- What inspired you to become a film director and how did you get started in the industry?
My answer may sound typical. The truth is, the foundation of my love for filmmaking was laid in May 1977, when I watched Star Wars with my mother at the old RKO theater in Five Towns Long Island. The movie had a profound impact on me, and I was struck by the emotions it triggered in my mother, who cheered and hollered with excitement in the theater. From that moment on, I knew that I wanted to create films that had the same effect on people.
It wasn’t until much, much later that I had the opportunity to pursue it. Making a movie in any era is an expense. But I got to say, it’s a helluva lot easier now than ever before. Before the internet, I tried my hand at filmmaking with super 8mm cameras but lacked the support and funding to move to the next level. People constantly told me that making any movie was impossible without a large amount of money or high-quality equipment. It’s strange because, at the same time, I’m watching dudes make movies on Betamax, VHS, and even that old Fisher Price Pixelvision camera.
Looking back, I realize that many of these people were projecting their own insecurities onto me, causing me to doubt my own abilities. As an adult, I’ve learned to say ‘f’ off’ with my Logan Roy (Succession TV series) voice a lot clearer. A lot more confidently.
My earliest experience with filmmaking was in elementary school. Believe it or not, I asked the principal if I could submit a film for the talent show. This was, what? Late 70’s? Fresh off the high of Star Wars. I expected a no.
Mrs. Downey, the principal at PS 191 in Floral Park, NY back then was the first person to encourage me to pursue it. She simply said, “Why not?” She gave me the encouragement to move forward and pursue my passion. I never did get that film done and it feels as if I have been chasing this filmmaking thing forever.
Today, I strive to instill the same sense of empowerment and support in my children, encouraging them to pursue their dreams and helping them in any way that I can. Whether it’s building a real rocket, creating comic books, or becoming an online streamer, I believe that anything is possible if you’re willing to take a chance and try. I mean, ‘why the hell not’? Seriously. Life is to be lived. Try, fail, learn, and succeed. That’s the only path to growth.
- Can you tell us a little about the concept and story behind Predawn?
Predawn is my first film that comes closer to industry standards. I’ve produced two short films before. They were shot using basic video cameras. One of them, The Daylight Werewolf, was submitted for consideration to Steven Spielberg’s TV show ‘On the Lot’, but it didn’t make it past the selection process. The other one, Water Pest, received a great review from Film Threat and Indiewire. I got points for ingenuity and creating something unique despite being on a shoestring.
With Predawn, I had a little more money to work with, which felt strange. I was not used to having enough resources. I had become wiser over the years, and I wrote the story to fit the budget.
Starting with my home as a backdrop, it was easy to craft a story about zombies lurking in the backyard forest. When my family and I moved to Covington, Georgia in November 2020, the forest practically wrote itself.
Before Predawn, I had planned to work on an animated short called ‘Four Flights’. You should know, if I am not satisfied with the quality of my work, I refuse to release it. The Daylight Werewolf and Water Pest were not perfect. They were created with what I had at the time but I worked really hard to get the right camera angles and utilize natural lighting. The audio was miserable, though (laughing).
There are a lot of things you can suffer through with filming live-action at zero budget. Stuff you can swallow and keep it moving. You can’t with bad animation, so Four Flights remains on hold. Once Predawn came into the picture, I knew I had to make it happen, and here we are.
- What challenges did you face during the pre-production phase of your film?
To be honest, pre-production went smoothly since I started the process a year earlier. I gave myself a year to scrutinize every inch of the script. The script was only 30-something pages, so I didn’t need to hire a line producer or someone to break it down for me.
Of course, I couldn’t have done it without the amazing talents of Liam Bradbury, who composed the tracks for the film, and Javanshir Shukurov, who created some 3D work. These men did incredible work and exceeded my expectations. As a matter of fact, I really need to include Karen, Paul, and Troy (producers of Predawn) for being a part of my life long before this film. They’ve listened to my crazy schemes for years. I really hope this film is the start of returning how much I owe them.
Any challenges I had were recognized before I wasted my time and money but I think my years as a supervisor and manager of people in non-film industry environments served me well in making sure the ship ran tightly. You know, it’s like this: I prayed and begged God to allow me to have a film career for years. Instead, I was put on a path to learn how to lead, organize and manage people. The most important skill sets to, guess what? Be a filmmaker. The genius of how God works is not lost on me. My own personal wax on- wax off. Don’t get me wrong. For much of my life, I was a complaining angry ungrateful bastard. “Where’s my film career? I deserve my film career.” No matter what I tried to do to get into the industry, it just wasn’t happening.
For what felt like endless years, all I did was complain: ‘What in the hell am I supposed to learn about film as a Walmart assistant manager? Or the years in the National Guard? Or a traveling IT contractor? Or a supervisor at some overnight factory?” Turns out that for every dream you have, life grants the training for it thoroughly if you pay attention to the lessons. For that, I am grateful. Took 40+ years (laughing). But dear God, I see the connection. I am grateful.
- What was your approach to casting actors and actresses for your film and how did you select the right people for the roles?
I delved deeply into the script and practically became one with it. I know each character like I know my own children. Left to my own devices to cast for Predawn, I now had better control to feel out who matched which character. Not just by how they looked, but by putting on my Human Resources Management hat, I was sorting out the people I could trust to simply show up and do the job. Everyone cast on Predawn are professional individuals I can trust to get the job done. Each and every one of them are turning out to be a kind of family to me. I genuinely care how this film reflects on adding to their careers. Which is why I’m micromanaging myself to make it right.
The whole audition process was first and foremost about trust. Can I trust you to be on time? Can you follow the instructions? Are you going to be a ‘what now’? People who always have something going on. You know those types. They can’t show up for work because of some problem, got into some drama last night, agree to set times and dates but suddenly can’t honor them or can’t make an appointment, or are always late because mama-n-dem always got something going on. It’s like, ‘What now?‘
The worst part was having to decline some extremely talented and professional actors and actresses. Those were tough decisions. Many of them I would love to work with in the future.
- How did you work with your cinematographer to create the visual style and look of the film?
(Laughing) As the cinematographer, I want to publicly thank No Film School, Film Riot, and a host of other online resources for their invaluable education. Jumping back to the disappointment I’ve had with people; the original goal was to hire a cinematographer. I did not want to shoot this film myself, but it seems that the heavens had another plan for me because it made no sense why I couldn’t lock in a cinematographer with money allocated for them. Some dudes were asking for $1500 a day plus and I was like, “Where can I send the deposit? Do you take CashApp?” then poof! Gone. So, I was like, “Screw it, I’ll do this myself.”
Probably exactly what destiny had in store for me. So, in the fall of 2022, I bought the Blackmagic Pocket Cinema 4k camera after doing some research and never looked back. I poured through every tutorial I could find to understand the camera and performed a monthly ritual of renting a lens from lensrentals.com for a week, test shooting as much footage as I could, sending the lenses back, and then spending another week editing, color grading, and understanding everything. Same rotation for months.
This camera is my baby (laughing). I totally get it and its needs. I am grateful that I had a year of intimate study with it. Am I an expert? Hell no. But for what I needed to do for Predawn, I believe I captured the right visual tones and colors I was striving for.
- Can you discuss any apps or software you used during the production of your film?
I have been experimenting with visual effects since the first days of Newtek’s Lightwave on the Amiga 500 and 2000. At the time, people would often laugh at me. I swore like a Mandalorian, “This is the Way,”. A few short years later, 3D was being incorporated into everything.
I’ve always tinkered with Adobe After Effects and learned almost everything I know from VideoCopilot.net and Andrew Kramer. The real learning curve came when I attempted to replicate effects from After Effects into Davinci Resolve.
As it turns out, it’s not so bad. Davinci Resolve comes with more bundled tricks than the plugins you have to find for After Effects. But damn I love Andrew Kramer’s tutorials. I highly recommend anyone who has a passing interest in doing VFX shots to start on his site and soak in everything.
Predawn will have quite a few effect shots in the film, and if I did my job well as a student of the great men and women on YouTube who came before me, you won’t even notice them.
Shot Lister has to be my most valued pre-production tool ever. Combined with Shot Designer, it was like having a medium-sized pre-production team working with me at 3 am sweating camera and lighting setups.
I also use Jungle Software’s Gorilla Scheduling and Budgeting software. That combo was the first application I subscribed to that put all this together. In a way, you can say it’s a little redundant having Gorilla, Shot Lister, and Shot Designer since it’s way, Gorilla does all three. Gorilla just isn’t portable and it forces me to stay in front of a desktop. Shotlister and Shot Designer work neatly on my iPad and I can work on the road.
In the end, no matter which software I used, I ended up drilling it all down to the ultimate portable tools: pen and paper. Not looking to throw any particular software under the bus, but apps fail, and losing work is problematic. One of them I had to routinely request access by proving it was purchased every month with a receipt from its subscription. Annoying as all hell. With a good notebook, pen, and paper, I just see everything much cleaner. I can lay out my work on a corkboard without having to go through ancient complex interfaces that haven’t been updated in years or deal with requesting missing features that I need.
- Have you ever considered distribution on the many online venues versus submitting to film festivals?
All the online venues to post your indie film are a godsend. Every last one of them. Remember, I came up from an era where your choices were either movie theaters or film festivals only. Maybe a public TV station ala Waynes World (laughing).
From YouTube to Amazon, Netflix, or even Tubi. They are all essential and we are blessed to have this amazing opportunity to get whatever we do out there to be seen.
But … (laughing) …
I think a lot of people with more money than I have uploaded just anything to, say, Tubi without thinking twice about the quality or saturation of content. I mean, how many more Black street-lit, crime and he cheated on me dramas do we need?
It’s the same old battle. You want to give your people an original meal but they want to eat the same old food. So, if people are consuming crap and paying for it, why shouldn’t I jump on the bandwagon and create similar crap? Do you change your style to make crap and feed them crap to make a buck? Or do you keep offering new, arguably healthier food with fewer people eating because they just like the same old shit? I remember being at a book signing in Baltimore for my first novel. A thriller. Full Black characters. A woman didn’t want to read my book because it didn’t have sex in it. Well, I won’t change the integrity of a story to fit current trends. That is a crime of the highest order.
I’ve learned to come to a Howard Roark (Ayn Rand’s Fountainhead) kind of conclusion: “I’m doing the art as I see fit. My audience will come to me.” Saves me a headache and allows me to love what I’m doing genuinely. That’s why I love great directors like Rob Zombie. He’s the first to tell people to ‘F’-off’ and do a film the way he wants to. We have differences in style and whatnot, and I think my work is inherently commercial compared. Remember, I grew up in the Spielberg, Lucas, and Zemeckis era. But I love his independence to the art.
- What film festivals are you submitting Predawn to?
All of them. Well, almost all of them. I have compiled a list of 100 festivals, with deadlines ranging from July 2023 to 2024. At this point, after the immense time and effort put in by the entire cast and crew, I feel indebted to them all to get the final product in front of a critical audience to receive genuine feedback.
- What’s next for you after Predawn?
I would love to live a life like Studio Ghibli and Hayao Miyazaki. I want to create my own stories, have control over my own finances, and produce films with a small production team, at my own pace. That is the ultimate goal, but it will only be sustainable if each film I produce is marginally profitable. Instead of throwing out endless rounds of subpar content in hopes of striking gold, I’m attempting to be mindful of every detail of the story and the production values. Perhaps producing one short film a year. A feature every two years. Something like that.
For now, I’m focusing on Predawn. I’ll give it my all and see where God takes me from here. It’s pretty much in his hands, anyway.
- What advice would you give to someone who is just starting out as a film director?
Stay off social media (laughing).
It took me a little while to understand that it’s too easy to want to post a thought or more when you read someone acting the fool on Facebook or Twitter. You need to resist the urge to cuss someone out, keep your head down and focus on the offline prize. You only think your every posted opinion matters when, in truth, it does not. You’re not correcting the universe by saying something witty to garnish enough likes to prove your position.
You’re going to want to hire a team that can post about your brand online for you without your fragile emotions attached to it. Stay focused on your work. Posting online is strictly about marketing and promoting. Anything more than that, like posting how you really feel about political, racial, and gender topics are for pundits and people with nothing else to do. You should have a million things to do more important than battling the masses over anything more than your brand or film.
Also, master the concept of fluid momentum in storytelling. It’s the stuff that carries the audience from the beginning to the end of the story. You’re not just letting them watch the story. They are feeling they are part of it.
While what makes a ‘good’ story is subjective to both the storyteller and the audience, I stand by the basic principle that all stories should move and impact the viewer. In filmmaking, storytelling and direction are entirely about manipulating the audience’s emotions.
There are 150 years of cinema content out there and it has never changed why the audience goes to the theater. The audience craves to be dragged through the wringer emotionally. To laugh, cry, and get angry. They want to be immersed in the characters on screen and transported into that world. I promise you—the movies you loved the most, told stories you wish you were a part of, or wished you were that character.
John Wick, when you think about it, is a hack-n-slash video game with an indestructible hero. But guess what? It’s a great series of films because we care about John and the other characters around him. Yeah. And his dog (laughing). Take Avengers: Endgame. Ten years of taking the audience with each character accumulated into the perfect climax. Game of Thrones. Lord of the Rings. Yeah, Succession. Characters you love. Going a little deeper, a good story with characters you care about is a satisfying relationship for the price of a movie ticket or a few days of bingeing. You feel exhilarated when you leave.
How you work the audiences’ emotions are subjective, still. You can’t please everyone which is why the Hollywood model is consistent in reproducing ‘what works’. It’s too expensive to have failure. It’s about majorities. They don’t need everyone to love a film. Just the majority. And if the majority of people love a TikTok skit, guess what? You’ll get a similar TikTok skit in a film. Refer to my last statement about feeding the people the same old shit. It’s profitable. I totally get that.
I’ve never been handed an eight-figure check to create something that goes against my integrity in storytelling before, so I might be just talking out of my ass right now. (laughing). ‘Thirty million to do a street racing, thugs, drugs, and hooker baby mama drama … in space?!?’ Maybe my signature on the contract would still be wet before I finished this very sentence (laughing).
Seriously, it’s essential to create characters, stories, and/or emotions the audience cares about, so they’re invested in the journey. This is the same passion that drove my mother to cheer for Luke Skywalker when he made the final shot into the Death Star’s ventilation shaft. For me, emotionally driven storytelling is the key to making an impact and creating a memorable experience for the audience.