Don’t measure your success by others. Do what you like doing and one day you’ll realize you’re doing far more of what you like and almost nothing that you hate, and that’s it, you’re successful. Then stop worrying about success and get to work, you have important things to do.
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 Mossman.
John Mossman was born and raised in Baraboo, Wisconsin, a town known for its unique geology and being the birthplace of the Ringling Brothers Circus. It was here where he got some of his first training as a performer, leading to a career as an actor cast in roles noted for being both physically and emotionally demanding. He is co-founder of Chicago’s Artistic Home Theater and Training Center, where he is instructor and has received acclaim as both an actor and director. As a filmmaker, he has written and directed numerous award winning short films as well as the features “Into The Wake” and “Good Guy With A Gun”. He has appeared in film and television and on stages across the country, including Steppenwolf Theater and Actor’s Theater of Louisville. He teaches Film Directing at Columbia College and the Second City Film School and is founder of South Side Filmmaking Youth Initiative, a film mentorship program that for 18 years has mentored south side Chicago high school students as they take a story from script to screen, garnering the young filmmakers countless worldwide screenings, life skills and two national Emmy Awards.
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 raised in Baraboo, Wisconsin, a little town filled with the most spectacular characters, where folks were fond of saying “the Circus didn’t start here by accident.” It was a lively, creative hub of outlandish oddballs, athletes, performers and thinkers who all seemingly went by nicknames and whose social and artistic life was largely centered around the Al Ringling theater, an architectural gem designed after the Opera house of Versaille.
Can you share a story with us about what brought you to this specific career path?
Everyone gets their storytelling bug in different ways. Family is usually is in there somewhere and both my parents contributed equally. My mom pushed me into the theater as a kid where my borderline Tourettes/OCD was quieted by the experience of being on stage and the mystery of exploring the Al’s catacomb-like dressing rooms that smelled of Aqua Net, bad electrical, and Barrymore DNA. The first movie I remember seeing was when my dad took me there to see Kubrick’s 2001. My still developing brain was too young to grasp it all but I remember being transfixed watching the monkey humans jumping in a frenzy around the humming monolith and asking him what that thing was. He leaned over and whispered “it’s symbolic”. I processed that for a moment. “Of what?”. I’ll never forget the pause. “…Man’s quest.” My little kid brain exploded and has never really been the same. After that I’d see normal kid fare like Herbie the Love Bug and grow frustrated looking for the symbolism. Thanks Dad.
Can you share the funniest or most interesting story that occurred to you in the course of your filmmaking career?
I’ve had a lot of funny moments, but maybe the most interesting was around my first short film, Draggage. I’d long had a reoccurring dream of burying someone I was pretty sure I hadn’t killed but for some reason I decided to hide the body. And even though it was out of sight (usually buried) I always knew it was there, with a chance it could be discovered. No matter how much it decayed, no matter the time that elapsed, there was always the possibility that it might be uncovered, and I’d be caught. The guilt and terror would eventually wake me up in a panic. I based Draggage on that dream and when I described the story to my older brother, he told me he’d also had that dream many times, down to the smallest details. I began to pay closer attention to dreams after that, and came to understand that they might also be made of the dreams of others. After making that film I never had the dream again. All my films since then have been based in part on dreams/nightmares — sometimes sleeping, sometimes waking.
Who are some of the most interesting people you have interacted with? What was that like? Do you have any stories?
I’m also an actor and have worked with some interesting folks, one of whom was Patrick Swayze shortly before his death. He worked like a journeyman, like the people I knew and loved working with — except that he was a star. He was chill and positive and confident and humble and had the gift of putting you at ease right before he beat you senseless. He was the best. My character’s death at his hands was apparently so irredeemable that they cut it out, fearing he’d look too bad. I really wish I had that footage. Another unforgettable interaction I had was with the great playwright Arthur Miller. My theater company had put up his rarely produced and oft-maligned After the Fall, which miraculously was a hit and after some intense early interwebs stalking I found an address I thought might be his. I wrote, telling him that his play was now the toast of the town, being lauded for it’s renewed relevance and brilliance and invited him to see it. I concluded asking him about a vivid dream my character recounted several times throughout the play. It was a highly specific, somewhat bizarre dream that I felt symbolized the themes of the play. Coincidentally, my brother (a non-playgoing biologist) had for years described to me this same dream as one that he’d repeatedly had. So I asked “regarding that dream — It’s clearly a collective dream that I’ve heard my brother talk about for years. Did you have it yourself or did you just hear about it?” A month passed and then one day firstname.lastname@example.org popped up on my screen. (Seriously) He graciously thanked me for producing his play, congratulated me on the success, etc. And then wrote the following: “Regarding your question about the dream. I have neither had that dream nor heard of it. But writing is dreaming also.” That response was such a gift, expanding my understanding of a process whereby we very well might be writing things drawn from a greater collective source, put out there to be interpreted by others who have the right and the responsibility to do so in a way personal to them. We are constantly being given the opportunity to connect to something bigger than ourselves, manifesting the dreams of others, perhaps drawing from a deep, unified pool where all things meet.
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?
Sandy Joseph for her unwavering belief. Director Dale Calandra for an imagination that revealed a world of possibilities. Acting teacher Jack Wetherall for lessons that continue to be passed along. Donna Fried for teaching me that the most universal desire of man is transformation.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
My late great friend and producer Gray Frederickson (Godfather, Apocalypse Now), in response to my comment that I wasn’t sure I was ready for my next film, said in his inimitable way “Ahhh, you’re only gonna be 50% ready for anything worth doing. The rest depends on a fast learning curve.” I’ve never stopped using that. My kids were raised on it. They’re doing great.
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?
- Representing all the flavors of our world in our stories and on our crews is long overdue, and simply the right thing to do.
- Diversity is crucial to a creative environment — if you are around people just like you, you’re robbing yourself of new stories, new friends, new ideas, paths and perspectives you’d never otherwise know. There’s a social model of influence that uses a venn diagram to illustrate how we absorb and affect the people around us. I think it’s beautiful and natural, like an elemental molecule that makes up who we are.
- “People like you” means more than simply color or ethnicity. Really pay attention to who people are. Avoid labels. As Stephen Fry said, “We are not nouns, we are verbs. I am not a thing — an actor, a writer…I am a person who does things. I write, I act, and never know what I’m going to do next… You can be imprisoned if you think of yourself as a noun.” We are currently part of a fast moving and important step to a greater understanding of diversity and exploring of self that we cannot yet conceive of. Our ever-evolving journey toward discovering who we are and how we are connected is one that requires embracing each other with love and appreciation as we walk together, often awkwardly, toward exciting new horizons.
What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now?
I’ve just finishing a script, Body of Work, about an Archaeologist who flames out and goes on the run with a mummified body, chased by a host of lunatics, intercutting back and forth to the life of the actual man who died in the midst of the world’s first existential crisis. Someone described it as Kubrick meets Coen Brothers, which makes me laugh.
Which aspect of your work makes you most proud? Can you explain or give a story?
My 18 years of work with south side Chicago high school students each summer. They would write a story that was generally drawn from their lives, with characters who looked and acted like them as opposed to what they were being fed, and I’d help them make a movie. The program was wildly successful, the films played all over the world, and they traveled and won awards (including 2 national Emmy Awards), learned a host of life skills that filmmaking provides, and had their voices heard. I feel someday those 18 short films created by these south side kids will be an important record of that particular time, who they were, what that neighborhood was like, what their concerns were. I see some of them around now, all grown up, working in the biz, making their own stuff.
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.
- You have a voice. It is important. I was told this plenty, I just wish I would have believed it sooner.
- You are enough. You possess depths and complexities that will take your entire life to explore, and you’ll still never uncover all of them and still never fully discover all that you are. And that’s a good thing. We’re all a mystery and a miracle. Don’t be afraid to show yourself, whatever/whoever that happens to be in that moment. Watching this unfold before me is one of the great joys of my life. My brother the biologist articulated it well when he wrote me saying “I spend a lot of time in the woods observing animals interact with their environment and each other, trying to understand what it is that makes them who they are; and when I’m in your theater I feel like I’m doing that with my own species.” People crave this experience, and our job is to offer it up. Get behind or in front of that camera or on that stage, or on that page and give yourself up to the science of studying who we are.
- Assholes will get theirs. Don’t think you have to be one to get ahead. Adopt a no-assholes policy, find your tribe, and expand it (which will be easy if no one is an asshole) and just keep making things. And take your turn leading. Everyone should know how to lead and everyone should know how to follow and support their fellow team member. Both can be a real joy. I am fortunate to have a theater ensemble and group of friends and collaborators who are talented, empathetic humans who have served as every imaginable role in each others’ work. Artistic directors become actors, actors become directors, become DP’s, become editors, become boom ops and then directors again. I have a friend who is a busy writer and producer. We worked together as actors back in the day. She was this fierce, fun-loving person and when I saw her years later I asked how it was she maintained such positivity. Her answer was that she’d spent a lot of time both in writers’ rooms filled with assholes and in writer’s rooms with happy people and she never saw better work coming from the asshole room, so it just made sense to go the happy route.
- Don’t measure your success by others. Do what you like doing and one day you’ll realize you’re doing far more of what you like and almost nothing that you hate, and that’s it, you’re successful. Then stop worrying about success and get to work, you have important things to do.
- You’re only going to be 50% ready for anything worth doing. (see above) The rest depends on a fast learning curve. I love a fast learning curve appreciate the people who cultivate that in themselves. I’m often more interested in working with a person with a fast learning curve than a present expert. I once saw a resume that, under “special skills”, said — “Don’t see it? Give me two weeks.” I’m always interested in that sort of person. So be bold. Jump in the deep end and enjoy the excitement of nearly drowning. You’ll catch on.
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?
My own artistic vision (and by necessity that of my collaborators who, bring their own vision and talents to the party). My financiers have always trusted my choices, and if they do have thoughts on the story I genuinely listen. But bottom line, I’ve never had enough money, critics in my corner, or devoted audience hovering around me to feel that kind of pressure. The process of filmmaking is already one of such compromise I don’t know how I’d add those influences into the mix and still make something I’d be able to put my name on. Years of working in my storefront theater where you are expected to experiment, and taking risks is the only way to compete has helped shape that. My feeling as an actor is that your default should be a willingness to run blindfolded into a dark stairwell with your pants on fire carrying scissors. As people watch. There’s a freedom and joy in embracing that. So I try to take my advice as a director. When I’m disappointed in myself its because I didn’t take enough risk. Let that be your your polaris, IMO.
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. 🙂
If I could wave a magic wand and conjure a movement? I’d get the money out of American politics. Reduce the power of super PACs and develop widespread boycotting of companies that buy politicians, assuming politicians don’t have the spine to reform the system. It seems almost impossible but economic pressure does work. And really, no company WANTS to have to donate 400k to some jackass they probably don’t even like. And what politician wants to have to keep up with the Johnsons or the Cruz’s huge NRA-filled coffers with their own endless search for financing? After the Jan. 6 inagurrection there’s evidence corporations are changing their positions on donating to the worst of the worst. Keep going. Even the playing field. People want it.
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. 🙂
SO MANY POSSIBILITIES HERE — It’s hard to pick but since I love ideas — talking about ideas, hearing ideas on ideas, then sleeping on those ideas, and then thinking about the human who thought up such ideas, I’m leading with that. All the people I mention seem complicated, have a wealth of ideas, and who already talk to me through their work.
Werner Herzog — He does what he wants. Docs, dramas, whatever; and makes challenging films — often physically challenging films — which adds a deep element of truth to them. He isn’t afraid to literally drag a ship up the side of a jungle mountain, which is the best metaphor for filmmaking I could imagine.
David Lynch — love his style of creation, works in a way that draws from the subconscious and dreams. His works are mysteries that worm their way into you and don’t leave. I like the films that influenced him and his thoughts on the Unified Field. I would love to watch and participate in his process or have him participate in mine. I have this feeling it’ll happen.
Cate Blanchett — Someone asked me what I was doing the other day and I said “nothing, just trying to relax, listening to Cate Blanchett interviews”. I can listen to her talk endlessly. She makes sense and forces me to admit there’s still hope for this world. She’s absurdly talented and funny and personable and humble and her resume is extraordinary. Beyond her impressive, transformative film performances, she has run a large theater company in Sydney, and played Hedda and Blanche. I would probably want to talk with her about theater and then her process, but some people are justifiably private about that. I’d really rather just direct her. Also, I’d make sure it was the best work she’s ever done.
Dwight Yoakum. Talent, in so many areas. Effortlessly brilliant singer who is simultaneously a traditionalist and quiet iconoclast. An appreciation for beauty and can write a lyric that’ll make you laugh and cry. And I like and respect many of the people he has surrounded himself with, some of whom I’ve known. All are great human beings. I met him once briefly at the premiere of a short film I made. I was delighted but expecting a jerk for some reason. Nope. A good guy, thoughtful, humble and present and gracious.
Pink — An outsider, bit of an oddball, an actual badass. She takes tons of risks, and is vulnerable and tough and wounded and probably funny as shit. I like her style — of motherhood, life, living a physical existence. As someone who got his start in a circus and still does stunts and stage combat whenever they let me, I dig that she likes a trapeze and just won’t stop throwing herself around. I’m also a motorcycle guy, and when I heard she proposed to her husband, a motocross racer, by holding up a sign at a turn I laughed my ass off. Slick… When she first hit the scene and wasn’t anyone yet I wrote a role for her in a short film, just guessing at who she was. Now that I know who she is a bit better, I was spot on. She would have killed it, I just didn’t know how to get to her.
Willie Nelson. Nuff said. It’s Willie.
Aaron Rodgers — Something weird happens to elite quarterbacks after age 35. I want to know what it is. Also, Packers.
How can our readers further follow you online?
I ejected from social media but I’ll be back on soon. There’s a fake Insta account that is up and I can’t seem to get down so don’t be fooled. Best place to follow me at the moment is my website, Mossman Films. I’m pretty easy to reach, search for my email and you’ll find me.
This was very meaningful, thank you so much! We wish you continued success!
John Mossman: 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.