Monday, June 1, 2009

Exclusive Interview with Actor/Director Brian Ackley

TCWreviews’s Administrator and Editor in chief Clifford Kiyabu sits down with Uptown (2009) director Brian Ackley for an exclusive interview. Brian Ackley is an actor, a writer and now a director with his debut film “Uptown”, just barely getting his feet wet and he’s already dived into the three main positions of filmmaking and can you believe he’s barely gotten his first toe in the door? Some have dreamed their whole life for the moment they would being able to do just one of the three than alone all of them, but Ackley shows that you don’t have to be a hug name in filmmaking nor do you have to have the big bucks to back you up either, but a strong head on your solders and the will to set out and do it yourself, as both a filmmaker and an individual, not much known about him outside of his inner circle. So this is where I come in, with this exclusive interview that allows Mr. Ackley the chance to tell us a little bit about himself.

CK: First off, I’d like to thank you for taking the time out to do this little Q&A session with me, I enjoyed your film a great deal, though you probably read my review on it already, I hope you liked my blunt and honest review.

BA: It’s my pleasure to do this. Thank you so much for your interest. I enjoyed reading your review very much.

CK: Before we go into discussing about your film “Uptown”, I think my readers would like to get to know you a little first, tell us a little about yourself.

BA: I’m a 30-year-old college dropout who enjoys writing and making movies. I’m from South Jersey and moved up to Brooklyn 9 years ago to go to Brooklyn College. I fell in love with their film department- the faculty, the students, the equipment- and spent as much time as I could on sets. I always had a passion for acting and writing, but at BC I found an interest in lighting, framing, and directing.

CK: What motivated you onto wanting to become an actor?

BA: Michael J. Fox. I can’t remember if I first saw him in Back to the Future or Family Ties, but I was enthralled. I think it was Family Ties. Alex P. Keaton. As far as I was concerned he made the show. By the time Back to the Future came out, at the age of 6, I knew I wanted to be an actor like him.

CK: So did you decide you wanted to get into directing as well when starting out in acting or did directing come as an afterthought?

BA: An afterthought. Much after. I did a few plays in High School but it wasn’t until a year after graduation that I decided I’d really go for it. I had spent that year admiring the work of Quentin Tarantino, watching his films again and again, reciting their best lines with friends again and again. Two ideas came together around that time: it is the director that creates and controls the visual style of a film; and an actor looking for work in the overly populated world of acting should be able to do more than just act. Having no other performing talents to my credit (such as dancing, singing, or playing an instrument), and having an interest in creating and controlling a visual style (or stealing from Tarantino), I had the brilliant idea of going to school to become a director, thereby paving my own path as an actor.

CK: Well I wouldn’t say you stole Tarantino’s filming style, but rather coming into your own as a filmmaker.

BA: When I started writing back in high school I borrowed Tarantino's style all the time. While at BC I made a short called Hostage Person which is very Tarantino influenced.

CK: Where you always a fan of movies?

BA: Since Back to the Future (1985).

CK: What films did you enjoy watching while growing up?

BA: All of them. I liked everything I saw. Except horror films. I never liked to be scared. But everything else. I was a huge John Candy fan. To me, there was no better a collaboration than with John Candy and John Hughes. But I fell for all the classics: Father of the Bride, Home Alone, Ghostbusters, Flight of the Navigator, Indiana Jones, even Driving Miss Daisy!

CK: What are your favorite genres?

BA: I love to laugh. These days Wes Anderson films have me in stitches. It’s easier for me to talk about filmmakers than genres. I tend to enjoy those films that can’t be easily labeled, like a Charlie Kaufman film. The Coen Brothers are also somewhere at the top, with Zemekis, Spielberg, Eastwood, Shyamalan, and of course Tarantino.

CK: Most actors and filmmakers tend to set themselves into a safety-net of what they can and cannot do, like some will stick to films in genres that they are capable of. So my question to you is; do you have such limits set upon yourself in both acting and directing?

BA: No. Though sci-fi is not a favored genre, one prime motivator for me has always been the idea of exploration, largely within myself but also with behavior, language, and ideas. I may have majored in either Psychology or Philosophy had Celluloid not been invented. Another prime motivator is this strange, often overlooked idea of wanting to have fun. How much fun is a safety net? While at BC I made 5 shorts; the second was a supernatural horror film so far outside my element that it became a technical and narrative disaster. But it was fun. And one day I’ll return to the genre just for the hell of it.

CK: So would it be safe to say that a comedy isn’t too far over the horizon for you?

BA: Not far from the horizon at all. My next project is a comedy.

CK: Seeing that you and the horror genre doesn’t go well together and the fact you don’t set limitations upon yourself have you ever considered thinking outside of the box and doing a comedy horror someday for say, the experience?

BA: I always wanted to do a Christmas comedy horror where everything takes place in one house at a family Xmas eve party. I'd have a psycho cousin or somebody running around offing people one at a time and hiding their bodies.

CK: I see that you and director Princeton Holt have a pretty good friendship aside from being co-workers on a few other projects, how did you guys meet and did you’re friendship come about before or after working together?

BA: Princeton and I are the greatest of pals. We share similar views and values, we’re both cognitive creatures, and we’re both huge fans of films and each other. Princeton found me through a mutual friend when he inquired about the technical limitations of a camera he intended to use for the filming of his short Phish. This friend happened to be the DP on my latest short Hostage Person, shot with the camera in question, in which I also starred in. Seeing the film Princeton took to my performance and cast me in Phish. That experience being pleasant, we began talking about what was going to be his first feature, The Butterfly Chasers. The project would become delayed but we would continue hanging out from time to time and talking about films and philosophy. When Princeton finally got fed up with waiting around for more financiers to jump aboard, he decided to make a “smaller” film, a cheaper film. He called me up and asked me to act. I cleared my schedule. It wasn’t until the filming of Cookies & Cream and soon after that Princeton and I became really close. I think he would agree that our friendship grew from a deep respect in working with each other.

CK: Is there a particular filmmaker and or actor you’d like to work with one day?

BA: No. This is going to be my last film. Did I get you? I know I got you! I’d like to work with Sandra Bullock but only if I can make out with her. Seriously, I couldn’t answer this question without a story or script or character in my head. There’s a lot of talent out their but the key to producing is in finding good matches. Just because I like Pacino or Hanks doesn’t mean we’d be compatible. It really depends on story and character. With that said, knowing both the directing styles of Ryan Balas (producer on Uptown) and Princeton, I can say that I am looking forward to having them each guest direct a scene in my next film Indulgence. In the same vein, I’d like to act beside Chris (from Uptown); I see us playing brothers.

CK: OH you got me alright, for a moment there I thought you was actually serious [Laughs], So Bullock is a definite for you if you could choose, why is that?

BA: I was just joking about Bullock. I'd love to meet her though. She's cute and funny.

CK: I asked your Cookies & Cream Co-star Jace Nicole the same question I’m now asking you; as an actor how far are you willing to go for the sake of art?

BA: I don’t see art. I see an experience. It depends on how receptive I am at the moment the experience is offered, and that may depend on what I think the experience is worth or it may depend on where I see myself without that experience. I know. That’s a vague answer. Let me try again. I’ll go anywhere if I believe it will be worth it. And sometimes, like I said before, I’ll just go for fun.

CK: What inspired you to write and direct Uptown?

BA: I fell in love with a married woman. With a little creative maneuvering, condensing, and narrative altering, Uptown is a pretty close version of actual events from this period of my life. But what truly inspired me to tell this story in a film was Princeton. Princeton was in post with Cookies & Cream after dragging himself through hell to make it. He set out to make movies, he wrote movies, he got people interested in making his movies, and then nothing. He was told it’s easier for a filmmaker to find financing for a film if he’s already made a film. So how do you make a film without money? You drag yourself through hell. Uptown came from a culmination of my being inspired by first time feature director Princeton Holt and a little film he showed me by coincidence on the same night I told him the story of the married woman. It was called Quiet City, and it shares a similar sentiment and style with Uptown. I recommend it.

CK: How long did it take to film?

BA: Less than 10 days within a month.

CK: Did you encounter any problems while filming?

BA: Who doesn’t? The better question would be: Did you encounter MANY problems while filming? The answer to that would be yes. I’ll briefly tell you about one of my favorites. With virtually no money to film and only a small window of available time to shoot, I decided early on that I was going to use two cameras simultaneously. I would design each scene to be shot with coverage included thereby speeding the process altogether. Camera A was our main camera that we used for masters, while Camera B was used for close-ups and cutaways. Each had their own slate. After walking through a scene with the actors, I’d place and frame first A, then B. If A was all I needed for a shot, then B would pick up inserts. The system worked beautifully. We were able to film very quickly (as fast as TV) and move on. We shot for a period of 4 or 5 days in a row before our first production break, completing more than half of the film. At some point during this brief break I checked the tapes. I was stunned to find a disturbing pattern: one tape ran great, one was pixilated; another one was fine, another pixilated; another was fine, another pixilated. It turned out everything shot on Camera B was pixilated. The camera was busted. The funny thing is that after each location we checked our footage to see that we got our shot…but we must have only checked Camera A every time! The bottom line: we lost half of everything we shot.

CK: So basically there’s a lot from the film that never made it to screen due to the lost footage in camera B, must have been tough improvising on that?

BA: Mostly just different angles and coverage. It was kind of bizarre. A day after this tragic discovery, I went back to review what we did have and found that our story still worked without the Camera B footage. We had to reshoot maybe only 20% of what was lost. We recovered quite easily, surprisingly.

CK: Looking back at the 10 days of filming that went on what would you say was the most memorable moment in all those days of filming?

BA: That's a difficult question. I have loads of great memories. I guess one special moment was while we were filming at the underpass by the fountain in Central Park. It's a magnificent location. We had both cameras- I had A, Ryan had B- and we each followed a character as they took in the location and each other. I had only a vague sense of what I wanted from the scene, and so we kept walking and shooting and trying different things; meanwhile uptairs, Princeton and a full crew waited patiently (and hungrily) for 45 minutes before I finally found what the scene was about. 45 minutes of Ryan and I following the actors! The moment I discovered WHY that particular space was important was when I knew HOW to shoot it. It only took a few minutes after that for me to get the scene.

CK: Correct me if I’m wrong, but when I viewed the film I got this hug impression that the film’s scrip was partly based off of real life experiences?

BA: You are wrong. It was mostly based on real life. Also, in truth, there wasn’t much of a script. We largely followed nothing but an outline.

CK: I think I may have phrased it wrong, what I meant was; some filmmakers tend to get personal with some of their films rather than just making it for the paycheck. And well, I could really feel that in “Uptown”, like it was more than just a film but rather a piece of you, the film’s director, and seeing this is based off actual events in your life, you could argue that you are sharing a piece of your own life experience with the viewers.

BA: Absolutely. The person that Uptown is about had a way of opening me up to the point where I could share everything about myself - and this started from our very first conversations. Making Uptown was about extending that freedom and openness that she inspired.

CK: After finally sitting behind the director’s chare, which can you say you preferred more, acting or directing?

BA: I enjoy being a part of telling a good story. Sometimes my role is very specific and all I have to do is serve a singular element. And sometimes my role is vast and all-encompassing and I’m responsible for the look and sound and feel of every moment. Both are exhilarating and challenging in their own right. One is not more rewarding than the other. With acting, I enjoy being someone I’m not- doing and saying things I wouldn’t normally say or do- but also I enjoy learning about myself within that process; with directing, I enjoy offering an audience a fresh experience- sometimes emotional, sometimes intellectual, sometimes indulgent- and with that the challenge of problem solving and the opportunity for experimenting. If you put French Fries and Shrimp on a table, I won’t decide between the two of them; I’ll eat them both.

CK: Though the film was probably made as a one shot film, I felt as though the ending left the viewers hanging with some unanswered questions, like where do they go from here?

BA: Uptown is not meant to end ambiguously. I feel most viewers will get it easily. With that said, I am playing with the idea of revisiting these characters at a later stage in their lives. If a sequel is made though, it won't be until after my next few features. Maybe 5 years from now.

CK: Is there any chance of us seeing some kind of continuation to Uptown in the future?

BA: Yes and no. There won’t be a sequel to Uptown. The story simply ends there. But, since it is based on a personal experience, and chances are at some point I’ll make another highly personal film, I’d say it’s possible that I may further explore similar characters within a similar world, as it may relate to my own growth as a romantic individual.

CK: Are there any new projects coming up for you that my readers should look out for?

BA: Absolutely. One Way Or Another Productions has a full slate to look forward to this year. I will be acting for Princeton once again in American Woman, an Altman-esk film he scripted with an ensemble cast in mind (including Meissa, from Uptown, Chris, and Jace!) living in a female dominated society. Also as part of One Way, we’ll be making Ryan’s new film, tentatively titled Mother/Sister, which explores the relationship of two sisters (Jace and Deirdre) meeting for the anniversary of their mother’s death. And finally, to round out the year, we’ll be making the aforementioned Indulgence, a comedy about a self-indulgent writer trying to find the meaning to life and love; if Woody Allen and Wes Anderson collaborated on a project, it would resemble Indulgence.

CK: Last question; now that you’ve taken on both acting and directing, is there any future life goals for you in the movie industry that you’d like to achieve?

BA: I already mentioned Sandra Bullock. At this point I’m currently only wedging a toe in the door of the movie industry. My main goal is to walk (or shove my way) through that door. I’ll find success when I’m able to make a living by making films.

CK: Of course, it’s pretty obvious that you’re only a step in the door and have a long way to go before you get both feet in of course, just make sure you don’t sell your soul to the bigwigs when that happens for you. [Laughs]

BA: [Laughs] I'll sell only a few shares off to the bigwigs; I promise I'll keep ownership of at least 60% of my soul at any given point! [Laughs]

CK: [Laughs]

And that concludes the interview with Actor/Director Brian Ackley, Brian and I still remain in contact, we’ve talked about future projects that he is working on and I still throwing the idea of a Comedy/Horror out there to him, and with some luck I’ll that happen, let’s just hope I get props on the idea [Laughs], we also talked about doing another interview in the near future, I thank him for taking the time out from his work to have this little set down with me, and if you’d like my personal input on him, both on and off the record he showed to be a down to earth person, most people in the same type of profession as him are usually uptight swines (no offense to swines), so take it from me when I say I look forward to our next interview. Uptown is now available on DVD as part of the Naked Series. You can also learn more about the film by checking out the office website by clicking here. You can also check out the official MySpace page for the film by clicking here.

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