Brandon: [00:00:25] James, thanks so much for carving out some time and, and agreeing to be a part of the show today.
James: [00:00:30] Brandon, I would always carve out time for you. Thank you.
Brandon: [00:00:35] You're busy guy. And you've got so many things in the works right now. For those people who are just tuning in to the show or are here for the first time, this show is not about the secrets of magic tricks. Instead we're talking about the secrets of magic. And I believe magic is not just limited to illusions and sleight of hand and conjuring, but of course, magic is the creation of stuff, making [00:01:00] things out of nothing. and it could look like all sorts of different stuff.
And James is here today to share a little bit about the magic that you're making James,
James: [00:01:08] Well, I've been very lucky in my life to, to make all kinds of things all over the country and all over the world.
I've been making narrative films and documentaries and advertisements for almost 15 years now, which is crazy. I turned 32 this year in the midst of this pandemic and I was thinking about that. I was like, I've been doing this since I was 18 years old and that is absolutely nuts. Cause you feel like you have never.
Made it to where you think you're, you're gonna go, right? You always have this idea of where you should be by what time and how you get there. And then you turn around and you realize, Oh, I've done all this stuff. and, and it just happens. Overnights in, in, and even though it's been, you know, that many years feeling like you're still constantly on that journey to improve yourself because you never, you know, you never reached that [00:02:00] apex.
I'm sure you feel that way with magic, right? It's like, there's always something better you can do. And so you always want to improve yourself.
Brandon: [00:02:05] Yeah, I love if I, we haven't even talked about your magic yet, but I love that idea that you've been grinding out these films here or there and producing and directing and making stuff.
And maybe you haven't reached where that, that place, or maybe you have, but if there's a place where you're still going towards in your mind, and then you, if you pause and kind of look around and see all the stuff you've done, you're like, Whoa, I've actually. Like I've done this stuff.
James: [00:02:32] Yeah. And I think the pandemic is actually for me, at least given me time to pause and think about that a little bit.
That's not to say to be very clear that I'm not proud of the work I've done. Of course I am. Like, there's some stuff that I've made that's good there's some stuff that I've made that's bad, but, I feel like in the creative industry and magic, whatever, however you want to call it, you never reach that thing.
It's something that you're always aspiring to because you always have something new [00:03:00] that you want to do. You're always pushing yourself to do better. And so, you know, when I first started out, I don't know if this is something you felt either, but when I first started doing what I was doing, I always, I felt like if you did this one thing, or if you made this one thing or did this one project, that would be the thing that makes your entire career.
I don't think that's actually true now that I've been doing this awhile. I think it's the series of stuff you do. It's these things that you make, that create the artists that you become, and always aspiring to do something better. So I don't know if you ever necessarily really arrive. You're just always working to be better.
Brandon: [00:03:40] I love it. Yeah. Not just about the Magnum Opus. It's not the one, you know, the one piece, but the, the whole portfolio is what, what makes you the creator and the magician, the magic maker that you are. Great, so maybe you, you mentioned you're a filmmaker. Can you tell us a bit about some of the, the recent magic that you've been making, [00:04:00] some of your- the projects you're most proud of most recently?
James: [00:04:04] Yes. well, my new film, The Sound of Identity is a film that I'm extremely proud of. It's about the first transgender opera singer in American history to have a leading role on the American stage, in Tulsa, Oklahoma. And, and it's such an interesting film because it's about the nature of voice, and gender and how society constructs that.
And obviously opera is a really interesting medium to do it in, which is obviously not a popular media and then most people's, you know, pop culture. And so for me, the interesting challenge was how do we explore these really complex societal issues through a medium that isn't popular in the pop culture vernacular.
And how do you make all of those things accessible? For me, that was a really interesting creative challenge. I'm really proud of the film we made. I think that we accomplished, yeah. The goal of what we, what we wanted to do with that film. The other [00:05:00] film that I'm in the middle of making right now, we're editing it now, it's called The American Question, which is a film about how American value systems are constructed. We started filming at the end of the 2016 election all the way through February, 2020, just by happenstance. So it worked out really, really well. And, and that is easily the most complex film I put together, because you're dealing with, all of these subjects all over the States of Pennsylvania and Michigan in swing counties, coupled with experts in a myriad of fields from history to sociology, to politics, to civic engagement.
And we're weaving all of these topics together in a singular digestible film that will help explain how a society forms its value system. So keep your fingers crossed we can pull that off. And after that, I'm going to take a break from documentaries because during two docs back to back is, is it's just entirely too much.
Brandon: [00:05:58] It sounds like so [00:06:00] much to try and take all of this stuff of the story and put it into some cohesive, not just cohesive, but engaging, entertaining, and insightful narrative that, you know, people want to consume and I can speak from, I haven't seen anything about The American Question, but, having been given the chance to watch The Sound of Identity back in the earlier days of, of, or editing, maybe it was a first, first final round or something but I was totally bowled over by the, your ability to make- to, to bring out this humanity in something that I wasn't even sure I was going to be interested in, you know, to really make this story resonate with, with me. And I know that when other people get the chance to see it, they're going to feel the same, same array and collection of emotions, which is of course, I mean, I'm projecting, but I'm sure this is the goal is to, to make people feel and think.
James: [00:06:59] It is. [00:07:00] And, and, you know, every film has its own kind of, pashmina I guess it, you know, they're all woven in very different ways. Right? And so The Sound of Identity is very much a - a human, emotionally-driven story and a film, like you said, that isn't on paper something that sounds interesting to most people, that's what I've had to convince people. Fortunately, critics have been giving us good reviews, so that's helped a little bit, but I had to convince some people at first, I was like, I promise you, you might be interested in this if you give us a chance.
But that was my challenge, you know, my challenge was like, how do I find a way into this into something that could potentially be really niche to make it feel like something that's really broad based for a big audience. With The American Question, it's a really wonky movie. It's very, very academic.
And so that challenge is not so much about driving emotional narrative, but driving a kind of intellectual academic narrative that isn't too wonky so someone can watch it and learn something from [00:08:00] it and still be entertained at the same time. These are the different processes you have to figure out on each film.
And that is why they are also unique and different unto themselves.
Brandon: [00:08:10] So, so great. So maybe I'll take a step back here, James, from the work, the specific projects, because we are talking about magic making at a little bit. And I know not everybody would say that, you know, getting the career of your dreams is all about making magic.
But often when I work with students or, or professionals, I ask my audiences, what would you do if you had magic powers? And I think this is a question we all, we all fantasize about having magic powers when we're kids, when we were first exposed to superheroes or, or, or Harry Potter or whatever. Right.
We think, well, I would, you know, I would teleport or I would fly or I would get into the college of my dreams or I would, I would become a doctor. I would save the world. I would develop a new, you know, food, food, security plan, [00:09:00] whatever that is. And you have, in a sense, you, you started with a very early vision.
You've you've been doing this since you were 18 and have somehow made it to where you are now as a successful, director living close to Hollywood, you know, which I think people, that's what people think when they think of the film industry. So I want to ask you a question that people ask me all the time.
How did you do it? If you wouldn't mind elaborating on a few of the details of going from being, you know, "I want to make films" to actually getting where you are now.
James: [00:09:35] I think for me, it's, again with the pandemic, I've obviously had time to think about some of this stuff. I think that a lot of us have had time to really pause and reflect on, you know, how do we feel about our lives?
And I certainly have had that. For me it was a constant process of success and failure, and not quitting when something was a roadblock or not quitting, when something didn't go [00:10:00] the way I expected, it was always about being able to pivot, to figure out, okay, this thing went well, this thing didn't go well.
What is it that I need to do next to do something else? And that is kind of how I started going between narrative films, docs, and ads. I know I just, prattled on about two documentaries, I just directed, but I also do these narrative films and ads. It just so happens that I did two of those back to back, and being able to have that.
A skillset where I can move between all of those different worlds. That was something I learned early on that if I was able to do that: one, I would have more work to do, two, when I wasn't doing one thing, I could do something else. Three, if I could learn to be good at all of those things, then I could take the skills that I learn in each of those areas and apply them to the other ones.
So that gave me a lot of flexibility and latitude. It wasn't easy for sure. and, [00:11:00] and I, you know, you have to find ways to sustain yourself while you're trying to figure out how someone else is going to sustain you. So, you know, growing up, I didn't grow up rich by any means. And, and so I had to do high school graduation videos or wedding videos, all of that stuff.
Well, I was, you know, in my early twenties, late teens, and I took that money, saved it, and then started spending it to make my own first films. And then once I did those and people started liking them, then eventually people started giving me money to do stuff and that's how that happened. But it was me investing in myself and working, to try to make that work better.
Brandon: [00:11:39] Fantastic. Where would you say, I know you went to school, for, for film... something?
James: [00:11:46] No! I went to school for public relations, which always surprises people.
Brandon: [00:11:49] Oh yeah.
James: [00:11:50] Because when I went to college, I knew that I wanted to do film and I had this theory that a film is something that you get better at with [00:12:00] trial and error as a director.
It's one of those things that you can be taught, how to direct. You can be taught how to write, how to do any of those things, but at the end of the day, if you don't learn those skills, if you don't apply those skills, it doesn't matter what you're taught.
And, and so for me, I said, what can help supplement this as like, well, I have to market my films. I have to understand who the film is for what the audience is, how I'm going to speak to that audience. If it's something that's niche-y how do I get past the niche? Public relations was a big part of that answer.
And so I got the PR degree with a minor in film studies. So I got the theories of film, the history of film, as part of that coupling of my degree while I was making my own film projects. And so those two things actually worked really well for me to work together.
Brandon: [00:12:51] It's that's a really, it seems like a really astute insight to have when choosing a college program to recognize that most of your [00:13:00] film producing or directing skills are going to come from actually making movies, making films. And so what other skills- and like to have the foresight to know I'm going to need the skills of public relations. I'm going to need to be able to communicate these ideas beyond the film, in order to get people to the film.
Where would you say you've like picked up or, or maybe during what period, or is there a film where you had, you know, you just realized you jumped a level, you, you had, gained a bunch of skills from, from maybe you prior films, or you just sort of knew that you were on another track, you were up on almost a "real director", if I can use that.
James: [00:13:44] No, of course. Well, I directed Desires of The Heart - that was a film we shot in Georgia and in India. And so shooting in two countries with a American crew with a, an Indian crew and bringing people back and forth, that was a massive undertaking at [00:14:00] 25 and I learned a lot on that. So there were a lot of mistakes I made and there are a lot of things that I, I grew from in, in doing that project.
But doing something of that magnitude with that scale of cast and such, I learned a lot about what it meant to be a director, which isn't just the creative, it's also the project management part, right. Because you're as a director, essentially, you are creating a, not just a film, but an environment for your team.
You're creating an environment where literally hundreds of people are working underneath you, depending on the scale of the film, and, and they are all doing what you communicate. So if I communicate something clearly to each of the people that work directly with me, and then they, the people that work under them, then the entire team across the board is going to deliver a unified product.
Whether or not you think the [00:15:00] product is good or bad, that's, you know, for the audience to decide. But if I'm clear about what I want, you should see that on screen. If I'm not clear about what I want, then you also we'll see that onscreen. That film really taught me a whole bunch of lessons about how to be a clear communicator, how to be an effective project manager, not just director, working with actors and working with my director of photography, to get the shots that we want, but how to really make sure that the entire unit is a unified working body. And I think since that project you have seen, you know, I leveled up there as you say, but my work has only improved from there because I learned and honed those skill sets on that film.
Brandon: [00:15:42] Wow. And I mean, just sounds daunting to be frank, to, to think about being, you know, responsible for hundreds of people and their tasks in making this, you know, in bringing all the threads together to weave the [00:16:00] tapestry, like how do you get to having that kind of a crew? Maybe - so anybody who's watching out there and who are interested in going into to film production or directing, where do you. What's the key, make some films and then what do you do with those films in order to get to the next film and the bigger film?
James: [00:16:20] Well, the thing is in film, there's no magic success story or a formula. You know, they're all very different. You could talk to 10 directors and they'd tell you 10 different stories about how they got there. But for me, I made a series of short films and documentaries that people liked that went to film festivals.
And over time, as I got awards and met some of the people that helped me get to the next level. Then I was able to start getting offers to do those bigger projects. And that was really how that happened. It was not, you know, someone just came to me one day and said, here's your project. I had to work for that and show, you know, I have a track [00:17:00] record of doing things to, to get there.
And so I think for me, the best answer always is do the work and hopefully something follows. And if something doesn't follow, then you have to figure out why. Is it because you're not doing good work? Is it because you don't know the right people? Or is it because you're not doing a good job of communicating?
What is it you want to do? It's got to be one of the three. And, and if you're willing to put in the work and be patient enough, then over time, I do believe you will get there. but a lot of people aren't patient enough to, to get to that point. There are so many people that I started working with that don't work in film anymore.
Not because they were bad or not, because they didn't know what they were doing, but because, you know, they couldn't figure out how to make ends meet. They couldn't figure out how to be patient to get into the next part or the level or to, just to network, you know, and, and those are all skills. It's not just about talent.
You could be the world's most talented person, but if you're working only in your living room, it doesn't really matter.
[00:18:00] Brandon: [00:18:00] Oh, brilliant insight there. I think, the network plays such an important role, right? And that's one of the, the adages of our Western civilization here is like, not just what you know, but who, you know, and you know, the older I get, the more I realize that's not just about nepotism, but it's about being able to be connected to, to people that are doing the work that you want to do.
James: [00:18:27] But you know as well as I do that only takes you so far. Right. And they're like, I think there's this idea when you're first starting out that if I can just meet this person or get in this network, then all these things will happen. Well, that's not true. You might be able to meet somebody that might open the door for you but you've got to walk through the door with your own talent. They're not going to bequeath that to you. And if you don't do what you need to do that door will shut right back, you know?
Brandon: [00:18:54] Yep. Yep. Totally. Yeah. So this is great. This is super insightful stuff. I love that. You [00:19:00] mentioned that the role of like, you gotta be good. You have to have the talent, you have to be able to communicate and you gotta have the people you gotta know. You have to build that network. All these things are keys to producing and directing and making your magic.
The, the podcast is called the Real Secrets of Magic. And what I would love to know is, is there a real secret, is there a thing that maybe you do on a regular basis, a practice of yours - if it's a thinking practice or an actual practice - that maybe people would see you doing it and they wouldn't see that it was actually connected to your success where you are right now.
Is there something you would share with us?
James: [00:19:42] You know, This may sound obvious. Maybe it's not, but for me, what I have to do to make something over time, I've developed this process where when we're editing a film, when we're putting a film together, is that I will press [00:20:00] play on this computer that we're on right now and I will go right over here to this couch that is behind me. And I lay down and I close my eyes and I listen, I don't watch anything. I listen to it. I do that probably about two or 300 times over the process of editing. And I'll, we'll make the cuts. We'll make the revisions. We'll do all those things.
And then I will not watch it. I will listen to it. Because we can fix the visual stuff -always. You can always change, you know, your shots. You can make new choices, you can do all that stuff, but if you can't listen to it and hear a narrative that can be understood and communicated to you audibly. You're not going to get it visually.
So for me, that is a big piece of my process. And, and sometimes I tell that to people, they, they go, how can you listen to that? You know, 300 times. And yeah, of [00:21:00] course it's redundant, but, but in that redundancy, you're able to start hearing things and noticing things that maybe are too long or too short, you might hear someone expressing a thought and this could be an, a narrative film, an ad or a documentary.
This applies to all three of them, by the way, you hear these thoughts and these ideas and these scenes, and you're like this scene is working. The scene is too long. There's not enough of a pause here. I just take you know, furious notes as I'm going through that. And I'll look at the time code on the screen and write that down or write down a phrase and say, this phrase doesn't work and then go back to it and then do the same thing over and over again.
And so literally every day, every other day, when we're done with editing our project, I will do that every time I will sit down, listen to it and do my notes.
Brandon: [00:21:50] I love that. I love that. It's, I regularly talk about the practice of being in wonder and [00:22:00] what I mean by that is the practice of looking beyond what you think, you know, and of course, as a creative, we're always trying to lean into the edge and make things better and better and, and looking for ways to improve.
But a major part of being in a state of wonder is listening, right, is being able to turn off the generative part and tune into the the receptiveness. and what a neat thing to think about, you know, telling, watching a film without actually watching it, right.
James: [00:22:30] Because film is such a visual medium, right. And I'm not discounting that is like, our visuals are extraordinarily important. I'm really, you know, OCD about that being right. But I also understand that if you cannot understand the film, just with the audio, nothing I do visually is gonna matter.
Brandon: [00:22:49] Fantastic. That's such a brilliant insight. Maybe some, young filmmakers out here are going to take that to heart and start listening to their scripts or listening to their, their edits [00:23:00] before working so much with the visual space.
James, thanks so much for joining me on the show and for sharing your insights and your wisdom. You've got so much experience and I wish you. All the best in your future projects. I can't wait to learn more about these upcoming films. particularly The American Question. I'm so excited to see how that lands and what kind of waves it makes in the world.
Thanks so much for making time to be on the show with us today and, and good luck.
James: [00:23:32] Thanks, Brandon. And same to you.
Brandon: [00:23:33] Cheers.