Moon Molson

Moon Molson graduated with a B.A. from Dartmouth College where he won the Eleanor Frost Experimental Theatre Prize and two Alexander Laing Memorial Screenwriting Awards. He also has an M.F.A. from Columbia University where he won the New Line Cinema Outstanding Achievement in Filmmaking Award for his thesis film Pop Foul.

Where are you from?

Originally, I’m from the Grand Rapids, Michigan area, but we moved around a lot. So, I’m not really from Michigan. I grew up in the tri-state area, mostly New York and Jersey.

When did you realize that you wanted to be a director? Did you go to film school?

I was a nocturnal kid when I was in high school. I would stay up all night watching movies. At one point I discovered foreign films and art cinema, and I realized that film could be art. Before then, I didn’t realize that that was the case – it was just pop cinema. Once I realized it was art and I could mix all these things I really cared about, it became something I wanted to do. When I applied to colleges, I only applied to schools with film programs, and at that time there weren’t as many as there are now. I ended up going to Dartmouth. I wanted to go to NYU. I got accepted at NYU, but I was too poor to afford it. I ended up at Dartmouth studying liberal arts, so then I had to do the whole grad school thing, even though I did try to train myself by directing theater in New York and just doing a lot of writing and producing. I needed to go to grad school, or I would feel like I missed something. I ended up going to Columbia for grad school in film and graduated from there.

When did you realize you wanted to be a director?

I think in college I realized I could handle the various aspects of directing – the process itself, and the management part of it. I started making my first 16mm films in college and realized that film was for me.

What was your first shoot?

That would be my thesis film from Columbia. It was a short called Pop Foul. It was roughly an eight-day shoot. I just cobbled together a budget with student loans, credit cards – whatever I could find. It took me about two years to raise the money and didn’t begin editing until about six months after shooting it, because I shot it in Super 16 and didn’t have the money to get it out of the vault. It hung out there about six months before I could scrape the money together to get it out.

Where did the idea come from for Pop Foul?

It came from a friend of mine. When I went to Columbia, we ended up going to a writer’s workshop. We were in this kind of cross-pollinating workshop, and the idea came from the fact that we had these kind of father figures who were kind of trouble makers, and we always imagined what would happen if they got their come up-ins. My friend said his father actually did come home with a black eye once. So, from that we kind of spun this story together and turned it into a short story, and I turned it into short screenplay. We kind of both collaborated on it for a while. It focused on this idea of courage and abandonment. The film focused on these lies that people tell to protect each other, but they eventually backfire and do more damage than good.

Did that film get into Sundance?

It did, yeah. I completed it for the 2007 Sundance Film Festival. It went to other festivals before that. So, it actually got some momentum, because it won awards at different festivals before Sundance. But it won at festivals in 2006 as a work-in-progress. In 2007, we officially finished all of the post. The funny story is that most of the post was paid for by the festival awards I won in late 2006.

Do you remember at which festival it premiered?

I think the first festival was the Student Academy Awards. So, that was really exciting.

So, you won a Student Academy Award?

I did. I won a bronze medal in narrative for the Student Academy Award.

Do you remember what your biggest challenge was on Pop Foul?

It was everything with the budget – the lack of budget and everything that lack of budget created as obstacles for us. We just didn’t have enough money to do anything, so everyday there was a challenge.

What’s the easiest thing for you as a filmmaker? What came to you naturally?

You know, I’m not really sure. I think it all does on some level. It just all feels natural. I think if I bring anything to the table it’s that I’ve had success in the short filmmaking realm, and I have an understanding of storytelling. I feel like I really understand it well – like it’s in my bones.

What do you think is the biggest mistake filmmakers make when it comes to short films?

I think a mistake all generations of filmmakers make when making short films is a lack of rigor – a lack of intellectual rigor. Also a lack of patience and constructing a story. I think I see that in a lot of students.

Are you very structured before a shoot? Do you do a lot of prep?

Yeah, I do a lot of prep. It’s kind of the same thing that I teach my students. I do this thing called “The Director’s Line Script”, which allows you to see the set ups on the same page, and you can understand which ones are more efficient. But I also storyboard of course. I do this thing some people might call the “Actor’s Beat Script” where you investigate the subtext in each line of dialogue, and each beat in the script. I mean, I do a very extensive prep process. I think a good prep gives you the freedom to improvise when you get to set.

Do you have any advice for someone younger on how to get a great performance from an actor?

My advice to most people is, on some level, to study. Study acting, because there’s a language that the actor uses, and if you don’t know it, then it’s sorta difficult. I think actors can sense when a director isn’t confident in what they want. A lot of actors are trying to sense if they can trust you, and if they can, then you get a great performance out of them.

How much did luck play a role in all of the success you’ve had up to this point?

Well, I think one of the elements of luck is just finding a great cast. There is a lot of luck in just finding great collaborators, period. There are a lot of great collaborators out there, but to meet them and find that they’re on the same page as you – that to me is just an amazing stroke of luck. And when you do excellent work together, excellent things happen.

What do you think about breaking into the business? Was it harder when you first started, or do you think it’s harder now?

I don’t know if I’ve actually broken into the business. I keep making shorts, because none of my features have found success. I think it’s easier to make films at this point. The technology now is advanced and cheap, so I think most people now can get their hands on advanced filmmaking technology and make things that are high quality. But it’s because of this that breaking in has become more difficult. It’s harder to distinguish yourself from other people.

What do you think is a director’s most important quality?

That’s a really difficult question, because I don’t think it’s only one quality. I think you need multiple qualities to be a director. You need to be good at multiple things.

Can you think of one bad quality that would prevent someone from succeeding as a director?

I think there are so many qualities you need in order to be a good director. If you’re bad at one, you can probably make it. If you’re bad at two, you might be in trouble.

Which directors would you say are your greatest influence? Could you attribute your style to other directors?

Well, I mean growing up I really liked Cassavetes, Woody Allen, Martin Scorsese – a lot of the New York directors. Later on, I discovered other people. Spike Lee was a huge inspiration as a public figure, but there were smaller directors who had a voice that I found was similar to mine such as Nick Gomez, and Charles Burnett. Also, when I was discovering foreign cinema in high school and early college, filmmakers in the Japanese new wave and the French new wave were hugely influential on me.  I liked that risk of experimentation – that risk they were taking.

So, do you have any advice for up-and-coming directors?

I think you should never stop studying. To me, it has always about respecting the craft. That’s what I tell everyone.

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Hisham Tawfiq as Major Dandridge
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Carlo Alban as Chaplain Lieutenant Torres

Tell me about your latest project that premiered at Sundance 2014. 

The latest one actually started off as a short script that was written by a New York City playwright. It was sort of circulating at film school. It started off as writing for his girlfriend, who was one of my film schoolmates, but for some reason she couldn’t do it, so it was handed off to another director who loved it,  but eventually he couldn’t do it either. So, when I read it I thought it was great, but I mean, to me, it definitely needed to be rewritten. The core, though, was excellent. It’s called The Bravest, The Boldest and it’s about this woman who bumps into two army notification officers in the elevator, and she realizes they are coming to tell her that her son has been killed in the war. So, basically it’s kind of this journey of denial in which she just tries to dodge them all day in her apartment building.

What is your favorite film?

City of God.

Have there been any movies recently that really stood out to you?

I saw Her by Spike Jonze a few nights ago. I thought that was beautiful.

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A scene from The Bravest, The Boldest

Name

Moon Molson

Place of Birth

Grand Rapids, Michigan

Occupation

Writer / Director