Be prepared to cut your throat to when you write and when you create. Being truly honest about what hurts you and scares you. What you love and what you hate is the lifeblood for starting and finishing a creative project.
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 Mat Sheldon.
Mat Sheldon studied film and theatre at University of Rochester, New York. Training includes working with the legendary director’s coach Judith Weston, who has consulted with noted directors including Ava DuVernay, Alma Har’el and Taika Waititi. He has written, produced and directed over twenty short films.
What matters to him? Cinematic drama. Smart genres. Veracity. Blood. Identity. Love. Memory and the vision of the future state. Birth mother Joan, who gave everything.
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?
Grew up in the Midlands in the UK, then to the University of Rochester (NY) returning back to London. (Actually, the mean streets of East London to be precise which I love.)
Always knew I was adopted, always knew I was Canadian through my birth mother’s citizenship. This was hard wired into me, into my identity.
Can you share a story with us about what brought you to this specific career path?
Film is dreaming out loud with people you know and with people you don’t. Being able to share these dreams, knowing that there is a public exhibition of them as the natural end point of a project has driven me from the very start.
A stubborn, resonant memory is loading a Super8 projector at university and showing a little black and white montage film shot on the streets of Rochester, a corporate city — including the home of Eastman Kodak — in upstate New York, finding characters on the street who didn’t seem to fit.
What stayed with me was what happened after the class with the tutor — a hard bitten news cameraman — saying to me that I should keep doing what I was doing. It’s amazing how those little moments, that no-one else really hears can change you.
Can you share the funniest or most interesting story that occurred to you in the course of your filmmaking career?
I can say with total confidence that I have made many more mistakes about trying to be a filmmaker than the relevant and intelligent decisions that have helped me be a filmmaker.
This is my best / worst one.
A Hollywood manager wanted to put me up for a well-known cult horror feature film franchise and I declined saying it wasn’t my kind of film.
In some way, I think I felt — though I didn’t say this — that it was beneath my artistic vision.
That kind of view about genre was so wrong and just shows how you can lose yourself in your own view of the world that isn’t really anything about what you think it is.
Smart filmmakers take the tropes — the usual so-called rules about a certain kind of film or genre — and carefully — sometimes secretly, twist them when no-one (e.g. studios, financiers etc) is looking to say what they want to say.
In theory, THE SHINING is ‘just’ a horror film but Kubrick found a way to elevate it to a whole another different, dread soaked place.
Who are some of the most interesting people you have interacted with? What was that like? Do you have any stories?
I have to talk about the actor Ellora Torchia (ALI & AVA, IN THE EARTH, MIDSOMMAR) who stars in my short film THE ELECTRICITY IN ME which recently qualified for consideration for a short film BAFTA award.
Ellora had such a strong understanding of the character, some of which was on the page in my writing, I like to think, but so much more than the words I had written was the depth of her own lived experience she bought to the role playing my birth mother, a woman I love, but never knew except through a few photos and her diaries and letters.
The very first time Ellora rehearsed with me — and it was just me — she burned so brightly and so vicariously through her six minute one take performance that she turned my words into something new, something different, with a fully realised inner life, tears and barely contained grief and quiet rage.
It was like witnessing the creation of someone I thought I knew but realised, actually, I did not. And this was all through her interpretation and pure craft which just felt so deeply real to me.
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?
A friend of mine, who will stay nameless (as I don’t want to embarrass him) is a director and is this really cool guy, such a talent, but has been so patient with me, reading my scripts for years, watching my films, making gently insightful comments about how I might tweak and edit and so on — but he’s always been there for me — challenging me saying things that no-one else would say.
For example, the other day he suggested I should maybe not spend so much time on the glossy images (I’m paraphrasing) and more time on the storytelling.
What he really meant was that imagery that looks polished and professional is no substitute for carefully considered, original ideas, well executed.
To make his point, that stopped me cold, he said –
“Maybe people aren’t as impressed as you think they are.”
This so cut through the cacophony of my thinking which is what I’m trying to manage when I’m developing a story and trying to write and think about what to work on and where to focus s. It’s so easy to get away from the cold essentials of what you need to do and say especially when you’re developing a new project.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“You have to fight every day to stop censoring yourself. and you never have anyone else to blame when you do.”
To me, this means –
Don’t let those doubting voices put a wire around the neck and strangle what you want to say.
This is why.
Very early on, I showed one of my earliest scripts to someone I worked with in a ‘day job’. And she very confidently told me I wasn’t a writer. She was someone I didn’t know so well but she was so sure, so confident, that I couldn’t write — and happy to tell me so — that her view really mattered to me and definitely fed the demons whispering ‘you have nothing to say’.
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?
How can I tell stories that are rich and varied if I surround myself with a team who have the same or similar lived life, culture, background as me?
The more mixed the filmmaking team — in front of and behind the camera — from director of photography to set designer to costumes — vfx etc — at all levels — the greater the chance we will find ways of creating worlds and characters that find deeper, long lasting relevance and truly reflect who we are.
This strategy, applied with intelligence and sensitivity taking care to champion, nurture and protect talent — and not just from the usual places — will make a lasting difference to the very foundations of the stories we want to tell and, in turn, the films we’re wanting to make.
What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now?
I’m writing a short film — THE COLOR OF OUR MEMORY — which examines how we might control our future — and our identity to some extent — if we can edit our memories at the same time as edit everything remembered on our modern devices i.e. servers, smartphones, cloud drives etc.
A touchstone for the script is a quote from Orwell’s 1984 which says —
“Who controls the past controls the future: who controls the present controls the past.”
Which aspect of your work makes you most proud? Can you explain or give a story?
Seriously, at the end of making a film you’re exhausted.
Perhaps not physically — though stamina is a factor — but your eyes are tired from what they’re processing in attempting to view the film in the way the audience will view the film.
So getting through that middle dead zone and closing out the work — getting to the end of the journey (of making the film) and the actual story in the film at the same time, is the most satisfying part of the process for me.
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.
- Ignore doubt / self-censorship / fear. They serve nothing except for their appetite to grow and consume one single thing — you.
- Deploy active strategies to control (1) as noted above. Most of them are to do with resolving to show up and work hard. Yes, skill, talent, luck etc are all helpful if they happen to be present when you’re working, but most of the time, it’s about treating it like a job to get through the dark times. Consistency and output is key as I don’t believe in being blocked i.e. not being able to write. There’s always something you can do.
- Derive and develop appreciation and pleasure from allied fields. And don’t feel guilty about ‘creative delay’ whilst you do. For me, for film, that includes photography, fashion, poetry, architecture, design, theatre, literature.
- Make stuff sooner than when you feel ready. You will never be ready. You will always be scared. There are so many reasons not to put it out there for all. Waiting too long is a killer for creative momentum.
- Be prepared to cut your throat to when you write and when you create. Being truly honest about what hurts you and scares you. What you love and what you hate is the lifeblood for starting and finishing a creative project.
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 them. And none of them. I guess my best example is my most recent film where I simply focussed on one simple idea without any consideration when I started to write it which was –
“What would my birth mother — the woman I never met — say if she could speak out in the way she wrote her diaries?”
But I only focussed on how that made me feel, not how it would be funded or how the audience would feel. Just how it connected with me. Later on, I certainly worried about those things, but not at the outset.
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 don’t have a specific answer, but I’d definitely think about how we can reach — and fund — those emerging storytellers irrespective of who they are and where they’re from who simply do not have the support or means to tell their stories — and haven’t been encouraged to either.
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 have so many cinematic heroes but…
…my list, for brevity, focusses on three directors for now and a burning question I’d ask them.
Barry Jenkins, Director of MOONLIGHT. Tell me about your writing process? How did you find and create your characters? How did you know that casting three different people [who play the same character] would work? When did you know — really know — it was going to be a hit?
Lynne Ramsey, director of YOU WERE NEVER REALLY HERE. What was your process working with Joaquin Phoenix? How did you create Joe with him? How did she research US senators..??
Steven Spielberg, Director of E.T. Tell me how scared you were — or not — risking your next film and possibly your career on an alien character (E.T.) completely unknown to audiences that was essentially someone in a suit….?
How can our readers further follow you online?
This was very meaningful, thank you so much! We wish you continued success!
Thanks for having me.
Mat Sheldon: 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.