There’s something about Texas and independent filmmaking, I don’t know what’s in the water over there, but something seems to be giving them an edge. They seem to be able make films without giving into the system that slows and destroys many Hollywood productions. An Ordinary Family is the perfect example of a team of filmmakers that still have a love for the art and a respect for their colleagues that gives their film a heart and soul that’s refreshing to see on the big screen.
I had the chance to sit down with the makers of the film, Director/Writer Mike Akel, Writer/Producer Matt Patterson, and Actor/Associate Producer Richard C. Jones at LA Film Festival while their film was playing at the festival and talk to them about putting together such a fine independent film…
As a filmmaker and film watching I appreciated their get up and go style of shooting, limited and cost effective locations and their “make it work” motto. The quality of this film is on par with the best indie films out there and the honest story and heart behind the characters is really what makes it such a great watch. As we all know, every family has their problems and interesting characters, so to begin, let’s find out what provoked them to write the particular stories they did….
Mike Akel: Matt and I both have had a lot of relationships with people who’ve walked through the coming out process. Also a lot of people in the American church community that this is a really big issue. Churches are splitting over this one issue; another one was women in the church leadership [and] gay marriage. I just found that really interesting personally. I’m also a teacher. In schools it’s a big deal – I’m at a school where it’s very conservative-base, but the teachers are very liberal so we have to walk through that and it has been tough. That was front and center for me in my life. And just asking that question, how do you love someone beyond their belief, no matter what it is. Sometimes it feels hypocritical, on the extreme liberal side, they’re not tolerant for the religious right. Someone gets hit and wounded and they run to the other extreme, I see that. We wanted to show a minister that wasn’t doing that and a gay brother who wasn’t doing that.
[Seth] was really trying to come home and be in a relationship with his brother [Thomas] and he didn’t give up, even after the fight. I love that he’s the one that comes to the church. I see that as Thomas’ answered prayer. He didn’t know what to do and all of a sudden the brother comes in and they are able to begin some sort of relationship.
Matt Patterson: All that and more, why are some issues bigger than others. I have a family member who’s an alcoholic and nobody has a problem with it. But somebody that’s gay and that tears the family apart. Why do some things tend to hit harder than others? While we have these two characters that are working it out, I love the fact that for the last year they haven’t been working it out. Before the movie started, they haven’t spoken in almost a year. They both have been living with these questions and this guilt and this remorse, and all this stuff. Mike [Akel] likes to say, ‘Those hairballs that come out, the tight spaces of family vacations when you’re just avoiding talking about it until you can’t avoid it anymore.’
It’s obvious that you three are quite like a family yourself. You’re able to fight with one another, finish each others sentences, and get through it all with a hug. How did you build your crew and establish your well adjusted film-family?
Patterson: Mike and I went into this really believing that community, was not only integral to the story but just to the way we like to live our lives. I want to be the type of producer that when I call somebody for the next job, they’re eager to pick up the phone instead of avoiding my phone call. The relationships that we still have from the film are so amazing. I know that I can call every single one of these people and they’ll work on the next project. So carrying that forward is awesome.
Akel: My last film, this magical thing too, I hire great people. People you’re not afraid if they are smarter than you and that’s super smart and sharp technically – I found myself, with this project, being able to let go more. I think when you’re directing, especially when you feel like you have to control everything, and be like Robert Rodriguez and be the writer, director, editor, sound, score. It’s not my personality. I wasn’t that way growing up in sports, I’m point guard and quarterback. I like to distribute things. It felt good. Matt [Patterson] directed a number of scenes. I said, ‘Hey why don’t you go do the swimming?’ You look at Peter Jackson, they have like five units. You can’t do it all. I learned that letting go makes project better.
Richard C. Jones: The community that we had as filmmakers and as crew shone through in how we treated the actors and having that. It comes out on the film. The opportunity to work with friends, work with people that you believe in, that’s really valuable for me. It’s turned out well so I’m going to continue on doing that.
The one rule of filmmaking is that nothing ever goes right. How did you overcome that?
Patterson: I think we’ve learned to appreciate the delicate surprises. I don’t know any better way to it. Plan, plan, plan and then be prepared to be surprised and be okay with it. That’s what I feel is the strength of the film, is being surprised by the little moments. Even in editing, finding something that none of use even saw and being willing to put in there and maybe scrap something we planned because the surprises were better than what we planned.
Akel: I see that so much, I teach high school filmmaking, and so many people get stuck to their script. And that’s great. And then you shoot it, now this is what’s reality. Not what you intended. You have to go, what do we have? If you could open up and say, ‘Okay, well how do I make a story out of what we have? We didn’t get this scene, but we got these.’ Be able to really work with that. I think that’s a big step of maturity to be able to do that.
While at at LA Film Festival this year I made it to a handful of films, An Ordinary Family was one of them mainly because of the buzz on the street that it was possibly one of the most honest and realistic films in the festival and despite it’s lack of stars had some of the best performances. So, what’s going on in Texas, what are you guys doing over there?
Akel: I wasn’t raised in Texas. I was raised in Arkansas, been there 12 years, but there’s such a can do, you’re not waiting for someone to give you permission. I really think our patriarchs, you have Terrence Malick, Mike Judge, Richard Linklater, Robert Rodriguez. Not that any of us know them, but they have have established that ‘can-do’ spirit. Then you have the university. Richard Linklater started the Austin Film Society and it’s a very nurturing community-driven environment. It’s a very creative city. You have musicians, you have a lot going on there. I call it my grad school.
Patterson: I worked in Los Angeles for several years in indie film. I got sick of the circular steps, projects never happening. Things like that. It’s very refreshing to move to Austin. You don’t need a ton of money, you skill, you got people that want to help, you don’t need permits.
Jones: I feel like a lot of my friends they move out to LA to make it happen. That’s the last time you ever see anything on their IMDb or anything that they did – I feel like some people can move out to LA and there’s a sense of entitlement, of ‘I moved to LA, now I’m an actor, now I’m a real filmmaker ’cause I’m where the action is.’ They start looking for somebody to create that opportunity instead of working towards – you still have to keep working at it.
Do you think it’s realistic to be an independent filmmaker and have that be your only job?
Akel: I think we’re in a good era where that is going to become more possible because of the direct access to an audience to sell your work.
Patterson: I think we’re in an awkward middle phase right now. We’re kind of ugly teenagers, falling all over ourselves, but we’re learning. The good thing is if we’re in a nimble state, we can move whereas the more established people can’t. I think that’s good – but I don’t think that question has an answer yet.
Jones: It’s the same as out here, can you be a superstar? Yeah, it’s possible, but the numbers game doesn’t support that on average. I think that’s the same way for indie filmmakers. There is very select few who can do it, but you have to have projects that get you there. Not in the beginning, maybe ten years in.
Patterson: But there’s no shame in taking that corporate gig or whatever than can help. You have to butter your toast one way or another or otherwise you don’t have the energy or capacity. I don’t believe in the starving artist life. I don’t think that you have to starve to make art, but I do think you need margin in your life to make art. It’s trying to find that balance.
Akel: Filmmaking is so big. It’s not like we’re a singer songwriter with a guitar, it’s work, work, work, work, so you can get three months off, and I’m a teacher so really it’s for my summer shoot. My two films have been shot in the summer.
What’s next for this film? Obviously you’ve gone the film festival route but how do you get it even further and what other festivals can people find you at?
Akel: We have a couple of distribution opportunities. Also other festivals that we’re waiting to hear back, some international festivals we’re really curious about. Italy and Greece an England.
Patterson: We know there’s an audience and we’re going to take it to them.
Since you guys are such a great example of when it all goes right, what tips do you have for independent filmmakers out there wanting to make films?
Akel: Don’t be afraid to work with people smarter than you. Make sure you really love the material because you’re going to be with it for a long time. See all the weaknesses and limitations as strengths, lack of money, locations, and write your story to those limitations.
Patterson: Read the book ‘Art and Fear.’ My favorite chapter [is the one that talks about] making one piece of pottery or as many as they can, and the people that made as many as they could, made the most beautiful pottery because they got use to what the clay feels like. The group of people that made one and tried to make best, made the most horrible pot. Don’t wait for the best thing, just make something and keep learning.
Akel: Another great book is Sculpting in Time, unbelievable. Also remember this, it take a big man to cry, it takes a bigger man to laugh at that man. Jack Handey. It’s great to entertain, but ask yourself what you really care about. Try to incorporate that. Just one thing about relationships, or the state of affairs in the world, but a theme. I think, theme is missing in a lot of things today. I think that’s the beauty of art that it has something that is going to move us emotionally not just brain candy.
Patterson: To add to that, when you’re writing ask yourself how you can humanize your characters instead of dehumanizing. What are they begging for to be humanized about? When you’re making your film, ask yourself how you can humanize your crew, and your actors and when you’re finishing the film and editing it, asking yourself how you’re editing it to humanize your audience.
Akel: Go for it, go for it filmmakers. We love you. Seriously.
Keep an eye out for An Ordinary Family (you kind find them on Facebook) and more to come from Akel, Patterson and Jones! The film is wonderful and shows great potential for more quality indie filmmaking to come!