Photo by Geno Nicholas.
Directing actress Kipleigh Brown in the feature film Yesterday Was a Lie.
James Kerwin is a standout filmmaker, director, writer, producer, editor and public speaker whose projects have earned countless awards and prizes. Critics who have reviewed his work have praised him as an innovator and risk taker, describing his approach as imaginative and inspired. James was named Best Director and Best Screenwriter by New York Visionfest for Yesterday Was a Lie, his feature film debut from Entertainment One.
Fans of the Star Trek franchise are likely familiar with Kerwin’s award-winning work on Star Trek Continues, where he served as a writer and director on several of the web series’ most memorable episodes. An upcoming project, When the Train Stops, has several well-known Star Trek alumni in the cast as well, including actors John de Lancie and Michael Forest, who also appeared in Star Trek Continues.
In addition to his many creative endeavors, Kerwin gives back to the community through his involvement with the annual Young Playwrights Festival at the Blank Theatre Company in Los Angeles. The nationwide competition gives aspiring playwrights, ages 9 to 19, an opportunity to see their vision come to life on stage in a professional production featuring known actors from film, television and theatre. The 2018 competition is currently accepting submissions through March 15.
Photo by Josh Blakeslee.
Director James Kerwin discusses a scene with actress Kipleigh Brown in the feature film Yesterday Was a Lie.
Tell me a little bit about your background. Where did you grow up and how did you get interested in film making?
I grew up in St. Louis, Missouri. I was always drawn to storytelling. I had a second-grade teacher who encouraged me to write, and write books, as much as I could. I found myself doing that a lot. I was kind of bored in school. I was always put in the more advanced programs and pulled out of classes to do more advanced things. But I liked doing my own thing – writing books and telling stories.
I became fascinated with science fiction as well, in large part due to my father’s influence on me. He introduced me to television series like Dr. Who and Star Trek at an early age. I found the concepts in science fiction to be very compelling, as far as the questions it could pose that maybe another genre couldn’t quite pose. I remember my father taking me to see a re-release of the film 2001 when I was quite young. I didn’t understand it all, but I had a great conversation with him and my mom afterwards about what it all meant and, to me, that was very compelling.
As I moved into junior high and high school, people started getting home video cameras and I found myself shifting more towards putting things on camera as opposed to paper. I realized within a few years that directing was kind of my thing. I really liked it. I was into acting a lot, too – I was in theater in high school and college, and after college as well – but I wanted to be the person behind the camera. I didn’t want to be told what to do – I wanted to be telling the actors what to do. I thought that directing was right for me. Film is an art form that combines so many other different art forms. It’s not only writing – it’s visual storytelling, music, editing, shot composition, lighting, sound – all these different art forms combined into one, and that just fascinated me.
Going into college, I actually started out doing a double major in astrophysics and film directing, because I wasn’t quite sure which of the two I wanted to do. But, I realized pretty quickly in school that I’d basically be in college until I was, like, 31 to major in both of those and the advanced degrees you need in astrophysics, so I decided to focus on film directing.
If you had pursued astrophysics, what were you hoping to do with that degree?
I was equally fascinated by the two disciplines, but I honestly did not know if I wanted to be, professionally, a film director or a cosmologist. I loved them both and that’s why I started a degree in both. But, getting into them, I realized that film was much more my focus and I could explore some of these interesting questions about the nature of the universe and so forth that I’m fascinated by in cosmology; I could explore some of those through storytelling. I have a minor degree in astrophysics – I have enough credits for that – but I ended up focusing on film directing.
How do you describe what you currently do for your career? Are you primarily a film director? I also saw the title filmmaker and I am not sure how that is different or which title better describes you.
That’s an interesting question. Directing is a specific discipline within film. There are different ways of approaching directing and there are different kinds of directors. There are film and television directors who are basically directors for hire – somebody else develops the project, writes the script, chooses the script, puts together the team – and then they’re hired to direct that film. That is very common in television. In fact, most television is like that, though there are some exceptions – Mr. Robot is an exception – but, on most television shows, the people who create and write and run the show are the producers and the writers. They cast it, they assemble the team, and then they hire directors for individual episodes, and there are some films like that as well.
The terms can be applied interchangeably, but I think people use the word filmmaker more to describe people who come up with their own projects – incubate them, so to speak – maybe write them or bring people on to write them together, so it’s more an auteur-based theory of filmmaking where there is one person, the director, who creates the project. I like doing that. Most of the stuff I’ve done hasn’t been for hire – I have done that – but most of it has been projects that I originated myself.
You talked about the fact that you have some experience as an actor. Do you think a lot of directors begin as actors and then, like you, find that they have more influence or creative control behind the scenes? How has it helped you as a director to know what it’s like on both sides of the camera?
There are directors who have acting backgrounds and there are professional actors who transition into directing. You see that happening with everyone from huge actors like Mel Gibson to actors who just kind of dabble in acting and find their way into directing. But, there are plenty of directors who don’t have an acting background.
I think it’s helpful to have some acting training. Acting is a tough job – it really is. It’s so hard to be both present in the moment as the character you’re playing and also be on point with your craft – especially in film and television, where you’re not only playing the role, you’re also having to cut at a certain point, hold, maintain that emotional state for however long it takes to set up the next shot or adjust the lighting, and then jump right back into it at a moment’s notice. It’s a very difficult craft and I have a super amount of respect for actors.
I do think having some training as an actor helps you as a director, because it helps you understand just how hard it is to act and to respect that and give the actors their space when they need it -- maybe not call ‘action’ if you sense that an actor needs to take a moment – and having that sixth sense about where the actor is in their process helps. It also helps as far as being able to talk to them and communicate with them.
Directors shouldn’t be acting coaches. I don’t think it’s the job of a director to coach an actor through a performance – that’s why you cast that actor, because you expect them to bring their performance to the table. But, I do think, if they’re delivering something that’s not quite working in the overall story, having the vocabulary to communicate with them in a way that works is important. Even if you weren’t an actor, I think having some degree of acting training helps a director.
You have an impressive list of awards that you’ve won for projects you’ve been part of and a lot of glowing reviews and high praise of your work. What is it that people see in your work or your approach to filmmaking that seems to resonate with critics as well as fans?
When I’m behind the camera, all I can do is my best. To me, that means creating content that I would like and also, very importantly, putting myself in the place of the audience – the audience that I know is probably going to watch this particular film or this series or this play – the audience that the show is geared towards; putting myself in their place and asking myself, “How is this going to play?” If I’m sitting in the audience watching this, how does this play? How do I feel about this? Is this entertaining? Does this make me ask interesting questions? Is it poignant?
I’m not creating content that’s playing to huge audiences. Frankly, that doesn’t interest me that much. I like creating content that’s a little more targeted and, in most of the stuff I’ve done, I think I have done that. I like thoughtful process. I like things that make you think. Like I said, one of the seminally important pieces of art that I saw growing up was the film 2001, which is one of the most thoughtful, thought-provoking movies ever. It stays with you forever and makes you question the nature of reality. Those kinds of fundamental questions inspire me and I think that inspires me to create the work which, therefore, inspires those questions in others.
I did a film for Entertainment One a few years ago called Yesterday Was a Lie, which is a science fiction noir film, and it was not made with the intention of playing in megaplexes. It had a short theatrical release and then went to DVD and home video and so forth. It has a very cult following and that is kind of what I was looking for – people who want to ask these kinds of questions about the nature of time and reality and love and consciousness and getting into that kind of detail.
In projects that I’ve done since then, for example Star Trek Continues, that’s a targeted audience. The entire world doesn’t want to watch the original series continued, but there is a very, very strong and vocal group of people who do. So, you create it and give them what they’re looking for. You feed their appetite for that and ask the questions and make them think in the process. I guess – I hope – I’m doing a good job of that. I think from the responses we’ve gotten from people and from critics that I am, and I’m very humbled and grateful for that.
Photo by Josh Blakeslee.
Directing Kipleigh Brown (left) and Chase Masterson (center) in the feature film Yesterday Was a Lie.
You mentioned that you do a lot of indie films that are not intended for huge audiences. Have you worked on more mainstream projects? How has the technology that is available today to share films online allowed the current generation of filmmakers to pursue projects that might not have a huge budget and might not be intended for mass commercial distribution?
I primarily work in independent film. The feature I did for Entertainment One actually started as an independent film before it was acquired by the studio and put out there, so that was a bit more of a commercial release, but it still had its heart in indie filmmaking.
The technology we have today is a double-edged sword. Just in the past 15 years, the technology of digital filmmaking – high definition and ultra-high definition cameras – allows you to create shorts or features or web series that you would never be able to before 2002, because of the sheer cost of film stock, processing, development, transferring, editing, finishing – all of that. Massive advances have been made in digital editing as well — the big Final Cut Pro revolution that happened in the mid-2000s — with Premiere and DaVinci and so forth. All of these tools are now available to so many more people at so much of a lower cost than they were back then.
We’re able to make films at a much more financially feasible level now, but we’re also able to make them more malleable. In a way, I do miss film – I miss shooting on 35mm film and I know a lot of people do, because it does have a certain feel to it – but shooting things digitally and finishing them digitally allows you so much creative freedom that I can’t imagine going back to 35mm. I know there are some directors who swear by it and refuse to ever change it and I am not judging them for that at all, but I love the malleability of modern filmmaking tools.
It is a double-edge sword because, with the ease of access to it, there are a lot of people who just feel like, “Oh, I’m a filmmaker now. I can just grab a camera and get Adobe Premiere and start putting movies on YouTube.” For every successful person who does that, there are a million more who crash and burn, and I think there is a reason behind that. Filmmaking is a very, very complicated art, science and craft, just like anything is. I’m not saying that you have to go to film school and study it formally – although I do think that helps a lot, frankly – but jumping into it head first without any type of formal knowledge or training or study of the filmmaking process can backfire. There are some people with no formal film training who pick up a camera and make something beautiful – like Primer, for example, like Shane Carruth. But, for every one of those, there are so many that aren’t.
In a weird way, back when everything was shot on film and cost a fortune to make, that was a gatekeeper in a sense. Now, there is no gatekeeper any more – anyone can do it. I’m not trying to discourage anyone from going into this – quite the contrary, actually. But, if you do want to pick up a reasonably priced digital film camera and editing system and try to make your own films, do your homework first. That’s the most important thing. Read everything you can about it, study films, study the craft and the art of filmmaking. Spend some time on film sets and observe what the process is like. Don’t just jump into it head first and expect to create great results.
We have experienced a market flooding of independent films that happened in the late part of the first decade of the 2000s, where the independent films became so easy to make that the market was just flooded with them and distributors were not – there were simply too many films to keep up with. You can always self-distribute, but you’re never going to get the market share if you do that. You’re never going to make a huge profit, if any profit at all, frankly, if you do that. There’s so much competition out there.
My advice to young filmmakers who are trying to get into this is to do your homework, study the craft, and do something unique, something different from everybody else. Do something that has an audience that you feel will respond well to whatever it is you feel you have to say.
Photo by Annie McGrath.
At the Blank Theatre Company's "Young Playwrights Festival" from left; Luke Benward, Dana Hensler, Nick Cardiff, Jennifer Stone, and James Kerwin.
Tell me about your involvement with the Young Playwrights Festival. It seems like a great opportunity for students interested in theater, especially given the decrease in arts funding in many public schools.
I don’t do that much theater any more, but I do direct for Daniel Henning’s theater company, the Blank Theatre Company. It’s a great theater company that Noah Wyle was involved in as a producer for many years. Every summer, we do a festival called the Young Playwrights Festival. It’s an opportunity for writers around the country who are under the age of 20 to submit one-act plays. We select about 12 plays that are mounted over the course of four weeks to audiences here in Los Angeles at various venues. The last few years, it’s been at the Stella Adler Theatre, which is a great theater here in Hollywood. Professional directors are brought on board, professional actors from television, film and theater, and these youngsters are flown out and given the opportunity to watch their plays put on by professionals.
We mentor them and work with them as they’re developing their plays in the weeks of rehearsal leading up to the play. It’s a great way to inspire these kids to keep writing. Many of them have gone on to have very lucrative careers as writers in theater, television and film. It’s a great way to pass it on.
Photo by Annie McGrath.
Actors Luke Benward (left) and Jennifer Stone (right) at the Blank Theatre Company's "Young Playwrights Festival" in Los Angeles, California.
(End, Part 1)
About James Kerwin: A filmmaker, director, writer and producer, Kerwin is a member of Mensa, and is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts. Discover more about James at his website www.JamesKerwin.com and Facebook page. Find out more about The Blank Theatre's Young Playwrights Festival at the website and Facebook page.