New York Film Academy Cinematography Instructor Matt Kohnen has been making movies since the mid 1990s. As an independent filmmaker, he’s seen the best and the worst of what the industry has to offer. His films can be seen all over the world thanks to Amazon Prime Video.
Here, he speaks with NYFA Correspondent Joelle Smith about his passion for film, his favorite classes to teach, and how he creates movies on an indie budget.
NYFA: When did you first know you were in love with cinema?
Kohnen: It was a gradual process. I’ve always loved movies. More than film, I loved stories. I devoured books. I got into theatre in high school and I stuck with it through undergrad, but I quickly realized I was not a good actor. So, I turned to writing and directing. In the late ‘90s, the indie film scene was hitting its stride, and I liked that atmosphere of creative risk. I haven’t looked back since.
NYFA: What kinds of stories did you start off wanting to tell?
Kohnen: I like stories with a touch of the fantastic to them. I’ve always been a fan of science fiction, or any work that goes beyond our current understanding of reality. Not because of the escapism — I like sci-fi because it allows us to take society, and its current trajectory, to the extreme.
I still write science-fiction, but the reality of indie filmmaking is that the price point is usually too far out of reach. My brother, Sean, and I have been working on telling small stories with big emotional impact.
NYFA: When did you decide to become a director and why did you choose this career path?
Kohnen: It’s hard to say there’s a “decisive moment,” per se. It’s not like when you apply to college. I never chose this particular path. It was a gradual thing. I became a director because, at UC Irvine, where I earned my undergrad in theater, the best roles were reserved for grad students and current faculty members.
I had to hustle and tell my own stories if I wanted to get something done. I found it very empowering. So, I kept at it. Learning that hustle turned out to be a great thing.
If you don’t get pulled into the studio orbit, which is very rare and hard to do, then you have to do it yourself — otherwise, you won’t do it at all. Most of my choices were less deliberate and more about finding a way into the industry. You just have to take the plunge, scary as it is.
NYFA: Your films Aaah! Zombies!! and The Funeral Guest center on death, and how such an event can bring people together. What is it about the theme of life after death that inspires you?
Kohnen: Funny, I’ve never heard my two features linked in that way. Not sure it’s the “death” issue that links them to me as much as it is the “outsider” parts. Both films feature the perspectives of people who are on the outside of something, looking in.
In Aaah! Zombies!!, the theme of life and death that inspired me was a funny idea that Sean and I had about subverting the classic horror genre. But as we wrote, the script took on a life of its own. The story became more about the characters who were dissatisfied with their current lives in some way. The humorous irony of it was this incident, in most zombie movies, would have been the “end” of the story. Instead, this incident sparked the “beginning” of our story because we stayed with their POV. It took death for them to begin living.
I like to look at perspectives that are outside what we are normally given. The perspectives we do not expect to see are often much more interesting; to see that something that is considered a monster can, in fact, be as human as anyone else. What connects these two films is the bond formed between characters.
In The Funeral Guest, the main character is on the outside of life, looking in on others. She doesn’t have a life of her own. Funerals are the place where the emotions and love and connection that she craves are on full display. Again, it takes the tragedy of someone else’s loss, and her being mistaken for someone that she’s not, to allow her to forge a true connection.
NYFA: Tell us about your latest project.
Kohnen: Currently, I’m in the writing phase of a couple new scripts. One of the scripts we will be producing ourselves on a very-low-budget. The other script has a different path. I’m trying to launch that project with a larger production company. I’m not really in a place to talk much about either of those projects right now.
The Funeral Guest is available on Amazon and Amazon Prime, now. Go get it!
NYFA: What was the most challenging aspect of making this film?
Kohnen: Both of my features have had relatively low budgets. Cost presents a challenge all its own.
For Aaah! Zombies!!, it was more of an FX-driven piece, but it also took place at night. For three weeks we were vampires, staying up all night. (Get it? Vampires? Because we were working on a zombie film?) After that, Sean and I said we’d slap whichever one of us wrote “EXT. NIGHT” in a script ever again. A pact we promptly broke, of course.
Overall, the issue facing most low-budget films is that they require every single person to be on top of their game. There’s no money to paper over mistakes. There isn’t any time to “find it” on set. Indie sets will shoot as many as five or six pages per day.
Trying to stay creative and focused, while still allowing for the play and flexibility that is required to make it all good, is probably the hardest part.
NYFA: What is your favorite thing about teaching at NYFA?
Kohnen: I love working with my students. People who come to NYFA have prepared to commit to this field. They love film. Many students arrive having already experimented with making their own films. When they make a breakthrough, I love seeing their eyes open and that “ah-ha” moment spread across their face, when they figure out what had been missing from their creative toolbox. Watching their art move up another level is extremely rewarding.
I also love that NYFA is international. Every day I watch students from vastly different worlds interact. Our students are bonded by their passion for film.
One of my favorite outcomes of the intersectional interaction that takes place at NYFA occurred when Co-Instructor Nick Sivakumaran and I, on one of our early Cinematography Practicum shoots, sat a kid from the middle of nowhere Montana next to a young woman from India. These are two people who would never have met in any other iteration of the world. They wound up married. They still are. I love that.
NYFA: What’s your favorite class to teach at NYFA?
Kohnen: Second Semester Cinematography in the MFA program is my favorite class to teach. It’s great because the students have received a good base from semester one. When they arrive in Second Semester Cinematography, we start introducing students to the dolly, advanced lighting, and camera. I love seeing them rise to the challenge.
NYFA: Is there a piece of advice you give your students as they head toward graduation?
Kohnen: Keep your eyes focused on the horizon, and put one foot in front of the other, every day. Even if it’s only one step, have goals, and know that as hard as it may seem, good work will always be recognized. Good luck!
Ready to learn more about Cinematography? Check out our Cinematography School offerings at the New York Film Academy.