There was a small group of guys, as there normally is in high school, growing up that wanted to gather around film. There really wasn’t ever an AV club, but there was definitely a group of kids that I was a part of that all liked to make films together. A lot of them have gone on to great success. Eric Steelberg was my cinematographer growing up. When we were kids we made our first films together on old 16mm cameras. Eric has obviously gone on to do great work, with Juno, Up in the Air, and 500 Days of Summer. He’s a great director of photography. I also went to high school with Jason Reitman. He was in one of my first films; he played a dead zombie. There was also Dan Dubiecki, who is a producer now, who would wrangle things with my best friend Tim Crane. So there was a small group of people who were a bunch of kids just trying to have fun, and tell stories and have a good time. Our first shoots were definitely begged, borrowed and stolen.
No. We were learning as we went, and we had the good fortune of great people at places such as Panavision, FotoKem, and Kodak, who would give us short ends, and let us borrow cameras on weekends, and develop the film on off times. So, we got very lucky. It was really just a bunch of tenacious guys trying to figure things out and tell stories. None of us took courses in film, so we weren’t taught what to do. It was more of an instinct of wanting to tell stories, wanting to make images, and figuring out what tools we needed to make it happen.
I remember watching a film called The Sugarland Express. It was Spielberg’s first feature film. The end of it was shot in Panavision. I thought to myself “One day I want to make a movie that looks that good, or is that beautiful and touching.” Of course I didn’t know how they did it. At the end it said “Filmed in Panavision” and I figured well, Panavision would know how to make it, they made the movie. So, I called Panavision not knowing how movies were made. I just knew Panavision had a title at the end. So, I contacted them in Woodland Hills and there was a fella named Jim Roudebush who helped us out, and I showed him storyboards, and told him I read all the manuals, and with a big insurance policy I was able to borrow a camera. It sort of started that way, but for the most part it was saving, and borrowing, and begging, and stealing in order to pay for a crew.
There are different firsts. There are the firsts you make when you’re a kid – you’re just getting in trouble, and you’re stealing locations, and borrowing gear. Then there is the first time you shoot something professionally, on the scale of a commercial. And then there’s the first time you shoot something professionally on the scale of a feature film, and I think that those three milestones, each one of those is daunting in and of itself. I had the good fortune of having some great mentors growing up and through my career.
I remember the first time I shot something for RSA, which is a commercial production company. It was a McDonald’s commercial, and I had never worked on a crew that was bigger than six people, because we all held the lights, or pushed the dollies, or did whatever ourselves. I remember showing up and there were caravans upon caravans, there were makeup trailers, and grip trucks that were huge. I kept thinking to myself “How am I going to pay for all this?” At the end of a normal shoot for me I was writing checks to everybody and handing everybody cash and saying “Please don’t cash these for another three weeks or they won’t clear.” I remember just that instinctual response of “Oh my God, all this money is being spent, I’m going to have to pay for this, certainly somebody else is not paying for this.”
I did the Pepsi spec commercial with Eric Steelberg, and again, just a small group of guys. I wasn’t intending to be a commercial director per se. I didn’t even really know what that was. At university, we had an art class, and somebody said “Commercial filmmaking isn’t really artistic filmmaking”, so I tried to pose the opposing view, which was that even the most commercial filmmaking can be artistically done, or can be art in its own right. I made three fake commercials more or less to just prove a point, but it ended up giving me a career, which was surprising.
Honestly, I still think I’m in that phase. I don’t think people really know who I am. I’m definitely still finding my feet in terms of one aesthetic that I think will carry over for a career in film and in commercials. I use a lot of visual effects in commercials, because I like the cutting edge technology of it. With commercials, you have thirty seconds to tell a story, and it’s not always the best venue for drama. You can’t do Shakespeare in thirty seconds, but you can push the limits of visual storytelling, visual narrative and visual effects. The commercial business has the money and the resources and is designed for impact, for wow, for thirty seconds of wow. For me, visual effects or visualizing something digitally is part of my pre-production and design phase. It’s part of my production phase, and then part of my post-production phase. I think that the technology definitely forms the aesthetic of it, and it’s always changing, because technology is always changing.
I’m obsessed with what the future is going to hold for us. Everything is accelerating, whether it’s the filmmaking process, or it’s in our way of life. I’m obsessed with the fact that technology is changing the way in which we live, and the way in which we see the world. When it comes to my aesthetics and robotics that are in my commercials and short films, it relates to the technology available at hand. So, for instance, five years ago it was much easier to do hard surface photo realistic looking models. Robots that were made of metal would look real on film, because that’s what the render engines could handle. That’s what the textures and the modeling software could handle, and you could actually make something look real that normally Stan Winston would have to make.
Now, we have a lot more organic visual effects going on, and that lends itself to what I think the future is really going to hold. I think the future is going to be more of an organic future. It’s going to be less of a robotic future. We now have the tools to do so. We can make CG organic elements that don’t have to look like robots from Terminator 2. They can look like something that you would find at the bottom of the ocean.
It’s not so much a period piece and a historically accurate telling of what happened in 1702, but rather something that captures the spirit and ideology behind these men’s courage. I thought it could be interesting for me to do a historical period piece about Japan, but I don’t know if that’s entirely appropriate for me to do. However, if I were asked to do a chushingura story, where it’s a westerner’s point of view of the folkloric story, then that becomes interesting, and how can I make that fresh and new and different and seen through the eyes of a westerner. That’s why I got involved, the process of telling the chushingura story allowed for certain liberties that I as a western filmmaker could make. I could infuse it with fantasy and infuse it with a world that’s different from just a traditional historical context.
Films now have stratified into very, very big budgets. So we see a lot of movies now that cost over a hundred million dollars, and we see a lot of young filmmakers who are given opportunities to work in that arena. But obviously it’s a high stakes arena with a lot of responsibility. It’s not the same way it was thirty years ago where you would make a film for a million dollars with some friends and then a five million dollar movie and then a ten and a twenty and then maybe you got famous. Now you’re dealing with very large budgets with huge marketing campaigns behind it and lots of points of view and lots of money on the line. So, while the studios support young filmmakers and they want the fresh voice there’s also a responsibility that everybody needs to have when you’re dealing with that kind of price point in the marketplace.
Right now it’s very, very, difficult to get people’s attention and get people to go to the cinema. You’re looking at minimum spends of forty to sixty million dollars just in marketing to get people to go to the cinemas and see your movie. So, after it’s all said and done you need to be making 90 million dollars just to break even on your marketing cost. I also think new filmmakers are going to have their “first” so to speak in a couple of different arenas. You’re going to have people making their first big film that’s over 100 million dollars, and then you’re going to have people making their first film that gets over 100 million views online. So, it’s an exciting time, but I don’t think anybody knows the way it’s going to head.
My path has been a strange one and a crooked one but has gotten me to where I want to be. The internet is egalitarian. If you make something that’s interesting and unique, people will notice. In Hollywood, there are hundreds, if not thousands, of people who are waiting for the next talent, and they’re always looking. And if you make a short film or you make a small piece that’s exciting and that can turn into something bigger and profitable you’ll get the phone call. You don’t have to worry about that. We made the short film The Gift for Philips on a whim, and we had a tremendous response.
I think yes and no. I was shooting that as I was scouting for 47 Ronin. I remember being in Japan looking at different locations for Ronin while tests of the visual effects were sent to me. We finished that up just at the time that Ronin started, so I wasn’t able to make a feature version of that short film, because I had already committed to making Ronin. Was it pivotal? Sure, because it got a lot of attention. A lot of people responded to it. For me, it was important to see how much people would respond to something if you put it online for them to see. But I don’t don’t think it really changed my career, because I had already been given the opportunity to work on 47 Ronin.
There is a lot of television I find fascinating. I watch a lot of television – just the narratives. Being able to create thirteen hours of movies, so to speak, that’s always hugely, hugely impressive. And then on the web, I get to see certain strange tests of, I don’t know if you would call them filmmakers, or motion graphic designers, or just artists, but you can see these communities popping up all the time of different filmmakers that make thirty-second films that are not so much narrative as they are experimental visual art. I see some exciting stuff there, but it’s very underground stuff and very fringe stuff. But in terms of movies in the theater, I don’t know if I’ve seen anything lately that’s blown my mind (Laughs). What have you seen lately? What’s out there that’s good?
I saw Rust and Bone. That was one of the best films I’ve seen in a while. It had normal conventions to it. It wasn’t a pure art house movie. It wasn’t Upstream Color, but it also wasn’t a romantic comedy at the same time. I thought Marion Cotillard’s performance was astounding. That was inspiring to me. In terms of the big budget stuff that wow’s me, I haven’t been wowed yet. I’m curious to see Man of Steel. I think that could be interesting. It has a lot of heart and pathos to it. At least in the marketing, it shows me that. I like the idea of putting that back into big budget movies. I’m looking forward to Elysium, Neil Blomkamp’s film. I’m curious to see that, because I know that’s not going to be a conventional movie. But at the same time it’s going to have a big budget and a big spectacle quality to it, so I’m curious to see that. I’m curious to see Behind the Candelabra, Soderbergh’s film. There are a few things that I definitely want to see.
I see some technologies that are very exciting to me. In terms of scanning the world digitally, I see that happening more and more, and I think that’s exciting as well as seeing what’s happening next in mobile technology. I have the good fortune of being exposed to a lot of very intelligent, young people, who are fresh out of school or getting into the market place and I tell them “I’m going to put some options on the table for you. You tell me which one of these career paths seem the most promising or gives you the most opportunity to change the world for the better. They are movies, television, marketing and advertising, mobile technologies and IT.” It’s a bit of a no-brainer that mobile technologies and IT is where everybody goes to. Everybody says “If you really want to have an impact and change the world, that’s where you should be putting your efforts.” I think that’s going to be very exciting, because you are going to see the best and brightest minds going there. Maybe it will have a brain drain on movies and television. Maybe it won’t. Who knows? But you’ll definitely continue to see more experimental forms of communicating ideas through mobile technologies.
Right now we’re finishing up Ronin, and it’s been a long and amazing process. I’m also working on my next film right now, which is a science fiction film. I’ve been shooting and testing ideas for the last year, or so, for the next film. I’m also working on some television ideas and hopefully some interactive stuff as well. So, it’s a little bit of everything, all at once, again, not knowing which way the market place is going to go. I think it’s fun to experiment. I’m very interested in seeing what putting stuff online does in terms of creating short films and then putting them online and seeing how people respond. I want to see where that market goes, because I think it could be really revolutionary. It already is, but when it starts to become a real business, that’s exciting to me.
Carl Erik Rinsch
Los Angeles, California
Director - MJZ