By George T. Marshall, RIIFF Executive
(February 2006) My best
friend and biking-buddy, Larry, and I have recently
been watching a lot of classic television programming
from the 1960s. No great plan here, just catching up
on some holiday presents such as the complete “Lost
in Space” and the first two seasons of “Bewitched.”
Now don’t even go there as to why we’ve
been given these gifts; perhaps as baby boomers they
just seemed a natural.
Truth to say, they were.
I have lots of fond memories watching these shows. I
remember that in order to watch television when I was
a kid, when these programs aired for the first time,
that my homework had to be done and my grades had to
be up. TV then was an old black and white Dumont before
we could afford that first color set which would later
be an RCA. No cable, just an antenna on the roof. Reception
was totally dependent on the weather and the signal
was always variable. We had three main stations back
then and on a good night could pick up Channel 2 out
of Boston. That was a feat if you lived on Newport,
RI. I wonder how many young people today with IPod-casting,
cell phone text messages, and high-speed modems would
have put up with VHF and UHF and the lack of choice?
But that’s what we had. And without the boon of
a recorder or TIVO, we made the most of it and the programs
and their stars became a part of our lives.
And they stayed a part, even years later.
One of the things that struck me as Lar and I were watching
a few of the “Bewitched” episodes was how
dynamic the writing was during the first season and
for a sitcom, it had a hard-edge. I was also surprised
to see how strong the acting was, particularly among
the guest stars. Several of these were child actors
of the period; Billy Mumy comes immediately to mind.
I have always been amazed at the raw talent these young
actors had. They were believable and real; drawing the
audience into the world they created. Where did that
come from? What did they go to find the essence of the
I recently had an opportunity to get an answer to my
questions when I spoke with a director who has worked
with child actors.
His latest short film, “Foster,” had just
come across my desk with a large stickie saying “Must
And I was charmed.
I set about getting to know Jonathan Newman. According
to a director’s statement he sent me on making
his film, he was
“Sitting around one unusually warm British
day with my friend Andy and his lovely children, I thought
it would be great to write something for his extremely
gifted son, Preston. I didn’t yet know what the
movie was, but I knew his son’s capability to
perform, and wanted to be able to capture this while
he was still young.
“A few days later, the script for FOSTER was brought
into life, written specifically for Preston. Knowing
the boy that was to play the character in the film as
well as I did provided inspiration for the scenes and
the dialogue. I have always like the idea of telling
a story through a child’s eyes. The innocence
and naivety of youth provides rich territory for both
humour and sadness, which I have attempted to strike
a balance between in this story.
“I played around with the script, redrafting until
I got it write, and then felt confident we had a great
little short film on our hands.
“I rehearsed with Preston for a day before shooting,
and it was clear to me that the old adage of “children
and animals” would not be true in this case. He
was a seasoned pro, and had already memorised the entire
script before I got there.
“With a limited budget, we went about shooting
the film and I was astonished at this young man’s
capability to perform and take direction, outdoing many
adults I have worked with and helping us cram the 4
day schedule into an unrealistic 2 day shoot!
“Preston amazed us all with his talent. At the
end of one take in particular the crew burst out laughing.
Preston asked, “Why is everybody laughing?”
We told him it was because he “was so good!”
He’s not yet totally aware of just how talented
My interest was piqued.
I then thought, I could learn from the source and what
follows is my conversation with Jonathan:
GTM: Tell our readers a bit about yourself.
When did you first become interested in film? What is
your educational background and where you came from
plus the professional journey you've taken?
Newman: My parents decided to move from London to Los
Angeles when I was five. I think this played an enormous
part in shaping my interest in film. We lived in an
idyllic setting on a cliff overlooking a nude beach
in Malibu. I have early memories of throwing cherry
tomatoes down on to the nude sunbathers below... oh
It was during these 8 years in LA that I got an early
taste of film. The TV shows Knight Rider and TK Hooker
were both filmed at our house. The film set seemed like
a big playground for adults, with the cameras, lights,
costumes and sets all being expensive toys. I was hooked.
We moved back to London when I was 12 and I finished
the remainder of high school. When I was 18 I went off
to Brandeis University in Boston to embark on my undergraduate
Brandeis has something of a creative history
- former alums include "Friends" creators
Marta Kaufmann and David Crane, and “Will &
Grace” actress "Debra Messing". Despite
being an excellent academic institution, there was a
lot of creative stimulation. I was active in theatre,
both acting and directing in various productions. Most
notably, I played Mr. Pink in a stage version of “Reservoir
Dogs” and directed a stage version of Hitchcock's
“ROPE.” I also began shooting short films
on video and also commercials for local businesses.
While at Brandeis I designed an independent concentration
in Film Theory - the first major of its kind at the
school, which led to the creation of a Film major program
due to the overwhelming demand for academic film studies.
My mentor in the program, Professor Thomas Doherty,
was instrumental in providing the foundation of academic
program/ and for the core group of us, about 12 students
passionate about film, this became somewhat of a benchmark
year...we were the “Breakfast Club!”
I headed back to London and immediately enrolled in
a masters program in film production at the Northern
School of Film in Leeds - well known for its practical
course. I made an appalling short film, but at least
I shot on film for the first time. You have to make
mistakes in order to grow. I finished school and decided
to call myself a "director" (perhaps naively).
I've been one ever since! Like most freelancers, I love
it and hate it. Being on set is exhilarating. Chasing
the dangling carrot, which just always seems out of
reach is unsettling.
GTM: How did you land your first job in the
Jonathan Newman: My first job, really, was at the age
of five, when I acted with Steve Martin in an after
school special! My scene got cut - hence the harsh reality
of show business and rejection sunk in at an early age.
So, not counting that, my lucky break was really due
to making the right phone call at the right time. I
called a British Telecom and asked them for £10,000.
[Footnote: that’s $17,635.00 US] I got it. With
that money I shot my first feature, “Being Considered.”
I have a theory about success. It's a triangle. On two
sides are the fixed variables, a) luck and b) experience/talent.
You have as much luck and experience as you have at
any given time. On the base of that triangle is c) action,
which is the only thing you have control over. So, when
you apply constant action in the face of adversity,
barriers and obstacles, your chances of being lucky
increase, as does your experience. The more you apply
action, the greater chance you have of reaching the
pinnacle of that triangle, success. I feel you can apply
this to any aspect of your life. Sorry for digressing.
GTM: Why did you get involved with "Foster,"
specifically? Did you have a personal experience that
drew you to the subject of this film? How long did it
take to develop and how much of you is in the story
Jonathan Newman: The genesis of the project starts with
Preston Nyman, the young seven-year-old star of the
film. Preston is the son of an actor friend of mine
– someone I’ve worked with before. I’ve
known him and his sister Macy (who is also in the film)
since they were babies. I’ve watched them grow
into the two most creative little people I’ve
At my wedding last year Preston was the hit of the night
as he danced up a storm to Hava Nagila and 70s Disco
music. I knew I wanted to make a film for him, so I
set about writing Foster. I used his personality to
generate ideas. He’s always been very mature –
an old man trapped in a little person’s body,
so I thought it would funny and poignant if you had
this young man wise beyond his years – who spoke
with the wisdom and maturity of an adult. I then set
about figuring out how to make this work from a narrative
point of view, and why a child would be so wise. It
was then that I struck upon the idea of an isolated
child, who has spent his life at a foster home, who
dresses up every day in a suit and tie and waits to
one day be picked up. It had a quirkiness to it, which
I was drawn to – and it is very much Preston.
That suit, that hat, that suitcase – those belong
to Preston – and he does sometimes talk like that
– so I don’t think it was too much of a
stretch for him! And that scene of him dancing, that’s
improvised. I don’t know where he learnt it all
from, but wow – that kid can dance.
Anyway, I wrote the script and polished the draft and
then had no choice but to go make it using what limited
resources I had. I hate waiting, especially for something
as tedious as finance, which always slows you down.
That’s the script done. I gave it to some trusted
friends to read and made any changes I thought would
help and then set about on pre-production.
So many short films are pithy vignettes with no real
narrative. They often feel like jokes for the sake of
reaching a punch line. Narrative is key for me. I wanted
Foster to be like a mini feature film, structured with
a beginning, middle and end and to take the audience
on the same emotional journey that a full length film
might deliver without being manipulative. This is a
hard task to achieve in ten minutes. I hope we got somewhere
close to it.
GTM: What was casting like for you with this
Newman: I like working with people I have worked with
before as well as recommendations. I have worked with
John Schwab (Zach as an adult) and Tim Beckmann (the
Foster Dad), numerous times before. They are very talented
actors from North America now living in London and are
members of the Reduced Shakespeare Company. We all met
doing ADR on Band of Brothers and have since collaborated
on a number of projects.
As I mentioned, Preston was a natural. He came to set
with the entire script memorized and took direction
better than most adults I have worked with. He also
got it right almost every time on the first take. They
say don’t work with children and adults, but this
was a pleasure.
GTM: Expectations: the film will have its US
Premiere this August RIIFF. Why select RIIFF and following
your screening, how will you market the film and what
is your ultimate goal for its future?
Jonathan Newman: RIIFF has an excellent reputation amongst
festivals in the States. There seem to be a million
different festivals in the US, and I think one has to
be discerning. I am drawn to the RIIFF because of its
reputation as a filmmaker’s festival. A huge draw
is that the RIIFF is also an Oscar Qualifying festival,
so if it wins an award at RIIFF, it automatically qualifies
for the Oscars.
I’m thrilled at the response the film has had
so far and the impact on everyone involved. There is
a lot of talent packed into these 9 minutes and I’m
so glad it’s being recognized. We premiered at
the Odeon Leicester Sq in London before “Charlie
and the Chocolate Factory,” projected digitally
on the biggest screen in the UK. It just played in Official
Selection at the Santiago de Compstela Film Festival
in Spain. I can only hope that it continues to get seen
at festivals by audiences and that they enjoy it.
Ultimately, if it makes it as far as the Oscars, then
I certainly would not mind!
GTM: Working in England is not exactly being
in Los Angeles or New York. What limitations--if any--have
you discovered and assets from not being in the so-called
US heartland making movies?
Jonathan Newman: Working in England does have its drawbacks.
Financing has always been an issue in this country.
Not as many films are made therefore it’s harder
to get them up and running the first place. There’s
a lot of talent in this country that doesn’t get
the recognition they deserve for whatever reason, lack
of opportunity, lack of finance. Ambition is frowned
upon in England, whereas in the States it is embraced.
LA is, without question, the heartland of filmmaking,
and there are far more opportunities that present themselves.
Ultimately, I do see myself making films in LA. I’ve
had some interest but I’m waiting for the right
project and moment.
GTM: Why did you decide to work in England in
the first place? Your entry came labeled from the Ealing
Studios. That's impressive and the Studio has a significant
history; Alec Guinness comes to mind.
Jonathan Newman: Having lived in both LA and Boston,
I am, ultimately, British. This is my home and where
my family is. It was a natural progression to return
here after college. I do love being in Europe and my
wife is from Spain. There is accessibility to the rest
of the world being here.
Ealing Studios is a great place to work. It’s
a community and Mecca of creative talent and it is inspirational
to base production and myself company here. It does
have such a rich history of filmmaking from the old
‘Ealing Comedies’ to the present day. Woody
Allen shot his last film “Match Point” here
and Gwyneth Paltrow has just finished filming the “Good
Night.” There’s always something going on.
It’s very important to be in a community of like-minded
people to motivate and inspire and keep the creativity
It’s also only 15 minutes from my house!
GTM: Your first feature film was "Being
Considered" with James Dreyfus and was critically
acclaimed. What do you find are the differences in directing
a feature film vs. a short?
Jonathan Newman: I love short films. I love them because
it’s easier to get it right. A 10-minute script
presents a great opportunity to hone one’s craft.
A feature film presents opportunity for mistakes. That
said, all of the same obstacles are there – there
is never enough time or money!
Both are scarce commodities on a film
set. But both share the commonality of storytelling
at the heart. Being able to tell a story in 10 minutes
or 100 minutes takes the same amount of thought and
Short films are easier to get off the ground and make
on a limited budget. Feature films always present the
same struggle or getting the money together to make
it happen. That said, directing is the best entry-level
position in Hollywood today. Anyone can pick up a MiniDV
camera, shoot a film and then edit on their laptop with
No film has ever suffered from having a script in development
too long. So I would urge filmmakers to get the script
right before rushing into production.
GTM: Funding is a major concern for independent filmmakers:
how do you raise your money?
Jonathan Newman: Funding certainly is a major concern.
There are certain advantage to shooting in Europe, the
biggest being the European Convention and the co-production
treaties in place. This means, finance can be structured
by making use of two or three countries’ tax credit
systems and soft funding options. These are called bi
or tri-lateral co-productions and can be a bit of a
jigsaw puzzle. I think producers have to be creative
and knowledgeable when it comes to finance. Finance
can be obtained through private equity (and although
hard to find, is out there), pre-sales, government subsidies,
and regional funding and tax credits. I think a lot
of directors become producers by default, because it’s
much easier to have control of your destiny when you
are running the show.
I’m always looking for financing opportunities.
The ideal scenario is to find someone willing to put
in the whole chunk in private equity. I can show them
how to get their money back with a return on their investment.
Ultimately, however, I’d love to hand over the
producing responsibilities to a producer I can trust,
so I can just concentrate on the creative process.
GTM: What were the types of challenges you have
faced in making your films?
Jonathan Newman: Never enough money and never enough
Casting is also an issue. There are so many amazing
American actors I’d like to work with but they
are often inaccessible because of the barriers that
agents present. Often agents will not look at a script
if it is not financed or not a pay and play offer. That’s
a real shame, because much of financing is based on
the cast you can attach, so it becomes a chicken and
egg situation. Agents are often the biggest challenge
the independent filmmaker comes across for that reason.
Because having Tom Cruise attached to
your project will suddenly turn the worst script in
the world into the most bankable project in Hollywood.
Until there is a solution, we try to be creative in
our casting, and also our ways of approaching actors.
If I bump into an actor I will always think of talking
about a suitable project. I recently even handed legendary
producer Kathleen Kennedy a screenplay and copy of my
film. She’s reading it so the verdicts out for
GTM: What project is next on your plate?
Jonathan Newman: I’ve got a slate of about half
a dozen films. You have to multi-develop projects to
increase your chances of getting one made. They are
all really high quality projects and spend a long time
in development. Not long ago I optioned an awesome award-winning
screenplay called “Hidden” - it’s
a tense thriller about a US investigator hunting a Nazi
War Criminal. It’s the best writing of seen in
ages. I’m working on financing this project as
I’m also hoping to make a screenplay I wrote called
“Salsa Con Fusion.” It’s a zany comedy
that will be filmed in Puerto Rico. We have cast some
of the roles and now we are working on putting together
Making “Foster” also peaked my interest
in making films with or about children. I find there
is a real poignancy and truth to well-acted children’s
films. I have developed a screenplay about a child whom
everyone thinks is mentally retarded and the therapist
that works with him.
GTM: What would you tell an independent filmmaker
just starting in the business they should expect and
prepare themselves for in making their first feature
or short? Can you give examples?
Jonathan Newman: I’d tell them to go to law school.
Filmmaking is not for those that want a stable life
and a stable income. It’s a fiercely competitive
hand to mouth lifestyle. Every time you finish a job
you are essentially unemployed again until the next
one gets financed. You have to be committed and aware
of the lifestyle. If you truly are committed to making
films, then I would suggest the following:
1. Development is key. You MUST work on your script
as much as you can and more. Get people to read it,
listen to criticism (especially negative!), and be open
to making the best possible script.
2. Be Proactive. Don’t wait for other people to
make it happen for you. Make it happen for yourself.
3. Choose your battles. Not all minor points are worth
fighting for when you have a war to win.
4. Leave your ego behind. Filmmaking is collaborative.
Even Olympic gold medalists need a coach sometimes.
And we all have blind spots. Powerful people are powerful
because they allow other people to contribute to them.
5. Be original in your story telling, not derivative.
6. Try to shoot on the best possible medium you can
– that means film first, the HiDef, then, at the
very worst scenario, miniDV.
7. Be prepared for rejection and lots of it. Then, if
the rejection doesn’t kill you, it will be the
hope that destroys you! The occasional positive phone
call or email that keeps you going. Seeing your peers
succeed when you still have a mountain to climb. It’s
hope that really destroys you and also motivates you.
GTM: Would you ever consider shooting in New England
Jonathan Newman: Love to. In fact, the script about
the young child I mentioned is set in New England. If
we can get the finance together I’ll hopefully
be there. Some States also have tax incentives. New
York and Pennsylvania, for example offer tax credits
for productions shooting in State.
I’d even shoot in Rhode Island if I had the chance!
GTM: Finally, your bio states that you are a
skilled salsa dancer and a magician. I’ll bite;
tell me more.
Jonathan Newman: Yes! I’ve been a magician since
I was a child and joined the Magic Castle at the age
of 12. Magic is still a part of my life. I love to perform
it and also spend copious amounts of money on rubbish
tricks that never leave my drawer.
As for Salsa, I’ve been dancing for years and
became qualified to teach a few years ago. I love the
music and the freedom of the dance. I’ve even
developed a film around my love of Salsa. Think “Strictly
Ballroom” meets “Rushmore!”
To learn more about Jonathan’s work you can find
more online at < http://www.serendipity-films.com>
And I’m back to episode 18 of “Betwitched,”
with a bit more to go….
About the Author:
George T. Marshall is the Producing Director of the
Rhode Island-based Flickers Arts Collaborative, the
creators of the annual Rhode Island International Film
Festival for which he also serves as Executive Director.
He teaches film and communications at Rhode Island College
and speech communications and documentary film at Roger
Williams University. He is a director, writer, producer
of commercials and industrials for numerous business
clients in the region and is currently completing the
multi-media components for a museum exhibit saluting
American veterans in Woonsocket, RI. He can be reached