Today’s special Reader Spotlight puts the focus on long-time MovieMaker reader Brian Lee Brown, a small-town independent filmmaker based in Needles, CA whose compelling story had to be shared.
After we featured images from his short film “Dream Date” on our Instagram feed, MovieMaker had the opportunity to speak with writer-director Brown about his inspiring path to filmmaking. In the following discussion, he recounts his journey to independent filmmaking: a path which began in the darkened screening rooms of his local movie theater in his small town and eventually involved Porta Potties, single-fatherhood, and life-altering accidents – the rare moments in life when everything fills with a startling clarity. Brown’s words are a fascinating examination of the tenacity of the human drive, and his passion for filmmaking in spite of countless obstacles make us proud to call him a MovieMaker reader.
Read on to learn about Brown and his story, and how exactly portable toilets might bring you one step closer to that dream movie career.
MovieMaker Magazine (MM): You weren’t always involved with film, though it was a dream of yours. Tell us about your previous life, educational background, etc., before you made the switch. What was the incident that cemented your desire to pursue filmmaking?
Brian Lee Brown (BLB): I grew up in a small town [Needles, CA] which didn’t have much of an art community or any kind of outlet that encouraged a career in the arts. When I was a kid, there was a movie theater a few blocks from my house. I would go there as an escape, a way to forget my problems by living through the stories. Even though it was for only a few hours at a time, it was a chance for me to explore worlds I might never have experienced, to see the good guy win and watch stories that could never come true in the real world. I was always taken back by the storytelling and the craft used by the writers and directors to express themselves in this art form. This would always stick with me as I grew up.
There were not a lot of career choices in my town, and you kind of fell into one of a few paths. I started bussing tables at restaurants as a teen, went on to work in kitchens as a baker and then started managing restaurants. That lead to a job as an area manager for a beer distributor – a great job to have around here. Even though I was doing well for myself, I had a need to make movies and tell stories. I would often be at work daydreaming of what it might be like to be on a set, but being in my 30s and a full-time single father of two kids, I didn’t think there would ever be enough time or money to invest in such a dream.
The kids and I were in a horrible car accident where we almost died. I wasn’t able to return to work for an extended period of time, during which I was laid off due to my injuries. I was at a very low point and had no idea what I was going to do as far as my future went. I was at a crossroads: I thought I could either wait it out and go back to the same old job, or I could see if this dream of making movies was something I could do.
I had to know if filmmaking was for me, and I thought I might not ever have a chance to try this again in my life, so I went for it. I looked up film programs and enrolled into the Academy of Art University’s Motion Pictures & Television online program. I had my doubts. You grow up seeing these great stories onscreen, but you never think you could have the skills to create them. My first class was a screenwriting class, and I still remember the first time I wrote something for it. It felt right: words cannot describe the rush that I felt expressing myself through screenwriting. I knew this was something I had to do.
MM: What were the early days like as a newly-committed moviemaker? What obstacles did you run into?
BLB: Our community at that time really had very few moviemaking opportunities, so I didn’t have a lot of ways of getting hands-on set experience. I really had to be inventive. I had such a passion for filmmaking that I would do whatever I could just to see professionals working first-hand in hopes of gaining knowledge. I did everything from traveling hundreds of miles to working as a crew member for free. I worked as a PA on everything I could, even if it was for a day here and there, and spent countless hours driving just for a day’s work. I worked as a Porta Potty cleaner for a friend of mine so I could sneak on the set of Fast Five to try and pitch myself and get hired. I ended up joining a moviemaking group that was starting up in a city not too far away and started meeting local people who also had an interest in filmmaking, which lead to more and more contacts. I wrote and directed a short film last year that won a few awards at festivals. That got local attention and helped start a movie making community in my area.
MM: Now that you’ve found your feet a little more, you’re working on a short called “Dream Date” starring the legendary Danny Trejo. Can you share your experience working on this project? Does Trejo’s unorthodox entry into movies resonate with your own?
BLB: “Dream Date” is by far my most ambitious project. Filming it was a great time; our local community really came out and supported us. We ended up having around 60 extras in the film, as well as a great cast and crew that all donated their time. We shot about 100 hours over five days and all really shared the same passion for moviemaking. It’s awesome when you have a group of people that put everything they have into a film; you will see all that we put in in the final product. It was great being able to bring together people from the area and give them a chance to work and learn on a production and possibly spark that interest to follow that passion for moviemaking that I didn’t get to until later in life. We are premiering it in October at the second Laughlin International Film Festival. Having a great festival in the local area has contributed to the growth of the moviemaking community here as well.
Working with Danny Trejo was a highlight of my career; you can see the enjoyment he gets from acting in any type of work. One thing that most of the people who are working in the industry have is an enjoyment for it. It’s not just a 9-to-5 job to us. It’s something we love; we can work 20 hour days and still show up the next day on two hours of sleep with a smile on our faces ready to do it again.
BLB: I would love to write and direct bigger projects. I have always been one to push ahead and try and see how far I can climb the ladder, but on the flip side I would also be very happy doing smaller productions. Just being able to make a living doing what I love would be all I could ever ask for.
I have always looked up to Martin Scorsese. I love his use of classic lighting and smooth, clean camera moments–they flow so well with his brand of storytelling. I have also looked up to Kevin Smith and his style of filmmaking. The story of how he made it in the industry has always been motivation to push forward and try and live my dream of being a moviemaker.
MM: Do you have any advice for other aspiring independent moviemakers, especially ones that come into it later, like yourself?
BLB: I would say the best thing to do is just get out there and start making movies. Try and find a group of people with the same passion and just get in where you can and learn all you can. I have found that I have learned the most from the mistakes I have made – I just push forward and try to not make them again. The only way to get great is practice.
MM: How long have you been reading MovieMaker?
BLB: A good friend of mine got me a subscription to MovieMaker about five years ago for a gift and it has been extremely helpful. When I first got into moviemaking, it was a great resource to see what everyone was using as far as cameras and gear and techniques go. It really helped me grow as a moviemaker. I love how the articles and interviews are relevant to everyone; no matter what stage you are of moviemaking, you always get something you can use out of it. I don’t think there has ever been an issue that I didn’t read cover to cover at least four times. MM