Posts Tagged ‘phillip guthrie’

Fusion International Film Festivals Interview with Steven Fischer

August 16, 2019

Thank you, Dan Hickford and The Fusion International Film Festivals, for the honor of being the inaugural subject of The Green Room!

As part of our ever growing platform of content we wanted to add a new dimension, whereby we explore professionals within the industry from across the world that may not be able to join us at our festivals but still have a wonderful story to tell.

First up is one of our newest Jury Members Steven Fischer.  Festival Co-Director Dan Hickford is asking the questions!

DAN HICKFORD: Steven you are certainly a man of many talents but it all had to start somewhere! Your career began at 17…but when did you first pick up a pencil and begin drawing?
STEVEN FISCHER: Thank you. I created my first cartoon book at age 6 or 7. It was a take-off on the Peanuts characters. Age 6, 7 (laughs). You can imagine what it looks like: typing paper sandwiched between cardboard covers. Stapled. I still have it.

DH: And did you know from that moment what your path might be?
SF: Not consciously at first, but cartoons were a constant my whole childhood. I took solace in cartooning after a hard day at school dealing with all the bullies. And it’s where I would go simply for the joy of having a fanciful adventure. I remember at 17 a realization took over, the realization that the routine of school was ending and that I might actually have to do something with my life. That, combined with my dissatisfaction with what I saw as society’s poor values and mixed up priorities, compelled me to want to contribute to something uplifting. And with that I gravitated to my strengths and interests which was cartoons.

DH: As a film festival we get to see so many different types of films with many being documentaries! You’re own project, ‘Old School New School,’ was very personal to you. How do you feel about it when you look back now, did you get the truth and honesty you were looking for?
SF: I think we did. Like many people, I would talk about big ideas with friends over coffee. I always thought it would be great to record those private conversations which were so real and honest. One of the main challenges of the movie was to see if I could make a conversation-driven movie with no b-roll interesting. I wanted the discussion in the spotlight. It’s challenging enough to make a movie that keeps an audience engaged, now I’m throwing into the mix an intellectual discourse with no visual flash and glitter. It was tough.

DH: What inspired you?
SF: I was inspired by Louis Malle’s Place de la Republique and Jon Fauer’s courageous and beautifully photographed Cinematographer Style which is also an interview-only movie. We intentionally used a minimal crew at each location, sometimes just three of us. The DPs (Chris Cassidy, Phil Rosensteel, and Scott Uhlfelder) were challenged to use only available light. We used no production lights except on my in-studio hosted segments. No make up. No boom mike. And in most cases no tripods. We aimed to be as unobtrusive as possible in efforts to capture the most real and honest conversation. Of course we know that’s impossible. You know you’re being recorded, you know this is a movie, you know it will be public. You’ll never capture a subject completely unguarded. But still, we set the conditions as best we could so the subjects could be uninhibited, and I think we captured some essential truths.

DH: Do you think you’d get the same response today?
SF: I think so. Sure. Maybe even more. Is it too naïve to say that society is more conditioned to cameras out and recording? How many young people today are, in a sense, growing up on-camera? I don’t know if that’s a good thing or not. But I’ll tell you one thing, to this day I still hear from people thanking me for Old School New School. And the most common response is: “This is just what I needed and wasn’t getting.” People want to talk about big ideas. Why are we here? Who am I? How can I tap into my full potential? And they’re just not getting it. And I think it’s because way too many of us live on the surface of life and never take the effort to search for understanding. That’s why I make movies. That’s why I tell stories, to search for understanding.

DH: Talk to us about Steve & Bluey?
SF: They’re doing great! They’ve been my life for my entire life. The first published production was their comic strip in 1990, but I’ve been writing Steve & Bluey stories since 1981.

DH: How do you describe them?
SF: Steve and Bluey are a modern day comedy team and they educate through entertainment, you know? Not educate in a formal sense, but through example… by celebrating the child within and using their life as cartoon entertainers to reflect on who we are and why people do what they do. It goes back to me at age 17, dissatisfied with society’s priorities and wondering why the class bully had to be so cruel.

We have a strong connection to London, as you know. In the 1990s we lived there and were guided by producer Steve Melendez at Melendez Films, back then on Gresse Street. We spent 12 years searching for a commission for a fully animated TV series, and I am forever grateful to the Melendez family for their generosity and support serving as co-producer of the effort. There were a few close calls, but we never got the big commission; however, in the U.S., Phillip Guthrie at TCI Communications of Baltimore accepted the show in 1996 and we produced a series of animatics which ran as interstitials for three years on TCI TV. A really good introduction to Steve & Bluey is the book The Wonderful, Happy, Cartoony World of Steve & Bluey, because the book take us with such intimacy into their professional and private lives.

DH: You promoted that book with an amazing World tour, didn’t you?
SF: The 2014 re-release we did. The original was released in 2001, 2002. But I re-vamped the book — which is a collection of behind-the-scenes adventures about life in animated show business — and, yes, the tour took me across the U.S., Puerto Rico, England, Hungary, the Middle East, Asia, Southeast Asia. I was invited as a special guest speaker aboard Cunard’s Queen Mary 2 and twice aboard an ultra luxury mega yacht called SeaDream for Transatlantic crossings. That was surreal! Like Cinderella at the ball. I spent years promoting it with lectures on the nature of creativity and with cartoon storytelling workshops. In fact I’m still promoting. I’m in discussion now with the City of Paducah for a residency as part of their UNESCO Creative Cities network connection.

DH: Director, Producer, Actor, Editor, Writer, Cinematographer, Animator…you do a lot!! Above animation which role do you enjoy the most?
SF: I don’t like it, this slash title world in which we live. But when you live the life of a working artist, being a Jack-of-all-trades can help… but I do feel I’m missing out on the rewards one gets from mastering one role. I try hard to simply be a good storyteller. If there’s one common denominator in all those titles it’s telling a story. Writer, I guess then would be the role I enjoy most. And producing. I love the team work, you know, the camaraderie, the coming together of many talents for a common goal. As aggravating as the sour apples in a group can be, collaborating with the good people and seeing an idea brought to life energizes me and brings so much pleasure. I’m still in love with it.

DH: You’re a working artist in perhaps the hardest industry in the world! Would you change anything?
SF: Ha! “Change anything.” About the world? About the industry? Or about being a working artist?

DH: Your choice.
SF: You know, I could be Zen about this and say, “Everything is happening as it should.”  I think the biggest lessons I’ve learned about being a working artist have to do with coming to terms with the words “compromise” and “control”, about the benefits of tenacity, and, as obvious as it sounds, of having something to say and using the arts to search for understanding. I don’t know if I’d phrase it as changing something so much as I see the responsibility we have as experienced professionals to share with others what we’ve learned. And the more I engage with people, all over the world, the more I see how crucial it is that people get off the surface of life. We are so conditioned to the conveniences of technology, and it’s numbing the human in us. Maybe that’s the thing I’d like to see changed, that people unplug from technology once in a while and go within to reflect. I’d like to see us build a stronger connection to instinct and to that little whisper inside which is how our characters speak to us. Too many people dismiss one another with cynicism and make no effort to find understanding about life, about human behavior.

You know, the first day of a rehearsal or a workshop or any creative endeavour I lead… here’s what I tell the artists: You are in the safest place you’ll ever be to create, because by my way of thinking there are no good ideas or bad ideas only ideas that reflect who you are and the level you’re at. And there is no right or wrong, there’s only effective or ineffective. If your idea is effective, great. It worked. If not then we work on it, we examine the motivation and objective of the character, and what you want to say, and we experiment until we make something that’s ineffective, effective.

And we do this by being open, in the moment, playful, spontaneous, curious … that’s the big one. Conditioning ourselves to be curious and inquisitive and to show interest in something other than self. I’ve listened to so many people talk, fixated on their own perspective — and I mean fixations that are narrow, limited, negative, bitter, unenlightened. And I want to ask them: have you ever engaged someone and just spent the time asking questions and listening? Just because you consider another point of view doesn’t mean you have to agree with it. It means you are open to something other than yourself. You’re asking what might be changed? How about we listen more than we speak, ask questions more than we make comments, and then combine the discoveries we make with our own point of view and let our work make the comment.

DH: Wow! That was…
SF: I know; I was appearing at Speakers’ Corner there for a moment.

DH: No, no. We like passion! One last question, what film still remains timeless for you?
SF: City Lights. Charlie Chaplin, 1931. Best last line of a movie ever, silent or sound.

DH: What a wonderful insight into your journey and career to date. Thank you, Steven Fischer, for being our inaugural subject in ‘The Green Room’. It has been a pleasure.
SF: It has pleasure for me, too. Thank you so much for the honour!

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A Writer’s Journal – Creativity and Screenplays

February 15, 2018

Recently, someone asked me for a personal example of what a writer goes through to write a script for TV or for the cinema. In answering the question I re-discovered these excerpts from a production diary I kept while writing and directing Urban Paradise (originally called The National Arboretum) for Maryland Public Television/PBS. The 8-minute movie was a segment for the Emmy-winning series Outdoors’ Maryland, a narration-driven look at Maryland’s outdoor life. It premiered June 21, 2011.

I hope you’ll enjoy reading about how one writer tackles the challenges of creating a new story.

~Steven Fischer

 

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

The script for The National Arboretum, like most scripts, is the result of many months of questioning and exploring and deliberating.

When I was first introduced to the Arboretum in October 2010 and given a tour by Gardens Unit Leader Scott Aker, the immediate impression was how motherly the public garden was. But it was more than just the garden’s obvious relationship to Mother Nature. I could not define it completely, nor could I shake the interpretation, so I continued to explore it as the project developed. As I collected facts, stories, and relevant information for the script, everyone I interviewed about the arboretum agreed that there was a connection between the arboretum and something matronly. With that encouragement I established “motherhood” as the central theme, basing all my creative decisions about scenes, stories, photography, lighting, narration, and perspective around motherhood and all things motherhood represented to me: strength, dignity, protection, nurture, beauty, unconditional love, etc.

This was a tremendous help in writing the script, but the process, as always, was a labor of trial and error, questioning and experimenting with answers. I was still at the beginning of a long journey.

In my early research of arboretums I discovered the writing of Laura Barton. Laura is an English writer on staff at The Guardian. Her work, especially on the Westonbirt Arboretum in Tetbury, England, was instantly inspiring. She is a natural writer and clearly in love with words. Her poetic description of Westonbirt, cut to the thoughtful cinematography of Felix Clay, influenced the poetic direction I intuitively wanted to go.

For further influence  I returned to two sources that never fail: Charlotte Brontë and Shelby Foote. Passages from Jane Eyre always leave me breathless while Foote’s mastery of the historical narrative is a model – and the early versions of the Arboretum script were filled with many stories from its very interesting history.

As time went on and I began collecting on-camera interviews and editing the beauty shots of the gardens, it became apparent that the original structure I had wanted to follow (interweaving history and stories with the research unit, the social value of the arboretum, and beauty shots) was producing a work much longer than the 8-minute run time we were assigned.

I also needed to keep in mind what would best serve the Outdoors’ Maryland series. The answer was: a focused piece on facts, the research unit, and the social value of the Arboretum. So I honed the script to meet that framework keeping in mind that every word of narration must reflect the central theme of motherhood. It was a matter of working and re-working the script.

Then there was a little matter of the ending. I could not find one of any real significance. The frustration was agonizing.

2.

At this point the structure was established and I had the sequence on the research unit next-to-last in the segment. To jump from the research unit to an ending that wrapped up everything was jarring and felt uncomfortable. It also didn’t make any sense.

We were now in January, 2011. The deadline was approaching fast, and a suitable ending was still elusive.

On a walk one January day, I pondered the problem of how to end the script when I asked suddenly an unexpected question: “What is the ideal ending?” That simple question sparked an inner response that stimulated the imagination!

The ideal ending, I reminded myself, thinking back to earlier ideas, was either a poetic line that made the audience feel good or a line that wrapped up the whole motherhood theme. The rest of that day was spent experimenting with those ideas. That session helped define the arboretum in human terms: the personality of the place, its usefulness to society, its qualities, etc. This led to a memory of lines spoken to me by Dr. Griesbach, a former Arboretum staff member I interview weeks before. I asked: “If the Arboretum was a person, how would you describe her?” Griesbach gave one of the best answers: She has many personalities: flaunty and gregarious like the Bonsai, refined and shy as the Asian garden…

The line had potential for the ending. I recorded a scratch track of it and, not fitting as well at the end as I imagined, found a useful place for it in the middle (which later had to be removed for time’s sake). But adding that line forced me to move a couple of other sequences around and that rearrangement, after living with it four more weeks, led to a discovery that has become the ending.

While in conversation with Dr. Margaret Pooler, head of the research unit, I mentioned that the Arboretum seemed to me a grandmother people go to for a hug. Pooler was struck by the line and commented on its sweetness. I agreed. It was a moment of epiphany. That was the line! That could be the final line of narration. I wasn’t sure how exactly, but I knew it was an important piece of the puzzle.

3.

The original line ending the script ran something like, The National Arboretum provides sanctuary for human and plant life alike. She might very well be the nation’s grandmother, offering those inner comforts that make visitors feel loved.

When I recorded the scratch track and played it back it sounded like, “love” instead of “loved”, so I amended the script, preferring the misinterpretation. Removing this one letter may not seem like a big deal, but it re-positioned my mindset for the next discovery that was about to come.

As the next couple of days went by I began thinking more in terms of the beauty of nature and the beauty of truth. This led me to the work of the poet Keats and then to my well-read edition of Philosophies of Art & Beauty edited by Albert Hofstadter and Richard Kuhns. The volume collects writings from all the major thinkers, from Plato to Heidegger, each answering the questions what is art? and what is beauty? As I read Ficino’s contribution I came across the second chapter of his treatise on Plato’s Symposium. The chapter title read: How Divine Beauty Inspires Love. That did it.

“Inspires love.” What a turn of words! That was the ending; the ending wasn’t “inner comforts that make visitors feel love”, but inner comforts that inspire love.

All of this came about in the past couple of days, exactly one month to the day I took that walk in January and posed that simple question to myself.