Daniel Keith: 5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me When I First Became A Filmmaker

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Start PR and marketing in Pre-production. Don’t wait until the end. — We did the film festivals wrong, we had to work harder on the marketing to make up for the lack of momentum. We probably sent a lot more money than we needed to. And we tried to do it ourselves. Make room in the budget to hire a PR/ Marketing firm to handle everything. Its needs to be as much a part of the business plan and process than the script itself.

As a part of our series called “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me When I First Became A Filmmaker”, I had the distinct pleasure of interviewing Daniel Keith.

Daniel Keith was born and raised in a small ranching town, Bedford, Texas. He performed in acting troops as a child and was the lead singer/ songwriter in bands growing up. He studied Liberal Arts at the University of North Texas before enrolling in Stella Adler Studio of Acting in New York City, Circle in the Square Theater School, Atlantic Theater, Magnet Theater, and in 2021 studied at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts in London. In 2013, his first short film, Rambler, won him several Best Actor awards, which landed him on Person of Interest (NBC), Blacklist (NBC), Blindspot (CBS), and Marvel’s Luke Cage (Netflix). In 2021, Daniel made his directorial debut in ‘Love in Kilnerry’, a romantic comedy he also wrote, produced, and starred in. Archway Pictures distributed the film in theaters against summer blockbusters in over 100 cities for over 21 weeks. It was released internationally in 2022. The film has won 45 awards and 26 nominations, including being nominated for the Chris Brinker Award at the San Diego International Film Festival for first time directors pushing the envelope in cinematic stories. Daniel has personally won 29 awards and 21 nominations for Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Director, and Best Screenplay.

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Our readers would love to get to know you a bit better. Can you tell us a bit of the ‘backstory’ of how you grew up?

I grew up in a small town in Texas. My parents divorced when I was about five years old. My mother was a beautician, and my father was an air traffic controller. Mom got a job at IBM and went to school at night. Dad had to move around for work. I had no siblings, so I spent a lot of time alone. Mom used to bring home two movies a night from Blockbuster, and I’d watch those after school. I grew up on hundreds of movies. The rest of the time the imagination just wanders. After I saw Goonies, everything changed for me. I started venturing out crawling through storm drains. Building houses in the back corners of the attic. I was always listening to Phil Collins and Rod Stewart. My mom bought me a cheap organ and song books from ABBA and Phil Collins and I would open my window and perform for the cows. I think that’s when I started acting up for attention. In sixth grade, my English teacher would let me read The Eyes of The Dragon by Steven King, so I called the Fort Worth Star Telegram and complained about my freedom of speech being violated. They called the school and the principle threatened to expel me. I wouldn’t back down so they agreed to let me read the book if I dropped it. I was just learning all the wrong lessons at a young age. Ha. That same year, in sixth grade, I started a band and we wanted to cover Whitesnake’s “Give Me All Your Love Tonight”. The bass player would lick his guitar neck like Rudy Sarzo and I would dry hump my mic stand like David Coverdale. Needless to say we didn’t get in. Three girls dressed as Ladybugs singing “Three Coins in a Fountain” won that year. I don’t even get the act but whatever. We were robbed. My hair got longer, I joined the drum corp and school band and the girls fell in love with me. I was trouble and always looking for attetion, challenging authority, and going on wild adventures every year after that. My senior year I almost didn’t graduate because I was skipping school and having “Ferris Bueller Days Off” with my friends, hanging out in recording studios and management offices just watching and listening and bringing people coffee. I was getting a business education. I was out growing my small town.

Can you share a story with us about what brought you to this specific career path?

When you grow up in a small town, you either settle down young or you get the hell out of town. I played in several rock bands and eventually one stuck and we went on tour. I pretty much stayed on the road for almost ten years. I met thousands of people. Saw the best and worst in people. And learned a lot about psychology, sales, marketing, and working with all kinds of people. I loved listening to people’s story. When I wasn’t doing that, I was either working ranches, trying to be a fashion designer, or chasing girls. In 2006, my band, Modakai, moved to New York City. We broke up a few years later and then I hit a wall. I had no idea what to do with my life. Music was all I had ever known. Tried fashion photography for a couple of years. My college roommate, Thomas Sadoski (Newsroom, Life in Pieces) recommended acting. It was another way to express yourself and tell stories. I had already written tons of stories as an amateur writer who had no idea what he was doing. I signed up for a theater school and the rest was history. I was hooked. I did five years of theater school and wanted to learn everything I could about technique, the business, directing, writing, producing. I loved the passion from everyone in it. I wished I had found it years earlier but I wouldn’t be the same person and probably would have squandered the opportunities I had. I don’t have a backup plan. This is it. Succeed or die. Create and be happy. Ride the wave of life and hope I put enough good into it that it comes back.

Can you share the funniest or most interesting story that occurred to you in the course of your filmmaking career?

The one that sticks with me the most was during ‘Love in Kilnerry’. I was standing in a power plant in New Hampshire, unsupervised, watching them turn off a massive generator the size of a house, because I asked them too. I stood there waiting for my film crew to come in and set up. There was no security clearance. They didn’t charge us. I remember looking around at all these pipes and things that were probably very dangerous and thinking, “I can’t believe we got this all because I simply walked in and asked”. I have to take my shoes off every time I fly but I walk into a major power plant and they hand me a donut and coffee and tell me to go have fun? What the hell?! So now I’ll walk in anywhere and ask anyone for anything. I asked a fisherman for his boat and ended up dancing on top of it at full throttle nine miles out at sea for the movie. We shot that scene for five days and I remember thinking, why are people just agreeing to whatever I ask them for? Ha. Maybe it was all those years on the road talking with people and having a passion for their stories and adventures. I try and make them a part of mine now.

Who are some of the most interesting people you have interacted with? What was that like? Do you have any stories?

There’s a lot. I have a knack for wandering into bizarre situations. One of them is pretty epic and involves the NYPD, fire department, and the 4th largest stockholder of the Kuwait Bank. And some are random situations with guys like Justin Timberlake and Mark Ruffalo when I was doubling for them early in my career for ‘Runner, Runner’ and ‘The Normal Heart’. Or unintentionally insulting Ron Howard to his face. That was embarrassing. But one of my favorite stories was actually with Thomas Sadoski when we roomed together in college. I had long hair and used to wear ripped jeans and fishnets, black fingernail polish, and dyed my hair. I was a rocker. Tom wore these purple tights, Pogue t-shirts, shorts and combat boots, and a beret. We were sort of a vagabond group that were grunge rejects, I guess. We needed groceries and for whatever reason, I thought it would be a great idea to drive from Denton, Texas to Bedford (about 45 minutes away) to go grocery shopping. There was a grocery store a mile from our dorm at the University of North Texas. We bought way more groceries than we needed. The stretch of highway from Fort Worth to Denton is a whole lot of nothing. Its late, its cold, and we’re cranking the music and then the car dies. Ran it out of gas. It coasts over to the left side of the highway into the median. We were only halfway home.

This pickup truck pulls up behind us and a figure steps out. He walks up to the driver’s side door and asks us if we need help. I yell at him through the window that we just ran out of gas. As he’s talking to us, he starts pissing on the side of my car and talking to us! Clearly the guy is wasted or maybe that was just a thing in Texas I wasn’t aware of. You just pull up on people and piss on their door as you’re offering to help them. We tell him we’re fine and he eventually stumbles away. So, Tom and I grab our six bags of groceries and start hiking it north along I-35 toward our college. Blank of stars above us. A pack a cigarettes between the both of us. No problem. Dressed as we were, no one was going to stop to pick us up. Maybe they would have thought I was an ugly girl back then, so maybe? We decided we didn’t want the groceries to go to waste so we start eating as much as we can and walking. We’re taking swigs off the gallon of milk back and forth and starting to feel sick to our stomachs when a semi-truck pulls up and stops. Tom and I run up to the cab and tell him we need a ride up to the college. He says he won’t exit but he’ll take us close enough to walk. I whisper to Tom, “are you sure about this? We’re going to get raped”. Tom says, “if you do, it’s your fault for the way your dressed”, and climbs up into the cab. Tom is sitting on the guy’s bed smoking cigarettes and I’m bouncing up and down on the bounciest seat I’ve ever sat in in my life. Worst springs. Why did something like that exist? Didn’t help the nausea.

He pulls up and drops us off in some parking lot out the outskirts of campus. We call one of our floor mates, Pedro. Pedro is a tall skinny cheesy and Chong kind of guy in more ways than one and a heart of gold. Long scraggly hair who says “man” a lot. Five minutes late, Pedro comes tearing down the road in some beat up Datsun. He comes flying into the parking lot and slams on the breaks stopping right in front of us. We look inside and he’s asleep! Screw it. Tom and I crawl in with our now two bags of groceries. I offer to drive but before I can finish my sentence Pedro is already flooring it and we’re flying through the parking lot. I don’t’ know why….I’ll never understand this, but in my panicked state I start screaming and throwing what’s left of our groceries out the window. Tom continues sitting calmly in the back seat smoking and eating Vanilla wafers. Within minutes Pedro screeches to a halt in front of our Dorm. Tom and I claw our way out and Pedro takes off again. It was bizarre. We make it up to our dorm room. It’s now about 4am and we have the one bag of groceries out of the six we started with. We both have to be up for class in three hours. When we saw Pedro the next morning, he didn’t remember any of it. That seemed to be the beginning of a life of bizarre adventures. I think at the end of our stay at Clark Hall, we destroyed our phone by smashing in into hundreds of pieces and left it in a box with a note thanking them for a lovely stay. We also used to play hall hockey and if the ball went into ANYONE’S room, whether we knew them or not, we always played through.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

Probably Margie Geddes, Steve Scott, and Gary Ravert. The Executive Producers for ‘Love in Kilnerry’. They took monumental risks on me and didn’t even know me. Not only were they investors for the film, but they became good friends and consultants. Steve is the VP of a bank, Gary is an attorney, and Margie is a very savvy businesswoman. Advice from the three of them was invaluable as a producer and filmmaker. The rest was really trial and error. Lots of error. Lots of failing. I failed a lot. And I’m grateful that I was in a position to be allowed to fail over and over. I feel I earned my PhD these last seven years.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

“Let go or be dragged”. It’s tattooed on the inside of my left arm. In 1999, I was scuba diving in Cozumel, Mexico. When I landed, I was given the opportunity to go do my check dive but there was a thunderstorm down the coast, so we had to hurry. We decided I’d do a navigation dive. I spent the entire time staring at my cumpus instead of looking up. The light got darker and darker, and I noticed the visibility went from 200 years to 50 yards. The current was kicking back on me and I kept swimming harder and harder. My dive master was behind me. It started to get a little nerve racking, so I kicked harder. Visibility was 25 yards. 10 yards. Kicked harder. Breathing heavier. 5 yards. Darker. I look back and I couldn’t see my dive master. 1 yard visibility. Did he leave me? The current is pushing me back and forth like a washing machine. I look at my gauge and my oxygen is almost gone. And then my mask slips off. Blackness and the burning of salt water in my eyes. I think I’m upside down. Then my regulator falls out of my mouth and I thrash around trying to find it. My heart is racing. I take in a deep inhale of sea water. My lungs are on fire.

Suddenly I feel legs wrap around me and my regulator gets slammed in my mouth and air is blasted down my throat. I’m throwing up under water and getting spun around. The most traumatic thing I’ll ever experience. Torture. As I start to get my bearings, my dive master gives me a spare mask. I try and put it on and clear it and we watch the bubbles to figure out if we’re upside down or not. My lungs are raw, my chst hurts, everything is black and blurry and the underwater sound of water thrashing about is deafening. I want to shoot to the surface, but the dive master points up backlit with lightening I see a massive ship right above us passing. As we cling to one another, his oxygen is almost gone. It’s a strange feeling when you realize you’re going to die. The adrenaline goes and you start to get calm. I kept thinking no one knows where we are. My parents will never find me. I’ll float to the bottom and be eaten by crabs and sharks. I just lost all hope. Then I feel the sea floor.

The water gets more violent and then I feel air on my head. Suddenly I realize we’re back at the shore, just as the waves hurl us into the rocks. Rib breaks. Pulls us back out and slams us back into the rocks. Nose breaks. At some point I grab the rocks and drag myself out. The ocean keeps trying to pull me back out. I look over and see my dive master climbing out as well. I look out across the water and its terrifying to see water that angry. Thrashing about. Looking for something to destroy. A small boat had capsized and the ferries from Playa Del Carmen were having difficulty docking. People were out on the docks trying to get them in. I barely had strength to stand and was covered in blood. My ribs were killing me. We start dragging our gear back to the hotel. It’s about half a mile from where we started. I go to the clinic and they do a crappy job setting my nose and taping my ribs up. When I get back to the hotel, I’m watching the news about how that storm turned into a tropical depression. My dive master sits next to me and we just stare at the tv sipping bourbon as the storm pounds the windows behind us. Its angry we got away. It’s taunting us to come back out and so it can finish the job. Finally, he turns to me and says, “You could have killed us both. You were trying so hard to control the situation, panicking, you didn’t even realize you were swimming out to sea. Had you just let go the waves would have brought you back to shore.” That stuck with me. Anytime in life when things start to get too crazy, I’ve found the more I try and control it the worse it gets. Sometimes you have to let go and let happen whatever is going to happen. It always seems to work out for the best. Even though it seems like a travesty at the time. Everything seems to happen when and how it’s supposed to happen. You can call it divine intervention, fate, or dumb luck. Either way, “Let go or be dragged”.

I am very interested in diversity in the entertainment industry. Can you share three reasons with our readers about why you think it’s important to have diversity represented in film and television? How can that potentially affect our culture?

I have always loved casting in British films more than American. Its more true to life. You have prominent women and people of all cultures in all positions of power. America has definitely been guilty of segregating in films. I’m embarrassed to say I was part of the problem. It wasn’t until we were at the premier that a friend of mine, who’s a man of color, pointed out that I had white-washed my film. I never realized it before and was so embarrassed. It just never occurred to me. And that is the problem. It’s not always racially motivated. Sometimes it’s just not paying attention. I didn’t want to try and write cultures that I might not fully understand in fear of making them caricatures. But it was just fear. I had met thousands of people from all over the world. I listened to their stories and how they talk, how they think. I had no excuse. I have to be better. I will be better. Diversity is incredibly important because movies set the tone for culture. Somewhere there is a kid whose parents aren’t around who’s being raised on movies and I’m responsible for giving that kid the wrong impression of an even and fair society. I wish I could go back and redo it, but it’s out there now. I have to live with that as a constant reminder.

What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now?

I’m getting ready to start working on a new comedy in Los Angeles that I’m super excited about. Coming off ‘Love in Kilnerry’ and everything I’ve learned, I already know how to make this internationally appealing. I have a musical I’ve been kicking around that I want to put up on stage in NYC once I wrap this film up. During Covid, I wrote an entire first season of my story, ‘Rambler’, that I want to pitch to Sky or BBC in London. An action packed strong female lead with a diverse international cast. There’s never been a story like it. There’s a really big film that I pitched to an Oscar winning producer and she’s interested in putting it together. A true story in history that’s never been told on a very epic and beautiful level. Because I want to direct it, I have to get a couple more films under my belt before she’ll pitch me to the studios. Then there’s another show in Africa I want to work on at some point. Depending on the success of ‘Love in Kilnerry’, I may still put that back up on stage at some point or pitch the show version to a streamer. Schitt’s Creek meets Northern Exposure sort of thing. I’ve always got things going on. I’m not sure I’ll get everything done I want to in my life time.

Which aspect of your work makes you most proud? Can you explain or give a story?

That’s hard. I love the writing process. Especially when you’re working out the plot points and you hit a wall. When you figure it out, it’s like finding that really cool riff when you’re writing music. You get hooked. But there is something about setting up an atmosphere for actors to work and then getting out of the way that’s really exciting. Helping them get out of their heads but giving them freedom to bring the work to life. To play. But out of everything, I’m still a little shocked at what was pulled off and what little we had to work with in ‘Kilnerry’. The people that agreed to work on postproduction when I had little to no money; John Wilson editing (Downton Abbey, Billy Elliot), Randy Edelman (Last of the Mohicans) writing and performing an original score, Brian DeMetz (Deadpool) doing all of our visual fx, and Company 3 (A Star is Born, Star Wars) doing our coloring. They all did way more than I ever expected. But then we were told the movie was only going to go to Tubi and no one wanted it. So, I had to bring in the lawyers and dissolve that deal for all kinds of breaches and I took over distribution. We got it in over 100 cities in theaters like Regal and Megaplex and went up against summer blockbusters and still lasted 21 weeks. I think it was the longest running comedy of 2022. Kind of a middle finger to those people who had no faith.

Ok super. Here is the main question of our interview. What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.

  1. Diversify yourself. Learn to write. Learn to direct. Learn to produce. Learn investing. Learn story telling. Learn everything you can — This industry is way too saturated now. The competition is way too stiff. The theaters are hurting. Streamers are doing mostly original content. So, if you’re going to be an indie filmmaker, you’re left with trying to make all your money back from sales and rentals. Good luck. Even if you get a bunch of stars in your film and you’re able to keep the budget down, the theaters take half, the distributor takes a third, the sales agent takes 15–20%, and you have to cover all the expenses before a dime goes to the actual production costs. There are just too many choices. So, you better have a business plan and have it backed up with other films and how they made their money, who was in them, and how you plan on making all that money back. You have to look at your work from an investors point of view. Then find the balance. If you’re just a writer, you’re frustrated when they start changing things. If you’re just a director you get told “no” all the time and even more so now. As an actor you’re frustrated because everything that used to work ten years ago doesn’t anymore. Social media influencers and pop stars are getting cast. Actors have to start thinking about how to make themselves international commodities. Being more than just an “American Actor”.
  2. Start PR and marketing in Pre-production. Don’t wait until the end. — We did the film festivals wrong, we had to work harder on the marketing to make up for the lack of momentum. We probably sent a lot more money than we needed to. And we tried to do it ourselves. Make room in the budget to hire a PR/ Marketing firm to handle everything. Its needs to be as much a part of the business plan and process than the script itself.
  3. Have an editor involved before you start shooting — Like a lot of filmmakers, I shot what I wrote and tried to cram everything in. Once John got a hold of it, he started cutting entire scenes. I had to go back and shoot pick up shots to give him something to cut to in the middle of scenes. He could have gone over the storyboards with the DP and saved a lot of time and money. It’s better to collaborate with people who are good at what they do. Don’t try and hold your cards too close to your chest.
  4. Balance your life — I threw myself into my work and sacrificed everything else. I went through two relationships, three nervous breakdowns, and got extremely sick from excessive stress. Know when to cut it off and spend time sleeping, eating healthy, socializing, having sex, spending time with family, and exercising. And when you’re with other people, spend more time asking about them instead of using them to bounce all your ideas of your film off of. Balance is everything.
  5. Have everything in writing. Even if they’re you’re friends. — I was very lucky, so far, on this film. I spent a lot of time assuming everything was going to be great. And on several occasions things turned out to be not so great. Entertainment lawyers are there for a reason. Granted I couldn’t afford them in the beginning, so I had to do everything myself. I had to try and learn contract law and negotiate my own deals and I made a lot of stupid mistakes in doing so. Get as many eyes as possible on the contracts to look for loop holes. Think of everything that could go wrong and what to do about it when and if it does. Its hard to be mad later on when you have to refer to it and everyone already agreed to what would happen. Have back up plans. Don’t ever assume it’s going to work out. People surprised me. People that seemed like wonderful human beings then ended up in a SAG mediation and them being kicked off set for trying to sabotage the production so they could have a luxury hotel. People who contracted to do the whole film and then disappeared after ten days. Once you can afford an attorney, a good one, they’re going to save you so much time, money, and frustration. Send them thank you cards and take them to dinner. Every good producer relies heavily on their attorney.
  6. And drink water. Lots of water. Hydration is important.

When you create a film, which stakeholders have the greatest impact on the artistic and cinematic choices you make? Is it the viewers, the critics, the financiers, or your own personal artistic vision? Can you share a story with us or give an example about what you mean?

I think chasing what you think people will want to see is a dangerous approach toward making anything artistic. Most bands wrote their best stuff on their first or second album. They were in their garages writing what was important to them. Once the fame came, they spent more time trying to figure out how to keep it and recreate what worked before. That being said, creating as a purely selfish outlet can also be dangerous. In theater an audience will let you know what’s landing. And you can change it up each night until you work out the kinks. Filmmaking doesn’t give you that option. So, you have to follow your gut. However, I’m a BIG fan of workshopping. I love letting actors play and maybe there is an audience at some point. Maybe peers. Something to see how your choices and work are landing before you get on set. Workshopping ‘Love in Kilnerry’, the story became vastly different from what it was originally. I can’t imagine shooting anything without rehearsals or workshopping it first. It’s just seems like a colossal waste of money to have a crew sitting around while you figure out what the hell you’re doing on set. All that money has to be made back. It all has to be answered for. Its careless.

You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

That’s a tough one. I’m a big advocate for animal rights. But I think if I could get people around the world to do anything, it would be to sit in front of a stranger and look them in the eyes for two minutes without looking away. Not saying anything. Right in front of one another. Psychologist have found something strange happens. A connection is formed and there’s a change. Guards can be dropped. It’s kind of like that experiment many years ago where they had complete strangers kiss one another. Of course, that was pre-Covid. Someone once told me America was one of the few countries that doesn’t have any sort of mandatory civil service or community service. We can sit at home, get fat and watch cartoons and do nothing to better society. That seems like a shame. Connection with people and finding ways to better one another is how a society progresses. It feels like people are more disconnected now than ever. People are angrier than ever. I wish there was a way to try and get people to connect again. Face their fears of the unknown and take a chance on people. And the ones that do lash out and get angry, let them know it’s okay to be afraid. Let it go. It’s too heavy to carry that around all the time.

We are very blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might see this. 🙂

Christopher Nolan, Daniel Day Lewis, Gary Oldman, Mark Rylance, David Fincher, Cillian Murphy, Meryl Streep, Cate Blanchet, there’s so many. People who have spent their lives on the craft more than chasing the spotlight. It seems like everyone in LA talks more about their social media accounts instead of craft. New York City seems to be more hardcore about that. You can’t sweet talk your way onto Broadway. You gotta know what you’re doing. A lot of my heroes come from the theater and also work in film. The filmmakers that love talking about craft, whether its writing, directing, or acting, I’m a geek for that sort of thing. Actually I’m geek for a lot of things.

How can our readers further follow you online?

My Facebook I tend to keep to friends. I guess Instagram @TheDanielKeith? I could be better with Twitter. Maybe I can find Tom and get my Myspace page going again. Those were good times.

This was very meaningful, thank you so much! We wish you continued success!

Daniel Keith: 5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me When I First Became A Filmmaker was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.