Get It Clear and Make It Sing: an interview with filmmaker Brandon McCormickApril 10th, 2012 | Posted by in IndieFlix filmmaker | IndieFlix in the Media | Interview | Short films
young couple runs across a sunny meadow, picnic basket swinging. She is pretty and radiantly happy. He is strong and capable and every bit as glad. The life that lies before them can be seen in their shining eyes: it can only be a golden path. A yellow brick road. But as so often happens in stories that begin with such bright joy, clouds of unhappiness lie just outside the frame, biding their time till they can throw their shadow over the lives of the two lovers.
And what a shadow. In a tale that grows more and more familiar, the young man in whose future we saw nothing but fulfilled dreams begins to lose himself, piece by piece, until there is nothing left for him but nightmare. Until, finally, he remains waiting in the forest, unmoving, and heartless.
“Heartless” thus tells us the story of a very recognizable figure: the Tin Man of the The Wizard of Oz. Coming at well-worn material from an unexpected vantage point, filmmaker Brandon McCormick achieves the impossible: he makes one of the most inescapably familiar stories in American mythology fresh and new.
Here’s my interview with Brandon:
Charley Cvercko: Is “Heartless” your first film? [This is me doing absolutely no research in an attempt to let the interview be spontaneous: in fact IndieFlix distributes several of Brandon’s films.]
Brandon McCormick: Nope, “Heartless” was done a few years ago, but I’ve been making films for about twelve years now. My first film to ever make an online debut was “Smiling Addiction.” But it’s total crap, so don’t watch it
CC: Oh I will. I’m a big believer in Sturgeon’s Law: 90% of everything is crap. So I expect to slog through some muck to get to the good stuff.
BM: Brandon’s Law: 99% of Brandon’s work is crap. Hoping that 1% shows up someday. I’m an optimist.
CC: So what brought you to film? What makes film the medium that best fits your way of telling stories?
BM: Well, I was Spielberg’s target audience in his heyday. Jurassic Park, Raiders, E.T. So I had no choice really. I started making films in high school and just got the itch. The addiction took over and I’ve been a slave to storytelling through film ever since. I did a lot of writing as a kid, but storytelling through film is the most visceral, and now as I’ve come to realize, the most collaborative art form ever seen in the history of mankind.
CC: Did you ever “remake” any of Spielberg’s films? Fan versions, like you see on youtube?
CC: That’s résumé worthy!
BM: As a kid, I copied Star Wars and stuff, and I’ve been copying him and other filmmakers I love (cough) Tim Burton (cough) ever since. Just now in the last two films, I feel that I’ve started to make stuff where I’m creating a bit of my own style and not just borrowing from someone else. But I still borrow. Actually steal.
“Amateurs borrow, professionals steal.” —Me
Einstein said “True originality is learning how to hide your resources.”
CC: Wonder who he stole that from?
CC: A tangent on Burton’s movies: what’s your favorite?
BM: Hmm . . . in his aesthetic, Scissorhands is pretty iconic. Nightmare Before Christmas is a huge influence on me. (As evidenced by the “musical” additions to my films. And yes, I know he didn’t technically direct that.)
CC: Yeah I’d have to say Scissorhands is the closest he’s come to an all-time masterpiece. As a one-time diehard fan though, I feel like he’s been phoning it in for oh the last decade or so. What do you think?
BM: I think he isn’t a prolific filmmaker, but he has his style and his own voice. Not any different than Tarantino or any other auteur. Sweeny Todd was killer. But yeah, he’s not done anything groundbreaking for a while, but neither have I so what do I have to say about it?
CC: Sweeney Todd was great. But I wish he’d do more original work; he’s done nothing but adaptations for a while, but his originals are his best.
BM: Yeah. Alice was not good at all. But that’s what the studios are wanting these days. Big director, known property. Scared money.
CC: Everyone hopes to get that big some day, and they think they’ll be the first to refuse to cooperate with the suits.
CC: So I gather fantasy is important to you?
BM: Yeah, it’s been a big influence in my life. The Lord of the Rings movies were huge, and I grew up on a steady diet of Star Wars. I’ve been toning that back a little bit in my last few films, but I’m still always looking to add that little bit of magic in everything. Dark brooding indie dramas are not my cup of tea. I’m an independent filmmaker by reality, not by genre.
CC: That’s one thing that struck me about “Heartless”: it isn’t the kind of soft-focus, sparkly, pure fantasy of the 1939 Wizard of Oz; you take pains to set it in the real world.
BM: Yeah, I wanted to interpret it the best I could. I knew we were dealing with something pretty iconic so we had to respect the source material (the book, which is where the story came from and wasn’t told in the movie) as well as the iconic film. (Which is why we have red slippers at the end and not silver.) We knew we would be hated if we did it wrong. And for all its flaws, it’s done decently well.
CC: I was going to mention that, the red shoes—a nod to the film rather than the books.
BM: Yes, we had to recognize that the majority of the culture only knows the story through the movie. So book fans were annoyed at that, because they usually hate the movie, but hey, I liked the ruby slippers so that’s what we did.
CC: I think you bridge the gap pretty well: I like how, at the beginning—once you get inside the frame tale—you begin with almost an homage to cliché: two lovers running through a sunny meadow. But there are dead leaves strewn over the yellow brick road, and the forest is a real, physical place, with dirt on the ground instead of green carpeting.
BM: Yeah, it’s completely “once upon a time.” Straight up fairytale. Probably the last pure fairytale I’ve done in the last few years. The yellow brick road is more like cobblestone. The trees are real. The actual Baum story was much darker, and I loved that about it. First day of starting: “No funnel on his head.”
CC: So Baum covers the Tin Man backstory?
BM: Yes, this is almost verbatim Baum’s telling. The Tin Man recalls this story while they are camped by a fire one night.
CC: In the first book?
BM: Yup. I took some liberty, but it’s really close.
CC: You take an incredibly familiar story—from the movie—and look at it from the other side of the mirror, so to speak. Is this an approach you take with any other films? Like “Winnie the Pooh’s Reform School Days” or something?
BM: Ha, that would be awesome. I haven’t done that specifically. Although most of my films are drawn from some kind of classic literature reference. “Blood on My Name” was “Pit and the Pendulum” and “Jack and the Dustbowl” was—well, you can guess that one. “Blood on My Name” is a little more hidden. Jack is completely reinterpreted, but there are the pieces if you look for ‘em.
“Blood on My Name” is in the Atlanta Film Festival right now. If it wins it’ll be qualified for an Academy Award. So there’s that. “Blood on My Name” got us our first phone call from a major studio.
And I’m a huge fan of O Brother, Where Art Thou? It’s a Southern Gothic Americana Folklore Musical.
CC: So does fantasy, or allegory, allow you to get closer to “the truth” do you think? I mean, there’s a sense in “Heartless” of looking closely at the mundane and finding the magical.
BM: Yeah, I think there are a few ways to look at allegory and symbolism. First, I’ve tried to move away from allegory as best I can these days. I’m trying work in the world of symbolism, which is a much harder clay.
CC: Yes, allegory can be annoying, and boring. Art dictated by an agenda almost never works.
BM: We get so used to hearing the same thing, Truth and Beauty get old because we are often surrounded by it and have either ignored it or forget about it. A story lets you see something you’ve always known to be true and feel it like it’s the first time. Good storytelling is telling a story no one has heard before; great storytelling is telling a story everyone knew but has forgotten.
I want to make great stories.
CC: Right: the story has to be new, original, but still recognizable in its truth.
BM: I believe in a mononarrative story (to borrow from Campbell). A thread through history that humanity has been connected to. I want to be a part of that narrative river.
CC: So did you begin “Heartless” with a sense of message? Or did you just allow that to grow out of the story as you created it?
BM: Well, the story of the Tin Man has its own meaning. My goal in that film was only to get it clear and make it sing with respect to Baum. It’s a timeless story, which is why people connect with it.
CC: What’s its meaning, for you?
BM: I mean the central meaning; there seem to be a couple. We all start out with grand intentions. Great things for ourselves and the ones we love. We toil and work for something else. But one day, we wake up and find ourselves in the woods, life and loved ones far behind us. We have forgotten why we began this in the first place. We lose our hearts, we become hollow, we are chopping trees just to chop trees, not to build anything new. We all just want to get our hearts back.
To the young it is a cautionary tale. To the old it is a plea.
CC: I also get a touch of “seize the day”—if you put off your dreams you may lose them.
BM: That’s the power of Baum’s story. In fact all three characters have deeply meaningful backstories.
CC: So who chopped all that wood? interns?
BM: Ha, yup. Actually, me and my other producers built that dadgum thing ourselves. It totally sucked. As it turns out, logs are heavier than they look. And none of us were manly enough to know how to wield a deadly chainsaw. It was very dangerous. Many interns died on that day.
CC: Oh well, they’re just interns. Has anyone complained to you about cutting down trees?
BM: Ha, nope. You want to?
CC: I mean, they looked like dead wood to me, but someone always complains, right?
BM: Yeah, actually someone was already having a tree removed, so we had them cut it up a certain way, and then we cut them further into Lincoln logs and did it that way.
CC: Good thinking.
BM: And while they’re now dead . . . truly they live forever in film. Or something like that.
CC: Outside of filmmakers, any other artists—writers, painters, musicians, etc.—that you feel have been an influence on your work?
BM: I try to consume as much great art as I can. If I don’t the Muse gets upset with me and gives me the cold shoulder.
CC: I interviewed Jeff Buckley twice. Saw him perform six times.
BM: Incredible. I can have Grace on loop and never tire of it. It’s musical oxygen.
CC: You mention Rembrandt: there’s a definite love of shadows and lighting in “Heartless.” Was that you or the DP?
BM: I was the DP.
I’ve always loved Rembrandt. The only time I was “struck” by a painting, to the point of motionless awe, was when I saw “St. Matthew and the Angel.” Something just hypnotized me. I saw it at a museum here in Atlanta. Then on the way out there was the modern art refuse laying about. The only thing those things moved were my bowels.
CC: Yeah I’ve had similar reactions to Vermeer and LaTour, also masters of light and shadow. Although I’ve had similar responses to some abstract pieces too, which made me see the value of that, when it works. Rothko punches me in the gut every time, and I’ll never figure out how. But I can see for someone to whom stories are so important how that kind of thing wouldn’t have the same impact; it’s the only art that almost always lacks stories.
BM: Not necessarily true, but I like that stuff if I like looking things that mean nothingness.
CC: So are you working on anything currently?
BM: Yeah, working on two feature films right now: One, a story about the colony of Roanoke. A supernatural thriller. And two, a Civil War ghost story. They’re films we’ve written and will be producing independently. We’d love to work with the studios, but they have too many strings attached at the moment.
CC: Are both in stages of production?
BM: We’re technically in “prepro” for Roanoke and development for Curse of Cain. We can do that because of the Whitestone community. But we have $0.00 in the account for either film, so that’s really where it’s at
CC: Tell me about that, I saw the credit but I’m not sure what that’s about.
BM: Whitestone is my company. I’ve created a community of artisans and we’ve been making films together for eight years now.
CC: So is it like a collective?
BM: More like an old school studio. Where everyone was on staff. Except we have no money and everyone volunteers.
CC: Do you rotate duties, or are you The Director?
BM: I’m producer director. It’s not like an collective in that sense; they’re my crew and community that I’ve put together. I teach other filmmakers in my Protégé Program, but they are students under me that I help move along.
CC: Sounds like a great way to work, with people who are familiar with your work and want to support it.
BM: Yeah, that’s why I think about filmmaking as so collaborative. I direct, but these guys are brilliant, and together we make Whitestone films, not my films. I just get to produce and direct them.
CC: Do you have any dream projects, that you hope to do some day?
BM: I’ll make Paradise Lost before I die.
CC: Wow. It would also be cool if you made it after you die. But probably more technical obstacles that way.
BM: Well, technology is getting pretty awesome. Who knows in 80 years . . .
CC: The Brain That Would Not Stop Directing!
BM: Ha, yes.
CC: You say you work with young filmmakers. Any advice for young/inexperienced/would-be directors?
BM: Yeah, I tell my guys every week: Make stuff. Make stuff, make stuff, make stuff. There is NO reason why you can’t make films. Printing “filmmaker” on a business card doesn’t make you one. We are living in a technical revolution right now. If you don’t know something, Google it. “GIMF” as we say.
So, that’s it. I’ve made almost 400 pieces of video content so far. Most of it totally sucks, if not all of it, but someday if I keep going I’ll hit something.
It must be borne in mind that the tragedy of life doesn’t lie in not reaching your goal. The tragedy lies in having no goal to reach. It isn’t a calamity to die with dreams unfulfilled, but it is a calamity not to dream. It is not a disaster to be unable to capture your ideal, but it is a disaster to have no ideal to capture.It is not a disgrace not to reach the stars, but it is a disgrace to have no stars to reach for. Not failure, but low aim is sin.
—Benjamin Elijah Mays
CC: So Brandon, any last thoughts, before we wrap up?
BM: Last thought? Some advice I always say:
Filmmaking is one of the most miserable and difficult occupations out there. Films don’t want to be made. It’s like giving birth. You will get something beautiful, but it’s not without a lot of blood, sweat and cursing. If you’re not addicted, if you’re not consumed every waking moment by it, go do something else. You’ll be much happier. Those of us who have the itch, the call, the curse, whatever it is, are stuck. Abandon all hope, ye who enter here! But if you have the itch, then take Ray Bradbury’s advice:
Life is short, misery sure, mortality certain. But on the way, in your work, why not carry those two inflated pig-bladders labeled Zest and Gusto. With them, traveling to the grave, I intend to slap some dummox’s behind, pat a pretty girl’s coiffure, wave to a tad up a persimmon tree. Anyone wants to join me, there’s plenty of room in Coxie’s Army.