Mario Van Peebles | The Backlot | New York Film Academy

Hi I’m Eric Conner senior instructor at New York Film Academy. And this episode’s gonna be a little shorter but our subject’s Hollywood career has been long spanning almost 50 years. A man who puts the multi in multi-hyphenate producer actor writer director Mario Van Peebles.

I have never met two actors who speak the same language but knowing that is going to help you immensely as a filmmaker and being a great filmmaker I think has helped me as an actor.

He directed the groundbreaking drama New Jack City played Malcolm X in Ali battled a great white shark in Jaws 4. Spoiler alert, he lost. He’s appeared in Bloodline Z Nation and over 100 films and TV shows dating back to one of his first roles as a kid in the not at all kid friendly Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song. Man try to say that 10 times fast. The movie was directed by his dad the legendary Godfather of blaxploitation Melvin Van Peebles. Mario Van Peebles spoke at NYFA after a screening of his 2018 independent film. Armed. Joined by a few members of this production team. Justin Nesbitt. Edward Beckford. And NYFA instructor Kimberly Ogletree. Mr. Van Peebles detailed how when you’re making a low budget movie you have to go all in.

The way I pulled it off. We pulled it off as an independent flick was to very strategically reverse engineer into what we had access to. So if I have a crib in Big Bear guess what it’s gonna be in big bear. You know I’ve got a nice crib in the hood. Guess what. We gonna be in the hood. You know so I would use my neighbors houses if you had a last name like Van Peebles or even looked like you knew a Van Peebles. I’ll be calling you up quite honestly as a filmmaker. One of my buddies who’s always broke says that he loves poor people because poor people have nothing to give but themselves. And as an independent filmmaker you basically have nothing to give but yourself. You know you can’t give them a lot of money so you need to have people skills you need to work with a great team and you need to make people feel at home and you need to listen to some crappy ideas and some great ideas and sometimes some of the best ideas came from her or him or him. And I just pretend they’re mine later. It’s really a collaborative effort.

And equipment from here.

And equipment from here. So so basically one I was passionate about the subject two. I felt it was something that was in striking distance that I could do independently and self fund it and I felt like it was a movie that we could make and put a lot up on the screen. And it was a movie that we could say something with you know I’m a crazy guy I’ll go out and do it I put my money where my mouth is and when you all see me drive out here tonight you will see me in a little crappy hybrid car. You will probably think oh wow Mario that’s cool Mario drove his second car. No that’s my only car. Now why do I drive that car. Cause people scratch it. I don’t get pissed off. I put all my money into film. I’m not a materialistic cat. I have minimal bling. I make movies I care about and we work with people we like it’s like they’re are three rules in life for me love what you do which I do love and enjoy the people you do it with which for sure I do and love what you say with your work. And if you get those three things to line up you’re rich no matter what your check is. But you know what the thing is. Everybody becomes family real quick and you guys became family too I mean. Truth be told we were posted up in my crib and we had the office downstairs and it was just like a family affair man. You know it takes a village to raise a child. It takes a village to make a movie.

We often talk about this in class at New York Film Academy. When you’re making a low budget film or a no budget film you work with what you have and you make sure what you have works and works well. You don’t settle. His producer Justin Nesbitt explained how Mr. Van Peeples pushed everyone to do their best regardless of or really because of their limitations.

I think this is the most intricate piece I’ve ever produced so the challenge was the time and you know Mario from production to post just he brings the best out of you because he’s gonna push he’s gonna push you like a good basketball coach. So the challenge for me was I’m not used to working with a director that’s so he. Every from a to z but he also takes ideas. But even in the post the music if it wasn’t good enough he’d push the composer. He’d push me to get better music find it and you know in my line of work with low budget like get it in get it out. And I think Mario had said something to me. He said You can either do it quick and what’s the saying quick and dirty.

Oh yeah the triangle There’s a triangle there’s fast.

Yeah. What’s the. This is great.

There’s good. And there’s cheap yeah. You know you pick two.

Pick two. That’s what it was. So anyway we picked the right two. I think you know just. You’re working with a lot of crew and a lot of favors and that always becomes challenging sometimes. You know if people aren’t getting paid they don’t show up on time. Not everybody has the attitude of Oh I’m getting less money so I’m going to do less work. That was challenging. Lot of moves too we had a lot of locations a lot of moves. I mean you guys see the pier. I mean Santa Monica I mean Big Bear we’re just moving and we didn’t have a lot of days. We did 18 days plus two. So it’s a short amount of time and you had to move and move quick and always dealing with locations is challenging. But if you have the right team that’s thinking on their feet and then being pulled in three different directions.

When you don’t have a lot of money to spread around on set. Well. On top of what you owe your cast and your crew you have also got to pay them with a lot of respect and encouragement because you don’t have the time or the money to be a jerk.

We’re all adults. We’re cool under pressure. Because things could be going horribly wrong. And Kim would be keeping it cool. Justin be like with his cool kind of mhmm. Edward be like well. You know. And that’s part of it is that if the folks at the top are cool and we’re cool with each other we have love with each other. The whole crew feels that we create a culture of kindness a culture of collaboration. Right. So if we create that culture of collaboration and we hire folks kind of with a no asshole rule we try you know what I mean folks get that message and they see me coming in knowing my lines freezing my ass off right there with you. They see Justin’s doubling as one of the hillbilly brothers. So there was a lot of get in where you fit in but when they see that coming from the folks at the top that sends a message as to what’s OK how do we treat each other on the set and we treat each other like brothers and sisters even if we may look different or have a different preference. Are we kind to each other. And when you run a set like that you get a nice kind of cooperation Don’t you think.

It’s nice to hear about a set where people are kind to each other because directors really set the tone. It’s all trickle down from them. If they work hard and if they’re cool the crew will follow.

Your passion and love and enjoyment of the process showed through it didn’t matter if you were a P.A. or somebody visiting the set or whatever. Would pull you into the monitor on a good take. He’ll be like watch this on come over here. Wait wait. Look at this. I mean for everybody.

It’s really important. As a director that I really appreciated about Mario. Regardless of what time we wrapped we had another hour till we left because he sat down and he went through the following day. Everything from top to bottom. He actually went through every department that is important. That’s a real filmmaker. At the end of the day. It’s a craft.

A big part of the pressure of directing a low budget film is that you do have to lead by example. So if you’re stressed you’re panicked you can’t even show it. This is where Mr. Van Peebles many many hours and set have gotten him ready for this job because he understands this. He knows how to be flexible and he knows how to deal with any curveball that comes his way.

You have to know things will go wrong. We were supposed to shoot a scene in a park. It didn’t work out. We couldn’t get the permit. So we just shot it in my backyard. So on that morning we went down we looked at the park. We came back. We made the split decision boom we’re going to go with this full guns. And I had to rework my shots. To accommodate that. So have plans. That’s cool. Have plans but be ready to augment them know that plans just make God laugh a little bit. So you got to be ready to be flexible.

But he did have the property to shoot it.

But you have to know what you have and what you can work with. So that that kind of stuff you know you just got to be ready to work with it every day there’s gonna be something. You never know what’s going to happen. Oh and the other thing is being nice to your exes. My ex got married to this dude. Who’s the he’s the best dude. But his mother happens to be Dionne Warwick. So I call up my ex we’re on good terms. Like I said stay cool with your exes. I call up her. Get his number. Call him talk to Dionne. Blah blah blah. And that’s how that works. You got to be good with everybody. So I really say if you’re going to make big film and you ain’t got big film money you better have a personality. And people need to know that you can deliver when they take a risk on you. They want to know you can deliver.

Now don’t get me wrong I do get along with my exes. But I don’t know their in-laws. That’s what separates me from Mario Van Peebles. He’s got such a good relationship with his ex that her current mother in law Dionne Warwick helped him out on his movie. That’s an important lesson right there. It’s like be cool to everyone because as Dionne Warwick herself once sang. That’s What Friends Are For. In fact Marvin Peeples is even developing a movie about Diane Warwick. Also I love when he says if you’re going to make big films and you don’t have big film money you have to have a personality. In the absence of solving problems with cash you have to throw creativity at the problem and yourself. Now with a career as long as Mario Van Peebles you would assume that it’s only a matter of time till his early work gets rebooted. I mean this is Hollywood after all.

One of the films that I’m really interested in seeing get out there in a wider way is Panther. That’s the one film that is really actually very very difficult to get. And it’s super relevant right now but I try to make fresh stories. You know I mean there’s so many good stories that we haven’t heard yet. Every now and then people come up to me why don’t you do New Jack two. You know or why don’t you do another posse or whatever and so I’m interested sometimes but if I’m gonna do it myself and put it together myself I tend to do new stories now. I also try to do three for them one for me I’ll work for the studios and I directed bloodline and acted in that or I’ll direct empire sometimes all kinds of stuff I’ll direct and then I’ll go off and act in something not directing it. So I try to mix it up and that way I stay fresh. And in terms of stories have I thought about sequels. Not especially you know someone came to me about armed and they were talking about doing it as a TV series. So I’m always open to ideas. If you’ve got a great idea and you’ve got money let me know.

By the way I’m not sure that last part is a complete open offer but well if it is. You know I got a couple ideas floating around. But it’s still refreshing to hear from a filmmaker who’s more focused on original stories instead of just rehashing old ones. But there is one difficulty a Renaissance man like him faces and that is making sure all his hats don’t get in the way of each other.

How do you balance it as an actor and a director. You know that’s a tricky one I don’t even know that I’ve gotten it right. Because the thing is each craft writing directing producing has its own rhythm. And as an actor you can do more movies but you might burn out as a director. You can’t do as many but what it says really represents. Who you are. So you have to be careful about what movies you pick because you then put your signature on it your brand becomes that. But I love it. I love being a patient and a doctor and I love working with actors because you know as an actor I tend to give the foot rub that I want to get. And each time I’m surprised when people speak a different language. For example if you’re directing Chris Rock from comedy that’s one language but then you’re directing Wesley Snipes in New Jack City and he’s a terrific actor or you’re on bloodline directing Sissy Spacek. She speaks a different language and I have never met two actors who speak the same language but knowing that is going to help you immensely as a filmmaker and being a great filmmaker. I think has helped me as an actor. So when you’re ready for me to just act in your movie I am the nicest cat. I’m not trying to prove nothing. You just tell me where to go and I’m there. I interviewed once Jodie Foster and I asked her about that because she’s a great director and actor. And I said when you’re acting do you find yourself wanting to direct. And she said no. And I said Neither do I feel like I’m on a vacation. Like imagine you’re a plumber on vacation in Hawaii. Right and you’re a good plumber. But you on vacation in Hawaii. And if the sink breaks down you’re like oh no no no no oh no no no no they have to really want you to fix that sink you’d be like. Okay. Let me come out my white clothes and fix the sink. So I love separating it but sometimes it’s cool to do both.

It’s funny that when he has a chance to only act he is thrilled to get rid of all the other responsibilities now despite doing double duty as an actor and director for years he admits he’s still figuring it out. But he loves being as he puts it both a patient and a doctor and his work on both sides of the camera has helped make him an appealing director for other actors to work with.

My dad is the one who talked to me about. You know he said Hollywood’s not just really white or black it’s also green the color of money. But it’s more than that too because you’re going to find whenever you go to do a project that’s got something to say. They’ll be people you didn’t expect to not be a part of it who will fade away and there’ll be people that come forward sometimes that don’t look like you who come from all kinds of corners of the world who will see you try to do something positive and they will come out and get on board. And it’s a beautiful thing and it always surprises me. So for example Bill Fichtner now I always have been a fan of Bill’s but I didn’t know him. I’ve never worked with him but I managed to find his manager and he got me a meeting with Bill and I gave Bill the script and by page 8 he called me back. He said I’m in. Sometimes you get people that are not just about the money but are about having something to say and that’s super important I think that’s a big thing when you go to other actors and you’re doing indie film now working with my dad. I just realized something the other day this is his last speaking role as I look back on it. My dad gave me my first speaking role and I’ve given him his last. And the circle of life is a trip. How is he to work with he’s still cool as hell. He’s funny. You know you tell him what his lines are. That’s cool. He’ll make up his own line. Half the s**t he says in the movie for real. That’s some Melvin stuff. You know he just he’s cool. He’s got good heart. He gets the joke of life and he’s just a solid cat. And he showed me the way you know my dad said if you’re really lucky that your mother gives you that sense of self and if you get lucky again she shows you the mountain and your dad teaches you how to climb the mountain. And in my case it kind of worked out pretty well.

If you get a chance watch the movie baadasssss which is about the making of his father’s film. Sweet Sweetbacks Baadasssss Song.

1970 I just finished directing Watermelon Man for Columbia Pictures. Everyone was calling me Mel baby. I had to come up with my next film idea before the money guys cold.

Mario actually plays his own father in the film who set the table for generations of indie filmmakers to follow. Melvin worked with a tiny budget was the lead actor and used every trick in the book as a writer and director and in the process he inspired a generation of indie filmmakers including of course his own son Mario. We want to thank Mario Van Peebles Justin Nesbitt Edward Beckford and Kimberly Ogletree for bringing their film Armed to New York Film Academy and thanks of course to all of you for listening. This episode was based on the Q&A moderated by Kimberly Ogletree 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 Hayden our creative director is David Andrew Nelson who also produced this episode with Kristian Hayden and myself executive produced by Jean Sherlock and Dan Mackler. A special thanks to our events department Sajja Johnson and the staff and crew who made this possible. To learn more about our programs check us how to NYFA.edu. Be sure to subscribe on Apple podcasts or wherever you listen.

See you next time.

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