How to be A Filmmaker: Twelve Lessons Learned from Jason Winn
Georgia director Jason Winn premiered his new short film, the latest in the Paula Peril series, at Comic-Con this weekend. Winn first won notice on the film festival circuit with his Vietnam drama Last Bullet, a narrative short, and made big waves in the family market earlier this year with The Fat Boy Chronicles, which reached as high as #6 on the Redbox Family charts. He agreed to sit down with Paste and share some lessons learned along the way.
1. The “best” film festival for you might be right around the corner.
“Well you know I think it’s funny, having done this for a number of years, people take for granted small film festivals. And it’s usually been the small film festivals like Macon and Jacksonville where I find the biggest career opportunities. Sundance obviously is an amazing networking opportunity, but you really have to go with meetings already kind of in place. Or you go there and you network, and you parlay those contacts into other meetings. I remember that day in Macon that you, and Scott Seeke (writer of Get Low), and Mike (Buchanan, co-writer of The Fat Boy Chronicles), and Jeremy Osbern (DP of The Fat Boy Chronicles), and all of us were sitting around the table, and we’re all in this little bitty town. It was really kind of cool that we were all there at the same time. And Nick Moran (star of Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels) was with us. I think sometimes filmmakers get caught up in the glamour and all that, but I also think it’s importantto take advantage of the smaller opportunities, because you can kind of plant that seed and let it grow The genesis for me really was the Macon Film Festival — we took Last Bullet there and it opened so many doors.”
2. Be open to having your view expanded.
“I was a commercial director for years. I did commercials with Steve Nash, Carmelo Anthony, some big names. So I had a sports reel, and I had had some successes doing that. One year my friend Jonathan Hickman asked me to go to Sundance. So I went to Sundance. And you know, at that point in my career and where I was kind of as an artist, I was ready to see that, and I thought, ‘Wow, okay, now I know what I need to do.’ I went to Sundance in January 2008 and that fall we were shooting Last Bullet.”
3. Be open to making fundamental changes for the good of the project.
“Last Bullet was originally supposed to be WWII, and it was going to be the same kind of story about two guys in a foxhole and one of them has to go get help and they have to leave each other. So it is like conflict of character. So we met with Scott Tigchelaar, at what’s now Raleigh Studios, and he had been a buddy of mine and he was like, ‘You know what? If you do it in Vietnam, and you do it at night, I think you’re going to get more production value.’ So we said okay, well, let’s do that. So it went from like WWII to Vietnam. We brought in a military advisor for that so we tried to be as authentic as we could.”
4. Be brave about where you test screen your film.
“For our first test screening, we went out of the city and up to Blue Ridge. We showed it to a bunch of Vietnam veterans, because we wanted to see how they would react. And I remember it was the temp cut; we didn’t even have the credits at this point. So we did this makeshift screening room in this old courthouse in downtown Blue Ridge. So the vets, come in, and this guy comes up to me and says, ‘Who are you? You’re just a kid making a movie. I lived it.’ And then they said, ‘Where does it take place?’ And I said, ‘Cambodia, on the Fish Hook.’ And he said ‘I was there.’ I was like, oh man, this is effed up. I had never been so nervous. And after the film, the lights went up, and for good minute there was silence. I mean no coughing, no clapping, nothing. And I was thinking, ‘How can I get out of here?!’ Then one guy stood up and spoke, and what we realized was that during the film, all those soldiers went back to Vietnam. They all had tears in their eyes. It prompted this discussion that continued for an hour. So all of a sudden we’re in this big discussion about the war and how horrible it was and how bad people treated them. We realized we had something pretty special on our hands.”
5. For every project, there is a right and a wrong time.
“We were thinking of making a film called Treasure of the Four Lions. That’s what we were really spending all of our time and energy trying to raise money for. Now if you remember all the economy stuff happened that spring. So, there was no way that we were going to be able to raise 4 million dollars. It just wasn’t going to happen. But we started looking at this project called The Fat Boy Chronicles. At that point it was a manuscript written by Mike Buchanan and Diane Lang. Mike Buchanan wrote Last Bullet, and we were business partners. That led us to create a company called Tin Roof Films, which ultimately became the company that produced The Fat Boy Chronicles. But I remember one Sunday, I read the manuscript of the book Mike and Diane had written, before it was published. It was a really sweet story. I was really drawn into this character,and how Jimmy went on this journey and found the strength to move forward and did what he needed to succeed and kind of realize weight comes in many forms. And I loved that it was told in first person journal perspective. I was kind of like, ‘Oh, that’s neat. And I put it on the shelf. About six months later we were like, ‘Well, we’ve got enough money to do something small. What about The Fat Boy Chronicles?’”
6. Choose a community that will rally around your project.
“At this time, the film industry hadn’t quite boomed in Atlanta, but it was on the cusp. They had just shot a movie called Zombieland in the town of Newnan. And we actually went to meet with the police and city council, and tell them what we were doing. They kind of gave us the cold shoulder at first because they thought we were going to blow stuff up. And we said “No, we’re just making a film about a fat kid.” So we just took all of our networks and all of our resources and just cashed in every single favor that we had. And the community just got behind everything we did. People helped us find locations; the school system in Coweta County let us shoot at Newnan High School. We couldn’t have done this type of movie without volunteers. We had extras, kids who were just off for the summer and would come hang out for us and we’d feed them hamburgers. We had a couple of days where we had over a hundred extras. Those people showed up for free and stayed for 12 hours. And without that there would be no film. I’m forever grateful for that. One of the things I’m learning in my career that you can never take for granted is the people you surround yourself with- not just the production company, but the people in the towns. You have to ingratiate yourself with the communities in which you shoot, because you’re a guest. Whatever type of movie you’re filming, a horror movie, and action movie, you have to realize you’re a guest. If you’re spending big bucks or any other amount. And I think if you light yourself on fire with enthusiasm people will come for miles around and get inspired by that.”
7. Cast for commitment.
“The book was getting published, and we needed to cast the cover of the book. So Christopher Rivera shows up, and we cast him for the cover of the book. And in planning the movie we thought, ‘Well he’s an actor, and he’s already on the cover of the book- let’s see if he can act.’ So he came in and auditioned for me, and he impressed me. We made him come through 10 or 12 call backs. It was really intense. Chris, for a fourteen year old at the time, was not afraid to be vulnerable. Kids like to put on airs and be cool, and adults do too. One of the things that this film needed was not to pander to the kids. I wanted to create an environment that they could relate to. I don’t want to talk to them as an adult. Whoever played Jimmy, needed to be that kid in that class. They needed to see him put on a front and then they also needed to see him broken. And I told Chris, ‘I’m going to push you to your breaking point. And you’re going to break. And you’re going to lay on the floor and be broken and I’m going to push you further.’ And without any hesitation, he committed to that performance. When he showed up to the audition he was prepared. And what I saw from day one was his vulnerability. And I pretty much knew from day one that he was going to be the guy. And he rocked. He did a great job.”
8. Pick good people, and trust them.
“Being a film director, whether it is your first film or your 100th, is a learning experience. Its not just about filmmaking, it’s about managing people, it’s about managing expectations, it’s about performance, it’s about motivation, enthusiasm. What I learned is it’s kind of like you’re the captain of a pirate ship and you’ve got this rag-tag crew that you’ve got to get to believe in your vision and together you make it happen. And you’re fooling yourself if you think you can do it by yourself, because you can’t. So what I did was hire people who were great at what they did, and I had enough sense to listen to them. Jeremy and I didn’t know each other besides briefly meeting in Macon, where I saw his movie Air, which is a rock-and-roll musical film and is fantastic. It took him four years to shoot that on 35mm film. And I remember sitting in the movie theater in Macon and watching that movie hungover (because we’d all been out drinking the night before), and thinking that’s who I want to work with. So Jeremy came and it just clicked. Now Jeremy is one of my best friends in the entire world. We’ve done numerous projects since Fat Boy and have many more upcoming.”
9. Be ready to go to war for the duration.
“I think for me one of the biggest challenges for me, having done commercials, is how drawn-out a feature is. With a commercial, you’re in and out in three or four days, even if you’re spending $100,000. But the feature requires a mindset of going to war. You have to be mentally, physically, emotionally prepared for anything and everything on the journey. That was what I think a first time director isn’t prepared yet. You don’t realize the commitment, the intensity. You’re the first one there, the last one to leave, you work on all your days off. But I think that just keeping the damn boat afloat and headed in the right direction is the hardest part.”
10. Sometimes wars require heroism.
“One funny story is when we showed up to do some exterior scenes. I showed up there early because I like to be there when it’s real quiet and walk around and kind of have this serenity moment, to picture the blocking and all that stuff. So that morning this guy had come up to me, and he smelled like a brewery by the way, but he kept saying ‘I know a couple things about something or another blah blah.’ And I’m like ‘Okay crazy person, get out of here.’ (laughs) And I didn’t realize what he was saying. But then when I got back, everybody was freaking out and saying that I got robbed. And in this moment of clarity I realized that guy was trying to tell me we got robbed and I didn’t believe him. So we had a bike on the back of the grip truck, and I jumped on this BMX bike and pedaled into the hood, like I’m going to fistfight the entire housing projects to get our stuff back. I was pedaling pedaling pedaling, I didn’t know what to do, but I knew this was going to shut our film down. And I remember being in the middle of the street and I just closed my eyes and I said please, please, please, please let me find this gear. And I opened my eyes and at that moment, about a hundred yards away, I see a director’s chair. And I was like ’I found it.’ So I thought, well maybe I shouldn’t go in there guns, blazing just me. So I pedaled back, I’m kind of dramatic, you’ve known me long enough to know this, so I’m hauling ass down the hill and everyone’s hanging out in a big circle and I come flying down the hill on this BMX bike and fishtail in front of them, and I’m like ‘I found our stuff! Let’s go get them!’ So we piled in this pickup truck and surrounded this house to the point where now we’re on the phone with the police, and the police are on their way, and this whole time Jeremy’s back at the setshooting. All the exteriors of the Winterpock house in the film, the whole crew’s not there. It’s just Jeremy shooting these exteriors. While I’m up there dealing with the police. So we’ve surrounded this house and beating on the door, and these people are terrified. They had it on their porch! Like three director’s chairs, ten big black cases, like they’re going to the swap meet. It was really funny. And it’s things like that somebody asks me well, why did you get on a bike and go do that, and I say because I refused to be defeated that day. I was either going down with the ship or we were getting it back. We ended up making our day that day. It’s that kind of determination and that almost absent-minded professor crazy wild at all costs mentality that gets you through it.”
11. Keep your eyes open and enjoy the milestones.
“So a little while after we had sold the film, I went to Wal-Mart just to run errands like I normally do. And I went to the Redbox, just to check. So I got to Redbox, and I got to new releases, and I go click-click-click. Nothing. I was like, ‘Well I guess it didn’t happen.’ Because nobody told me. You’d be surprised how in the dark you can be. So I get in the car and I’m driving back, it’s about noon on the East Coast. My friend calls me from L.A. and he’s freaking out. He’s like, ‘Dude, we’re everywhere! We’re all over the country! We’re at Redbox, BlockBuster, iTunes, Amazon!’ And I was like, ‘Dude, shut up there is no way. I was just there.’ So I give him the address of where I was at and he looks it up, and he’s says, ‘Dude, it’s there. So I go back. My heart’s going boom-boom-boom, pounding. And I walk in and I go flip-flip-flip, and I didn’t go far enough. I go flip one more time, and there it was. And man it was, you know when the hair on the back of your next stands up? And you feel really hot? It was like that. Then the next day I went to Blockbuster in the town where we shot the movie, and there it was sitting on the shelf. It was amazing. It was kind of one of those personal moments that you just never forget. It’s kind of like your first one. I still remember the first set I ever was on and I never will forget that feeling. The Fat Boy Chronicles came out January 3rd , 2012 and by that Saturday – it was released on a Tuesday- by that Saturday, we were the #10 family movie in the country for Redbox. I thought, ‘Oh my god. How does this happen?’ This little movie resonates with people. Look, here’s the thing. I don’t read reviews. Ever. Because it’s either really really high or really really low. So I just make the movie, I’m happy. I’m glad people like it, if they don’t like it, that’s fine too. But when we jumped so high — by Friday night it was #15, by Saturday it was #10, and by Sunday it was #9 and by that following Tuesday it was #6. And when that happened, it was amazing, the response we were getting.”
12. Make a difference.
“When it went to #6 people started posting. And what they were saying is, it’s hard to even put into words really. Things like, ‘I was picked on my entire life and this movie brought me back to high school; it helped me talk to my kids about certain things.’ Then we get emails and postings for the movie like, ‘I’m a kid, I’m a cutter, I went and saw the movie and told my parents I’m a cutter. Now I’m getting help.’ or ‘I saw your film and my son convinced me to start a workout regiment. So now we have like a family thing going on.’ So the ride has just been crazy. Then in February it came out in Wal-mart, and now it’s in every Wal-Mart around the country, so I’m getting emails constantly from people. And now it’s on Netflix, too, and within weeks it got 50,000 views. You know, I poured my heart and soul into this film and just wanted to make a film that showed people what it is like to be a kid. Because I think often we forget. As adults, we forget, that you’re sitting in a community thinking that you’re the only one dealing with that problems. One of the things we found was that weight comes in many forms. So whether you’re the fat kid, the cheerleader, the jock, the punk, the drug addict, whatever. Everyone’s dealing with something. I think just knowing that may make the world a better place.”
Now that he’s finished with that Paula Peril film, Winn’s next project is a feature called Shifting Gears, which he describes as “a little bit country, a little bit rock and roll, and a whole lot of fun.” It shoots this fall in North Carolina.