Interview: A Conversation With HOW DO YOU WRITE A JOE SCHERMANN SONG Director Gary King

How Do You Write A Joe Schermann Song from talented filmmaker Gary King is one of the best independent films I have seen this year. It deservedly won the Audience Award and the Breakthrough Filmmaker Award for director King at Phoenix Film Festival where it held sold-out screenings. I had the pleasure of talking with Gary about the making of this film and the joys and challenges of independent filmmaking.


Gary, congratulations on the awards you have won for your new film HOW DO YOU WRITE A JOE SCHERMANN SONG.  Where did you get the inspiration to make this film?
 
Thank you. Winning the awards was an amazing moment for everyone involved. We cannot thank the Phoenix Film Festival and their community enough for the accolades. As far as inspiration, I always had a movie musical on my list of genres to make. My parents exposed me to many styles of film while growing up and for some reason the movie musical was one that I just connected with at an early age. It was something about being able to tell stories through melody that made me sit up and notice.  Sometimes that can be more powerful and I loved it. 

It wasn't until I met both Joe Schermann and Christina Rose in the fall of 2009 that I knew I'd met the talented people I needed to seriously move forward with developing a musical for film. Joe's songs inspired me, and meeting and working with Christina on Death of the Dead inspired me to create and expand the role of "Evey" - who was a much more minor character in the first draft of the script.

What were the greatest challenges you experienced in the production of the film? And how did you overcome them?

I'd say mainly the time commitment was a huge obstacle as it took just about two years to complete the film from starting the script to completely finishing film. That's the longest I've ever worked on a movie. Spending that much time on one project sometimes made me feel that I wasn't moving forward in my career, meaning that I was working on this one thing every single day for over 700 days....so there was definitely a time I would question if I was doing the right thing. 

What kept me going was having the tremendous support from our fans as well as the seeing initial response to our test screenings. I felt that we had created something special. Luckily, I had so many people on my team wearing multiple hats: actors were also producers, choreographers and moral supporters. I never felt I was going into it alone. 


How Do You Write A Joe Schermann Song - Joe Schermann 2.jpegJoe Schermann plays himself in the film. I am curious to find out how similar he is in real life compared with the character he plays in the film. Can you please tell us?

I wrote the role for Joe's personality - but of course in a much more heightened and dramatic version to make things more interesting cinematically. Since it was his first on-screen acting role I didn't want to write something that would be too far from him, as I wanted him to feel comfortable.  I love hearing all the great feedback about his performance. He does a great job and I'm very proud of what we did together.
 
Joe has such amazing music talents. How did you come to work with him in the first place?
 
Mark DiConzo introduced me to Joe back in the fall of 2009. I'd worked with Mark on my first feature New York Lately and hit it off so well that we knew we wanted to work together again.  When we were on the film festival circuit, one day Mark pulled up some YouTube clips of Joe's songs while we were hanging out in his hotel room. Mark and Joe were friends for a while already and he told me I should listen to his music -- which blew my mind. To me it was Joe's unique balance of complex compositions with really catchy melodies that made me feel his music was the one I was waiting for to use in my film. Right then I asked to meet Joe so Mark set it up once we were back in New York.

How Do You Write A Joe Schermann Song - Gary King, Christina Rose, Mark DiConzo.jpg

So this is the second time you've worked with Mark DiConzo on a film.  What  qualities does he possess that made you want to collaborate with him again on How Do You Write A Joe Schermann Song? 

Mark is such a rare talent to me.  The best part is that we are on a working level together where he just gets me creatively...and that's not an easy thing.  The funny thing is we seldom sit around and actually talk about his character work in my films as he likes to develop stuff on his own.  He'll definitely check in with me, but I love that he's prepared and thorough where he'll make some strong choices and then ask if it works with my overall vision.  We had such a blast working on New York Lately I instantly knew we needed to do something again and soon.  I'm glad that he's always so open to the random type of characters I like to throw his way -- and that he's so versatile he can do them.

 

How Do You Write A Joe Schermann Song - Evey Audition.jpegLet's talk about Christina Rose.  Her 'Evey' is such a key character in your film.  I am a little surprised to hear that she originally had a more minor role.  Can you tell us how her character 'evolved' over time?
 
Oh yeah the first draft of the script had 'Evey' as more of a supporting character.  It was only after I'd met Christina on Death of the Dead and seeing her immense talents and magnetic screen presence did I start to think about expanding that part specifically for her.  From working with her on that film, I learned that she'd been on Broadway and could do the full-tilt boogie (act, sing, dance).  I brought up the Schermann Song project and she became extremely passionate and interested -- which led to a lot of discussion and her eventual involvement (as both actress and producer).  Once Christina came on board, the story changed for the better.  I find it funny that many audiences don't realize or expect the plot to involve 'Evey' just as much as 'Joe' for which the movie is titled after.  I actually love exploring strong, female protagonists and hope to do this a lot more in future films.  I think that's why the work of Woody Allen, Bergman, Altman and Almodovar speaks to me so much -- there's nothing more interesting than a woman to me.

Can you tell us something about the projects you've been working on since HOW DO YOU WRITE A JOE SCHERMANN SONG?

I'm extremely excited about my next project FMK which shoots this July.  If you've seen my films, then you'll definitely recognize many familiar faces in this one.  It's a very dark comedy....the blackest of black, which is a huge departure and challenge for me.  I can't wait.

You seem to enjoy the challenge of making films from different genres. Would you attribute that to your parents exposing you to different film styles when you were younger? And in what other ways have they influenced you as a filmmaker?

Yes, definitely my parents are a huge reason why I love films.  The funny thing is I think they were just casual moviegoers growing up.  They aren't in the film world at all and don't even collect them.  What they did was expose me to all types of cinema they'd seen while they were dating in the 50's and 60's...which was a mix of everything: musicals, film noir, tons of Hitchcock, screwball comedies...the list goes on and on.  As far as influencing me in other way, I think the most memorable was giving me a Super-8 camera and film stock when I was around seven or eight years old -- that changed my life forever.

 

How Do You Write A Joe Schermann Song - Summer & Dancers.jpegTell us the things you like and dislike the most about being an independent filmmaker.

I love the freedom to make the films I want to make.  Being able to create and only have to answer to myself and my core team of collaborators is a great freedom and luxury I don't take for granted.  Having said that, I still like to test screen and solicit feedback to gauge how a film plays with an audience.  At the end of the day, I realize I'm making movies for others to see and ideally enjoy -- and not just for myself.

The only thing I honestly dislike about being an independent filmmaker is the budget constraints.  I've become really adept at being able to pull off a lot with very little.  However, I would love to direct at the level where there is more money to afford greater resources, higher production value and name actors to share scenes with my usual suspects.  If it means doing something for the studios to do this, I'm totally game.  I'm sure the grass is greener no matter the situation so ultimately I'm just happy to be making film and living my dream.

So if you get given an unlimited budget and complete creative freedom to make one film of your choice, what kind of film would it be, and why? 

That's so tough because on my list of films there are so many stories and genres I wish to explore.  An unlimited budget would probably only happen once in a lifetime after a huge successful film where the film studios hand you the keys to the next one -- it's rare but it does happen.  So if I ever find myself there, let's just say I'd pitch them 3 different ideas and I'd be happy to do any of them:

- a period piece/costume drama: lush production design and authentic costumes are expensive.  I love Merchant/Ivory films, Ang Lee's Sense and Sensibility and the more recent films by Joe Wright.  I want to play around in another era.

- a young adult action/adventure that takes place in suburbia during the late 70s/early 80s (my childhood era): I want to share my experiences of how exciting it was to grow up in a time without overprotective parents and when video games and the internet didn't suck up our time.  I grew up with friends who invented our own stories and adventures to pursue.  I'm currently developing the storyline with my brother who works in the film industry as well.  We're excited.

- a full scale musical: a big-budget spectacle with all original music and full-on set pieces, costumes and an all-star cast to go along with it.

Finally, what advice would you give to aspiring filmmakers?

Surround yourself with a great team.  Filmmaking is rarely done well by one person alone....so having talented people around you, who believe in you, is so empowering.  You feel like you can do anything when you have an incredible cast and crew supporting your vision.  It's something I don't take for granted and appreciate every day.

Also never give up.  If you love film and truly believe making them is your calling then you'll find a way to create them, no matter the scale.  Set big goals then take the little steps to get yourself there...it may take a while a while but people will notice.


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Raindance Film Festival (European Premiere)

Calgary International Film Festival (Canadian Premiere)

Fort Lauderdale Film Festival (Florida Premiere)


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