Tova: Hi, and welcome to The Backlot. I’m Tova Laiter moderator and director of the New York Film Academy Guest Lecture series. In this episode, we will take an in-depth look at one of my great guests and hear about his experience in the entertainment industry. And now Eric Conner will take you through the highlights of this Q&A. 

Eric: Hi, I’m Eric Conner, senior instructor at New York Film Academy, and in this episode, we’re not just bringing you a man who ran one of Hollywood’s biggest studios. We’re bringing a man who ran two of them, an executive who helped shepherd countless movies to fortune and glory, including Life of Pi, 12 Years a Slave, Deadpool, multiple Mission Impossibles, and a little indie film called Avatar. We’re talking about the former head of Fox Studios and the current head of Paramount Pictures, Jim Gianopulos. Mr. Gianopulos shared his experience with our students when he was still at Fox. So let’s start with a simple question. How does one take their first step on the road to running a studio? 

Jim Gianopulos: But people say, well, how did you get to this position? I sometimes how did you get to this position? So it depends on your perception. I started out planning to be a blues musician, but I wasn’t very good. I mean, I was OK, but I wasn’t good enough. So then I decided, well, OK, I’ll go to law school and I’ll be – this is by the way true – I’ll go to law school and I’ll be the lawyer for the Rolling Stones. And I realized they don’t want someone who knows everything about their music. They just want the biggest, best lawyer, straightest, greatest. So I thought that’s not going to work. So I finally got out of law school and then I got a job running business affairs for ASKAP, which is a music publishing house. And so I got to, it didn’t pay very much, but what it did was I could go to any concert I want. But more importantly, I got to know all the record companies and all the representatives, all the biggest songwriters and publishers and musicians and artists everywhere. And it was a fantastic, fantastic opportunity and fantastic job. And then as luck would have it, the video industry developed. And the thing about video when it first emerged was that the studios didn’t own the rights. The first time that anyone had ever sold a movie -prior to that, movies were always leased, they’re licensed. They would be given for a period of time to a theater or given for a period of time to a television network. But nobody ever sold a movie because there was no way to do it. So they realized they didn’t have the music rights. So they said, well, who do we know? Let’s get somebody who can talk to all these music people and get all the rights we need. And they said, how about this guy? And that was me. So I got lucky.

So I started working originally for the video division of RCA, which was right at the very beginning of the video business. And RCA had this joint venture with Columbia Pictures. And so my first job was setting up all the deals for all the studios to acquire the rights, to distribute all these movies and to finance all these movies and to make some movies. In fact, we did finance a lot of early movies and then to go around the world and set up all the operations to distribute all these films around the world on video because none of that ever existed. So that was at Columbia and that worked for a while and stayed there for a few years. And then Paramount invited me to come out here. And I came out here and I got involved in paid television and some other aspects of that business and that business affairs for a while. So I spent a little part of my early career becoming a lawyer and then a little bit of the second part of my career becoming not a lawyer, which was a second kind of challenge because, you know, once you’re perceived as a lawyer, they don’t think of you as someone who can do marketing or creative enterprise of any kind. And so that worked for a while. And then and then I came here and for a while I ran all the international operations at a time when that part of the industry was was booming and then the person running the studio hit a bad patch and left. And they had a choice between me and a colleague of mine and a really good friend of mine, Tom Rothman. And they couldn’t choose between the two of us. So they gave the job to both of us. And and we did it together for 12 years. And then Tom left. And for the past three years, I’ve been doing it myself, well, myself, with a lot of very talented colleagues. 

Eric: Part of his success at Fox can be attributed to his appreciation of the global market. For big budget movies to succeed, they can’t just be big in the states. They need to connect with the entire world. 

Jim Gianopulos: There was a point at which. The international box office surpassed the domestic box office and everybody who was working in international in those days thought that was a big deal. And here at Fox particularly, you know, we had a focus on the international business for quite some time. And just the way my career developed, I had been involved in it for a long time. For us, it was like, OK, well, there are 300 million people here and six billion people there. So if it’s 50 50, you’re not doing your job. This should be a whole lot more business to be made and a lot more people to see movies and to be entertained and a lot more opportunity in the international markets than there are here. So, yeah, there’s more wealth here and there are more theaters here. But when you’re five percent of the world’s population, you shouldn’t be 50 percent of its entertainment. So that was pretty obvious to us. I always felt like that was the great wide open field. You know? 

Eric: Despite this open field, Mr. Gianopulos still stressed that Hollywood remains the city to get these films produced on a large scale. 

Jim Gianopulos: If someone wants a career here or in the global film industry and you’re here, I would stay here. The enormous amount of talent comes from many parts of the world, and there are incredibly talented filmmakers everywhere in the world but Hollywood has, you know – it’s not an accident that Hollywood developed the way it did. And I could talk a little about that. But no, I think unless you’re going to spend a career in some part of the world, if you are here, I would make movies here and bring them home and translate them rather than, you know, try and start in some smaller markets just because the opportunities are fewer and they’re more difficult in smaller markets. The reason everybody says that Hollywood developed this dominance of the world film industry, part of it is because the US is the singular in terms of homogeneous population and especially the reach of the English speaking world. The US is a massive market that has an established entertainment base. Forget about Hollywood. We actually don’t make movies here. There’s one movie shooting here on the lot, but we don’t actually make a lot of movies in Hollywood itself. Right. And in Los Angeles for this very expensive and there are better opportunities in Vancouver and other parts of the country. But coming back to that, one of the reasons was that the US never really made movies about its culture, about the US culture. And in part, that’s because when the movie industry started at the turn of the 20th century, you could say there wasn’t really an American culture. There was certainly great literature and great plays and all that. But it really was culture based on all of the various cultures of the world which created the melting pot that was the United States. And the movies that were being shown had an audience very much like this, people from various countries in different parts of the world that all wanted to enjoy entertainment at the same time. And so it wasn’t based as it was in many other parts of the world on some famous book or an opera or a play or something that was based on a particular cultural preexisting element. And so naturally, movies from the US developed for the global culture. I mean, that was a long time ago. But that sort of ethos, that sensibility remained with Hollywood, even though many times we make movies that are domestically oriented, Hollywood tends to make movies for a global audience, for many different people to enjoy at the same time and in their own way, despite the fact that there are movies that are made that are very domestically based, whether they’re social or political or thematically local, combining that with the fact that you have three hundred plus million people that can enjoy them and allowing you to make them for one hundred and fifty million dollars with confidence, that’s why Hollywood dominates the world. So the now opportunity to be able to export them to these international markets, that’s where the business is. 

Eric: As you can already tell Mr. Gianopulos’ instincts, helped him rise through the ranks of Hollywood. But sometimes he greenlight projects not based on his own gut reaction, but rather the passion of the filmmaker. Such was the case with Deadpool.

Jim Gianopulos: Tim Miller who had been really avid about making Deadpool for quite some time. He’s not shy about saying it. I was less reticent about it. It was partly because Tim was a first time director, some of the earlier drafts were pretty out there. But also because, you know, so many of these movies, superhero movies were broad, PG 13, that’s where the real audience opportunity was. A lot of kids enjoy them, families enjoy them. And so it becomes more limiting when you go R, and then one day we were talking about it. And Emma Watts, who runs the 20th Century Fox, said, you know, the one thing nobody has done and some of the studios can’t do is an R rated movie. And I thought, well, that’s true. And I also realized, well, it’s not a superhero movie, it’s actually an anti-hero movie. So when people say, well, there are so many of these superhero movies, what you really want to do is give some people something different. And one thing Tim Miller is capable of doing, and certainly Ryan Reynolds was desperate to do it and a great, great talent, enormous talent – but we said, OK, well, let’s do it. But we have to do it for what is, relatively speaking, a price compared to the cost of some of these things. So we said, OK, so, yeah, you know, I won’t deny there was some hesitation. I think anybody else would have hesitated. But no, they definitely talked me into it. 

Eric: Another filmmaker who was able to talk them into making a risky project was James Cameron. Today we know Avatar as a critically acclaimed $2.8 billion dollar grossing game changer, but at the time. 

Jim Gianopulos: It was a time when I felt that it didn’t make any sense. I mean, it was twelve foot blue people with tails and and what made sense was Jim Cameron and the simple faith in what he would do because the cost was crazy. The technology didn’t really exist. He thought it did. And he really believed sincerely that it did. It did. But it became very ambitious during the process of it to create this world. And I mean, I don’t know. People know people say, where was the film shot? There wasn’t a single blade of grass in Avatar that was real. Everything was done CG. That entire world was created in a computer. So, you know, embarking on that was incredibly ambitious. Yeah, I’m proud that we did that. And I’m proud that when it became doubtful, we stayed with it. Life of Pi was another one that we definitely didn’t make any sense. You know, we had a lot of people were saying, well, one director, very serious director, because we were trying to figure out how to do it for a budget. We didn’t know how to do it. And part of the problem was we had a young boy and a tiger. So one director seriously said, well, I can do it practically. So what do you mean? So we just get a tiger, but we’ll just keep the tiger away from the boy. I said, we’re going to need a lot of lookalike boys. So anyway, we finally figured out how to do it, but it cost a lot of money. And so, you know, you trust in people like Ang Lee anyway. So, yeah, I guess those are two of the films, very ambitious ones that you say, yeah, I’m glad we made those movies, proud of those movies. 

Eric: So part of running a studio is trusting the right people’s visions as well as trusting your own and searching far and wide to find those talented storytellers. 

Jim Gianopulos: You know, we’ve worked with filmmakers from all over the world. I’ll give you an example. I went to – about 15 years ago I went to Moscow for the first time and someone said, well, you should meet this guy. He’s got this little film studio of his own and he’s made this movie. So I go to this studio and there’s this guy, he’s Russian because right away he puts out vodka, and I like this guy already. And he shows me about 10 minutes of this movie called Nightwatch. I don’t know if you’ve ever seen it. It’s a three and a half million dollar movie, which looks like a 40 million dollar Hollywood movie. It was absolutely phenomenal. And that was Timur Bekmambetov. Timur Bekmambetov later did Wanted with Angelina Jolie. He was hired by Universal. We missed out on hiring because they had the script and they had – they own the comic, so they hired him. We released Nightwatch here and it did OK. It was in Russian, but it was a phenomenal film. And then we hired them to do Abraham Lincoln Vampire Hunter, which did OK, but it wasn’t great. But my point is that that was a random encounter and would have hired Timur on the spot. So it’s just about discovery and finding talent. 

Eric: And maybe having a little bit of vodka too. This desire to find fresh voices is also about helping diverse artists get their opportunities to truly show what they can do. 

Jim Gianopulos: Well, I don’t know if we’re a big supporter of Ghetto Film School. We go to cast the movie, you know, diversity is reflective of our culture, reflective of our audience, reflective of our population, reflective of the country we live in. So we’re always looking to cast with diversity. Casting with diversity is easy, relatively speaking, and we do that because it’s the right thing to do, but also it’s the right thing to do for our audience. People want to see people that look like them, feel like them, you know, that they relate to. So that part’s not very difficult. What’s more difficult is to find diversity in directing roles and in some of those roles. And the reason for that is that those opportunities haven’t been provided at the earlier stages. So when I mentioned Ghetto Film School, that’s a very early stage. That’s high school. But what that does is it gets kids at an early age into film school. And by getting into film school and getting those at that that education and getting those skill sets, that pool of diverse candidates becomes the director that we’re going to hire five or 10 years later. Those opportunities don’t start with us sitting in some room here in the lot and saying, OK, who are we going to get to direct this movie that is of color or gender or ethnicity? It’s what are the choices? And those choices begin from early opportunities. And I think we’ve got to lay that track and it’s going to take some time. But we’re on the job. 

Eric: Despite Mr. Gianopulos’ extensive work history and efforts to promote inclusiveness and diversity, there’s still one question that even he has a hard time answering. How does someone new to the industry get their work seen? 

Jim Gianopulos: We don’t take unsolicited material. I know nobody wants to hear that. It does get complicated because people just send in things randomly. I mean, it’s not that you would do anything inappropriate or untoward, but the reality is that a lot of stuff comes in here. Then three years later, somebody says, well, I wrote that or I sent that or I saw that. So when we get stuff, we can’t accept it. A couple of ways are the easy way to say we’ll get an agent and then we say, well, how do I get an agent? Well, that’s like saying, how do I break into a job as an actor or as a director? You know, you keep working at it and keep networking. I think the best way to do it is, other than finding representation eventually, is keep making films. Now, the good news is it’s a lot easier to do than it used to be because all you need is a camera and some editing equipment and there you go. So keep making stuff until you get noticed and keep networking with people until somebody’s willing to say, hey, come here, let me show you something. Eventually it works. Somebody once asked me in an interview, how did you get there? And the best answer I could think of was I worked my ass off in between the lucky breaks. So that’s always been my advice about anything. Keep making movies, keep doing the best work you can, keep getting as many jobs or volunteering if you have to for working with smart people and keep meeting as many people as you can and waiting for that lucky break. 

Eric: Even a man who’s run two movie studios doesn’t have the magic formula for breaking in, but it’s clear hard work can only help. And if you have a script you want to get seen, be ready to ask a lot of questions about your own material. 

Jim Gianopulos:  You know, is it well written? Is it original? Is it something I haven’t seen before, hasn’t been done before, as well before? Is it a good story? Is it something that you can identify an audience for? I think something that is original and has an identifiable audience and tells a good story is where you start. And after that you start to put the pieces together. You know, who can you get to direct it? Who can you get to star in it? How do you put it together? What will it cost? Is it feasible? It can be done for a budget? Those things come later. But you start with originality, the quality of the story and identifying an audience. And those are the things that get you to those next steps. 

Eric: Once the movie is made, there are still so many questions which need to be answered by Mr. Gianopulos and his team with exhibition, for instance, only becoming trickier in the era of digital downloads and video on demand. 

Jim Gianopulos: One of the things that we as studios and distributors have been concerned about is the fact that because there are now so many theaters, movies tend to burn off, so to speak, very quickly. I mean, you know, movies like The Revenant or Deadpool will be in the theaters for weeks, you know, five, six, seven, eight weeks. But the average duration of a movie in the multiplex, you know, of course, all films about three and a half, four weeks and theaters have typically required that we not put the movie into home entertainment video download until four months, which means that you have a period of about almost three months, what I call the dark zone, where the movie doesn’t exist for anybody and nobody can get at it, which is a real disadvantage to the audience and a disadvantage to us and certainly a disadvantage to the filmmakers and the participants in the movie. And that tends to lend itself to piracy, because if you think about it, that’s 30 days right after we’ve spent millions, if not tens of millions of dollars telling people to go see it. So that’s not good. Same time movie theaters are the one place that do require bricks and mortar and people making popcorn and taking tickets and air conditioning and all of the stuff that makes that theatrical experience so great for all of us. And we have to be respectful of the fact that that costs a lot of money. You know every theater in every mall, I mean, it’s not free to create and to build.

So somewhere in there, we’ve got to find some some way to deal with that. One of the thing that I think Shawn has done, and he’s very bright guy, is he’s tried to look at the stakeholders in the ecosystem and say, OK, what is everybody’s interest in this thing and how do I do my best to make everybody happy? And people say that in a good negotiation, everybody leaves a little happy and a little unhappy. So far, he’s right. Everybody’s a little happy and a little unhappy, mostly a little unhappy. And from our point of view, something that deals with the dark zone is interesting. The extent to which they’ve tried to deal with the piracy issue is commendable. It still doesn’t deal with the reality that somebody could put even an iPhone in front of that screen and capture it and it’ll know who did it. But it doesn’t stop. You go chase that person. OK, so now you know who did it. Sometimes you might not know who did it. That’s one problem. And the biggest problem so far is that we think that the theaters are sometimes a little too strident about how long they make us wait before they’re OK with it going to home entertainment. But they’re our partners in this thing. And unless they get more flexible about coming along and coming on board, if they’re desperately against it, they’re going to have to sort that out with screening room before this thing moves forward. So we’re open to kind of keeping an open mind, but so far it doesn’t look like they’re going to be able to get everybody to a happy place. 

Eric: Warner Brothers’ recent decision to distribute their 2021 lineup in both theaters and HBO Max has made this topic even more complicated. But despite the immense amount of money at stake and the stress of running a studio, Mr. Gianopulos never loses sight of his love of cinema. 

Jim Gianopulos: That’s part of how I got into this mess. When I was in college, I had to pick electives and they said cinema studies and criticism and the description of the course was screen films and discuss and critique them. And I said, that’s a college course? You mean you get credit for that? So I took every course I could take. So I’ve been doing it ever since. Now, how much time you have? I mean, I watch as many movies as I can. Now, part of it is I kind of need to. I need to understand why Zootopia, which is a talking animal movie, did so well when people are saying animation is getting old, audience is decreasing and you can’t do talking animal movies anymore because kids are tired of them and they’ve been done so many times. And you see this film and it’s just brilliant. So you do it for that reason. You see 10 Cloverfield because you want to understand what is it about this film that captured everybody’s imagination, didn’t do that much business, but people were talking about it. Why is Ex Machina something that everybody’s talking about in my little circle of people, even though that only did 15, 20 million dollars, something like that? So some of it is for that. And some of it is to just remember – I showed my daughter just now she’s getting older, but I showed her Rain Man. And, you know, you realize that you can share some of these movies. I hadn’t seen it in probably 10 years or more, probably not since long after it came out. And I was driving her to school the other day. I don’t know how many you seen this movie. You’re all young. I keep forgetting that. And I said I’m an excellent driver. And she said, slow in the driveway. So you realize that, you know, part of it is also the sharing, but I remembered how much I really loved that film, how great a film that was. So some of it is for the enjoyment. Some of it is to know what the hell’s going on. And some of it’s just for the pure joy of remembering great filmmaking. 

Eric: If that attitude has helped him successfully run two movie studios, well then maybe it can help you too. We want to thank Jim Gianopulos for taking time out of what must be an insane schedule to talk with our students. And thanks, of course, to all of you for listening. 

This episode was based on the Q&A, moderated and curated by Tova Laiter. To watch the full interview or to see our other Q&A. Check out our YouTube channel at This episode was written by me, Eric Conner. Edited and mixed by Kristian Heydon. Produced by Kristian Heydon Helen Kantilaftis and myself. Executive produced by Tova Laiter and the New York Film Academy. A special thanks to all our staff and crew who made this possible. To learn more about our programs, check us out at Be sure to subscribe on Apple Podcasts or wherever you listen. See you next time. 

Eric: Hi, I’m Eric Conner, senior instructor at New York Film Academy, and in this episode, we bring you a writer producer who’s worked on a number of legendary independent films, including Smoke and Welcome to the Dollhouse, before she moved over to one hundred acre wood as a writer on My Friends Tigger & Pooh. She was a recipient of the Disney Writers Fellowship and has most recently been doing the festival circuit with her award winning short Basurero, which she wrote, produced and directed. We are talking about Eileen Cabiling. Like many working filmmakers, Ms. Cabiling went to film school, but it was her time in the trenches of the 90s New York based indie film scene, which deepened her understanding of what it takes to make a project happen. 

Eileen Cabiling: I’ve worked for a lot of indie filmmakers in the 90s. I kind of yeah, I guess when I was in New York, it was kind of indie film scene. So yeah, I worked with Todd Solondz and I worked with I worked with Michael Apted, Lydia Pilcher and Forest Whitaker. I was his assistant on his first movie that he directed for HBO called Strapped. And I think Todd Solondz’s Welcome to the Dollhouse. And I worked on Buffalo 66, which is an interesting – so, yeah, I’ve worked in those fields. Yeah. I think that was very it was kind of a gift in a way to be around these filmmakers who had such strong voices and wanted to make the films that they wanted to make. Yeah, I mean, I definitely was very struck by Todd Solondz, for example. He’s such an eccentric character who really is an auteur filmmaker. And I think during that time it was a very in there still is to this day auteur filmmaking, where the films are really coming out as if it’s their own personal novel that they’re writing. And so to be around that sort of motivation and that drive is very different. Then I also I also worked as a writer for Disney where – Disney, as a writer there, you definitely want to write from a personal place when you’re given an episode to write, and I was writing for Winnie the Pooh, but they’re also very concerned about yeah audience and testing your episode. And every department gives you notes for marketing to the legal department, to the executives. So indie auteur filmmaking, you don’t really necessarily have that unless it’s already attached to a studio. So different, a whole different world. 

Eric: Yeah. Disney is a far cry from the idiosyncratic world of Welcome to the Dollhouse, which for me is one of the best indie films that come out of the 90s. And Eileen Cabiling’s own voice was further shaped by her previous work in documentaries. 

Eileen Cabiling: Well, with documentary, right before I made my film, I was working for Jigsaw on Death Row Stories and for documentary that I would say is a kind of an entertaining doc series, but very compelling and real, but almost indie film like in process. And then my film. Yes, is inspired by true events, but it’s definitely fictionalized. I think the difference obviously is with fiction, you have way more liberties to explore. And in that sense you can sometimes explore issues that perhaps weren’t part of the original situation. And with documentary, I think I mean, it depends on the kind of documentary, but you do want that integrity of it being as factual as possible. And as true to what is really there. Yeah, I guess within the doc world there are different realms of documentary. You know, like there is a documentary that a colleague made of mine out of the Philippines that’s getting a lot of attention, I think, winning a lot of great awards. And she made it mostly off of stock footage and interviews that she had made. And it’s about the Yolanda typhoon. And I think that was very creative. But it really gave you a sense of how people were affected by that typhoon. I mean, whereas something like Death Row Stories we’re actually taking cases and trying to humanize the case, you know, people who have been put on death row, they’ve been exonerated because they were never guilty. 

Eric: It took all of these work experiences to get this building ready to take on her short film Basurero

Eileen Cabiling: My path to this specific story was inspired by an Al Jazeera report that they were interviewing fishermen. And this one fisherman was saying that he has been on the side dumping bodies for, I guess, authorities in the current administration’s drug war. 

Clip: These waters may look peaceful, but this fisherman we’ll call Manuel says Manila Bay harbors an open secret. 

Eileen Cabiling: And how he had already dumped like 20 bodies, I believe. And then he came across a body that he had to dump of someone he knew. 

Clip: We usually throw them out in Manila Bay. Sometimes we put weights on it so it doesn’t float up. Once I saw the body of a friend. I’m scared and I wonder if I could be next. 

Al Jazeera. Manila.

Eileen Cabiling: And that really struck me, first of all, with just what’s happening in the Philippines with the killings. Just to put some context in that, Duterte the current president when he became president, two thousand sixteen, one of his big promises was to eradicate the drug problem. And so they went right into a pretty bloody drug war. And it’s definitely a human rights, human values situation where they were just – it was a killing spree at first. So for me, what really struck me about the story was it was an opportunity for me to make a short film, to work with that very specific actor who we were already planning a feature film together. And then also for me to explore the themes that I want to explore as an auteur filmmaker or stepping into auteur filmmaking after working on many other people’s films for many years. So it really gave me that space and that opportunity and also to continue my vision as a filmmaker as to what I want to speak about. I’m very interested in – I’m a bit of an activist filmmaker. Most of the work that I work on is social impact stuff. Even documentaries that I’ve worked on and such. 

Eric: The news report was only the beginning for Ms. Cabiling’s journey to understand how someone would resort to doing such a grisly job to make ends meet. 

Eileen Cabiling: Well, I went in knowing what I wanted to accomplish on the level of what I wanted to explore. You know, I really wanted to explore the question of how can a fisherman dumping bodies for survival because he needs the extra cash, how can he find self value in a world that is already not valuing certain people? So I kind of wanted to put that question out there. And that’s, I think, a question that I personally also am always putting out there. How can we have a voice if we live in a system that doesn’t support our voice, but in the intricacies of making the film in the details, making the film from writing it to working with producers to working with a cast, working with how to design it, and my DP how to tell the story. That is a very collaborative effort. And I discussed these ideas a lot with them. And then they brought their own sort of voice to the table as well, or their own sort of essence to the table. Film is such a collaborative process. It’s not like it’s just all about me, me, me. You know, I think as a director and a writer, it really is about your team coming on board with you and bringing themselves into mixing their souls into the soul of this film. 

Eric: Part of what drove Ms. Cabiling to tell this specific personal story was her own upbringing as a first generation Filipino American. 

Eileen Cabiling: I think it just came out of my own personal path, like my own personal journey has been about exploring themes for myself to help me express my own voice in the world. I grew up in the United States as a minority in Richmond, Virginia, as the only Asian kid in my class. And we grew up in a world where in movies and literature, you don’t really see yourself and your stories. So it was always a bit of a hurdle for me or a mountain for me to climb. And it is, I think, a mountain for many people of diversity to climb right now in the United States. So I’ve always just been attracted to people and their stories whose voices aren’t being heard or they’re not being represented. 

Eric: This past year might have helped change that story, to an extent. With the coronavirus pushing back several major studio releases, a diverse slate of filmmakers have now been populating the awards circuit, including Nomadland‘s Chloe Zhao, One Night in Miami‘s Regina King, and Minari‘s Lee Chung. 

Eileen Cabiling: I think I’ve noticed that a lot in the feature film world. There seem to be themes like I think right now for people of color. There’s a lot of films about immigrants and the immigrant story. Like, for example, The Farewell is about the Chinese American girl who goes to China to deal with her grandmother who’s dying and her grandmother doesn’t know she’s dying. But that’s a very American story. And my from my perspective, even though I know I think it was the Golden Globes that didn’t really see it, I think they considered it a foreign language film. 

Eric: To clarify, the Golden Globes placed the terrific Minari in American produced feature about a Korean family moving to Arkansas in the foreign language category. Now, it won, which is great, but still odd choice. 

Eileen Cabiling: In short film, you really see a lot of different kinds of films because it’s a very almost like an art gallery exhibit, they’re curating films and there’s very specific types of short film festivals. My film world premiered at the Busan International Film Festival in Korea, which is a huge film market. So, yes, most of their eyes were on the feature films, but they do showcase 10 short films and mine was one of them. And the films that I was curated with, all 10 of them were all very different, but they were all Asian films. So there was film from Azerbaijan, a film from Kazakhstan, a film from Vietnam, a film from Japan, Philippines, and thematically, they were all very, very different, actually, the themes that they were exploring. So they tend to do like social impact films, comedies, more quirky. There’s a whole experimental film. So I think the short film platform and the festivals – it’s a great way to meet all kinds of filmmakers and it’s a great way to just see all the different possibilities. 

Eric: These platforms can also help foster a sense of community. And as the saying goes, the rising tide raises all ships. 

Eileen Cabiling: Right now, it really makes a lot of sense to, for example, within the Fil-Am community, the Filipino American filmmakers, we are really supporting each other. And a couple of pioneer filmmakers like Diane Paragas and Marie Jamora, they’ve started communities and have really initiated for support so that it’s not this crab mentality to help get our stories out into the mainstream of films in the United States and globally. So I think it’s important. But yeah, of course, it would be nice to us not to have to use the word diverse. Right? Or woman or Filipino or Asian American. I mean, it would be nice to be able to just see diversity as the norm, you know, but because it’s not, I think we need constructs to help us get there. I think it’s a step by step process. 

Eric: Part of this step by step process is collaboration and mentorship, which can only help a filmmaker learn and grow provided they can accept and give honest feedback. 

Eileen Cabiling: I really recommend people when they make their films. And I did this with myself and I saw this for the filmmakers that I worked for in the past to have mentors like real mentors, not mentors who are just going to make you feel good, you know, but mentors who are going to be very honest about your work and honest about how they feel, but also mentors whose work you appreciate. So you guys know that you’re in the same field of the type of stories you like to tell and the type of characters like there’s no reason for me to have a mentor who works in a whole other field, for example, or works on a completely different kind of storytelling like voice animation or something. For me, it’s a different mindset. Unless the writer and I know his or her work resonates with my kind of work. And we have a good dialog together. But I think it’s a lifelong question. When do you know you’re done? When do you know you’re finished and when do you know it’s just ready to put out? For me, it was me really knowing my footage, trying everything. I tried everything. I also tried people’s suggestions when I was feeling confused instead of rebelling against it. Even though it sounded way out there, I went ahead and gave it a try, like we cut the film a whole different way. And then I did have people see the film and give me their honest opinions about it. I tend to like to be around people who really will tell me how it is like how they feel. But I also had to learn how to get used to being critiqued harshly. And that’s really happens to you when you work for the studios as a writer, you get critiqued left and right and you – you build a tough shell because you realize it’s not about you personally. It’s really about the work. And I think that really shows a sign of being at a certain space with yourself in your work. But it’s always going to be a little bit. Sometimes you just need to take space when you get a very harsh note or note that you just don’t understand, you know, just take space for it and just process it. And maybe a lot of times just ask questions to the person who gave that critique, because a lot of times we will hear critiques from our own traumas or our own lenses or what we’re insecure about. And it may not even be about that at all. So it’s definitely an art form. 

Eric: It’s also a balance. Listen to your own instincts, listen to others. And listening to the work itself. 

Eileen Cabiling: I’ve gone through phases in life where it was about protecting the work first. But yes, I mean, you want to protect the work and make sure. But you kind of have to trust that you’re already protecting the work by listening to the critiques and realizing that you can take some and leave the rest. You know what I mean? Take what you think works for you and works for the piece. And I like taking stuff sometimes that is completely way out there that I was like, well, that’s not what this film is all about. And I use that as an opportunity to practice asking questions, to learn how to confront critique that might be uncomfortable because again, it’s a collaborative process, storytelling. And it also it helps me learn to get to know my own story because I think we learn our stories as we make the piece all the way until when you’re showing it out in the world, all through the editing process, the writing, the shooting, casting, you learn about your characters more when you’re casting as well. And you have that actor in front of you, you know, bringing himself to the table and his ideas. 

Eric: Ms. Cabiling cites director Andrea Arnold’s approach to American Honey as an inspiration for how to deeply connect with a project to make it truly authentic. 

Eileen Cabiling: I really love Andrea Arnold’s process. I know that she had an essence of a story or an idea of story with the article that she had read about kids that were selling magazines around the US. And but then she just went traveling around the US and wrote the story that way, physically going to these locations, spaces and finding her actors on the beach in Florida. And just I work that way as well. Like I believe that as I step forward, the story will come to life and make sense. So as I start putting ideas on the page or for example, with Basurero, this short film, I definitely started shifting things as I was visiting the fisherman and hanging out with fishermen and also visiting where they live and and then also envisioning the day of the fisherman, you know, moving through the slums and going into the nightclubs at night where they hang out. And I think it’s a very organic process. So, yeah, I mean, I know in writing, for example, in the training of writing, you know, a lot of times there’s tools to try to get to the drama of it. Right. So what’s the irony in your logline and what’s his problem and what does he want? And that’s all very important to have. But sometimes also you want to feel your story. You want to feel it out and organically let it hit the page. And a lot of times those questions will be answered. But it’s really about finding your own process and then just trusting yourself. It’s perseverance to not giving up. 

Eric: And part of that perseverance is dealing with the inevitable problems that will arise on even the most well-organized production. 

Eileen Cabiling: When you’re on the set, as you know, you have time constraints and budget constraints like you have to finish your day or else everyone will get pissed off at you or you’ll go into overtime where everyone will be, like, not know what they’re doing because you haven’t made a decision. What I do is, well, with shooting. What I’ve done is I just again, go in knowing the scene that I’m shooting, having a plan. I mean, being super prepared. As you know, a director has to be super prepared for any because if you have a very clear plan of how you’re going to run that day and what you’re going to shoot, you know, you have that at least because everything is not going to go according to plan. When you’re shooting, all kinds of things happen. Like someone doesn’t show up or something breaks. So you just have to really be reliant on yourself and your teammates to problem solve. So everything is about problem solving. With editing if you have the luxury, sometimes it’s good to take space from your edit because it’s like writing too. You’ve seen it so many times, so many times. And then you just like I just got to get it done and I’ll get it done. But you kind of know in your gut that that’s not the answer, but you’re just going to make it happen. But sometimes if you just take a step back, take a couple of days off, a week, maybe, maybe a month if you can, you know, the answer will really come to you. 

Eric: But for that to happen, a visionary filmmaker still needs to be open enough to where an idea can take them. 

Eileen Cabiling: Everything is a process. And I think it’s about brainstorming it first and not putting everything that you think about in stone. It should be fluid and flexible, your ideas. So if you want to write about motherhood or being single woman or if you want to write about what it was like to be in the army or about war, you know, a lot of it is just treating paper or treating your laptop as a sketch pad, because I think sometimes we tend to get scared if we put our ideas down on a piece of paper, that has to be it. And then that can be very paralyzing. But when it comes to thinking about my own themes in life, a lot of it is like just journaling about things that I care about or hearing other people’s stories or what’s happening in the world or what’s happening to me personally. Because a lot of times you may come across something like my short film where it’s like, what do I have in common with a fisherman? Right. But what did resonate with me, with the fishermen was that he was put in a situation where he’s super stuck because he has to survive. But his voice doesn’t really matter because he’s living in a system that doesn’t really support him. So I can understand that actually, or at least put part of myself in that situation, because I felt that way many times in my own context. So I think characters are so important these days as a storyteller, maybe because we’re so big now, you know. So how do we find the universal in an individual and how and it can be so, such a different individual, but what do we all still have in common? So, yeah, I believe in character sketches. I think my short film is really a character sketch. 

Eric: Research can only help turn these sketches into fully three dimensional characters in movies. 

Eileen Cabiling: I interview people a lot. So right now I am developing another film about drug rehab in the Philippines. So I’m just really interviewing a lot of people who have moved through that experience. Drug rehab is a very new thing in the Philippines. It’s a very new concept. New idea. So I’ve been really just talking to the people who’ve been moving through it and are who have been trying to create that for the Filipino people that are addicted to drugs. And then same thing. I’m writing a kid’s movie right now for another company. And I went and interviewed a lot of the kids in this world and this situation where they want the story to be told and just hung out with them. Yeah, I believe in that. I just that’s the kind of writer I am. 

Eric: And the more a filmmaker can learn about their subject, well, not only does it make the work more honest, it also means the storyteller doesn’t have to create as much out of thin air. 

Eileen Cabiling: Whatever you can do to get inspired to create. Right. And a lot of people, at least for me and I know a lot of my colleagues. It doesn’t come from just me. And I think that’s the same thing when you make a piece, if you’re just making a piece all by yourself and you’re not getting input from your team or your producers or being open to being critiqued to make it better to have a conversation, and you’re kind of just making something in a fishbowl, you know what I mean? Like, by yourself. But I always feel like if you have someone that really relates with your work colleagues or producers or obviously your own team, hopefully you should be able to have dialog about your work to make it better. 

Eric: Even now, with the world still dealing with the coronavirus, artists can and must find a way to be inspired to keep creating. 

Eileen Cabiling: Well, I mean, covid is a real opportunity to be creative about how to make a film, especially as an indie filmmaker. And yes, I have been thinking about the short film format a lot during this time because I’m like, when am I going to I have a feeling to make an indie feature film, maybe another year or so. So, yeah, I’m thinking about the short film format again, and I have a couple ideas that I’m working on hoping that I can just make something this year. One is my family has all this amazing. My mother had saved all this amazing Super eight footage and I have all of it. So I think that’s an opportunity like a cattle video of your family or old videos you had just in your garage, whether it be Super Eights or VHS. And there’s footage there to make something. So there’s that. And then I find it interesting how people are making film within the Zoom format with movement. So I am talking to an old modern dance colleague of mine about creating some modern dance pieces. 

Eric: And if Eileen Cabiling didn’t have filmmaking as a creative outlet. 

Eileen Cabiling: I think I would be a painter. I think that’s how I make films and that’s how I write films. And so I love the idea of creating images and they just start to come to life with a paintbrush. But then I also have this strive to just put out questions in the world and start looking at things underneath the surface of our state of humanity, human value and human rights. That’s a big passion of mine. So, yeah, I guess there would be a way to do that through painting. 

Eric: Let’s call that a lesson for everyone. Find the canvas you need and go create something that you want to see come to life. We want to thank Eileen Cabiling for sharing her story with our students. And thanks, of course, to all of you for listening. 

This episode was based on the Q&A, moderated by Liz Hinlein. To watch the full interview or to see our other Q&As, check out our YouTube channel at This episode was written by me, Eric Conner. Edited and mixed by Kristian Heydon. Produced by Kristian Heydon, Helen Kantilaftis, and myself. Executive produced by the New York Film Academy with a special thanks to all our staff and crew who make this possible. To learn more about our programs, check us out at Be sure to subscribe on Apple podcast or wherever you listen. See you next time. 

Eric: Just a heads up, this episode will feature some adult language, so if there’s kids in earshot, you probably should put on headphones. 

Tova: Hi and welcome to The Backlot. I’m Tova Laiter moderator and director of the New York Film Academy Guest Lecture series. In this episode, we will take an in-depth look at one of my great guests and hear about his experience in the entertainment industry. And now Eric Conner will take you through the highlights of this Q&A. 

Eric: Hi, I’m Eric Conner, senior instructor at New York Film Academy, and in this episode, we bring you a screenwriter that well, if you haven’t quoted, someone has quoted to you. Fifth Element, Jet Li’s Kiss of the Dragon, the Taken series and of course, the still expanding world of The Karate Kid. Our guest has created them all. We are talking about screenwriter Robert Mark Kamen. I’m not sure how many writers can make this claim, but Mr. Kamen’s Hollywood career started when he sold the first draft of the first screenplay he ever wrote. 

Robert Mark Kamen: I’d never been out here before. It’s the first screenplay I ever wrote. It was one draft and I sold the screenplay. I was – I just finished my PhD at the University of Pennsylvania and I was basically just f***ing off and teaching two classes a week. And I sell a screenplay and I come out here and they drag me out here and I walk into the executive office and I’m going to meet with the head of production who was Ted Ashley at the time, and the late Mark Rosenberg, who is a vice president, and Tova was creative executive. And I go to walk in this room and I really this I’ve never had anything to do with the film business at all. And before I walk in, she comes up to me and she says, hello, my name is Tova Laiter and I’m the head of whatever. And I just want you to tell you your script is great and don’t listen to anything they say. And so I figured, OK, I won’t listen to anything they say. So I went in and they are sitting there and they all have things to say. But this woman told me not to listen to anything they say. So I left the meeting and the guy I was with, the producer, he said, So what do you think? What do you think about what they said? I said, Well, I was talking to somebody and they said not to listen to anything they said. So I don’t know because I didn’t listen. And that’s how I met Tova. About a decade later, Warner Brothers hired me to be their script assassin. So I came back on the lot to really basically make an enemy out of every person that ever wrote a script for them, because I would get the scripts before production and I’d just change them. The advice I used to give to any writer I would meet who was going into the room, I said, listen, the best advice I ever got. I said, you’re going in there. Just nod your head. Don’t listen to anything they say. And that’s how I met Tova. Thirty, thirty two years or thirty three years ago on this lot. 

Eric: Besides having the good fortune of meeting our Q&A’s moderator Tova Laiter. Mr. Kamen found himself in the unusual position of selling scripts before he really knew what the industry expected in screenplays. 

Robert Mark Kamen: For the first year I wrote screenplays I didn’t know there were three acts in a screenplay. Jeffrey Katzenberg had to tell me there were three acts. I thought, I was like Shakespeare, five acts. OK, I’ll do that. I once took a course with Robert McKee. Gee, McKee, whatever his name is. Is anybody he related to Robert McKee? This guy is so full of s***. He takes the entire creative out of the process. There is no such thing as a formula. I mean, they’re all formula, it’s all formulaic. You know, films are all formulaic and stuff, but there is no such thing as a formula. You know, everybody who says, oh, on page forty five, this should happen on page forty five. No, this is all supposed to come from you, you’re supposed to see a film. You’re supposed to tell a story, you’re supposed to be a storyteller. And if you can’t tell a story that’s going to engage people by making it go up and down and up and down and up and down, go to law school. 

Eric: Mr. Kamen’s point is clear. Screenwriters should not be led by page counts, but rather by their own instincts. 

Robert Mark Kamen: Writing is having the ability to sit still, sit down, and sooner or later something’s going to happen. I organize myself, when I have an idea for a film, it’s just kind of a general feeling and idea. And I write an outline and the outlines just kind of start growing and growing. I just handed in an outline that was twenty four pages long. It’s kind of like add water and you have a script and I write an outline and the more I write the outline, I write it over and over and over and over. And the more I write it, the clearer the film becomes and I write it in screenplay form. First I write notes and then I write it in screenplay form. Interior, exterior, and I just describe in narrative what is going on in the scene. And then I’ll write the outline again and maybe there will be a bit of dialog in it. And then I’ll write the outline again until I have a beginning, middle and end. And you can read it. You can actually see the film. You see the film. You can read the screenplay and see the film. And then it’s just writing. And sometimes it changes in the writing, sometimes it doesn’t change in the writing, but then you just sort of fill it out. And that’s how I get a feel for things. And if the outlines don’t work, the scripts usually don’t work. 

Eric: Mr. Kamen stressed that despite his many successes, the process of writing doesn’t guarantee him a home run every time he’s at bat. If today’s work doesn’t go well… 

Robert Mark Kamen: Tomorrow’s another day. Here’s how I plan my day. I wake up and I plan what’s for dinner and I don’t think anything beyond that. And if I have a successful dinner, I’ve had a successful day. Seriously, once I know what I’m drinking and I’m eating, I’m good to go. As a writer, you’re going to have days that are s*** that just nothing is working. But then there’s tomorrow. And then if it’s not working, put it aside. Write something else. And you have to deal with, if you’re in this business, with rejection. And that’s the thing you have to really learn how to absorb because the whole business is all about rejection. And if you don’t learn how to deal with rejection, you’re going to have a short, unhappy career because you’ll either kill the executives and be famous for that or you won’t be able to bear it. 

Eric: Mr. Kamen explained that a big part of succeeding in this industry is facing failure, either externally from others saying no or internally when you read your own pages and think this sucks. In both cases, you have to work like heck to get past it. 

Robert Mark Kamen: You have to keep constantly going back. All writing is rewriting. You probably heard this before. All writing is rewriting. You have to go back and back and back every night after I come home from my wonderful dinner, every night that I’ve planned since breakfast, I sit down and I reread what I wrote that day and sometimes I’ll change it, sometimes I won’t. But when you’re writing, it’s always with you. I mean, you can’t – it’s so hard to divorce the inner voice from the outer voice. There’s always a program running and the program running, whether it’s conscious or not, is that script you’re writing, that thing you’re writing, the voice you’re hearing. And so you’re constantly going back to it, you don’t have a choice. And as you go back to it, you’re rewriting and you’re perfecting and you’re refining it until you can’t do it anymore and then you have to give it to somebody to read to tell you it’s a piece of s*** or not, or I really like it. But you have to find somebody who is critical and harsh and and everything else. The problem with that is that if you find somebody like me, I’m too busy to read your piece of s***. I’m busy with my own piece of s***. So you really have to find somebody who you respect and whose opinion you respect, not like give it to your mom. You know, it’s like, hey, mom, what do you think? Oh, god, you’re a genius. But you have to find somebody when you lose perspective to talk to. This is why more and more people have writing teams so they can bounce things off each other. 

Eric: Though Mr. Kamen understands the importance of having people to run ideas by, he still views himself as more of a solo warrior when it comes to writing. One who prefers to not even be on the sets of his own movies. 

Robert Mark Kamen: I don’t like being on set. I’m happiest when I’m being left alone and I’m writing. And when you’re on set, you’re mostly hanging around and you’re at the mercy of a director and you’re at the mercy of the actors. And actors are human impersonators. So what they do is they impersonate your best friend and they look at you like you are the only person in the world. And until you get hip to it, you think they really are when in reality all they want is more dialog. So I try to stay away as much as possible from set. And with screenwriting, you don’t have to talk to anybody. You don’t have to talk to actors. You don’t have to talk to technicians. You don’t talk to cameramen. You don’t to talk to grips. You don’t have to talk to set decorators. And you’ve got to really like talking to people. And I like talking to people for dinner an hour and a half and after an hour and a half, I’m I’m ready to go home and be by myself. 

Eric: Just don’t call him antisocial. 

Robert Mark Kamen: I’m not antisocial. I’m shortly social. I’m very social, but for short periods of time. 

Eric: Speaking of short periods of time, Mr. Kamen’s adamant about how little time a screenwriter has in their stories to hook their audience. 

Robert Mark Kamen: The idea of any of these movies is you have to hook your audience into the character in the first 10 minutes. Otherwise, they’re looking at their Blackberries. No, not Blackberries, iPhones. And so if you’ll notice in this film [Taken], nothing happens for the first twenty two minutes of the film. Nothing. You know, he’s not getting along with the daughter. He has a bunch of friends. They’re grilling steaks. He buys her a thing, the stepfather buys her a horse. Nothing happens until she gets taken. And once she gets taken, the movie never stops. But you’re sitting in the movie and the first 10 minutes, you feel bad for this guy. Nothing is working out for him. He lives in a s****y little apartment. He has these friends who drink cheap wine and grill steaks. His daughter lives on a big estate. Her stepfather buys her a horse. Nothing’s going right for this guy until the action starts. But you’re hooked into the guy. I just had this meeting with, what’s his name, Steve Levinson. And we have this project and we’re talking. And they said, well, what’s your idea? I said, my idea is to make you either really like the guy in the first 10 minutes or really not like the guy. And they said, which one is it? And I said, it doesn’t much matter. If you like him, you’re going to root for him and go along. And if you don’t like him, you’re not going to like him and then at the end of the movie, he’s transformed and you end up liking him. I said, so it doesn’t matter. So you pick whichever one you want and they said, you don’t have a point of view? And I said, no, I’m a working writer. I don’t have a point of view. Whoever signs my check, that’s my point of view. I’m being flippant about it. But I’ve been doing this for thirty two years now and you learn that your point of view in movies, it cannot be inflexible because a movie is not like a novel. A movie is a collaborative effort and everybody has an idea. And your job as a writer is to take all these ideas, all these things and make them sort of like everybody has to get on board. So you have to make it so that your vision becomes their vision and their vision becomes your vision until you can give them the script that they can f*** up. But once once you give them the document, it’s their problem. I think it’s why I’ve been able to continue doing this is that reason. 

Tova: You have been collaborating with Luc Besson very successfully in the last what, 10 years? 

Robert Mark Kamen: 17 years. 

Tova: Really? 

Eric: In case you don’t know, Luc Besson is the acclaimed director behind La Femme Nikita, The Professional, a.k.a. Leon, and The Fifth Element, as well as the mega producer of Colombiana, the Taken and Transporter franchises. His collaboration with Robert Kamen has produced one hit after another, but they did not start off on the best foot. 

Robert Mark Kamen: Luc and I met on the Warner Brothers lot when I was here being script assassin in Billy Gerber’s office. Bill Gerber, he’s now Bill Gerber because he’s over 50. He was a vice president here and he called me up one day. He said, we have a script. It doesn’t make any sense. But the guy who did it is very talented and we’d like to be in business with him. He’s a French director named Luc Besson. Who knew who Luc Besson was? He did this film called La Femme Nikita. Look at the film and read the script. So I read the script and it did make no sense. And I watched the film and the film was breathtaking. It was amazing. And I said, I want to, I want to be in business with this guy. So Billy said, well, he’s going to be here, come in and talk to him about his script. So I came in and for forty five minutes I told this French auteur everything that was wrong with his script, you know, not meaning to destroy the script, but I’m trying to tell him, you know, how it would work. In the process I had no cultural dissonance whatsoever and completely forgot this is a French auteur. If he has an idea, it’s a great idea because he had the idea and I proceeded to just go on and on and on. At the end of the meeting, I walk out, the phone rings. Five minutes later, it’s Billy. He said, you will never have a relationship with this person and neither will we. He just got up and walked out of the room. I said, OK, well, you know, and won’t be the first time my mouth got me in trouble, it won’t be the last time. A week later, I’m sitting in New York at my desk and my phone rings. Hello, this is Luc. He said, I thought about what you said. I said, Yeah. He said, you’re right. I want you to come work with me on the script. He said, I already cleared it with Billy. There’s a plane ticket waiting for you at the airport for tomorrow night, just like in the movies. I said, where’s it to? He said to Paris. 

Eric: As a lover of cuisine and wine, in fact he has his own vineyard, Mr. Kamen could not be more excited about going to France on the studio’s dime. However, he was in for a rude awakening. 

Robert Mark Kamen: So I’m going to Paris. I’m going to be with this guy whose film I really love. We’re going to work. I’m going for three days and I’ll go have some great meals with him and it’s going to be great and get on the airplane, I get off in Paris. There’s Luc with two motorcycle helmets. It’s January. You know, I’m used to Warner Brothers. They send the limo. He gives my bag to somebody. I get on the back of a motorcycle. I hate motorcycles and it’s f***ing freezing. And I have on my Armani leather jacket, of course, and he takes me to this place that was his studio. It was a 19th century foundry with beautiful skylights. It was unheated. It’s all made out of metal and glass. So it’s freezing. And he says, first we’ll eat lunch. And I say, fantastic. He takes out two frozen meals. He puts them in a toaster oven. He heats up the most inedible s***. He takes out a hunk of cheese and we eat this. It wasn’t garbage. It was just frozen food. It was like, horrible. So I eat this and I’m saying, OK, whatever. And he says, Now I want to show you something. He takes me upstairs and he opens these two doors and it’s a warehouse, huge warehouse. And in the warehouse is every single thing to make The Fifth Element. Everything, all the monsters, all the creatures, all the Gaultier costumes on racks, all of them made. He has invested over four million dollars in all the stuff for the movie. He had a vision and this is who he is. He had a vision of what the movie is. He just didn’t have a story. He had a story, but it didn’t make any sense. Well, you know, in the spaceship, and the car comes in, then it goes and then we have the tiger and it’s really funny. And then they come in and then they kiss and it’s great. For one hundred sixty pages and it makes no sense. But when I saw all this stuff, I said, well, it makes perfect sense. Now all you need is a script. And he said, yes, that’s why you’re here, let’s go to work. I said, where are we going to work? He takes out a heater, a space heater, and we put it down and we put a pad between us. And we sat that way for five hours. The only heat in the room was that. And we wrote and wrote and wrote. I was supposed to be there for three days. I stayed for three weeks. I can’t tell you how poorly I ate in Paris. I’m in Paris. He doesn’t drink wine. He doesn’t eat oysters, doesn’t smoke cigarets, doesn’t drink coffee. But for three weeks we work. And I mean, I was there with one suitcase of clothes and I was just every night I’m sending out the same pair of jeans to the laundry in the hotel. At the end of three weeks, we finished the script and tonight we’re going to have a meal at Zaman. Zaman was the restaurant of the moment in Paris. Joel Robuchon’s first restaurant. Joel Robuchon was the chef of the moment. I was so excited. Picks me up on the motorcycle. We go to Zaman, we pull up to the front of the restaurant, and then he pulls around to the back and we go in through the back door. And our meal at Zaman consisted of sitting in the kitchen with Robuchon and he would cook something, put it on a plate and give it to us and a big pot of mashed potatoes, which Luc has a softness for because they’re full of butter. And that was how I met this guy. We worked on this script for four years. On and off, on and off. The final draft was done as his second daughter was born. He was – literally the baby was being born here. I’m outside the delivery room and he’s coming in and out and we’re checking pages really, really and truly. And that’s how I met Luc. 

Eric: The Fifth Element plays like Blade Runner on speed and 20 years later remains one of the craziest big budget sci fi movies ever made. It also introduced much of the world to the manic comedic energy of Chris Tucker. 

Clip [00:18:16] [Clip from The Fifth Element]

Robert Mark Kamen: All those dialogs, those screwy dialogs. Luc, his English is, he can speak well, he can’t write, but his idea would, he’d say something like make him crazy, you know, make him say crazy s***. And so I’d write a bunch of crazy s*** and I’d read it to him and I’d say, no, no, no different crazy s***. And I’d write some different stuff. And it’s a no, not until we get it right. And then he always saw the character. He said he speaks like jazz. So keep that in your mind that he speaks like jazz. That was no help. But if you watch the film, he speaks like jazz. So he’s riffing. He’s always short. Tacky, kind of like that. 

Clip [00:19:11] [Clip from The Fifth Element]

Eric: For Luc Besson and Robert Mark Kamen, The Fifth Element was the beginning of a beautiful friendship, though not one without its share of bumps along the way and one massive falling out. 

Robert Mark Kamen: The Fifth Element, it was great, was wonderful. In the course of it, what happened was he couldn’t get enough money to make it, so he had to put it off. And I’m sitting in his office one day and I pick up the script and I read it. It’s called Leon and I read this script. And it’s fantastic. It’s just great. It’s just it’s a little off, but it’s great. And I said, Luc, I said I’d work on this. Is this set up? He said, no, nobody will make it. I said, well, if you do this and you do this and you do this and you don’t kill the girl at the end, and the 12 year old doesn’t sleep with a 30 year old guy, the thing could be really good. I’ll work on this for nothing. And I couldn’t work on it officially because I was working for Warners, etc, etc. So I work on it. It becomes The Professional

Clip [00:20:06] [Trailer for The Professional]

Robert Mark Kamen: Everything, The Professional comes, it’s great. It’s a real cult movie. Everybody loves the professional. The Fifth Element comes out. Fifth Element, of course, is like classic movie now. And as a matter of fact, a film crew came up to my house yesterday up in Sonoma to interview me about The Fifth Element because they’re putting on a series on AMC about directors and these iconic movies and he won’t talk to them, so they came to see me. So all this happens, the fifth element comes out. It’s great. He calls me up and we’re living in a house in Beverly Hills up on the bird streets myself, my wife, my two year old, his two year old. And we lived this way for months. And we’re so, so close. We’re so close. He calls me up. He said, I have our next film. I said, great. And he tells me what it is I said, I don’t want to do it. I said, it doesn’t make any sense. And it just it’s stupid, Luc. I don’t want to do it. And he stops talking to me for a year and a half. He doesn’t return my phone calls. He doesn’t answer the invitation for my fiftieth birthday and nothing for a year after talking every day for four years. And I can’t reach him. You call his assistant, he never returns phone calls. 

Eric: Thankfully for the cinematic world and for the future bank accounts of Jason Statham and Liam Neeson, that was not the end of their relationship. 

Robert Mark Kamen:  About two weeks before 9/11, I think it was, I get a phone call from Luc. I’m coming to New York. I want to have breakfast with you. And I said, oh, great. He’s finally came to his senses. We’re going to make up, this is kiss and make up. It’s great. I go to the house to have breakfast with them. He’s sitting there, same look on his face. And he outlines to me this vision said, I don’t want to work for Hollywood studios. Bruce Willis drove me crazy. I don’t want to work with movie stars. I want to make my own. Here’s what I want to do. I want to build a studio in Paris, soundstages, film school, everything. And here’s what I want to do. I want to have my own production company. I want us to write together. We’re going to write low impact action movies, meaning no CGI. I’m going to finance them. I’ll finance the first two or three with the money I make from them. We’ll make some more with the money I make from that, I’m going to buy libraries with the libraries. I’ll have regular income with regular income, regular flow of income and cash flow. I will take my company onto the stock market. I will go public. I will raise three hundred and thirty five million euro. I will go to the bank. I will get this. I will, I will build a film studio and he’s going on and on and I said, great. He said, and I want you to do this with me. I want you to write these movies. I said, Yeah, except you have to apologize to me. He said, Why? I said, Because you hurt my feelings. And he said, no. I said, no, you won’t apologize. He said, no, you hurt my feelings. I said, you stopped talking to me for a year and a half. And he said, yes, because you hurt my feelings. And I said, So you want me to apologize to you? And he just sat there with this look on his face. I said, Well, that’s crazy, because if I asked you to direct a film and you don’t want to direct a film, my feelings wouldn’t be hurt. And he just looked at me and I said, well, I’m not going to do this unless you apologize. And he looked at me and then he said, OK, I apologize. And I said, So how do you want to do this? He said, We’re leaving for the airport in two hours. We’re taking a flight to L.A.. You’re kidding. He said, yes, come on, we’ll go home, you’ll get a bag and we’ll go to L.A.. What are we doing in L.A.? We’re going to meet with Jet Li. I said for what? He said, well, we’re going to have this film and we’re going to pitch it to him and he’s going to say yes and I’m going to finance it. I said, What’s the film? He said, We’ll make it up on the airplane. And I have learned with Luc that, you know, I’m like beyond that already. So I go home, I put some stuff in the case. We go to the airport, we get on a plane in five hours, we get off the plane and we have the outline for Kiss of the Dragon

Clip [00:23:59] [Trailer for Kiss of the Dragon]

Robert Mark Kamen: We come to Fox, there’s Jet Li in a room, he speaks no English at the time, like four words and I pitch him the film and he doesn’t understand what I’m saying. And there’s a translator there and he’s translating. And at the end, he says, OK, that’s the end of it. Six months later, we were in production. 

Eric: Robert Kamen didn’t even need a cross-country flight to come up with The Transporter. Just an ad on a truck. 

Robert Mark Kamen: We’re sitting on a bench in Paris eating ham sandwiches from our favorite ham shop, and we’re sitting there right along the Seine, the Eiffel Tower is very, looks like a Woody Allen movie. And a truck goes by and it says transporter. And we’re trying to think of what, we want to make our own action hero. We don’t want a Hollywood action hero. And it goes by. And I said, oh, there’s the movie. It’s about a guy who transports stuff. He never ask what’s in the package, and he transports stuff in a Mercedes Benz. And Luc says, I don’t like it. I said, Why? He says, well transporter is a moving man. It was a moving van. I said, Yeah, but this guy drives a Mercedes and I don’t like it. And we dropped it and we kept talking. And we’re talking about doing this film, Banditos, and we’re talking about all the stuff. Two weeks later, he calls me up. He says, I have the idea. I said, what’s the idea? He said, there’s a guy and he transports things in the trunk of his BMW and he never opens the – I said, that’s my idea. He said, No, no, you said Mercedes. That’s my relationship with Luc. That’s exactly my relationship with Luc. And it’s been that way for 17 years. And I brought this up with him the other day. I said, you know, it felt you never really meant the apology. And he said because you were the one that should apologize to me. And I said, You’re kidding. Why didn’t you say anything? He said, because I wanted you to write the films. This is 17 years later. And that’s my relationship with him where I adore this guy. He’s one of the geniuses of cinema, right or wrong, he’s always right for him. And he doesn’t care what anybody thinks about his movies. He will make a movie because he wants to, not because he thinks it’s going to be a box office success. He’s made some really weird movies in the last couple of years because he’s personally excited about them and doesn’t care if they’re successful or not. He follows his own. I don’t know what, his own cheese, his own Camembert, I don’t know. But but he is truly a genius and has managed to forge this very unique, iconoclastic career completely out of the system. 

Eric: Once they got their apology straightened out, Luc Besson and Robert Mark Kamen, were able to create several movies together on their own terms. 

Robert Mark Kamen: We don’t develop. Luc and I do not develop. What we do is we come up with an idea, we write the script or I write the script and then he edits and then he goes and shoots the film. And once he shoots the film, he comes to Hollywood and says, you want this or you don’t want it. He goes to usually goes to Fox every once in a while, goes into the studio and says, here’s the film, take it or leave it. It’s already paid for. All you have to do is buy it and you can have these territories. He never goes to any studio for money so we can do whatever the f*** we want. And if you would have seen the R rated version of Taken, oh, there were needles in people’s arms. There were well, there was stuff, there was lots of stuff. 

Eric: And if they produced Taken fully within Hollywood, the audience never would have had Liam Neeson with those particular set of skills. 

Clip [00:27:44] [Clip from Taken]

Robert Mark Kamen: Fox didn’t want him, and Fox said, we don’t want this, we won’t support this, we won’t do this. And Luc said, OK, fine. And he went and made the film and they thought that was brilliant. And then they said, OK and brilliant. It gave Liam a giant career. I mean, giant career. 

Eric: Robert Mark Kamen also knows how to use his words on the page to inspire some amazing action scenes. 

Robert Mark Kamen: If you’ve been doing action scenes as long as I’ve been doing action scenes, you understand that an action set piece is like a little movie in itself. It has three acts, a beginning, a middle and an end. And if you look at it that way, then you can write it and then you think of what kind of things can be done. Well, just about anything can be done. But you write that stuff and then the director will or the action director, the stunt guys, the stunt coordinator, they will make it happen. And if they can’t make that happen, they will do something approximating it. But if you write it in beats where the hero’s winning, now he has a problem. Now it looks like it’s so not bad. You go into the second act. He’s trying to figure out his problem. It looks like he’s going to win. All of a sudden, all the s*** hits the fan. He’s losing, losing, losing. He turns around, he finds out one thing to make a win and then bang. If you do that, they’ll fill in the other stuff, you know, it’s like if you have a screenplay and you know, it’s about the Russian Revolution, you can write the Russian army charges and say, here, get six hundred thousand horses, six hundred thousand Cossacks and swords. But for action scenes, you plot them out like a screenplay in three acts. 

Eric: His experience also means he can just as seamlessly jump into other franchises midstream and still capture their voice. 

Robert Mark Kamen: I love writing sequelized films, especially if I start the first one I wrote Lethal Weapon two and three. I just didn’t get credit on two because I worked at the Warner Brothers lot at the time and I just fixed stuff up. The line, they f*** you at the drive thru. If you’re writing the second or third part of something, you have to stay true to the voice of the first one, because if they’re making a sequel, that means the first one worked and so you can’t go off and change the character. The Batman movies are a perfect example. The Dark Knight, Chris Nolan threw out the whole notion of what it was before, and he gave his Batman a particular point of view and a particular voice. And it has never changed through any of the Batmans. So if you come in in the middle of something, you have to keep the voice and the idea and the philosophy of that being consistent. Even if you take Batman to Mars, he still has to have the same drives, same insecurities, the same needs, the same flaws. With Mel and Danny, it was really easy because it was Laurel and Hardy. 

Eric: Of all of Mr. Kamen’s triumphs, the neatest trick might have been making us all care about a bullied high school kid learning karate from his apartment’s handyman. 

Clip [00:30:41] [Clip from The Karate Kid]

Robert Mark Kamen: I started writing The Karate Kid the day my daughter Ally was born, which was June 13th, 1982. And I finished it September 13th, 1982. And it was made in October of 1983. It took me three months to write the script and then I rewrote it and that took me six weeks and that was it. It was kind of very loosely based on my teacher who was an Okinawan guy. He didn’t speak English and he he didn’t make funny jokes, but he taught by example, you know, kind of like if you wanted to know what a punch in the mouth felt like, he’d punch you in the mouth. And I wanted to – it was kind of my homage to my teacher because he turned me in from a 90 pound weakling into ninety five pound weakling. 

Eric: A movie that only took a few months to write spawned three sequels, a Saturday morning cartoon, a remake, and now three seasons of Cobra Kai, the meta reimagining from the bully’s POV. So how can newer writers have a hope of creating work with this kind of staying power? 

Robert Mark Kamen: Always write what you know, but mostly always write from your heart and then you can’t go wrong. I tell this to everybody. I mean, there’s a lot of stuff that is not from people’s hearts and a lot of guys go to film school and do this. But you can’t go wrong if you write something you’re passionate about. And if you try to write something that looks like everything else, it’s going to come out like everything else. But if you want to break in, you have to give them something different and then let them turn it into something that’s like everything else. It’s true, but start with something that’s different. Don’t don’t try to copy anything else. I unfortunately, copy everything else. I just try to make it a little different. But you can do that after you’ve sold a dozen films. 

Eric: Which I hope is awaiting all of you. We want to thank this episode’s sensei, Robert Mark Kamen, for sharing his Hollywood story with our students. And thanks to all of you for listening. 

This episode was based on the Q&A, moderated and curated by Tova Laiter. To watch the full interview or to see our other Q&A, check out our YouTube channel at This episode was written by me, Eric Conner. Edited and mixed by Kristian Heydon. Produced by Kristian Heydon, Helen Kantilaftis, and myself. Executive produced by the New York Film Academy. A special thanks to all our staff and crew who made this possible. To learn more about our programs. Check us out at Be sure to subscribe on Apple podcasts or wherever you listen. See you next time. 

Tova: Hi and welcome to the backlot, I’m Tova Laiter moderator and director of the New York Film Academy Guest Lecture series. In this episode, we will take an in-depth look at one of my great guests and hear about her experience in the entertainment industry. And now Eric Conner will take you through the highlights of this Q&A. 

Eric: Hi, I’m Eric Conner senior instructor at New York Film Academy. And in this episode we bring you an actress whose credits cover pretty much every corner of the entertainment globe. She rode shotgun with Vin Diesel in the Fast and Furious franchise, helped turn Kevin Hart into an action hero in Quibi’s Die Hart, voiced Deet in The Dark Crystal reboot and RSVP’ed to Four Weddings and a Funeral in Mindy Kaling’s reboot. But a lot of you might know her best as the Khaleesi’s BFF Missandei in Game of Thrones. We are talking about Nathalie Emmanuel. Like a number of us, Miss Emmanuel got her start as a kid playing an animal in a show, except hers was one of the biggest musicals of all time. 

Nathalie Emmanuel: I actually just got into performing arts and dancing, singing, acting, it was just like a fun hobby. Like my mom wanted my sister and I to have, you know, extracurricular activities. And it was really just like a fun thing to do. And I was quite a shy kid. And so, you know, going to dance, going to acting classes and all of that kind of helped me build confidence away from her. I’m I was I am still a huge mommy’s girl. So, you know, being away from her was so traumatic as a kid. And she was like, I need to do something with this child. Like, she keeps breaking down every time I have to leave her anywhere. So with dance classes, singing, acting, it sort of helped me come out of my shell a bit. And then it just was this fun thing that we did. And like we used to have this newspaper in England called the stage. I don’t know if it still exists or if it’s just online now. And they used to post like auditions for shows, for commercials, for, you know, TV shows. It was crazy, like look through it. And my mom would circle the ones that weren’t like too huge commitments because she was quite particular about school. Yeah. And then I guess the sort of turning point for me was when I got cast in the stage show The Lion King, when it first moved to London, I was like 10 years old in this like huge production with all these incredible people like Julie Taymor was there to teach us the show, Lebo M. and all these incredible artists. And I think that’s when I went, oh, wow, yeah. This is what I want to do. I want to keep doing this. Whatever this feeling is, I want to keep doing it. And then and then I sort of got my big break, so to speak, in the UK when I’m 17. And I went and did a TV show. So that was pretty cool. And now I’m still here somehow.

Eric: Her big break was the long-running British soap Hollyoaks. But even after appearing on that show four years, Miss Emmanuel’s road to success was still far from a steady and straight line. In fact it was won with plenty of missteps and rejections. 

Nathalie Emmanuel: How did I keep going? I mean, I have a wonderful support system. I have people that really believed in me, and I’m lucky enough that those people always kind of rallied around me even when I didn’t necessarily believe in myself in the way that I should or could at the time so, you know, I’m I’m incredibly grateful to many people for that support. And I think at one point I had to I was making the decision about whether to go back to school and do a degree and try and like, you know, have something else. And and the reason why I made that choice was because I was like I’m a smart person. Like, I can do other things that I enjoy. I have lots of interests. You know, acting is like a passion. That was also another creative outlet, to be fair. It was a very artistic thing. And then what happened specifically was like Game of Thrones happened. I was very much like, I’m going back to school and blah blah blah. And that happened. And my life is sort of like I feel that fate just decided that now wasn’t the time. And then, you know, there have been other times where I’ve been kind of discouraged and think, oh, you know, I feel like the parts that I’m being asked to audition for are just all really like, you know, is this is how people see me? And you know, it can really mess with your head and your self-esteem and things like that. And I have had to work really hard up positive affirmation and like telling myself that, you know, I decide who I am and I am in control of me and my career and like the things that I will do and that I won’t do. And, you know, and there’s like a confidence that comes with that even when you’re, like, really discouraged and you’re like, no, no, no. I need to figure out exactly what it is that I want from my career and from, you know, the parts that I do. And if this isn’t the thing that works out for me, I was like, the idea of giving up, like, obviously breaks my heart, but like, I’m a smart woman. I can do lots of other things. There are lots of things I’m passionate about. And my life I think has sort of taught me that you have to give yourself time and that just because things aren’t happening in the speed that you think is or comparison to someone else’s timeline doesn’t mean that it won’t or can’t happen. Maybe you just need to find a different way to it. And I think there’s a lot of solace in that thinking because you just can go, OK, before I get all panicked and start being unkind to myself with my words and my thoughts, what can I do that is proactive and positive, as opposed to, you know, the opposite.

So, there’s no guarantees in this game, but the way that we speak to ourselves and the way that we, you know, encourage ourselves really matters. And like I said, also having a support system and a community, because nine times out of 10, a lot of your peers are going through a similar thing. And you can find comfort with those people and take those risks together and bounce ideas off the wall. I also think like now, like young people with all the technology that we have now just at our fingertips, that people are making movies on mobile phones, which are making it into festivals, you know, and launching careers. And I think there is also something really great about going, OK, like, OK, maybe I write something, maybe I’ll get my friend who I know does sound or my friend that does cameras. Great. Like maybe if I’m like, let’s get this guy and we can just go and shoot something. It’s just about keeping pro-active and trying to generate something either within yourself or literally physically with a piece of work. 

Eric: That attitude of making things happen and creating opportunities would eventually lead to Natalie Emmanuel’s biggest audition, a show that took her from working actor to star: Game of Thrones

Nathalie Emmanuel: I had been harassing my agent about Game of Thrones, I was like, so this show, I need to I just really want if there’s ever anything, I’m right for for it. You have to let me know. And so when I got that audition, I phoned her up and I seen it on a casting sign of, like, Joe, you know I’ve seen it. You’ve got an audition on Wednesday. And I was like, yes. And it was just like very exciting. And then the reality dawned on me and I was like, OK, this is a show you really like and you really want this. You can overthink it and then, like, freak out and then just completely sabotaged yourself. So like I said, I just like did as much research as I could. I hadn’t got into the books yet, so –  that’s not true. I’d read book one at that point and so I hadn’t met Missandei in the book. So I went online and the fandom really helped me with all the breakdowns of all the characters from all the books. And I found Missandei and where she came into the story. And I, I guess I made choices for her and I thought, well, this character is a child in the books and I was a woman, so I had to kind of just make choices. But that still carried the essence of that person that I was reading about online. And and I just tried to be as prepared as possible. And that’s kind of like, all I can do. The other thing with Missandei was they told me they were like, oh, no, we just want you to do a standard British accent. It doesn’t have to be. And I thought, you know what, this woman is from a different part of the realm and she’s speaking another language. Maybe I need to try and get like an accent that is like an accented English. And so I sort of prepared this accent that to be honest with you, I mean, I’ve no idea what it was even now, but I went into the audition and then we did the scene. And Robert, who is the casting director with Nina Gold, was like, oh, that was great. That was really cool. But you know what they haven’t really quite decided whether Missandei has an accent on not. And I was like, well, I thought, yes, this is like the joy of being prepared. And so I did another read with this accent I worked up and I walked out and I was like, great. And I sort of just let it go. And then the rest is history. But but for me, it’s like preparation like was so important and it meant that, like, I could be confident when they sort of did this other thing, I sort of considered all the possibilities. And sometimes it’s as simple as like doing a self take at home with your mum in the kitchen and then sending off. And then it’s like you’re just like, oh, OK, well, I did this thing and you just kind of wait to hear. And everything is really different. I mean, for Fast and Furious, a lot of those scenes were like really action scenes, which are quite hard to put on self type. You know, like that’s hard to do. And it’s like a lot of stage directions and you’re going like you’re crazy or whatever the scene is. And we just had to just try something. And then, yeah, sometimes the kind of preparation there’s not really time for, it’s not very clear what preparation you can do. So I guess for me it was like, OK, learn the lines, get the accent right or get whatever right, and then just throw it at the wall and see what sticks and see if they like it. I don’t know. It’s like it’s different from everything I’ve read – every audition.

Eric: Ms. Emmanuel’s preparation for an audition also speaks to the work she does when she gets a role. She connects with the character on a deep enough level to make her performance less like acting and more like being. 

Nathalie Emmanuel: For me preparation is key. I do lots of work kind of before we even get to filming, you know, it’s like all that character work, you know, figuring out in any scene like what my character’s intentions are and literally per line, I’m quite like methodical. I’m like, why is she saying that line? Why is she doing that thing, mapping that journey throughout the entire story, understanding how they feel about the people they interacting with or the situations they’re acting with and just sort of knowing this person in and out as much as possible. And then when you know your lines as well, I think once you know exactly what you have to do, like from the script, that gives you a confidence to kind of play and like, relax into it. I always feel like there’s this moment where, like, the lines and the ideas kind of drop in the body. Literally, physically, I feel like this person’s voice, this person’s movements, like it becomes second nature. And sometimes it can be inspired by like music or sometimes it’s as simple as just putting on their clothing or I don’t know. It really depends on the part on the day as well. And but yeah, I think for me, like making sure that I really understand the scene and that I’m about to do and just like the character as a whole and how they feel about the world and the people around them, like once I know all of that and I’ve done that kind of work, it kind of helps me connect to them quicker. But there has been, you know, in a sort of more technical sense, like if I’ve been doing an accent, for example, there is a real benefit for me when I just like, stay in accent all day because in a way, like I’m kind of staying in character. So I’m not like the person that’s living as this, like I’m not like that method where I’m living as this character for three months. But I think it’s just really useful for me to sort of stay somewhere close to who they are and how they speak so that when the cameras start rolling, I’m not reaching really far to access them again, like after lunch or something. And so that for me is just like in a more kind of simple technical sense. That’s something that I find really useful. And my mom, often she’ll phone me at work and I’m like in a different accent. She’s like, oh, you’re at work. And I’m like, yes, you know, whatever so, yeah. 

Eric: So all the preparation and training only went so far with perhaps Game of Thrones‘ trickiest challenge, acting believably opposite creatures that aren’t even there. Though her solution gets back to that kind of acting most of us did when we were kids. 

Nathalie Emmanuel: Well, the thing about green screen is, is you just – OK, so, you know, when you’re a kid and you’re like, let’s play dragons and knights and you all, you’re like, oh, we’re like on an adventure. And like, this is basically all the imagination that we just have as a kid. Like, you get to do that in front of a green screen. So you – often you can’t see, like they might show you a previous of like what the scenery looks like. But often you’re using your imagination and it can be quite challenging at times, especially in – the place where I probably find it the hardest is in the Fast and Furious movies, because, you know, you’re in a car often that’s in a soundstage surrounded by blue or green. And they’re like on the left, there’s a huge explosion like like there’s not really. So, like, I don’t know what it feels like to have a huge explosion happen right next to me. So it is really just like using your imagination and just going for it. And often you’ve got the director being, like, yelling stuff at you to add to the, like, energy of it. There’s also really fun times where you’ve got like, for example, in Game of Thrones, once the dragons got very big, it was just kind of this poor guy with a green ball on the end of a stick, just kind of running in the distance and we all had to follow it. And, um, yeah, it’s not quite as like, to look at this poor guy running as fast as he can with this kind of green lollipop. It’s funny, but we have to play it like oh wow there’s a dragon. So, yeah, it’s always fun. 

Eric: It takes immensely talented directors to help an actor navigate the technical and dramatic terrain of an epic like Game of Thrones. Fortunately, that show had some of the best. 

Nathalie Emmanuel: One of the best experiences I’ve had with the director. It was with Mark Mylod on Game of Thrones. I worked with him a number of times before in previous seasons. But during the scene, the scene with Grey Worm and Missandei when they finally acted on their love. 

Clip: [Clip from Game of Thrones

Nathalie Emmanuel: He just took the best care of us and, you know, we went into rehearsal and essentially, he did with us what intimacy coordinator would do, where we established what boundaries were, what we didn’t want to do. He gave his ideas. And then we, I would be like, oh, I’m not comfortable doing that. Or I’m like, yeah, that’s fine. And the same for Jacob. And he just was so respectful and so wonderful and really just helped us bring out the kind of beauty of that scene and the sort of like, oh, all that like, we really earned this moment. And he treated it with so much respect and treated us with respect as actors and obviously the people having to do this very intimate scene. And it just really – for such a challenging scene for the obvious reasons. Like, I felt incredibly safe. And it was also a testament to my relationship with Jacob and our relationship as friends and colleagues. Like we just kind of had each other’s back. And then it was just really, we were so happy when we found out that Mark was directing that episode and we were like, oh, it’s in the perfect hands. And it really, really was. And he just was so wonderful. And yeah, I couldn’t have asked because that was the first time for me doing a scene like that. And so for me, I just was like so grateful and like I was so proud of it when I watched it and I was like, Oh, thanks Mark and thanks Jacob. But we had to it was yeah, that was really special.

And in terms of communication, like, I just need people to tell me what’s what. Like I realized that often in this business with actors, they sort of treat us like we’re like these fragile things that you can’t be told no, or be told something negative. I am, like I’m just kind of real and I just want to know, like, what do you need? Like, you don’t have to worry about upsetting me. Like, as long as people talk to me respectfully, I don’t really mind what the note is. You might say to me, yeah Nathalie not really feeling it. I’m not really feeling what you’re doing. I think that we need these things. And like when it’s laid out to me in a clear way and like even if it’s negative, even if you don’t like what I’m doing, people are allowed to tell me that because I think that a set is such a safe space. It’s such a sacred space. And in like, sometimes you have to work stuff out. Sometimes people have to kind of get upset and get frustrated and then find something else, find a new way through. Like that’s part of the challenge for me as an actor. I’m like, I’m not afraid of those situations, although, you know, like we’re all human and we have emotions and I’m a sensitive soul just like anybody. But I really hate when people don’t tell me the truth and tell me, like, it’s not working because, you know, at the end of the day, like, I am the one that’s on camera and my director is, I guess in a way like I’m sort of tethered to them. I’m really looking for their – I’m I’m an actor like that really wants to hear my director and their thoughts and feelings and let me know straight up, like, what’s up and what’s not working or is and blah blah blah. So, yeah, for me, just being honest and being respectful, you know, that it really is quite simple, I think. 

Eric: And part of acting is also dealing with directors when the scenes or communication are not quite clicking. 

Nathalie Emmanuel: At the end of the day, it’s about compromise and sometimes something just isn’t working and you just have to be open to trying something else and stepping outside maybe what you perceived the scene to be or that moment to be, or that line to mean or whatever. So because often as actors, we can get so connected to a character. So it almost becomes a part of us that sometimes when people – like people can say something you’re like, no, that’s not that’s not what I was doing, you know, and actually to double down, I sometimes. You know there’s always opportunities where you need to fight for your character. But like, I think that sometimes when it feels like there’s so much of a wall there that maybe you just need to try something else. And that’s like you just have to try and practice openness and practice taking a new route. Then hopefully you will find somewhere that works, both of you, but kind of getting frustrated and angry and defensive. I just generally in life, I don’t really feel like that’s particularly productive and doesn’t really encourage, like, creativity particularly. So I try to, breathing and, you know, like try and kind of be like okay I’m trying to listen, I’m trying to be open and that’s all I can really do. And I guess hope for the best. 

Eric: After Game of Thrones finished its legendary run, Ms. Emmanuel had to face a new battle, how to move on from one of the biggest shows in history. 

Nathalie Emmanuel: I mean, there is always a period of time after you finish something where people will only see you as that thing. Like that’s just inevitable. I was slightly in a privileged position where I had this other thing, like I was doing the Fast and Furious franchise. So I was already kind of established in this other thing when I finished Game of Thrones, which is the not so common position to be in, I imagine. And so I kind of had that other thing and it kind of happened not too long afterwards. It came out like not too long afterwards. I can’t remember the timeline exactly, but I just remember I had some time off to the show where I was in this privileged position where I knew that I had that thing coming up and I could really take a moment to decide what do I want to do? You know, what kind of parts do I want to do? Like I had a whole meeting with my team and I said, let’s try and send these kinds of scripts and these kinds characters and just see what’s around. You know, that is an incredibly unique position to be in. You know, I was sort of like, you know, financially as an actor, I was like, great, I don’t have to worry too much for a while. You know, I can take some time where it’s not a matter of like, OK, I need to get money to live like it was. I had time. And so I really made the most of it. 

Eric: Nathalie Emmanuel found herself in an enviable position. Financial security, finishing a major role in one of the best TV shows in history, and she had time to find that next great role, which turned out to be not so easy. 

Nathalie Emmanuel: There was one point where I did get quite disheartened because there was a couple of things that I really liked and I got quite close to and it didn’t work out. And I was just like, I like people. Is it because they can only see me as this one thing? And and then while I sort of got a bit down. Suddenly this opportunity kind of came out of nowhere. And it was something that I’d auditioned for months and months, months ago. And it kind of just like came back around and I thought, oh, my goodness, this is amazing because I thought that had gone away and that I hadn’t got that thing. And I’m talking like five months ago I had auditioned for it. So it wasn’t like, oh, a few weeks ago. It was like I’d forgotten that I’d even auditioned for it. And so the fact that that came back around was like amazing. And it was like everything that I had been manifesting. You know, I tend to decide the things that I want for the next year or six months. And I’ve been craving all of these things. I was like, I want to work back home. I’ve been living out of a suitcase for however many years. I was like, I want to be in London. I want to challenge myself with an American role. I want to have a role that is more of a lead or supporting lead where I have more responsibility. And then Four Weddings and a Funeral kind of came back around and I was like, it’s perfect. It was shooting 40 minutes in the car from my house. I was like, this is amazing. And I got to and it was kind of just happened so organically as well. And it was a strange time because I really at one point was like, what is it? Is it because they can’t see me as anything but Missandei? Is it too soon? But yeah, I guess I kind of just gave in to the and just go, OK, got to let it go and just see what happens. That’s the thing about this life. It’s, you know, there’s no guarantees and you kind of have to let go into it a bit. And you know, what I was saying before how I count my lucky stars, well, they were shining on me then. And so I was, that happened and it was amazing. 

Eric: What helped Ms. Emmanuel’s journey since leaving Westeros was having a clear direction on the role she wanted. 

Nathalie Emmanuel: I will always read a script through, and I guess I, I look for aspects of the character that firstly, like I understand and can relate to or stuff that, you know, I’m like, oh, that’s really challenging. I always look for the challenges, really. Things that I’m like, oh, that’s going to be quite fun to try and discover and find. But really just like as a woman, as a woman of color, I always just want to see that these characters are being written in a rounded, authentic way and not in a sort of superficial trope-y way. So that’s the first thing I’m like, is this like tokenistic or is this, you know, interesting? And it’s always fun for me, like to play people who are complex and, you know, not all good or bad, all just one thing. So I like to see some variety in the character’s journey. And I guess I ask questions like, what else can I bring to this? How else can I kind of feel out or expand this character beyond what’s on the page? And do I think that’s exciting? You know, and if it sort of stirs something in me, I’m like, oh, yeah, that’s kind of cool. Maybe we should pursue this further. But just generally, it’s always fun for me to play kind of badass women. 

Eric: Which included the Kevin Hart action comedy series Die Hart, a chance for her to flex both her comedic and athletic muscles. 

Nathalie Emmanuel: The script was so great. I mean, I remember reading it and just, like, laughing so much. And it was quite funny, actually, because I was in Los Angeles and I was like on my way to a meeting and I had about an hour to kill. And I thought, oh, let me just have a little flick through that script that I got in my inbox earlier. And I phoned my agent within the hour. I just was like, guys, we’ve got to do this. This is fantastic. And it was so, like, self-explanatory and sort of like the way that this show was structured, like the writing was just so brilliant. And so it was quite clear for me quite quickly how to sort of map this character and some of the choices I made or what that might be fun. And it kind of inspired ideas for me. So, yeah, it’s always challenging shooting out of order. But I feel like Jordan was such a fun kind of challenge for me and I was really into it quickly. So and Kevin and John as well were just so, straight away, were just so committed and like, really embraced me and we just became this little trio that just kind of fit quite quickly. And it was great. It’s hard, though, like on your body, like after doing the same move a few times on one side, like suddenly you’re like, okay, my shoulder is really aching and then the next day you’re like, why am I standing like, lopsided? Because you only do it on one side all day as they get all the angles. But actually the stunt team are incredible and shout out to Deandra to who was my stunt double. She made me look so badass.

Basically, I was never really fighting, say, Kevin or the person that I was fighting, because basically, when the cameras on me, on my face, like I’m doing all of that fighting when it’s on the other person, like they’re usually fighting my double. And it’s a bit safer for the actors because the stunt guys are so great at reacting. If you throw like a wrong punch like their whole thing is like being able to move. And so if I throw a wrong punch or if Kevin throws a wrong punch, it might get a bit messy. So we worked very closely with the stunt team like I mostly fought Kevin’s stunt double and he mostly fought mine. But there was a couple moments where we had to do some stuff together. But yeah, we really yeah, it was very much like a partnership in that respect. But all the very dangerous stuff, I was more than happy for Deandra to do. 

Eric: Part of a filmmaker’s job is to make established performers excited about jumping on board, whether it be for emotional dramas, hardcore action scenes, or maybe even doing a short film for an up and coming director. 

Nathalie Emmanuel: There were many actors who want to discover and work with up and coming talent. You know, I’ve definitely done some shows because I just liked the idea and I liked the person. I was like, wow, you’re really interesting and cool. And, you know, and both the short films I’ve done, like, they came through my agent and they were like, hey, we know this might be a long shot, but would she do a short film? And, you know, it’s been it’s been it’s been a couple of years since I’ve done one. But it was such a fun experience. And to be able to work with someone who, yeah, is kind of starting out in their career. And I personally think that there are many actors who will want to enjoy that process of working with new filmmakers. But I think you just have to try. You just have to, like, shoot your shot, you know, and like who is like the dream casting? And then shoot your shot, you know, that’s all they can say is no. And then you can maybe have like a list of people that, you know, you would also love to have and then reach out to them, too, and see what you get back because who knows? Like, who knows? You might even make this great thing with an unknown actor. And it gets really well recognized, really critically acclaimed for the short film that you’ve entered into a festival and everyone and now you’re on this journey together, too. So, you know, there’s benefits to that as well. But I always say, like, what’s the best thing? Shoot a shot. Let that person know why you want them, why they are your perfect casting. You know, if your script is strong and your idea is strong and your vision is strong, I think people really respond to visuals as well. And I really enjoy like mood boards and things like that. Just to give me an idea of the tone and the colors and the worlds that you kind of want to create. And if you have any previous work, like let people know what you’ve done, show them what you can do, and that’s all you can do at that point, you know. Yeah, maybe someone will be like, hey, that’s great. And get involved. 

Eric: Although there are no guarantees you can get Nathalie Emmanuel for your project – she’s pretty busy nowadays – a success which can at least be partially credited to having a terrific work ethic. 

Nathalie Emmanuel: Yeah, I think that, you know, I’m a very determined person and I’m sort of a hard worker and I’m really determined. And I guess that I’m just willing to get, you know, in the trenches and roll my sleeves up and graft, you know. So I think that’s what’s kept me going. Like as an actor, I’m, I don’t know. I mean, I kind of hope that there’s something that people can connect to in my performances. Something that someone has said to me before is they’re like, oh, you know, it’s very clear that you have a strength about you. That’s really, you can see on camera. And I was like, oh, really? Thank you. That’s like a huge compliment. But they were like, there’s also this vulnerability. And behind it, that was a really nice, lovely compliment that people have kind of said to me before. And if that’s the thing, that means that people connect to what I’m doing. And I’m very grateful that that’s coming through. Yeah, I don’t know, really. I think just like my ability to kind of like just keep grafting and try anything until I find where I need to be. And maybe that’s it. 

Eric: Sounds like the right attitude to me. We want to thank Natalie Emmanuel for zooming with our students and sharing stories about her amazing career. And thanks to all of you for listening. 

This episode was based on the Q&A, moderated and curated by Tova Laiter. To watch the full interview or to see our other Q&As, check out our YouTube channel at This episode was written by me, Eric Conner. Edited by Kristian Heydon. Produced by Kristian Heydon, Helen Kantilaftis, and myself. Executive produced by Tova Laiter and the New York Film Academy. A special thanks to all our staff and crew who made this possible. To learn more about our programs, check us out at Be sure to subscribe on Apple podcasts or wherever you listen. See you next time. 

Eric: Hi, I’m Eric Conner, senior instructor at New York Film Academy, and in this episode, we bring you an actress who was nominated for an Oscar before she was even old enough to vote, a performer who’s worked with a remarkable list of directors, including Kathryn Bigelow, Garry Marshall, Oliver Stone, and Martin Scorsese, just to name a few. A rare child star whose career never slowed down. Jumping from film to TV to being in a rock band. No matter the project, her presence always makes it more interesting. We are talking about Juliette Lewis. Miss Lewis credits one person for providing the example she needed to navigate the industry. Her dad. 

Juliette Lewis: There’s a lot of these unpleasant politics to getting a job and, you know, getting a good job, a good film and all that, so I’m doing that and I don’t have that much patience for it, but I still have enough of a love. What’s good is I have a past body of work that I can pretty much meet with any filmmaker and have a conversation. And so that’s really gratifying. How I started in film is my dad is a character actor. He is a character actor. He’s the guy that has done everything from a Laverne & Shirley episodes to Clint Eastwood Westerns to everything in between. And I first was introduced to the world of film by visiting him on movie sets. And I always had a really practical introduction to movies, not from the magazines and stuff like that, but knowing that it’s long hours, there’s colorful characters. You never have the same job twice. Like it’s variety. It was it was perfect industry for me. And yeah, my dad’s a big influence in that way. 

Eric: But having a father in the industry didn’t guarantee Juliette Lewis instant success. As a teenager, she went on several auditions before joining up with a beloved screen family, The Griswolds. 

Juliette Lewis: Yeah, I was 15 and I started getting into acting right in those years, 13, 14, 15. The irony is acting professionally kept me out of trouble and I know they like to always give it a bad rap and stuff. Now, getting famous, very young – if you have any kind of emotional troubles and stuff is not good. But for me, acting gave me a purpose and I could channel some of this energy and stuff like that. And so Christmas Vacation came along. Huge studio movie, Chevy Chase, really? But the kids are different? That doesn’t make sense. Yeah, well, the kids are just going to be different, so go up for that part. So it’s me and Johnny Galecki who I’ve run into recently. He’s on the Big Bang Theory and he’s so nice. We laughed because every year, because they play that it’s a seasonal movie, so they play it every year. But that was a great gig for me because I was a big studio movie and and, you know, going to be seen a lot. And I’m working with some of the best comedians and really good comedic material. And it was a good experience. 

Eric: Though she’s worked with, a wide array of performers and directors, Miss Lewis’s approach to performing is wholly her own, including how she captures the character’s dialect, which in the case of the thriller Kalifornia, she’s not entirely convinced that she pulled off. 

Clip: Early, we shouldn’t be doing this. Now you know, you ain’t even allowed to be leaving the state and these people are strangers, and what kind of people would stop at places where other people got murdered? What if these people are dangerous, Early? 

Juliette Lewis: I kind of have like the worst Southern accent, but somehow. No. Well, my whole young life. Is she Southern? I don’t know. Adele? What is she, Early. I forgot how she talked, it came from this little baby voice that I used to talk in, and that to me was the essence of the character. So as far as an accent, when I was young, younger, for some reason, people always thought I was from the South because maybe I have my own sort of drawl or whatever. Cause I’m living in my head half the time. I don’t know. But yeah, you usually work with a dialect coach and you get a region of what the accent was. I forgot if that was specified in the movie or not. Oh yeah. And then Brad was playing because he grew up in Missouri, so he was playing like people he’s seen like that was fun for him, playing like really backwoods kind of f**ked up guys. You know, you grow up there, I’m sure you find those people. But you know, recently I did a movie called Conviction. Tony Goldwyn directed and Hilary Swank and Sam Rockwell, two of my faves, starred in it and that was a Boston dialect and was very particular. And so I worked with a a coach, somebody that specializes in accents. And it’s real fun because you sort of you just pick it up by ear and really practice the dialect. 

Eric: More so than finding the perfect accent, Miss Lewis wants to find the character’s voice within the voice. 

Juliette Lewis: Well, when I read a script, it’s usually the text is, you know, it gives you a lot. And then from there, you really have to develop intuition. Just let that voice speak to you. Like maybe she wears this kind of clothes or maybe she sort of slouches her shoulders or maybe, you know, maybe she’s very, you know, just fine is sort of behavior. And then the other thing, you know, so your text will inform you. And there’s usually a general character description in any script or play. And then I always look in my environment, see if you can see elements of that character or people, because I love seeing it. A perfect example of this was Cape Fear. On the page that’s just a teenager. She’s a teenager. She sort of talks back to her parents. She’s a little bit precocious and she’s interested in this drama teacher because he listens to her. So, OK, fine. But that could be any teenager in the whole world. But what does she feel like? What does she move like? What does she sound like? And of course, I’m bringing elements of myself. But I had gone to a park and there was this girl there and she had bangs and she was always like half smiling, like she had a secret and she was holding a new kitten. She had just got a kitten and her name was Colleen. And I said, ‘Hi, Colleen, what’s your kitten’s name?’ And she was like, ‘I don’t know. I just got it. You know, she’s everything was like in here.’ But that one thing was that character, a girl that always looks like she has a secret. So that was that one seed. Now, then you have scenes that require all kinds of emotion and things. But don’t be afraid to use aspects of yourself, too. I know I said earlier that I like to escape myself, but it’s really – you’re just sort of using we all come to the table. We’ve all felt pain, apathy, joy, elation, embarrassed, like we’ve all felt these things. So you sort of each character, you’re just blowing up different aspects of emotions you felt and then they become sort of different aspects of yourself anyway. 

Eric: Only a few years into her career, Juliette Lewis landed a part that most actors can only dream of, the daughter in Martin Scorsese’s remake of Cape Fear. In one of the film’s most memorable scenes, Miss Lewis went toe to toe with none less than Robert De Niro, resulting in both of them receiving well-deserved Oscar nominations. 

Clip: Well, why do you hate my father? 

I don’t hate him at all. Oh, no, I pray for him. I’m here to help him. I mean, we all make mistakes. Danielle. You and I have. At least we try to admit it, don’t we? 


But your daddy, he don’t. Every man carries a circle of hell around his head like a halo. Your daddy too. Every man, every man has to go through hell to reach his paradise. You know what paradise is? 


Salvation. Because your daddy’s not happy. Your mommy’s not happy. And you know what? You’re not happy, are you? 

No, I’m not. 

Juliette Lewis: First of all, that scene is really rare because it’s nine minutes long and I didn’t know that, but that’s really rare in films today. And because every scene is usually like three minutes and we’re moving on to the next and we’re always telling a story. So that was very much like mini theater. And there’s many elements to that scene. My main thing is to be true to my character in the scene. And that character was going to visit a drama teacher who had called her up on the phone and gave her attention, which was really nice. This is validating. So the whole thing of that scene is that she’s feeling validated by him. So more and more feeling a bit more precocious, for lack of a better word, a bit more confident. And you as the audience is squirming because we know he bit a girl’s cheek out. I’d get so many questions when I was doing interviews because they were like, wow. And her burgeoning sexuality and all this s**t, and I was just like, I didn’t ever look at it that way. I just in that scene, somebody is talking nice to her and she’s trying to piece it together. She realizes, oh, he killed the mom’s dog and she’s going, oh, that’s not good. And then he makes her feel better and then, you know, they’re in this small space.

But it was so amazing. Again, it’s how your director lays the environment for you. And Marty Scorsese was so brilliant. He didn’t want us. He wanted to keep – there was this electricity happening between myself and De Niro. And there’s three different setups to it. There’s when I first walk in and see him, that’s one camera set up. Then we cut, we’re in tighter and he’s right there. And then when he offers her the joint, she goes closer. Now we’re close again. And then I, I retreat a little bit. And then he comes in for that kiss and the thumb. That scene was all scripted except for two moments that. It was scripted that he comes and kisses her. He’s never violent with her. And that’s what’s so upsetting for the audience is that it’s it’s seductive, but we know how dangerous he is. So what wasn’t scripted is the thumb part. And all Marty said was like, you know, Bob’s going to do something. This is my horrible Scorsese impression. He’s like ‘Bob’s going to do something. Just just just go with it. Just go just I mean, just do whatever you feel.’ And I was like, ‘OK, I don’t, no idea what that’s going to be,’ but but I know it’s in the context of the thing. And if you watch it, it’s just amazing because for her it’s just about acceptance. Even though there’s a sexual thing, if you see the expression after he does that with the thumb, it’s like, was that good? Did I do OK? And that’s that’s the tragedy. And that’s very, very, very young, young girl sexuality is sort of just sort of like pleasing.

So, God, that scene was amazing to do. It was amazing to do that. And DeNiro is really interesting because this is one of the things I love about him. He does not – I don’t know about his process. He doesn’t bring his process to the set. You know, a lot of young actors, we hear all these urban legends. I mean, you know, we’re all trying to be our own thing. But DeNiro, whatever intense s**t he was up to, I didn’t know about it. And he was up to some intense stuff because Marty told me he was like singing in tongues with a gospel singer in his trailer. At one point I was like, ‘Really?’ ‘Yeah, he’s he’s like Bobby’s, you know, has a gospel girl.’ And they’re doing it because he has that religious thing because in the end, last scene, because it’s his guy was in jail for a long time, got really into religion anyway. He does all this stuff. All I know is this guy who is very nice, was really sweet with me, gave me a hug, and he probably did whatever he needed to. I guess that was his thing, sort of where I just felt really comfortable around him and that that fed into the our scenes together. 

Eric: When you step into the proverbial ring with heavyweights like Robert De Niro and Martin Scorsese, not to mention Cape Fear’s Nick Nolte and Jessica Lange, training is crucial, but it only takes you so far. 

Juliette Lewis: Every project’s different and it’s good you all are in school because you want to learn different things that can invoke or make you think if you’re flat, if you receive something and you’re like, I don’t know anything, then you can rely on your training. But usually I’m a big believer in sort of really being open, open within yourself to ideas that come up and also open to your environment and experience. So whether that’s being connected to your emotion. So to answer your question, I don’t have a rote way that I approach every project, every project’s totally different for me, but I do have similar – what my search is incredible honesty, complexity, and surrender, surrendering to the moment. Actually, after you do all your work, that’s intellectual and breaking down a scene and understanding, oh, well she wants this and she’s doing this, and he’s. So after you analyze all that, there’s a point where you got to shut all that off and then just be. And that’s the thing of surrender and trying to do that on a film set too. You’re working within an incredibly technical medium.

I remember in London doing this project, there’s a drunk right in front of me heckling me. We’re outside. You know, I can’t, I have to be focused. But here’s the thing, because you’re also playing what if. Cape Fear, I’ve never experienced a psychopath who’s going to now rape and murder me in front of my parents. So you sort of like, how do you, what’s that going to be like? That level of fear and terror and all the stuff. And so a lot of this is make believe. You know, it’s hugely make believe. But I was flying on a plane and the plane dropped really far and all my adrenaline frickin’ rushed and I thought I was going to lose my life. That is what informs the other. And it’s just about being connected to your own experience and your own emotions. But you wouldn’t think a plane dropping. I’m going to use that level of terror, you know, in a scene where De Niro’s like get down, blah blah, and then she lets out this ripping scream. So that was a really interesting thing. 

Eric: Working with Martin Scorsese at a young age was only the beginning of her collaborations with top tier directors and though she loves these opportunities, Miss Lewis admits that sometimes a visionary filmmaker simply won’t take no for an answer. 

Juliette Lewis: More and more, what I’ve learned is the director is your boss, so you are there to serve his or her vision and hopefully they’re creative and intelligent enough that they’ve invited you on board to get your take, your point of view, your essence. And that’s usually what happens. And they like a bit of a dialog. But if you’re there, you really don’t want to waste the director’s time with too much explanation. And I find it’s nice to keep it simple for them. Don’t go like I was thinking, blah blah blah, you know, I get my questions answered.

For example, this is so frickin’ arbitrary, but this is what happened. Kathryn Bigelow, she’s brilliant. I was so happy she won the Oscar like, oh, my lord, that’s amazing. She makes really unconventional radical films. And as a director, she’s really interesting. Her style is more in the Kubrick way where she likes many takes because she really, she’s sort of painting and, you know, she’s doing whatever she’s doing. For an actor it’s pretty exhausting. But we have this one thing in. It was a little thing. I didn’t want to be wearing what I was wearing in a scene. The movie was Strange Days. I come off stage. I had a really logical argument. I’m wearing chain mail, so it’s like I’m kind of wearing next to nothing. The next scene I’m at my house or some weird loft with the boyfriend. He hits me. I just didn’t want to be half naked and hit. I don’t know, I had a thing in my mind, so I was like, can I be in a robe? Logically, she came off stage. She would have changed. You’re sweaty. She would be in a different outfit. She, for whatever reason, did not want me in any other outfit. But that because she’s a visualist. Is that a word? She’s seeing things all here. She wants this shimmery thing that I’m in. She doesn’t want a robe. Can I wear even a nightgown? I didn’t want, anyway. I just wanted to be more clothed. So she wins. She’s the director. 

Eric: Other performers might have gone full diva and just stormed off the set. But Miss Lewis understands how to be a professional, extending to not only how she works with directors, but to her cast mates as well. 

Juliette Lewis: That’s the other thing is because you all go to class and we all dream big and, oh I want to play, you know, Blanche from Streetcar Named Desire, but it’s like, OK, well, hold on a second, because there’s a lot of stuff that maybe you’ll play a little taste of something and you’ll develop within that. But yes, I’ve done not great movies as well that I would want to see it done differently. And that’s a real big challenge of how to stay honest to your own thing. But also, you’re working for somebody. My director is my boss. No matter if they’re inexperienced or have a different point of view, usually you hope you iron that out before you work together. But as far as actors, yeah, I’ve worked with people that have a completely different process or different take on the scene, and that’s people skills. That’s like you have to be very diplomatic in your conversation and hopefully try to play the best you can together. But there’s positive things of embracing other people’s process. Like I had a friend, Giovanni Ribisi, this movie, The Other Sister, now he’s hundred thousand percent method, which means I don’t even know, I would never even be able to be method. Meaning if I stayed – we were playing to mentally handicapped young people who find love and they’re searching for their independence. And he would stay in character through lunch, through the Christmas with his wife. I mean, he’d stay and I had to, I have to let go of that to then dive back in again. I need a breather from it. So we work totally two different ways, but the outcome is the same. So that was really fun. And then there’s been other actors. Yeah, I mean, maybe I didn’t. It’s tough working with people you don’t respect. I mean you wouldn’t know them so don’t think is nobody known, people or something. But just really really that’s what, that’s what you’re going for. Huh. And you got to keep that, keep that to yourself and just try to be as encouraging as possible. 

Eric: Her work on The Other Sister directed by the late great Garry Marshall, was a role that required both more preparation and more care due to its sensitive nature. 

Juliette Lewis: That actually was the hardest role I’ve ever done for many reasons. One is, sometimes when I see a script, you immediately see all the cliches, you see all the pitfalls, the booby traps of how it could go horrible if you don’t achieve a true honesty. And first and foremost, I want to make sure – there’s two things because visually and the way she talks is much different than myself, part of which I talk to the producer who had a sister who is mentally handicapped, who the character was based a little bit on, and her sister had a very low voice like that. So I had seen video footage of her sister, even though Carla Tate’s totally different, but I use that quality, placing my voice in a different way. And the first thing before anything else is the emotional content and what is she made up of but this pure goodness is pure benevolence? She has empathy for animals, a great deal. She has empathy for other people who are in trouble. She has a fierce will to succeed against odds. So all those ingredients I related to as a human being and I make sure I have those. So I related to her heart first. And then we also went, production facilitated that we meet with people who are high functioning, mentally challenged. So that’s a bit different. And there was one girl I met with who is really animated when she spoke. And so I would just sort of take from different people I met in my environment. This is what I mean about watching things in your environment, pulling from that, because that’s where you’re going to get the most truthful stuff within yourself and externally. 

Eric: Miss Lewis reminded our students that a performance should not be limited to only the neck up. Rather, one’s whole body is what comprises a character. 

Juliette Lewis: I think it just comes from that thing of Gnosis, you know, of observing people and knowing that we all communicate from the toe or the head down, whatever. So it’s not just we’re not all in the same movement. I don’t know how I’m really, really attracted to energy and how just even how people walk. If you just watch how people walk, you can see sort of where they hold. If they’re like uptight, some are like down like that. And some their gravity is like all in their hips. And I don’t know, it’s just an amazing you could do that as an exercise like five different walks. Do you all do that in class? That’s neat. Yeah. I mean, because I’m not academically trained, but I have a lot of friends that go to really exciting acting classes and I’ve noticed oh, I do a lot of the things that are taught anyway. But I’m, I’m sort of very intuitive, but I yeah. So I’m glad they do an exercise. Like if I taught that’s what I would do. Practice walks. Oh. But I do, I think it does help with being in touch with your instrument. Is that an acting language? But dance. Because early on I took dance, I took gymnastics even though I quit everything. Isn’t that sad to say? I was a quitter. But man, all these things I wish I didn’t quit like karate. I would have been a black belt. 

Eric: Her knowledge in karate came in handy when portraying Mallory Knox in Oliver Stone’s Natural Born Killers. It’s a character that could not be more opposite than her work in The Other Sister. And to help capture the almost feral nature of a serial killer, Miss Lewis just needed to find the right tune. 

Juliette Lewis: There’s so many different things that help you create the character. And for this, like I learned, fight training just because in some of the sequences are full on action sequences like the opening in the diner, it was much like a dance. So I was learning street fighting, using elbows and all the stuff. And that’s just, you know, conjures up an energy within you. Also, I use music a lot. And so for that film, you know, because music’s instantaneous, you could listen to a song and right away you’re the feel of feeling like within 10, 20 seconds, depending on the song. And so for that movie, it was Jimi Hendrix, Voodoo Child (Slight Return) which is a very, every bend of his guitar, you’re going deeper into the jungle and all this chaos starts happening. And it’s really dark. It’s seductive. It’s filled with so much emotion. So to me, that was the the sort of the body of Mallory Knox. And then at the same time, there’s a lot of humor because it is exaggerated, that character, because it’s a kind of a farce in a way.

So that had many elements and that had a lot to do with how brilliant the director is and talking with him and being inspired by him. And he would encourage us. There was no boundaries in that film that was actually a problem for me because, like, we’d be in a driving scene and he’d go, yeah, ‘I’m going to just have some demons run across the frame.’ ‘OK, well, what, how am I supposed to react to that, Oliver? What’s that?’ ‘Just I don’t know. It’s just in the scene.’ So you’re sort of navigating between because a lot of it’s a bit psychedelic. But anything I do, whether it’s broad comedy or drama, I try to root it in honesty. And that character is rooted in, there are real people who have killed people. And you know what I took from them a little, like Aileen Wuornos. So basically, what are they? They’re damaged souls. And so you sort of have the thing and then there’s just all these different shades within the context of the movie you’re making. And he was making a social commentary and also very tripped out kind of psychedelic movie where everything goes. So I knew anything goes. So when we’re in the car and going, ‘Mickey,’ something something about looking up at the stars, what whatever. 

Clip: I see angels, Mickey. They’re coming down for us from Heaven.

Juliette Lewis: And I’m doing my f**king feet like that, like that was just, it’s because of the environment that Oliver created, I was just doing like ballet moves and just making that up. 

Eric: Viewing characters through the prism of music has expanded Miss Lewis’s career to include fronting the rock band Juliette and the Licks and unlike some other actors who’ve tried to become rock stars, she could actually rock. 

Juliette Lewis: Yeah, it’s funny because a lot of people associate me with these movies, you know, Natural Born Killers, Cape Fear, What’s Eating Gilbert Grape or different movies, and those are really the filmmakers points of view and personality. And I add the character, work to it, but musically is sort of me inside out. It’s sort of my true pure expression and it’s really visceral. And there’s songs that have different colors and personality. You know, you can have songs that are filled with just the drums, the drums, guitar, all the instruments represent your emotional – like you as well. So the band came out of, I think, all artists and you probably all have this. It’s a hunger and it’s a search you’re searching and you need to express. And so I was always meant to do music very young. You know, I took piano, I sang, I took dance, I, I did little plays, I did all that stuff. And I always thought of my creative self as having all of those elements. And so when I got successful and got put on the wheel, I like to call it in show business, in the movie industry, you know, you sort of on this wheel and got to do your next film and all this.

I took a step back when I was twenty two and was like, wait, who’s running this? Because I need to sort of take ownership of my own artistic destiny. And then it took me some years, because I was scared. I was terrified. I’d never led a band. I’d never wrote with other people. You know, it’s a very intimate thing writing music with other people, man. It’s a whole other thing. It’s spiritual for me, the music. Whether you’re writing about a little crush song or it doesn’t matter. It’s really about connection with people. So that’s a whole other different ball of wax that I will continue to do. But yes, I was influenced. I went off on a tangent, sorry, I was influenced. People would identify me with certain things. They thought I was into really dark films, which some I am. I really love Francis and Midnight Express, but my biggest influences growing up were musicals like. But there were twisted, like All That Jazz. It’s amazing about, you know, an artist sort of imploding and it’s a bit trippy. Hair was a huge thing. Grease, Rocky Horror Picture Show is sort of the the juggernaut of my feeling. If I can make my own Rocky Horror Picture Show in the future, I mean, that’s that’s what I’ll attempt to do, a whole different thing. 

Eric: Miss Lewis’s career has had a wide array of tunes, so to speak, including the gothic darkness of Kalifornia, co-starring Brad Pitt. When choosing roles, Juliette Lewis just wants to avoid playing Juliette Lewis. 

Juliette Lewis: I’m always looking to go as far away from myself as possible, but really it’s sort of the luck of the draw, you know, because I’m hired. I’m not making my own films. I’m sort of the great cosmic receiver of what’s going to come my way. And so I just happen to pick, especially in my younger career, I could have played somebody’s daughter, the girlfriend and all this stuff. It’s not like I can’t do that or play the ingenue, but I wanted characters that were complicated, multilayered, rich, and if they weren’t like that on the page, I was going to make them that way. And this film is really interesting for me. It goes down as a very important film for me because I consider it my first official character, Adele Corners, where I change my voice. She talks a bit higher. The director was Dominic Sena. He was a first time filmmaker. His claim to fame at this point, he’s since gone on to do like Gone in 60 Seconds and other huge movies. But at this time in his career, he had just come from video directing where his biggest thing he’d done was a Janet Jackson video. And I was sort of coming off the heat of Cape Fear. And even though I was really young, I sort of encouraged Brad to do the film. He didn’t originally. I don’t know if they’ll remember that, but he didn’t want to do the movie initially. Just because it was a first time director and there’s so many risks involved. But it turned out to have such a personality. The film. and I really believed in Dominic as a visual artist because he was really visual. And long story short is, Adele on the page – you know, when you have four people in a scene, it’s very hard that they all have a voice and they overlap and it be realistic. So Adele would just have like a line here or there. So I basically sort of improvise a lot of that part. I could tell you so many, like the song I wish Carrie is happy. That’s my early songwriting. 

Eric: Part of the kick of Kalifornia was having a chance to act with Brad Pitt again, who happened to be her boyfriend at the time. 

Juliette Lewis: The first movie we did, was not a movie. It was a movie of the week for TV. It was a made for TV. So it was very melodramatic, but it offered both of us the chance to play characters, very dramatic characters, because believe it or not, I came from late 80s sitcoms, you know what I mean? So I mean, this isn’t what I’m known for, but I was doing sitcoms in the late 80s, not very well, but I found my niche later. And so me and Brad and he had done Dallas like a soap opera. Yeah dude! I never saw it, but all I knew is he was from Dallas. And so this is like really gritty you know, she killed a guy and it was like this thing. And now they’ve sold it as a frickin’ movie because we both went on to do things. But it’s practically like “The Amy Fisher Story” or, you know, it’s something like that. But the second movie, that was fun. I mean, that was great. I mean, it’s like bands, they say don’t ever get in a relationship in your band. I mean, I don’t know. It depends. There’s actors and directors who work together who go together too. Maybe that’s more difficult. I don’t know. It was easier because we’re peers. So we’re just sort of like sharing like, oh, I think I’m going to do this. Or he was like, I’m not going to wash my hair for two months because, I was like, cool, that’s, that’s what you need to do to be Early Grace. He didn’t wash his hair for two months. So that was just like, cute. 

Eric: Let’s be honest. An unwashed Brad Pitt is still a Brad Pitt. Even after three plus decades, Juliette Lewis, his career continues to transform as she’s always looking for new ways to challenge herself. 

Juliette Lewis: My dream role is very much – I’m writing now, so I’m going to write a script, but it has elements of me. And it’s someone who half lives in their fantasy life and half lives in the now and is dealing with a lot of melancholy or deep emotion, depending on what they’re going through. And then there’s music involved. So it’d be a bit of a psychedelic thing like All That Jazz. But that’s not really a role that’s – so I would love to play a far out, like I just auditioned for a Wicked Witch. That would be fun. I’d play her like Betty Davis. So that was kind of a dream role. We’ll see what happens. You know, I’m interested in doing things that challenge me. So for me, because I’m very idiosyncratic and very physical, whatever, I would like to play something that is very restrained, you know, maybe a period piece. I would like to play a girl that’s very restricted by the social etiquette of the time. That would be really interesting for me. 

Eric: So what final advice would Juliette Lewis give to artists out there looking to make their mark? 

Juliette Lewis: I just wanted to say something really quick, because I know you were asking me about all the creative stuff. If you guys are trying to do any of this professionally, a big thing, I must tell you, is to not take rejection or people’s opinions personally. Like when you go on auditions or if someone says, I don’t know, you might, you, you don’t seem really seductive or you’re more, I picture you as a cop or you’re more of this or whatever. You’re dealing with opinions on everything. And you’re going to find your match up if it’s meant to be. I just have to tell you that because it can be a really brutal industry and people beat themselves up so much and we just got to treat it as a game and making it fun and all that good stuff. Right. 

Eric: We want to thank Juliette Lewis for sharing her years of successfully playing the game, and thanks to all of you for listening. 

This episode was based on the Q&A, moderated by Chris Devane to watch the full interview or to see our other Q&As, check out our YouTube channel at This episode was written by me, Eric Conner. Edited and mixed by Kristian Heydon, produced by Kristian Heydon and myself. Executive produced by Tova Laiter, Jean Sherlock, and Dan Mackler. A special thanks to all our staff and crew who made this possible. To learn more about our programs, check us out at Be sure to subscribe on Apple Podcasts or wherever you listen. See you next time. 

Eric: Hi, I’m Eric Conner, senior instructor at New York Film Academy, and in this episode, we bring you a revered Nollywood filmmaker. In case that term isn’t familiar, that’s the nickname for the Nigerian film industry, one of the largest producers of cinema in the world. Our guest’s work includes producing the daily soap opera Tinsel, the TV series Battleground and feature films Fourth Estate and Gidi, which he also directed. He’s also served as a juror for multiple film festivals, produced a series of documentaries, is an arts educator and a voting member of the Academy of Motion Pictures. We’re talking about Femi Odugbemi. Though his storytelling stems from Nigeria, Mr. Odugbemi stressed the importance of connecting with audiences from across the globe. He believes that all storytelling really comes from the same place: humanity. 

Femi Odugbemi: Stories are important simply because they help us to understand, to understand our world, to understand our cultures, to understand ourselves. It’s how we communicate, really. So all stories eventually are about humanity. They are about the shared experiences and the shared ambitions and the shared desires. Everybody, regardless of where you come from, desires love, desires prosperity, desires connection, desires achievements. Regardless of what ways your culture structures, those desires are the heart of your connections. And because film is about the human connections, is about us communicating both in language, in gestures and so much subliminality in terms of context, in terms of the world that’s around from where the stories are located, it’s all about the shared humanity. That’s why I would understand a Chinese film without speaking the language or an Indian film, which were the films that were popular when I grew up in the 60s and 70s in Lagos, and they were never subtitled. But we understood the humanity of love, the anger. We understood those who wanted to be a champion or to be rich or to be strong. All of this is why I say all stories are in the end human stories, and I often say that so that we remove labeling. It’s easy to call something an American story. Well, it’s a human story from America. It’s a perspective. A Nollywood story is not any less a human story. It just provides the information and a backdrop of perhaps a cultural experience you’re not familiar with. So I’m not really keen on storytellers championing a culture. I want storytellers to champion the human experience, give us insight so that those of us who may not be of that cultural experience are still able to be enriched by the stories that you tell. 

Eric: Though his stories focus on the human experience that ties us all together, Mr. Odugbemi’s work still definitely captures the culture and experience of his home country. The Nigerian film industry has, in fact, grown exponentially and artistically over the years, despite working with much smaller budgets than Hollywood. 

Femi Odugbemi: The one thing that everyone agrees with is that Nollywood is an organically grown film culture from Nigeria that perhaps surprised a lot of people in terms of the quantity of its production, the passion of its practitioners, and the fact that they’re able to do so much with so little. If you’ll recall that Nollywood came out of a space where there were really no grants, there were no funding, per se. So a lot of it is really driven by just the passion of the storytellers to create something. And in doing so, I mean in the course of twenty five, thirty years, it’s something that has grown – organically grown in terms of the quality of storytelling, grown in terms of the quality of cinematic exposition, grown in performances as well. But it’s also grown globally because the audience have also been, how will I say, there’s a lot of Africans in the diaspora who have introduced African cinema, which is what I now call Nollywood as a way to connect with their neighbors, to introduce their origin, to get their children into a space where heritage can be visually communicated. So, yeah, that’s for me the first thing.

But in terms of “from here,” what I think is clear is that there is a constant understanding of possibilities. The idea that beyond being successful, Nollywood needs to be significant. Why? Because Nollywood may be the African voice for change in a lot of things that you would call the narrative about Africa. One of the things that I think has been powerful about Nollywood is that it’s provided basic information to update what you would call the National Geographic narrative of Africa, where anyone who has never been to Africa, or been to Nigeria, thinks that everywhere is a forest. And so it’s, in the most basic form, an interesting narrative side-by-side with what has been. Where, you know, you only saw Africa from the perspective of poverty and disease and wars, thanks to Nollywood you also see Africa that has cities, that has professors, that has beautiful cars, and I dare say, beautiful women, and incredibly successful entrepreneurs. And I think it’s very important. Nobody is going to tell the new African story on our behalf. The time of colonialism is gone. Storytelling is now what I call the new soft power. And so whilst we may not be able to compete in terms of military power, we may not be able to compete in terms of economic power. We certainly can compete in terms of the soft power of storytelling to sort of shape our view of the world and to put a voice out there that says, this is who we are, this is who we want to be. And it’s a work in progress. But it’s something certainly that I think Nollywood has been magnificent in achieving. 

Eric: Though it’s a relatively young film industry, Nollywood’s movies have expanded their reach throughout Africa, as well as the world. This is due to both committed filmmakers working hard to hone their craft and a dedicated audience who connects deeply with these stories, regardless of their technical scope. 

Femi Odugbemi: Remember, twenty five years ago, there were a lot of people who just laughed at Nollywood simply because the films were made with, you know, poor cameras. The performances were a work in progress. The storytelling was clearly not as educated as it needed to be. But over the course of time, thanks to its audiences, who were very aware of these shortcomings, but had decided that these stories were important. They were more important in substance and significance than they were in technical craft. And over time, a lot has changed to inspire other African countries and other African cultures. And I don’t like to say that Nollywood has exported itself. More like it has inspired filmmakers in neighboring countries, in Francophone countries, as far away as South Africa. And this is very important, I think, for African storytellers to simply make that shift from waiting for funding, for validation, whether it’s from Paris or from America or from England, to simply understand that unless they are the authors and owners of the narrative, the authenticity of it would always be up for debate. Because there is no way you get a grant from France and you’re not subject to the approval of those who give you the grants. And that approval may simply be a small shed in the story. A little bit of editing preference, but it’s still not entirely your story. And I think what’s clearly happening is Nollywood is inspiring Africa to tell their story. Don’t wait until you have 50 million dollars to make a film. And I think that’s a movement and a revolution that is also ongoing locally because we’re prioritizing training. As you know, I am academy director of the MultiChoice Talent Factory. The reason I am interested, and the reason this whole movement to train and to empower the filmmakers is so key, is simply because, you know, the passion is there. And for it to truly be sustainable, the passion has to apply education. And I think it’s important that an institution like MultiChoice is committing investment into that. Partnering with the New York Film Academy, partnering with filmmakers across the world to say, can we give these young people a chance? 

Eric: This drive for education in Nollywood is for both its future filmmakers as well as its audience. Mr. Odugbemi explained that one of the unique properties in Nollywood stories is their use of customs and cultural traits specific to Nigeria, which might not resonate to all corners of the globe, but are very much embraced by the local audience. 

Femi Odugbemi: One of the things that’s clear, that makes our storytelling different, is that it’s, in many ways, three dimensional. There is the added dimension of our spirituality, the fact that our stories are both physical and metaphysical. The idea that we can tell a story where someone interfaces with an ancestor or interfaces with a dead character and you do not have to prepare the audience for it. It’s not unusual. Why? Because it’s part of the culture. But, you know, we believe that life is sort of like an ongoing existence in realms. And it’s possible for your protagonist to be unseen. A lot of Nollywood films would talk about – especially in the early days – would talk about witches and wizards and people killing people by blowing powder on them. For you it does not pass the test of plausibility, but for us and our audiences, it works. It’s totally fine. There are things that you would have a problem with in a narrative. You know, a traditional man having more than one wife, having four or five wives, when he’s actually poor, to you would be weird because it’s illogical. But to us it’s also part of this culture. So there are so many cultural things that emerge in a Nollywood film that also have also evolved over the years, also represent our city experience, contemporary experiences, historical connections of family. There are things that we do here that is accepted. I can arrive in my brother’s house without warning and it would be unthinkable to I ask him why he did not give me a call before coming. Whereas anywhere else those sorts of things would be weird. So there is a way in which I do think subliminally there are many things that I put on the table, obviously I do not have to speak about things like costuming, habitats. The context of our stories provide a lot of information just about spatial relationships, cultural relationships in terms of parents and child and lovers and the kind of things that we, I mean, we we obviously are not, how shall I say? It takes a village to raise a child. That concept is essentially African. The idea of care and the fact that every young person in the community is to be taken care of by the nearest adult. Things that you still find in storytelling that I think allows us to present a unique world view with our stories. 

Eric: As Nollywood expands artistically and technically, it has worked to create more universal stories while still producing work that can resonate deeply with Nigerians. 

Femi Odugbemi: There’s a bit of a mix. I do think that there’s a whole section of Nollywood that does a lot of traditional stories, a lot of stories that maybe time, or period pieces. But there’s a huge chunk about contemporary experiences. There’s been one or two that have also foreshadowed a future. I am very keen. I think that over the 25 years or so that Nollywood has been, there’s a lot of stories told about the past. I would like that to evolve into us connecting, because we also have an incredibly rich literary heritage. We have a lot of authors who have done a lot of great stories. My uncle, Chief D. O. Fagunwa was one of the first authors of novels in Yoruba language. Some of those stories we do need to bring to cinema to connect them to very important works of the past. I do think that foreshadowing is a critical space we must move into. Our storytelling needs to begin to model a future that we desire. You know, we talk about our ambitions in terms of good governance, in terms of more rapid development, in terms of economic progress. And I think our films need to begin to create heroes along those lines, because right now we have stories that are contemporary, but in many ways timid and I’m being very careful. But the truth is, we have, in a way, a situation politically, you know, development issues that somehow have not made it into a cinema in a way that models how we would like it to be, not just how it is. I think that’s really critical. And I tell my students that the first idea that a Black man could sit behind the resolute desk in the Oval Office is from cinema. And that’s very important that, you know, people are able to stow away that image as a possibility in their subconscious. And so in the fullness of time, it happens because cinema does that. And for me, I think that’s something that cinema has to do. It has to begin to reach into the future, not just to talk about Nigerians going to the Moon or Mars or something like that, but something that connects us to our ambitions as a people, perhaps a more prosperous, more organized, less corruption ridden political culture. We just need heroes. We need to create those heroes through our storytelling. 

Eric: In 2020, the entire world faced the unprecedented pandemic of the coronavirus. For Nollywood, which already worked with limited resources before covid, the filmmakers were forced to reassess how to still move forward with their productions, despite these seemingly insurmountable obstacles. 

Femi Odugbemi: Well, I mean, covid is obviously something that is inviting all of us to rethink everything. The impact of it in a film culture like Nollywood that is actually, that doesn’t have a lot of funding, that is actually struggling in terms of the size of its budgets. The impact of that is that it introduces a cost element to its budgets that would have a huge impact. You now have to deal with insurance for that possibility. You have to deal with all sorts of protocol issues. You have to test people. And today in Nigeria, tests for covid done in a private hospital is over 50,000 naira. All of this, if you put that cost onto the budget of a Nollywood film, it’s a lot that’s not ending up on screen. So that’s going to be the first challenge. But I think the other challenge is also how we begin to mine these stories that are evolving and how we express this in terms of storytelling. Spatial relationships. I keep asking people, is a kiss still a kiss in a post-covid world? There are just so many things that I think comes into play that impacts a smaller film culture like ours. Of course, the distribution part is going to be a huge, huge hit because we don’t have that many cinemas to start with. We’ve got less than about a hundred cinemas for 180 million people. If you start to socially distance in cinemas, I mean coming from the impact of people having to get back into the cinema-going culture after being home for months, it all just looks really difficult. And you understand that the government’s already had a budget deficit. We’re not planning very much for this. Health care infrastructure was always a work in progress. So, yeah, the industry is really going to be badly hit and it needs conversations with other professionals. The insurance industry in particular, about how do we mitigate the impact of this, especially on budgets. Because, you know, when the budget is affected, choices are affected. Choices are affected in art direction. Choices are affected in the ambition of the story itself. Choices are affected equally, the selection of performance. So that’s really where it’s at at the moment. 

Eric: Ramping up production during and, hopefully, soon after the pandemic has proven difficult for every country. On top of which Femi Odugbemi and Nollywood are still actively trying to change the perception of their industry. 

Femi Odugbemi: I tell you, one of the regrettable things about stereotypes of Nollywood is that there’s a lot of films from the early days of Nollywood that are just making the rounds. And what it exposes or gets people fixated on is a history that’s long gone. When you see Nollywood today, you have to understand that there is a world of difference. There’s such a huge world of difference in everything. In the early days, there were a lot of folks who all they had was the passion, whether it was to perform or to tell stories or to be a cameraman. The passion was all it was, and the cameras and the equipment themselves were not great. But over time, there’s been a generational evolution. You now have more and more young people who are well trained in film schools, but you also have the simple, sensible logic that practice has made perfect for even people that did not go to school. You make enough mistakes over 20 years, you will get good at anything. And I think Nollywood is in an incredibly upward trajectory in terms of quality of exposition, in terms of visual narrative structure, in terms of the content and the representations and the power of the stories. I have been privileged to be head of jury of the African Magic Viewer’s Choice Awards four times and the awards are seven years old. So I was there in the first year to see the quality of the films, and I was also head judge last year and I see the quality of the films. And I’m very excited about where the quality is. So if there is a problem, it’s that in the age of digital video, you can’t bury your past. I mean, there are films I made in my early days that I wish I could kill everyone that saw it, or bury it somewhere. Simply because, you know, I think I’m much better than I used to be. And that’s the way Nollywood has been. And I think it’s important that people speak to Nollywood of today, not Nollywood of the past. It’s unfortunate because a lot of people in academia are doing research on Nollywood and constantly bringing up those films and those imagery from its history. While that’s important, I also feel like a lot of scholars like Jonathan Haynes, -inaudible- these guys, did the work at the time, and they helped define what that movement was, what it was trying to say, where it’s going. So I do think a lot of work has been done on the history of Nollywood. I do feel that a lot of scholars need to look at what it’s doing now. There’s a lot of courage, a lot of work, and there’s a lot of width to how it’s, the exposition of culture and culture is not just about the past. Culture is what are our contemporary experiences? There’s a lot of young Nigerians and it’s not just Nigerians. Africa is 60 percent people under the age of 50. So there is also a young, vibrant population that is also represented in this modern stories. And so for me, that’s the biggest thing, is that we’ve got people constantly, constantly resurrecting the past and using it as a measuring stick for the present. It’s not just unfair. It’s incorrect. 

Eric: Well, good news. The present and future of Nigerian cinema got a recent boost thanks to Netflix expanding into Africa. Mr. Odugbemi, for one, could not be any more thrilled at this opportunity to share Nigeria’s stories with the world. 

Femi Odugbemi: Well, yeah, of course. I mean, Netflix has got “Netflix Africa,” and I am just as excited as every film maker in Africa that this global platform is offering an opportunity, a window, for the work of Africans. And the reason this is very important is that it takes the work even farther, allows the rest of the world a window into our stories. So for me, it’s a win win. We need as many platforms as can come into Africa and help us find audiences to consume our stories. I think that’s the plus side. But regardless of whether it’s Netflix or ShowMax or, you know, whatever the name of the platform is, you are an artist just do your work. Don’t tell a story for a platform. Tell a story for people. Tell a story that has got you passionate, a story that when you look at it, you feel validated as a storyteller. And if the platform comes for it, all good. If they, don’t all good. There will always be somewhere for you to show your story. And I think the idea that we have this thing sometimes in an our industry where people have a one-upmanship with each other. The competition is, you know, what’s the latest thing? Does my film on Netflix mean I’m a better filmmaker? I’m not sure there’s a lot of poor films on Netflix. Just as much as there are some very, very good Nigerian films. So Netflix is a commercial platform. It gives you an opportunity for audiences to see your work. The audience must decide if they want to see your work. And that’s what I think all of us as storytellers must aim for. How do we give the best 100 percent effort to tell the best stories we can? 

Eric: Part of Nollywood’s expansion across digital platforms has also necessitated an expansion into a variety of styles and genres. 

Femi Odugbemi: One of the things that I hope we grow in is in being able to actually know how much an audience likes a particular genre film or what it is that, shall I say, trending now? One thing that’s clear, Nigerians love comedies. Oh, they love to laugh. Nigerians love to laugh. The films that have done the best in Nigeria, often have a large chunk of it has been funny. And of course, you know, it’s not just regular funny. It’s usually Nigeria funny because we’ve got teaching language, we’ve got cultural nuances. We’re a bit strange sometimes and we’ve got things that happen that don’t happen anywhere else. How we do our weddings, how we party. All these things, when you represent them in film really well, in a funny way, our audiences always go for a laugh. But I love to see what a slice of the audience is for horror. What’s the slice of the audience for thriller? What’s the slice of the audience action films? The idea of this is that not every filmmaker can make a funny story. I’m not any good at making funny stories, but I still want to be able to create a film in which there are things that are interesting, funny, quirky. I don’t set out to make a comedy. I would set out to make a dramatic story that may have a character that’s funny, but that’s it. So yeah, the genre is something that will encourage more specialization. It’s important that we’re able to build storytelling brands. I mean, when you hear someone’s name, you ought to be able to sort of guess what his film culture is, how he tells his story, what you might be able to expect in terms of genre. I mean, I think that’s something that would evolve over time, but that’s where we are. 

Eric: So the goal for Nollywood is to have movies across the cinematic landscape and the Netflix menu, too, which takes a lot of talented filmmakers. Mr. Odugbemi advised our students to find the right collaborators to make their storytelling work. And even when making a lower budget project, don’t cheap out on the talent. 

Femi Odugbemi: You have to also respect the work that directors do. If you don’t value a director’s work, don’t put them on the project because it’s a waste of money. You will constantly double guess their work. If you bring a director to a project, it’s because you think that director has the creative skills and know how to make that project achieve its best potential. And if you have the creativity to take that work to its best level, then put everything you’ve got into it. If you’re convinced you have the talent and you have the skills. But directing is not something that you simply decide to do. There’s a skill set and there’s a passion. And then there is, you know director’s disappear into this world. And it’s important that they are well remunerated for what they do, especially talented directors. I would suggest to you that the director is not where you save as a first time producer. Get a proper line producer. Get a proper production manager and figure out what’s your best budget to start with. You can always do barter exchanges. I always say to young filmmakers, not everything in film’s about money. Sometimes it’s an exchange. Sometimes it’s -inaubible-, you go do something for them so they can do something for you. Sometimes it’s about credit on the film. Sometimes it’s about showing goods or services. You just have to be resourceful, but don’t make the director the line item of savings. 

Eric: A big part of this investment in people is education, finding the next generation of talented artists who can deepen and expand Nollywood cinema. 

Femi Odugbemi: I’m here because I’m also part of the MultiChoice Talent Factory. And to say that in the last couple of years we’ve graduated now about 120 young filmmakers. It means that there are a lot of young, passionate filmmakers out there in the three regions of Africa who are in need of support, who are in need of mentors, who are in need of guidance. And I hope that all of us who have had opportunity as filmmakers and storytellers also understand that we owe it to this generation to pay it forward, to support their dreams and to to help guide them, to give them opportunity on your platforms and help us to sort of grow this generation next in a certain direction. So that’s something I’d like to leave out there. Obviously, to also say thank you to you, Lizzie, and to the New York Film Academy for a wonderful opportunity to be part of this conversation. 

Eric: And we’ll think Femi Odugbemi right back for his work in global cinema and for sharing his insights with our students. And thanks, of course, to all of you for listening. 

This episode was based on the Q&A, moderated and curated by Liz Henlein. To watch the full interview or to see our other Q&As, check out our YouTube channel at This episode was written by me, Eric Conner. Edited and mixed by Kristian Heydon. Produced by Kristian Heydon, Helen Kantilaftis, and myself. Executive produced by the New York Film Academy. A special thanks to Ose Oyamendan and all our staff and crew who made this possible. To learn more about our programs, check us out at Be sure to subscribe on Apple podcasts or wherever you listen. See you next time. 

Eric: Hi, I’m Eric Conner, senior instructor at New York Film Academy, and in this episode, we bring you a cinematographer whose career spanned six decades and close to 100 movies, whose work did nothing less than change the face of film photography. He brought beauty and darkness to the gritty, earthbound realism of movies like Deliverance, The Deer Hunter, and McCabe & Mrs. Miller. And with Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters, he won himself an Oscar while making us believe in the unbelievable. We’re talking about the legendary Vilmos Zsigmond. Shortly before he passed away in 2016, Mr. Zsigmond shared stories from his remarkable career with our students, including his work on the Academy Award winning Vietnam drama The Deer Hunter, a film which had a bumpy road to the screen, thanks in no small part to its talented but complicated director Michael Cimino. 

Vilmos Zsigmond: When I first read the script, I liked it very, very much. And when I met Michael Cimino I, we had a great time, you know, just to talk about movies and all that. We did like the same kind of movies, you know, going back to the classics and later movies. And then we thought that tastes is pretty, pretty close to each others, you know. And I didn’t even realize that we are going to make one of the best movies of all time, you know, at least in my time, you know, and I was very happy to work with a director who knew exactly what he wanted. He was very diligent about it, to get what he wanted. And he had a lot of fights with producers. And a couple of producers had to leave because he just couldn’t stand them because they were trying to not get the quality what he wanted to get, you know. And then finally, he got a producer from England who was already had a lot of experience and he really knew how to handle Michael. 

Eric: Michael Cimino and Vilmos Zsigmond were blessed with a remarkable cast in The Deer Hunter, including Fredo Corleone himself, John Cazale, easily one of the finest actors from 70s cinema, who unfortunately had been diagnosed with cancer right before filming began. 

Vilmos Zsigmond: I mean, it was like five major stars in a movie like Robert De Niro, Meryl Streep. This was the first movie Meryl Streep was in and in the case of her work – and of course, so it was like an amazing cast, all New Yorkers and they all knew about each other. Cazale was one of them, you know, who who was basically, had cancer and he was basically dying and they didn’t even want to insure him for the movie. So Michael Cimino had actually promised that if anything happens to Cazale during the production, he will write the character out of the movie. And we were very lucky, of course, that he survived, you know, the movie, which was quite long, three, four months, maybe five. And he only died maybe, I don’t know, five months later. It’s too bad because he was a great actor. 

Eric: The Deer Hunter is almost like three distinct short films. A tale of friendship on the eve of being sent into battle, the horrors of war, and the difficulty of returning to normal, with each section necessitating its own unique visual approach. 

Vilmos Zsigmond: We had to think about, you know, that the first part was like introducing the characters and we kept the first part actually more saturated with colors, you know, like reds. You know, the steel mill gave us the orange color of the steel flowing and the blue came basically from the overcast exterior, you know, so I tried to mix the light a little bit, you know, blue and orange. And so that was for the first part. And the second part was mostly like a documentary in the war in Vietnam. And that was like newsreel quality. And we had to do that because, I mean, a lot of shots we had to borrow from newsreels of those days and those were shot on 16 millimeter. And we had to almost match the quality of 16 millimeter. And in order to do that, I pushed the film two stops. That means that I underrated the film and we developed longer. So to make it a little more grainy and more like the quality of documentary or newsreel of those days. And I think it worked pretty good because I don’t think that you can tell too much, which were the documentary footage which was the one we shot because we shot a lot of things which matched the documentary footage. They’re getting out of the helicopter, the soldiers, you know, De Niro and Christopher Walken, they just walk into the place and we have a lot of shots of documentary and you cannot tell that we did that, you know. The third part of course, it was probably the most difficult thing, because I think the key there was, I don’t know which of the actresses say something of, what a gray day. That one word Gray was what captured it and tried to make that whole sequence sort of gray, sort of not contrasty enough and just just make it, you know, somber and make it just set the mood for that whole sequence when they’re coming out from the graveyard and then go inside and and that whole sequence there, which was so amazing for me because I mean – when I read the script I asked Michael that, Michael don’t you think that thing that, you know, that they are going to sing, you know, “God bless America.” Don’t you think it’s too corny? And, you know, hey looked at me and said, well, you know, you think it’s corny but just wait when the actors are going to do that scene and you’ll change your mind because you will be crying. I said, OK, we will see, you know. And I really honestly, when that scene, we shot it, I mean, I was crying behind the camera. I remembered what Michael said and he was correct. You know that, he knew exactly how that scene has to play.

Clip: [The Deer Hunter clip]

Eric: When collaborating with a director’s specific vision, a DP might need to shoot multiple takes to make the director happy, sometimes at the expense of a less than thrilled cast. 

Vilmos Zsigmond: We shot a lot of film, but I don’t think that it was like the Heaven’s Gate kind of. In Deer Hunter we had great actors and I don’t think that we repeated so many times. I mean we repeated many times because Robert DeNiro, he always likes to do something better on the next take and all that. And, you know, you deal with great actors. They sometimes want to have more takes. And there was one scene when we shot about 12 shots. That was also I didn’t know why Michael Cimino wanted to do so many takes. That’s at the wedding and they are dancing on the floor. We did take one, take two, take three. They all look the same to me. And then to seven, eight and finally I asked Michael, Michael, why you have to take so many takes. He said, just shut up and just do to the shot. Okay and finally we do I think it was take nine or something like that. But the actors were already so tired of dancing and doing so many takes and De Niro and Christopher Walken fell on their asses, you know, and they’re dancing, you know, they and they kept acting, you know, because they didn’t want to stop. He didn’t say cut. Michael didn’t say cut. But this was an unusual thing, you know, that happened. And I let the camera roll and that ended up in a movie. 

Eric : An issue that can arise with so many takes is not every actor peaks at the same time. As was the case with Robert Altman’s neo-western McCabe & Mrs. Miller

Vilmos Zsigmond: Warren Beatty needs a lot of takes. And the other problem, you know, with Julie Christie, because she is such a talented person who who does it the first time, right? The second time is still good. The third time she’s already bored. Warren Beatty’s just warming up, you know, and then we got to take six or seven or eight and Julie Christie might be sleeping there next to him, you know. So, I mean, you know, you have to always work around people how they like to work. And Warren is a very hard working actor and a good director. And he knows when he needs another take. Funny story. One time, we had one scene for the whole movie when he’s drunk and he has this monologue going on for like six minutes. And one roll of film is like ten minutes long. And we kept shooting with two cameras, one wider and one tighter. And we went already something like thirty seven takes. We started at nine o’clock in the morning shooting and it was already eight o’clock at night. And still Warren wanted to have another take and Altman said, Warren I think we got the shot on take seven and if that’s not good enough, we got it on take nine and we are not doing any more takes. He said, no just do one more, one more. Altman said, OK, you take one more, I’m going home. Vilmos is going to be behind the camera. Just go ahead and and do another take. And he left. 

Eric: Working with directors like Michael Cimino, Robert Altman, Steven Spielberg meant that Vilmos Zsigmond got to witness firsthand some of the greatest performances in American cinema. 

Vilmos Zsigmond: Well, you know, I pretty much saw it through the camera because I always operated the camera, so through the camera you always see the performance like you will be in a movie theater. I see the movie basically while it’s being made. I remember, for example, from this movie, that scene when Christopher Walken dies in Robert De Niro’s arms, you know, when he shot himself, you know. That was not rehearsed, absolutely not rehearsed because Michael wanted them to do it, like improvising because he believed that the first shot is going to have the best performance because it’s going to be fresh and new and without thinking about it and just let the actors do it. So we had to be careful with the two cameras. We had to sell it because we didn’t know exactly what they are going to do. So how are they going to move? The lighting was set pretty much, you know, that they could do anything they wanted to do because there was enough light. We had the key light. We the fill light. We had the cross lights. So no matter what they did, they will be lit enough, you know, that they can do anything that they want to do. I didn’t expect the depth of that performance what they did at that time. I mean I didn’t think that Robert De Niro have a performance like that in that. I mean, it was amazing. I mean, again, that was a scene which I was crying behind the camera with Robert De Niro, and, you know, it was just incredible. 

Clip: [The Deer Hunter clip]. 

Vilmos Zsigmond: After that, everybody was silent. And nobody said, let’s make another take. It was no other take. Because it would have been impossible to get that same performance, you know? It was incredible, really. 

Eric: That’s a good lesson for an actor. If you want to avoid a lot of takes, be perfect in one of them. Easy, right? Though working with Robert Altman also meant sometimes coming to the set with no idea of what they were going to shoot. 

Vilmos Zsigmond: Altman, obviously, well he was a great director because he was the great improviser. To the point, you know, that me never shot the screenplay. We had a story written, but it never shot that. Every night Warren Beatty, Julie Christie, and Altman sat down for a couple hours and wrote the next day’s script and I was complaining about it that I’m not going to be prepared, you know, because I don’t know what we are shooting and where we are shooting. And he said, don’t worry about it. You will know in the morning what we are shooting. So you go on the set and Robert says, Vilmos we shooting over there at the edge of the set. You know, that was a big little village that we built. I said, wow that’s big news for me because we are not even cabled there. You know, we have to cable 400 feet, 500 feet and, wow how long is that going to take? Well it’s going to take three, four hours until, you know, they cable and put some lights and all that. OK, go ahead and start doing it. And he never pushed me. He never came to me that why is it taking so long or when are you going to be ready? He knew exactly how long is it going to take if I said he’s going to take three, four hours. And the way he was prepared and we still finished at four o’clock before the sun went down. And he was very good at using two cameras – many times, using scenes in one shot. 

Eric: Mr. Zsigmond also cautioned that when a director tries to control too much of the filmmaking, well, that can cause its own problems. 

Vilmos Zsigmond: There are many, many things the director can do, you know. A lot of them would actually get involved with the camera. And that’s not good news for me because then what am I going to do? But, you know, that happens. And then so I just have to follow the directions, you know. Some directors want to set up the shot themselves. You know, this is where we are shooting. And then other directors would just tell me that, OK, we are going to do a long shot here and maybe coverage and the camera will be somewhere here. And then he goes and talks to the actors because that’s the most important thing for him, is to rehearse with the actors on the set. In the meantime, I’m doing my job. If I cannot do it, I have to wait until the rehearsal is over. But at least I know what the actors are doing. So that helps my job because I know exactly. We make a walking rehearsal afterwards and make certain marks where they will stop or they go from A to B or C, so we know that, and we have a couple of stand ins who we will light the scene and then when I’m ready with the lighting, we go and start shooting. So it depends on what the director wants to do, really how much work he wants to do himself. You know, many of directors get involved with the props. Many of them, you know, that’s so important for them, that how the things on the table is set up and all that, you know. And mostly commercial directors do that because they shot many commercials and there the props are very important. But many directors who came from commercials, they waste their time, you know, to work with things which is not really that important, but other people cannot do. But it always depends on the upbringing of the director. What the directors learn to do and what they like to do, because many times they want to operate the camera. I don’t like that part at all, you know, because, you know, we have many directors, you know, who like to play the game. And instead of watching the scene from the outside and maybe on the video playback, whatever. So I think their job is really to to really direct the actors and not to operate the camera because operating is a job anybody can do that, you know? Good operators can do it. Bad operators, you don’t hire them. 

Eric: One filmmaker who impressed Mr. Zsigmond right away was Steven Spielberg, a director he worked with so early in his career that Mr. Zsigmond initially said… 

Vilmos Zsigmond: Who is Spielberg? Who was Spielberg in those days? I mean, he was a kid. He was a young guy who did one TV show, called Duel. And he wants to shoot me his movie. I said, well, I’d rather shoot another movie which is going to win the Academy Award. And that was a western, I can’t remember what the title was. But my agent said, well, you have to meet this guy because he is really a brilliant young guy. So I sat down with him for a coffee. And we started to talk and talk and talk and I’m telling you, I fell in love with this guy. I mean, I really I mean, he was brilliant, you know, in the conversation. He was talking about all the movies that I haven’t seen. He saw all the movies which everyone’s made. And he was educated very well to be a film director, you know. So anyhow, after that conversation, I said, OK, I give up the Academy Award, you know. And it paid off because I got the Academy Award on his next movie, what we did together. So it was a good investment. 

Eric: That good investment eventually led to Close Encounters of the Third Kind. A groundbreaking sci-fi drama that faced some pretty stiff competition from another science fiction property. 

Vilmos Zsigmond: Steven wanted to do that movie a long time before he was still probably a student and he wanted to do it low budget, 16 millimeter low budget. And that’s how this started out. When he started to make the movie, we had a very low budget because they thought that Steven really can bring it in for very little money. It didn’t happened. Because it started to grow. Suddenly he got actors like Richard Dreyfuss and once you have Richard Dreyfuss, you have to have other good actors. And everything started to escalate to the point that probably became about 25 million. That was a question mark, whether we did the right thing or not, to spend all that money on a movie which might fail. And it almost failed, you know, because it was in competition with George Lucas’s film, at the same time, you know, a little film like Star Wars and Star Wars got like nine or eleven awards. And Close Encounters got only one. It should have been the other way around, I think, because today everybody is very happy to see Close Encounters of the Third Kind. But I don’t know how many people want to see Star Wars. I don’t know. I certainly don’t. 

Eric: By working in the industry for decades, Vilmos Zsigmond had to adjust to the changing technology of cinema, including the use of video tap, when a monitor is attached to the camera, which was a game changer for how movies were shot. 

Vilmos Zsigmond: Many, many directors actually lost their place from the camera and they like to be back, you know, where the video monitor is and watch the scene there on a tiny little monitor, which is ridiculous because you can’t see anything, you know, really to determine if the shot was good or not, you know. You can’t see the performance, really, on a small monitor. That’s why many of those directors like to make so many close ups, because the close ups show up on a monitor. So they can you know. I hated that when it happened, you know, but I always urge, you know, new directors when I work with many new, upcoming directors, first directors, I always told them be by the camera and watch the scene from that. That’s when the good directors do. Altman did that. Spielberg did that. Jerry Schatzberg did that. Brian De Palma did that. That’s where their place is. Is by the camera. Not at the monitor. The monitor is there only if you want to playback something and see what the actors did so you can match it. And it helps the script person very much because I could always admire those script supervisors that, how did they remember what the actors did in the shot? When you have four or five actors that do all kind of different things and you know, mostly things with props, you know, because in the middle of the thing, they pick up a glass and drink some water or something, and they had to watch that they do it every time in the same sentence and the same words. If they don’t do that, they have to make a note, because then at the end, when the director is going to say, OK, print take five and print take nine, they better know, you know, what they did with their hands. Otherwise, it will be a mismatch. 

Eric: Technological innovations also means the modern DP can adjust their cinematography digitally in post-production, which makes Vilmos Zsigmond’s earlier work that much more impressive for pulling off their look without digital processing. 

Vilmos Zsigmond: But then McCabe & Mrs. Miller, the next film I did, I knew that we cannot do that with bright colors like Technicolor, the like the days in those days when everything was so bright and colorful. And I actually studied the film Freddy Young, who was shot in London called The Deadly Affair. He used the technique of flashing because he didn’t have enough lights and he wanted to make the film more sensitive to work in interiors. And they didn’t have many lights, low budget. And I thought it was an interesting idea. And I made some tests and then I suggested to Altman that they should probably try out and test this how the flashing is going to work for the film. And so we made a test and he loved it because, you know flashing makes things look a little bit gray, but you had exposure at least. His idea was to make the images more like faded images of the days, like it was about the turn of the century when they were doing stills. They would all sort of different looking and then because of the times, you know, it was faded. And that’s what he wanted actually to shoot the whole movie with that idea. And that worked for that one. And for a long time afterwards, I tried to use it in a limited way, but I had to use it almost on all my films. Not much maybe because you couldn’t really tell too much which film and where I was flashing the film. Sometimes it needed, sometimes it didn’t. It depended on exteriors and the sun is shining on one shot and then overcast. And the only way I could actually balance it out if I was, I use flashing on the contrasty sunny days and didn’t use the flashing on the overcast days, so so that was one way to change the look of the film, which we could not do, of course, because we didn’t have digital intermediate. We had to try to do things. You know, other cinematographers did it differently, like Gordon Willis got the same result by simply just under exposing the film. And that worked very well for him. 

Eric: When working on Brian De Palma’s The Black Dahlia, Mr. Zsigmond marveled at the swing shift lens system, which helps give Mr. De Palma his trademark split screen deep focus shots. 

Vilmos Zsigmond: I think I used a swing shift, actually on Black Dalia. You know a lot of other movies I used that actually, and mostly with Brian De Palma because he loves a great depth of field, you know, and that’s good. You know, that some people like one person being in focus and the other one out of focus, even if they have lines. To go, ping pong focus, you know, back and forth. I don’t like that either, you know, too much because that shows you we are making a movie. I know in my photography, I always I don’t want to hide it that we are shooting a movie. I want them to feel that they are seeing the real thing and whatever takes you away from that mood, you know, like the shaky camera. You know, I think it’s ridiculous because it reminds you that we are shooting a movie. I mean, that’s not the idea to make a good movie. And I think, yes, you shake the cameraman, somebody running, and you try to do the point of view of that person. Yes, that’s great. But to have that handheld camera going all the time through the movie with no reason at all, it’s ridiculous. But that’s the style now. 

Eric: So to be clear, if you’re going to shake or move your camera, make sure there’s a reason why. On the technical end, Mr. Zsigmond also described how he approached trading nighttime exteriors, which can be a battle for even the most seasoned camera person. 

Vilmos Zsigmond: I like to light very natural, in a natural way, so my style is to be very real as far as the lighting goes. I don’t want to light something which I cannot explain where the light is coming from. That’s why I bring in lights from windows, from doors. Lamps, actually from the ceiling. If there’s an overhead light, I want the light coming from there. So if you follow reality and the skin is going to look real and you know, my feeling is that the audience, when they see a movie, should never think about where the light is coming from. They should just accept the image like a true image that it looks real. Like we didn’t use any light at all. If somebody can see that a light is coming from a wrong direction, they will see it. So that made it difficult for me on a Woody Allen movie. He used a Steadicam, I would say about 50 or 60 percent of the time. And the Steadicam went from room to room, you know, in 360 degrees sometimes. So so everybody had to be hiding, you know, somewhere so the camera don’t see them. So in that case, also, the lighting was difficult because I could not see lights. So where do you put the lights, when you have a low ceiling. Woody always works in real apartments. He doesn’t work on stages. So the question is always, how to light and not see the lamps? And that usually end up with under lighting the set. That was really exciting for me to do what Woody wanted to do and come out all right and make it actually acceptable lighting for the scene. 

Eric: All of the planning in the world, though, might not be able to compensate for a limited budget or worse, faulty equipment. 

Vilmos Zsigmond: So we’re getting to the point that night shots are getting easier to shoot because if you have a street brightly lit, you can almost shoot available light, with some additional lights for the actors when they come closer. Then you just have to match the color temperature and then you can get away with very little lighting. So that’s today. But in The Deer Hunter days, we had a real problem because remember the scene near the end where De Niro is coming on a boat and a lot of refugees are coming through a bridge. I mean, we had generators which broke down and at the end we had hardly any lights, you know, left. Because we had bad equipment, because we had to get the equipment from Thailand. So it was very underlit. And we were just hoping that it’s going to come out in the film. Wide open and flashing. And, you know, luckily I saw that on the Bluray. It looked actually better than it looked on film, that scene. Because, you know, when you go to Bluray, of course, you digitally can improve things. So the contrast went back a little bit. And you can see the actors much better. De Niro in his white suit, you know, in the, on the boat when it was coming. On the film, I didn’t see that. 

Eric: How a DP approaches their lighting is especially important when filming what might be the most expensive part of a production, the star. 

Vilmos Zsigmond: With Bette Midler, for example, in The Rose. Bette Midler needed the most diffusion in my life. But, you know, interesting, when you start from day one on the whole scene, I have to use diffusion on men also, because otherwise it will not match, you know. One shot is sharp, the other shot is soft. It will be ridiculous. So I had to use that same diffusion basically on everybody and all the time, regardless of what the scene was or where. And, you know, the combination which really worked beautifully on Bette Midler. But I’m not going to tell you the combination because then you will steal my job away, you know. It’s a matter of also do it with the lighting also, because you have sharp lights and you have diffused lights and when you come into a close up, I usually have to soften the light. You can use the Kino Flos many times, even if in the long shot you used the directional lights, you can actually replace that in a close up, if it comes from the same direction, with a little softer lights and that will help already. So it’s a matter of, you know, you have to shoot tests before you do a movie and you have a problem face. Aging stars who would like to look 20 years old, you know, and you have to make a lot of tests and even test filters, lighting directions and all that. Many times I even do that technique that I’m going to not have a full exposure on their face. I will keep them a little bit in the shade. And that helps a lot, you know, and so you just have to test it out and then whatever works, it will work. 

Eric: So does a man who shot close to a hundred movies have a favorite scene? 

Vilmos Zsigmond: Oh boy. Thousands of them. The one I already told you about, that De Niro and Christopher Walken, when he dies. That’s probably one of the moment I will always remember in my life. But there are so many interesting scenes, like Heaven’s Gate has a lot of them, you know, like the roller skating rink, you know, I mean, that’s a classic there, you know. And so many beautiful shots, you know, when the immigrants are coming along, dusty road. And we actually it was interesting. I wanted to shoot that in the early morning sunlight. And Michael said, OK, people sigh and he got ready actually to direct that scene by afternoon at four o’clock because there were hundreds of extras and a lot of wagons and a lot of people. And so by the time we rehearsed the whole thing, it was four o’clock. And I said, Michael, I lost my early morning feeling. But you know what? I have a late afternoon feeling. So it turned out actually, it was really beautiful in the afternoon. It was like a painting, you know, and sometimes you get lucky, you know. 

Eric: Mr. Zsigmond’s advice for our students came with a warning as well, be patient. It’s going to take time. 

Vilmos Zsigmond: Hard to succeed in show business. You have to work hard and you cannot become what you want to become in a year’s time or two years’ time, or three years’ time. I usually say that in order to start to do something, five years. You need five years from the start. Let’s say that you finish film school and then you want to become a cinematographer who is wanted by other directors, it’ll take five years, sometimes 10. For me it took 10, because I didn’t speak English. It took me five years just to get to the point that my English was acceptable and I understood what I said. Most of it, but I just understood that the director was telling me. I mean that was the problem at the beginning, because how could you get a job and you understand what the director wants to do? It’s impossible. You don’t have to learn the language, that’s good for you because you are in America, everybody speaks English, right? So that’s why I say five years is a good time. But you should always be determined where you want to be in five years from now. You can try to make it in two years, but you have to determine and work on it and you’ll end up five years anyhow. 

Eric: He also shared his formula for having a long career. 

Vilmos Zsigmond: I am not the only one, I think, because if you look at other cinematographers, we have long careers that usually than the average. And the only way I can explain that you stay young if you keep working. The worst problem is when somebody gets 65 years old and had to retire. Cannot do the job that he or she was doing and I think then his head is going to deteriorate because he’s not using his brains, you know. He’s not really living the way he used to live. And I can only suggest everybody to never retire. Let death takes you away from this world, not retirement. But if you don’t like your job, then retire early. 

Eric: Vilmos Zsigmond continued to DP well into his 80s, including The Mindy Project. He passed away in 2016 at the age of 85. If you get a chance, check out his remarkable work on McCabe & Mrs. Miller. For my money, the most realistic looking Western ever committed to film. Or watch one of his dozens of other titles. You won’t be disappointed. 

This episode was based on the Q&A, moderated by Michael Pessah. To watch the full interview or to see our other Q&As, check out our YouTube channel at This episode was written by me, Eric Conner. Edited and mixed by Kristian Heydon. Produced by Kristian Heydon, Helen Kantilaftis, and myself. Executive Produced by the New York Film Academy. A special thanks to all our staff and crew who made this possible. To learn more about our programs, check us out at Be sure to subscribe on Apple Podcasts or wherever you listen. See you next time. 

Eric: A friendly warning, this episode features some adult language, or, as our guest put it. 

Manuel Garcia-Rulfo: I want to apologize in advance because of my English. So, you know, you’re going to see a lot of this and swearing and all this s***. 

Eric: So if you’ve got kids around, throw on some earbuds. 

Hi, I’m Eric Conner senior instructor at New York Film Academy. And in this episode, we bring you an actor who shared the screen with Hollywood legends. Michelle Pfeiffer, Kenneth Branagh, Judi Dench, Willem Dafoe and Johnny Depp. And that was just from one movie, Murder on the Orient Express. He’s also costarred with Liam Neeson and Viola Davis in Widows, Tom Hanks in Greyhound, and rolled alongside Denzel Washington and Chris Pratt as one of The Magnificent Seven. We’re talking about Manuel Garcia-Rulfo. Before appearing with all these Hollywood luminaries, proud to say he was a student at New York Film Academy. 

Manuel Garcia-Rulfo: One thing that I really appreciate from this school, it’s because, like I said, I took a lot of, after this I went to study in Mexico for a year and I took here a lot of courses in that. But what NYFA really gave me was to work with the camera a lot. And most of the acting schools, they don’t give you that. You know, it just makes you comfortable to be in front of the camera. And once you get out of here, when I did it, like I knew, you know, the little kind of words they use and techniques of the camera and the filmmaking and all that, they teach us and some of the acting schools, they don’t. They just focus on the acting craft, you know? So that was one of my favorite things. And yeah. And it was my first acting school, this one. So, you know, I really am very thankful with the school. I think the path of everybody is going to be different. For me you know, I graduate here. I took the one year acting for film a long time ago. I think it was 2004. And after that I just kept studying more and doing everything. I remember after this, I stay here in the States for like one year and a half more and I keep studying. I went to this school called Larry Moss studio in Santa Monica and taking a lot of courses and just doing anything, you know, like doing any kind of short film, thesis. Anything, really, because that’s, you know, you start getting experience and all. But yeah. I mean, just be there, be prepared, I think. And and s*** will happens, I guess. You know. 

Eric: Part of stuff happening is how one role can lead to the next, especially if you do it well. 

Manuel Garcia-Rulfo: I think every project, every character that I’ve played, you know, you do one thing and then that brings you to another. You know, one short film, brought me to a feature film. That feature film, my first feature film that I did. It was a Mexican film. It was selected in the Denver Film Festival. And they invited me as a guest and a very well-known actor, American actor, he was there as well as a guest, and he saw the film. And after the film he came. He was like, Manuel, your work, I really liked it. And if you’re ever in L.A., let me know and I can introduce you to my manager. So, you know, and it was a good manager and that manager got me another job. You know what I’m saying is every project, even if it’s very small, brought me to like more things, you know. 

Eric: As an actor starting out, Mr. Garcia-Rulfo stayed focused and kept pushing, even if it meant taking roles that were not quite part of the long term goal. 

Manuel Garcia-Rulfo: I mean, I had very clear what I wanted to do, what my career wanted to be. And I did say, even at the beginning, I mean you’re f***ing hungry literally, like you want to eat, you know, and you’re hungry to work and you have no money and everything. But I had very clear what my career I wanted it to be. So I said no to a lot of things the beginning. In Mexico, I don’t know if you know this, but there’s this thing called soap operas, novelas. And, you know. I mean, some people like it. Whatever. It’s not my thing, you know, but they offered me a lot of that in Mexico. And there’s very good money involved in these things. And they offer you the moon, whatever. And I remember being like f***ing – and it’s just a job. It’s money, you know, it’s f***ing whatever. Let’s just do it. And then my inside thing was like, no, this is not your path, because I think that to do the crossover from soap opera to the things I want to do, it’s very hard to do. So yeah, I’m not saying say yes to anything. What I’m saying is, who am I to say what to do, you know? But that was my thing. I did say no to things and I mean I worked for like four years, five years without getting paid, you know, doing short films and plays or whatever. 

Eric: Part of what made Manuel Garcia-Rulfo’s journey unique and more difficult was breaking into Hollywood as a Latino actor. 

Manuel Garcia-Rulfo: One thing I could say, and not just Latino actors, just to any kind of actors, buckle up, because it’s going to be a bumpy ride. You know, it’s a tough career. It’s a very tough career. And it’s going to sound cliche and it’s going to sound f***ing corny, but it will bring you down because it’s very tough. It doesn’t depend on you a lot. And I think we have to enjoy that as well, you know, nurture from those downs and ups and whatever man. We f***ing, we have to just relax. And one of the things that I, you know, I work in myself is an element of not giving a f*** anymore. I used to be very obsessed to please the director, to please the audience or to please my fellow actors or whatever. And that kills creativity and the artist in you, you know, if you come from that place of trying to please everybody. So I think my advice would be to relax and just, I’m not saying don’t give a f***. Don’t come to that direct and p*** all over. No. You know, do the work and be focused and all, but relax and enjoy the ride. I think now for us Latinos, you know, the doors are open. I think Hollywood has changed little by little, has been changing the way they portray Latinos. So I think it’s a good time for you guys to come. I mean, for us to come, you know. 

Eric: Rather than be discouraged, Mr. Garcia also took advantage of what made him different. 

Manuel Garcia-Rulfo: Could be an opportunity as well. You know, that you have this accent or this whatever, you know. So, yeah, maybe you can have – maybe embrace it. You know, the thing that can, I mean, I know actors of, that very famous actors that, Mexican actors that, they’ve been there forever and they never change their accent. And they could. I mean, I know that they work on it and they have the best accent coaches or whatever. F***, because that’s what works for them. The world wants to see them with this sexy accent or whatever. And and they’re like, f*** it, I’m going to do it. I’m the kind of actor that I want to do everything. I want to play in American one day. And I think I can. If I have to work on the accent, whatever. But but yeah, Hollywood puts you in a box, and not Hollywood, the audience, they want to see you as this and that. 

Eric: Mr. Garcia-Rulfo’s ride eventually got him the chance to jump in the saddle for the remake of The Magnificent Seven directed by Antoine Fuqua. It’s a job he landed, ironically, thanks to a part he didn’t get. 

Manuel Garcia-Rulfo: For this film I auditioned before with Antoine, the director. He did a movie before this one called Southpaw. Boxing movie. I was going to play, I don’t remember the story really well, but it was a boxer that plays against the main actor. So he saw me there and he kind of liked me. He called me again. It was like, Manuel, I like you, but it was, you’re too tall for, you know, it’s not going to make sense because, you know, because of the weights in boxing. So we left it. I’m like oh my god, another one that is almost there. So for this one, he called me and we had a meeting and he was like, Manuel I really like you for this. The part was going to go for another actor first because of, you know, the studios wanted this actor because he’s kind of famous in Latin America. And he couldn’t. So Antoine called me and he’s like, he’s just offered me the part. 

Eric: He relished the opportunity to play cowboy alongside an A-list cast, one which required him to bring his own A game. 

Manuel Garcia-Rulfo: I do have a favorite scene which didn’t make the cut. I think we were at the bar, we’re dining and we’re kind of drunk. And then Chris Pratt talks about the Maria, this and that. And that was a very fun because it was improvised everything. Most of it was very improvised. Antoine, the director, just left us there to play. The cameras kept rolling and we just went with it. And, you know, you have very good actors there, Vincent D’Onofrio and Ethan Hawke. And so you just have to bring your game. And it was so fun because we were all present and we were all committed to the characters and it was just a bunch of guys just being drunk and doing stupid things. That was my favorite. And of course, the fact that it’s a Western and you have this shooting and spinning guns and riding horses, and grabbing your crotch, and spitting and all these things. 

Eric: As fun as it is to be paid to play cowboy with the coolest guys in Hollywood, The Magnificent Seven still had its share of difficulties. 

Manuel Garcia-Rulfo: It was a very tough movie to do because we shot it in Louisiana. In the summer. I’ve never in my life felt that heat, in my life. Like it was and I loved it. I love Louisiana. It was beautiful, but it’s too hot. So that was one thing because, you know, you have this, the wardrobe is leather and the pants are like they used to be of this very thick thing. Boots and this and the hat. And so I think that was the hardest part. Also spinning the guns because it was, they’re very heavy. They’re real guns. We took like one month of training with a guns and with our horses. And, you know, that was kind of hard because but it was fun as well. I mean, I think all of that helped the film. You know, it helped the, ambiente? The atmosphere of the film, you know, of the characters and of the film, of the story. It helped us to be in that kind of heat and gave you the sense of being tired like on those days. You know, you imagine these guys sometimes they didn’t eat for I don’t know how many days or hours or didn’t have a river to drink water or whatever. So it kind of help us to be, you know, to feel tired and f***ing sweaty. 

Eric: And what about when it wasn’t hot? 

Manuel Garcia-Rulfo: When it rains, it pours, so we had to stop for like three, four hours. You know, we were shooting. We have to stop for three hours because of the rain. And then after the rain came the lightning storms. And you have to wait every time lightings hits whatever, you have to wait 30 minutes because of safety. So, you know, like nature elements was like very tough things. And so it was a very long shoot. It was like five months shoot. So it’s a very long thing. And then this, I don’t remember the organization, but they shut us down, not shut us down, because there was a lot of horses. And with the heat, they were like, the horses are hot. I’m like, m****rf***er, what about me? Yeah, they don’t, like horses. Keep them in the f***ing AC, you know. And I’m in the sun with a f***ing thing. But I mean, it wasn’t like we were, you know, they need to rest for three hours or whatever. So, you know, we have to rest the horses. So it was, it was a tough shoot and so many extras and stunts and horses everywhere. But yeah. Other than that, it went smooth. 

Eric: The Magnificent Seven was not his first Hollywood role, but it’s the part that cemented his career in the states, leading to work in Murder on the Orient Express and Sicario: Day of the Soldado. And through all the downs and ups, Mr. Garcia-Rulfo finds it crucial to keep a routine. 

Manuel Garcia-Rulfo: When I’m not working, I have to do one hour reading. I have to watch one film a day. I have to play for 30 minutes music. And I have to do one hour exercise. That helps me a lot because reading opens you everything, novels. And I think that’s the most important thing an actor should do, to read, and to watch films, and watch every kind of film. I mean, especially the kind of career you want to take. You kind of see those films, you know, but I mean, I encourage, encourage? No, who the f*** am I to encourage anyone. Whatever. What I do is listen to music, things that nurture your creativity and your – you know, because as actors, we’re an instrument. So we have to trigger these emotions and always be sharp because we start growing up and we start changing. Like before I used to cry because my girlfriend left me. Now I’m like, whatever, you know? So you have to always keep asking, you know, like triggering yourself. So I say read books, read novels, any kind of, poetry, films, good films, listen to music, go to museums, go watch art. F*** I get goosebumps because we have to be, you know, motivated by everything, even go watch a fight. And and that gets you a life, you know. 

Eric: He also stressed the importance of not waiting around for a role to keep performing. 

Manuel Garcia-Rulfo: Nowadays, you can do you know, you have so many methods or whatever to shoot anything, you know, you have an iPhone. I mean, I just saw on a couple of months ago a movie called Tangerine, and they shot it with an iPhone. And it’s brilliant. I loved it. You know so you have like, just get together with your friends, or your, I mean, you have the means here in the school and you have writers and directors and just, you know, do your own short films, whatever man. Do theater. So many things that now we can do is, because the thing is, after school, we have this because it happened to me. You know, you have this thing of, oh, I need to work. I was obsessed with getting this to work. I need to get an agent. I have to work, work, work. And honestly, that kills you because you’re obsessed now with, and it doesn’t go the creativity, the artistry, the you know with the sensitivity with this thing of I need to make it, I need to make it. And it kills you, man. So just go for it. And, you know, instead of waiting for it, trying to go and make it your own and do plays. It’s very easy to do a play. And you never know. Somebody might watch that play and would say, hey, you. Come here.

Eric: Part of going for it means taking a big swing for the fences, with a fair warning: that also means you might strike out. Badly. 

Manuel Garcia-Rulfo: I remember being here after I graduated. I stayed for like a year and a half more, and I was obsessed about getting an agent. I remember sending every day a headshot with my resume, whatever, my reel. Nothing. We even had, because back in the day when I started, they had these like very wealthy students, right? And I became friends with one, who was Colombian. Don’t ask me where the money came from. One was Colombian, whatever. And he’s like, I know the solution for this. I’m like, what are we going to do? All right, so we’re going to grab, there’s a very nice hotel here in Beverly Hills called the Peninsula. The Peninsula Hotel, right? And he’s like, if we’re not getting an agent, we’re going to rent the Peninsula Hotel and we’re going to show our demo reels. And then we’re going to show this short film that we did. And we’re going to invite all the agents because agents and the big agencies are right in Beverly Hills. They’re all together, right? So we start sending invitations, like very expensive invitations, to the big agencies, CAA, whatever, whatever. We used to send, una canasta? 

Miguel Cruz: Basket. 

Manuel Garcia-Rulfo: A basket, thanks, full of chocolate and s*** and with a f***ing invitation, the poster of the film that we’re going to show. Come see our this and whatever at the Peninsula Hotel. Champagne after. It’s like, this is it. We f***ing made it. So the big day came. I don’t know how much money he spent. I’m sure like, I don’t know. But the big day came and I don’t think even my mother came. Not even my mother show up. Yeah. At least I didn’t pay. I didn’t lose my money. 

Eric: Fortunately he did not let that one pretty rotten night stop his dreams. Thanks to his perseverance and talent, his career has only gotten better with time. 

Manuel Garcia-Rulfo: I think it’s better to focus on your craft. Keep studying, you know, to feed yourself with these things and study and study, and I say after this, I don’t know, if you have the money, go to London and study in London, go to New York and study different kind of things and – because if you worry about after this, I mean, it might happen. I’m not saying – there’s no formula for it. I think in my experience, it was kind of. We even did that and didn’t f***ing work. Hope that helps. 

Eric: It’s always great to see our alumni out there making things happen. We want to thank Manuel Garcia-Rulfo for sharing his tales with our students and thanks to all of you for listening. 

This episode was based on the Q&A moderated by Miguel Cruz. To watch the full interview or to see our other Q&As, check out our YouTube channel at This episode was written by me, Eric Conner. Edited and mixed by Kristian Heydon. Produced by Kristian Heydon, Helen Kantilaftis, and myself. Executive Produced by the New York Film Academy. A special thanks to all our staff and crew who made this possible to learn more about our programs, check us out at Be sure to subscribe on Apple podcasts or wherever you listen. See you next time. 

Eric: Hi, I’m Eric Conner, senior instructor at New York Film Academy, and in this episode, we bring you an actor director with over 150 film and TV credits. He rode with Billy the Kid and the Regulators in Young Guns, learned from Jaime Escalante how to Stand and Deliver, brought Ritchie Valens to vivid life in La Bamba, and brought a serial killer to justice in Fox’s Prodigal Son. We are talking about the Lou Diamond Phillips. Mr. Phillips screened the TV movie Love Takes Wing from the ten film Love Comes Softly westerns series. He directed and acted in the film alongside Oscar winner Cloris Leachman and the Backstreet Boys’ Kevin Richardson, who joined him for the Q&A. Mr. Phillips directing work also helped lead to other recent gigs behind the camera on Agents of Shield and Fear The Walking Dead. But one hundred and fifty movies and shows ago, Lou Diamond Phillips was an actor hungry to make his mark, one who credits his success as much to what he didn’t know. 

Lou Diamond Phillips: Just sheer tenacity and ignorance basically. Stupidity has always been a good friend of mine. And time isn’t that rough. No, you know, I say this to a lot of people and it’s funny because out here, you run into it a lot and no disrespect to LA actors, but not so much in New York and and in other places, because fame and celebrity are something totally different today than they were when I was 17 and starting. I mean, you know, you can get famous by sticking a firecracker up your butt now and get a movie deal, you know, or putting out a sex tape or you know what I’m saying? There’s a lot of ways to get famous. There’s a lot of ways to get celebrity. There’s not a lot of ways to become a good actor. And that’s what I wanted. The rest of it is great. I’m not going to lie to you. It’s pretty fantastic. I loved it. And when I when I pop in and I teach acting, you know, it’s –  you have to love it. You have to care about it. You have to care about how good you are. You have to care about how good the projects you are in. You know, it’s too hard otherwise. It’s too painful. The rejection sucks. And the interesting thing is, yes, we can all make fun of the people out there who aren’t talented. Still getting jobs. You know, there’s a lot of talented people. They ain’t getting jobs. And that’s hard. That’s hard to watch. It’s hard when you’re one of them, you know. You’re going to get some breaks. You’re not going to get all the breaks. Be grateful for the ones that you do get, but turn them into something. And eventually, you know, what you’re not, you’re not looking to be a flash in the pan. You’re looking to have a career. You’re looking to to link these experiences in these moments and these jobs and these gigs together into something that is a resume and a body of work as you go on in life. 

Eric: When Lou Diamond Phillips acted in the terrific Courage Under Fire with Denzel Washington, he posed a similar question to the Oscar-winning star about how to maintain a career. 

Lou Diamond Phillips: You know, and you guys are asking me questions now. And it’s funny, I asked Denzel a question. This was in ’97. He had won the Oscar for Glory and we were sitting on the train tracks. If you’ve seen the film, it’s kind of an important scene. But we were between takes and I’m just, you know, shooting the breeze. And Denzel in a rare moment was actually kind of just sitting there hanging with me because I think he figured everything out. And I said, so, Denzel, you know, when do you think you hit your stride? You know, because being an actor of color and being somebody who’s kind of outside the box, I’d like to think that I have some things in common with Denzel and Sam Jackson and Benicio Del Toro, who I just worked with. And, you know, some people like that who are a little different. We’re not the Hollywood norm, you know. And so, you know, Denzel, when do you think you hit your stride? He looked at me and he went, I ain’t hit it yet. You know, I feel the same way. You know, I’m very proud of some of the work I’ve done. You know, directing is, you know, something that I’m very proud of as well. There’s still that film that I want to direct out there that is, you know, the one where I get final cut. You know, I get to do what I want to do. Although, like I said, I’m extremely proud of this and I’m extremely proud of this because the parameters put upon me. They say that, you know, a thousand monkeys in a thousand years with a thousand typewriters can write War and Peace, maybe. You know, I think there is a talent to doing something in a finite amount of time knowing, you know, that you have these parameters and you have to do it. That’s why you’re a professional. Don’t leave your fight in the gym. Don’t waste everything in acting class. Learn to be able to to put out when the time comes. And a lot of times, guys, that’s five minutes in an audition room. Get your flight to that level to where you’re delivering. 

Eric: And though he might claim ignorance was bliss in his early career, Mr. Phillips trained a lot and he continues to train. For actors and directors, when you’ve got your shot you better be ready to hit the mark. 

Lou Diamond Phillips: You know, here’s the interesting thing that I will talk about. Acting class versus brass tacks on set. The beautiful thing about acting class is that’s your gym. That’s where you’re working out. You know, you’re hitting the heavy bag. You’re jumping the rope. You’re doing all the stuff. You’re doing all of these exercises. Now, this is my opinion. What these exercises are for are to get you into shape to do it like that so that you don’t need an hour to prepare, so that you know how to break down a character. You know what an emotional life is all about. Hopefully you’ll never get out of the habit of doing your homework. Like Meryl Streep says, do one hundred percent of your homework because only 50 percent of it’s going to apply. You throw 100 punches so that that one is right there when you need it and you don’t have to think about it. That’s why I always use the gym analogy, because you’re just doing it, doing it, doing it. You’re finding a way to make it easier for you. You’re finding a way to access those things that you need so that they’re available to you in the moment. If I had to go off and prepare every time I had to act in this movie, I’d have run out of time to shoot myself because I am literally answering a dozen questions from a dozen people, taking care of my cast. They’re going, Lou is this on a 75? Yeah you you put it on a 75. That’s great. I want you to, okay and dolly at this point, because, you know, there’s a lot of camera movement in here and stuff that that I cared about and some that involved me. You know, I mean, the crane shot coming down from that thing, you know, I want it to be good and I’m trying to time it with Sarah and everything and still act. So for me, it really was the proof in the pudding that I was just telling you. I have done so much work and had so much experience. And it all comes into play when it’s like, OK, I got that, I got that. We’re set. We’re set. OK. My closeup. OK, so let’s go. Boom. Take one. Boom. Take two. Did I get it? Did we get it? Are we good? Move on. And that’s literally how it was sometimes if I knew I got it in two takes. Done. Done. If I didn’t get it, then fine, we do it again. Also being honest with myself and you know and not doing any of this, you know, and you know, you have to make decisions and you have to go quickly. So for me, like I said, fortunately for me in this film, the emotional weight was carried by a lot of other people. You know, I just had to be there for them. So it was a lot easier for me to turn it on and turn it off. And, you know, like I said, I scared anybody. Then it probably served me in the end. 

Eric: Before he shared the screen with legends like Denzel Washington, Jack Palance and former podcast guest Edward James Olmos, Mr. Phillips had to find inspiration from a different source, himself. 

Lou Diamond Phillips: The biggest inspiration, I mean, I know a lot of you here tonight are directing students and or acting students. I mean, your – certainly your biggest inspiration has to come from within. It’s such a hard road. I want to put it right out there right now. It’s not an easy path any of you have chosen. It’s an incredibly rewarding path. I do believe that this is still an art form. I do believe it’s a craft. I think it’s something that is a gift if you have the talent for it. And it’s it’s an even better life if you have the patience and the discipline and the perseverance for it, it’s really something that you have to commit yourself to. You know, I went to college, actually, I have a degree in this. You know, time has had a long career. It’s wonderful. Kevin is evolving into a different stage of his career after an amazing music career. So, I mean, for all of us, it’s this call that we have to continually answer something that we want to do. I don’t have to direct. I love directing. And quite honestly, I got really, really fortunate with this particular film in the respect that I would have directed it if it would have been, the script would have been a piece of crap, to be honest, just for the fun of it, just to exercise that side of me. I directed in college, I’ve directed feature length films. I’ve done a number of episodics and it’s something that I enjoy doing. So and and knowing the gig, you know, I’m not Gus Van Sant. I’m not an auteur who can shape my vision or that sort of thing. Director for television is, you know, rendering under Caesar what is Caesar’s and meeting a budget, meeting a schedule, meeting a time, and directing somebody else’s words, you know, for the most part. So in this, I was so thrilled that it was about something that meant something to me. Faith and my children are certainly a huge inspiration to me. You know, wanting to do good work and wanting to leave a legacy and wanting to do something that, you know, not only I personally can be proud of, but to have them here tonight and to have them have this as part of their legacy and the memory of being together on set and sharing this as a family. I mean, that’s when you know something that you’re doing selfishly for your art, but also for commerce and whatever else, you know comes together and you go, this was special. This was something different. And the fact that I could put some friends into it, you know, and make a few nice little discoveries along the way. I mean, I thought of Time as soon as I read this script. I thought oh I’ve got to get him in. I met Kevin through the audition process and, you know, I thought I got to get this guy, ask him if he’ll do it, because I just thought he had such a wonderful quality in the room, but also a great respect, a great respect to come in. And after playing the stadiums to have humility, which is not in big supply in this town. But as far as inspirations go. Yeah, and obviously there are my mentors, you know, they’re the people that I was taught by and who pass the flame on to me. But life, man. Everyday life, you know, hope, faith, tomorrow. All of those are inspirational. 

Eric: For an actor like Lou Diamond Phillips, making the transition to behind the camera only strengthened the need to be prepared since the cast and crew will happily be on your team if you show you know how to coach. 

Lou Diamond Phillips: For the most part, professional film crews, they’ll respect you until you prove otherwise. But they’re really savvy, man, if they can figure out if you know what you’re doing or not very quickly. So the biggest thing is having a point of view, being able to make decisions, being able to tell people what you want and what you need to be able to articulate it as a director. You know, and then you start to have your meetings with people and they hear what you want. For instance, I mean, the last scene in the movie was originally written to be in their apartments at night. You’ve got to be kidding me! It was my first change. I said, can we change this during the day? And I want a crane, you know, it’s the end of the movie. Boom up. So when you come in with a point of view, having done your homework and everything else, people will take you at your word. I’m not going to say every actor will make a good director, but I say that there are a lot of them out there because they care and they’ve worked their way up, they do make good directors because you’ve just been there, you know the drill. You know how long it takes, you know. You know, there’s no surprises. The times when I’ve heard actors have crashed and burned as directors is when they go in being all touchy feely, thinking this is going to be my artsy fartsy moment. It’s not going to happen. You don’t have time. At a certain time it’s like, just please hit the mark and say the lines. Everybody’s waiting. There is that side of it that I as a director, that’s that’s one of the things that I actually really, really enjoy. I mean, it’s the art side of it. The the ephemeral, creative side. I adore it. It’s part of who I am as an artist. But there’s also part of it saying, I have how long? And what I have to do? And how many people do I have to get moving? And how many people do I have to make happy? I mean, there is a, there is a, you know, game playing aspect to this. You know, those of you, you know, play games online, thanks to my wife, you know, where you go. I’ve got this much time to do this and this and this and this. And I have to achieve it and I have to achieve it up to my standards. So that’s the other side of things that I think are really challenging in a lot of fun as a director.

Eric: Mr. Phillip’s description of the opening shot of Love Takes Wing, makes you understand why he gravitated to directing. 

Lou Diamond Phillips: Probably the most difficult shot was it’s a heartbreak. It’s the first shot in the movie it is a beautiful shot. There was the birdbath and there was a little cherub in it and it started off looking down into the water. A single leaf fell into the water. To me, which symbolized the first child who gets sick, who happens to be my daughter, Grace. And then we boom down, crane, saw the the front of the orphanage, children run by in slow motion and it takes us to the rest of the kids into Ms. Cloris. It was a beautiful shot. And metaphorically, I told you about some of the other things that I do in the film. This is the first time, and it was difficult for me, this is the first time in anything I’ve directed where the first shot wasn’t the shot that I designed. Every other thing I directed the first shot said something and you don’t know it. Hopefully, you know, you’re not supposed to know when you’re when you’re watching it, but my first shot and everything I direct tells you what this movie’s going to be about thematically, metaphorically, even certain story points, but in a way that are in my language. I mean, the camera department was just so fantastic. I mean, we really never had anything that wasn’t, you know, one hundred percent usable. There were times where I had to compromise a couple of shots because they didn’t work with necessarily what the what the actors wanted to do. I mean, there were a couple of things that I changed in the script that I, with permission, in the script that says she stops in the center of the room and looks to the heavens and says, ‘thank you.’ And I thought, she’s thanking the ceiling. That doesn’t say anything to me. And visually, it says nothing to me. There’s nothing I can do with that. So I set the prayer on the bed at the end and put the moon in. You know, that’s a visual effects as well. And Sarah – so what I explain it to Sarah, you know, I said, OK, you’re talking to the full moon when she goes. What I said is the I have God, trust me. She goes, OK, I get this beautiful emotional performance. That was easier for her than walking up to that window and waiting for the light to move on her. I mean, and I totally fell for it because I’ve been in that situation myself. You got to walk. You’ve got to stay alive. There’s nothing out there. You’re waiting for the light to go down. It feels so sterile. It’s not real at all. And then you’re thanking God about all this. But when we put it all together with the sunrise, the the light and the camera’s dollying in at the same time and then you put the music and finally, it was my one Spielberg moment in the movie, you know, it’s like really designed beautifully. And it’s one of the emotional high points of the film. But I started listening to myself, trying to explain it to her. And I thought, well, that sounds like bulls**t, you know, but she went with me on it because we were far enough into the film that she had seen I think, some of the dailies where she she goes, OK, you know what, Lou maybe he knows what he’s doing. 

Eric: Part of the trick of directing for TV or lower budget films is making artistic sensibility still work with much less time and resources. 

Lou Diamond Phillips: I’m ridiculously anal about a lot of these shots, especially for television. If you’re playing in the big game, when you’ve got millions and millions of dollars and 60 days to shoot it and you know you can be inspired every day in TV, you really, really have to know what you want. And so I thanked Heather, earlier, you know, my art director, because I asked for certain things, you know, we built that birdbaths and that was originally my first shot in the film. I did not get final cut. So that was actually the first shot in the film. Every shot in this movie means something. There’s nothing random about any single shot in this film. And as a matter of fact, there are other shots in this film that I wish were there. You know, I mean, it’s all I can tell you. And I always say, you know, I’ll see rehearse, I’ll go, reach for that, go for the hand, go for this insert because it means something. And with my actors as well, I repeat this action, do that. And it’s interesting. I mean, you can analyze it after the fact. I don’t I don’t want it to be too obvious when you’re watching it. Watch how many scenes start with water. It’s a design. Watch how many scenes have an angel either in the beginning or the background or this through line of her faith joining in. I wish Jane Peterson were here tonight because one of the other motifs that we had, if you will, the movement from light to dark, her enlightenment moving toward the light not only from a matter of faith, but a matter of knowledge. And in each scene, progressively, it gets a little more bright, it gets a little more hopeful. And it was by design that the payoff for that is the sun coming up when her faith has been restored. 

Eric: Directing also means having to let go of some really terrific moments, could be due to time budget or maybe the network, studio, and producers making that decision for you. 

Lou Diamond Phillips: Haley lost a lot of beautiful work. Kevin and I both lost some stuff. I tried to lose more of me, but they wouldn’t let me. But, you know, I mean, that’s just, unfortunately, the nature of the beast. And especially in this, like I said, I did not have final cut. And I wish there were a few things that that I could have salvaged and just so you also know, I mean, this script was ridiculously long. It was far too long to shoot on this schedule knowing that it was going to be cut down to 90 minutes. No disrespect to the company. This is how they do things. But it was, for me, always, always the knowledge on set, knowing that I was shooting things that if it doesn’t advance, the story probably won’t make it. But at the same time, I can’t shoot it badly because it’ll probably end up in the movie. And I got to go, oh, that sucked, you know, so everything had to be shot with care and everything had to matter. So I never said anything in oner. I never shot anything, you know, just the close ups or whatever. You know, I tried to design everything and do it well so that if it did make the film, people would at least be proud of it, you know, and proud of the work in it. It was one hundred forty – and those of you know, the rule of thumb is it’s a minute per page. So you’re looking at a two and a half hour movie already if you shoot it as tight as you possibly can, knowing you’ve got to cut it to 90 minutes. Why are you doing this to me? You know? Oh well.

Eric: This is especially difficult for Mr. Phillips since he’s so protective of his actors on set. Kevin Richardson who, as a Backstreet Boy, is no stranger to performing, was appearing in his first movie. He was beyond thankful to have Lou Diamond Phillips take a chance and have his back, even if he didn’t get to go full cowboy. 

Kevin Richardson: It was amazing. I had a great time. I only had experience on set shooting music videos. So this my first film or television experience and it was really laid back, relaxed, but at the same time getting it done kind of atmosphere. And I appreciate Lou give me a shot. My first role. I thank you so much for that. 

Lou Diamond Phillips: You’ll always remember me as your first. 

Kevin Richardson: Yes. 

Lou Diamond Phillips: Tell everyone. 

Kevin Richardson: Yeah. 

Lou Diamond Phillips: Now you’re going to go on to do much, much more, like I said. I mean, first of all, the work that was in here is fantastic. And you got great presence. I hope you’re happy with it. 

Kevin Richardson: Yes, I am. Thank you. 

Lou Diamond Phillips: Good. And you look great. 

Kevin Richardson: It’s definitely different. It’s challenging. It’s exciting, makes you feel alive, makes you afraid. It’s something new and challenging and I love it. You know, I’m starting a whole new career, paying my dues, going to class, going to auditions. I had the the honor of acting on Broadway in the musical Chicago. But other than that, this is only my second professional acting job. But it puts a little fear in you, makes you feel alive. It’s a challenge. And, you know, at times on set, my first scene that we shot was with Lou. And I just remember before Lou was back there, look and make sure we had the shot set and then he came up and it’s like action. I’m like, oh, man, here we go. You know, I was like, oh, here we go. But, you know, it felt good. And there were times on on set when I was like in awe of of of all of you and their performances. And I was there to learn, you know, I’m I’m learning. So again, I thank you Lou for the opportunity. I wish that I got to show my my gun. But I know I understand. It’s all about the story. I’m yeah. Yeah. I got to wear a gun and I was looking forward to seeing me pull back that jacket and show it’s all good. 

Lou Diamond Phillips: We’ll do another western. You belong in westerns, man. Not everybody does, you know, which is true. 

Eric: Lou Diamond Phillips’ work as a director, especially how he treats his cast, was largely influenced by how his previous costars approached their own performances. 

Lou Diamond Phillips: When I did Courage Under Fire with Denzel Washington – and once again, here you were talking about 600 times the budget, a 60 day schedule and a script that has been in development for a couple of years. And so it’s really at the top of the food chain. And even after all that wonderful preparation, everything that happens there, Denzel Washington is such an instinctual actor that, you know, he would get on set and he would get the vibe and he would take things that you were doing and giving, you know, I mean, that’s one of the few films where I did almost no homework. All I did was learn my lines because I was going to work with Denzel Washington and Meg Ryan and Matt Damon and a lot of people who I knew were going to bring their A game and I was just going to give as good as I got. I just got my character background down, my lines down and figured out, OK, whatever they serve, I’m going to return. And it’s interesting that Denzel would work that way because he would he would sit there and he didn’t want to get to know us too well. He didn’t want to bond because his character was supposed to be learning all these new things. He was very polite and very cordial, but he didn’t want to get too close so that there wouldn’t be this comfort zone on set. He would watch the rehearsal. Watch you work. It was wonderful. I remember we’d do a take or two and then he’d walk away. He’d take these long walks. You know on a set like that, they had, you know, twenty minutes between you know, relights and you know takes and stuff. So he always had time to sort of relax and go away and gather his thoughts. And then he would come and he would improv dialog. But he would always give you your cue. He would always give you your cue so that he never changed any of your lines. And it’s a point I remember Ed Zwick said to me, he goes, you know, you’re not changing any of your lines. I went, I like all my lines. My lines work. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. But but Denzel was always there to give you something new and something different. 

Eric: Part of that balance to directing is making a story new and different while still making sure it gets done on time and within budget. 

Lou Diamond Phillips: Every feature length film I’ve ever made has come in under budget. I have never gone over schedule. And yet at the same time, one of the things that I’m proudest of are the way my actors come off. And with my leads, with Sarah and with Haley and with Jordan, they all had different processes. And often times what was on the page isn’t how they would have said things or is and how they, they wouldn’t have done things that way. And yet when you’re doing a TV film – it’s funny, I’ll illustrate it two ways there was supposed to be a fight scene in Courage Under Fire, Denzel and I were supposed to have this balls out beating each other to shreds fight scene, which is what eventually makes me confess. And we started the scene and there’s all these extras and I had actually been doing the fight choreography for about a week and a half with the stunt coordinator. And Denzel comes on set that morning and we’re about to do the fight and the coordinator’s there and all the other extras are there, everything else. And Denzel says to Ed Zwick, he goes, can I say something? I wouldn’t fight this man. And I see the stunt coordinators go, you know, and Ed says, well, what would you what would you do? He goes, I’d talked to him and I’m just sitting there, yes Mr. Washington. Whatever you say Mr. Washington. So Ed Zwick goes, OK, stunt coordinator, you’re gone. And extras, thank you very much. We’re going to work this out. We took two hours to, you know, just rehearse the scene and improv it and the scene turned out great. Wonderful. OK? Not the case on a movie like this. On a movie like this, every page has been approved. Every line has been approved. Every scene has been approved. I could not randomly cut them. I could not randomly change them. If I wanted to change a line, I had to call over the producer who knew that he had to answer to the executive producer if they didn’t like the changes we made. I’ve been on set on episodics where I literally shooting in Vancouver would have to call the Home Office in L.A. going, OK, I’d like to change this line. What it says, oh no, don’t go in there. OK, can I change it to let’s get out of here. OK, great. Thank you. You know, because there are a lot of people justifying their jobs and yeah, that’s what they have to do. But dealing with real artists, I gave them enough leeway to where they thought they could get away with it every time, you know, and there were times it’s like, guys, no, no, I, I can’t I can’t change this. I can’t do this. We cannot – we can’t just drop that. So my most difficult times on set were trying to – because I would never go, just do it or I would never go, just say it. That wouldn’t come out of me because I wouldn’t want to hear that from a director myself. So it was a matter of me trying to be supportive of my my talent, trying to give them what they needed to give a good performance, because I knew that if I just made them do something, it would suck. So what’s the point? Make it to where they’re going to feel good about it and feel good about what’s happening without much time to rehearse and knowing that the clock is ticking and knowing that it can’t turn into this lovely off Broadway theater experience where we can just sit around and talk about our feelings until it works. You’ve got so much time in the day to get the scenes. So it was those moments where I had to go, OK, how do we work through this, guys? You know, that that was was the balancing act for me. 

Eric: Washington, the talented actor, knows what moments are needed and which ones aren’t. But it might be Denzel, the movie star, who can determine if those moments stay or go. On the set of Love Takes Wing, it was the unique method of Cloris Leachman which really kept everyone on their toes. 

Lou Diamond Phillips: The interesting thing about Cloris on this one is that she’s she’s a life-force man. She’s she’s just this sort of whirling dervish. And yet when she connected to when she was there, there was just magic. You could tell that her choices were always in the moment. It didn’t always help us with lighting. It didn’t always help us with rehearsals. It didn’t always help the other actors, to be quite honest. But it certainly served her and her process. And for me as a director, it really was just about getting it on film and making sure she looked good, making sure that, you know, she was lit well and that that, you know, she was comfortable where she wanted to go because she would throw a dozen choices against the wall and four of them would stick. And it’s being a director who is also an actor, I was able to go, she’s going to want that one, that one, that one, and that one. So don’t worry about lighting over there. Don’t worry the lighting over there. She’ll end up standing here, here and here. So we’ll keep her in those parameters, you know, but it was a little interesting to tick, tick, tick, tick, tick, tick, tick, tick, tick, tick, tick, you know. 

Anthony Montes: Yeah, yeah. She was brilliant. She during the wedding scene, I was watching her and I watched a lot of older actors that I’ve admired. And, you know, what are they doing? How are they doing it? And she kept very alive in between takes. She would go over and it’s like, oh, the hair’s not quite right. And she went to like five different people, just extras on the set. And she redid their hair. And then we’d shoot and, you know, she would be involved and then she’d go do some more hair. And it was like but she was very alive. It kept her alive. And, you know, I mean, the camera wasn’t necessarily on her, but it was like she was having a good time. 

Lou Diamond Phillips: Nor did anyone really want their hair done. 

Anthony Montes: No, she’s not a union hairdresser, by the way. 

Eric: That’s exactly what I expect from one of Mel Brooks’  favorite performers, who has almost 300 credits of her own. Despite his own four decades of steady industry work, Lou Diamond Phillips still takes nothing for granted. 

Lou Diamond Phillips: That leads me to a point that I want to make for all of you, whether you’re going to be directors or actors. I mean, like I said, you know, a little bit of humility goes a long way. You have to have an ego and you have to have thick skin and you have to be tough to make it in this industry. But too many people really think that they invented the wheel and they didn’t. There are a lot of talented people out there. Not all of them get the right breaks. The industry can make you cynical, it can make you jaded, but it can also feed the negative parts of your ego, the negative parts of your your psyche that are necessary to get along. I was ridiculously impressed because, you know, I know who Kevin Richardson is. I mean, he’s world famous. He’s performed in stadiums, you know, to hundreds of thousands of people. And he came in and thanked me for the opportunity. And he didn’t come in like, you owe me this or I’m entitled to this because I’m already famous. So I think the people who tend to have long term careers, you know, the people who continually challenge themselves and also manage to have a real life with real kids and people who care about them tend to stay grounded. And I think that’s kind of some of the best advice you could ever have. 

Eric: As much as his talent and perseverance, Lou Diamond Phillips’ attitude has helped pave the way for the longevity of his career. 

Lou Diamond Phillips: You know, I’m pretty much grateful any time I get paid to act. So you know what they say, you know, you know, they said, what’s your favorite role? My next one. I mean, there are very few standouts, you know, I mean Courage Under Fire is certainly one that I’m incredibly proud of because, you know, that’s just an amazing cast. And to not be blown off the screen, I was really working with some of the finest people in the industry. Ed Zwick, you know, and Roger Deakins, the cinematographer. Just you know, really people at the top of our field and profession and, you know, to be included in that group, as was and Matt Damon was unknown at the time. So that was that was pretty fantastic. A lot of my theater work, The King and I, is always going to be one of my my favorites. Doing King Arthur. I’m very proud to probably be. And I think the first brown Filipino king of England. I mean that’s such a great accomplishment in and of itself, not being the gardener in Camelot and taking care of the roses. The Young Guns. I’ve never had more fun on a set than both of those films. The Big Hit is a real big favorite of mine because it’s just so over the top. And they just gave me such a license. A little seen film, a dear friend of mine, Steven Purvis, directed called El Cortez. And once again, that was one of the moments where my concerns in life and things that I appreciate in life intersect with art. And speaking of balls, he walked up to me at a Q&A like this, handed me a script and said, I’d like for you to do this film. And I actually read it and it was actually wonderful. And I called him the next day, but it’s called El Cortez. And I play a man with high functioning autism. And it’s a it’s a neat little film noir, tiny little movie made for a nickel and a dime. But it’s one that you just go, wow, we did a good job. You know, we actually made something that’s worth being proud of. So, I mean, just being able to like, you know, what Kevin said. I mean, this is this way I got into acting in the first place. Yeah. And there are those icons that we have out there and many of them I love the Eastwoods, you know, Harrison Ford to a certain extent, Cruise to a certain extent, although, you know, I mean, he gets outside of himself and does some really cool things every once in a while. But I’ve always considered myself a character actor. The fact that I can do leads is fantastic. I’m very proud of that. But a lot of times the roles that I take are character based. I mean, this one, by the way, this was a Bible thumping older woman. And they asked me to direct it first. And it was like, yeah, great, great. And then the call came about four days later. Would you think about acting in it? And what do I have to. Yeah, we kind of think you should. So it was it was that unspoken, if you really want to direct this movie, you really need to act on it. So I said, well, what role would you like me to do? Well, we’re thinking about doing a bad guy. So well, the bad guy is a woman right now. And I said, okay, we’ll switch it and fine, you know, her four scenes became eight scenes and there you have it. But like, I said. 

Anthony Montes: You never considered doing it in drag? 

Lou Diamond Phillips: In a heartbeat. But it is the faith based Hallmark Channel. I think if it were Spike TV, I could get away with it, you know. But I think, you know, like I said, every one of my roles is a character role, even if it’s a lead. I try to find that character nugget and it’s going to make it interesting because most of the time, I mean, most of your heroes are pretty boring. You’ve got to find something there that speaks to you that, you know, you can you can do something with. Hang your hat on. 

Eric: Here’s to many more moments for Lou Diamond Phillips to hang his hat on. We want to thank him, Kevin Richardson, and the cast and crew who joined them to share their process and stories with our students, and thanks to all of you for listening. 

 This episode was based on the Q&A, moderated by Anthony Montes. To watch the full interview or to see our other Q&As, check out our YouTube channel at This episode was written by me, Eric Conner. Edited and mixed by Kristian Heydon. Produced by Kristian Heydon and myself. Executive produced by Jean Sherlock and Dan Mackler, with a special thanks to all of our staff and crew who made this possible. To learn more about our programs, check us out Be sure to subscribe on Apple Podcasts or wherever you listen. See you next time. 

Eric: Hi, I’m Eric Conner senior instructor at New York Film Academy, and in this episode, we feature an animator who helped bring a number of Disney’s recent hits to colorful life, including Tangled, Big Hero Six, Wreck-It Ralph, and Frozen before she became head of animation for the terrific Moana. We are talking about Amy Smeed. Her discussion with our students focused on the nuts and bolts of animation, as well as her contribution to Moana. If you haven’t seen it, please try to. It’s really quite lovely. Here’s the trailer.

Clip: Maui, shapeshifter, demigod of the wind and sea. I am

Hero of men.


It’s actually Maui, shapeshifter, demigod of the wind and sea, hero of men. I interrupted. From the top. Hero of men. Go.

I am not going on a mission with some little girl.

This is my canoe and you will journey to

I did not see that coming.

The ocean is a friend of mine.

First, we’ve got to go through a whole ocean of bad.

Eric: Before Miss Smeed was helping lead the charge on animating the world of Moana, she was just a college grad looking for a job, any job.

Amy Smeed: I came in a completely different way than most people come in. I graduated school and I didn’t think – my dream was to be a character animator. And I didn’t – my reel wasn’t strong enough to be a character animator at that time. So I basically took any job that I could get. I mean, that fit within my talents. But so they were hiring for this job called scene set up, which was kind of a job where, we did lots of different things, but it was basically to help scenes go down the pipeline. So I kind of went in a different way. And then I would take our character rigs, which at the time were from the film Dinosaur. So I’d take Dinosaur rigs and I would come in on weekends and stay late and I would just work on tests and get feedback from the other animators around me. And then it took me about four years. But then on Chicken Little, they started up a trainee program. Again, they, Disney has a great training program. At the time I was there, they stopped that training program for I want to say it was about three or four years because.

Craig: That’s a long time.

Amy Smeed: Yeah and they didn’t start it back up until Chicken Little. So then I applied for that and luckily I got the position.

Eric: Miss Smeed spent close to two decades with Disney Animation, where she learned to make sure her rough animation passes for her directors were never too rough.

Amy Smeed: I tend to go pose to pose to pose, and it’s the traditional way of thinking where you are taking all your key poses and then I tend to do all my keys and my breakdowns and then I’ll show it to the directors. We tend to show most scenes around three times to the director. We show a rough blocking pass, which are my key poses, and then we get notes from the director and then I’ll put it on ones and then I show it to the director again and then get more notes and then I polish everything up. One kind of tip, I would say, you need to make sure there’s enough information in that rough blocking pass for the directors and supervisors to know, acting-wise, where you’re going. So I always have all my facial expressions in there and my acting elements. I don’t want to put too much information because I could potentially be wasting a lot of time if they have massive notes and I’m, and I have to start over or start off a big chunk of it. And it is a fine line, but I definitely want to make sure I’m spending enough time on that rough blocking pass, because if I’m not, the director is not going to understand where I’m going with the scene and then I’m going to get even more notes. So, yeah, there’s that balance of what’s too much and what’s too little. Ultimately, you don’t want to be wasting time, but you do want to make sure that your acting passes are really clear and they know where you’re going.

Eric: Working for the most legendary animation studio in history means that Miss Smeed has learned how to contribute within a large, very well oiled creative machine.

Amy Smeed: At Disney the way it works is, they write it and then it goes to our story department and they storyboard out the entire film and then we screen it at the studio and then anybody can give notes. And then the screenwriter goes back, I believe, with also the story artists, the directors. And then they’ll talk about what changes do they want to make. The first iteration of Moana was very different from the film that you guys saw because they’re making so many changes at each story pitch, if you want to call it that. Typically, I want to say there’s probably 8 to 10 screenings before the film is made. And even as we’re animating it, they can still be writing. So John Lasseter will usually say, I really like this sequence, I really like this sequence, so we can start animating on those and then they can still be iterating on the first act or the last act or the middle. But yeah, basically after it goes to story and it’s about to go into animation, it goes into our layout department and they’re the cinematographers of the studio. During this time, the actors and actresses are reading those lines. I can’t start my scene until the line has been read because when you’re acting out a scene, you could say, Craig, I’m going to go to the store, or I could say, Craig, I’m going to go to the store. My acting is going to be completely different, so I can’t start until that line is there. So that’s kind of how that process works. And then we can start animating.

Eric: Amy Smeed’s animation passes includes the process of flipping, looking at the movement as if through a mirror to make sure it’s flowing organically and correctly.

Amy Smeed: So once I block out the scene, then I’ll go back to frame one and I’ll work it out in phrases. So if a phrase is 40 frames then I work on those first 40 frames and then I go to the next 40 frames, I flip, oh, this is useful – something I’m trying to think of all these things. This was something Byron did on Tangled. Actually I think he did it on Bolt, too, the first time. So sometimes your eye gets adjusted to a pose and you think it looks OK and then you flip it. And if it looks weird and awkward, it’s because it is. So I think sometimes and I mean, I used to do this like, wow, this just looks weird the other way. OK, I just won’t look at it that way. Well, it’s because the pose isn’t holding up. So if it looks weird from, you know, like a physical way then it probably, the weight is off or something is off there. So I’m constantly flipping my poses and then I flip it the way it should be. And then when I’m working on ones, I try not to flip it too much at the beginning because now my eye is going to start getting adjusted to the flipped way. So I’ll work it out on once and then once I’m fairly happy with it, then I’ll flip it and play it flipped and I’m doing that more for the timing sense of the scene. And there are some times where things will stand out to me like, oh, this is a little bit too slow or too fast. And then I’ll make adjustments, texture is something that’s really important in a scene. And what I mean by texture is, sometimes like if I’m talking to you and I’m acting out a scene and there’s no texture, I’m not doing anything. Yeah, right. Like, I’m going through.

Craig: This is like that independent activity that you’re doing while talking to me. Yeah.

Amy Smeed: Yeah. So I what I want to do is like there’s maybe something, it’s like music where you have the beats of something and there might be something a little bit quicker and slower and.

Craig: Like there’s a rhythm, yeah.

Amy Smeed: Yeah. So that’s something important to think about when you guys are blocking out your scenes and thinking about the acting and performance of something that I think is important, that sometimes gets overlooked. Entertainment in a scene and entertainment can be something funny, whether it’s a line, whether it’s a situation, but it can also be something that moves you in a different and an emotional way.

Eric: The philosopher Kierkegaard once said life can only be understood backwards. Well apparently the same is true for animation. Even in their wholly constructed universe, Miss Smeed and her fellow animators need to ground their storytelling in reality and emotion, including how to make the performances and characters shine.

Amy Smeed: We spend so much time on the acting and the performance of our characters when we are in studio time, which is sometimes a very short amount of time, which is between films, we often have actors and actresses come in. We have acting coaches come in and they teach us about acting. And one of the acting coaches, her name is La- Oh gosh I just said her name. Now, I think I’m a little nervous. Werner Laflin, Werner Laflin. She taught us about building the backstory of a character. And if you can build the backstory of a character. So, for instance, if you have a character that’s, you know, twenty one years old, think about what got her to her point in life. So what happened when she was five? Maybe she was left in a grocery store or whatever the thing is. But you make up stories for these characters. That way when you are creating a scene, you’ve built them up. And so you can naturally come to know what’s going on in their head and what they’re thinking.

Eric: Part of Amy Smeed’s job is becoming the character she’s animating. Even if that means only focusing on delivering one line.

Amy Smeed: I spend a ton of time planning out my scene because animation is so time consuming, so, you know, there’s twenty four frames per second. If you’re not spending the time up front planning your scene, you can potentially be wasting a ton of time. So it depends on the scene and how complicated it is. But I would say for an average scene, I spend close to a day prepping for it. And so for me personally, what I do is – I am given the line. We’re always given the line before we can animate it and I memorize it. So I say it over and over and over in my head, and then we have an acting room. So I go into our acting room and I act out the scene. Something I have to be careful of, though, is for Moana, for instance. Moana’s 16. Clearly I’m not 16, so I don’t want I want Moana to look like me, but something that I find when I’m acting out the scene is sometimes there’s maybe something my eyebrows do, maybe there is a hand gesture I’m doing. Sometimes with body mechanics, if I’m walking around doing something complicated, I want to study that and figure out what’s driving that action. And then I’m always caricaturing that performance. I never want to take my timing or my spacing or even really my poses, but I am analyzing it and trying to get acting beats that I like. So I will act it out, I would say at a minimum, probably 20, and it’s probably more like around 40-ish times. And then I go through all of that reference and I save out my favorites. And then I really dig through all of that. And I take notes and I’ll say, OK on take one I loved my eyebrows from frames forty to forty five. On take two, I really loved this little hand girly thing I did or whatever. So I take those notes and then I refer back to it as I’m animating.

Eric: According to Miss Smeed, an education in animation without acting training is incomplete.

Amy Smeed: Our studio at Disney, we spend so much time on performance. When I went to school, we didn’t have acting classes, which kind of blows me away why they didn’t teach that. So everything I’ve learned acting wise has been through people at work that I’ve learned from or just studying film. We’re constantly watching films and studying actors and actresses that we love. And what is it that we love about that? And for me, my – I love animating emotional scenes. So I would you know, years ago, I like stepping through and seeing like, what is it in a facial performance? Subtle scenes, a lot of it is coming from the face. So I would kind of step through and I would do that with a lot of live action films. I try to push myself a bit when I’m in the acting room, but I’m also trying to be natural to my myself who I am.

Craig: Remain truthful. Yeah.

Amy Smeed: Yes. So then what I do is I’m, even though I’m analyzing that footage, when I’m posing out my scene, I’m always pushing my poses always. So if I’m acting out a scene and I’m sitting like this, depending on who the character is, I’m going to add more rhythm and twist.

Eric: Tilt, rhythm and twist only becomes more complicated when designing the character’s body mechanics in the action filled Big Hero Six.

Amy Smeed: Body mechanics are so hard, it’s hard for almost everybody. There were shots I was doing on, I think it was a Big Hero Six where, and we were in preproduction, we were doing some character test and I think I was doing some stuff with Wasabi. And they wanted his style to be Kata movement, which is kind of like a karate and kung fu. I don’t know a lot about martial arts, but it was called Kata. And so I, you know thank goodness for YouTube. So you just look up, you know, I would Google that and then I would find all sorts of different things would come up from, you know, world champions and stuff like that. So I would study what they were doing and their body mechanics. So if it’s something action oriented, I remember studying parkour for something. I’m trying to remember what scene that was for. That might have also been Big Hero Six. So if I can’t physically do it, then I will search for it somewhere else. But yeah, body mechanics. Don’t feel bad about that because it’s hard for everybody. Most of our department, if you ask most animators, do you want to work on action or acting? Almost all of them will say acting. And obviously there’s body mechanics in acting as well. But full body scenes are definitely more complicated and take a lot longer than waist up shots.

Eric: This appreciation of performance helps animators visualize the actor’s unique personalities in their characters and, well, they don’t come much more unique than Dwayne the Rock Johnson in Moana.

Clip: I’m here because you stole the heart of Te Fiti and you will board my boat and sail across the sea and put it back.

Yeah, it almost sounded like you don’t like me, which is impossible because I got stuck here for a thousand years trying to get the heart as a gift for you mortals so you can have the power to create life itself. Yeah. So what I believe you were trying to say is thank you.

Thank you?

You’re welcome.

Amy Smeed: I will say something that we did take from Dwayne Johnson was the eyebrow, the people’s eyebrow. Right isn’t that what they call it? Yeah, like it’s funny because I don’t know, he’s amazing, but I don’t follow, I think did that come from wrestling? OK, I was with Hyrum and he’s like, you know, the people’s eyebrow. I’m like, oh is that what that’s called. But so that eyebrow thing we did take from him. But there’s, we didn’t want to overdo it and put it in too many times, but there’s I can’t remember how many times, four or five times. When the actors come in, that’s all recorded. We have access to all of that. And so we can look at that and say, oh, Dwayne did this thing or Auli’i did this thing and try to put that into our animation. For me, my favorite part is coming up with the performance and acting myself, even if I’m doing a male character, because I’ve done lots of male characters as well, it’s still a really fun thing for me to do. Not to say I never look at the reference because I do just to see if there’s something in there. I don’t always for every scene, but some I definitely do, especially the beginning of the film when you’re figuring out the characters, but I think a lot of it we are so detailed and so frame by frame and where I was saying we don’t typically let the computers give us any in-betweens. There’s always something like the timing of a blink or something that we’re art directing. And the lashes. We’re dragging the lashes typically as they blink. So we’re art directing everything.

Craig: Right down to the lashes. Yeah. Wow. Yeah.

Eric: Besides working with The Rock, Miss Smeed was so appreciative of animating this movie since it had a strong female lead, beautifully played by newcomer Auli’i Cravalho.

Amy Smeed: I have a daughter, she’s nine. So for me as a parent, it inspired me on that level as well to get to work with a character that is so brave and courageous. And Auli’i was amazing. I don’t know how many of you have seen anything from her, but just her as a person, what she brought to the character was really great. She’s just such a nice, sweet person. And she came to talk to our entire animation department and we found that reference. So like I was saying earlier, with the Dwayne stuff, we could frame by that. She’s very expressive with her hands and her face, she has awesome facial expression. So but yeah, getting to work on a film with a female character that is so brave and courageous like that was really special and it meant a lot to me. We do tons and tons of research for all of our films. It’s something that John Lasseter deeply, deeply believes in. So our directors and producer and production designer, they went to the Pacific Islands many times meeting the people and finding out more about the culture. And we had a lot of people come into the studio. There’s a man named Nainoa Thompson who came in talking about navigating and wayfinding and what that means to him. And so there’s scenes where they’re doing this. And what they’re doing is they’re measuring the distance here. And so if you do a hand gesture like that, that’s not right. You’re lining this up with the horizon line. So having people come in and I wouldn’t have known that. I don’t know anything about wayfinding or navigation, but it’s something that I think makes it more special for us getting to work on a film like that, because we’re learning about another culture and hopefully we’re representing it well.

Eric: Miss Smeed is also a symbol of representation herself, becoming the first woman in Disney history to be the lead animator of the lead character.

Amy Smeed: I have been at the studio for about 19 years. And the interesting thing with taking this position was, I love animating. I love sitting at my desk behind my computer and just animating. So I was fine animating the rest of my life and I was happy with that. And then I had some people ask me, you know, this position’s coming up. You should think about putting your name in the hat for that. So I ended up interviewing with the directors, Ron and John, John Musker and Ron Clements. They directed films like Little Mermaid, Aladdin, Princess and the Frog. They’ve done a ton of films. So for me to work that closely with them was just a huge dream come true. But also, I was very nervous about that because I thought, I don’t want to screw up their movie. So yeah I ended up interviewing for it and my title was co-head of animation on the film. My partner was Hyrum Osmond. Hyrum came to the studio, I think it was on Bolt. So I’m not sure if you remember Hyrum, but he and I, we bring different things to the table and he was a great partner to have. And it was just such an amazing experience. And I’m I’m so glad that I did put my name in the hat for it and that I went for it. But it was a big deal for me to do. For myself, it was hard for me.

Eric: Amy Smeed noted that animation tends to have fewer women behind the scenes, which she hopes her students could help change.

Amy Smeed: There’s not many female animators at the studio. There’s actually not many female animators that are even applying. So all of you female character animators, make sure you apply. I have been really fortunate because since I’ve been at the studio, I’ve had really good leadership that has always treated us all the same in my opinion. So I myself have not run into anything and I feel really fortunate and really lucky for that. So it’s interesting to me because when I go talk to animation schools, I see lots of females. But then when I’m in reel reviews, there’s not very many women applying. And so I don’t know why that is. I’m trying to figure that out a little bit. But there have been other female supervising animators. Not many, but I remember traditionally Ellen Woodbury was a supe on one of the traditional films, I’m not sure which one. My friend Becky, you know Becky. Yeah, she was a character supervisor on Anna. So there have been females that have been character supervisors. But for the title head of animation, that’s one where there haven’t. But like I said, I don’t know that there’s ever been any that have ever put their name in the hat for it because there are so few females in our department.

Eric: Once Amy Smeed became the head of animation for Moana, her big challenge was managing a large, talented group of designers to stay on the same digital page.

Amy Smeed: So on Moana, we had close to one hundred animators and we do something at the very beginning. So all of the animators had rolled off of Zootopia. And then coming onto Moana, we do something, we call them chalk talks, where we sit with everybody and we go over Moana. How would she sit? How would she stand? What is her acting? We have the character rig, so we’ll bring the character rig up and we have something called the picker page which has all the controls. And so the supervisors can say, you know what, I really love this control for getting a band in her spine. I don’t use this one too often because it gives her a hunchback or whatever the thing is. So they kind of go over all of those controls and also acting. And we do several of those before we start animating or up front in production to try to keep her, we call on model, the character on model, so that Moana looks like Moana no matter who’s animating her. And then that’s part of the job of the head of animation and the character supes. And then for me, one of my fun meetings I got to go to was seeing all the character design work. So they would basically put up a bunch of drawings on these boards and show them to the directors. And the directors would say, oh, I really like this one. I like this one, maybe not this one because I don’t like this. And then they show more drawings and hundreds and hundreds and hundreds, probably thousands of drawings were done of Moana. And every character is slightly different because sometimes they might just get there quicker. The directors might gravitate towards it for some reason much quicker. But once it goes into the modeling phase, typically the character design doesn’t change too much. With Hei Hei on Moana, his design changed a bit because he, at the start of the film, was very ornery and kind of an angry bird. And he almost got taken out of the film. I don’t know if you guys know that part. He almost completely got taken out of the film.

Craig: Wow, that would be criminal.

Amy Smeed: Yeah. And then Jared, the screenwriter, got sick for like three or four days. But it was his, like he was going to write him out of the film. And then Adam Green, who is our character supe, and then some of the story artists were like, no, we have to find a way to keep Hei Hei in this film. So they brought his IQ level, way, way, way, way down. And they storyboarded out that Kakamora sequence where she snatches him up, puts him in her mouth and that whole action thing. And John Lasseter loved that. And then Hei Hei got put back in the film, and the reason is because he makes Moana’s journey more complicated.

Eric: I, for one, am thrilled that Hei Hei made the cut. Just as important as finding the perfect animal sidekick, Miss Smeed also had to ensure that Moana was dressed for success.

Amy Smeed: So, for instance, like Moana skirt, we knew she’s going to be doing some high action stuff and they were still working on story so we weren’t exactly sure what, but we knew it was an adventure and they were showing designs of different types of skirts. And so then for me, in animation part of my job is to say, this skirt is not going to work for her to be – she can’t jump off cliffs in a pencil skirt. So, not that a pencil skirt was ever one of the options, but it is like we do have to look out for stuff like that or like.

Craig: You have to keep things functional.

Amy Smeed: Yeah, we have to think about what is going to restrict the characters from doing some sort of action or and in some cases, you can use that as a challenge to make it something interesting that the character has to.

Craig: Push yourself even further.

Amy Smeed: Yeah, yeah, yeah. So it depends on what the character is and what they’re doing.

Eric: Getting Moana’s hair to work was an additional challenge, even for an animator who had previously tangled with Rapunzel.

Amy Smeed: Hair is so difficult to do in CG animation. Yes, it is so hard and interacting with hair is a different level, right.

Craig: Even worse.

Amy Smeed: But on Moana, we’re like she’s a teenager and she needs a touch her hair and, you know, she has long hair and there’s times where she needs to it get out of the way or put it up in a bun or whatever. So if she’s interacting with the hair then we will pose it. We actually worked on some software to be able to do that more easily on Moana. So we will pose out that hair and then we give it to our tech anim department, who is amazing. And then they will actually do all the magic part of sometimes the in-betweens and that sort of thing and get it to go down the pipeline. If the character is not interacting at all and it’s just, you know, me sitting and it’s is blowing in the wind or whatnot, we sometimes will do draw overs if there’s something specific that we’re looking for. But generally tech anim takes care of all the hair and the cloth. But there are times where, to plus a pose, where we want the hair posed a specific way. We will do draw overs for tech anim.

Eric: The perfect dress, the hairdo, the comedic sidekick chicken. They’re all there to help service the same thing, the story and to make sure the audience believes in and emotionally connects with Moana.

Amy Smeed: When you are in a supervising position, we don’t get to animate a whole lot because we’re spending so much time with the directors and with the animators on the floor helping them with their scenes. But the grandmother Tala stuff right before her death. Those scenes are so subtle and it’s, you have to kind of get to the core of that emotion. And that’s where, like for me I study a lot of live action film of those moments to try to get to what is it about them that makes the character cry or makes me cry when I’m watching that and I try to learn from that. And for me, when I’m acting out a scene, I try to get myself to that point. Sometimes I watch something really sad, a movie that’s really sad and I cry really easy, so it’s not that hard. Or I think of a moment in my life that was sad. So I try to put myself into that and then I act it out. So on Tangled I was doing some of the stuff where Flynn was dying, well he was dead and then she’s singing over him. There’s a long scene where she’s singing over him.

Clip: Heal what has been hurt. Change the fate’s design. Save what has been lost. Bring back what once was mine.

Amy Smeed: And I wanted that scene so bad and I was so lucky that I got to do it, so when I went into the acting room, I had a grandfather that had passed away like a year before that, and the way everything happened was not the best. So I was thinking about that. So then I was acting it out and I was seeing what was happening in my throat as you’re crying and seeing some of the things that happened in your eyes and then I was taking that and putting that into my scene. So I try to get to that point, if I can. There’s times, too, where you can’t force it. And that’s where I’m like, OK, what is what’s a movie that I cry at every time? And so I try to watch that little part. Anything you can do to kind of get yourself to that spot.

Eric: It seems that Miss Smeed’s only issue with working on Moana, like working on all her films, was at some point she had to say goodbye.

Amy Smeed: On Frozen, I mostly animated on Anna. And I loved her character. I loved everything about Anna. And at the end of it, it’s hard because it’s it’s kind of like you’re losing your friend to the same thing with Rapunzel, same thing with Moana, where you towards the end of the film, you know what they would do in every single situation. You know how they would stand. You know how they would move their feet or whatever it is. So it’s a weird feeling because you’re excited about the next project and you’ve probably most likely worked a lot of hours to finish the film. But then, yeah, you’re not getting to work on them or see them until they’re on the big screen. So it’s kind of weird because you do get to know them so well.

Eric: Though before Miss Smeed said goodbye to our students, she gave some great practical advice for starting a career in animation.

Amy Smeed: So, reels. Sometimes people feel like I have to have a three minute long reel and I’m going to put everything in there. You don’t need to do that. Don’t worry about how long your real is. It is important to have a couple performance tests that are showing acting with dialogue. And it’s also important to make sure there’s some sort of full body test or whatnot that’s showing a character going through some sort of body mechanics physics, because we need to make sure that you guys have an understanding of body mechanics and physics and all of that. So I would say at least a couple full body or action, something that’s showing full body, and then at least a couple acting tests. And I would say be happy with what you’re putting on there. We don’t always know where people are at in their career or in their studies. So sometimes people will want to put everything on there and they might have three or four really strong pieces and they might have two or three that are not so great. And we don’t know, oh, is that their latest? Is that what they started out with? So it’s good to have stuff on your reel that you are happy with and putting your best foot forward, I would say. But like I said, it doesn’t have to be really long. It’s it’s.

Craig: It’s quality over quantity.

Amy Smeed: Exactly. Thank you. We look for performance. So acting tests, that’s super important to have on your reel. We put so much importance on performance and acting. So I think that’s the most important thing you can have on your reel. And then full body tests. But really, we just look at a reel so I mean, people submit a resume. But really the most important thing is your reel. Your reel of animation tests. We don’t care if it’s lit. We don’t care if it’s, you know, fancy paint textures.

Craig: Play blasts?

Amy Smeed: Yeah. I mean, a lot of people are they are showing play blasts and that’s totally fine.

Craig: Does it matter?

Amy Smeed: No, not at all. Yeah. I mean, I would say people coming out of school, they’re always play blasts or most of the time play blasts. Yeah, it’s people that have been at other studios where they’ll tend to show what’s.

Craig: More rendered things. Yeah. It doesn’t make any difference to you guys because you’re looking at performance, not render quality.

Amy Smeed: Totally. Yeah, we’re purely looking at the performance of the characters. Yeah. So that’s the most important thing, is your reel.

Eric: So for those looking to work in animation, start animating. We want to thank Amy Smeed for bringing so many wonderful films to the screen and to my kids Bluray collections and for sharing her story. And thanks to all of you for listening.

This episode was based on the Q&A, moderated by our animation department chair, Craig Caton-Largent. He’s worked on such films as Jurassic Park, and Terminator 2 and a whole bunch others. And you can hear his interview on another episode of The Backlot podcast. He is fantastic. To watch the full interview or to see our other Q&As check out our YouTube channel at Academy. This episode was written by me Eric Conner. Edited and mixed by Kristian Heydon. Produced by Kristian Heydon and myself. Executive produced by Jean Sherlock and Dan Mackler. A special thanks to all our staff and crew who made this possible. To learn more about our programs, check us out at Be sure to subscribe on Apple Podcasts or wherever you listen. See you next time.