Welcome to my Sunday Spotlight Graham. What a delight to have this opportunity to catch up with you and have you share your works with us. I’ve not had many guests where I could say “I knew you when.” And that makes our chat special for me because when you took those steps after high school to set off on your creative journey, which led to your amazing career we will chat about today, you helped me take a few bold steps of my own. I’ve always been grateful for that.
So let’s start by introducing you as the principal behind Imperative Pictures, a film company with an exciting and eclectic body of work our readers can check out on IMDb. Your 2018 film I May Regret was selected for the San Diego International Film Festival and won the Grand Prix at the Vienna Independent Film Festival, and Blind Malice did fabulous on the awards front as well. Grace Zabriskie earned a best actress award, which I was thrilled to see. She’s always been a favorite of mine. All the actors gave us potent scenes in that film. It was also a special treat to join your crew to watch it at the Sacramento International Film Festival on the historic Delta King riverboat. And you’ve gone on to win many more international film awards. Congratulations!
D. How long do you work on your story ideas, the writing, before a piece becomes a full-fledged project? Or do they start life as a film concept, then comes the writing?
G. I always start with a subject matter. Usually through the act of general wide-cast exploration I eventually stumble blindly upon a subject matter that I had little or no knowledge of. That’s when I get interested. That’s when I become intrigued. It usually means I’m not alone and the subject matter is worth furthering to educate people like myself.
Then I ask myself is it a big enough subject matter?
If so, the writing process always starts off super fragmented, at best. I try not to focus on a storyline, but instead, I’m usually fixated on an ending; an outcome; a take-a-way. Having a specific ending in my head from the start is essential. It’s the core driver for everything else that will take place for this project for the rest of my work. Even after the film is done this core still drives marketing and promotional possibilities.
Once I know what I wish to say about the subject matter, then I can start creating an actual narrative that takes us on a journey that ultimately lands on that final point or message. I guess you can say it’s reverse engineering.
D. As a writer, I have been interested in the differences between writing a novel or a screenplay, especially since I noticed that many writing challenge platforms offer screenwriting contests along with short story writing. Which means to me, many fledgling writers want to write that next epic screenplay. I think the main thing is creating scenes that build on each other through a story arc. But what other key features are there in writing screenplays?
G. I don’t have a clue about writing a novel but I do know a bit about screenplays. The work is not random. A good story may appear organic and without format, especially done well, but once you strip away all the glitter it is a body of work that usually fits the model of a solid 3-act structure specific to screenplay writing.
The challenge of a screenplay is that, unlike a novel, a screenplay never overtly articulates the inner thoughts of a character. A screenplay can only provide observation. Moving pictures. So glances, body language, choice of words, or lack thereof, emotions you can see, manipulative actions you can witness. Clues like a faint smile. A welling up of the eyes. A nervous clearing of the throat. Those are the visuals an audience relies on to gain insight into their minds.
A screenplay is only a roadmap for the director to get you from A to B. In many ways, unless detail tells you something to actually further the story, it is never included. The roadmap can be widely interpreted and visualised. No two people read a screenplay the same way, and thus a director who embarks on a writer’s work has the opportunity to tell the story from his or her unique directorial perspective. A unique directorial lens.
The same story can appear unrecognisable from director to director. But each story ultimately says the same thing in the end. The roadmap takes the director to the end.
D. Fascinating. Exactly the insights I was hoping you could give our audience and a wonderful glimpse into the creative freedom of a filmmaker.
D. As the writer, director and cinemaphotographer on your films, which would you say is your true calling, or is it a combination? Do those roles change with each film where you might do more of one than the other?
G. I love every stage of filmmaking. If you truly love every creative process, why not do it all. Right? I think of filmmaking as approaching a painter rightfully approaching an oil painting. The painter would never sketch out a drawing, paint half of it, and then hand the brushes and paint over to another painter and say, “Hey, wanna do the rest?” No. A painter usually picks a subject matter, outlines the concept, lays down the base coat, paints in the images, indulges in all the detail work and finishings. Signs it. Frames it. Heck, the artist might even have a strong opinion about how and where to hang it.
That’s how I feel about filmmaking. I enjoy and love doing every aspect of the work.
D. That’s a fantastic analogy. And that passion shows in your finished product.
D. How do you assemble your team? Do you have a crew who is part of Imperative Pictures, or do you recruit for each project? Do you have a system you follow each time, or is it more organic? Feel free to expand on your creative process, how a film comes about from start to finish.
G. It’s a hybrid. We have garnered team members who consistently work with us if they are available. We have others we recruited for one project, and then they go on to bigger and better projects as their careers advance.
Many years ago we created the Imperative Pictures Internship Program in conjunction with Emerson College Film School, Boston/Los Angeles. As a result, when we are gearing up for a production we take on any number of young and inspiring interns who spend the semester learning how we approach filmmaking. Then, timing permitting, they roll into production for an actual feature film production experience. They truly get their hands dirty in the business.
They also walk away with IMDb credits for a feature film. It’s a great program and we love launching bright new students into the film world.
D. What a brilliant program. A win for everyone.
D. I have to say you have a knack for creating a story that has me on the edge of my seat from the start. I loved the opening scene in Blind Malice just as an example. Is suspense a favorite genre and method for telling the character’s story?
G. Yes, I love suspense. I also love psychological thrillers. I guess you can say I like when the mind has to work hard to understand another person’s mind. It’s the human connection I focus on to tell my story. If we can connect with the main character by creating a character who is both flawed and inspirational; undeniably human; the possibilities of where that character can lead us is endless.
D. Beautiful. I can definitely relate to this as a writer, and it’s something I strive for.
D. Your films bring an awareness to challenges many of us face in life, whether physical, cultural, or social. Was that an underlying purpose for making them, or a happy accident that became your trademark?
G. Happy accident. But not without some master planning. Making a film consumes many years of a filmmaker’s life, and after the film is done it runs over and over in perpetuity. So, I always want to be sure I’m making something that has meaning, purpose, and will be relevant and serve to better our society as the story is told. It needs to be worth my time.
The earliest of storytelling was to teach lessons for the community. Feature films have even more of an opportunity to inform its viewer and potentially a wider audience. A film garners a captive audience. What an opportunity it is to make a body of work that can provide insight, perspective, and clarity to a topic that could ultimately change another person’s life somewhere in the world. That’s the power of film.
We take film seriously. It can literally shape a person’s view of the world for a lifetime.
D. Tell us about Imperative Pictures’ latest film, Unfix.
G. Unfix. It’s my newest film. We’re currently doing sound design on it. It’s a story about a 35-year old man named Ari who, at age 11, following a brief encounter with another boy, was forced into the torturous practice of Conversion Therapy. But now Ari is 35 years old and happily heterosexual, and “fixed”. But when the pandemic hits, Ari’s world is turned upside down once again, awakening dormant questions about his fundamental authentic self; casting doubt he was ever really gay.
I stumbled upon the topic during my rabbit hole research phase. I knew a little about conversion therapy but the more I dove into the topic the more convinced I was that this was a topic that needed to break the walls of specific sexual orientation to make it universally relevant. We hope the story achieves that.
D. It’s hard to imagine parents putting their child through such trauma instead of nurturing the child’s discovery of where they fit in the world. Yet, it happens to a lot of us, sometimes in more subtle ways. I’m glad you’re telling the story.
D. I’m going to hark back to high school because for me, the most fascinating aspect of this interview is knowing you back then and having you share how you got here today. There were so many ways you expressed your creativity in those early years; music, art, drama, starting up social groups and small businesses to spread creativity to others, and finally traveling to Japan. When you were exploring all those ideas, did you have any inkling you would end up behind a movie camera?
G. Settling into film took some time. Maybe subconsciously I already knew when I bought my first video camera in Japan in 1980. It was a dinky little compact micro-cassette SONY camera and I took it everywhere and I made so many little movies. And then I started making “Santa Sightings” short films for my niece and nephew every year. Then short films. Then finally bigger and bigger films as my confidence grew.
But professionally, I was working in News. Then LIVE TV work. By being in the field, I was learning that I don’t like the chaos and uncertainty that accompanied that kind of production. I eventually discovered I am more of a planner. I like being organised. My dissatisfaction with LIVE TV and NEWS ultimately steered me toward film. Film is calculated. It is planned. It employs strategy. All the parts of the brain I like to exercise, while still being fully creative. The feature film medium found me.
D. I bet your niece and nephew adored those movies. My imagination is taking off thinking about how you told them.
D. How big a part did living in Japan play in forming your film career? Did you travel there with the idea there might be opportunities for your future, or did you simply set out on an exciting adventure?
G. Japan moulded a great deal of my work ethics. Japan also served as the foundation of my first 20 working years in production. Oddly, Japan also made me feel like an outsider, and I was okay with that. That feeling helped me make decisions for myself, not for others.
I owe so much of my creative autonomy to travelling outside my comfort zone, learning how to survive and flourish in another culture, chipping away at another language, using a part of my brain that would otherwise have gone unused, to who I am today. Especially in the 80s, Japan was as far one could get from the “Western” culture.
I grew immensely from those 10 years abroad and 10 more working for a Japanese TV network back in the states. It gave me a unique sense of confidence as I moved forward in life.
D. A great learning experience to pass on. Thank you for that, Graham. We were fortunate to travel there in an era when Japan was opening up to western culture. Even in my three-month visit, I ran the gamut from dealing with the challenges of being an outsider in a traditional Japanese family to being thrown into the middle of the family’s western growing pains.
D. What would you say is your biggest influence or turning point that got you where you are today?
G. There has never been one big influence or turning point that got me where I am today. It’s always been about achieving productive goals every day. Small bite-sized goals over weeks and years that lead to bigger daunting life-changing goals. Slow and steady progress requires staying on track, and not veering off my course. I did not know how I would get there, just that I wanted to get there. I am still “getting there”.
My father once gave me perhaps the greatest advice ever. I was 16. I was fixated on what I would do when I grew up and how I would get there. He asked me to take out a piece of paper. Fold it into four quadrants. He instructed me: in the first quadrant write DAY. The next one, write MONTH. Next, write YEAR. The last one, write ULTIMATE. He explained, to get to your ultimate destination you just need to set clear specific but small and easy goals that will lead you there.
Daily achievements will result in monthly success. Months quickly turn to years and as long as your ultimate goal is in view, you will move in that direction.
“But remember,” he said, “Set goals you KNOW you can achieve so you don’t set yourself up for failure. Give yourself tasks you know you can check off daily, so you feel like a winner everyday. Use it every day. Keep it folded up nicely in your back pocket. Constantly remind yourself of the ULTIMATE goal.”
I use this method to this day.
D. I love this! Thank you.
D. Who would you say most inspired you, or your works?
G. I love all art. I study art but not necessarily film artists. I am a consumer of movies but never try to emulate work I’ve seen. I try to let it come from within, depending on the story I’m telling and what I’m feeling.
One of my greatest inspirations has always been my father. He was an artist. I learned from watching him work.
D. When you talk to people about getting started in the film industry, what are your top pieces of advice?
G. My advice to anyone who wants to be in film? Get a business degree! Film and art and all the juicy creative things in life we will study our whole life long, but taking the time to get a solid business degree, so you can survive in the real world as you pursue your art is essential.
In the end, if you want to make a living in the arts, you need to remember art is a business.
D. Are there works in progress? Where can we follow you to see what’s coming next?
G. For now I’m still consumed with UNFIX. After sound design, we will go to festivals, touring for a year. Then I will slowly start the cycle again; indulging in research and asking myself what topic is out in the world that I don’t know anything about and is very important to learn more of. That will be the beginning of a new chapter in my life… a chapter that will, again, consume many years, and ultimately last a lifetime.
Like all my films. Actually making the film takes about 4 years. In 4 years time I can go to college and get a degree. It should be at least that powerful for me.
D. This is the most surprising insight, the amount of time and commitment to each film. Your analogy really puts that in perspective.
D. Where do you see yourself as a creator in the next ten years? Same question for Imperative Pictures?
G. I hope to never retire. I hope I can keep making movies deep into my 90s while I sit poolside in some resort! Haha. The topics that will be important in 10 years time are inconceivable at this time. I am an optimist. I trust the future will be amazing, and I’m sure the world will be, in many ways unchanged and in so many other ways, literally unrecognisable.
Ten years is just around the corner. I hope to have a few more films on the platter. I just want to keep doing what I love. I’m in a sweet spot right now, and I hope to continue this.
D. I have no doubts you’ll be making movies in your 90s. I hope the same goes for writing my stories. I’ve got enough planned to get me there! Poolside. Hmmm. I like it…
D. Thank you so much for visiting, Graham! Any parting words of advice to our readers on following their creative passions?
G. Filmmaking is a very long road to travel to make a film. If you aren’t operating from a place of pure passion you will eventually fizzle out. Find a partner in life that you can travel on that creative journey with. My partner is Alex. He is my producer, my advisor, my manager, my best friend, and the love of my life.
I will close with this. Thank YOU for doing this spotlight, for me and all the interesting stories of the inspiring people you share with your readers.
Like filmmaking, you are providing your own unique platform that can potentially give insight and inspiration to others, shaping a person’s view of the world for a lifetime – all through your Sunday Spotlight.
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