Robert Livings: 5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me When I First Became A Filmmaker

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Just Make Movies — There is so much talk in film school about writing draft after draft after draft of a script until it is ready to shoot. While this is true, a script shouldn’t be shot until it is ready, this mentality can often lead to films simply never getting made. If you’re shooting something for no money (or a small amount of your own), you can always adjust and pivot as you go. The best way to learn is by doing, and if you end up not making a great film, you will still learn so much from the process. Maybe that next film will be your great film.

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 Robert Livings.

Robert Livings is from Perth, Western Australia where he attended film school, before going on to produce a large number of high profile music videos for bands including San Cisco, Northlane and Make Them Suffer. In 2017 Robert directed his first two feature-films back to back in Western Australia, before moving to Sacramento California. Here he met Randy Nundlall Jr, who he has now co-directed two features with; The Other Girl and Infrared. Robert is currently directing his third film with Randy, a Christmas Horror Anthology starring Greg Sestero, Vernon Wells, Felissa Rose and Dave Sheridan.

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 Perth, Western Australia, raised on a healthy dose of British TV shows and movies due to my parents being from England. I spent the majority of my childhood playing soccer or cricket with friends, and renting movies from the video store. I was an outdoors kid, but I had an obsession with movies so once it was dark out I’d spend hours with the weekly television guide, programming the VCR to record the movies I wanted to watch that were on way past my bedtime (this was also a great way to bypass the rules of what I wasn’t allowed to watch that were set by my parents. Programming recordings meant that, when I was twelve years old, they had no idea if I had preset a film like From Dusk Til Dawn to tape while I was asleep). My Dad is really into comedies, and my Mum (Mom) has always enjoyed a good horror, so I like to think that they shaped the types of films I have gone on to make.

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

I had always wanted to work in a video store, but I don’t think I ever thought past that as a teenager. Honestly, because I lived in Western Australia, being a filmmaker wasn’t even something that had crossed my mind as a career-path option until my mid-teens. It came after seeing Donnie Darko and learning that Richard Kelly was only 25 years old when he began filming his debut. I instantly thought, “If he can do that, maybe I can too.” So I told my parents that I wanted to get serious about making films (which is the same as saying, “Hey, I’m going to go into an industry where it’s very likely I’ll never make any money and have to sleep on your couch on multiple occasions when I can’t afford rent.”). Thankfully, they were very supportive, and it wasn’t long before my Dad bought me my first mini-dv camcorder.

I just want to give a big shout out to Joy at Blockbuster, Ocean Reef (now closed) for allowing me to achieve my teenage dream of working in a video store during my later high school years!

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

In the film I co-directed with Randy prior to making Infrared, there is a scene that involves a huge argument between a couple that contains a lot of swearing and some pretty horrible revelations of infidelity. We filmed this scene with actors who are a real life couple, and we filmed the scene in their actual apartment. This was a very loud scene being filmed in a room with a very thin wall adjoining the neighbor’s apartment. This scene was improvised and for the whole first take I became increasingly more nervous as the dialogue became more incriminating and the volume increased, and when we called cut I asked with genuine concern, “should we let your neighbors know before we do another take that this isn’t real?” And their response was a very dry, “Nah, everyone’s used to hearing this kind of thing in this apartment complex”.

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

I’ve been lucky enough to work with some amazing actors throughout my career, so it’s hard to pinpoint one. I will say that I don’t think I’ve ever been as surprised by an actor as I was with Greg Sestero when he showed up for his first day on Infrared. Due to the way Randy and I work, by writing outlines but not giving the actors dialogue, we leave a lot of character decisions up to our cast. While we had spoken with Greg on several occasions prior to filming, we had no idea how much weird and wonderful stuff he had hidden up his sleeve. After his first take, everyone just looked at each other and there was this sort of acknowledgement of, “I think we have something pretty damn cool here.”

Jerry Lewis would be the other name on my list. I used to work for the Tennessee Performing Arts Center (TPAC), and was lucky enough to spend a couple of weeks filming Jerry while he was in town co-directing the stage musical version of The Nutty Professor prior to its release. It was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to get to watch the Hollywood legend directing actors in-person.

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?

It might sound cliche, but I’m going to go with my wife on this one (sorry Randy!). Sierra is my rock. She keeps me grounded, and I could not ask for a more supportive partner. As anyone who is married to (or who lives with) a filmmaker knows, we can consistently be lost in our own heads and struggle to take a moment to ourselves. Sierra supports my projects, but is also not afraid to let me know when I look exhausted and need to step away for the sake of mental health. She knows me better than anyone, and I am so grateful to have her by my side…. She’s also a kick-ass costume and set designer, so that helps too!

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

When I was at film school, my producing lecturer pulled me aside because he noticed that I was always trying to fix things, or help out with situations that didn’t involve me on-set. He basically said, “this goes with real life too, but I’m speaking to you from a filmmaking perspective; don’t get involved in other people’s problems that don’t involve you. All it will do is create more drama on-set, and the less drama you create on-set, the more likely you are to continue getting work”. In the film world, this is essentially him saying, “stay in your lane”, and while as an indie filmmaker you might be working in multiple lanes, it’s good to know what your individual goals are, and how to not overstep and upset others in your close-working family.

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?

  1. Diversity is so important in film and television because everybody wants to see someone they can personally relate to on the screen (or behind the camera). The industry is changing fast and making great strides, but it’s still only at the starting line. As someone who works at a film school for adults with developmental disabilities, it’s great to see so many characters appearing on-screen who are written as having a disability, being played by actors with disabilities.
  2. Diverse voices leads to diverse stories. We are in a time of remakes and reboots, but with the film and television industry being open to new stories from perspectives we haven’t seen yet, we open up the possibilities for endless original storytelling.
  3. More diversity in the stories we see, and children grow up watching, could lead to positive social change and greater acceptance. We are all influenced at some point about what we see on film and television, so this can only lead to positive change.

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

My co-director Randy and I are currently deep into production on a Christmas horror anthology film. We have filmed four of the five sections (including the wraparound story) and are scheduled to shoot the final part in early August. While I can’t share too much information about it at this point as it hasn’t been announced, I can say that Greg Sestero is back, and we have also stacked the cast with some other cult-horror film favorites.

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

I’m just proud that I’m 33 and still making movies. There’s only a few of us left from my graduating classes (I went to two separate film schools) that are still actively working within the film industry, and even then we’re still mostly grinding it out. I feel that just finishing each new project deserves some sort of quiet celebration dance.

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.

  1. Just Make Movies — There is so much talk in film school about writing draft after draft after draft of a script until it is ready to shoot. While this is true, a script shouldn’t be shot until it is ready, this mentality can often lead to films simply never getting made. If you’re shooting something for no money (or a small amount of your own), you can always adjust and pivot as you go. The best way to learn is by doing, and if you end up not making a great film, you will still learn so much from the process. Maybe that next film will be your great film.
  2. You Don’t Need Money to Make a Movie — Another thing that holds filmmakers up is this idea of, “I need funding”. I was like this for a long time, and while it’s great to have a budget, all you need to do is get together another group of creatives as eager to make something as you are, and you can get it done. My first feature, Two People was shot for less than $200aud by a small group of filmmakers and actors who just wanted to make something. It was a fantastic experience, and it’s what inspired us to make our next film.
  3. Invest in Glass Not Camera Bodies — This only applies to cinematographers or filmmakers who want to own their own equipment. Buy lenses as you’ll have them forever (or at least a long time). A lot of young filmmakers get caught up in wanting the latest camera body, and while it’s great to have a state of the art camera, technology ages fast. If you’re looking to future-proof your equipment, get yourself some solid prime and cine-zoom lenses, and then just rent cameras for your shoot. Each film I have shot has had different camera requirements, so even if at that point I owned a new camera body, I haven’t necessarily used it.
  4. Sound is the Most Important Thing — From a technical perspective, you have to have good sound. An audience can forgive subpar visuals, but if the audio isn’t clean and consistent, you’re going to lose them fast. Either purchase some decent sound equipment (and learn how to use it), or make room in your budget for a reliable sound person.
  5. Make Horror Films — Horror films are the most fun to make. I’ve enjoyed the set of every film I have directed or co-directed, but the horror films are always the ones where everyone walks away with a big smile. There’s something about the atmosphere on-set that can’t be matched. Also, horror fans are simply some of the best humans you’ll meet. They’re so kind and supportive, and will keep you just wanting to make more horror films.

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?

From experience, I’ve learned that making a film has to be about creating something entertaining for an audience. Naturally there’s an artistic vision going into directing any project, but if nobody’s going to watch it, it’s a lot of work for very little pay off.

Prior to making Infrared, Randy and I directed a film called The Other Girl, that we’re both very proud of. This is a film that very few people have seen. On reflecting as to why nobody saw it (other than the fact that we made a decision to shoot on MiniDV in 2020), we now know that our target audience was very narrow. We made an early-mid 2000’s style mumblecore film over a decade after they were popular. We weren’t thinking about the audience of ‘now’.

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. 🙂

It sounds so simple, and it definitely shouldn’t require a movement, but if I could influence everyone just to be kinder to each other, the amount of good that kindness would lead to would be unmeasurable.

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. 🙂

For me it would have to be Mark Duplass. The Puffy Chair changed how I saw what filmmaking could be, leading me obsessively down a rabbit hole of viewing DIY mumblecore films in the mid 2000’s, and learning about how all these young filmmakers were able to pull off such amazing films on shoestring budgets. Since then I’ve followed his career closely, and am in admiration of how much he and his brother do to support up and coming filmmakers with their production company.

How can our readers further follow you online?

You can find me on instagram @robertlivings

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

Robert Livings: 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.