Interview Of The Week with Michael Baumgarten: He just wanted to be a filmmaker

Why filmmaking?

My mom had a part-time night job at a local cinema in Key West, where I am originally from, and I would happily collect movie posters for my bedroom wall while in elementary school. My dad was the owner/operator of a charter fishing business there called Cowboy Charters. An episode of the TV show The American Sportsman filmed on the Cowboy and Margaux Hemingway did a photo shoot on the boat. I sat on a dock for hours studying the cast and crew filming scenes on a Spanish galleon ship for the TV show “Caribe” starring Stacy Keach. During this critical time, my parents were going through a bitter and emotional divorce. Being at the movies and watching good TV was the only therapy I had access to, so film became part of my life at an early age.

By the time I got to high school in Orlando, I got my first paid gig. My friend, comedian Tom Rhodes, was already doing some roadie work at a big nightclub near UCF in Orlando. He invited me to help the roadies of many traveling music acts that were on MTV and the radio. I would help unload their road cases, watch the show, then help load the truck back up after. I got paid $20 per gig, free soda, a free concert, and a plastic seat next to the mixing board.

After that, I was an administrative assistant for a marketing company in Orlando. My boss was the great Susan Simms, who is now the LA Liaison for the Florida Governor’s Office of Film & Entertainment. Since I was using my stepfather’s Minolta 35mm film camera and lenses, I would run around doing BTS photos and helping shoot special events and promo videos for clients. Thanks to Susan, I attended my first film and TV industry meeting in downtown Orlando.

You have had many different jobs and positions in the film industry since then. Which did you like most and why?

It’s a tie between writing and directing. Creating the characters, the story and the sets allows me to be a film fan and create something I’d like to see. Becoming the director came out of necessity – it allowed me to get the screenplay made without having to rely on some “name” director needing to take a shine to the story, having their schedule be open, and choosing to commit up to 6 months on my project over whatever other projects they’re juggling.

What does it take to be a professional filmmaker?

Just my opinion, but for me, the key to being a pro filmmaker is being persistent (without being too pushy), respecting the funding, building networks of cast and crew, staying focused while also being open to adapting to the industry, the market and technical changes, and allowing the finished work to speak for itself.

Do you have a recipe for how to make a good film?

A good story with good characters that gets the audience involved, that elicits empathy for the lead character and his or her struggle. John Wick is a simple but effective story. When John tries to be a regular Joe, criminals steal his car, then kill his dog and blow up his house. The audience demands that John Wick finds the bad guys and that they pay for their crimes. And… action! Rocky was another good story. Jaws also. After I read scripts like The Matrix and Lethal Weapon, they set the bar high and I’m fortunate to have read both of them before directing my first feature.

Even if you have the recipe for making a good film sometimes you may not be entirely happy with the outcome. Woody Allen for example is famous for not being happy with his films. Has that ever happened to you? What can you do when it happens?

As filmmakers, we are often our own worst critics. Whatever we accomplish, we often see the myriad of details in every film that we would have liked to have done better. If only we had a little more funding to afford more filming days, more takes, more specialty gear, more time refining the edit, a higher costume budget, a higher art department budget, different VFX shots, different music cues, etc. Decades after the worldwide success of the first three Star Wars movies, George Lucas was still going back and making revisions. I know that feeling well. My movie Hollywood Laundromat already played two festivals. Luckily, I’m able to do 8 quick edits on the movie before it plays at a 3rd film festival and before it is officially released to the public.

What are the films that you are most proud of and pleased with?

The Martial Arts Kid was super rewarding. I was working with a lot of friends on that and we got to see the fans react to it. We flew around to about 10 cities to show audiences the film and did Q&As afterwards. Paying Mr. McGetty was also fun. Smitty, which I only wrote and produced, had a great cast of legendary Oscar nominated and Oscar winning actors. It’s great to see actors I grew up watching as a kid, like Peter Fonda and Louis Gossett, Jr., be on our set and performing scenes I wrote while sitting at a Starbucks.

Making films requires constant creativity and inspiration. Where do you get your inspiration from and how do you keep yourself creative?

Observing and experiencing life creates inspiration. Also, music is a big inspiration. It reduces noise pollution, and puts me in a creative groove to write and get things done. Since I often have to work with much lower budgets and far fewer resources than people making movies for Netflix, Hulu, HBO, mini majors and studios, it inspires me to see artists like Billie Eilish and Olivia Rodrigo using home studio setups to realize their dreams. Teen artists are actually making Grammy winning music using iMacs, affordable Guitar Center studio monitors from Yamaha and Adam Audio, and affordable mics as low as $99. Anything they don’t know how to do, a Google or YouTube search will likely lead to the answer.

Luckily, I do live in an industry town so I’m surrounded by a vast community of directors, writers, producers, actors, editors, cinematographers, composers, vendors and crew. So I’m literally in a constant state of working on my business, unless I venture out beyond the 30 mile zone. Writing, researching, watching something, listening to good music, and packaging projects are all parts of my daily routine. If I don’t do that and instead take lazy days off, I’m hyper aware that other talented and hard-working filmmakers and filmmaking teams would outwork me that week.

What is the best and what is the hardest part of being a filmmaker?

The best part is the joy of getting to watch a theatre audience collectively enjoying the 90 minute experience you’ve put together for them. The second best thing is meeting a total stranger who has seen the movie and appreciated it. The hardest part is the time spent searching for reliable funding partners and the quest for wider distribution.

Can you make a good living as an independent filmmaker?

John Ruskin’s quote is my guiding light. “The highest reward for a man’s toil is not what he gets by it but what he becomes from it.” I wanted to be a filmmaker and I am. That alone enriches my heart and soul.

What would be your advice to someone who wants to start a career as a filmmaker?

The good news for them is that it’s never been as easy as it is now. Screenwriting software such as Fade In is under $80. A 4K cinema camera can be bought brand new for under $1,500. A set of 4 cinema lenses can be bought for under $1,500. Many sound recording devices are available on a budget. A MacBook Air capable of editing a feature film can be bought for under $1,300. A set of LED lights with stands is now a few hundred dollars. A pair of Sony 7506 headphones is $99. Hard drives and recording media are at an all-time low. It would have been amazing to have access to these creative tools when I was a teenager. Combine the available hardware with the software, watch hundreds of free YouTube videos on filmmaking, and anybody that then puts in the work could be a practicing filmmaker.

The film industry has changed a lot thanks to all the online platforms, the cheaper ways to make films and the growing number of film festivals. The change is exciting. The market has grown and now many more people have opportunities to work in the industry. What do you think about this change and how do you see the future of the film industry?

Decades ago, you pretty much had to be in LA, NY, Chicago, Toronto, Vancouver, or London to have a professional film or TV career. Then add Nashville and Detroit to that list for music. The internet and technology have greatly changed the game. The band Boyce Avenue proved somebody can be successful, build up over 16 million YouTube fans, and tour globally while still being based out of Sarasota, FL. The trick shot and comedy team of Dude Perfect has proven that a bunch of college friends from Dallas, Texas, can continue making funny trick shot videos and build up over 58 million YouTube fans. They are enjoying a multi-million dollar brand. For the younger generations raised in the WiFi and smartphone era, their go-to social media stars have more verified fans and influence than most of the household names in the film, TV, and music business. All this is very exciting and shows if you want to, you really can make things happen.

What are you working on currently?

I am finishing up post production on the dark comedy feature Hollywood Laundromat and the romantic comedy/drama feature Kyle’s Pocket Dial. Upcoming projects include the teen crime drama film Suburban Gangstas; the romantic western musical The Key To The West starring Britain’s Got Talent and America’s Got Talent star Connie Talbot; a Vietnam Vet story, inspired by a true story, called Back To The World; and an action vampire thriller called Blood Walkers. The waiting game for putting together the funding is always the catch, right?

Is there anything else you would like to talk about?

If anybody is making their first movie, one good way to have the best shot at making it work out is to create a story that can be filmed in and around the locations available. Start simple with lower costs and risks, then take steps forward to the next level. Kevin Smith doing Clerks at the convenience store he worked at is a great example of that.

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