppose.

Peter Rainer: Yeah.

Eric Conner: Well, Peter, thank you so much for kibitzing with me.

Peter Rainer: Thank you Eric. It was great. Went fast.

Eric Conner: And we will do this again. So thank you, Peter, for joining us. And thanks to all of you for listening. Again, his book, Rainer on Film is available at Amazon, Barnes & Noble and all other legitimate booksellers. It is more than worth it. If you want to check out some of our other Q&As you can go to our YouTube channel. That’s YouTube.com/NewYorkFilmAcademy. This episode was edited and mixed by the wonderful Kristian Heydon. Our creative director is the also wonderful David Andrew Nelson, who also produced this episode with Kristian Heydon and myself. Our show is executive produced by Tova Laiter, 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 NYFA.edu. And you can subscribe on Apple podcasts or wherever you may 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 creative mind behind at least one of your favorite movies. The director who, through no fault of his own, all other filmmakers get compared to. Yes, we’re talking about Spielberg. Steven Spielberg. I’m pretty sure you know his credits. Despite a schedule that one can only imagine is always filled, Mr. Spielberg took time to speak to our students at NYFA after a screening of one of his first films, Jaws, the movie that helped set the bar for all summer blockbusters and also set the bar for all the difficulties one could have on set.

Steven Spielberg: The madness came with the package, and the madness was really that we all went out and did something that we perhaps would have been wiser to have stayed at home. I didn’t know it was gonna be this tough. I really did know Jaws would be next to impossible to make. I just thought we would go out there like any movie and shoot on the water and we’d float around a bit and get some shots and go home and just so much. From the first day we got there, every single day was. I learned something new that I knew I would never. As Harrison Ford likes to say, every single day on Jaws was one more useless experience. And yet we were still able to get between one and three shots a day. And that’s all we got. I mean, I’m used to getting 30, 40 shots a day on my movies. We were getting on average day would be two shots. Really. And when you average that that means a shot in the morning, a shot in the afternoon, or sometimes two shots in the afternoon, nothing in the morning. And that’s also taking the average number of setups on land, because on land, it was an easy movie. It was a normal film on land. So you then have to do the math and figure out well if it was getting 20 shots a day on land. How did the average go down to one or two shots a day? The way the average goes to one or two shots a day is. There are some days you get no shots. But it was an eye opener for me and, you know, universal. Here we are. And I’m still here. And because they treated me well all those years and they let me make jaws. And then when the head of the studio tried to fire me twice, the boss of the head of the studio stopped him from firing me twice. And I got to complete the movie because we were so far behind schedule and so far over budget.

Eric Conner: If you wrote a movie about making a shark movie, you couldn’t dream of the problems they faced on Jaws, but from all these unexpected obstacles also came some equally surprising solutions.

Steven Spielberg: The biggest terror about shooting on the water is you cannot stand on it. If I could if I could, I would go back and make another movie on the water. But right now, the whole thing about the water is unless you’re a great swimmer or you’ve or you’re self-destructive, I don’t find any percentage in being on the water for longer than, you know. I don’t even go to the swimming pool today. I’m not afraid of sharks. It’s just I just don’t like water. Jaws taught me that. But in terms of sound, we had a lot of great recording, a lot of great production sound on Jaws. John Carter was the sound mixer for the whole nine months of shooting and he had so much spare time. All he did was have his Nagra on his lap and he was just getting all kinds of detailed water sounds. What it sounds like in six foot seas of water hitting the side of the orca, which sounds like a two foot seas with the little slapping sound of water on the orca. And we had a library that he compiled of sounds that made postproduction and all the sound designers made their jobs lot easier. But I remember there was a scene in Jaws where the boy goes out. Remember, the boy is chasing the girl and he’s drunk and the girl goes out, Chrissie Watkins. She gets eaten. Okay. She’s history. And then the boy is lying there and the water is kind of washing up and outlining him in the dusk light. You saw him silhouetted against the the tide coming in and out. And I never liked the sound of the hissing sound of the foam when it washes up on shore and the receding foam as it goes out. And I remember one of the sound effects designers in post-production. He was making eggs in the morning and he broke an egg and he listened to the sizzle of the egg in the skillet. And he ran and got his Nagra and ran back to the kitchen, broke another egg. And all the sound of all the foam in Jaws is John’s eggs being fried in the morning. And there’s a billion stories like that in this business of how people got these sounds.

Eric Conner: Despite the numerous complications, Jaws went on to launch Mr. Spielberg’s multi-billion dollar career and taught him how to prepare for the unpredictable.

Steven Spielberg: Well, practically, you know, I learned how not to bring a shoot shot list to work. I think the fourth day of shooting on the water, which was after about thirty five days of shooting on land, I went out to the water and I had like I had a list of 30 shots and I kept going like this, scratchy things off. What do I essentially need to make this sequence work? And eventually I got down to the reality that I would have to make the scenes work, all the suspense and all the interpersonal character action between the three principals on the boat in the last part of the movie, I would have to make all of that work with fewer than normal amount of shots. So the editor, Verna Fields, when we both got into the editing room, there was we had less options and there were far fewer options than I normally have on a movie. It was just too tough getting off shots. I’m not sure that anything I ever did. Again, I don’t think Jaws provided any kind of an object lesson for me, except, as you all probably know, I’ve never gone back to the water to make a movie. That was probably the only lesson. That’s why I also didn’t do Jaws two and three and five and six. I don’t know how many they’ve made. But I just wouldn’t go back and do two. And they tried to get me to do it. I just said life’s too short.

Eric Conner: Sounds like we shouldn’t expect Mr. Spielberg to direct a Jaws reboot anytime soon, though with modern computer technology, it would be a heck of a lot easier.

Steven Spielberg: Here’s the thing that I just don’t want to disillusion anybody here about. I was so desperate making this movie. You can’t imagine what all of this together as a community, as a company of actors and crew went through to make this. But if somebody came over to me on the one hundred and we shot one hundred and fifty five days and one hundred and ten of those were out at sea and if let’s say at day one hundred and somebody came over to me and came over to where I was living and said, I’m an inventor and I’ve just invented this new process. And I can create that shot and I can create that water. And you never have to go back in the ocean again. I could do it all on this computer. And I would, of course, say, what’s a computer? Back in 1974, even though my dad helped invent computers back in nineteen fifty forty nine, but had somebody come over to me like that. I was desperate enough to have said show me a sample of your work and if I saw a good shark shot, I don’t care. I would’ve thrown him with him back then. But in 1974 on Martha’s Vineyard it’s a vacation place. It’s a place people go to spend their summers. It’s a place where they have picnics and they take their families and they enjoy life. And they watch fireworks on the Fourth of July. And they go on these regattas they get these sailboats have sailboat races. Just imagine that we’re shooting a very serious, suspenseful movie about a great white shark. And we’re twelve miles out to sea. But there’s all these regattas going by. People having fun with their little sailboats and their big white sails. And of course, the further away the sails were from the camera, the longer it takes for the sale to go across the horizon and get out of my shot. So if there was a regatta 200 yards away, we we were rooting for the regatta. Yeah. Go. Go. Come on. And we were really excited for the regatta when they were six miles away. We’d have to wait close to an hour for the last sail to leave the shot. And just as the last sail would leave the shot. Freddy Zendar, who controlled all the boats and all the anchoring of all the boats, came over to me and said, we can’t get the shot with the shark because the tides, the current has dragged our anchors on the sandy bottom 40 feet below. And now all the boats and the shark barge are out of position. And where you think the shark is right there and you’ve been waiting. This is the shot. This is the last sail. The last sail. It goes away. I’m ready for my shot. But the shark is over there now. And when you had to re anchor and there were six to eight anchors per barge, when you had to re anchor that easily was an hour and a half for re-anchoring. Because you’re not just re-anchoring the shark. You’re re-anchoring the lighting barge, the electric generator, where the generator’s sitting. The picture boat had to be re-anchored a lot. And thank goodness ABBA had a song on the radio that was popular in 1974 and it reminded me of what I was going through it. And it also symbolized where I thought my career was heading. The song was called Waterloo. And I had these old cans in those days, they were AM/FM stereo that I don’t know what company made them, you put them on your head there were two kind of my favorite Martian two antenna that went straight up. And I would sit literally for hours listening to Top 40 music coming from Boston from a radio station there, and because Waterloo was a big hit by ABBA, they kept playing it over and over again. That became my theme song on that movie. It really did.

Eric Conner: I think we can agree Jaws was not Steven Spielberg’s Waterloo. And all these years later, the movie still holds up as a classic. It also shows the importance of being malleable when you’re making a film.

Steven Spielberg: Well, there’s so many significant challenges that happens on set. The one thing is you have to be prepared for any eventuality. You can never rely on a day going by where something doesn’t happen that you didn’t want to happen because it’s just like Murphy’s Law. It happens 20 times a day and you just have to be open to it and expected. You can’t plan for disaster. You’d have to be flexible enough to be able to bob and weave and then come back with a better idea or a better compromise, because it’s gonna happen every single day and you’re never gonna get your way. Even today, I don’t get my way. You know, just when I’ve got the best shot laid out. Weather moves in. And I’m gonna have to be a good producer and tell the director and me that I don’t have the money to spend two or three days like David Lean used to do, waiting for the right weather. And I’ve got to accommodate the conditions and I just got to shoot in new conditions. You’ve got to be flexible and you’ve got to be flexible also because you’re not a painter. You don’t sit there with a canvas. You’re not alone in the room with beautiful northern light, you know, with all of your oils and all of your brushes you’re working through creatively through a hundred other creative people, including all the actors and all the crew and sometimes 200 creative people. So you’ve got to understand that you’re not an auteur if you want to be an auteur. Yes. Take a video camera, go off and make a movie by yourself. That’s that’s being an auteur that’s as close to brush to canvas as you’ll ever get. But when you’re working with a lighting cameraman and a film editor and you’re working with a production designer and you’re working with actors and you’re working with you’ve got to be mindful, empathic and and have a great deal of tolerance for things not going exactly as you had hoped or you had planned when you were privately doing your storyboards and mapping out exactly the perfect way to make your movie. And then you find out that the storyboards no longer make any sense because everything has changed. So my advice would be just stay as open as you possibly can.

Eric Conner: Being open as a filmmaker means knowing how to collaborate while still staying true to your vision. For instance, the screenplay for Jaws went through a number of hands before it was just right. And even then, it took Quint himself, Robert Shaw, to help conquer that particular animal.

Steven Spielberg: The whole process of Jaws was the Peter Benchley book that I liked the last third of, but I didn’t love the sort of melodramatic soap opera affair that the ichthyologist has with Sheriff Brody’s wife. There was a whole sort of Peyton Place drama to Jaws, the things that happened on Amity Island, you know, that I didn’t want to have in the movie. And Peter, bless his heart, agreed. I mean, he said that was for the book. But I understand a movie can’t really have all of that. So Peter wrote the first draft with me. And the good news about that was that he was complicit in streamlining Jaws. But I wasn’t a hundred percent happy with that first draft that Peter wrote. I tried my own draft and I didn’t like my own writing on Jaws. I did an entire draft after Peter. So I then through Dick Zanuck and David Brown, the producers, hired a writer. His name was Howard Sackler. He’s uncredited on Jaws and he’s uncredited because Howard did it as a favor to Dick and David. They had produced his play, The Great White Hope. He was a wonderful playwright. And Howard didn’t really want to receive a credit. So he just took a job. He spent four weeks at the Bel-Air Hotel here in Beverly Hills. And he wrote the script that pretty much, I think is the movie in terms of the the sequences, the way he’d laid out the narrative. And he’s responsible for the structure of Jaws. But I wasn’t one hundred percent happy with many of the individual scenes. But you have to remember that he was the individual who suggested a motivation for why Quint was Quint. And he’s the one that said, I’d like to have Quint talk about the Indianapolis. What, Indianapolis? I mean, that’s where he came from? I thought this guy was a Welch fisherman, pretending to be somebody from Long Island, he said, no, this character was on a ship called the Indianapolis that was sunk after delivering the A-bomb parts. And the sharks took hundreds of sailors that were floating in the water for three or four days before the remainder were rescued.

Clip: Eleven hundred men went into water. Vessel went down in twelve minutes. Didn’t see the first shark for about half an hour. Tiger. Thirteen-footer. You know how you know that when you’re in the water chief? You tell by looking from the dorsal to the tail.

Steven Spielberg: I had no idea the story existed, but he put it in the script. And then I had another writer, John Milius, he wrote Apocalypse Now. He wrote the Dirty Harry series. He directed and wrote Dillinger The Wind, the Lion. I’m going to see him tonight, actually, after this. I’m going to see him. And John took a crack at it and wrote a 10 page monologue for Quint to say about the Indianapolis. Too long to go in the movie. But brilliant sections. Robert Shaw took the 10 pages and being a writer himself. He brought it down to five. And I shot the Robert Shaw abridged version of the John Milius monologue conceived by Howard Sackler. That’s sort of how that happened.

Eric Conner: Though Mr. Shaw was not the only performer who had a hand in shaping the script. Thanks to all those tech delays, the cast had plenty of time to try new ideas.

Steven Spielberg: Well, I think the script changed because we were so bored. I mean, I was sitting around with Roy Scheider, Richard Dreyfuss, Robert Shaw. We’re sitting around with nothing to do for hours. And we made stuff up. I made up the scene where where, and we later was put in the script. We reverse engineered it. We would shoot a scene and then write the scene that we had just shot. So the script person, Charlsie Bryant, could have the continuity. Other times we just got bored and dreamed up scenes on the boat, took them home that night, gave the scenes that we had made up on the boat to Carl Gottlieb, who wrote the scenes into the script for the next day’s work. An example of that is the scene where Richard Dreyfuss and Robert Shaw bored with each other and very hostile toward one another. Robert showing off to Richard drinks the can of beer and squishies the can in his hand, and Richard drinks the little Styrofoam cup of coffee and switches the Styrofoam. Those things were not originally in the script, has found their way in it somehow, just based on the fact that we kept exploring. We had so much downtime, we had nothing to do but to explore how to make these scenes better. I don’t encourage improvisation if I have a strong script, but sometimes things happen and the lines aren’t working and it just doesn’t seem authentic enough to me or to the actors who are struggling to bring the scene to life. And when we do that, sometimes we do improvise. And I don’t really like to improvise with the camera’s going. I’ve done it. I prefer to improvise without the cameras and take the best lines to come out of the improvisation, put those through the writing process and then take the improvisation and then recycle it into a structured narrative based on improvisation. Several scenes in Private Ryan. All my soldiers improvised scenes and we just took the best lines that they came up with and folded them into a sequence. But most of my movies, I have to confess, are not the result of improvisation.

Eric Conner: Though most of us think of him as a visionary craftsman, Steven Spielberg consistently credits much of his success to casting. His expectations for his cast are surprisingly basic, but they are crucial.

Steven Spielberg: The most important characteristic that I require is that they know all their dialogue. They know their lines. You’d be surprised how many actors come to the set unprepared because they’ve come to receive inspiration. They’ve come to figure it all out. They want to be able to improvise a bit. They want to be able to make their own contributions. So they just loosely know what they’re about to say, but they don’t really get it letter perfect. And all I ever ask anybody is well what the writer wrote you should make that second nature to you. And then we can riff from there and change from there. But know the basic foundation of the day’s work. And so that’s the first thing I ask for. The rest is easy, because if you’re not good in my movie, it’s not your fault. It’s my fault for casting you. So you have nothing to worry about except know your lines. Then we’ll collaborate and we’ll find a great way to tell that character’s story. But there’s not much more you have to worry about.

Eric Conner: Sure nothing to worry about, you know as long as you can outrun a T-Rex or the tripods in War of the Worlds. Steven Spielberg is just as careful when determining his crew. Especially since he tends to hold on to them for lots of projects.

Steven Spielberg: I pick my crew very carefully because I tend to work with the same crew. You know, I tend to stick with the people. Ron Judkins is made like eighteen movies with me. He’s my head sound mixer, my production sound guy. You know, I’ve had Gary Rydstrom doing doing and Ben Burtt doing sound effects for me for years consistently. I’ve used other people, too, but they’re the most consistent. You know Janusz Kaminski has shot my last eleven movies that I’ve directed, and before that Allen Daviau did three and Dean Cundey did about three or four. So I like working with the same crew. I like working with the same operator, camera operator, same focus puller, the same dolly grips because the strangers to the experience are pretty much the actors. And I love the actors walking into a community of friends and collaborators who know each other and our dialogue with each other as shorthand because we’ve known each other so long. We don’t have to get acquainted from film to film. We have to get acquainted with the material because we’re all chameleons. The movie requires crew to be like character actors where you have to fill different shoes, different kinds of parts. But I like the consistency of a crew and that’s why I’m very careful to pick my crew and I hang onto them as long as I can.

Eric Conner: So for those of you looking to find a crew for your own movie, choose wisely. Even if you’re a weekend warrior making a film while working other jobs or going to school, find the right team. That’s how Steven Spielberg got his start when he was barely even old enough to shave.

Steven Spielberg: The fortunate thing about wanting to be a director is that directors pretty much have a little more control at least in going out on a weekend with an 8 millimeter movie camera. You know, if you do odd jobs and in my day I could do odd jobs and my dad helped me and I made some money and my dad lent me some money, which I never paid back. Well I did pay it back. He’s living pretty good now. But I think that early on, a director at least has the control of putting together a little group to go out. Go see Super 8, because that’s exactly what JJ and I experienced, where we were 12 and 14 years old. Making movies like that with neighborhood friends but with actors it’s different. And I’ve got several actors in my family. I know how hard it is. And there’s not a single actor that could be sitting where I’m sitting right now who could deny the fact that they ever hit big bottomless pits of feeling that nobody wanted them and they would never have a chance to express themselves in the performing arts. Every actor I don’t know who it is. You’d name any name, and I’m sure all of them have a story about the lows they hit before some exciting piece of kismet occurred to them before them. And they got a chance to, you know, to show off how good they were. So it’s gonna happen. It can also happen after you’ve had a spate of roles. You can have a year in a TV series and it might be three years before you get hired again. That’s not because you weren’t very good in the TV series is because sometimes directors, casting directors, producers don’t quite know how to place or cast everybody. And actors have droughts. You’ve got, you know, high moments and low moments. Just my advice to everybody would be, if you believe in yourself and if you’ve got the wherewithal to keep you know, you know what they say, the gumshoe, you know, going from meeting to meeting, reading to reading, study, go to acting class, continue to take classes. I encourage actors that are working to go to class. When I was a young director here at Universal, all the actors that I knew that I was either directing in television episodes when I was in my early 20s or actors who I knew about, they were all going to acting class. They were being paid to be in TV shows and they were going to acting class when they weren’t professionally being paid to act. There’s something very commendable about that. So you’ve got to keep studying.

Eric Conner: A reason to keep working on your craft is so that you’re ready for your first professional gig, especially since you might not be able to pick your own collaborators, at least not right away.

Steven Spielberg: I think when you first get your professional break and you’re a director for the first time and somebody has hired you, it’s most likely going to be in television or it’s going to be maybe a video, a music video or a commercial. And in that case, you’re going to be handed your crew. You’re gonna be given the people to work with and you’re going to have to get to know them. You’ll be assigned a team. If it’s a commercial, if it’s if it’s a music video, maybe a little looser on music videos, you can maybe bring a DP along. It’s not until you get yourself firmly established that you’ll be able to start handpicking your own crew. At least that’s my experience. I think a lot of independent filmmakers that have to go raise the money. Yes. When you’re an independent filmmaker and you’re going to make your first feature for four hundred thousand dollars and you’ve raised all the funding, then you can pick your crew on your own. But when you come into a television show, let’s say the crew’s already, they all have contracts and they’re all long term. And just to pick people, you know, you see a lot of movies and find DPs you like, find a lighting style you think is terrific. Look at a lot of independent movies, watch a lot of YouTube videos. You find surprisingly a lot of good people lighting YouTube videos for young filmmakers. And YouTube, of course, is your exhibition hall. That’s your conduit to getting people to notice your work. When I was making eight millimeter films, I had to lug the 8 millimeter projector around with me and get people to give me enough time to at least set the screen up and open it up and thread the projector and bring the window shades down and show a six minute movie before I got kicked out, thrown on my ear. You know, now there is a forum for young filmmakers to show what they’ve got, which is great news for this generation.

Eric Conner: One of the great things about hearing Steven Spielberg discuss his various projects over the years is that well, we’ve basically seen all of them. And if you haven’t, you know, get to it, such as this one early draft of a book, he got Universal to option back in the 90s.

Steven Spielberg: Jurassic Park, I was lucky because I – Universal bought for me a book that was so brilliant and so constructed by Michael Crichton, and I knew Michael a little bit, Michael and I met when he sold his first book to Universal called The Andromeda Strain. And I had just I was 21 years old. I just signed a contract to be a TV director. And my first job was to show Michael Crichton this lot. So I gave him a tour of the lot and he was a great guy. I knew for years. And he gave me a look at the galleys for Jurassic Park and I had a chance to bid on it early. And I eventually got the book Universal paid for it. And the book provided an amazing structure. And Michael also worked on a draft of the script before David Koepp got involved that was able to bring the book down to a narrative that was closer to the way I saw his Jurassic Park. So I would say that my first real point of creative collaboration on Jurassic Park before we ever conceived of how to bring these dinosaurs to life was with the author of the book and then with the screenwriter David Koepp. And that’s where it all starts. I always say if it ain’t on the page, it ain’t on the stage and you’ve got to have a story to tell. You can riff on it. You can make it up. You can improvise things. But you’ve got to always have a basic narrative. And that’s where I spend most of my time before I direct a picture is with the writer.

Eric Conner: It’s a good lesson there. All the groundbreaking effects in the world still require a workable script, just like how a movie needs breaks from nonstop action and effects. Filmmakers sometimes need a break too. Even the man with over 50 directing credits to his name.

Steven Spielberg: It took me three years to recover from Schindler’s List. So I didn’t direct anything for three years. I’ve only twice had a three year hiatus. Once was after Saving Private Ryan and once was after Schindler’s List. And I think my three year hiatus after Schindler’s List was just because it was a very impactful experience telling that particular series of stories. And I wanted a break and I couldn’t get inspired to do anything else after Schindler’s List. I felt that I had spent a lot of energy and passion. I sort of became, I guess – well, here’s the other thing happened. I formed the Shoah foundation, which was a very difficult but very inspirational project, where I was taking testimonies, not myself personally, but hundreds of videographers all over the world. And sixty five countries were sent out to find the survivors of the Holocaust who would talk to our cameras to tell us what happened to them. And that took a long time to set up. So most of my energy went into that, into the documentaries that I was starting to produce because of that. And I wasn’t really interested in telling fictitious stories for a while. But when I finally decided that I wanted to get back to work, I thought the safest bet would be to purge myself of the reality of Schindler’s List and go into very familiar territory and shoot the sequel to Jurassic Park. Which was fun for me. And a vacation to do Lost World. And after Schindler’s List, I needed a vacation. That was a vacation I took.

Eric Conner: Well deserved breaks notwithstanding, Mr. Spielberg feels that there’s always something around him that provides inspiration for his art.

Steven Spielberg: Right now, my inspiration pretty much comes from my kids, my coworkers, my friends who are writers, other directors. My inspiration comes from seeing a good movie when I see a bad movie. The problem about seeing a bad movie is I’m uninspired for weeks. So I just try to be very, very selective because I try to see as a lot of movies. But when I see a good picture, it just turned something on inside of me that is unquenchable. And I just start producing thoughts. Not all them become movies or television shows, but they exist to me. And it’s a gift that a good play, a good screenplay, a good movie gives me. And I think it’s the same way for all of us. You know how you feel when you see something that inspires you. You want to go to work tomorrow. You want to take what you were inspired by and share that with the rest of the world through your own personal idiosyncrasies. So that’s all I look for is good stuff.

Eric Conner: The good stuff sometimes might fly in the face of conventional wisdom about what projects Steven Spielberg should be directing next, but that doesn’t concern him. He prefers to just be open to possibilities.

Steven Spielberg: I don’t think a lot. I mean, I spend a lot of time reacting to things. I’ve kept myself open because to me, the reaction is more important than the thought process, meaning that my best career choice, I guess, would be just leaving myself open to be responsive to a script or an idea or a piece of material that comes down the pike. And if I really have a very intensely passionate, emotional reaction to it, I’m probably directed or at least try to direct it. So I just leave myself open to that. The projects that I wind up not doing in the projects I spent a year worrying to death, you know? Should I do it? Maybe I shouldn’t. Maybe it’s too similar to the last movie I made. If I used my brain to make all my choices. I would never have made E.T. because I had already made Close Encounters five years before. And I was into a whole thing about not wanting to repeat myself. And I had to beat that down with a stick, because if I didn’t repeat myself, there’s a lot of movies I never would’ve made. I wouldn’t have made Jaws because it would’ve been too similar to Duel. You know, I’m saying so sometimes you just have to stop thinking and just start reacting.

Eric Conner: If repeating one’s work is the reason we have E.T., then I think we should all consider doing it. So if the tales of his storied career weren’t enough, Steven Spielberg’s final words to our students demonstrated how he has inspired audiences for decades.

Steven Spielberg: You’re the gift. Everybody in this room is the gift because you are the future of this business. I mean, you’re all going to go into this business and you’re gonna do different things. You may not be doing the same things you’re training to do right now. You may surprise yourselves and do things that an actor may be a director, a writer may turn into a producer. You just don’t know. Somebody might be an editor. Someone might be a production designer. Someone might be in publicity and marketing. You just never know. But the fact of the matter is that I sit here and look at all of these bright young faces and I just see the future of this business and it looks really bright. Thanks to all of you. Really.

Eric Conner: To the man who gave us Indiana Jones, Jurassic Park, Private Ryan, Close Encounters and dozens of other classics. Well, I think he’s the one who deserves our thanks. As do all of you for listening.

This episode was based on the Q&A moderated by Tova Laiter. To watch the full interview or to see our other Q&As, check out our YouTube channel at YouTube.com/NewYorkFilmAcademy. 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 our staff and crew who made this possible. To learn more about our programs, check us out at NYFA.edu. 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 Conner: Hi, I’m Eric Conner senior instructor at New York Film Academy. And in this episode, we bring you producer Nicole Avant and her Netflix documentary, The Black Godfather. We recommend you watch it before listening. But you know, that’s up to you. So who is The Black Godfather a.k.a. Miss Avant’s dad, Clarence Avant? For one, he was a powerful music executive who helped usher in the careers of countless musicians, including the recently deceased Bill Withers.

[Bill Withers – Ain’t No Sunshine]

Eric Conner: But his career went beyond music. He was an influencer and a tastemaker. In the 1970s, he ensured that homerun king Hank Aaron would be the face of Coca-Cola. More recently, he was a major player in introducing the country to Barack Obama. And without him, the universe might never have gotten this memorable theme. At an early age, Nicole Avant got to see firsthand just how powerful her dad really was.

Nicole Avant: I think it was oh, I definitely know for sure it was with Hank Aaron, probably one of the first times that I noticed because we got special seats at Dodger Stadium. And even though Hank wasn’t from here, that’s the one way he was – wanted to do something for our family. But I remember Hank was very open. He’s really the one who gave me the inspiration to make the movie because Hank was the most open and honest about how my father’s actions changed his life and he made such a big deal out of it. And then because of that, I would ask, like I knew he broke Babe Ruth’s record, but that’s all I knew. Then he gave me the backstory of how hard it was personally, like he couldn’t enjoy it, like he said in the film, you couldn’t even enjoy it because of all the death threats and fearing for his children’s lives.

And so I think between that and then seeing my dad on Soul Train, which by the way, that clip that we found, my parents told me I was crazy, told me it didn’t exist. Everybody told me it didn’t exist. And my mom said, you must have dreamt that. He was never on Soul Train. Why would he be? My dad said I was never on Soul Train. I’m telling you, I remember. I was young and I was watching the TV. And I remember it was a big deal because he was on television. I didn’t know why my father was on television. So I was so happy that we found that footage because they kept fighting me on it. But I think those two things and then as I got older, it was getting into concerts and getting in backstage. There was like a Bobby Brown new addition, some Al B. Sure, something. They were all together. And I remember we couldn’t get backstage and we were, we didn’t have enough passes or we didn’t have the right passes or something. I said, oh, darn it. And I was walking away and someone said, Avant, come this way. And then some security guard walks up to me and goes, are you related to Clarence? And I said, maybe, yes, because I don’t know why he was asking. And all of a sudden he just opened. He’s like, come on, come. How many friends do you have? And I go, this is amazing. This is fantastic. So it kind of happened throughout. But I remember the first time was really Soul Train and then Hank Aaron and Andy Young telling me their stories.

Eric Conner: In case that story doesn’t make it clear, Clarence Avant is truly a larger than life figure who’s stories almost sound like myths. And who better to produce a documentary worthy of the man than his own daughter? And that’s thanks largely to the lessons he bestowed upon her at an early age.

Nicole Avant: My parents made me do every kind of job all my life. They had me started working like when I was 10 answering phones at this record company or working at a boutique. I sold shoes. I was a waitress. I did all that. And then one time my father said, I wanted to be in the record business. I want to follow my dad and that. And I ended up doing that. But I was in college and he said, I got you a job. I got you an internship at Warner Brothers Television. I don’t want to go to Warner Brothers television. I don’t even want to do that. He said, but you should learn the business. You should learn different types of business because all of entertainment is one business. So you should learn like all the facets. So I went there and I have to say I loved it. And I learned everything. You know, I copied scripts, you know, for one week and then I drove around and was a gopher the next week. And then I was in the legal department. I went to all the different departments and met different people. And it kind of helps you understand the business. I still didn’t really necessarily want to. I always want to make documentary films. I loved those films when I was growing up. I loved that it taught me everything. And then as I got older, I thought, well, maybe there’s some way you can make a film that’s, that’s a documentary, but a little more of the entertainment business in it to make it cooler and make people sit through it. Or they’d want to sit through it. And so I started there. My claim to fame during my internship, by the way, was meeting. I had, it was my last week. And there is a show called Head of the Class. And this is in the 80s. You guys were probably not even born. But they said to me the last week, you have a guest star. And I said, what do I do? And they said, you just go to the trailer, make sure he shows up on set on time, make sure he has a script. Blah, blah, blah. And I went and I walked up with my clipboard and I knocked on his trailer and I said, Hi, Brad. And he walked out. He said, yes. And I said, Brad Pitt. And he said, yes. And I said, Hi, I’m Nicole Avant. I’m your gopher. And he, and it’s so crazy that I’m watching him at the Oscars this week. And what I loved about him was that he was so excited to be an actor. He was so excited to be where he was in that moment. Like, can you believe we’re on this lot? Can you believe we’re here? Isn’t this so great? But I remember that. And that was a long – that was 1988 I think. So that’s how I, I kind of did every job but I fell into entertainment through that internship that I fought my dad on. Of just saying, I want to do what I want to do this summer. And he’s, of course, was like, well, you’re on my payroll, so you’re going to do what I say, which he’s right, because now I say the same thing to my kids.

Eric Conner: Working these jobs taught Miss Avant how to conduct herself in the entertainment industry.

Nicole Avant: I used to follow the head of legal department out of all things, but it was the way he behaved that I studied. I noticed that he spoke to everybody, no matter who it was, he spoke to everybody, meaning not just trying to start a conversation, but he was respectful to everybody. So if it was the janitor and we walked into the building. He knew the janitor’s name. He said, hello. How’s your family? Wherever. We go all the way up to the president’s office, he’d speak to that person the same way. And I noticed that he Taught me, basically, you need to live the golden rule in your life as much as you can. You’re gonna mess up. And we all do. We all don’t pay attention to things that we should. But what I loved about him is that through his actions, he spoke to me instead of sitting down and saying, here’s my advice for you to go through life. He showed me really how to go through life. And he really did practice that every day, even if he was in a bad mood or what have you. It was very important to him to show people that they are valuable by giving them respect. And what I learned from him was that respect is the highest form of love. So when people say just love everybody, I think really it’s respect everybody, because then everybody’s kind of, you know, as much as you can. But that’s what I learned from him. And I and I’ve tried to take it into every area of my life. And I notice when I don’t do it and how it makes me feel. So that’s what I would say was the best advice shown to me.

Eric Conner: Miss Avant grew up with an amazing role model and her father. So it’s not too surprising that she initially worked in the music industry. But like her dad, she wasn’t content staying in one lane for too long.

Nicole Avant: I thought I was going to stay in the record business all my life. I loved it and I loved the challenges and I loved the different facets of it. I love working in different departments. I had a great time. But then as different opportunities showed up, I just thought, you know, I’m so curious about things that I just kind of went that way. But I think it’s your personality and I think you need to do what you really, whatever you’re really good at is usually a sign of that’s what you should be doing. It doesn’t mean you can’t do other things, like if you do comedy all your life. I mean, if you wanted to do comedy, but you still love dancing, it doesn’t mean you can’t take a class, you know? It doesn’t mean that you have to be a professional at all these different things, but focus on really what you love and what you want to give your time to, I think is the most important thing. And usually you know what you love by what you’re really good at, whatever you’re really good at. That’s why it’s a gift. Like you just have it. But you have to, at some point in your life, you’re going to have to figure out what’s your hobby vs. what your talent is and where you want to go. And you’ll, you’ll figure that out. You’re young, you have time. But I would try everything for sure. But I wouldn’t stay in something if you just kind of like, I’m just going to stay in this and I’m not really sure and you just kind of hang out there without it being your passion. Because a lot of people say follow your passion. But I always say you need to follow what you’re really good at. You really do. I mean, if I followed my passion, I, you know. God knows. I don’t think I’d be sitting here. But I think it depends on your personality. But I think why not? When you’re young, this is the time to try as many things as possible, to see where you feel comfortable, where you feel that you could be as productive as you can.

Eric Conner: Her passion has taken her far and wide, from powerful music exec, to acting in Barry Levinson’s Wag the Dog, to serving as U.S. ambassador to the Bahamas. And through all of this, she had her sights set on one important project.

Nicole Avant: This documentary happened because I was trying to figure out a way to tell my dad’s story, at least just document it like as a tribute reel, kind of just for my family and for, you know, just passing it along. And then I thought, no. And then we were gonna write a book. And then the more and more time I spent with my father, I thought, he’s such a character. He’s so crazy. I mean, who would even believe this in a book? No one’s gonna believe any of this. No one’s going to believe the stories. No one’s going to believe his personality. And then, I said something to my husband one day, I said, I wish there was something where I could tie in sports and movies and television and activism and civil rights and all these things. He said, you’ve lived with the guy for 18 years. He’s right under your roof. You don’t even see that the character, your main person is right there. And then that’s how it happened.

And I knew Reggie Hudlin for a very long time and we’d been really good friends and we’d always sit in a corner at a party and talk about African-American history and get frustrated that no one really understood our history. And no one had seen documentaries on us or knew enough. You know, there was always like African-Americans, all black people in America are, live this way and eat this food or only do these things. And it would just drive me nuts. And Reggie was the same. And I figured he’d be a great person to direct because my father would give him more because my dad’s not very, what’s the right word? He’s just not very open.

Eric Conner: Reggie is Reginald Hudlin, the Oscar nominated producer of Django Unchained and director of Eddie Murphy’s Boomerang. Despite her connections to the subject, it still took a lot of hands on deck behind the scenes to make The Black Godfather.

Nicole Avant: Kate had worked on a few other films, and since this is my first one, she knew how to get everybody in the room and set everything up. So it’s, you know, it’s like kind of the end of the movie. You see all the credits and everyone has a gift to bring to the film. And I think that’s true in every area of life. Like, everybody has a gift that they bring, that they have, that somebody else doesn’t have. And it doesn’t mean that it’s less or better than someone else. But people always say, oh my God, you did all these things. I really have like two things that I can do in life, you know. And I I just use those things all the time. But I’m not great at a lot of things. I’m really not. And some people and I want to find people who. Oh, my God. You’re fantastic at that. You’re great at this. You can make me look great. I mean, if without the editors. Jeez, I mean, what would you do without an editor. I cried so many times during this film. I would just take all the notes. Like could you make a film out of this? Possibly. Could you make any of this make sense? Because none of this is making sense. And as soon as you know, Will would work with me every other day, every week, and all of a sudden it started coming. You know, all of a sudden his gifts started allowing. And then once it started, then I would come up with more ideas.

Eric Conner: If one thing made this project complicated and trust me, there was more than one. It was the challenge of fitting all of Clarence Avant into one documentary and the lack of script might not have helped.

Nicole Avant: In hindsight, if I could do it over, the one thing I would do is have a script. I wish I would have had something written out, some kind of storyline that we could follow. I think a lot of my frustration was, where the hell are we going with this? What – are we start? – We had so many openings, so many, because we didn’t have a script. You got to know where you’re going. And I think that’s what scripts kind of, you can always change them, but it’s really nice to start somewhere and kind of know like you – I like – I like connecting the dots and everything. But it was basically most of the interviews. And then because we didn’t have a script, we didn’t know we had 20 different stories to tell. So it kind of finally fell in to him being the change in so many people’s lives and being the important change. And so then we started taking different interviews out. So we had to get very, very specific. So it took a little longer than we wanted. It was almost three years.

Eric Conner: When you watch the documentary, one ongoing theme is how Clarence Avant’s real push wasn’t just about inclusivity. It was about putting African-American entertainers in the driver’s seats of their own careers.

Nicole Avant: I think the biggest changes and the most important changes were putting people in a position of power that they can therefore make decisions and control their destiny and then open the door for other people to come in. I mean, there used to be you know, when I was growing up, it used to be like Billboard used to have the top 100 songs, you know, black artists. It was the black charts and then the world charts. And they used to separate them all. I mean, I’m not kidding. It wasn’t that long ago. I mean, it was still just the black chart. And it was really important for my dad to say, listen, why can’t black people be in charge and women be in charge of certain departments that are only run by, you know, one type of person? But it should be everybody. And by the way, not just for black, – like in the film – you know, my dad managed Lalo Schifrin. Well, Lalo Schifrin’s not black, obviously. And my dad, I loved his question and I love the answer he got back was, what am I going to do with a white composer? Well, the same thing you do with a black composer. Like it’s, you know. And that’s what my dad was fighting is, why aren’t there black executives working on R&B music as well as black executives working in rock n roll? Because everybody else is doing both. So I think that’s the most important thing, that things started to change in the record business. And you started to see more people of color in general, really having high level positions that they otherwise would have never had.

Eric Conner: It’s clear in the doc that Clarence Avant would not back down from what he believed in. And that might be what impresses Miss Avant most about her father. He’s brave.

Nicole Avant: He’s really brave. I think bravery, by the way, is just missing in general. I really do. I mean, just, you know, being courageous doesn’t mean that you’re never afraid. It’s just you do it afraid. That’s just it. I have to tell myself all the time. I’m still afraid. I’m afraid of lots of things. But then I just have to then convince myself. Nicole, you’re going to do it afraid. And I think my father was very lucky that he knew his purpose early on, which is a difference. You know, a lot of people don’t. But he got that lane right where he figured like it’s almost like he won like the golden ticket, you know, and he realize, oh, my God, no one else has this ticket. And with this ticket, I can open lots of doors for other people that otherwise would just be standing there. I like to say that he made it possible, you know how people always say, like, run your race, run your race. I think my dad’s gift was that he allowed people to get on their mark. Because you have to get on your mark before you could run your race. And I think a lot of people have been denied throughout history, white and black. And every religion and both genders, everybody has at some point been denied stepping up to their mark. And I think that’s what’s important right now to all men is show up and just get on your mark and then go. And you know what? And then sometimes you’re going to run or you’re going to fall and sometimes you’re gonna have to pick yourself up. And sometimes it’s not going to work out the way you thought. And sometimes you’re going to continuously do the right thing and the wrong thing is going to happen. But the beauty about life, I think, is that you get to start over every single day. And life really is an arena. And that’s the one thing I learned from my dad, because I used to get mad at him when I was younger, because I used to think that he’d never gave me a break. If I complained about anything or I was sad about something, he’s like, you got to get back in the arena. You’ve got to get back in the game, Nicole. You’ve got to get back in the game. And what I’ve taken from that is it’s true. But sometimes you have to pause. But you still have to get back. And so you have to be brave to get, because life is just tough. And it’s beautiful for sure. But it’s still tough. It’s tough and beautiful. And you have to make the most of it. I think without bravery, I think you’re kind of dead in the water.

Eric Conner: Though Miss Avant cautions that her dad’s personality might not exactly be the model for everyone to emulate.

Nicole Avant: I would be a little more polished than my father. He definitely rubbed people the wrong way for sure, because it’s a very big personality. It’s a lot. He’s just a lot. And it’s great in certain areas. That’s why it was perfect for what he did. It was perfect. But he couldn’t take that personality everywhere, you know. So even he was not like that. When he used to come to my parent teacher meetings, he was like a little fly on the wall, you know. He’d say, hi, are you all right? You know, like I’m Mr. Avant, but quite a different person. You’d be surprised at dinner parties. He doesn’t talk. He’s very awkward. He’s socially awkward. So this whole big persona is only in his lane. Outside of his lane, he’s quiet and shy and. But I I think that as an actor, I think you you study human behavior. And I think just read the room and you’ll know. And sometimes it’ll call for you to be like, oh, you know what? Screw it. I’m just going to walk up to this person and say something. And then other times you have to really know. No, I’m not going to I’m not going to do that. You know, I think a lot of acting teachers now tell people, just write to the producers home, send your headshots and send it to their house and be bold. Don’t do that. No, I really don’t. Because, you know what? Guess where it goes. Right in the trash. That’s just the truth. And the only because it gets like, there’s an office. Like there has to be some level of professionalism and some level of boundaries. Otherwise, people don’t take it seriously or they think of you in a different way where you definitely don’t want that, where you’re thinking, I’m going to be bold and different and cool. And then someone else is thinking, oh, my God, this person is not even respecting my boundaries. So when people go to work, they want to work. And when they come home, sometimes they don’t. It just never lands right. I’ve never seen it. I know everyone tells people that because I used to be in acting classes, these to say, oh, go do this. And I just thought, oh, I know better. No, no, no, I’m not gonna I’m not I’m not going to do this. So I think it just is, is whatever you feel in the moment. But especially because you are an actor and you could kind of read people in a different way. I think you’ll know. But I wouldn’t go, I wouldn’t go outside of who you are, you know, if it’s your personality. That’s one thing. But I wouldn’t, you seem to have a very nice open personality. You don’t have to do much. And you have a great smile. You should do that for sure. That just opened up. I mean that’s a big door opener right there. Walking in with a very positive attitude and a smile changes everything. It’s really a really great calling card for anything, by the way.

Eric Conner: His bravery and determination is what makes Clarence Avant such an inspirational character and why Nicole Avant was so excited about how far this documentary could reach.

Nicole Avant: I would’ve told the story if it was about any of your dads, by the way. It had nothing. I mean, he just happened to be my dad, but I just thought it was such a good story, I would’ve told it about anybody. And I really wanted to. I didn’t have a target audience. I definitely wanted African-Americans for sure to see the film so they could see because I hear all the time. I get letters all the time like, we’ve never seen ourselves on the screen all at once, like all black people working together or people doing things together for each other and supporting each other and not playing one role or being the bad person or being poor or this or that. But I wanted it to reach. I literally my prayer was like, I pray that this reaches everyone that it’s supposed to reach around the world. And if it can motivate and inspire and empower as many people as possible, that was my goal. And that’s what’s happened. Thank God. But it really has been wonderful to hear from people of all continents. Everybody writing in saying, oh, I didn’t know this or I’d never seen this before or I didn’t know this part about American history or the civil rights footage that we really wanted to put the film because I knew that out of everything that was going to be the most talked about that people forgot or that they don’t show in schools anymore. I grew up in schools where they used to show that all the time. They don’t do that anymore. And I think it’s important because you don’t necessarily have to say anything. You just show footage. And I think people understand from watching something, which I think is the beauty of what you guys want to do in life is the beauty of storytelling is showing something as opposed to beating it on the head all the time and trying to just suffocate someone to understand. Sometimes it’s just an image because the image is so powerful. So that’s what we wanted to do.

Eric Conner: Miss Avant envisioned The Black Godfather as an opportunity to share her father’s legacy. So a new generation could learn about how far he went to make things happen, both for himself and for others. Just as importantly, it also shows the power and importance of artistic expression.

Nicole Avant: I realized at a young age. I’ve watched everyone around me, and the beauty was that I realized that everyone, no matter how successful you’d see it on TV or in the newspapers, you read about them that they had a human experience like everybody else and the human experience is up and down and up and down and sad and happy and this and that. And humans have to become strong. We all have to be, develop a muscle within ourselves to get up again and run. And sometimes we have to pause longer than others. Sometimes the pause is really long and very hurtful and sometimes it’s not. But the trick is you have to know that you have to get up and run again. And it’s tiring. But I think it’s the ticket in life. I think it’s just that’s it. But music motivates me. Music and movies. Like without movies. Movies actually help me survive, really, because I would go into other people’s stories and other people’s worlds. And when you see trauma and sadness and pain through somebody else’s eyes and somebody else’s story, it kind of gives you, I think helps develop a strong muscle in you. And you kind of learn from other people. At least I did. I watched movies all the time. It’s honestly music and movies because it’s again, music is storytelling. So stories have gotten me through everything in life. And I’d always go back to different characters. And, you know, It’s A Wonderful Life was my favorite movie at a very young age because I thought the angel Clarence did what my father did. That’s why I thought, oh, my God, that’s what my dad does. Same. His name is Clarence. It’s the same thing. But but that movie made a very big impact on me of faith and people having faith in you and being a really good person and bad things happening to you or unfair things happening to you. So that’s what keeps me motivated, is other stories so that you don’t feel like it’s only you.

Eric Conner: Miss Avant’s love letter to her father’s life and career manages to do all of that and then some. We want to thank her for sharing her story with our students. And thanks to all of you for listening. By the way, she’s married to Ted Sarandos, the chief content officer of Netflix. We did an episode on him a little while back. So give it a listen.

This episode was based on the Q&A moderated by Tova Laiter to watch the full interview or to see our other Q&As, check out our YouTube channel at YouTube.com/NewYorkFilmAcademy. 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. To learn more about our programs. Check us out at NYFA.edu. 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, 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 the man who gave John Wick some of the coolest dialog we’ve heard since classic Schwarzenegger. Screenwriter Derek Kolstad.

Clip: They call him Baba Yaga.

Clip: I once saw him kill three men in a bar. With a pencil.

Clip: I’m retired.

Clip: Not if you’re drinking here you’re not.

Clip: They know you’re coming.

Clip: Of course. But it won’t matter.

Eric Conner: There’s more to Derek Kolstad’s story than snappy dialog. In fact, Mr. Kolstad first discovered his deep love of cinema thanks to one very specific trait: his height.

Derek Kolstad: Like all you guys, I mean, I grew up loving movies and grew up in a Christian household. And I was a s****y liar. I still am. And I was this height at the age of 12. And so I never got carded going into R rated movies. And I excitedly came home. My mom said, what did you see? And I was like, Robocop. And that was a horrifying movie at the time. And I excitedly told her the entire plot of the movie and I laughed. And she looked to my dad and said, we should probably encourage him in this. So thanks, mom and dad. Madison, Wisconsin is a world away from L.A., especially pre-Internet. And even though I started writing screenplays at the age of 13 before Microsoft Word, we had word perfect. And I programed the template for a screenplay and just started writing for myself. So I’d write two, three, four or five screenplays a year and put them on the shelf or save them and that file’d get f**king corrupted and all that kind of stuff. But I didn’t know how to do this, so I watched movies. I love movies.

Eric Conner: Mr. Kolstad did more than just watch movies. He wrote a lot of them, too. So we got his shot later in life. He was ready.

Derek Kolstad: Honestly, it came down to, you know, we always talk about the 10,000 hour rule. You guys have heard that a thousand times, I’m sure. And I think for me, it’s the 10,000 page rule. But you get to a point where you begin to hear voices in your head from various editors and readers in your life without hearing them. And also you realize that more often than not, in the movies that I love and the movies I want to write the city’s a character, the building’s a character. So spend a line or two. You love your hero, you love your hero. You love your hero. And you want to stay with the hero. And then you realize that when you deviate from the hero, what the people are talking about and what they’re trying to say and do affects your hero. I mean, that’s that’s genre to me. That’s what I love about it. But when you think of the efficiency of it, our favorite scenes in movies don’t have anything to do with plot. You know, I always think of Ronan is one of my favorite movies I bring it up all the time. And if you want to write. Watch that watch that weekly until you sell something.

Tova Laiter: Which one?

Derek Kolstad: Frankenheimer’s Ronan because there’s so many just lines in there, throwaway lines, you realize, oh, that’s character, you know. But I think the other thing, too, is don’t be afraid to write out the dialog. Write out the narrative. Write the conversation. Read it and render it out three pages into a look, a nod. We were talking in the green room about, you know, the old westerns. And you can you can say what you will about some of them. You can have a monologue. You can have a certain guy tip his hat. And the tip of the hat speaks more so in regards to efficiency. The other thing, too, is go way back. Watch Harold Lloyd. Watch Buster Keaton, watch the old silent movies and just see how they tell a story without any kind of dialog. And that was a godsend

Eric Conner:As many people in the entertainment industry can attest. Sometimes love just ain’t enough. Derek Kolstad even started a different career but he couldn’t turn his back on his true passion.

Derek Kolstad: The age of 26, I was a consultant in Chicago. I worked for Dale Carnegie and I taught sales managers how to build and staff their sales teams. Exciting. And my little brother called and he asked me how he’s doing. I just start crying and I’m not an emotional guy. And I realized I had to fail at this. And so it was about 2000. I drove out to L.A. in a Golf TI that had been shipped over from Germany without a governor switch. It was a diesel little thing. Half my backseat was taken up by a 19 inch CRT monitor and people just glaze over at the tech.

But anyway, I knew one guy who worked at Azuza Pacific University that I went to kindergarten with and I crashed on his couch out in San Dimas. That’s where I started. And this was before I mean, it was with email and stuff, but I was spending two hundred and 300 bucks a week printing out scripts, putting in the Brads, buying straight edge razors to actually run along the sides so that when people opened up, it just felt good. And I got noticed right away because I wrote a screenplay called The Wayfarer. And it was just a cool title. It was a sci fi horror, which a couple of years after event horizon. So it was kind of in that mix. And I had two black leads. So at the time, everyone, of course, thought that Derek Kolstad was a black man and I’m not. But I had a lot of very interesting meetings of walking into Spike Lee’s company and they’re like who are you? But it was a great experience. And I got to know a lot of people.

The problem was, is I had the corporate thick skin. I didn’t have the industry thick skin like I came from Midwest corporate where handshakes were does your bond. Hollywood is very different, you hear yes all the time. And you get to a stage where you want to hear go f**k yourself because you’re like, oh, thank God, you know. And so I walked away for a little bit, but kept writing and kept watching. And I would still write three to five screenplays a year, put them on a shelf. And I wrote this one called Acolyte and Sonia, my wife, who we lovingly refer to as a script bitch, because she’s the first line defense. She is my editor. And she better at this than me. She makes me a better writer. And she read it and she’s like, you should try again. I got a manager I did to direct to DVD movies that were an ungodly challenging. You’re still kind of, you know, proud of them because of what you went through. And I was like, I’m done. You know, I’ve lived a happy life. I like writing. It makes me happy. And so I was going to walk away.

Eric Conner: John Wick also claimed he was gonna walk away. And we know how that played out. Fortunately, one of the producers on Mr. Kolstad’s previous films wasn’t gonna let his talents go to waste.

Derek Kolstad: The one producer on that project that I liked named Mike Callahan introduced me to Mike Goldberg and Josh Adler who were managers at the time. And they’re currently still my reps. They saved me. The first one we went out with was Acolyte, got optioned for eighteen hundred bucks, which a man, you know, that was three months of rent. And then I wrote Scorn and Scorn is what John Wick became. And I wrote it after watching Faster with Dwayne Johnson and Harry Browne, both of which movies, I was just like, they were, OK, you know. And my thing about John Wick is it’s an homage to the movies I grew up with and loved. You know, you mentioned in The Green Room in the 70s and I always love in even the old Bond movies. They refer to a character and you won’t see that character for two or three movies down. But you didn’t know who he was at the time. And so when you think that I wrote that initial screenplay in three days, the second draft in two weeks, I sold it in February and we went into production that November. Yeah.

So when you think of overnight success, I know I’m blessed. I worked hard to get to the point where I get to work hard, but that’s kind of, you know, a little bit of the journey. And the interesting thing is we initially went out with that script with directors, and all the directors that we met with were like, don’t get the dog. It’s not enough. Let’s give him a whole family to slaughter. And, you know, instantly our whole thing is it’s not the dog, it’s the dog. And that’s not the point. Like we’ve seen that. And it made sense to this character. And suddenly on Friday, eleven o’clock in the morning, and Basil, the producer called me and he’s like just got a weird call Keanu Reeves called to ask to read the script. You cool with that? I’m like f**k yeah, you know. And so they they couriered it over to Keanu and I got a call hour and a half later. And he’s like, what are you doing? Like, I’m waiting for your call. And he’s like, can you go over to his house and I’m like f**k yeah, you know. And so I live in Pasadena. He’s right above I mean. He’s in Hollywood, a star. You know, super, super land and, you know, went up.

It’s just him in this really nice house. But it’s not overly ostentatious for a guy with half a billion dollars walk down. And usually, as you guys well know, you meet someone famous and they tend to be smaller. And he’s my height and he’s very congenial and I can’t do a Keanu. And he’s just like Derek Kolstad like Keanu Reeves, you know? And the thing that hit me is, as I’m walking past his office, I s**t you not he had 300 scripts on his desk because he loves what he does. He reads all the time. And I’m not pandering when I say when you get his notes, they’re not just for his character, it’s for the story. He loves it. But I just kind of it kind of hit me that this is the one we’re meeting on. You know? And so he and I worked on the screenplay for four or five, six long weekends in a row. And during that time, I got I got I tell this story way too much, but I love it. There was a knock on his door, but he’s got like one of those little two ways and he’s like, hello? This woman says, hi, my name’s Christina. I’m on a road trip from Chicago with my family. We’re just really huge fans. Can you ask him some questions? He’s like, okay, we go out to his driveway. There’s a minivan with a family of five from Chicago. Christina’s a sophomore High School. And Keanu Reeves walks out there like, holy s**t. It worked. And then they talk for a little while and they ask him questions. And he was the sweetest thing in the world. And of course, then being Midwesterner, we’re like, oh, don’t bother you. And then we went back and we sat down. I was just like, we’ve made it. You know, this is pretty cool. But Chad and Dave came about because Chad was Keanu’s stunt double on The Matrix. And once you get to know Chad and you watch The Matrix, I love that movie but now it takes you out of it because you’re like, okay. That’s Chad. That’s Chad. You know, but they’ve known each other for years and they’ve always been you know, Keanu was a huge tech guy. So he at any given time is over with the DIT and the lenses. And he loves that kind of stuff. So they just geeked out on that. And he was the biggest fan of them and they were the biggest fan of him. So that’s where it came about.

Eric Conner: It was the perfect marriage of material star and director, despite already having credits and attention. Derek Kolstad realized he needed to fully embrace his love of film in order to unleash John Wick.

Derek Kolstad: When I wrote John Wick, I was writing a love letter to the movies I loved. And I think a lot of times when it clicks for people, they dive back into the stream. Unintimidated by the movies that they wanted to be swimming with. You know, before that, I was writing smaller movies. I was writing monster movies. I love horror. But horror is a different beast. So is comedy, you know. But I think with John Wick, I suddenly can have people talking like Howard Hawks movies. I can have a guy like Winston Overtalking.

Clip: You stab the devil in the back and forced him back into the life that he had just left. You incinerated the priest’s temple. Burned to the ground. Now he’s free of the marker. What do you think he’ll do?

Derek Kolstad:  No one talks like that. It’s like a stage play. I can refer and I can build out and I can peel back the onion and I don’t need to explain everything. And yet as the writer, be satisfied with it and want to do more. So, John Wick was me just kind of suddenly going, I’m going to stop trying to be who I’m not and just fully f**king embrace just what I love.

Eric Conner: At first glance, the seedy underworld of the continental might seem like something out of like a James Bond movie know with high tech gadgets. But he is unapologetically low tech. Heck, even the phones are analog.

Derek Kolstad: One of the things we’ve always joked about is if you throw a tech in a movie, it’s comical 18 months after the fact. And so we love the idea of throwing in like. Of course, they use 50s era equipment because in this world it just makes sense. It’s reliable. They own the lines. No one can tap them know that kind of thing. No one would think to tap them. And you know, when you think of the suicide girls and guys and the look and feel of the world, a lot of that has to do with all of our love of the warriors, you know, where you have these various gangs and I’m sure you’ve all seen the movie. And I was like, how do you bring that in? But more grounded. Right. And then the other thing, too, is I grew up with Alistair MacLean and Dashiell Hammett and Agatha Christie and all this mystery action thriller writers. And then the movies, the 70s you talk about I bring up Three Days the Condor all the time because I think one of the greatest characters ever made was Max von Sidow’s Joubert in that movie because he’s this really calm, kind killer who is also the oracle and is also the chorus and the choir.

Clip: It’s quite restful. It’s almost peaceful. No need to believe in either side or any side. There is no courage. There’s only yourself. The belief is in your own precision.

Derek Kolstad: And so that’s where it kind of came about. And, you know, when you go down the rabbit hole of seeing an actor you really like then going into their filmography, you stumble upon movies like the outfit, where you’re like, what is this? You know, and then you track down the writers of those books and then you track down Spencer and suddenly you just keep going closer and closer to what I grew up with, which James Cagney in White Heat and all those classic gangster movies.

Eric Conner: In creating John Wick, Derek Kolstad wrote a movie that he, as an action fanboy himself, could fully geek out about, provided the directors took the ball and ran with it.

Derek Kolstad: I like writing screenplays with prose so that, you know, a lot of times it’s for the actors we know full well the actions could be different by the time it goes to production. But like in the first one, when you have the classic Red Circle action sequence, there’s a scene where John shoots a guy’s foot. The guy leans forward, and he shoots his head, and I’m the guy in the audience going, because I wrote that, you know, and so I wrote all these action sequences. And then John grabs the guy’s head, puts it on the table. Shoots him three times. I was like, oh, I didn’t write that, you know, but that’s where we could geek out. Because Chad and Dave, you know, they’ve got what we always call it the back pocket black book of action sequences and kills and stunts they’ve always wanted to do. And they threw everything they could at it.

Eric Conner: What makes the action scenes all the more impressive is you can tell Keanu is doing a lot of the stunt work himself. In fact, in Derek Kolstad’s next film, Nobody, Bob Odenkirk – yes, that Bob Odenkirk from Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul – is also going full Wick and getting in on the action.

Derek Kolstad: The think about Keanu is like, you know, and this one with Bob Odenkirk as well these guys train their asses off. They’re in the best shape of their lives at the end of day. And when you see them, you won’t recognize them just because it’s like you guys remember being in sports in high school even now, like your face droops and you know, you walk alongside some of them, you hear their knees, you hear their shoulders, but they’re just in heaven. And yet the only way you can get those long takes is if they train and train and train and train. And when Keanu and when Odenkirk train, it’s judo, it’s jujitsu. It’s getting your ass handed to you so that the number of times that they’re thrown through a plate glass window and it’s them or the way that, you know, Keanu describes is like he walks out the car, hits the stunt double, but it’s him that goes rolling to his feet. He’s like that’s still like, you know, you go do it Kolstad. I’m like, no, I don’t own a piece of this, you know?

Eric Conner: Credit must also be given to the maestros of John Wick, David Leach, who co-directed the first one with former backlot guest Chad Stahelski who went on to direct both sequels. One particularly vivid and violent scene from John with three features knives being thrown around like they’re bullets from a machine gun.

Derek Kolstad: That’s all, Chad – that scene. And it’s my favorite scene in the movie. We had talked about it. And one things I loved about it is when they first start throwing the knives, they don’t have the gage. Right. So they’re hitting klunk klunk. And at the end, it’s like sink sink sink and you’re just like oh s**t, you know, but a lot of times the way. I’ll write an action scene is just make sure that the first couple of hits moves. I don’t use technical terms because everyone will glaze over. But if you take out a knee if you say the leg folds at an unnatural angle, if you say that they give as good as they get, you’ll come up with these phrases and you just kind of feel yourself. The last thing I want to do is read three pages of a fight. Just focus on the first couple of hits and those moves. Make sure that the environment is a character. Everyone likes it when a guy seems to be taking a hit and in reality is shifting so that the other guy can lose balance and his face on the table introduced the table earlier as a character in the scene and just make sure that it’s a dance and have fun. If you yourself get bored with the scene, you’re doing it wrong. And what I’ll say is then just cut it in half and see if it works. But a lot of the times just play like you’re playing in high school where it’s like. And then I flip you over and then I throw you and just have fun. You know, if you’re not enjoying that aspect, I mean, come on. Like most of my rewrite work is dialog at certain point. But when people are like, OK, we need a car chase scene I’m like f**k yeah, you know.

Eric Conner: All of this action might have even made Keanu Reeves a little bit bloodthirsty.

Derek Kolstad: He’s also those guys that like more like I remember after the first table read, I think in the first draft there was 13 kills. And then by the time we got to shooting, there’s 88 or something. And we had this table read. And it’s so funny because they hire a voice actor to read the script and he’s like nine pages of action. Certain point where I was laughing at the end, someone said, man that’s really, really violent and Keanu goes but it could have been so much more. And he got two and three. So, you know.

Eric Conner: Keanu Reeves is no stranger to massive franchises. But unlike the CGI fest, that was The Matrix, the success of John Wick rest firmly on his athletic shoulders after 30 plus years in the entertainment industry. This might be his finest work to date. Well, besides Bill and Ted, though Derek Kolstad had a much different voice in his head when he first wrote it.

Derek Kolstad: I grew up in an age when Beta and VHS was just coming out and my mom knew I loved movies. So whenever she got groceries, she’d pick one out of the bin. It was 50 cents because they were all off trademark, you know, at the time. And so I got to know old actors, very young. So when I write with actors in mind, they’re long dead. So that that’s Paul Newman, dude. You know, that was that was my Paul Newman in my head. But when we got to casting, the funny thing is there were four or five offers on John Wick. And we took the smallest one because they wanted to make it now. And as a writer who wanted a career, that’s what you go for one of the offers was, you know, they wanted to make a 60, 70 million dollar with Bruce Willis. But the reality with that is you’d make one and be done. And I think when Keanu came up, he wasn’t going to break the bank. We all knew full well that if we made a movie that was critically and financially OK, we had a franchise, but it had to be encapsulated in a good standing. So when Keanu Reeves came up, it was literally like me going, huh. Oh, yeah. You know, and honestly, the only reason he has a beard in that movie is he showed up and he had the beard. And when we were thinking of shaving him Chad and Dave were like, let’s do the beard. And we got all this s**t from all the various online communities. And then we saw the first trailer you like. Can you imagine a clean shaven John Wick? That’s is disturbing.

Eric Conner: Even if he didn’t have a beard. John Wick would have connected with his audience because we actually cared about him.

Derek Kolstad: It’s one of the reasons that those Korean thrillers that I love so much, like I wrote the remake for Man from Nowhere, which is one of my favorites, is you spend some time with the character, you love the character, you want the hero, you want the hero’s journey, you want to follow him. And at the end of your movie, right before credits you like, that was worth my time. I’m glad he got there. I want to see more, but also it’s like just the reality of like I love the hero. And I think a lot of the action movies we see, they focus on the action when. You go back to the movies that I grew up with and and love like die hard’s a great example you watch it as a kid. You know, there’s a great action movie. And at the end, you hear John McClane scream out his wife’s name as he’s literally bleeding out. You realize oh, this is a love story. You know, it’s a man who still loves his wife or even like I get s**t for this but I’m gonna say it, I love the first Kingsman. I think it’s a fun f**kin movie, but the best scene in that entire movie is when Eggsy is across from Michael Caine. He says the line. I’d rather be with Harry and I get goose bumps every time. Because in that moment you realize it’s a father son movie. And I think that’s why a good movie, regardless of genre, is a good movie is it comes down to character and the relationships and you wanting to be a part of that character’s life.

Eric Conner: John Wick is a character that, like the legend of Baba Yaga, only gets bigger with time and sequels with the promise of a fourth movie and a TV show focused on the Continental. We are just beginning to see how far the Wick-verse will expand.

Derek Kolstad: You know, it’s funny because like with the television show, which, you know, that’s Lionsgate’s baby not our I.P. and the video games and stuff. I do what I can. But I think with John Wick especially is created it. Nurtured it. I laid the foundation. But when you come to the various other splinters, I’m encouraging certain things. But I’m also off kind of focusing on building out other franchises and foundations that in a perfect world come the fourth iteration of that, those worlds combine because I hate the word canon. I don’t think anything should be canonical. You know, I know I’m in the Star Wars, MCU of it all, but I don’t want to see prequels, you know. In fact, the original iteration of John Wick 2, was a surprise prequel. The original script was the last act was the impossible task. And you realize, oh s**t, he was doing this all to get out. Right. And then we realized we were just being too witty. It just wouldn’t work, you know. But in regards to that, that universe, that kingdom, when you got a like a cornerstone, like, you know, Winston and Lance Reddick is just a Joy and Keanu and all that kind of stuff. I’ll be a part of that in a certain respect. And I wish the best man, because the whole thing, too, is, you know, I played Han Solo and Chewbacca and the sandbox. I didn’t want George Lucas to show up and go you’re doing it wrong, you know. So, like, I just want people to play, you know.

Eric Conner: The expansion of John Wick is all the more impressive when you consider that first one was basically a lavish and bloody indie film.

Derek Kolstad: So John Wick one, we were all in the trenches together. It was an independent. It was financed out of 15 different pools. And yet on the last day of shooting, once we’d wrapped the movie was in the black. And then they sold it to Lionsgate and it did what it did. And it was really the home video side of things that wanted a second one. Second one is the hardest, most difficult thing I’ve ever done. And I would never do it again, ever. Part of the reason was at that point, you’re part of a success. And suddenly the studio was more invested and they were invested in a time when they needed it. And suddenly the people, the core group of people that I was dealing with in the notes were backed up by 15, 20 execs and people where it got to the point, like, I don’t know who this is, you know. And then the third one was really me recognizing oh this is the devil I know. You know, John went to a crawl in the bottle a bit and I crawled out. Sounds very afterschool special. But to be honest, at a certain point, it goes back to why I wrote John Wick in the first place. One of the things that saved me is in the middle of John Wick 2 and this is a weird thing to say is the trailer for Mad Max Fury Road came out, and every night I would stand in front of my TV with that. That’s the best trailer I’ve ever seen with that music. I just stand in front of the TV and I feel like that 11 year old who snuck into an R-rated movie just going oh. And honestly, it was my love of movies that got me into it and my love of movies got me out of it. But, you know, married well, friends, well, family. Well, and I think the other thing, too, is regardless of who you are, what you want to do every day. I write one new page, no matter like I think I have right now. I have 21 projects in various states of play. I still spend at least one page a night spec. Or if you’ve had a terrible day, just f**kin write fading. It’s the greatest feel in the world. You know?

Eric Conner: That feels like pitch-perfect advice for all you artists out there. We want to thank Derek Kolstad for bringing John Wick into the world and continuing to get a new depths with the character. And of course, thanks to all of you for listening. This episode was based on the Q&A moderated by Tova Laiter to watch the full interview or to see our other Q&A’s.

Check out our YouTube channel at YouTube.com/NewYorkFilmAcademy. This episode was written by me, Eric Conner. Edited and mixed by Kristian Heydon. Our creative directors David Andrew Nelson who also produced this episode with Kristian Heydon and Myself. Executive produced by Tova Laiter, Jean Sherlock and Dan Mackler. To learn more about our programs. Check us out at NYFA.edu. Be sure to subscribe on Apple podcasts or wherever you listen. See you next time.

 

Peter Rainer: Hi, I’m Peter Rainer. I’m with the faculty of the New York Film Academy. I’m the film critic for the Christian Science Monitor and NPR’s Film Week in Southern California. I have a book called “Rainer on Film; 30 Years of Film Writing in a Turbulent and Transformative Era.” It’s a collection of my essays and I’ve been at the critic biz for a very long time. What I’m going to talk about today is the films and filmmakers that have really inspired me as a critic and as just a regular moviegoer. Films that have really stayed with me and become a part of my life and have really opened my eyes to what movies can be.

Peter Rainer: I grew up in New York, mostly in the suburbs, but the city was where many of the great revival houses existed. They had a great old revival house in the village called the Bleecker Street Cinema, which was an amazing place. And I often would see as many great films as I could see. Also on television, there was a show called Million Dollar Movie and every night you would watch a film that they would show repeatedly throughout the week. So if you wanted to, you could see a film many, many times. In a weird way that sort of schooled me in how to look at film because when you’re obsessive enough, like I was, to keep seeing the same film over and over again, you begin to pick up on on what it’s like to put a film together, what the acting is like, the performances, you know, all of that kind of combines in a way to let you know that this film didn’t just happen. There were people who made the film, but when I was coming up, I’d sort of gave myself an education and in the process, I was also reading, you know, critics as I went along who wrote on movies. And when I was in college in the early 70s, that was a particularly fervid time for a film, I think, especially American film. It was a real breakthrough in what you could do as a filmmaker. You know, all of these films that I reviewed as a critic for my college newspaper, you know, week after week, you’d see Cabaret, Sounder, The Godfather, Mean Streets, The Sorrow and the Pity, The Story of Adele H., you know, all these great Altman movies, films by Peckinpah, Clockwork Orange, etc. I mean, there was just a ton of great stuff all the time. And I think what I discovered without really realizing it, although some readers pointed it out, was that I guess I sort of favor films that have a sort of humanistic angle. Which is not to say that I don’t love really all kinds of movies if they’re good. You know, people often say to me, well, are there any types of films that you particularly like or any genres that you really like or don’t like? And my answer is usually, not really. It sort of depends on the film, not on the genre. But I do sort of favor films that have a sort of humanistic angle, as opposed to the great big scale epic directors. There are certain directors who who have really stood out for me over the years, such as Vittorio de Sica, the early neorealist pictures that he made. John Renoir an all time great director. His focus was always on the human element. The Indian director, Satyajit Ray, is for me perhaps the greatest of all film artists. And his Apu Trilogy is for me, probably the greatest single entity and film. That and the first two Godfather movies.

Clip: I want you to rest well and in a month from now this Hollywood bigshot’s gonna give you what you want.

Clip: It’s too late. They start shooting in a week.

Clip: I’m gonna make him an offer he can’t refuse.

Peter Rainer: And then also, Yasujiru Ozu, whose film Tokyo Story especially, is this is for me one of the three or four greatest films ever made.

Clip: [Clip from Tokyo Story in Japanese]

Peter Rainer: And Ozu was was a director who worked in an extremely rigorous style. You’d be hard pressed to find any camera movement whatsoever in his films. But what he was able to accomplish as a director was was to really, again, bring out the human element in these people and focus on what’s important. And I think that that’s really something that people have to be reminded of, particularly in this day and age when people are making movies and they often feel that if they’re not showing off with the camera, that somehow, you know, something is, is amiss. That they’re not really utilizing the medium, that they’re, they’re just being, you know, stage people and not movie people. And my feeling is, if you get a powerful experience from watching something on screen, then to argue if it’s, you know, not movie-ish enough, it has no real value. Some of the best films ever made have been movies that could probably have worked on stage. What you’re looking for is the experience that you take away from seeing something. And I think that that can work with a director as spare and rigorous as Ozu, stylistically, or as flamboyant as DePalma or a Japanese director like Mizuguchi or Kurosawa, who are always considered, particularly Kurosawa, the, quote, most western of directors. And that was because he filled with such dynamism in films like Seven Samurai, one of my favorite films, or Yojimbo or Rashomon or any number of other of his films, that he, in a sense out-Hollywood-ed Hollywood. But that’s a very different approach to film than Ozu and they’re equally great if the results are.

Peter Rainer: Ingmar Bergman, I know, has a sort of mixed reputation these days because there was a time when Bergman was thought of as the, the film director that the people who didn’t really like movies liked. Because he was sort of highbrow. He talked about the big issues, you know, religion. And I think a lot of people thought, well, OK, that’s what it really means to be a movie artist. But I think an early film of his like Summer Interlude was quite wonderful and it’s very simple and beautiful. It’s like a Renoir movie in some ways. De Sica is another one who was very important to me in terms of of the sort of humanistic angle. When he teamed up with Zavattini, the two of them made some of the most groundbreaking neorealist pictures ever made. And I don’t know that any director has made more great movies within a shorter span of time than De Sica did, from the late 40s through the mid 50s. In something like eight years, he made, you know, like six masterpieces. Bam, bam, bam, bam. What de Sica often did was he use non-actors. The Father and Bicycle Thief.

Clip: [Clip from Bicycle Thieves in Italian]

Peter Rainer: Or the old man in Umberto D. who was, I believe, a professor and had never acted before. The notion that they had, he and Zavattini, was that you don’t want people to be acting, quote unquote. You just want them to be. And when this approach works, you really do feel like you’re watching the unvarnished truth. But when it doesn’t work, and it didn’t always work with De Sica, you feel like, well, gee, I wish the great actor had been in that role. It all depends. Another great French director who was a big inspiration to me, who had a similar idea was Robert Bresson. Bresson disdained actors and didn’t want anybody to be really performing in any big way in the films. He just wanted to kind of read the lines and have a certain blank affect. And that, in this way, the true spirituality and the power of the story would come through. And again, when this works, it works incredibly well. And when it doesn’t, it doesn’t. But there are tons of Hollywood movies that have inspired me of all types, The Godfather movies, as I mentioned the first two and portions of the third, but mostly the first two, are really so novelistic, so, so rich in characterization.

Clip: A crooked cops who got mixed up in the rackets and got what was coming to him. That’s a terrific story. And we have newspaper people on the payroll, don’t we Tom. They might like a story like that.

Clip: They might. They just might.

Clip: It’s not personal, Sonny. It’s strictly business.

Peter Rainer: I remember when I saw them in college, it just seemed like, you know, where did this come from? You weren’t really prepared for, for the power of what he did in that movie. I’m not sure he was either and he’s talked so much about it ever since in interviews and he’s, I think, become tired of all the adulation on those films. And he’s gone back and forth about even whether he thinks they’re great or whether he should have made Godfather Part 2, which is maybe the greatest film ever made. But those films were were just so revelatory because he could have done it an entirely different way. He could have just done some slam bang gangster movie like so many others that were being done at the time, or had been done. And instead, he made, of all things, this deeply personal film about this family and really movie about the dark side of the American dream.

Peter Rainer: I’ve always had a problem with movies that depict violence without showing the consequences of violence. That show people getting blown away and, you know, and then you go out and have a smoke or you go out to dinner and it doesn’t really seem to affect the characters very much. Bonnie and Clyde, this was a movie that really put the violence right in front of you.

Clip: This here’s Miss Bonnie Parker.

Clip: Glad to meet you.

Clip: I’m Clyde Barrow.

Clip: Clyde.

Clip: We rob banks.

Peter Rainer: And because it started out in a kind of rompy way, the film kind of faked you out in order to make that point. It was a very powerful film, as was The Wild Bunch, if we’re talking about movie violence, several years later. Peckinpah should be more recognized, I think, than he is now. But he was a great inspiration for me as a director. The Wild Bunch is, I think, the equivalent of Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai as a piece of epic action, a movie about the nature of violence. Peckinpah had such a phenomenal sense of how to make a movie, how to frame and shoot and cut. Everything that he did was just so instinctively right.

Peter Rainer: Robert Altman has always been a very special director for me, despite his extreme unevenness. And he’s a director who really, in a sense, came out of nowhere. I mean, he was doing episodic TV and Sugarfoot and a lot of, Whirlybirds, a lot of these TV shows. He was really kind of a journeyman director, you know, well into his 40s until he started directing features. And even then, the first couple of features that he made that were nothing extraordinary. Then he made M*A*S*H, which is wonderful, tremendously entertaining movie.

Clip: [Clip from M*A*S*H]

Peter Rainer: But you wouldn’t really look at that either and say, well, this is the work of a great director. It was just sort of this really highly entertaining, smart movie, but not the work of a great artist. When he made McCabe & Mrs. Miller… Where did this come from? How could anybody make a movie, this Renoir-esque within the studio system? It was a period Western with Lauren Beatty and Julie Christie.

Clip: You’re John McCabe?

Clip: Yeah.

Clip: Mrs. Miller. Looking very forward to see you.

Peter Rainer: The music was from Leonard Cohen and it was a film of such deep poetic resonance that it stayed with me. And you know how sometimes when you see a film and you worry, gee, it meant so much to me when I was growing up,, but I wonder if I see it, you know, 10-15 years later, whether it’s going to still mean the same thing to me. Cause sometimes that happens, right? You see a film and it meant a lot to you, then you see it again and it doesn’t look so great? It’s a cruddy feeling, right? Because you feel like you’ve been mugged. But that didn’t happen with McCabe & Mrs. Miller or quite a few of the other films that that really meant a great deal to me. If anything, when you return to these films, they reveal more to you. Although I have to say that, especially with movies, I don’t find that if I go back and look at a film repeatedly that it does a whole lot for me if the viewings are, you know, close together. If I see a film and then I see it again two weeks later, I don’t bring that much more to the party than I did when I saw it the first time. For me, it sort of has to marinate for a while. And also you have to do a little bit of growing up. When I was a kid, I would see films like L’Avventura or Jules and Jim, and I’d say, well, yeah this is a great movie. But really, what did I know? You know, I was 15, 14. What did I really know about life that I could say that L’Avventura was a great movie? It really, kind of, doesn’t work that way. You know, you have to live a life in order to be able to appreciate some of these great films. And that’s a very important thing, not only for people who write about films, but for all you filmmakers and actors, that you have to have built up a certain amount of experience in your own life in order to be able to connect up emotionally to the material that you’re working on. And it’s not enough to simply put a story on the screen and fix it up with a lot of camera pyrotechnics. You have to have a knowledge of life that will bring something to life on the screen. And a lot of the directors that I mentioned, Renoir, Ray, de Sica, Ozu, Kurosawa, Coppola, these are directors who understood that completely.

Peter Rainer: I could go on. There are so many movies that inspired me and I will go on in subsequent podcasts, I’m sure, but this is just a taste of some of the movies and directors who really inspired me to do the kind of work that I do.

Peter Rainer: The show is edited and mixed by Kristian Heydon. The creative director is David Andrew Nelson. Executive produced by Jean Sherlock and Dan Mackler. Great talking to you.

Clip: Live from the Dolby Theatre at Hollywood and Highland, it’s the 92nd Academy Awards.

Peter Rainer: Hello, this is The Backlot podcast for the New York Film Academy. This is Peter Rainer, author of Rainer on Film 30 Years of Film Writing in a Turbulent and Transformative Era, and critic for The Christian Science Monitor and NPR. Today, I’m going to talk about the Academy Awards that recently wrapped up. The purpose of the Academy Awards, of course, is, is to promote the film industry. That’s why it was created in 1927. Bunch of studio heads got together and decided that this would be a good way to monetize the Hollywood film industry and it worked. The ratings have gone down significantly over the years. Last year, the ratings were up a bit because they had no host. This year it was also a hostless show and the ratings were down something like 20 percent. This is due, I’m sure, primarily because of social media. A lot of people now just look at excerpts and clips and highlights, as opposed to actually sitting through the entire show, which tends to grind on anyway. But unless there’s some gaffe like there was a number of years ago when La La Land was mistakenly voted to Best Picture over Moonlight.

Clip: La La Land.

I’m sorry. No, there’s a mistake. Moonlight, you guys won Best Picture.

Moonlight won.

Peter Rainer: It’s usually those kinds of moments that you remember and not all the other stuff. The range of movies this year is criticized for not being diverse enough. There was the whole Oscars So White campaign that started a number of years ago when none of the actors in any of the categories were anything but white. And also this year there was a lot of controversy because there were no women who directed among the five nominees. And there was only one actor of color, Cynthia Erivo for Harriet, who was nominated in the acting categories, you know a total of 20 slots. My attitude towards all of these controversies is that I would like to see Hollywood be far more diverse than it is in terms of who’s represented, who’s stories are represented, who gets to direct. But I’m a critic and not a sociologist and so I, and presumably the academy of voters who were voting for excellence, quote unquote. You know, I can only endorse and vote for those films and performances that I think are truly deserving and first rate. The fact that there aren’t more of those kinds of films by women directors and actors and filmmakers of color is due to the fact that the industry has not been nearly as welcoming to those filmmakers, those artists and those stories as they should be. That’s a separate issue from saying that you’re going to vote for a more diverse roster of winners. I think you have to vote for what’s out there. And the fact that there aren’t more films of that type that are represented at the Oscars connects up to the problem of why these filmmakers and actors don’t have greater opportunities. As opposed to these are the films that are out there and you have to vote for what’s out there.

Peter Rainer: In terms of what was out there this year, there were certainly a number of performances and pieces of direction that I thought were overlooked in this realm that could have been cited. I’m not the biggest fan of little women, but I do think that the best aspect of it was the directing and the performances.

Clip: You’re a great deal too good for me, and I’m so grateful to you and I’m so proud of you. And I just I don’t see why I can’t love you as you want me to. I don’t know why.

You can’t.

No. I can’t, I can’t change how I feel. And it would be a lie to say I do when I don’t. I’m so sorry Teddy.

Peter Rainer: And Octavia Spencer was marvelous this year. You know, a lot of actors were neglected. So the larger question here is just how relevant, how accurate are the Oscars as any kind of indices of excellence? I think we can probably all agree that the Oscars are a lot of fun. They’re a lot of fun to watch. But as any kind of true indicator of what was the best in a given year, it falls pretty short. I think the last time I thought the best picture of the year was actually the best picture of the year was maybe like The Godfather, Part 2. So there are a lot of good movies that don’t get recognized. You have to look at the Oscars as inextricably linked with the members of the Academy who vote the Oscars, who are until fairly recently overwhelmingly white and domestic and older, all of which leads to certain kinds of films and certain kind of nominations. This year, there was a concerted attempt to broaden the membership internationally, which may explain the success of the South Korean movie Parasite, which won, you know, Picture, Director, and Screenplay, among others. But there still remains a certain amount of controversy as to whether the Foreign Language movie, which is now called I think Best International Film, you know, whether films that are not in English should be cited by the academy as the best film of the year, for example. Now, Parasite won arguably the two major awards of the night, Best Picture and then also Best Director.

Clip: And the Oscar goes to Parasite.

Peter Rainer: The question is, you know, did Bong Joon Ho who directed Parasite, you know, he’s he’s had a tour of duty in Hollywood. He did Snowpiercer.

Clip: What are you saying?

We take the engine and we control the world.

When is the time?

Soon.

Peter Rainer: And Okja was Netflix and had a lot of English speaking actors in it.

Clip: 10 years in planning. On the cusp of a product that will feed millions, and what happens? That farmer girl is gonna destroy us.

 

Peter Rainer: So he already was kind of in the club, in that sense. He wasn’t a total outsider. But nevertheless it was a very homegrown film, very South Korean. But it did strike a large nerve with the larger voting body because it’s a film that is a kind of deranged upstairs, downstairs. It’s a film about income inequality in a sense. And I think that’s one of the things that really helped put it over.

This is the first time that a Foreign Language film has ever won the Best Picture Oscar in 90-some years, but to argue that of all the foreign films that have been made, that this was the best and the only one that deserved to win the Best Picture Oscar, that’s certainly not true. The fact that the Best Picture Oscar has never gone to any movie by Kurosawa, to Antonioni, to Fellini, to Jean Renoir, to Ingmar Bergman, to Francois Truffaut, to Jean Luc Godard. You know, I could go on and on and on. Some of those directors have won the Foreign Language film, but not the Best Picture.

Now, there’s no law in the Academy that says that if you are a documentary, you can’t also be nominated for Best Picture. In the case of Animated, I believe Beauty and the Beast was nominated for Best Picture. So again, I mean, there’s no law that says that a film by, say, Miyazaki, the great Japanese animator who won Animated Oscars, could not also have qualified and won for Best Picture. The idea that a Best Picture is only English language is kind of silly, but if you’re going to create categories, then the question is, well, why are you doing that? If it’s just a wide open for Best Picture and any movie can qualify, then why do you have these separate categories? Because what happens is, like for instance Roma last year was nominated for both Foreign Language Film and Best Picture. And the prevailing wisdom was that it would not win Best Picture despite rapturous reception because it had already won best foreign film and, you know you split your vote and et cetera. And that’s probably what happened. In this case with Parasite, I think it just sort of overrode all those considerations.

Does this set a precedent for this happening again in the future? I doubt it. I think it’s somewhat of an anomaly, given, I think, the lack of any really strong competition. But I think that it’s important to recognize films for the cultures in which they are made and not to assume that everything that gets the nod in Hollywood is going to lead to bigger and better and more expensive and more, quote, commercial product. So the Oscars have a lot to answer for. But I think that the outpouring of affection for Parasite this year was deserved because I thought it was a good movie. If it hadn’t been a good movie, you know, forget it. You know, I didn’t think Crazy Rich Asians was a very good movie and I said at the time, I think this isn’t really going to lead to very much in Hollywood in the way of relevant strong movies by and about Asian actors, directors, writers, stories. It’s just going to lead to Crazy Rich Asians, Part Two. I wasn’t crazy this year about the movie The Farewell, but, you know, you could argue that that was also shafted by the academy. It was a much lower profile film with an Asian cast than Parasite was.

Peter Rainer: The acting categories, I thought they were pretty much a lock. The Supporting Actor, Actress and so forth were pretty predictable as to who would win. In most cases, I thought that they chose well among the five that were nominated.

Clip: Here are the nominees for performance by an actress in a leading role. Cynthia Erivo, Harriet. Scarlett Johannson, Marriage Story. Saoirse Ronan, Little Women. Charlize Theron, Bombshell. Renee Zellweger, Judy. And the Oscar goes to Renee Zellweger.

Peter Rainer: Renee Zellweger winning for Judy, the fact that she was playing Judy Garland, you know, when actors play famous actors in movies and biopics, that often tilts the Academy, narcissists that they are, into voting for them. I thought she was terrific in a not very good movie.

Clip: I’m working harder than you would ever believe.

Are you?

And right now, my husband is making a deal for me that means I can start over.

You’re not listening.

I have someone I can rely on, someone who’s helping me make money instead of losing it at the track.

Can we not?

I’m going to get a place and they’re going to live with me.

Peter Rainer: And Scarlett Johansson, I thought, was the lesser of the two leads in Marriage Story. I thought her performance wasn’t quite up to what Adam Driver was doing and her role wasn’t quite as well written.

Clip: I can’t believe I have to know you forever.

Oh you’re f**kin’ insane. And you’re f**king winning.

Are you kidding me? I wanted to be married. I already lost. You didn’t love me as much as I loved you.

Peter Rainer: So it made the film a little top heavy in terms of what the story was about. Saoirse Ronan is just an incredible actress in Little Women. She’s only 25 and, you know, already been nominated several times. She’s really, you know, incredibly versatile. Movies like Brooklyn. She’s done Chekhov on film. She’s, she’s done, you know, just about everything there is that she can do and there’s obviously a great deal more to come. Cynthia Erivo for Harriet, I thought it was a very strong performance again in a movie that I thought was pretty staid and, given the subject matter, a rather uninspiring piece of filmmaking.

Clip: Here are the nominees for performance by an actor in a leading role. Antonio Banderas, Pain and Glory. Leonardo DiCaprio, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. Adam Driver, Marriage Story. Joaquin Phoenix, Joker. Jonathan Pryce, The Two Popes. And the Oscar goes to Joaquin Phoenix, Joker.

Peter Rainer: In the Best Actor category, Joaquin Phoenix was the clear favorite and he did win. It’s a movie that I found to be sort of powerful, but in a way powerfully pointless. But his performance is one of a series of really strong performances that he’s given in his career.

Clip: I don’t need you to tell me lies. I know it seems strange. I don’t mean to make you uncomfortable. I don’t know why everyone is so rude. I don’t know why you are. I don’t want anything from you. Maybe a little bit of warmth, maybe a hug, dad. How ’bout just a little bit of f**king decency. What is it with you people? You say that stuff of my mother.

Peter Rainer:Antonio Banderas in Pain and Glory was marvelous. And it was a very uncharacteristic performance, so I’m glad it was recognized. Banderas is an actor who’s typically very emotionally out there. His energy is all outward-directed. And in this film where he’s playing a sort of stand in for the director, Pedro Almodóvar. His energy is all sort of inward-directed and every bit as powerful and strong as, as what he’s done in the past. So I think it was a real change for him as a performing style and it was eminently successful. And Adam Driver in Marriage Story I thought was extraordinary. And Jonathan Price in the year’s most unlikely buddy movie, the bromance The Two Popes was strong playing opposite Anthony Hopkins.

Clip: I cannot do this without knowing that there is a decent possibility that you might be chosen.

No. It could never be me.

All right. We’re at an impasse. You cannot retire from the church unless I agree to your going. And I cannot resign until you agree to stay.

Clip: Here are the nominees for achievement in directing. Sam Mendez, 1917.

Peter Rainer: As far as the directing categories go, well, I thought 1917 was sort of a stunt. The idea that it was all shot in one take, it wasn’t of course, but it was made to look that way, was justifiable. But, but I think that if the movie had been shot in the normal way, you know, broken up into, to scenes and camera shots and so forth, that it would be seen for being the conventional war movie that in many ways, it is.

Clip: Martin Scorsese, The Irishman.

Peter Rainer: The Irishman was a movie I was not totally on board for. It’s a well-crafted, well-acted piece of work. The problem I had with The Irishman is that I think that the De Niro character, the hitman is they go a little soft on him. That, as is true of a lot of gangster movies, even much greater ones like The Godfather, that there’s a tendency to soft play the psychopathology of these characters. After all, in The Irishman, DeNiro’s hitman is really unrepentant and uncaring about any of the people that he’s offed, except for Jimmy Hoffa. And I wish the film had explored that a bit more instead of, you know, somewhat sentimentalizing him.

Clip: Quentin Tarantino, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.

Peter Rainer: Quentin Tarantino and Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, you know, he writes killer dialogue. He makes you want to watch anything that he shoots. And the period recreation of that time in Hollywood was quite extraordinary and I found parts of it very moving. And Brad Pitt, I thought, was was terrific and deserved to win the Best Supporting Actor award.

Clip: My hands are registered as a lethal weapons. That means we get into a fight. I accident kill you. I go to jail.

Anybody accidentally kills anybody in a fight, they go to jail. It’s called manslaughter. And I think all that lethal weapon horses**t is just an excuse so you dancers never have to get in a real fight.

Peter Rainer: But I did have a problem with the way the film wraps up, which is similar to what he did in Inglorious Basterds, where he takes a horrific event and sort of redoes it so it turns out to be the way we all wanted it to turn out. And I think that using these horrific real life events as jumping off points for kind of, you know, pulp fantasias, I find sort of problematic.

Clip: Here are the nominees for performance by an actress in a supporting role. Kathy Bates, Richard Jewel. Laura Dern, Marriage Story. Scarlett Johansson, Jojo Rabbit. Florence Pugh, Little Women. Margot Robbie, Bombshell. And the Oscar goes to Laura Dern, Marriage Story.

Peter Rainer: Laura Dern is beloved in Hollywood and also is quite terrific, aside from Marriage Story, where she won, in Little Women.

Clip: I’m angry nearly every day of my life.

You are?

I’m not patient by nature. But with nearly 40 years of effort, I’m learning to not let it get the better of me.

Peter Rainer: Florence Pugh was also terrific in Little Women.

Clip: And if I had my own money, which I don’t, that money would belong to my husband the moment we got married. And if we had children, they would be his, not mine. They would be his property. So don’t sit there and tell me that marriage isn’t an economic proposition because it is.

Peter Rainer: I don’t understand the Jojo Rabbit push, Scarlett Johansson, or much of anything about that movie. It’s not that I objected to the fact that this is a film about a little boy whose fantasy friend is Hitler in war time and that. It just, I didn’t find it funny. You know, I think that you can do that sort of thing, that kind of black satire if you’re a lot sharper. It didn’t really think out what it was trying to do. Both as satire and as serious film. But then again, I didn’t like Life is Beautiful either for similar reasons.

Clip: Here are the nominees for Best Documentary Feature. American Factory, Steven Bognar, Julia Reichert, and Jeff Reichert. The Cave, Feras Fayyad, Kirstine Barfad, and Sigrid Dyekjær. The Edge of Democracy, Petra Costa, Joanna Natasegara, Shane Boris, and Tiago Pavan. For Sama, Waad al-Kateab and Edward Watts. Honeyland, Ljubo Stefanov, Tamara Kotevska, and Atanas Georgiev. And the Oscar goes to American Factory.

Peter Rainer: It was a marvelous year for documentaries and I know that a lot of you students are interested in making documentaries and that’s really important. Documentaries are a marvelous way to explore a culture, explore a subject, really get into it. And also, you really have to tell a story when you’re doing a documentary and you have to choose the right subject. You can’t just film, you know, a movie about the checkout line at the supermarket. I mean, it has to be something that really uncovers something or in some way really plugs into the human condition. And I know you all have a lot of stories out there, personal stories, stories of your origins and where you come from and where you’re going, that, that would make, you know, marvelous documentaries. So you should take a lot of comfort from the opening up of such avenues as Netflix to show these films. In the Documentary Feature category, you know, there was American Factory, which won. I particularly liked Honeyland and For Sama and The Cave. The Cave and For Sama were both very hard films to watch. They’re about, you know, death and destruction in Syria. But they were very good movies, too. It wasn’t just that they were showing you a lot of horrific stuff and, you know, gee, I’m glad the cameraman got out OK. But they were powerful testaments to the survival instincts and the human tragedy and the human spirit that comes from, you know, surviving and persevering in these terrible conditions. And Honeyland was about a Macedonian beekeeper who takes care of her aged mother and has some issues with her neighbors and what comes of all of that. And like a lot of movies that start small, it expands to take in quite a bit more than its ostensible subject. And it really is about the human condition and about surviving and the ancient beekeeping traditions that this woman has lived by or torn asunder by commercial interests. I think the film far transcends the basic description of it as a kind of, you know, movie about how capitalism destroys ecology. But thankfully the filmmakers don’t underline it. You discovered for yourself, and that’s always the best way to experience movies anyway, I think, is when you are brought into the movie as opposed to being hit over the head.

Clip: Here are the nominees for Best Original Screenplay.

Okay I’m going to open this for you.

No, not yet…

Peter Rainer: The Best Original Screenplay, again, was a Bong Joon Ho for Parasite.

Clip: Bong Joon Ho.

Peter Rainer: And I think in many ways it was the most inventive and interesting screenplay. Knives Out was a funny whodunnit. Marriage Story, I think, had its moments, certainly. 1917, less so. Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, uneven but strong. But I think it was justifiably given to Parasite because that was a movie that, again, sort of was about something that on the surface was a small scale domestic drama, and yet expanded into a much larger indictment, really, of income inequality and the grasping on both sides of that inequality to survive.

Clip: Here are this year’s nominees for Best Adapted Screenplay. The Irishman, screenplay by Stephen Zaillian. Little Women, written for the screen by Greta Gerwig. Joker, written by Todd Phillips and Scott Silver. Jojo Rabbit, screenplay by Taika Waititi. The Two Popes, written by Anthony McCarten and the Oscar goes to Taika Waititi, Jojo Rabbit.

Peter Rainer: In the adapted screenplay category, Jojo Rabbit won. Little Women, you know as I mentioned, I thought had, had issues with the screenplay. I had more issues with the screenplay than I did with with any other aspect of the film, because Greta Gerwig, who also directed, of course, shuffles the time scheme so that you’re going, you know, flash forwards, flashback and so forth. And I found myself looking at the length of the hair of the characters in the various scenes to determine, you know, which time zone I was in. And I don’t know why that had to be.

Clip: Here are the nominees for performance by an actor in a supporting role. Brad Pitt, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.

Peter Rainer: In the Best Supporting Actor category, I mentioned Brad Pitt I think was was highly deserving. It’s a testament, again, to the fact that you can be a big movie star and also be a really good actor. They don’t always go together. You know, you can be a big star and not necessarily have the chops to be a really good actor or vise versa. There are a lot of wonderful actors who don’t have that charisma or the or didn’t get the right role and so they’re not stars. But the fact that Pitt is both is extraordinary and rather rare.

Clip: Al Pacino, The Irishman.

Peter Rainer: There are others like that. Al Pacino, for instance, who was also nominated in The Irishman. I thought he was quite good in that movie. Some people said he’s doing Shouty Al again, but I thought it was justified that he shouts a lot in that movie. He’s playing Jimmy Hoffa.

Clip: You know the operative word I’m talking about here. Solidarity. And it works. It works for all of us and it works for our friend here Frank Fitzsimmons. Frank Fitzsimmons here. My executive vise president. If there’s anyone that can do this job, it’s this man here and with him at my back, where are we going to go but up?

Clip: Joe Pesci, The Irishman.

Peter Rainer: Joe Pesci came out of a kind of retirement for The Irishman and again, as I mentioned with Antonio Banderas, an actor who’s known for very explosive, outward directed energy, directed all his energy in this performance inward and I thought it was equally powerful.

Clip: Tom Hanks, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood.

Peter Rainer: Tom Hanks in A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood playing Fred Rogers. It could have been just some adept impersonation, a sort of soft sneakers and cardigan performance, but it was much more than that. I think he really inhabited the soul of Fred Rogers and was, even though it was a supporting performance, it was the kind of emotional center of that film.

Clip: Bill was right. You love people like me.

What are people like you? I’ve never met anyone like you in my entire life.

Broken people.

I don’t think you are broken.

Clip: And the Oscar goes to Brad Pitt, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.

Peter Rainer: So the bottom line with the Academy Awards is that we have to recognize that they are not a true mark of excellence in most cases. It’s kind of a circus. It’s kind of a political show, but it does on occasion promote certain films and filmmakers, countries that deserve to be recognized. And my feeling about the win this year for Parasite for Best Picture is, I’m basically all for it because I think it was a very good movie and it also had the added benefit of being a kind of political statement in the best way. Hollywood movies have been mostly rather conventional and not terribly good for the most part. The interesting work is coming out of the indie realm, much more so than the studios, which tend to recycle franchises. And anytime you move out of that box, I think is a good thing, whether it’s in awards or anywhere else. So I’ll just leave it at that. I think that hopefully next year will build on this year rather than this turning out to be some sort of one-off anomaly. So thanks everybody for listening and go out and make the best movies, best performances, best editing, best cinematography, best sound mixing, best everything, OK? Because you’re in a good place to really learn all of that, and one day maybe you’ll be in the Student Academy Awards category or the regular Academy Award category. The important thing is don’t make movies to win awards. Make movies because you really care about them. Bong Joon Ho said in his acceptance speech that one is most creative when one is most personal and I think that’s also true for you all, that you have to make movies that really mean something to you and not necessarily just, you know, resumes for studio work. You should experiment and do things that you really care about. And a lot of student filmmakers who have gone on to big things in Hollywood, I’ve seen their student movies and they were not traditional cookie cutter films. The student films of Spike Lee, Terry Malick, Scorsese, De Palma, David Lynch, many others were all very different from what you normally see. So go thou and do likewise.

Perter Rainer: This is Peter Rainer, I’m a teacher at the New York Film Academy. This is The Backlot podcast talking about the Oscars. The show is edited and mixed by Kristian Heydon. The creative director is David Andrew Nelson. Executive produced by Jean Sherlock and Dan Mackler. Great talking to you.

 

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 her 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 woman behind such legendary songs as West Covina and Don’t Be a Lawyer. It’s the co-creator, writer, producer and star of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend Rachel Bloom. 

[Crazy Ex-Girlfriend theme song]

Eric Conner: For a performer with so many talents singing, acting, writing, dancing, etc, etc., one of the toughest things she had to figure out was what to focus on first. \

Rachel Bloom: I was a musical theater major and I realized shortly; I was like, I don’t like being a musical theater major. I felt outcast from the people. I mean, the NYU musical theater program at the time was very big. There were 80 people just in my freshman class. So there there wasn’t a lot of personalization. The kids who knew each other had done the NYU summer program the year before, which I hadn’t done. And so there was already this kind of like what felt like a popular clique. That’s also my own s**t. And also, you know, 18 year old musical theater kids, myself included, aren’t the easiest people to be around. So it’s like you get in and everyone’s just like, how high can you sing? And it’s like, oh, no. I’ve made a grave error. And you’re busting your balls to, like, audition theoretically for these shows and you’re in New York and you’re seeing what musicals are actually getting put up and a lot of musical theater is s**t. So I started to get very just disillusioned with musical theater. And I think also part of it was a fear thing because I came from being the s**t in my high school and I went into NYU and suddenly I wasn’t the s**t anymore. And that was very threatening to me. So I think there were a bunch of factors. And then I got on this sketch comedy group and for the first time I had no, I’d been on an improv group in high school, but I’d never said I want to be a comedian. So I didn’t. My whole life, I’d said I wanted to be on Broadway. I want to be a big musical theater star. So I had all of these like loaded aspirations. With comedy, I didn’t care if my sketches sucked. So it was the first time in my life that I truly worked my hardest at something and didn’t care if I failed because I had no emotional stake in it. And I just fell in love with writing sketch comedy. And it was a sketch comedy group where we did a new sketch show every month. And so that’s what I did for four years. I was simultaneously a theater major while doing sketch, and I remember sketch people at a certain point saying, when are you gonna stop doing this stupid musical theater thing and just come into comedy and start doing UCB classes. And same thing with with musical theater teachers being like, well you can’t do comedy and theater, you really have to decide. And and at a certain point you do because if you want to do standup. At a certain, you just where do you want to spend your time. Do you want to be rehearsing at night or do you want to be in clubs at night? But I started to think maybe there was a way I could combine them. And I remember my friends showed me there is this singer, Julie Brown, who made comedic music videos in the 80s. One of them is called Because I’m a Blonde. 

[Because I’m a Blonde]

Rachel Bloom: The other one is The Homecoming Queen’s Got a Gun, which is super dated if you watch it now. And it was the first time I’d seen a woman doing comedy songs because I’d seen Mel Brooks. Like I had the template of Mel Brooks, I had the template of Weird Al, I had the template of the Lonely Island and the digital shorts that they were doing, but they were all men and the South Park guys. But it was the first time I saw a woman and I thought, oh, I could be doing like comedic pop videos. Like pop videos but funny because like, I just had, it hadn’t occurred to me until then. 

Eric Conner: Once Miss Bloom saw the possibilities of making her own comedic music videos, she went all in, even financing the videos herself and figured out how to make a few bucks go a long way. 

[F**k me Ray Bradbury] 

Eric Conner: The Ray Bradbury one. 

Rachel Bloom: Yeah that was the first one. 

Eric Conner: It doesn’t look like a flimsy little put together video. It looks very professional. Who financed it? 

Rachel Bloom: I self-financed it and it was cheaper than you’d think. So the location, I mean, this was just like luck. The location was an old Catholic school that had since been repurposed into an artistic space in New York. And I rented the whole school out for one day for two hundred dollars, which was a donation. I don’t know how this happened. And the school stopped letting shoots in shortly after the video filmed. At the time Internet, so so the trend of Internet sketch comedy had been kind of like gritty and grainy looking. And that was really started by the landlord, which was the first Funny or Die sketch with Will Ferrell and the little girl. 

[The Landlord] 

Rachel Bloom: And so everything looked kind of grainy. And then people were just starting to make Internet sketch that looked good. And my friends were involved with this production company called Landline TV in New York, which did a lot of pop culture parodies. So sometimes it was music videos, sometimes it was just sketches. But for the first time, I was seeing really good professional looking films come out of them. So when I wanted to make this music video, I thought I could maybe make it with Landline. Landline didn’t finance it, but I ended up getting a lot of the crew. And Paul Briganti, who directed the video and he edited. He did the first edit too. I paid him $400 for the whole thing. I don’t understand why it was so cheap. The DP was this guy, Paul Rondeau, who’s still a DP. He’s he’s an amazing DP and I’d be working with him more if he didn’t live in New York. I paid him $250-300. He came with his own camera and his own lights. I mean, he was a one stop shop and that’s just shot on a, F**k me Ray Bradbury was shot on a Canon 5D. It’s a great camera. And you’ll see at one point I’m walking down a hallway and there are these flashing lights. That’s just two unpaid PA’s doing with this with lights on a, lights on a wheel. When you have a good looking camera and you have a cinematographer who knows what he’s doing, you really can do anything. But also people who are willing to be paid in pennies, which I never had those prices again. It was stunning. And I think people were doing me a solid because it was my first thing and I was self-financing it. Yeah. I mean, it was just working with a lot of talented people. And it was the first thing I produced because for a while I saved money by self-producing and I really learned how to produce on the go. And I’m still not an amazing producer. I get it done, but I’m still not great at it. I mean, that first shoot day was a night. It was a nightmare. I got to the shoot late. I’d been personally picking up the donuts like I f**ked up. I f**ked up a bunch of things. 

Eric Conner: Whatever f**k ups she might have made didn’t get in the way of the videos themselves, which all these years later still feel fresh, funny and, you know, a bit dirty. And at the time these videos got her noticed. Though some of that attention was more of a curse than a blessing. 

Rachel Bloom: So my first manager discovered me in a friend’s internet sketch and I was twenty one, twenty two and she was just like, you’re gonna get me my beach house, which is a crazy thing to say. No, don’t sign with someone who’s saying that s**t because that’s a hyperbolic insane thing to say. And then she set me up with an agency meeting of an agent who was on the phone the whole time. And so between her and the agent, I thought, well, this is how the industry works. If people talk like they’re in Hollywood and he doesn’t give a s**t. No, if people are actually good at their jobs, they they want to take a meeting with you and they listen to you and they don’t say you’re gonna give me my beach house. And this particular manager had me fly out to L.A. for two months to audition for pilot season. And I was like, this is my big break, even though I’d never auditioned for film or TV. I was coming off of being a theater major and I really didn’t feel ready, but I was like, you know what? This is what I said I wanted. I’m going to be famous. She wanted to make me like a child star, because I was twenty one, twenty two at the time. So she was sending me in for like teen heartthrob auditions and I went in for this one. I probably was on the CW like Sci-Fi audition called Betwixt and I had terrible auditions, because I hadn’t taken a class. And so the second the feedback from the auditions was terrible. She dropped me like a hot rock. She was just like, never mind you don’t have it, kid. But just all that to say, like I, you know, there are, there are a lot of weird potholes and there are a lot of, you’re gonna meet a lot of weird people and you’re gonna have a lot of false beginnings and a lot of false starts. And that’s part of it. I mean, I. When I was in New York, I had an interview. God damn it. I had an interview for a movie. Just remembering this now about like a journalist who was discovering the S&M scene and my interview with the director was in a sex dungeon and I went because I needed, I wanted work. And it was fine. Nothing like Me Too-y happened. We just sat next to some harnesses. But I guess I just want to say, like, it can be a bumpy, unpredictable road. 

Eric Conner: Thankfully, she had something that helped her get over those bumps in the road. And that was writing. 

Rachel Bloom: Like every story, there’s no one story that’s similar. For me, I had released this comedic music video online that was getting me some notice from agents and managers and then in my back pocket I had a spec. Not even an original spec. I had a spec of 30 Rock that I had written to try out for the Nickelodeon Writer’s Fellowship, which I didn’t even come close to getting it, but I had had the spec in my back pocket. So between the video and that spec, when I got representation from the video, my managers, my new manager sent that spec to Fox Animation and I had a general with Fox Animation. And at the time they were hiring for two animated shows and I went and interviewed for both of them. And I and I got one. So that’s kind of how it happened. I mean, I think that the biggest advice I have for writers is try to find ways to meet other writers and for other people to see your writing, one, so that your work can literally get out there, like I’m a performer, too, so it’s it’s easier for me to get my work out there, be it live performance or on videos, but also that’s how you’ll get good at writing is just. And you’re a student here, I assume, so that’s you’re already doing it, but just get good at it and then just try out for everything. Like I found that trying to make deadlines for those fellowships and those writing programs, even if I didn’t get them, they gave me hard goals and hard deadlines. I think most writers only work well with deadlines where you’re accountable to something. I mean, I just started writing a book today and like the only thing motivating me is, like, the guilt over the fact that I procrastinated on it for like a year and a half. But like, I said to the publisher, like, I need you to be angry at me if I don’t make my deadlines. Like I need people beating down my door. So just find a way to make yourself accountable. I also give the advice of, if you have a script, set a date for you to sit with friends and read it as a roundtable. That way you have to have it finished by then. 

Eric Conner: Rachel Bloom eventually was hired on the staff of Adult Swim’s Robot Chicken, though it was her YouTube videos that led to the creation of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend. 

Rachel Bloom: I had been doing comedic music videos on my YouTube channel for quite some time and I’d been otherwise kind of a working television writer and I’d been doing live shows at the Upright Citizens Brigade Theater. But it came from those music videos that had been based on some of my live work, and one of them was featured on the website Jezebel. And Aline Brosh McKenna, who is a screenwriter, my co-creator of this, spoiler alert, was procrastinating and she was on Jezebel and she saw one of my music videos and she realized that the same person who was in them and singing them was the same person who wrote them. And so I got an email saying, Aline Brosh Mackenna wants to meet with you to discuss a potential musical television show with CBS. Well, we got together and we said, what show do we want to create? In this blind date she busted out a premise called Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, which was a movie she’d been wanting to write, which was kind of flipping the crazy ex trope on its head. And I said, that’s amazing, because all of the stuff that I’ve been pitching was like show business related. And she was like, no one cares. No one, no one cares about showbusiness. No one wants. No one wants to watch that. What people care about is like emotion, what lends itself to a musical. And she was so right. I mean, that’s the thing is the reason my shows had failed is because they weren’t an eighth as good of an idea as Crazy Ex-Girlfriend was. So Aline and I got together and we started writing and we developed a pitch. Lets see, we we started developing the show in June. We went out in September after going to West Covina together and spending a lot of time together. And I think that she really taught me, I kind of had been coming from a world of sketch comedy where I came at things very premise-y. And she really wanted to dig into Rebecca’s character and talk about the character at first. And I learned a lot from her about, it has to start from the character. Even if you have a great premise, you have to have a well-rounded character and know that character inside and out. 

Eric Conner: A musical about the archetype of the crazed ex was pretty specific and yet so universal and it got immediate attention. Even if there were some concerns about Miss Bloom playing the lead. 

Rachel Bloom: When we pitched it, everyone’s been a crazy ex or had one, which is very true. So we pitched to eight places and CBS was our studio for only the big places because originally it was going to be a CBS network show. Or it was gonna be a network show that CBS would be the studio. And then CBS said, well if it’s a network show, rachel’s an unknown. She might not get the lead that you’re writing for her. She might have to audition for the show. And I was like, I don’t want to do that. And Aline goes, Well if it’s a network show, you’ll make more money. And I was like, I have very little money. Any amount of money is a lot of money to me. And Aline was like, well, I’m not doing this for the money. And so then we decided to pitch it to cable, which is weird that we ended up being a network show. So we pitched it to eight cable places. And the places that were interested were Showtime, MTV and FX. And Showtime offered a put pilot agreement, which is that if they didn’t turn it into a pilot, they would pay us money. So we went with Showtime because it was very promising. Let’s see, so so we turned the pilot in. And then they spent three months trying to then attach a director. And it was only when they attached an impressive director, they decided to make it a pilot. And so then when Mark Webb signed on and said he wanted to do it, instantly we were greenlit. Because we’d been talking about other directors, but when Mark said yes like, Showtime immediately greenlit it. 

Eric Conner: You would think that would be the happily ever after. Showtime’s onboard. The director of 500 Days of Summer is at the helm. But things in the entertainment industry are seldom a straight line. 

Rachel Bloom: So we made it for Showtime. We felt very sure it was going to series. Until it wasn’t. And so then we had a rejected pilot on our hands. I’m just telling you the whole. We had a rejected pilot on our hands. We had a half hour and we re-sent it to all of the places, including the places that had wanted it before. No one wanted it. And Aline had been watching Jane the Virgin. And Aline said, you know, the CW is doing some really interesting stuff that doesn’t feel network-y. And CBS co-owns the CW. Do you want to just send it to them? And we’d have to make it an hour. I was like, who cares? Whatever. That’s fine. So we had a great meeting with the CW. They said, we’re considering it for mid-season. We didn’t hold our breaths. Then we heard that the pilot pickups were happening. Upfronts were starting to happen, and that CW didn’t like any of their pilots and that we were being strongly considered for the fall. But they had some notes which were these tiny tweaks. So we did the tiny tweaks. And the next day we got picked up to series. So it was crazy because we went from thinking we had, I mean, I remember the day we got a bunch of rejections in one day for the filmed pilot and I had just gotten married. I paid for my own wedding dress. We’d had a beautiful wedding. We wanted to buy a house. And I just remember being at home like saying to my husband, I I thought I was gonna be a Showtime star and that we were gonna be able to buy a house. And oh my God, I spent so much money on our wedding because I thought I was gonna be a Showtime star. Oh my God like, I’m so sorry. I’m so broke. And so I went back to working at Robot Chicken and I was at Robot Chicken when I found out we got picked up to series. And I had just had a sketch rejected that day in the room, because you get like sketches approved or rejected. And we got ordered to series. And I was like, I quit. Bye. And those guys, I’m still really good friends with those guys and they were just like, yep, goodbye. You go. Go, go, go. 

Eric Conner: Robot Chicken’s loss was the rest of the world’s gain as we got to witness Rebecca Bunch’s journey from powerful NYC attorney to lovelorn L.A. lawyer. And along the way, the show took an honest look at everything from mental illness to the real world pains of having a large chest. 

[Heavy Boobs] 

Eric Conner: Rachel Bloom and her team also found a way to parody a number of musical genres while still giving us some of the catchiest tunes of the past decade. 

Rachel Bloom: It’s a very inexact science and a lot of it was like gut and emotion. I mean, a lot of it came from my own unironic love of musical theater and then learning comedy and realizing that a lot of musical theater is like goofy or embarrassing, but still loving it. And so. It’s just more instinctive, I have to say. Like, because sometimes on the show we were straight up taking the piss out of things and other times we were writing that line of an homage and a serious song. I mean, the song that we have right now that’s Emmy nominated, which is the antidepressant song.

[Antidepressants Are So Not A Big Deal] 

Rachel Bloom: That was probably the most sincere song we’ve ever done because we take the piss out of the genre a little bit, but it’s mostly just sending it up. There’s a joke about opening a pill bottle and there are tap shoes inside. And so I think it was like, it was just a gut thing. And I think that’s like a lot of this stuff you’ll find like, sometimes it’s just an inexact science and that’s OK. And that’s why you just got to write a lot and feel it out. And art is subjective, you know. Not everyone is going to like what you do. I’ve heard of some people who watch Crazy Ex-Girlfriend who only watch the music videos online. And then I heard of some people who fast-forward through the songs because they just want like the plot. Arts f**kin’ subjective. There are people in the world who don’t like pizza. 

Eric Conner: Well rest assured, I like pizza and musicals and I find myself humming a lot of these songs days after I watch an episode. But the Ex-Girlfriend team had more on their mind than just making a bunch of snappy musical numbers. They also wanted to tell a complete, four-season story about Rebecca’s journey of self-discovery. Warning, slight spoilers ahead, but I think you’ll be OK. 

Rachel Bloom: So when we pitched the show, Aline was always, because she was a screenwriter, she was always interested in doing a 50-60 hour movie. And so we pitched basically a four season show from the get go, because that’s how you’d structure a movie. You have Act 1, you have Act 2 split into two parts, then you have Act 3, which is the fourth season. And the last line of the show, which is this is a song I wrote, that was in the pitch from the very beginning because the whole point of the show was always about someone finding out what actually makes them happy, not what they think should make them happy and telling their own story. And I actually, I, it’s the first tattoo I got was of the, was of the line. Right there. 

Eric Conner: As well-planned as their story arc was, the Ex-Girlfriend team still had to deal with a few unexpected curveballs along the way.

Tova Laiter: You said you had a four act structure, you had it all planned out. So I was wondering, not to spoil anything, how you handled unexpected changes such as what happened with Greg? 

Rachel Bloom: Yeah, that was a real curveball. So we had the structure planned out. It was very much the first person structure. Like there was a lot that we didn’t have planned out. What we knew was it would be a story of, the first season was denial. The second season was OK, we’re in love now. Obsession. The third season was spiraling and the fourth season was redemption. So that was very first person. Yeah. I mean, so the actor who played Greg asked for a one year contract. We did it in good faith. Don’t do that. Don’t expect that an actor with a contract is gonna then like understand how the writing process works. That actor decided to leave because I think he wanted to be back in New York, which is his right. And we were only given on his end about two and a half weeks to write him off the show. So when you watch that plot, that’s little writing pat on the back that we really earned it. You know, we, because it was any character other than Rebecca we managed to work it in thematically. So that second season was about obsession over Josh Chan. So having that other character leave, it f**ked with our how we wanted to do the series end, but it didn’t necessarily f**k with like the arc of the season. And then Aline, who was the showrunner and very smartly said, we need another love interest to come in and fight Josh and that’s how he got the character of Nathaniel. And I, I mean, God the show without Nathaniel. Like, what would that. I mean, he’s such an important part of the show. And then, of course, then when we realized, OK, we’re in the fourth season, we’re now coming back around to what we’d originally plotted, which is all these love interests coming back, because you wouldn’t have the character Greg be as big as he was in the first season if he was just going to like go away. Hence the recasting, and the recasting it from that meta level. And I actually love the way that it ended up working out because we got to really explore what happens when someone earnestly changes and earnestly wants to change their life. And before Greg, original Greg had left like, he was a very flawed character. And so the idea of now having him come back as a viable love interest. It was an unexpected gift. So I think like viewing anything that happens, even if it’s a pothole, as like an unexpected gift and you’re like, OK. Let’s pretend this is the choice we were always going to make. How do we do this? It’s like an improv scene. There are no mistakes. They’re always just choices that you have to roll with. 

Eric Conner: In other words, it’s not a problem. It’s a choice. And here’s the good news. The audience is none the wiser. As long as the choice services the show and the character. To really capture Rebecca Bunch, both Rachel Bloom and co-creator Aline Brosh McKenna needed to put a lot of themselves into the role while still giving Rebecca room to be her own woman. 

Rachel Bloom: I’m emotionally similar to Rebecca. I think autobiographically it got less and less and less so as as the series went on. But a lot of those emotional reactions, especially in the pilot are like, come from me. But really, Aline and I wrote the pilot together in a room, kind of improvising aloud to each other. So it’s very much a mix of us. And then the character kind of became her own thing. Coming at it from a first person perspective and coming at it with empathy. We always came at the character from I’ve had issues with anxiety and depression and elements of OCD, and so it was always coming at it from a very, very personal place. So we were never coming at it from a labeling, which is why the show is called Crazy Ex-Girlfriend because that is inherently an inflammatory label and the show is all about going beneath that. And some people didn’t get the subtlety, which the whole other thing. And then even when, when it was something that I hadn’t experenced, just coming at it with empathy and understanding why a character is doing what they’re doing, where a character’s coming from. And and if you can do that and you can still do a joke, as long as you understand where the joke is is coming from. I think just, I don’t know, empathy and understanding. 

Eric Conner: It’s a rare show that can make a catchy song about antidepressants equal parts hysterical and still painfully honest. 

 [Antidepressants Are So Not a Big Deal]

Eric Conner: So where does one go after a success like Crazy Ex-Girlfriend? Well, you go back to writing. Just as long as it’s not in the house. 

Rachel Bloom: You just got start. For me, staying in the house is death. I have to get out. I have to write in a coffee shop. I have to get somewhere. I go on walks to get inspired because, you know, when writing feels really fun, it’s when it feels effortless. When you have like an idea and you’re just like, but that’s not always the way it is. And then often you’ll come back to those ideas that felt effortless and you’re like, this is a pile of garbage. And so you just gotta do it. But I find getting out of your house, getting out of your normal. Like if you’re in a place that has a rut, just getting out of that space and going somewhere else really helps me. Getting your brain into a relaxed place. It’s why sometimes I like to write in the bath, which I have a little bath caddy and I’ll put my laptop on it. If it falls it’s not enough electricity to electrocute me. That’s what I’ve been told. And like in the bath, it will just like free me up or I’ll be taking a shower and I’ll want to write something down. So I think that just, and I should do this more, you know, walking around and carrying around a notebook and just talking to yourself and jotting down ideas and watching a lot of things too. Watching movies and TV shows and music videos and live theater too like, just being in a place of generally wanting to be inspired. I think being alone in your house is the opposite way to do that, and I’m saying this as much for myself right now because I’m in my house alone so much right now. And it’s, it’s not good for me as a writer. So that’s it. But it’s hard. 

Eric Conner: Miss Bloom also encouraged our students to not let other people determine how many creative hats they can wear. 

Student: I’m an actress and I am also very much into directing and producing and into writing and I’m having this issue where I keep being told that I need to do one thing. And I’m trying to figure out how to prove myself in terms of showing that I’m more than that. And I just want to know if you had any advice on that. 

Rachel Bloom: That’s stupid. That’s bulls**t. You don’t have to do one thing. It’s possible to get good at all those things. You just gotta work your ass off, which a lot of people do. First of all, you go where the gigs are. So if you get a gig directing something, that’s what you’re focusing on for the next bit. If you get a gig acting, that’s what you’re focusing on. If you just leave yourself open to all those opportunities. I find the opportunity or the job will kind of dictate you. I was an auditioning actor, but I was way more, I think, partially because I was kind of a s**t auditioner. I was way more successful as a, as a writer in the start of my career. And so I was like, OK, I’m more of a writer right now and you kind of feel it out. And then the second thing is so many people now are directing shorts that they also write and star in. And so that’s what you do. And you write your own short and you get a really good AD to help you plan those shots. I mean, this is you know, I’m sure there are many people in this room who can help you. You get an AD. You watch a bit of playback. You make sure the frame is good. People do it all the time. 

Eric Conner: It takes a lot of dedication, talent, effort, and yes, some luck to pull it off. And it’s going to take some time. So enjoy the process and enjoy the journey. 

Rachel Bloom: Just before Crazy Ex, just before Aline e-mailed me, I had pitched to musical television shows that no one gave a f**k about. Like no, people could not have cared less. So. So, yes, I have to believe that hard work and honing your craft work out and pan out. But you can’t necessarily do it for that end goal because that’s just luck. And that’s a lot of factors. You have to love the craft and you have to love the work. And I remember reading an interview with Tina Fey where she talked about how the happiest time of her life was when she was just performing in Second City in Chicago and she would swim in the river every morning and she would go perform. And she was like, yeah, if I did that for the rest of my life, I would have been fine. And so I think that that’s really important. I think in L.A. you meet some people who are so product, like they just want the end game. And it’s like, just hone the process first and make connections in organic ways, but get good at your work first and then see what happens. So I think that that’s really important to emphasize because I’m not the first person who thought of doing comedy music. I’m not the first person who decided to write and perform my own work. I’m not the first person who did a solo show. I was around a lot of people doing this and they inspired me. And then I took it and ran with it in some unique ways. And I and I do credit myself with that. But I guess it’s just important just to emphasize, like especially to students that like, focus on getting good first and worry about the getting discovered and all of that, that that will come. And when you’re ready, you’ll start researching how that happens. And it’s a process. 

Eric Conner: Well we’re all looking forward to seeing what Rachel Bloom will do next. We want to thank Miss Bloom for speaking with our students. And of course, thanks to all of you for listening. This episode was based on the Q&A moderated by Tova Laiter. To watch the full interview or to see our other Q&A’s, check out our YouTube channel at YouTube.com/NewYorkFilmAcademy. This episode was written by Eric Conner. That’s 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. Special thanks to our Events Department, Melissa Enright, Sajja Johnson, and the staff and crew who made this possible. To learn more about our programs. Check us out at NYFA.edu. Be sure to subscribe on Apple podcasts or wherever you listen. See you next time.

Eric: Hi, I’m Eric Conner senior instructor at New York Film Academy. And in this episode, we bring you an Emmy winning actor who’s appeared in two of the greatest comedies of all time, Veep and Arrested Development, not to mention over 100 other credits, including Playing a Suicidal Spork Come to Life, the fabulous Tony Hale.

Tony: Well I was an Army brat? So we moved like seven times before the seventh grade or something like that. And then we settled in Tallahassee, Florida. So most of my childhood was in Florida. And then I was I was not a kid who was into sports. And so my parents just kind of didn’t know what to do with me. And they found this little children’s theater called young actors theater and which I’m incredibly grateful for. Cause I they kind of sign me up for that. And and I’m I’m such an advocate for arts and schools, just because even if you don’t make it a career like I did, certain personalities need that environment to thrive. So even if I didn’t go into it, I just was a kid that needed that environment. So I’m really, really grateful for that. And then after that, I went to college in Alabama.

Anne: And then when I met you was in New York and you just arrived there.

Tony: I had just arrived there. And I studied journalism in college because I didn’t know if I could make a career out of acting. And then after that, I said, you know, I’m a dip my toe into the acting thing. And then in nineteen ninety five moved to New York. And my first show was Shakespeare in the parking lot where I did Taming of the Shrew and I was there for eight years.

Eric: Like many an actor, it was eight years filled with nos until he got the first major yes.

Tony: I moved to New York, didn’t know anybody, and I had so many jobs, so many jobs. I remember I would go through this temp agency and I never could like commit to a full week. So I would always just go day by day because you never knew if something was going to come along. And then in the lobby, they would play these Jim Carrey movies all day long. And it was like a purple room. And I saw that every single day. But I would temp and I would cater waiter and all this kind of stuff. And then I would do this thing called actors connection where you would pay money to meet agents. Sounds sketchy. And I went for like four or five times and I was like, oh, this is bullshit. I don’t know why I’m doing this. And then the fifth time I went and I met this agent with SVM MNM and she saw me as like a David Schwimmer type cause I’m like quirky and not all there. That’s how she described me, which is pretty much my entire career quirky and not all there anyway. So she started sending me out for like these kind of types. And and then the more commercials I got, the less kind of many, many jobs I had to have. That was most of my time in New York.

Eric: When Mr. Hale was first breaking into the industry. Everything was done in person as opposed to now when anyone with a YouTube account or an Instagram following can get noticed.

Tony: When we were starting, it was not the digital age, and so the way you got showcased or the way you got seen was you would do all of these like scene nights. And like we would do a lot of theater because agents would always go to theater to find new talent. And that was kind of the way to get yourself seen. And now, obviously, with YouTube and all this kind of stuff, there’s a lot more places to get seen. But back then, that was it. So it took me seven or eight years to get an agent to represent me for TV and film because they only saw me as a commercial actor. I was always the quirky guy, wide eyed, and they never could see me for TV and film. And this one manager met me and was like alright I’m going to start sending you for other stuff. And I was like, Oh, thank you. I really appreciate it. And then a year later, I think one of the casting directors who had cast me in commercials, Marcia DeBonis this Arrested Development came through and she remembered me and she saw the description and she was like, this sounds like Tony Hale. So I don’t know what that’s saying, but. And then she brought me in and they just kind of. I just remember reading the script and A I was just so grateful to have that audition. Yeah, but just thought it reminded me I was a big Christopher Guest fan. I still am with the kind of Waiting for Guffman and Best in Show and all this kind of stuff. And it reminded me of that kind of style. And so I went in and he was just kind of a manchild. And. And I remember I was in a sketch comedy group called King Baby. And there’s one character I did named singing Billy who had who would be very, very awkward and just walk into random places and just start singing. And I brought a little bit of that into Buster. But I remember with Buster is Mitch Hurwitz, who created the show. He would always tell me that all Buster ever wanted in life was safety. That’s all he wanted. And so he was always in this state of defense. Like his chin would go back his neck and his head would go back and his hands would go back like this. And he was always just like, what’s coming at me? And so he was always in this really defensive state. And that just I kind of always thought about that. with Buster. But just very kind of an innocent. You know, it’s like a seven year old trapped enough at the time, 32 year old body.

Eric: Tony Hale used Buster’s we’ll call it survival instinct as a window into capturing that character. And this process has served him well, even when he’s doing a character that at first glance doesn’t seem like him at all.

Tony: I remember doing this movie in 2006 with Jimmy Fallon, and it was he was really good. It was just not the character I was playing. I didn’t like the guy because he was kind of a player and he was manipulative and he was kind of the town douchebag. And I was just like, oh, god, I know people like this. And it’s like, I just didn’t like this character. And I went to this woman named Diana Castle here in L.A. She’s this place called the unimagined no the Imagined Life the unimagined life the Imagined Life. And I remember her saying to me, Tony, you have to realize that these characteristics are inside of you. And it was so kind of a wake up call. I had known this, but it was so refreshing because it’s that sense of the fact is I would be lying if I didn’t say I’ve had moments in my life where I’ve been manipulative. I’ve had many moments in my life where probably in a douchebag, I’m not proud of the moments I’ve had in my life where I’ve been a bit of a player. You know, it’s like. And the more that you can bring out these traits in yourself with whatever you like, you look at Buster. He deals with anxiety. I’ve dealt with anxiety. He has panic attacks. I’ve had a panic attack in my life. You know, it’s like you have to find those places in them that are inside of you. And yes, you take it to the extreme. But when you find that place in you, not only can you give the most authentic version of that character, but no one else can do that. Like you. And it’s like if I’m playing just an idea of a character, like if somebody comes up to me and says, hey, Tony, we want you to play this I don’t know football coach or whatever. It’s probably never gonna happen. But like, you know, I’m going to play this football coach. And in my head, I have an idea of the guy of Friday Night Lights. You know, that that coach. But then I think a football coach is what he’s motivating. He’s encouraging. He knows the game, whatever. But if I just try to play the idea of a football coach like that guy on Friday Night Lights, there’s a thousand other people who can do that better than me to play that idea. But if I bring out those traits within myself, how I can be encouraging, how I can motivate someone, how I can be interested in the game, let me tell right now, I might not get the job, but nobody else can do that because I’m bringing out of myself and it’s authentic. So I might not get it, but at least I went in there and did something that nobody else can do. And I did my best my best version of that. If that makes sense.

Eric: Well, his best version of Buster Bluth on Arrested Development turned him into a TV star. It was a dream role for any comedic actor. But as Mr. Hale learned, it takes more than achieving one’s dream to actually be happy.

Tony: I will say I’ve learned a lot in this business and I love, love, love talking to other actors and people who are in the business because so when I was in New York and I booked Arrested Development, that was by far my big thing. That was my dream. All I ever wanted was a sitcom. And when I got that sitcom and I was on a lot in the on the Fox lot in 2003, I realized it didn’t satisfy me the way I thought it was going to satisfy me. And it really, really scared me because I got my dream and it didn’t satisfy me. And what I realized is for most of my time in New York, I was constantly looking ahead, whatever I was going through. I was like, OK, OK, OK. But that big thing is coming. That big thing is coming. And the fact is, if you’re not practicing contentment where you are, you’re not going to be content. When you get what you want and I’m not saying it comes easy, I’m saying it’s a discipline. And that’s why I say practicing, cause I was so far in the future all the time when I was in New York, very rarely present. I just gave that big thing, so much weight. And nothing can match that. You can’t match that weight in the since Arrested Development, it really woke me up to beginning the process of trying to be present. And for instance, when I was in school, like you guys are now, I was always, always somewhere else in my head. I was always looking ahead. I can’t even imagine being in this town where you’re surrounded by all this kind of stimulus. And it’s just like it’d be probably very, very difficult to be present here. But the more that you guys can wake yourself up to where you are and try to be present and try to make the most of these resources. It only makes whatever happens, I think, that much more rich. And it’s very, very difficult. It’s very, very difficult. But it’s it’s one of those things that I woke up to, the fact that if I don’t begin the discipline of being present and waking myself up, I’m going to get to the end of my life and I’m going to look back. And every season was just me constantly looking to the next thing, having a great job. I mean, look at Arrested Development, great cast, amazing writing, awesome opportunity. Was still looking to the next thing. What what’s wrong with that equation? And to the point where I wrote that I wrote this children’s book about it called Archibald’s Next Big Thing about a little chicken that gets a card in the mail that says your big thing is here. And he’s like, where he goes on all these great adventures. But every time he’s on an adventure, he’s like, I’ve got to get to my next big thing. And this bee travels around with him and the bee’s like, you’ve got to just be man. You got to just be. And then in the end, he realizes he realizes that his big thing is right here. My big thing is talking to you guys right now. That’s my big thing. And the more that I can get in to that practice of waking myself up to the fact that my big thing is not somewhere else. It’s right here. And I will say this. It’s not that ambition is wrong. It’s not that dreaming is wrong. But if I’m honest with myself, I think when I was dreaming or when I did have ambition, I think subconsciously I was saying I will have value when this happens. Because what this business does very poorly is it says you have value when you get this. You have value in this. That’s bullshit. That is 100 percent bullshit. If you guys win an Oscar a year from now, I’m telling you right now, your personal value is the exact same today as it will be after you get that Oscar. And that’s something that you have to begin to remind yourself about because it’s very, very important. And if anything, I mean, I’m so grateful. I’m so grateful to have been given the opportunities I’ve been given. And it was so nice to have the recognition. But the fact is, you know, 50 years ago, there were people who were getting Emmys and they thought they were the shit. And it’s cyclical. It’s fleeting. It’s fleeting. So the more that I can wake up to the present and the more that I can wake up to the life around these things that are given so much power. I feel like the more of a richness it is honestly, which is, by the way, again, a discipline that I struggle with. And that I have to practice myself. Like, for instance, I have to whenever I find myself living in the what if I say not now. Right now I’m talking to a wonderful group at the New York Film Academy and that’s where I am right now. Another thing I do is I always feel things around me like I’ll feel the chair, I’ll feel my jeans, I’ll feel my jacket just to ground myself where I am. Because the fact is, most of my life I’ve been checked out somewhere else in my head. And speaking because I know you teach Meisner. One of the big things with Meisner is activities. And I think one of the reasons that’s very important is an activity and the tactile doing an activity or anything grounds you to where you are. It keeps you in that space, you know, because even if I’m talking to somebody in a scene, it’s very easy to kind of even not check out and just kind of get into the lines. but the more I can kind of ground myself there, it really does help.

Eric: Only by being fully invested in the work can an actor completely show what they alone bring to the part.

Tony: I would say I don’t know if anybody else could not play those roles, but I the version that I gave, nobody else can do that because that’s out of me. And it’s like I think that’s when you get to those honest places. And it’s really, you know, a big thing that I always remember in this town is comparison is the thief of joy. Especially with nowadays with Instagram and Twitter and all the social media, when you’re just seeing so many other people’s lives constantly, it’s really hard to not get stuck in this game of comparison. And it steals your joy. And the fact is, many times you can look and say, oh, why didn’t I get this? Why didn’t this happen? And oh, they did that. It’s like you forget your identity and you forget the gifts that you bring to the table, you know, and just to really mine those out of you, rather than that sense of like, I’m not like that. I’m not like that, I’m not like that. It’s like, wait a second. I’m falling into comparison again. And it really is. It’s I mean, not that it cann’t inspire you, but most of the time, if we’re honest comparison many times steals your joy.

Eric: Learning not to compare yourself to others is part of the work life balance that everyone in Hollywood strives for Mr. Hale points to one of his Arrested Development costars as being an inspiration for this balance. The Fonz himself. Henry Winkler.

Tony: Henry Winkler. He’s one of those. I really hope you guys can maybe bring him in one day. You might have already done that. But here when I came to L.A., I’d come from a very strong support system in New York that I really I really loved my friends and I had met some not necessarily on arrested development, but I had met some personalities in L.A. that were jarring to me. I just I was very new and I didn’t know what to expect. And Henry, when I met him, he was so gracious and so humble and so full of love and just kind of kindness. I had this moment where I was like, this guy has been in this business since before Happy Days playing the Fonz. And he can still remain that kind of a character, like having that kind of a character and that kind of integrity. And I was like, OK. I’m not saying I’m not a work in progress, but I’m saying it’s possible to have that longevity in this business and to still have integrity and character. And, you know, you sometimes you meet those people who are not that way. And I was like, damn it, that’s possible. And I’m not damn it. But I was so grateful. It’s a gift that he gave me to be like that. And it really continues to be a gift. I’ve worked with a lot of I mean, Julia’s another one, like on Veep. You know, whoever’s number one on the call sheet, who’s the star of the show, they really set the tone for the show. They set that kind of environment and many. You know, we’ve all heard these stories. Sometimes the star of the show creates kind of a fear based environment where everybody’s kind of walking on eggshells around them. Let me tell you right now, that sucks creative energy out of a space. It sucks it out. Pride, entitlement, self, all that bullshit sucks creative energy out. No need for it. Julie was gracious. She was a team player. She came in knowing the power of an ensemble. Everybody’s ideas were welcome. Her family was her first priority, not this business. And what that did is it just created this loving, trusting space where we all were able just threw ideas out and made. Just wanted to make the best show possible. And it what created that environment. I felt very like free to just be like, I don’t know if this is Gary. And they were like, totally get it.

Eric: Arrested Development also gave Tony Hale the opportunity to perform with another icon and Hollywood, royalty at that. The one and only Liza Minnelli.

Anne: I’m curious what it was like working with Liza Minnelli.

Tony: Oh, guys, she was my girlfriend.

Anne: I know.

Tony: Lucille 2, who is my mother on the show was Lucille and she was Lucille 2. I loved it. I remember the first year of Arrested Development when they came up to me. And by the way, I had never been on a lot. I had never had that much free food in my life working on a show. I was so amazed by that. And then remember somebody coming up to me and saying, okay, so we’re thinking Liza Minnelli is gonna be your girlfriend. And I was like, okay, I just need a second. I need to just digest that for a minute. But she the thing is, when you’re dealing with icons like that, you never know which direction it’s gonna go. They can be really difficult or they could be as gracious as she was. She was so lovely. And all day she would just tell me stories about her growing up and how she, you know, her mom, for those of you who don’t know her. Her mom was Judy Garland, who was Dorothy in Wizard of Oz. And just like she grew up on the MGM lot, she would tell these stories of like being in London with her mom, Judy Garland and Vivien Leigh from Gone With the Wind. And you were just like, what? And her stories never came from a place of ego. They just came from a place of like, listen to my life. Listen to my life. She took my wife and I out to lunch once and she was in the backseat and she was talking about her having just done a concert at Radio City Music Hall. And she’s talking about her music. And I didn’t really know her music. And I said oh what’d you sing? And she said, I sang the song Liza with a Z. By the way, she’s chain-smoking the entire time while telling me this. And I’m like, please, I want everything about this moment. And then she says, she says, You don’t know it. I’ll sing it for you. And she breaks out in song in the backseat of my car. And my wife and I are like, what the hell is happening right now? And the best thing is she had done the song so many times that she could hear the orchestration. So she would go like Liza with a Z. Ba-da-ba-ba-bam! And I was like, I have left my body. And then she took us to the hamburger hamlet and would just keep telling stories. And I was just like, God, this is one of those moments. I really just like, wake yourself up, Tony, to where you are. Yeah. People either thought she was Joyce DeWitt from Three’s Company, my mother, or an impersonator of herself. And I was like, this is great. And she you know, she just like, she’s old Hollywood man. And just so loving, really, really loving and lived a very, very colorful life, obviously. She’s amazing and she would sit on she wouldn’t sit on a director’s chair normally. Not normally. It was her way. She would sit like this, like she was just about to bust out in cabaret.

Anne: A little high kick.

Tony: Just a little kick, and I was. I just wanted her to. I was like, go, go dance. Do what you gotta do.

Eric: Sometimes you don’t know a moments on your bucket list until after it’s happened, just like being serenaded by Liza. Mr. Hale’s time on Arrested Development felt too good to be true. Made all the sweeter because nobody thought the show could possibly last.

Tony: If I’m honest, we were never a hit when we were on air. So we definitely held it lightly. We were always on the bubble. As they say. And we never knew when we were going to get canceled. So every year I kind of expected that we were gonna go away. And then they think I don’t think Fox was very crazy about us. But then we would get an Emmy and they’d be like, I guess we gotta keep it around. You know, so we were very grateful to the critics and the accolades we got. I think that really gave us longevity for those two and half years. But the truth is, Fox didn’t have to keep us around. They really didn’t because our ratings. So I’m very grateful that they did keep us around for what they did. But I always we were always just like we might get canceled tomorrow. And then Netflix brings us back, which was very surreal. So, yeah, I always kind of never knew when we were gonna go away. I was nervous about, you know, getting back into Buster if I was going to kind of match expectations because I had done it so long. But when I heard Jessica Walters, whose plays Lucille, when I heard her voice go Buster.

Clip: Buster.

Tony: It was like it was like this Pavlovian pain where I was like, I’m back. Just this rush of neurosis and anxiety. Well, we’re back.

Eric: Arrested Development’s rapid fire jokes and intricate structure were Tony Hale’s trial by fire. After that, no role could ever throw him for a loop.

Tony: It is intense. I like that. Like I was doing this thing recently and which I admire their process. But I was working with an actor who really, really appreciated getting the script. Many days before. I have never experienced I have I’ve only experience where the script comes that day and well not the script, but like alts are constantly flying to you. And I for something. I kind of like that energy. But like, they were very like it was very, very stressful. And I’m actually incredibly grateful to Veep and arrested because it kind of gets you in the system like almost don’t stick too hard to the script. Now, if you’re doing theater, or if you’re doing a play, I mean, obviously those words are set and all this kind of stuff. But in my experience with TV and film, it is just that page. You hold it very lightly. You have no idea what’s going to change.

Eric: Both Arrested Development and Veep have such a comedic energy, you’d assume they were mostly improved, but as Tony Hale explained, improv would have actually gotten in the way of arrested’s many plants and payoffs. Veep, on the other hand, let the actors go more off leash to hysterical effect.

Tony: Arrested Mitch Hurwitz, who created the show. He had such a comic grid in his head of like how jokes puzzled together. Like, for instance, my favorite joke in the entire series is Tobias’s in the Blue Man Group because he thought it was a support group for depressed men.

Clip: Are you crazy?

Clip: Are you blue?

Clip: Only in color, Michael.

Tony: And there was all of these hidden things of like a blue hand on the wall. And this meant this and this meant this. And so we never really wanted to leave the page because there was always like, for instance, when my when my hand was eaten off by a seal.

Clip: I’m a monster!

Tony: There was all these previous foreshadowing jokes about hand off and like arm off and all this kind of stuff that I at the time was like, these are odd. Why is there a hand chair in my room? I didn’t really understand what was going on, you know, cut to if I had that day been like, I don’t want to pay attention to the hands or I don’t want to say then I would have messed up this kind of puzzle that he had created. So we really stayed true to the page. Whereas on Veep, they had a large rehearsal process of just not necessarily new lines, but really to kind of see if it gelled, if it made sense, because we really wanted that foundation of like this could happen. You know, and so really just kind of sensing if this made sense. And and then the great thing is working with Julia, you know, we would get the lines kind of locked and then we would get on set. And then it was even more joy because we could work out the physicality. So it’s like we get on set to be like, okay, how can we bump up the comedy? And then it was like, okay. So if you drop your coat here, I’m going to catch it here. Where can you possibly hit me or or where can you abuse me more? You know, and it’s that sense that’s just like trying to find those bits to amp up the comedy. And that was there’s this one scene we did. I don’t even remember what season it was where she’s not president anymore and we go to a museum and she’s sitting behind the rope in a president’s desk just to feel like a president again. And we’re doing it in hiding. And then somebody comes and I actually pick her up and then throw her over the rope.

Clip: Hey ma’am, I think somebody is coming.

Clip: Oh. Uh oh, oh. Gary.

Clip: Oh, my God. Oh, my God. Oh, my God.

Tony: Her head came so close to the floor. Thank God that I didn’t like bash Julia Louis-Dreyfus’s head but it was I was just like it was so timed specifically to get it. Exactly. You know, and stuff like that. I’m really gonna miss. But it was so fun and it was so it looks so chaotic, but it was very choreographed. You know, it was really, really fun.

Eric: Even though he’s now become more comfortable with the form, Tony Hale did not actually have much improv training. Fortunately, the acting students here at New York Film Academy do get that opportunity.

Tony: I’m so glad you’re taking an improv class. I wish I wish I had taken an improv class when I started out because I have learned more about it and I have grown with it, but has been by being thrown in the deep end and trying to figure out, OK, what’s going on. I don’t have many regrets, but if I could go back to those anytime somebody says, oh, I wish I could go back to that time, I have no desire to go back to my early days. But I would take an improv class because there is a real I struggle with being in my head too much. Like I’ll do something and I’ll have already thought. Is it funny? Is it not funny? Is it smart? Is it not smart? And by the way, the moment’s gone, you know, and it’s like, well, I lost my moment because I was so in my head to get into that practice and exercise that muscle. Just to try it, just to put it out there might be stupid. Might be hilarious. Might be whatever. But just try it, you know? And Veep has really been a gift to me because it was a very safe space where you’re able to just throw out ideas and try stuff. And if it sucked, it sucked. If it didn’t. Hey, great. So I’m very thankful for that. But classes in the beginning. That’s the space to just free your mind up. I can’t tell you how much that is going to work for you and how much of a gift that’s gonna be for you. Like, really that’s a really great choice. I would encourage anybody to do it, actually. By the way, I remember when I was cast and I was like, I’m in a show with Matt Walsh, who created UCB. Who’s pretty much is the one of the founders of all that stuff. And I’m like, I don’t know much about improv. I was petrified.

Anne: I bet. Yeah.

Tony: But they just really I don’t know. It’s. The more I’ve done it with doing Veep for eight years, you just see it’s all from that honest space. You know of just like trying not to be funny because with sketch comedy or doing so many comedy in New York, it’s all about finding that joke. It’s all about finding that bit. It’s all about making somebody laugh. It was really just. And Matt Walsh. I have studied him. And you can see many times when he’s improving something and it’s more of just reactionary. Like if somebody says I’m an astronaut and I’m going off into space, like Walsh’s response would be like, wow, that’s a real transition for you. That’s a real like. That must be interesting. You know, it’s like responding naturally how somebody would respond. Yeah. And that’s amazing how that’s always a challenge. You know, of just kind of like, all right, listen, listen. Focus on the other person.

Eric: One of the toughest parts of the entertainment industry is well dealing with the entertainment industry, letting the frustrations get into your head and stop you from doing your best work. Even pros like Tony Hale can feel this pressure. Fortunately for him, he also found a way to deal with it.

Tony: The older I get, I realize that I spent a lot of time frustrated and not that I still don’t. But I spent a lot of time frustrated at my agents and frustrated at my reps. And then when that children’s book kind of came around and I realized how much joy I just got from generating my own stuff, and not that we ever have any real sense of like complete control. But there’s a sense of ownership and the fact like, you know what, I’m just going to do this and try to do like in New York, just like I couldn’t get a theatrical agent. I was super frustrated. I would just do plays and I would go through Backstage magazine. That was like our Bible and we would see what auditions were there. And I’m going to do this. I’m just. And it was the sense of like, how can I be active in this process rather than what I was doing is just getting very frustrated and just kind of sitting and waiting. And it’s very hard. And not that you’re not going to still be waiting for them to kind of maybe have a different opinion. But if you creatively activate yourself in something else, it’s amazing. Like even because like Veep finished in December and the show’s done and then, you know, you kind of now wonder what gigs are gonna come and all this kind of stuff. But during that time, this children’s book is now a children’s series that’s gonna be on Netflix. And it has given me so much joy. And it’s a very simple thing. And I edit these scripts, but it’s something that I’m activating myself creatively. And then whatever happens with, you know, quote, money gigs or whatever like that, just to it happens. But to kind of keep my focus on something like that has really, really helped. It’s almost like when you when I gave it so much power of waiting, it made it worse in my head rather than trying to activate myself creatively, other places, even if it’s like, you know, finding a play and doing a part in that and going to rehearsals and being around other artists. It’s just that sense like, oh, my gosh, my focus is here. And then, yes, it’s not like you’re not going to get frustrated. I could be waiting around, but it’s almost like, okay, well, 40 or 50 percent of that attention was on this creative thing. And now it’s the other half. Is that rather than all of it on the waiting.

Eric: Another potential frustration actress can face is being typecast after Buster Bluth and Veep’s Gary Tony Hale could have just cornered the market on put upon neurotics. But like all good artists, he’s looking to expand.

Tony: That fear of being typecast. I mean, it’s very easy for my work to be seen that way. And it’s like but I kind of don’t mind playing the quirky sidekick. I kind of enjoy it and kind of beaten down guy cause it’s just fun to live in that. Concerning the drama, I love it. And I the more I realize of just like I’ve already done stuff that really comes from a dramatic place. But I’m doing an indie in August that is just the opposite of what I’ve done. And it might not. The gigs that I get in my life might not be the bread and butter for my career like to pay, you know. I don’t know that yet, but it’s nice to do these indies or these side projects where you can kind of branch out a little bit. And that’s I’m looking forward to that. I’m nervous about it. I am nervous about it. Just because it’s there is something about doing a comedy where even doing Veep and arrested even off set everybody’s kind of in this energy of play. And it’s fun. You know, I remember doing this law and order years ago where I was. I was playing a dad whose daughter was kidnaped. Oh, God. And I remember telling my friends, oh I’m going to New York. I’m doing law and order. We can have drinks and it’ll be fun. I got there and I started doing this character and I didn’t want to leave my hotel room. It was so sad because you kind of have to go in the space of like if my I’ve a thirteen year old daughter, if she was kidnaped, I didn’t want to go out. I was just like, oh, God, I’m just going to go to bed because it’s a more intense environment sometimes. And so I think it’s going to be a contrast in that space. But I am looking forward to it.

Eric: And what better way to expand than playing a suicidal spork named Forky in Toy Story 4? Though being in an animated film meant he couldn’t rely on his considerable physical chops.

Tony: I was doing the voice for Forky while I was doing Veep and the interesting about it is my character on Veep is pretty much not allowed to speak. He could only live through his nonverbal. He was even called a bitchy mime on the show, and so he would only use his non-verbal because she was constantly shutting me down. And then at the same time I went to Forky, who didn’t even have any nonverbal because he had no flexibility. He was a spork and he only had these like out of control pipe cleaner arms, his googly eyes didn’t even have control, they were just kind of going all over the place. He could barely walk cause he had popsicle sticks for feet. So he had no physicality, really. And he only had his voice. And so what I did is I would actually the thing with voice acting, the more I do it, the more I realize, man, I act the hell out of that in front of that microphone and just go crazy. I mean, granted, Forky couldn’t. But I did. I was just like all over the map and using my arms because at first it’s very intimidating because you don’t have your physicality more. It’s only the microphone because as a comic actor you get very used to like, oh, I can use my eyebrow to go up. I can do a smirk. All that nonverbal is gone. So I just learned I’m doing the same acting, the same expressions, the same crazy in front of that microphone and just trusting that that’s gonna be channeled into the microphone. I saw this cartoon once that this guy’s in this voice over Booth and the director on the other side goes, okay. Can you sound like you have more hair? And it was just like, you know, just like the worst direction.

Eric: Mr. Hale gave our students considerably more positive direction. He explained that one of the most empowering things a performer can do is turn down a rule they don’t want to do. In other words, sometimes it’s okay to say no.

Tony: A big thing that I learned early on is having been an actor for so many years where you’re so desperate to work and I’m still looking. Always thankful for gigs when they happen. But if a job is presented to you, if you have to say no to it cause you’re uncomfortable with it. That guilt that rushes over your body. How can I say no to this job? Because I’m an actor and I’m so grateful for the gig. I feel guilty about not. The key to remember is the freedom that you can have to say no is because if you say yes to that job, you’re actually doing them a disservice because you’re not going to be 100 percent there. And so if you can think of it like if I say yes, they’re not getting 100 percent for what they’ve paid for. And so you’re actually helping them by saying no, because you’re not going to be in your body if you’re doing something you’re so uncomfortable with. There’s gonna be a resistance that you’re not going to be completely open and they’re not getting 100 percent for what they’ve paid for. So you’re doing them a gift by saying no. And I think that’s a mind frame that’s really good to get into. I’m a huge people pleaser. I like everybody to like me, you know, and it’s very hard to say no. It actually hurts my stomach. But if you if you say no with something that you really feel strongly about. It’s amazing how it gives you that kind of power. It’s a very empowering thing. Yeah, it is.

Eric: And if you don’t believe him, just ask Forky.

Tony: One thing that Forky said in Toy Story that I love, because I do love telling people this is like it’s gonna be OK, because I think we as artists, very emotional. And I’m we’re always kind of like, when’s the shoe going to drop? What’s it’s the uncertainty of it all. But just like I like to be told it’s gonna be OK, because I think it really is. It is. It’s gonna be an emotional rollercoaster like life just coming back to the space of like, it’s all right. It’s gonna be okay. It’s gonna unfold in time, whatever happens.

Eric: Some actors get that truly great career defining role once in their life. With Veep and Arrested Development, Mr. Hale pulled it off twice. And he’s got lots more to go. We want to thank him for sharing his story with our students. And thanks, of course, to all of you for listening. Check out the animated series Archibald’s next big thing based on Tony Hale’s book on Netflix. You can also check out our previous episode with Henry Winkler. This episode was based on the Q&A moderated by Anne Moore. To watch the full interview or to see our other Q&As check out our YouTube channel at YouTube.com/NewYorkFilmAcademy. 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 Jean Sherlock and Dan Mackler. Special thanks to our events department Melissa Enright. Sajja Johnson. And the staff and crew who made this possible. To learn more about our programs, check us out at NYFA.edu. 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 producer who helped bring the Netflix film to all the boys I’ve loved before to millions of viewers. Producer Matt Kaplan as a producer. He’s got over three dozen film and TV credits from horror to romantic comedies, mostly geared towards younger audiences. Mr. Kaplan described how he remembers being a kid himself who dreamt of one day making his own movies. 

Matt Kaplan: I think I always wanted to do this even as a kid like I loved movies and that was my passion. And, you know, I played football in college and I went to film school. And those are the only two things I liked doing for fun. So if you’re lucky enough to do what you love in business, then then you’ll have a pretty fun career. And so I’ve been fortunate to find something I love. And it’s not work because I work with my best friends and I get to wake up every day and read books like To All the Boys and then try to make it happen. And so I think I’ve always known in my heart like that was what I wanted to do. I think I like putting things together. I think I just looked at like what I was good at. I mean, when I was your guys age, I was at Columbia and I took writing classes and directing classes. And to be honest, I wasn’t that good at it, but I knew I was good at assessing material. And like I knew I had an instinct for what I felt like I could sell and market. And so I just spent a lot of my time making relationships with great writers and great directors. And then I focused on making relationships with the people who have to, like, sell the movies and distribute the movies. So for me, it was just like kind of a slow process. But again, I just tried a bunch of stuff and failed and figured out what I was good at. 

Eric Conner: For Matt Kaplan, his trying and failing was making his own original content, so instead of only waiting and hoping and praying for the perfect job. Instead he went out and just made his own material. 

Matt Kaplan: I went to Columbia University and studied film and when I graduated I started to make short form content and YouTube was just getting popular. And so I started making short like videos with my friends after I kind of had made enough videos that no one was paying attention to it. And I ended up at Lionsgate, which was a film studio, and I was an assistant and I just started working my way to be an executive. And I was part of the team that made The Hunger Games, which was really fun. And then I kind of knew as a younger executive, I wanted to be the one making the final decisions. And so they gave me an opportunity to run a division that made movies from like 1 to 10 million dollars, mostly like young adult films, comedies and horror movies. So that kind of became an area that I loved. And so I just kind of started to make a bunch of movies. And so I never worried about what price we were making for. Sometimes people only want to make Avengers movies and that was but I was passionate about telling good stories and not worrying about, you know, where they got distributed. And luckily today I think which you guys all get to experience, like Netflix and Hulu and Amazon like allows us to tell cool stories and it’ll find the right home. When I first started in the business, those things didn’t exist, so it was either theaters or no one really saw it. So it’s a cool time to make movies. So from Lionsgate, I ended up partnering with a guy named Jason Blum who does Blumhouse, which is a bunch of horror movies. So we made about eight movies together over three years, which was for me because I was an executive. So I was more from a marketing and distribution perspective. And then I learned from Jason how to really start to produce, which was an amazing time for me. And then I got a phone call after working with Jason from a guy named Jeffrey Katzenberg who ran DreamWorks, and he called to say there’s this random company awesomeness. There’s 13 people and we’re about to put in one hundred million dollars. Will you help go run it? So we grew awesomeness from, you know, 15 people to 400. And we were just focusing on making movies and TV shows and YouTube content for young adults. 

Eric Conner: So before he produces material for these young adults, he first needs to develop an idea that’s going to be exciting to him. 

Matt Kaplan: I was first trying to figure out what kind of movies your passionate about telling. For me, I love trying because a lot of other producers are older than me in the business. So I just always kind of felt like I should stick to movies for younger people, but I didn’t want to get pigeonholed into one genre. So I don’t want to only make comedies or only make romance or horror, but I just was like maybe I should just like, look at everything we look at from like a youthful perspective. So typically we will option a book or you know buy an article from the newspaper or whatever it is and then hire a writer. So like an example is I woke up to a text message from my two friends who who are directors who created catfish and they’re like, did you read about this story about this kid who’s 12 years old? And he, like his parents, were getting divorced and he like flew to Bali and I was like, what are you talking about? So then I Googled it. And like on the front cover of CNN was like some 12 year old kid stole his parent’s credit card, flew to Bali and like home alone style, like went on vacation. And like, then the parents who hated each other had to get on a plane and fly to go get the kid. And so I was like, that’s a cool idea. And so then a friend of mine who’s a big writer who wrote like a lot of the Will Ferrell movies, I called him and I said, take a look at this article. I think there’s something here. And then he was like, this is amazing. And then I got those directors who then had done this movie Nerve. And so we all just teamed up and then we sold it. And now we’re gonna make it for Paramount. So then I called. This is funny I actually have a video of it. Then I called the mom of the kid and I said, I want to buy your life rights. And so then I had a conference call on Skype with the mom and the kid that I videoed, even though they didn’t know that it was cuckoo, because the kid just was what you think he is. He was just a wild child, but he was amazing and he was like charismatic. And so we ended up sharing that with that writer. And so then we got the life rights and then Paramount bought them. And so it kind of just pay attention and read a lot, like read the news and pay attention to what you guys think is cool going on around you. Like whether it’s get out or us, like there’s so many interesting ideas to come up with and talk to your friends about it. And a lot of cool stuff will happen. 

Eric Conner: Here’s the great news about an interesting idea. It doesn’t have to be expensive to get noticed, though, if it’s too small or too niche or just unbelievable. Well that writing better be amazing. 

Matt Kaplan: Start with a great big idea that doesn’t mean it has to be expensive, but if you start from a small idea no one can access, then you better be the best writer ever. Because if your story is just about two people who work. I don’t know at the studio city Starbucks like it’s going to be tough to like get Will Ferrell to be in that movie versus like we have a movie we’re about to make and it’s about the pope is possessed in the Vatican. So it’s as big of a big idea as like you can come up with. But it’s not for a horror movie. It’s like not that expensive. So I think start by trying to come up with depending on the genre of story, you want to tell something that really feels sticky and modern and zeitgeist-y. So that when you pitch it back, it can really resonate. And I think even today more than ever even with to all the boys. Like what I was so passionate about was like I haven’t seen a Korean American family have, especially for teenagers like have their story told. So for us, like as popular as the books were like that was the thing that I was like, even if no one wants to see this, like, that’s what I cared about. And I felt like other people will, too. And we ended up being right. So try to pick ideas that you think are sticky. 

Eric Conner: With the recent film adaptation of To All the Boys. Matt Kaplan produced a movie that’s reached everyone starring NYFA alum Lana Condor and DP’d by former NYFA instructor Michael Fimognari. The movie has become one of Netflix’s most watched properties of all time, and it showed that romantic comedies could still be fresh, original, funny and yeah romantic. Not bad for a movie that was frozen in development for years. 

Matt Kaplan: So it was funny. It was actually set up at Sony Pictures and the book had been out for about four years and I had read it back at Lionsgate when I was a studio executive. And once I had started awesomeness, we started to look at what cool projects we had looked at over the years and Sony hadn’t made the movie. So I called some friends over at Sony and said, if you’re not going to make this, can I buy it from you? I didn’t love the script they developed, but I did love the book. So I called the book author and said, would you be willing to allow us to buy it from Sony for you. And so we did. And then we hired this amazing young writer who was a playwright who hadn’t really written many screenplays, but all her plays were amazing. Her name is Sofia Alvarez. So she did a pass on the script and turned out great. Then we hired our director and we met Noah Centineo and Lana Condor, and we just felt like they were the perfect match. And so we greenlit the movie six months later. And I called some friends over at Netflix and I said, I made this movie. I think you guys are gonna like it. And they watched it and bought it. 

Eric Conner: Even though the movie was based on a series of bestselling books, it still took a really long time to reach the screen. But once it was actually in production, the book’s author, Jenny Han, stayed on set pretty much all the time to make sure that the film accurately captured the life of its Korean American main character. 

Matt Kaplan: We love adapting books because I feel like you can always go back to the original source, which is that author, and talk to them about what inspired them and why they wrote it the way they wrote it. And even in this movie in particular, like I didn’t really understand Korean American culture the way that one should to produce this movie. So I had to spend hours with the author and ask her but like why would she wear this piece of clothing versus that? What kind of food are they making in their house? So we spent months deliberating on what those choices were. And ultimately, like, we invited the author to come to set. She stayed on set the whole movie. And so that’s really fun when you’re collaborating with people to have another person to bounce ideas off of, because sometimes when you developed an original script, you’re just with yourself and the writer and you have no idea if people are going to dig it. 

Eric Conner: For Mr. Kaplan, part of collaborating with talented artists is knowing when he needs to step in and maybe even more importantly, when he doesn’t. 

Matt Kaplan: I think it’s all about who you’re working with. So like as I mentioned earlier, like Michael Fimognari who’s a cinematographer, has a really amazing handle on aesthetics. And so I on this particular film. I am totally hands off because he has such a good handle on like how we shoot it versus as he would admit, like he’ll say, Matt, I need your help on what we do with Noah’s wardrobe or the production design. Like what do the bed sheets look like to the wallpaper? And so I get really deep in some of those decisions. And I had no idea what Lana should be wearing. And so I had to have many consultants and especially the author, because it was very personal to her. 

Eric Conner: I actually went to film school with Michael Fimognari, the cinematographer, and I can see why Matt Kaplan trusts him. He is a maestro with that camera. These collaborations and relationships in the industry, well, they’re important at every step. Whether you’re producing your 20th feature film or whether you’re just starting out. 

Matt Kaplan: People in this business want to help. So if you put yourself in a position to ask for help, I would say start off by trying to like, you know, get experience, go to a agency or a management company and just watch, but then don’t just watch, like try to make friends with these people and be helpful. And I think once you start to do that, good things can happen. 

Student: If you like get rejected the first time do you still follow up? 

Matt Kaplan: Dude we get rejected every day. I think that’s the thing. Like there’s so many times I work on a script for a year and I send it out to Warner Brothers and Lionsgate and Sony and they they they pass on it. And then I try to understand why they don’t like it or what’s wrong with it. But I think if you’re gonna be in this business, you’ve got to wrap your head around like rejection is is meaningless. Just do it again. That’s just the first stop. The set’s a different story. I think the harder part’s actually the stuff in the navigating Hollywood, like the managers and the agents and the scripts and all that. Once you’re on set, you usually hire a depending on where you’re shooting the movie or TV show, like whether it’s like we shoot this in Vancouver. And so there’s a individual named Chris Voss that we always use in Vancouver because he lives in Vancouver. So he helps me hire like all the grip and electric and all the people who work the hundred and ten people that work on the movie. But once we get to the place of where we’re actually shooting, I’m I’m really just worried about the performances and making sure we’re not spending too much money. 

Eric Conner: Mr. Kaplan’s movies tend to have lower budgets and only modest box office goals these days. Netflix, Amazon and those million other streaming services help these smaller movies see the light of day and reach an audience. But just a few years ago, that was not the case. 

Matt Kaplan: Just to go back into my life a little bit like I made a movie that I was so proud of that you guys. I don’t even know where you can find it, but it was called they came together and it’s like a spoof movie about romantic comedies. It’s Amy Poehler and Paul Rudd and like a million other famous actors from the guys who created Wet, Hot American Summer. And so, like, I was such a huge fan of this guy, David Wayne and this writer, Michael Showalter. So for me, being able to make a movie with them for like under five million dollars was a dream come true. But there was no Netflix, there was no Hulu. So it was either like put it out in theaters and spend 30 million dollars in advertising, which was a lot given the movie only cost us four point five million dollars. But in today’s world, we could’ve made that movie, sold it to Netflix and you guys would have all seen it the day it came out. Back then, it was basically just put to like a version of Blockbuster. And so the fun part is you can make stuff and ultimately all we want is to have people see it. And so I think there’s an amazing moment that we’re in to like make cool stuff. And instead of it just going to Blockbuster, like you can actually have it be seen around the world. 

Eric Conner: Although as Netflix has continued to grow, getting a movie produced or distributed by them. It’s become a bit more complicated. 

Matt Kaplan: They have so many divisions now because these companies have become so large. If you have a book and an idea, you will go to one group. And if you have a finished product, you go to another group, which is called acquisitions. Most of the stuff we sell is to the acquisitions group because we sell finance and then we make it and then we sell it to them when it’s done. But you know, Netflix has the capability to reach the biggest audience and has a lot of money now to chase the right project. So you can go in through an agency. But the truth is, it’s better to make your own relationship with those buyers directly and just call them and say, hey, I got something cool for you. 

Eric Conner: Matt Kaplan explained how a big part of producing is learning how to deal with people, whether it’s trying to get someone to read your script or finance its budget or just getting the movie made. 

Matt Kaplan: I deal with a lot of people’s emotions every day, including my own. So you’re just you have a writer who wrote something. Who wakes up feeling like I wrote this. I hope you like it. And now I have to read it. And then I’d be sensitive towards how much time and effort they’ve put into it. You have a director who makes a movie that I watch. Either I do or I don’t like it or if we’ve made a movie and now I’ve got to go sell it, I need to like make sure everyone wants to buy it. But there’s a lot of people’s feelings in all of this because it’s not the same as like being an accountant. Like people pour out their either true stories or even if they’re not true. Like you’ve written this script or if you’re an actor, you’ve like you’re literally crying on screen like there’s a lot of emotions at stake. So you’ve got to be really sensitive about that process. And so just be sensitive towards other people around you. 

Eric Conner: Yeah. If you want to produce, you might want to take a course or two in psychology and perseverance. 

Matt Kaplan: Passion and tenacity to learn I’ll always help. Like if you follow up with me three times, even if I haven’t hit you back, like I will always get back to you because then you’re just like this person cares as much as I do. And so why would I not want to help people? Like I think that’s that’s that is my responsibility. That’s why I’m here tonight. I feel like I had a lot of people that influenced my life and helped me and propped me up. And I’ve got to give back. What would I not want? I don’t know you’ve got to be a real asshole not to want my help, but yeah, I don’t know what the the negative is, but just be passionate and be a nice person and good things will happen. 

Eric Conner: Well, that’s a pretty lovely note to end on. So thanks to one of Hollywood’s good guys, Matt Kaplan, for coming to New York Film Academy and sharing his experiences with our students. Check out his newest movie, the sequel to All the Boys to All the Boys. P.S., I Still Love You. Coming to Netflix on February 12th. Directed by former NYFA instructor Michael Fimognari and starring NYFA Alum Lana Condor. This episode was based on the Q&A moderated by Tova Laiter to watch the full interview or to see our other Q&A’s. Check out our YouTube channel at YouTube.com/NewYorkFilmAcademy. This episode was written by me Eric Conner. Edited in a 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, Dan Mackler and Tova Laiter with a special thanks to our events department Sajja Johnson. Melissa Enright and the staff and crew who made this possible. To learn more about our programs, check us out at NYFA.edu. You be sure to subscribe on Apple podcasts or wherever you listen. See you next time.