Derek Sulek: 5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me When I First Became A Filmmaker

Posted on

The first thing that I wish someone told me when I first started off is that you have to remember first and foremost that this is a business. Lots of people get into this business with big dreams and while that’s okay sometimes their expectations are a tad unrealistic. This is an amazing business where we get the privilege to play make believe for a living but it all boils down to the fact this is still a business. I wish someone told me that while your grand ideas are valid, how do you market it? Who is your audience? Who is your buyer? What is your strategy and plan for distribution? My advice to new filmmakers is to always remember who your audience is, and to make sure you’re shaping your project to match that market.

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 Derek Sulek.

Derek Sulek always wanted to work in the entertainment business. It was Actor Val Kilmer who Derek met at age 7 in his native Boise, Idaho who steered him in the right direction. Derek concentrated on telling stories and decided that would be his path. Derek remains in Kilmer’s debt for his insight, advice and encouragement. After earning a BA from Columbia College, Derek was ready to start the “Hollywood Career.” A chance meeting with actress Monica Potter got him his first job as PA on her popular iconic show Parenthood.

Sulek met producer Oren Kamara at San Diego Comic Con and the two bonded over similar interests and Sulek soon joined his company. As a member of FADE TO BLACK FILMS (FTBF), Sulek immediately began working on packaging and developing key projects within the company.

Sulek quickly moved up and made full Partner at FTBF where he became lead Producer alongside Kamara. Over the years Sulek has worked on several high profile projects including Weird Weird Times starring Greg Grunberg (Star Wars), Boom with showrunner Michael Slovis (Breaking Bad) and Lars Ulrich (Metallica) as well as Shelter to Show where he is producing alongside Andrew Zimmer and Patrick Weiland of Intuitive Content. Recently, Sulek worked on the series Awkward Conversation starring David Dastmalchian (Suicide Squad) and John Amos (Coming to America).

All on the FTBF banner, Derek recently finished production on the Rom-Com Craft Me A Romance with his partner Kamara, starring Jodie Sweetin and Brent Bailey. His features Aloha With Love starring Trevor Donovan premiered on UPTV May 1 and his feature The Walls are Watching premiered on Lifetime April 30.

Next up is a true passion project Coyote. The short film which Derek directed and produced through Fade To Black Films is poignant and timely. The subject is sex trafficking with locations along the US-Mexico border. Derek hopes this work will shed much needed light on very vital problems of immigration and the human costs. The film stars late WWE’s star wrestler Shad Gaspard who tragically passed away in 2020. The film pays tribute as Gaspard’s last project and will be released in the third quarter of 2022.

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 was born in Tracy, CA and raised in Kuna, Idaho out in the country. My family and I moved out to Idaho when I was 4 years old, my parents thought that would be a better environment to raise my brother and I. From a young age I worked and helped out on farms, daries, and orchards — which taught me a sense of responsibility and what it means to put in a hard day’s work. Even though I loved working in the country I always knew that I loved telling stories, my imagination was always running wild while out on my adventures and in school. While in middle school and High school I always participated in sports, drama, and speech & debate with the goal of one day moving to Los Angeles.

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

When I was 7 years old I was at a private event in Boise, Idaho when I met Actor Val Kilmer. I was a huge Val Kilmer fan and admirer as he was just coming off of Batman which I loved as I child (Still do to this day). Val and I instantly bonded over the velcro sandals I happened to be wearing, Val expressed how much he loved his velcro sandals. Val and I began chatting about The Ghost in the Darkness, he couldn’t believe at 7 years old that movie didn’t scare me, which he followed up by telling my parents that you can’t scare kids these days. I told Val that I wanted to be an actor and a Director, he was very encouraging and supportive but reminded me that acting is very challenging and should only be chased if that was my true passion in life. After this encounter Val invited my family to his ranch in New Mexico where we got to stay at his guest cabin and ride horses. Ever since meeting Val he was and still remains my main inspiration for getting into this business.

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

This is such a hard question for me to answer! There have been so many memorable moments and stories that have happened, choosing just one is a challenge! While working on various productions you work with hundreds of different people and characters which always make for great dinner conversations. I’ll share a story from one of our newest movies, “Aloha With Love”. While shooting on location in Maui with my producing partner, Oren Kamara, we wanted to embrace the local culture and pay respect to it. On day one of shooting the picture one of our associates had the idea of having their goat in the opening family barbecue scene. Now this wasn’t any regular goat, this goat was raised with dogs and then of course thinks it’s a dog. After a quick fun discussion Oren and I agreed to allow the goat in the movie. What we didn’t realize was that this goat really liked our lead actor Trevor Donovan, so during each take as Trevor walked into the scene the goat did everything in her power to try and touch Trevor. She yanked the stake out, she yelled for him while filming, and she even stomped her little hooves into the ground to express how much she wanted to be next to Trevor. In Between takes Oren and I tried to play with the goat to calm her down which resulted in: getting headbutted, tangled up in the leach, and spit on. Oren and I put on a great show for the entire cast and crew that couldn’t stop watching. This was one of those funny situations we don’t regret but will never forget.

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

I have met and gotten to be around lots of fascinating people in my line of work. Some of my favorite people to have worked with and have gotten to know on a personal level are Pro Wrestler Rob Van Dam and Actress Monica Potter. Monica and Rob have been amazing mentors to me in my career and in my personal life. They really helped teach me the ropes early on when I was first starting out. When I was directing my first short in film school I reached out to Rob about potentially starring in the movie with a first time director. He was beyond enthusiastic about the project and ended up accepting the role against his agent’s advice. That really demonstrated Rob’s values and what he was willing to do to pay it forward to those trying to get their feet wet. To this day Rob and I remain close friends. Regarding Monica Potter, she has been a dear friend of mine for many years and was actually the one who helped me get started in this business. Monica got me my first production assistant (PA) opportunity on her hit tv show “Parenthood” over at universal. From that moment I worked up the ranks to where I am today with Fade To Black Films.

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?

I think my first instinct when answering this question was to pick one of my mentors in the business but the one person who was always there for me and supported me from the beginning was my Mom. She has been my biggest critic and supporter throughout my life. She has always pushed me to be better than I was yesterday but she also always supported my creative endeavors. My Dad thought that I should stay in Idaho and pursue a more realistic career path with less resistance but it was my Mom at the end of the day who convinced me to leave everything in Idaho, move to LA and start over. I am beyond grateful for my Mom’s love and support and know I wouldn’t be where I am today without her.

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

One of my favorite quotes to live by is: “You can’t go back and change the beginning, but you can start where you are and change the ending.” ―C. S. Lewis. That quote means so much to me because in life a lot of things may happen that you don’t like or might be out of your control but it’s important to remember you can start over today. In this business you will make lots of relationships and some of those might not go the way you planned and hoped, things always happen — and you have to accept that you can’t go back and fix things but you can start over today and make those changes so those some things don’t happen again moving forward. It’s always about living and learning and moving forward, don’t overly dwell on yesterday because you’re going to waste tomorrow’s opportunity.

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?

Diversity is extremely important in this business because we all have a voice and a history that deserves to be told. We are professional storytellers and to not want to have those different perspectives represented is a shame and I am excited that our business is changing and it’s about time. My producing partner Oren Kamara and myself make it our mission to make sure we have diversity on our projects, and that everyone is being properly represented and listened to, we don’t discriminate against anyone for any reason. I think it’s affecting our culture in a good way, you’re seeing more cultures being properly represented in movies, behind the scenes, and I think it’s inspiring our youth to chase their dreams and share their opinions and that’s beyond crucial.

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

Right now Oren and I are producing a movie called “Craft Me A Romance” starring Jodie Sweetin (Full House, Fuller House), Brent Bailey (Quarantine, LBJ), Michael Patrick Lane (Sun Records, Dynasty), Laura Long (For All Mankind, (TURN: Washington’s Spies), Maxwell Caulfield (Pam & Tommy, Grease 2), and Julie Brown (Clueless, Strip Mall). The film follows Nicole Borden, the owner of a quaint arts and crafts store “The Crafty Companion”, who is faced with an ultimatum when the owner of “Mitchell’s Retail Art and Craft Supplies” tells her she must either sell her store or be forced out of business. Nicole must figure out a way to boost sales and keep the other store from putting her beloved business under. All while falling in love with the new guy in town, Mathew Mitchell, Nicoles discovers she is falling for the son of the very man who is trying to take her business. This project is so exciting to us because it’s promoting the arts and it’s encouraging people to be creative and think outside of the box, the movie is so cute and I really think people are going to relate to its central messages.

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

Working in this business is rewarding in so many different ways but one thing that I really love is the ability to give back. We are able to bring these productions to small towns where we can help boost the local economy, hire local crew members, cast local actors, and really support the small towns. On one of our recent productions, Aloha With Love, we took the movie to Hawaii and filmed on Maui, where we hired over 100 local crew members, we cast dozens of actors, and we were able to put close to a million dollars into their economy during covid. This meant so much to the island and to the people that the Mayor of Maui actually made a day called “Aloha With Love Day.” This meant so much to Oren and I that on our most recent film “Craft Me A Romance” we were able to go to the small town of Seal Beach, CA where we were able to do a very similar thing with their local town. Working with small towns and giving back will always be something that makes me and the company proud.

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.

The first thing that I wish someone told me when I first started off is that you have to remember first and foremost that this is a business. Lots of people get into this business with big dreams and while that’s okay sometimes their expectations are a tad unrealistic. This is an amazing business where we get the privilege to play make believe for a living but it all boils down to the fact this is still a business. I wish someone told me that while your grand ideas are valid, how do you market it? Who is your audience? Who is your buyer? What is your strategy and plan for distribution? My advice to new filmmakers is to always remember who your audience is, and to make sure you’re shaping your project to match that market.

The second thing that I wish someone told me when I first started is to be very patient. I think we all have dreams of everything happening overnight, but the reality is that it often takes many years if not decades to reach the level you strive to be at. When I first started in this business I went to film school for 4 years, worked as a production assistant for 2 years, then moved into directing / producing. That’s 6 years to get into the position I was trying to get into from the beginning. You have to be patient and put in the time in order to be successful, you can’t give up and you can’t force things to happen overnight.

The third thing that I wish someone told me when I first started is to surround yourself with good people. You will make lots of new connections in this business but at the end of the day everyone has their own personal agenda and it’s important to find people who have similar interests and ethics as yourself. Lots of people spin things and often lie in order to make themselves look good or to get something they are after, it’s important to stick to your ethics and don’t fall into that trap. I have always found that having a small circle of friends who have the same integrity as myself makes all the difference when handling day to day challenges. Don’t ever be afraid to cut toxic people out of your life, it’s okay to be selective on who you allow into your inner circle.

The fourth thing that I wish someone told me when I first started is to keep learning. No matter where you think you are in life or your career you’re never too old to learn something new. I love reading new scripts, old books, watching old movies, and studying what made those things successful or not. I personally believe I have a long way to go in my career and know that I have a lot more to learn, and I don’t think I will ever be satisfied with that. My Grandfather passed away when he was 80 years old and he still was attending college the year that he passed away. He had many degrees and didn’t need school anymore but he believed that the day he stopped learning was the day his brain would go. He loved attending community college just for the sake of taking a new class and applying new perspectives into his life, this is something that has always stuck with me. Always keep learning.

The fifth and final thing that I wish someone told me when I first started is to try and have fun. Now this may sound silly after all my previous answers but this is equally important. It’s really easy to get caught up in set politics, work stresses, financial worries, relationship drama, but at the end of the day you have one life to live and it’s this one. It’s important to sometimes take a step back and remember that you gotta let loose and have fun sometimes. I am a workaholic and often tell people that my fun is working, and they always laugh at me but it’s true. I love what I do and I love who I am partnered with and sometimes that makes it hard to take a step back and let loose. No matter what life throws at you, always try to find the best in those moments and remember to have fun.

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?

Marketing is always going to be very important but knowing your audience and, more-so, knowing your buyers is everything in today’s world and is the leading factor when it comes to artistic and cinematic choices. The film is a product and you have to know how to move and sell your product or your investors won’t see a return on their investment. If you don’t have a marketing plan or more importantly, a sales strategy, then it’s best to not make the project. One’s creative passion to make a movie should never supersede a proper sales plan. We make movies for our buyers based on the needs of the market. It’s very important when assembling your team that you hire a director and crew that understands this and is able to help you achieve that. With that being said we try to take the notes from critics and apply them to future projects but at the end of the day we are going to listen to our buyers first and foremost — they know what their audience wants and needs.

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. 🙂

I really would like to see more done to help support families who can’t properly afford their pets or animals medical needs. I think that our pets and animals have a major impact in everyone’s lives globally and it’s really sad to see how they are treated or can be treated when money becomes an issue. I truly believe that animals and pets bring out the best in people and that without them our planet would cease to survive. We need animals and we need nature, and I would like to see a movement started where we take that seriously and we work to help people save their animals.

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. 🙂

I am a huge admirer of the Pittsburgh Steelers head Coach Mike Tomlin. I think I have watched every single online interview, motivational speech, and article about Mike since he entered into the steelers organization in 2007. Mike demonstrates strong leadership abilities, he takes responsibility, and he helps groom these young athletes to become the best they can be. Aside from that Mike and his wife are huge supporters of their local communities and they spend the time to give back and to volunteer, it’s really remarkable what they do for the people of Pittsburgh. I have gotten the opportunity to see Coach at training camp in Latrobe and at a few Steelers / Chargers games and it’s always a remarkable experience. Having a private breakfast or lunch with him would be a dream come true, Mike if you’re reading this — let’s talk! 🙂

How can our readers further follow you online?

You can follow me on Instagram @DerekSulek or you can head over to my website to see all my recent projects and updates. 🙂

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

Derek Sulek: 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.