Emilio Palame: 5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me When I First Became A Filmmaker

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Learn to take time off. Stress is a killer and taking time away from work is essential. This is one I’ve had a hard time with being an achievement oriented, bordering on workaholic person…but I love what I do and my work is a labor of love…still after two heart attacks and cancer — knowing when to take a break is extremely important.

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 Emilio Palame.

Emilio Palame’s career as a musician/actor is filled with great diversity; from feature films and episodic television/web seriand commercials, to stand-up comedy and live concerts as Jazz pianist and musical director.

He has performed and recorded in the entertainment industry as pianist/vocalist, producer, and film & TV composer/arranger for over 45 years — including Nickelodeon’s Ned’s Declassified School Survival Guide, the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra, and as accompanist/conductor for the legendary Miss Peggy Lee, Paul Williams, Lanie Kazan, Connie Stevens and Jazz/Pop artist Chuck Mangione.

Having transitioned to his passion for acting over the last decade, Emilio brings that depth of artistic wisdom and professionalism to every project. In just the last 10 years, he has appeared in over 95 short films, 14 independent feature films including: supporting lead roles in the hit comedy Expelled from 20th Century Fox/DreamWorks as Principle Truman, and as Colonel Birch in the critically acclaimed Prodigy on Netflix.

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 and raised in Buffalo New York, where in sixth grade I began singing and playing in our rock group “The Magical Staircase”. Initially self-taught, I begin taking piano lessons and eventually went on to study music formally at SUNY Fredonia.

I became very involved in the jazz ensemble program at the university where I eventually ran the entire workshop for four years. I received my Bachelor of Music degree and began playing and recording with my own big band in around Buffalo New York and southern Canada. After the blizzard of ’77, I packed up all my keyboards, musical equipment and charts and moved to sunny Southern California where I began building my career as a studio musician, composer arranger, performer, bandleader and eventually landed the gig as accompanist/conductor for the legendary Miss Peggy Lee, for whom I worked with for over eleven years.

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

Since my early teens I always wanted to pursue a career as an actor. I was in plays and musicals, but my main focus was keyboard playing and composing. It wasn’t until I was granted the job of composer/arranger, along with my son Emerson, to write the music for a show on Nickelodeon entitled “Ned’s Declassified School Survival Guide”. The Income from that series allowed me to begin studying acting in the year 2010, and realize my life long dream. With intense study, and improv classes at the famed Groundlings for two years, I began auditioning and was cast in numerous shorts, commercials and independent feature films. Since then I have appeared in over 100 film projects including supporting lead roles in the hit comedy “Expelled” from 20 Century Fox/DreamWorks as Principal Truman, as Colonel Birch in the critically acclaimed “Prodigy” on Netflix and now as the jazz piano playing principal of Castle High in “Knights of Swing”.

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

We filmed most of “Knights of Swing” during Covid. We had to be tested every 72 hours, we had a sanitization crew on set at all times, and all the actors had to wear masks until it was time to shoot a scene, which meant all scene blocking was done wearing masks and then make-up and hair had to be touched up every time we removed our PPE — the crew had to wear both masks and shields at all times. We also retained an epidemiologist nurse on set everyday. This was very difficult logistically, especially when we were filming outside in 100-degree weather –perspiration and make-up don’t mix very well. Financially, all of these parameters pushed the budget substantially.

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

My career as a musician/actor/producer/director has been blessed by my interaction with so many Hollywood luminaries, aside from the legendary Miss Peggy Lee as I mentioned earlier. My time as musical director for Paul Williams, Lanie Kazan and Connie Stevens brought me into a whole world of beautiful connections that helped me to grow as an artist. Their influence musically, theatrically and personally enriched my life in ways that words cannot begin to express. Also having performed with numerous Jazz artists including Chuck Mangione, Mark Winkler, Grant Geissman, and Gordon Goodwin spurred me on to new heights.

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?

All the artists I’ve mentioned here have provided me with so much inspiration to continue to strive for excellence in all facets of my career, and each of them helped me to gain recognition because of my association with them. One person, Christopher Parker, God rest his soul, who was my first acting manager, always ended every email and phone conversation, no matter what the problem or circumstance was, with the phrase “Trust the Journey.” — I have, and I always will.

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

“Trust the Journey”. — and one phrase that I often repeated to myself when things became very difficult leading a 16 piece Big Band in Buffalo NY was “This must be where someone else quit”. The ramifications of both quotes I hope are self-explanatory.

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?

Our world is full of very diverse people in a myriad of ways — race, ethnicity, gender, ability, faith, ideology, politics and so much more. It’s important to examine, celebrate and be honest in how we interact with our fellow souls here on Earth. Three ways?

Show the beauty of our differences.

Share in the cultural ways we are united.

Call out the injustice that occurs when we look at others as “them” instead of “we”.

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

Our feature film “Knights of Swing” has just been released on TUBI and is coming to Apple TV and Amazon Prime Video in the upcoming weeks. Set in 1947, our film chronicles a group of young jazz musicians whose dream is to form a “really swingin’ Big Band”. Unfortunately, things prove much more complicated when the community objects to the diversity of the band. Alliances form, and lines are drawn. What follows is soul searching, uplifting, and through music, our story illuminates forgiveness, healing and unconditional love. We have won numerous awards and are excited for our work to enjoyed all over the world.

I also just did a TedX talk at the University of Huntsville Alabama about how technology has changed the way music and films are actualized — from the advent of MIDI in the early 80’s to present day digital audio/video recording and editing.

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

Touching people’s hearts though filmmaking is what makes all the hard work and stress worthwhile. When I see someone get emotional, laugh out loud or groove to the music because of what we’ve put up on the screen — I know we’ve made a difference in someone’s life, even for just a moment. After the screening of “Knights of Swing” we received a standing ovation as soon as it ended, and as we were talking afterwards, one of the audience members said to me that the movie was “healthy” — perhaps a very strange way to describe a film — yet I understood because it is a very uplifting and positive narrative in today’s world of hostility and rancor. “Healthy”? — I’ll take that any day!

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.

“Trust the Journey” — When things get more difficult like filming during Covid, you must trust that things will work out beautifully no matter what.

Truly listen, be patient — don’t just be formulating your response when someone is speaking to you about a challenging subject — especially during interviews!

Be allowing, and open to things you don’t necessarily agree with, or fully understand — you will gain knowledge and grace.

Learn to take time off. Stress is a killer and taking time away from work is essential. This is one I’ve had a hard time with being an achievement oriented, bordering on workaholic person…but I love what I do and my work is a labor of love…still after two heart attacks and cancer — knowing when to take a break is extremely important.

Remember to always take time for your family. They are the life blood of everything you do.

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?

All of the above are very important to me. Ultimately being in artistic agreement begins with the writing. My screenplay co-writer and co-director David Gutel and I labor over every word and shot list choice in preproduction, on set and in the editing room. Being in sync with our executive producer and creator Mr. Rolland Jacks is imperative — and fortunately he really enjoys the choices we make with his story-world and that in itself is very fulfilling.

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. 🙂

A movement? How about starting with being honest and truthful. It seems that bending or completely obliterating facts and truth is becoming more acceptable in our public discourse. This is not “healthy” for anyone. Let’s be kind, loving, giving and willing to set our egotistical agenda aside and truly work together for the common good of everyone. It’s possible! It starts with being humble in word and deed.

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. 🙂

There are so many favorite people I would love to share time with. Barack Obama — for his kindness and wisdom. Harry Connick Jr. for his musical sensibilities and ability to help people like myself reach others in our industry — Lady Gaga for her eclectic soul and artistry, and Steven Colbert for being one of the most talented, subtly hilarious and versatile performers of our generation.

How can our readers further follow you online?

Website: knightsofswing.com

Facebook: www.facebook.com/knightsofswing

IMDB: https://www.imdb.com/title/tt14786726

Trailer: https://vimeo.com/ondemand/knightsofswing

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

Emilio Palame: 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.