Be True to Your Values. If you have a point of view in your writing, share it. Worst that can happen is someone doesn’t respond to it, but someone else might. There is room for creative compromise, but you don’t want to water down your vision to an extent that you can’t recognize it. I’m going through something like this right now on a certain project, in which I could play the safe route and change the script and make a more sanitized version of it that may have an easier time selling. On the other hand, I could put my money where my mouth is and make the version I really want to make. I’m leaning towards taking a chance and going with the second option. I don’t want to be looking back in 30 years and saying to myself, “You know, if only I’d made a less interesting version of this film, I might have slightly more money in the bank!”
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 Josh Brandon.
Josh Brandon is an Australian/Canadian filmmaker, best known for his television writing, including work on the SyFy series Haven and FOX’s Houdini & Doyle. He made his feature writing/directorial debut with the psychological drama A Thousand Little Cuts out on Showtime. He’s authored Boldly Go by William Shatner out in October 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 grew up in Sydney, Australia. I’m happy to dispense with all the cliches now, so let’s throw another shrimp on the barbie, that Dingo’s got your baby, and that’s not a knife, THIS is a knife!
From a very young age, I loved hearing and telling stories. My Dad used to improvise the adventures of Jeremy the Coin-Operated Horse to tuck me in at night, and from the moment we had a camcorder in the house, I was invariably using it to film some sort of little home movie. Whatever path my life would take, I knew it would involve telling stories in some fashion or another. I was big into drama at school, often performing in plays and directing 12 Angry Men in my last year.
My ultimate goal became film & TV, but there wasn’t much of an industry in Australia at the time. When I grew up, we had three networks and the Number 1 show was a lifestyle and gardening program! So I did the next best thing and with my cousin Steven, got into the theatre scene. I produced and directed a number of independent productions. Our specialty was often bringing hit US shows to Sydney for the first time. We produced the Sydney premiere of I Love You, You’re Perfect… Now Change!, Urinetown: The Musical, Tick, tick… Boom! and staged productions of other hit shows like Closer, Rent (for which I won a directing award), Noises Off, and Lend Me a Tenor.
Can you share a story with us about what brought you to this specific career path?
You never know who you’re going to meet, how, and where. I had joined my local gym and was playing in a racquetball tournament. I became friendly with a fellow who mentioned he was an indie producer/writer. He invited me to a random party at his house, at which I met an exec whose roommate was about to leave Sony and start his own management company. We were introduced, he read our material, and suddenly we had representation. I was with that manager for 9 years and owe him a great deal, and it all started because of a random meeting on a racquetball court! That’s what this business is like, I suppose.
Can you share the funniest or most interesting story that occurred to you in the course of your filmmaking career?
The funniest thing was probably when I was making A Thousand Little Cuts. We were shooting at a restaurant location in Guthrie, Oklahoma. The restaurant owner had played a bit of hardball with us in the negotiations, even though ‘low budget’ would have been a charitable way to describe the amount of money we had for locations. We got a deal and shot the scene, which went really well. What I learned later was that the restaurant owner was not the building owner. The building owner had no idea what was going on and got a call from a friend who told him, “Hey, there are film trucks at your building.” He came in hot ready to shut the whole thing down, but fortunately recognized one of our producers and they were able to sort it out. They were very clever not to tell me about any of this until the scene was finished.
Who are some of the most interesting people you have interacted with? What was that like? Do you have any stories?
I think the coolest thing that ever happened to me was meeting Quentin Tarantino. Randomly, he was also at my gym playing racquetball. Aside from being a fan of his work, I actually adapted and staged a production of Pulp Fiction in the theatre while I was in college, and I had always dreamed of showing him the footage and convincing him to mount it for Broadway. But I thought I’d play it cool. I walked up and said, “Hi, sorry to bother you.” He got this look on his face like, “Yes, it’s me. Okay, you can come and say hi.” But instead, I played it super cool and said, “Do you guys want to play doubles?” His eyes lit up. He was so thrilled not to be treated like a celebrity. He was really flattered and said he’d play with us once he got better. Sadly, he wasn’t very good and gave up on the sport pretty quickly.
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?
There are so many, but I want to single out Robert Duncan McNeill. Most folks would know him as Lt. Tom Paris from Star Trek: Voyager, but he has since become one of the best TV producer/directors in Hollywood. When I was in LA in 2000 as a guest of my cousin, writer/director Peter Foldy (and now my producing partner!) was friends with a makeup artist on Voyager, who offered to give us a tour of the sets. I met Robbie very briefly, and told him of my future aspirations in the business. He was incredibly nice and generous, and offered to help if he could, should I ever make the move. Eight years later, I discovered his phone number on a crew list while working at WB. I called him and he invited me to his office at NBC’s Chuck. He was good to his word, introducing me to his agent, who became my agent, and helped launch my career. Robbie and I are still close to this day.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
I’ve heard this a bunch and it remains very true to me: “Invest in people, not ideas.” I feel that if you surround yourself with good, honest people who want to do a good job, you can figure everything else out.
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 essential. If our goal is to tell the most interesting stories (and it should be), it makes sense to seek them out everywhere. There are so many unique and fascinating perspectives out there, and we limit ourselves if we just go with the same viewpoints we’re used to. In many ways, my film and TV education started with Star Trek. In addition to its optimistic vision of a better future, one of the philosophies introduced in the series was “IDIC” — Infinite Diversity in Infinite Combinations. The idea that the best version of humanity was one that not just tolerated, but embraced every different perspective out there, was very moving to me. In terms of our culture, having more voices helps us in a number of ways. First, it exposes us to viewpoints we may not have considered, and cultures we may not have understood; second, it brings us all closer together so we can learn from each other; third, and by no means last, it reminds us of our shared humanity and challenges us not to be strangers. Things as simple as seeing mixed race couples (which I’ve learned is far more prevalent in some countries than others) or gay or trans or gender non-binary characters represented regularly helps move us forward in terms of celebrating and loving each other across all aspects of our humanity.
What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now?
I just completed post on my second directorial effort, Black Bags starring Laura Vandervoort and Olesya Rulin, and I’m hoping it’ll be out later this year or early next year. The biggest thing I can tell you about is my book with the one and only William Shatner. It is a collection of essays about his life and philosophies, and essentially what keeps him going so strong at the ripe age of 91. It is called BOLDLY GO and comes out from all booksellers on October 4th.
Which aspect of your work makes you most proud? Can you explain or give a story?
A Thousand Little Cuts has a very strong story and message about confronting domestic abuse, and in particular trying to stop it in its tracks early on, by recognizing that everything from disrespectful behaviour to financial control to yelling is all a slippery slope to violence. I made that film for men. I am very proud of that film and I hope that it challenges more of us to have conversations with each other about how we have unknowingly been abusive in our relationships, and to address our behavior before it gets worse. I was also thrilled to be able to work with so many women in leadership positions when we made it, and to get guidance and advice from domestic abuse survivors (many of whom are featured in one of the film’s scenes) to make sure this story was told properly.
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.
1) Be True to Your Values. If you have a point of view in your writing, share it. Worst that can happen is someone doesn’t respond to it, but someone else might. There is room for creative compromise, but you don’t want to water down your vision to an extent that you can’t recognize it. I’m going through something like this right now on a certain project, in which I could play the safe route and change the script and make a more sanitized version of it that may have an easier time selling. On the other hand, I could put my money where my mouth is and make the version I really want to make. I’m leaning towards taking a chance and going with the second option. I don’t want to be looking back in 30 years and saying to myself, “You know, if only I’d made a less interesting version of this film, I might have slightly more money in the bank!”
2) If You’re Not Swimming, You’re Drowning. After Houdini & Doyle was cancelled, I spent three years developing projects that ultimately didn’t go anywhere. I should have also been making something. I wrote and directed my first shot film, Alexa (www.alexaknowsall.com) in 2019 and it came out in 2020. I could have and should have just got some friends together and started making my own projects much earlier. If you’re not working on something, it’s easy to lose sight of your goals, and also for potential partners and producers to think you’re not really “in the business” anymore. Make something. Just keep creating.
3) Listen to people who want to say ‘Yes’. There are so many friends and colleagues who will tell you things are too hard, who will come up with reasons you shouldn’t do something. You can — and must — be realistic about the viability of a project, and you don’t want to waste money, but listen to the positive folks and find ways to get to “Yes,” rather than the nay-sayers who won’t help or inspire you to create.
4)… on the other hand, take feedback and implement it! I remember when I wrote my first screenplay. I was 15. I wrote a convoluted film about a bunch of high schoolers trying to navigate school and love and life. I was so thrilled to have actually written over 100 pages! I gave it to my English teacher, who graciously agreed to read it. When I handed him the script, he said, “In 25 words or less, what is the film about?” I stood there like a stunned mullet (that’s the Australian version of “deer in the headlights.”) I realized that after all that work, I didn’t have a handle on what my story was about. Luckily, it was just my first effort, and my teacher gave me some very helpful feedback and a book on screenplay structure. But I always remembered the feeling that I’d labored for months only to not have produced the masterpiece I’d hoped for.
5) Value Everyone All the Time. And for the right reasons, I might add. Some folks will tell you “Be kind to people on their way up; you’ll meet them on your way down.” Well, sure, but just be a good person is a perfectly good way to approach things, too. Everyone is fighting their own battles and trying to do a good job, but it’s easy to take folks for granted, when all anyone really wants is respect and acknowledgement.
I remember when we were making Black Bags, we were coming up on lunch but I wanted to ask for a few minutes of “grace” from the crew so we could finish our current set-up before taking the lunch break. In order to get grace, every crew member has to agree. The word went around and most folks were saying yes, and then a very senior member of the crew said “No.” The rest of the crew took their word from him, and we had to stop shooting and go to lunch. I approached the crew member and said, “Hey, I’d love to know if there’s been an issue and what I can do to take care of it.” He very politely explained that the crew had been pushed into overtime on a couple of shooting days to pack up their equipment, and while they had been paid a meal penalty, what they actually wanted was a meal. They were hungry and tired and wanted to eat, not to be paid for not eating.
It had all been built on an assumption from the producers that the crew would probably prefer to take a meal penalty and pack up quickly, rather than stop for a meal, then pack up. This assumption was incorrect. So I made a commitment — any and all overtime would be met with the appropriate extra meal. The crew agreed and although we only had to ask for grace one or two more times on the shoot, they agreed without hesitation. You have to remember to value people and to try to understand their point of view. And when you don’t know their point of view, ask. And always with respect.
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?
It’s a balance. You can’t make art without finance, and you can’t get finance without catering to the needs of those who are providing the money. In my producing career, I’ve been able to strike a balance in which we make certain genres of films because we know our distributors will buy them, and then I try to use my earnings from those films to help finance my more personal films. Give a little, get a little. It never hurts to get paid, especially if you can parlay that into something that means a lot to you. I dislike when some artists look down on others for making something mainstream or what they might consider low-brow. Just make films and give your audience what they want; if you do that enough, you will find enough good will to be able to make your passion projects as well.
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. 🙂
Am I? Haha. If I could, I would try to get everyone to abide by the old rule of “Don’t say something online that you wouldn’t say to someone’s face.”
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’m a big fan of Barbara Corcoran’s. She was diagnosed as dyslexic and no one gave her a chance, but with determination and belief in herself and others, she became a powerful mogul and she has not lost the ability to care about people on the way up. She’s truly inspirational and also looks like she’s a lot of fun to hang out with.
On the whole, I just wish I could talk to the studio heads who green light films and convince them of my ‘radical’ idea: next time you’re about to green-light a $100m movie, don’t do it. Green-light one hundred $1m movies instead and see what happens. Give filmmakers a chance to make films. Bigger doesn’t always equal better.
How can our readers further follow you online?
I’m fairly active on Twitter at @THEjoshbrandon — I say “THE” as there’s another Josh Brandon out there, and he and I don’t exactly work in the same industry. I’ll let your readers discover the rest for themselves.
Thank you so much! We wish you continued success!
Josh Brandon: 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.