What Film Students Want to Know

Melinda Burns is a film student at the University of Iowa. She had an assignment to do an industry report and interview someone. She picked me. Here are her questions and my replies.

1) What is your educational background? What did you focus on in school, and how has it helped you in your career?

I went to University of Illinois High School where the first “new math” course was developed. The government gave the school several million to film our class, so I got to watch every day as a three camera 16mm shoot took place. Didn’t learn much math but I was inspired to learn about filmmaking.

I was always interested in photography and drumming and eventually those skills merged into cinematography and the drumming informed the editing and pacing of my filmmaking.

From there I went to Rochester Institute of Technology and learned the technical side and then to the San Francisco Art Institute where I learned the fine art side and got a MFA in Cinematography. But it was also the sixties and The Summer of Love was in full bloom and I learned a lot of other things too! Filmmaking is more about experiencing life than it is about twiddling knobs.

My student film explored the psyche, supernatural and spirituality. I was also fascinated by German Expressionist films, surrealism, Indian tabla, dreams, Egypt, Zen, Carl Jung, Artaud, Balinese shadow puppetry and Tibetan Buddhism. These things still interest me today and have been the subjects of some of my recent films, books, and travel.

2) What did you do immediately after school? What kinds of jobs did you get into? What did you find was the quickest way to get your name out there?

My student film, “Messages Messages” which I made with partner Steve Arnold became our first hit. We rented a theatre, packed it with 2000 people and got hired then and there to start America’s first Midnight Movie series. Our film was premiered in New York by Salvador Dali which got us huge attention, a slot in the San Francisco International Film Festival and ultimately an invitation to Director’s Fortnight at Cannes. I was 19 when I shot the film. From there I continued for many years making independent shorts and docs, raising private money and finding distribution through 16mm educational distributors. I did all this on days off and after work from menial part time jobs working in law offices as a typist and clerk and freelance photography.

A few months after Star Wars came out we spoofed it with “Hardware Wars”, a thrilling space saga of romance, rebellion, and household appliances. We made the film for $8000 and today it has grossed over $1 million. We got lucky because we picked a film that has become a religion and every time George releases a new Star Wars we re-release Hardware Wars. It is not the 30th Anniversary of Star Wars and we are preparing yet another release. Talk about going back to the well! It’s the most profitable short film of all time I’m told. That got my name out there but Ernie Fosselius (writer/director) is really the brilliance behind the movie. I just shot it and produced it and marketed it for thirty years!

3) The expression, “it all depends on who you know” seems very common to someone on the outside trying to get into the industry. Would you say this is true or false?

True. But that said, you can meet someone and they can “know” you in a few minutes. They also say, “you meet the same people on the way up as you do on the way down, so be nice to everybody.”

4) How did you “break in” to producing and publishing?

I didn’t bother to ask permission. When no one would produce my films, I would. No one would publish my first book, so I borrowed $3,000 and did it myself. Years later the same major publishers who rejected me wanted to buy the company. I had the pleasure of actually seeing a revenge scenario come through: I sent them a copy of their previous rejection letter and said, “no thanks”. Filmmakers need active imaginations.

5) What would you say is the most difficult part of being a producer and publisher? How do you get through these challenges?

Finding great material. It all starts with a great script or a great book proposal and writing sample. Patience furthers. Eventually you develop your sensibilities. You learn script structure and how subtext is vitally important to good work. You look for what moves you and might move others, or in the case of our books, it’s all about what empowers the reader/filmmaker. Our books are only published so that others may benefit from the knowledge and experience shared. With every book we publish we try to improve some aspect of what we do so after working on 100 books and 300 video releases you get better at it. The secret it putting yourself in a position where you can continually have this learning experience through trial and error.

6) One thing I really admire about you is that you took your knowledge about the film industry, and became a publisher of several “how-to” books to help others. When did you first get the idea to do this, and how did you turn that idea into a reality?

Actually the “several books” is nearly 100 books that we’ve published with me writing about eight of them. I never intended to be a publisher. It all happened as I had some success with my early films and wanted to share the experience of how to market and distribute with my colleagues. So I put on seminars. I wrote handouts for the seminars which evolved into the first book. Then, whenever I learned something new, I’d write another book. At that time (1981) there were only a couple of “how to” film or writing books published. Seems unbelievable but that created an opening for us to develop and publish in that genre. Now we rule!

It wasn’t until I had a half dozen books out that I realized I was a real publisher. Then I started to look for gaps in my own knowledge and assumed that was also true for my fellow filmmakers. Turns out that was a winning formula – find a need and fill it. I would never have imagined there were so many ways to slice a “body of knowledge”. Even today we have 20-30 books in development and release 12-15 new books per year. (Come visit We’re still slicing and dicing.

7) Do you ever do multiple publishing projects at once? How do you balance your work in publishing with your work in television and film?

Now I only do my own projects so I am able to balance the film/video works with books. When I worked in video or television for others I did the publishing on the side. We are always overlapping book projects. Some take one or two or three years. We have a publishing program and right now we are solidly booked through 2008 and we’re working on 2009. This allows me to go away when I need to for a month or two to work on another project. Or – on the new Tibet film, “The Sacred Sites of the Dalai Lamas” – I spent several hundred hours editing it over the course of a year and half. It’s a matter of priorities. Keep the cash flow coming in and nourish the soul and creative work.

My old friend Buckminster Fuller use to say that the greatest things (redwood tree, great whales, epic novels) have the longest gestation rates. This comforts me because my own feature film set in Bali (“Bali Brothers”) is on its 34th screenplay draft and fifth writer and has taken me well over 15 years to develop to this point. The failing most filmmakers make is that they shoot before their script is fully developed and you can’t make a great film from a weak script. Can’t be done. So I’m confident now that we are ready on this project. Better to do it write and to go for quality in creating something you hope will last a generation or two and not end up in the remainder bin in the video store in 6 months.

8) Are there any publishing projects that stand out in your memory? Any particularly challenging ones?

My favorite story is the discovery of The Writer’s Journey by Christopher Vogler. I was peddling away on an exercise bike in an LA gym when I was told about a memo he’d written to Disney exec Jeffrey Katzenburg when Vogler was a consultant on “Lion King”. The memo articulated mythic structure in screenwriting and was based on Joseph Campbell’s work. I had known Campbell, met him, been to his lectures, read his books, knew his publisher, and had helped another friend launch Campbell’s Hero’s Journey video series. So right away I knew this could potentially be a terrific book. When I got the rough manuscript I found myself writing in the margins, but not notes on the book but ideas for my Bali script. That’s when I knew Vogler’s book would be big – because it was so valuable to me. Sure enough, we’ve sold around 200,000 copies and its been translated into 12 languages. A big hit for any publisher. And all this from a tiny independent publishing house. I live for the end run!

9) Are there upcoming changes in the industry that will affect how you do your job? How will these changes affect a new generation coming into the industry?

I imagine that one day there will be a decent digital book reader, kind of an iPod for books, but maybe not. Something about the feel and smell of books that even the Japanese would have trouble replicating. And certainly video streaming which will evolve into a much more sophisticated form beyond youtube will bring changes. Keep your eyes on Still, it’s not about the form. Special effects didn’t bring us better movies. It didn’t deepen our experience of what it means to be human and if anything it lessened our understanding. So even with all these changes, the principles of good storytelling do not change. We should endeavour to learn the basics and not be seduced by the latest techno-gadgets on the block.

Even with great technology we may miss its potential. For example, DVDs are a terrific format for studying films. In the days I was coming up I had to get my hands on 16mm film prints and run them through a viewer with rewinds to study the cuts. Now all you have to do is slo-mo a DVD. But few students of films watch films in a critical way, even with this great technology. Running a film at full speed with the sound on does not allow you to study all the layers at work. I learn a lot about films when I am on an airplane and watch movies (even bad ones) with the sound off.

I haven’t been too hopeful about the up and coming generation of filmmakers because they focus on style over substance. The ever – hip factor. But then I was at Roger Ebert’s Film Festival last year and all the twenty-something filmmakers were referencing Japanese director Ozu either in the panel discussions or in their films. Ozu is perhaps the most traditional of Japanese filmmakers and popular in Japan and among US film critics. His movies have long slow cuts and are all shot from a static camera at seated meditation height. To have discovered Ozu is quite something as most young filmmakers think film history started with The Matrix. There’s hope yet in the next generation.

10) What is the best advice that you can give someone (like me!) who wants to get into producing as a career?

First relax. If you have a strong intention about being a producer, or cameraman, or writer it will happen in reality. Just do whatever you can each do to contribute to your experience in that area. Plant seeds. Seek out mentors. Get part time jobs. Write spec scripts. These seeds and contacts will grow and in a few years you’ll be able to support yourself in doing what you love and you’d do for free. You’ll have a community of friends who you can help and they will help you. And in a decade or two or three all these seeds will have sprouted and you’ll have an abundance of things that you will have contributed to.

And then I always liked Martin Scorcese’s advice: “Wanna know how to become a director? Start calling yourself a ‘director’”.

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