Sunday, April 8, 2012

Interview with JULIAN HIGGINS, 2011 GRADUATE Winner for THIEF

Julian Higgins's film, THIEF, won best Graduate film last year at the 2011 Ivy Film Festival. Check out what he has to say!

First of all, could you give a short summary of your film, so that those reading the blog will have context?
At the beginning of THIEF, we meet an Iraqi man named Mehdi living in isolation outside Tikrit, Iraq. The time is December 2003, eight months into the American occupation, and Mehdi is struggling to survive without electricity or much food. When an armed stranger arrives at his hut looking for something to eat, Mehdi has no choice but to let him in. But he soon realizes he’s met this stranger before, and as dark memories from his childhood come flooding back to him, Mehdi finds himself caught between his desire for revenge and his need to make peace with the past.

What got you started in the filmmaking process?
My projects often start when I’m catalyzed by something in the news, by an event or issue or person that fires up my curiosity. I start wondering what the experience was like for the human beings involved, what it would be like if I was that person. In the case of THIEF, I was fascinated by a specific story from the aftermath of the American invasion of Iraq in 2003 -- but telling you more than that would spoil the movie, now wouldn’t it?

What would you say is your greatest inspiration?
What draws me to material, and what I care about most in the filmmaking process, is character. And specifically, the transformation of character. That is what stories are made of. We grow and change as human beings, we shed our skins and transform ourselves, the world remakes us and we remake the world, and we often don’t even know what’s happening until it’s over. I think that process is endlessly fascinating. THIEF is about a man who, because of his past experiences and his overwhelming feelings of guilt, withdraws from the world and stops participating in it entirely. He feels that he can only have a negative impact, so he just surrenders and bows out. And then, because of this chance meeting he has with a man he once knew, he is able to understand that he still has a role to play, that no matter how marginalized and insignificant he feels, his actions and his choices can mean something and make a difference. I didn’t know that was going to be the subject of the movie when I started working on it. That theme evolved very organically as we all thought and talked about the character.

What is the hardest part about making a film?
For me, it’s writing. It’s the most important part of the process and also the hardest. I am a firm believer that the script is paramount, and also that you can’t force the script to go where you want it to go. It has to lead you, to a certain extent. I think if you just decide what you want to do and execute it, the results usually aren’t very interesting. Writing is not an intellectual process -- you have to figure out what your subconscious is trying to express. For me, that takes a lot of time, and it can be pretty frustrating and depressing, but it’s incredibly satisfying when it works out.

What was the hardest part about making this film (THIEF)?
As you’d expect from my previous answer, the hardest part of making THIEF, without question, was writing the script. There are so many competing interests to reconcile. You want to tell a compelling emotional story that also engages people’s minds. You want to make the film as personal as possible, because that’s where the emotion comes from, but you also want it to reach a wide audience. You want your film to be about something big, to bite into something important and primal, but you certainly don’t want to be preachy about it. With a film like THIEF, there’s a lot of research and cultural elements that play into the script, but you don’t want those things to dictate the story. And I made the film as part of the grad directing program at AFI, with feedback coming in from all sides at all times, so there’s the added challenge of trying to stay focused and stay true to what made you want to do the film in the first place. It’s a real marathon.

Do you have any filmmakers, directors, writers etc. that you look up to, or take inspiration from?
I think Akira Kurosawa probably had the most profound impact on me as a filmmaker. His movies are the perfect package of emotion, theme, style, design, craft, and yet they have such an enviable sense of simplicity… RAN and THRONE OF BLOOD are my favorites of his. I also love Sidney Lumet, because he consistently told character-driven, emotionally compelling stories that also engaged with real events and urgent issues in the world. But there are so many other filmmakers that have inspired me and changed my life with their work – like Fincher, Malick, and P.T. Anderson… I really credit my parents with introducing me to great films at a young age.

If you could cast any actors in your film, who would they be and why?
There are so many incredible performers. I’d love to work with some of the all-time greats – like Meryl Streep, Philip Seymour Hoffman, or my favorite actor ever, Al Pacino. Their careers are awe-inspiring. You just can’t get any better. As far as young actors go, I think Ryan Gosling is the first actor of my generation that feels like he has that kind of magnitude. I really believe he could be the next Pacino or Brando. He has that gift of commanding the screen while seeming to do nothing – he can stand there perfectly still and make you feel a full range of emotion and complexity. And he makes great choices about what roles he takes, which is serving him really well. I thought his performance in DRIVE was sensational.

Are you currently working on any projects right now? If so, would you like to share a little bit about the projects?
I am developing several feature projects that have got me really excited -- they're like THIEF in that I'm trying to tell small, emotional, human stories within a bigger context. I’m trying to develop several projects simultaneously so I have a sort of mini-slate for myself. Also, in January I directed an episode of HOUSE – it just aired on April 2nd. That was an absolutely incredible experience. With a cast and crew at that level of expertise and talent, anything’s possible. I’m new to the world of television, but there’s so much great drama on TV these days, it’s a rich place for a director to work. I’d love to be a part of that world as well.

Read all about Julian's HOUSE episode!

For more information about Julian you can visit his website: or follow him on Twitter: @filmjulian.

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Interview with BEN LEONBERG, 2011 COMEDY Winner for "The Bacon Tree"

Ben Leonberg's film, "The Bacon Tree," won best Comedy last year at the 2011 Ivy Film Festival. Check out what he has to say!

First of all, could you give a short summary of your film, so that those reading the blog will have context?
The Bacon Tree is the story of two young men who have become lost in a seemingly endless desert.  After a week of wandering through the wasteland Ben and Woody are at the end of their rope.  But things take a turn toward weird after the appearance of the fabled Bacon Tree.

If you really want to get the picture you can see The Bacon Tree online at  (

What got you started in the filmmaking process?
I started making movies around age 8, at which point I was making my own version of Indiana Jones (starring myself as the main character.)  I have progressed slowly from there.

What would you say is your biggest inspiration?
My biggest inspiration is stories told in the oral tradition (i.e. spoken stories.)  Spoken stories require a lot of imagination to play out in one's head.  Even stupid stories or cheesy jokes can be really entertaining if presented and told in the right way- I endeavor to capture and duplicate that in my movies.

What is the hardest part about making a film?
Finding people who are really willing to do what it takes to make a movie.  There are a lot of people out there who think they know how to work hard, but really almost none do.  Unfortunately this seems to be disappointingly common amongst the people who come to "help out"/act in student films- but then again it's hard to complain about people who are volunteering their time for a movie that will never make money.

What was the hardest part about making The Bacon Tree?
Within the first few hours of getting to the set (an alpine desert in New Zealand's Tongariro National Park) the cast and I were caught in a freak summer blizzard with 70mph winds, hail, snow, and a sky that looked ready to drop doom.  Somehow in those conditions I managed to get horrifically sunburned and the next day had to strap on a heavy backpack laden with camera gear and trek 20 miles out of the car park where my rented vehicle had been broken into and vandalized.  Conveniently this was also the most fun I've ever had in three day weekend!

Do you have any filmmakers, directors, writers etc. that you look up to, or take inspiration from?
Wernor Herzog is a personal hero of mine.  Between being a total bad-ass and a hilarious narrator, he's accomplished some of the most reflective and thought-provoking films I've ever seen.

Are you currently working on any projects right now? If so, would you like to share a little bit about the project(s)?
Currently I subcontract as a director for a major apparel brand, but it is not nearly as exciting as making student films on whatever resources I had in my wallet.

What would you say is the most difficult aspect of creating a comedy?
I find the hardest part of comedy is keeping things natural and off-the-cuff.  I think the key is not to over think it; nothing is less funny than an overly thought-out joke.

What made you gravitate toward the genre of comedy?
I don't think I gravitate towards comedy on any conscious level.  I think I just prefer to tell a story in what most people consider a humorous style.  I probably make films this way because I've talked and told stories in that same fashion as long as I can remember.

Would you ever consider making films in a different genre? If so what would you like to try?
Absolutely, I'm dying to make a real pulp adventure film (In my opinion no one's made one since Last Crusade.)

Is there anything else you would like to share about yourself, your film, or other projects?
To all those student filmmakers out there:  Use your resources wisely.  Yes shooting on real film is cool, but spend whatever resources you have on what makes your movie ultimately good.  Terrible actors reading a terrible script shot on beautiful 35mm are still terrible actors reading a terrible script- and most audiences don't know the difference between 35mm and video.