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Jump Cut

The Monthly Column on Film and Media Arts
for the New England Entertainment Digest

By George T. Marshall, RIIFF Executive Director/CEO


(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 characters?


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 watch.”


I did.


And I was charmed.


So 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 he is.”


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?


Jonathan 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 the shame...


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 studies.

 

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 industry?


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 you wrote?


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 ever met.


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 project?


Jonathan 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 flowing.


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 skill.


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 scarce resources.


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 time!


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 a while!


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 we speak.


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 the finance.


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. Take risks.


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 in future?


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 at <flicksart@aol.com>