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Kim Voynar

By Kim Voynar Voynar@moviecitynews.com

Before Oscar: Documentary Oscar Winner TJ Martin … Back in 2005

Last night, TJ Martin, who won the Oscar for Documentary feature alongside his co-director Daniel Lindsay and producer Richard Middlemas, became the first Black person ever to win an Oscar for directing a feature-length film.

Way back in 2005, when the idea of winning an Oscar was maybe a gleam in the back of his eye, I met TJ when I interviewed him as a part of the Seattle International Film Festival’s Fly Filmmaking competition. TJ had a great little short in the competition called “… Loves Martha,” his first (and so far as I know, only) foray into narrative filmmaking. Here it is for your viewing pleasure. It’s still one of my favorite short films, even if TJ knew back then that documentary would be his thing.

… And here’s the interview I did that year with TJ, his fellow fly filmmaker Thom Harp, and director Andy McAllister, who shot the documentary of the Fly Filmmaking competition that year. The third fly filmmaker, Sue Corcoran, wasn’t at this interview. (Note: Under the terms of my contractual agreement with Cinematical/AOL at the time this piece was published, all rights to my work for them reverted back to me after five years. So I’m running the entirety of it right here, rather than linking over to Moveifone, which still has it archived).

Also, interesting fun fact of Seattle filmmaking trivia: Andy McAllister’s DP on his feature films Urban Scarecrow and Shag Carpet Sunset was none other than Megan Griffiths (The Off Hours, Eden), who will probably win an Oscar some day herself. Seattle rocks independent film.

Now, here’s that interview from 2005, right after the jump …


SIFF: Fly Films Interview
By Kim Voynar
Posted Jun 9th 2005 10:05PM

The Fly Filmmaking Challenge is one of the most highly anticipated events at the Seattle International Film Festival. This year’s event featured four directors local to Seattle: Sue Corcoran, Thom Harp and TJ Martin were chosen to direct narrative films, and Andy McAllister was selected to film a documentary about the Fly Filmmaking process. Cinematical sat down with three of the four filmmakers (over coffe, natch – this is, after all, Seattle) to chat about Fly Filmaking, SIFF, and what else they have on their plates.

(Note: Director Sue Corcoran was invited but was unable to join us. She will be profiled in a later article).

CINEMATICAL: Let’s start with a little background. This is the first year in a while that the Fly Filmmakers have been able to use a narrative format.

THOM: There was a split with SAG (Screen Actors Guild) back in, I think it was 2001. Let’s just say there was a difference of opinion. So there was no Fly Filmmaking at all in 2002. 2003 and 2004, there was still the conflict, so they (SIFF) decided to do Fly Filmmaking as documentaries. This year SIFF worked their butts off to resolve the issues with SAG, they worked it out, and we were able to go back to narrative. And it was so great. I heard a rumor back in the fall that it might be narrative this year, and I really hoped they’d call me for it.

CINEMATICAL: Can you talk a little about the process of Fly Films, from the time you got the call asking you to participate? How long did you have to write the script, how was casting handled, how did it all come together?

ANDY: Well, I just wanted to do it. I was just about to wrap filming on a feature, Urban Scarecrow, so the timing was right for me.

THOM: When I got the call, I had been working on Booty Camp (a script he and his writing partner, Mike Standish, have in development). I saw it as an opportunity to really showcase the scope I could handle as a director. People are more familiar with me as a cinematographer. Because of that background, I’m kind of known for beautiful, sweeping cinematography, and people who know me expect me to bring that to films as a director too. But I don’t, really. I mean, with Drivers Ed, the filming was pretty straightforward. The focus was on the story.

TJ: My filmmaking partner, Brian Quist, was selected in 2003 and I worked on that. Before that, I worked with Brian on a documentary called A Day in the Hype of America. I’ve mostly done documentary so narrative was new to me. It was just an honor to be asked to do it – it’s the kind of thing you don’t wanna turn down.

CINEMATICAL: Wait. So they brought on Andy, who is mostly a narrative guy, on to do the documentary? And TJ, you’re a documentary guy and they brought you on to do narrative?

TJ: (laughs) Yeah, pretty much. I mean, I’m not a “documentary guy”, per se. It’s just that’s mostly what I’ve done to this point. Documentary, music videos. I’m interested in exploring different types of film, experimenting. I don’t want to be boxed into one type. So this was a great opportunity for me to try out narrative.

ANDY: It was interesting, to have the opportunity to do the documentary. I was just coming off a job for the History Channel, this Evel Knieval documentary (editor’s note: Absolute Evel: The Evel Knievel Story, which premieres on Monday, June 13 on The History Channel). And I was just wrapping on a new feature, Urban Scarecrow. So it just happened to be a time when I had a little downtime and was free to do it. It was challenging, having to basically film three directors at once and cover everything, so I think they (SIFF) gave me a lot of leeway to do it how I wanted to do it.

CINEMATICAL: So how does the process work?

THOM: Well, first of off, I really appreciated that the emphasis was on making a good film. Not on budget, or time constraints – SIFF really wants you to make a good film out of this, and they work had to make that happen. They’re very supportive.

TJ: And we co-own.

THOM: Right. This year the directors co-own their film, that’s new, I believe. And SIFF Exec Produced.

TJ: And we had like, a week, ten days, to get our scripts in.

CINEMATICAL: And yours, TJ, you intially had another idea, right? You wanted to make a political satire about the governmentalization of breast milk during a severe drought.

TJ: (laughs) Yeah, I really wanted to do that. But given the time constraints we were under and everything, I just had to back up and start from scratch with an idea more workable for the situation. I’d still like to make that breastmilk film someday, though.

CINEMATICAL: TJ, you’ve mentioned you never jot down your ideas as you have them, so you didn’t have anything to pull from with this film. Where’d the idea come from?

TJ: Actually, …Loves Martha started out conceptually as a story about how people develop relationships with things they don’t really have relationships with. What happened was, late one night I was working on developing an idea for this and I was just…just stuck. So I’d taken a break to work on some editing stuff, just to get my mind off it. And it was, like, 3AM and I was hungry, so I went to the store.

At 3AM the store is not too crowded, but there were people there. And these people were reading the magazines, and they were all caught up in the whole Brad Pitt-Jennifer Aniston thing. And it just clicked for me that I wanted to do a film about how people build relationships with things and people they really have no relationship with – like celebrities. And electronic devices – cell phones, Blackberrys, laptops. And it evolved from there.

Actually, we had a lot more in there about the relationships between people and their electronic devices, it was a lot more about that to start out with. But due to time constraints, we had to cut most of that, several scenes that I liked a lot.

…Loves MarthaCINEMATICAL: Do you think, because of those scenes being cut, though – that it ended up strengthening the film? Made it more about the love story between Martha and Richard than a statement about people and devices?

TJ: It made it different, yeah. And the love story became the focus, but it’s not really about a guy having sex with a copying machine –

ANDY: But I’m glad you left that in, that scene about them finding a “strange substance” on the toner cartridge! (laughs) That had to be in there.

TJ: Yeah, it did. But it was just – it was really just a movie about a guy falling in love. And Emma (Jones, who plays an office worker with a crush on Richard) was just great. You know, that’s really her accent. She was just perfect.

CINEMATICAL: And yours, Thom – was Drivers Ed a film idea you already had brewing, or did you come up with it on the fly?

THOM: It was actually a feature screenplay I’m developing with my writing partner, Mike Standish. We pared it down – it’s basically a scene from Act One of the full screenplay. And then we had to, you know, give it a full arc within the short, and give the character an arc. Which is how we ended up with that end shot during the credits.

CINEMATICAL: With the girl taking the box of cookies she was sending to her boyfriend out of the mailbox, and eating them herself?

THOM: Yeah, that was actualy Jen Peale’s idea. She was the story consultant that SIFF had for us, she was great. That whole bit was her idea. We needed closure for the character, and she felt really strongly, from a female viewpoint, that we needed closure around the whole boyfriend issue. But we didn’t want to change the ending. So she gave us the idea of inserting that little bit in with the credits. And it worked great!

But I have to add this – I could not have done it without Mike (Standish, his writing partner). I want to give him full credit for his contribution to the film.

CINEMATICAL: Andy, could you talk a little about your process with the documentary?

ANDY: I knew I didn’t want to do a typical “behind the scenes”. That’s been done to death, you know, with shows like Project Greenlight. It’s not interesting anymore. And I didn’t want just a bunch of “talking heads”, you know – the directors sitting there in their directors’ chairs talking about their films. I shot most of the doc on Super 8, to get the feel. But with Super 8, the sound has problems. So I shot the voiceovers (of the directors) separately because of problems with the sound. And it ended up working nicely.

CINEMATICAL: How did casting work?

THOM: SIFF brought in a casting director, Stephen Salamunovich. He’s a real pro. He did the casting for all three films. So they did these live casting calls for each film. Sue – I think she basically just came in to the casting call mostly with the people she already knew she wanted to use, and had them run a scene. She used, basically, people she already knew, that she already had connections with.

So, with my film, Jessica (Skerritt) was one of the first we saw. Drivers Ed, the full-length script, was written specifically to be an Anne Hathaway vehicle. So most of the people brought in – they looked like Anne Hathaway, but they didn’t – they just didn’t “get” what we were looking for. Jessica totally nailed exactly what we wanted – that quality of being kind of ditzy, but because she’s so hyperfocused on her boyfriend and other things, not because she’s stupid. Jessica was just it. From that point on it was looking through head shots, saying, “Who could play her brother? Who looks like her?”

I initially wanted to cast Mark Pinckney (who played the lead, Richard, in TJs film, …Loves Martha), but then the last guy we saw, Tony Doupe, was just perfect.

TJ: With …Loves Martha, because I changed the concept, we had like, four days to write the script, cast, all the pre-prod stuff. Steve had the old treatment (for the breastfeeding idea) and had brought in people to fit those roles. So I was like, ‘Oh, yeah…you need to see the new treatment, sorry”. We ended up with a great cast.

CINEMATICAL: What’s the single most important element of your films?

THOM: Story. We worked really hard to make the story tight and perfect.

TJ: For people to be able to suspend disbelief and see it as just a love story – yeah, it’s a guy in love with a copy machine. But at heart it’s really just a love story. It’s just a story about this lonely guy, Richard, falling in love. Also, I’m a big fan of minimalism – I didn’t want it cluttered.

THOM: Also, rehearsing was really important. We ran scenes over and over and over to get them right, before we even started filming. Getting Jessica and Tony to nail the interaction between the driving instructor and the student, how he grows to kind of like her, but not in a creepy, perverted way – that was the toughest part.

TJ: (laughs) We didn’t rehearse at all. At all. I’d just tell the actors what I wanted, what we were going for, and we got them (the scenes) all in just a couple takes.

CINEMATICAL: Andy?

ANDY: For me it was about letting the directors’ individual personalities and style shine through. I didn’t want it to sound too “sound-bytey”. I wanted to set a tone.

CINEMATICAL: Looking back, would you do it again? Was it fun? Anything you’d do differently?

THOM: SIFF was so great to work with. It took courage on SIFF’s part to trust they could find the talent just in this town to do this.

TJ: They were very supportive, made the casting easy, supported us on everything. They worked hard to ensure that we all knew what was going on every step of the way. They wanted to make sure all the films would be equally good, so they didn’t want any one of us to have advantage over the other. They didn’t want one standout and two mediocre films, they wanted a strong program.

THOM: And I think that’s what they got – three strong films that really balanced each other. They were all good, they were all different.

CINEMATICAL: So what’s up next for each of you?

THOM: Well, I’m working on Booty Camp, we’re just doing the final polish on the script now. And working within the Hollywood system like that, it’s been…well, it’s very different than independent film. It’s been a real educational experience, I’m learning a lot.

ANDY: I’m finishing post on Urban Scarecrow.

TJ: I just wrapped a music video for a local DJ Byrdie. I’m currently looking to produce more music videos this year.

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Six rules for filmmaking from Mike Nichols
1. The careful application of terror is an important form of communication.
2. Anything worth fighting for is worth fighting dirty for.
3. There’s absolutely no substitute for genuine lack of preparation.
4. If you think there’s good in everybody, you haven’t met everybody.
5. Friends may come and go but enemies will certainly become studio heads.
6. No one ever lost anything by asking for more money.
~ Via Larry Karaszewski and Howard A. Rodman On Facebook

“I expected ‘Salesman’ to take the step backward every day that Chekhov and Beckett did — but no, it was there to help all the time. The circumstances are like a brick shithouse, they are so solid. You can’t really be satisfied, but I am pretty close to it because the cast took it and ran. They get better every day. I’ve never seen anything like that before, and I don’t know if I’ll ever see it again. Is my ambition sated? I don’t know. To get something right, it can’t be sated because you can’t ever get enough of it right—and even if it is right, it won’t stay right. That’s the thing about a play. But with ‘Salesman,’ it’s different. I don’t know how, but they just keep getting better each night. I really don’t think I’ll direct another play. This is as good a time as I’ve ever had, and I don’t want to fuck it up.”
~ Mike Nichols To Stephen Galloway At The Time Of “Death Of A Salesman”