Monday, July 26, 2010

An Interview with Beth Harrington

Beth Harrington is a terrific filmmaker and a good friend.  I have been a fan of her work since her film, The Blinking Madonna and Other Miracles, her film Welcome To The Club: The Women of Rockabilly is one of my all time favorite documentaries.  She is working on a new film, The Winding Stream: The Carters, The Cashes and The Course of Country Music.  I am looking forward to it.

We rarely get to see each other anymore but when we do the conversation is always wonderful.  Enjoy the interview.

What’s your background in film/video?

I’ve been doing this in one form or another for over 30 years! (How the heck did that happen?)  Came from an artsy family, went to college for media (Syracuse University, Newhouse School of Public Communications, TV-Radio sequence), graduated and moved back to Boston – my hometown – and did a few related jobs (PR, audiovisual company scriptwriter) and then went off and joined a touring rock & roll band for a few years, only to realize that I did indeed have some marketable skills as a scriptwriter and producer.  So I pursued that from then on mostly as a freelancer. In 1990, I got a job working for a company called The Documentary Guild which in turn worked for WGBH in Boston. So I was an associate producer on shows for Frontline, NOVA, The Health Quarterly and some PBS specials.  Then I came to the Upper Left Coast for love and have been working as independent filmmaker since I arrived, but mostly with Oregon Public Broadcasting.

You made Welcome To The Club with some funding from ITVS, and they helped fund your film The Blinking Madonna & Other Miracles.  What is it like working with them? 

I think very highly of the people at ITVS. They have a tough job administering a funding process that is essentially giving public monies to independent filmmakers.  They have to do that very scrupulously and, I think, they catch a lot of flak for how exacting their process is. ITVS is also highly competitive so there are always hundreds of disgruntled filmmakers who are disappointed they didn’t get funded.  I’ve been one of them, too.

For a filmmaker applying to them, I would say the bottom line is this – you need to help them (which is to say, the panel of jurors they assemble) choose you.  Read their guidelines VERY carefully and answer the questions they ask.  Don’t just cut and paste your proposal into a rough approximation of their template and expect it to work.  They need to be able to say that your film is one designed for public television AND that your film serves an underserved audience. If they can’t say those two things they can’t fund you, no matter how cool your idea is. They don’t want to hear that you want to make a theatrical film (they’re happy if it has theatrical release but the first commitment is to public TV broadcast) and they don’t want to hear you say it will appeal to everyone (not true, anyway).  So, if your film doesn’t fit those criteria, you may want to rethink even submitting to ITVS. 

If you do get funding from them, I think you will find the ITVS folks extremely supportive. They want you to be successful.  They also are hands-off on the editorial part.  They will make suggestions but you are not obligated to follow up on them.  You have artistic control of your project.  But they will want you to be scrupulous with the funding they gave you and they really like it when you stick to your timeline!

You were nominated for a Grammy (long form music video category). Did that make it easier to get your next film going?  Or did it make a difference at all?

It’s hard to say because things like that make ripples we can’t always see.  I think people in the music business I’ve been dealing with on my latest film probably see it as a sign of legitimacy, which, of course, is helpful.  But my sense that the Grammy nomination was going to open doors for funding was not borne out. Sometimes I think that these kinds of honors give people the opening to say, “Oh, she doesn’t need our help.  She’s big time.  She’ll get the money from somewhere else.”  But maybe down the line, I will see that as an erroneous take, too.  Just hard to know from this vantage point.

Tell me about your new film?

It’s called The Winding Stream. The logline is: The Carters, The Cashes and The Course of Country Music. It’s an epic tale about the origins of the form we call country as told through this one family – The Original Carters.  It takes their story from the early 1900s all the way to the present generation of family musicians and, of course, along the way talks about legend Johnny Cash and his wife June Carter Cash.  It is a history film but it also features studio performances with John Prine, Rosanne Cash, George Jones, Sheryl Crow, Kris Kristofferson and the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, Murry Hammond of the Old 97s, and others to come (among them the Carolina Chocolate Drops, and hopefully Wanda Jackson and Jack White!) It’s got great interviews and archival footage and will have cool animated graphics and photos, too.

What was the coolest part of making your new film?

The coolest moment so far has been meeting Johnny Cash.  Might be the coolest moment in my film career.  He was awesome. Intense as you might expect but also kind and genuine and really funny.  Looked right through you when he was talking to you. 

Beyond that, I’d say it’s just a kick to interview musicians I admire and talk about this great shared reverence for these fantastic roots music progenitors. Joe Ely said, “People should know who the Carters were, just like they should know who the first president of the United States was.”  Amen.

What’s next?

Well, I’m trying to see my way past this film, but I’ve still got a long way to go.  But having said that, I would like to do a film about a photographer I’m intrigued by, a Japanese immigrant named Frank Matsura.  His work was awesome (powerful photos of settlers and folks from various Northwest tribes – intimate, really compelling) and his story of coming to NE Washington in the 1900s is really touching.  I feel some affinity for this guy who came to this state and tried to fit in and just started documenting the people and places he encountered.  Plus, if I did do this film it would make it so I had to go back to Japan to do research! I just went there for the first time this spring and that country has become a big source of fascination for me.

Is there a film that was a huge influence on you?  What is it about this film that influenced you?

Oh gee, I never know what to say for this question. I’m not the encyclopedic film buff sort of person.  I have super eclectic tastes and a very bad memory, too.  I find things that influence me in almost everything I see.  But I guess I’d say I really admire Errol Morris’ body of work and there are things about how he tells stories that really impress me.  He’s so oddly evenhanded, even when you know he has a point of view.  But it’s not that fake-y “fair and balanced” sort of evenhandedness.  It’s something more profound and artistic.  And surprising. 

Where can I buy copies of your films?

Some of my films are sold through PBS and OPB, some through me.  Visit my store on my website and there’s info there about all of them.

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Thursday, July 22, 2010

The Fall Tour featuring Jon Gann

The Fall Tour featuring Jon Gann

I am booking my Fall Tour as we speak.  Once again I will be teaching my six workshops, The New Model of Independent Filmmaking, Making the Extreme No Budget Film, Now That Your Film Has Been Rejected… Self Distribution, Sound Design on Independent Features, Pre-Production on Extreme Low Budget Features, & Learn Your Craft!  Making Short Films

I am also promoting my book The Angry Filmmaker Survival Guide: Making the Extreme No Budget Film.  I am hard at work on the next book and will have it ready for Christmas.

The Tour starts on September 9th in Washington, DC at the DC Shorts Film Festival.  From there I will slowly make my way around the country.

Big News…

After my appearance at Script DC Oct 15-17th I will be joined for the last month of the tour by Jon Gann.

Who is Jon Gann?

Jon Gann is the founder of the DC Film Alliance, a non-profit group supporting Washington, DC’s film and video community, and the creator of the DC Shorts Film Festival; now in its seventh year, the event attracts national and international filmmakers, and has become one of the country’s premier short film showcases.  As a filmmaker, Jon’s notable past projects include: “Cyberslut,” the first gay-themed short film to screen at over 50 festivals and broadcasts worldwide; “Signs,” a national 48 Hour Film Project award winner, and “Offline,” a modern dating parable.

Jon’s new venture, Reel Plan, consults with filmmakers on the festival circuit.  His “festival tips” blog is read by hundreds of filmmakers every week, and through his work, has bridged the communication gap between competing film festivals, so all can share film information, sponsor strategies and filmmaker data.

Jon will be doing workshops on Film Festival Strategies and he and I will also be joining forces discussing Independent Distribution.  (Check out,, or just Google him!)

I have known Jon for years and found him to be one of the most knowledgeable filmmakers especially when it comes to questions about film festivals and distribution.

This is going to be fun.

Drop me a note at and let’s see if we can come by your media art center, university, school or film festival. 

You will learn a lot and have a great time!



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Tuesday, July 06, 2010

A Conversation with Paul Harrill

Paul Harrill is an Independent Filmmaker whose film Quick Feet, Soft Hands will be airing on various PBS Stations across the US over the next couple weeks. More about that at the end.

What’s your background in film/video?

I grew up in Knoxville, Tennessee, and there are no professional artists or creative types in my extended family, so deciding to become a filmmaker was maybe a little unusual. Especially because I started making films well before things like DV and Final Cut Pro made it more accessible to everyone.

But people were always telling stories in my family, and I was movie obsessed as a kid, so I guess that's what led me into it.

As far as experience, because I didn't have access to so much as a Super-8 or video camera, I began by writing screenplays on my own. Then, when I went to college, I started making Super-8 films thanks to a loaned camera from a friend. Then I made some videos. And that work got me into Temple University's graduate film school.

Temple attracts great students and has long tradition of supporting independent, alternative work. Plus, it's a lot less expensive than places like USC and NYU. It was a good fit for me.

While I was in film school, I just managed to miss the advent of digital video and Final Cut Pro, which I guess I'm ultimately happy about. I made some movies in 16mm and learned that way of working.

At some point, around the time I started exhibiting my work for the public and around the time that I started getting money for projects, I grew from thinking of myself as someone that wanted to be a filmmaker into someone who was one.

You made Quick Feet, Soft Hands with some funding from ITVS. What it was like working with them?

ITVS funded the bulk of "Quick Feet, Soft Hands." The way I secured the funding was via their Open Call process, which happens a couple of times a year.

The thing that made working with ITVS appealing to me was that they provide major funding for projects but, at the same time, they give filmmakers a lot of creative control.

So I had final cut. They didn't ask to have input on casting. Basically, the things that a commercial production company would probably get involved with -- maybe even meddle with -- ITVS didn't interfere.

They weren't laissez-faire -- they read drafts of the script, watched edits of the movie, and gave notes on both. But they paid for the movie I wanted to make.

So the way you work with them is sort of the way a filmmaker might work with a production company, and it's sort of like getting a grant. Because it's a mix of collaboration and yet retaining creative control. At least, that was my experience.

As far as things other filmmakers could learn from my experience, that's a good question.

First, since applying for funding from them begins much like a grant application process, I'd say all the normal rules of grant writing apply: Read the guidelines carefully, work on the application well in advance of the deadline, write with precision, and proofread, proofread, proofread.

Beyond that, though, for ITVS you need to understand what kind of work they support. I have more than a handful of unproduced scripts, but this was the one that I thought matched with their sensibility. It's not a sports movie; it's about the American experience -- specifically, the attempt to move up from one's economic class. Sports is just the backdrop. So, I was careful about selecting this specific project.

But that's true of any funder -- whether it's a production company or a grant or an investor -- you've gotta understand what they like, what they've already done, and what they're looking for now.

Quick Feet, Soft Hands has been running on PBS, how has it been received? Are you getting any feedback?

The film's been picked up by a number of stations -- which is great. But as far as feedback from audiences, most of that has come from the festival screenings, screenings at universities, and venues like that -- far more so than from the television screenings.
The nature of television is that the audience and filmmaker don't interact they way we do with work that's shown in public screenings or on the internet. For someone that's mostly been accustomed to screening work in cinemas, it's a little weird to know -- "Well, the movie's on TV in San Francisco or Lexington or wherever tonight." The upside, though, is that lots of people have the opportunity to see my work this way.

What was your biggest budget item?

Cumulatively, it was salaries for the cast and crew. This was the first film of mine where people were paid, but it was still a "for love and art" kind of project. No one got rich from working on the film.

If the Tennessee Smokies baseball team hadn't gotten behind the project, I'm sure the biggest budget item would have been art direction and location fees associated with the baseball team. But they got behind the script and basically gave us access to anything we wanted. I was initially nervous that they wouldn't like the story, since it's not really upbeat. But they actually appreciated the fact that it didn't romanticize things. They were like, "Yeah most of these guys are never gonna make it!"

Is there anything you would do different next time?

Oh, sure. There's always stuff -- either from the way it was made, or the finished film -- that I look back on and think, "I'd do that differently now." But that's just the nature of filmmaking. One of the things that I love about filmmaking is that the films I make stand as snapshots of who I was while you were making them.

My next film will likely be made with a smaller crew and probably with a more extended shooting schedule, which I prefer since there's more time for reflection as you work. But shooting "Quick Feet" this way just wasn't possible. We had to work around a real baseball team's schedule, actor schedules, and so on.

Is there a feature in your future?

I suspect so, but I hate talking about projects until they're concrete. I pretty much will tell you anything about a movie I've made, and nothing about a movie I want to make. It drives my friends crazy. Next question?

Is there a film that was a huge influence on you? What is it about this film that influenced you?

I've been asked this before, and it’s tough to name just one film, or even one filmmaker. One film I haven't answered before, but which was important, was “Bicycle Thieves." "Bicycle Thieves" isn't my favorite film by a long shot -- it's not even my favorite Neo-Realist film -- but I do love it. I was 19 years old and I remember seeing that movie, and learning how those movies were made, and I realized, maybe for the first time, that there was not only an alternative to Hollywood, but that tradition had existed for a long time.

That film led me to explore all of cinema, not the narrow range of stuff I had been watching, and, probably most importantly, it let me know that the stories I saw around me in my life, in my world, could be interesting enough.

Where can I buy copies of your films?

We just released the DVDs to institutions, so they're not really what individuals will want to pay for them. But eventually we'll sell them for individuals on the website. Ashley and I also sell DVDs of our work at all of the screenings we attend.
"Gina, An Actress, Age 29" is available to view on The Auteurs (now called Mubi):

This just in from Paul himself…

It looks like Quick Feet, Soft Hands is going to be broadcast on over 100 of the "PBS World" affiliate stations around the country on Friday July 9. It'll play a lot of big cities including NYC, LA, Philadelphia, San Francisco, Boston... down to tiny stations in South Dakota, Alaska, and Puerto Rico. A lot of stations are showing it 3 or 4 times that day, including in prime time.

If people want to find out whether it will screen in their area, they search this page by zip code:

Alternately, they can check their local PBS World station schedule for airtimes. (A list of all PBS World affiliates can be found here:

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