Director John S Palmer Jr of Spider Webb Untangled: 5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me When I First Became A Filmmaker
It’s not what you know, but who you know, and both are necessary. One without the other doesn’t get you very far. I spent years recording, mixing, and mastering music, and while my skills improved and music clients were happy with what I did, it wasn’t until we were able to connect with a distributor and radio promoter that we were able to chart and build an audience beyond who was in the room that particular night. But at the same time, if I didn’t know what I was doing and presented subpar work, the distributor and radio promoter would not have given me the opportunity.
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 John S. Palmer, Jr.
John S. Palmer, Jr. owns Lansing-based Megawave Corporation, an art gallery and record label, and through his Andro-Media video production company has made numerous music videos and long-form music documentaries showcasing his label’s artists. Palmer’s latest film, “Spider Webb Untangled,” will be out on multiple platforms January 24, 2023 and is the story of noted drummer Kenneth “Spider Webb” Rice, who recorded or toured for over five decades with artists including Aretha Franklin, The Temptations, King Curtis, Harry Belafonte, David Clayton-Thomas, Martha Reeves, Grover Washington Jr. and The Funk Brothers. For more information on the film, visit https://spiderwebbuntangled.com/
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 blessed to have been born and raised in a family where both practical and academic knowledge were highly valued, with my Mom a math teacher (later an administrator) and my Dad a research biochemist. In spite of some economic struggles along the way, they had a good social life and a good time with friends and family. With the help of my extended family, I learned how to build things and to garden. As I was growing up in the 50’s and 60’s, I had a chemistry set, an electronics set, and I became a scout under the eye of one of my Dad’s Army buddies. That’s when I got my first camera. During the summer, my folks had fellowships at different colleges and universities and drove my brother and me across the U.S. and Canada, camping at many of the national parks along the way. In later years, I committed myself to learning more about psychology, philosophy, and religion. I had spent a lot of time thinking about things, and I needed to learn more about myself and other people. I wanted to learn about everything and find the patterns.
Can you share a story with us about what brought you to this specific career path?
Math and science were OK, but I really enjoyed art, taking pictures, and trying to create music. I was intrigued by both natural and altered sounds and images. I always seemed to be taking pictures of my classmates, family, and friends, and landscapes. When my Dad built one of first component hi-fi stereos in the neighborhood, I was able to use his reel-to-reel tape recorder to record my music group. Later, I started building circuits, doing recordings, album covers, and music videos for other people, and it became a business. Over the years, I spent a lot of time with computer hardware and software, so that to this day, they are as important to me as my cameras, lenses, microphones, and recorders. I believe that there is an intriguing story unfolding around us, or one that we can create, one that should be captured and shared, and these are some of the tools to do that.
Can you share the funniest or most interesting story that occurred to you in the course of your filmmaking career?
I come from a different background, so I’m not thinking of filmmaking as a career but as a means to tell a story. So the most interesting is also the most embarrassing… I was invited by the promoter to a music festival in Sonoma a few years back, and here was a famous Hollywood actor with his companion standing right next to me in the VIP area. I didn’t want to intrude but out of courtesy wanted to acknowledge my appreciation of his earlier work, as he didn’t have anything major out at the time, and as soon as I opened my mouth, my mind went totally blank — I was so embarrassed I forgot his name. So his companion picked up on that and turned to him and said, “See? I told you.” I knew right then that, no matter the project, he would never return my call.
Who are some of the most interesting people you have interacted with? What was that like? Do you have any stories?
I’ve been able to do different things in my life, and I’ve interacted with people in business, government leaders, religious leaders, music legends, all sorts of people. I find that people who are really doing things at a high level seem to have a personal strength and ease, which I don’t see with people who are stressed and struggling. The interesting thing is, they themselves may have been stressed and struggling at some point, but they have risen to the occasion, found their calling, achieved a balancing (or found ways to cope), to achieve a measure of success.
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 consider it a success just to complete a project, to give in to the constraints of time, money, and whatever and still be willing to put your name on it. All of my teachers (and family) who took the time to say something, to encourage me, made all the difference in the world.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
For me, it’s the golden rule about treating others as one wants to be treated. I believe kindness is a virtue, not a weakness. Regardless of the situation, I want to help where I can. But taking that approach, it’s so easy to become overcommitted on multiple projects at the same time, so I’ve had to learn to focus because you do want to do a good job.
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?
It’s a lot easier to work with the same people we’ve always worked with, but there are decades of separations of people, of cultures, or religions that weren’t voluntary, that were imposed out of bias or worse. If we want an open society where all people can have the freedom to develop and contribute their talent to the greater good, we need to overcome the adverse effects of those separations and subjugations and bring new people in. It’s important for aspirational, educational, and economic reasons. It is not a zero sum game — it benefits all people.
What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now?
“Spider Webb Untangled — The Life & Times of Legendary Drummer Kenneth Rice” has been a transformative project for me, because we really didn’t have a budget or crew, yet here was a phenomenal story that cut across decades of social, cultural, and music history that needed to be told. It’s a very personal story that started in Detroit, but which grew to a global scale. We may think we know how things were done or how things happened behind the scenes, but I certainly learned a lot because here was someone who was there and still alive to tell us about it.
Which aspect of your work makes you most proud? Can you explain or give a story?
If I can make a positive difference in people’s lives, I feel great. Even if it’s only providing a different perspective that’s thought provoking, or to get people to laugh, that’s a good thing. For the work to get recognition is golden, but that’s not why I do it. It means that more people are able to see it.
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.
- It’s not what you know, but who you know, and both are necessary. One without the other doesn’t get you very far. I spent years recording, mixing, and mastering music, and while my skills improved and music clients were happy with what I did, it wasn’t until we were able to connect with a distributor and radio promoter that we were able to chart and build an audience beyond who was in the room that particular night. But at the same time, if I didn’t know what I was doing and presented subpar work, the distributor and radio promoter would not have given me the opportunity.
- It’s easy to be seduced by new technology empowering an artist to create what used to require heavy expensive equipment and large crews, but remember that they are only good tools if they work and can be used well. At the time, I knew I didn’t have the money to rent professional studio or edit suite time, or to buy the best commercial equipment, so I started collecting some of the newer, less expensive hardware that I thought I needed to produce work at a professional level, to build a project studio. The problem was that a lot of the equipment was not used very much, and I ended up selling it when the computer revolution came to music. My early computers were not powerful and reliable enough to edit digital film, so a lot of my early film work sat in the can for years. Avoiding the expense of film production was great, but the early digital cameras that I could afford needed a lot of work to produce decent images. It wasn’t until I found the tools that worked and left the rest behind that I made progress.
- Success breeds success. After playing in bar bands for a few years, I had reached the point where I thought that my music was better than some of what I heard on the radio, and it was just a matter of time before someone would discover our latest group and sign us to a record deal. We struggled — and it wasn’t going to happen. It wasn’t until I started working with people who already had a large following that I found it was much easier to help them gather greater popularity and success, for themselves and others involved. It’s the case today more than ever — having a popular guest artist featured on your single, having a name actor attached to your film, it’s everywhere, happening over and over.
- Do you want your project done well, quickly, or cheaply? Pick any two. When I first heard this, I knew that it made perfect sense from experience. Which leads me to #5.
- The thing is, I’d heard all of these things when I did get started, but I had to learn them myself through experience, which leads me to #5: Experience is the best teacher. I think we all try to make the best decisions. We exercise due diligence. We consult Dr. Google. We attend YouTube University. We talk with friends and family. But there is always something missing — how will this apply to me in my case, with my plans? How will it turn out for me, when and how? Will any of this generate sufficient income to pay for itself or put food on the table? Actually, for most of us who are starting out on our own, we really don’t know — we will just have to try our best and learn from the experience.
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?
So far, I’ve focused on documentary. All of my music videos have been performance-based. So the subject is the client, and it’s the client that usually gives me initial direction. Yes, I tell them my vision that their music or story invokes, that I expect it would invoke with the audience, and usually that’s the direction we take. But there’s a conversation that takes place.
You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the largest number of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
Right now, we have a new existential threat — climate change. But we’ve had an existential threat from the beginning: planetary collision, pandemics, famines, wars, and the struggles between the haves and the have-nots. I think the movement began long ago, seeking solutions and taking action on the things we can control and preparing for the things we cannot. But, the fact that we are not now on the same page with this one is an understatement — so many people with so many conflicting self-interests. My hope is that those with the means will help stem the flow of misinformation and division and help us all obtain the means to move forward in our common self-interest.
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. 🙂
Those who are active are all so busy, so I guess I don’t think that way. I don’t want to waste their time. I’m on a personal mission, I have stories to tell, and life is short. If there is a way they think I can help tell their story or help me tell mine, they will know how to reach me.
How can our readers further follow you online?
My latest project is at https://www.spiderwebbuntangled.com/
and I contribute periodically to the @MEGAWAVEmusic, @AHigherCalling, and @BluesandBoogiePiano channels on YouTube.
This was very meaningful, thank you so much! We wish you continued success!
Director John S Palmer Jr of Spider Webb Untangled: 5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me When I First… was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.