“Epic and Far Reaching”: Australia’s Marta Dusseldorp on the Post-War Drama A Place To Call Home

 

Marta Dusseldorp. Photo: Ellis Parrinder.
Marta Dusseldorp. Photo: Ellis Parrinder.

“So,” I asked the woman with the Australian accent on the other end of the telephone line, “when did you find out your show has become a hit in the U.S.?”

“When I got a call saying an American girl wanted to interview me!” she laughed.

For my part, I was surprised. “She” is Marta Dusseldorp, star of A Place to Call Home, a period drama out of Australia, the first season of which aired on several PBS stations this year. And the American girl who wanted to interview her, well, that’s me. Frankly, I feel a bit like an explorer who has landed upon something special. If you haven’t yet heard of either Marta Dusseldorp or A Place to Call Home, you’re in for a treat.

Let’s start with a show primer. A Place to Call Home, or APTCH, the brain child of creator Bevan Lee, first aired in Australia on the Seven Network in 2013. Audiences around the country flocked to the show, and its ratings were high — the top-rated Australian drama of 2013. Even so, love is not money and the ratings waned, and in June 2014, in the middle of season two, the Seven Network cancelled the show for “programming reasons.” Word on the street is that the audience skewed too old (less appealing to advertisers), and the show was too expensive to produce. The network aired the remaining episodes of season two, and the show was over.

Knowing there was a possibility that the show would not have a third season, Marta told me, the producers filmed both a season two finale with twists and turns leading into season three, and a series finale, which would wrap up all storylines as best they could. With the cancellation of the show, the series finale was aired, and that was that.

Or so they thought. The fans, however, would have none of this cancellation. Online petitions were drawn up, Facebook pages were formed. An uproar was roared. The fans demanded to be heard.

And, the fans were heard. Seven Network did not come to the rescue, but another station did. In October 2014, “Foxtel came in and said, we love it, we’ll order two more seasons,” explained Marta (Foxtel is a “subscription television platform,” like cable TV; the show will be aired on its SoHo channel). Eighteen months after filming ended on season two, filming on season three began.

Meanwhile, somewhere in the U.S., someone at PBS heard about the show and was intrigued. I don’t know the ins and outs of the wheelings and dealings, but just a few months later, in April 2015, APTCH had made the leap across the Pacific Ocean and was airing in eight PBS markets across the U.S., with the three primary markets being Seattle, Atlanta, and Indianapolis.

Seattle! I’ll tell you, I love my PBS station, KCTS 9, and can always count on them to bring fantastic programming to my TV. They didn’t let me down this time, either. I saw the new show mentioned in a KCTS tweet in late March or early April, a few days before it aired. I watched, and was instantly hooked.

Wanting to find out more about Marta and the show, I reached out to Marta’s people. Much to my delight, Marta agreed to an interview. After some navigation around her intense filming schedule and the seventeen-hour time difference between her home in Sydney and mine in Seattle, I finally had the chance to chat with Marta last weekend.

 

Marta. Photo: Jason Ierace.
Marta. Photo: Jason Ierace.

I was won over from the moment we began talking. Life can be chaotic, but Marta’s smooth, low voice is reassuring, soothing. She was warm, friendly, and welcoming, and I was instantly at ease. She comes across as a woman who is at peace, content, strong, happy with her life. She’s the kind of person who, when you talk with her, makes you feel like everything is good, everything is going to be okay. Talking with her makes you want to be her BFF and have her call, every now and then, and remind you of just that: everything is good, everything is going to be okay. Have her come visit you in Seattle, and you’ll go visit her in Sydney … wait, am I projecting? Well, I’ve had a desire to go back since I visited Australia in 1989. (“1989!” exclaimed Marta when I told her that’s when I was last in her home country. “Things have changed a lot since then!”)

Anyway. Since American audiences aren’t as familiar with Marta, I asked her to take us back to the beginning.

“I was a ballet dancer from the age of four,” she told me. Even in her childhood years, she was fully immersed in her craft. “That’s all I did. I didn’t go to parties or anything.” Somewhere around age ten or eleven, she acted in a school play. At some point during the play, the audience, about 300 strong, all burst into laughter as a single entity, and she realized she had the power to bring joy. She was hooked.

“I knew from a very young age,” she said. “I thought, this is amazing, this is what I want to do for the rest of my life.”

Marta lost her brother at a very young age, as well, and acting provided an escape. “I found a great peace in pretending, and being someone else, to deal with that grief and trauma,” she said.

She went on to major in theater and film at the University of New South Wales in Sydney. Immediately after leaving school she began work in her chosen field, and she’s been at it ever since.

Initially, Marta worked in theater, thrilling to the organic experience shared with a room full of strangers. “An audience is like a singular beast, it becomes one persona,” she said. “There’s nothing like a whole room, when they erupt into one huge roar, I guess it’s as close as you get to a sporting event. There’s this incredible moment when people come together as one.”

In a 2013 interview with Alexandra Spring of Vogue Australia, Marta said, “I’m a sucker for that live thing. And I’m more courageous on stage … more daring. I’m starting to try to do that more in TV. And theatre’s much bigger so it can afford bigger choices, and I miss those outrageous choices I used to try and make, and sometimes pull off.”

I asked her about that: what did she mean by “outrageous choices,” and what is it about TV that prevents her from making those choices?

“I think I used to want to shake off any kind of image people might have of me,” she said. “My father’s Dutch, I have a European look, so I always felt like I didn’t belong in Australia, didn’t look Australian.”

She explained that many Australian women are quite petite, and she is not. “So I tried to be the opposite, bold and brash.” For example, when she did the play War of the Roses, she had a scene with the man playing her lover in the play, and they decided to do it as dogs, rolling and crawling around on the ground, the audience screaming with delight.

 

Marta. Photo: Jason Ierace.
Marta. Photo: Jason Ierace.

Marta moved into TV a few years back to give her greater flexibility in being home with her family — husband and fellow actor Ben Winspear, and their young daughters Grace and Maggie. Since working more in TV, she now believes TV offers plenty of opportunity for daring moves, too.

“Television is incredibly impulsive,” she said. “You have to come up with choices really quickly. There’s not the luxury you have in theater of mulling it all over.”

Her time in TV has been busy, now more than ever. Before A Place to Call Home, she starred in a legal drama called Crownies in 2011. In early 2014, her character in the show, Janet King, got a spin-off show by the name of Janet King, with Marta as the main character. At the same time, she’s starring alongside Guy Pearce in Jack Irish, a series of television movies adapted from the detective novels by Peter Temple. All of this while also acting in A Place to Call Home — putting Marta in three shows on two different networks at the same time.

Researching Marta’s other shows, which all look great but aren’t aired in the U.S., I pondered the fact that not a lot of Australian shows make the jump across that very big Pacific pond. Marta isn’t surprised that APTCH did, though. “I always thought [the story] was universal,” she said. “The things it explores are much more than just downtown Australia.”

I offered up to Marta my description of A Place to Call Home, and asked her for hers. First, I said, of course, it’s a period drama, as it takes place in 1950s, post-war Australia. Beyond that, I see it as the story of how the shame of our secrets and desires and the mistakes we make when we’re just trying to do the right thing can tear our relationships apart, and how love and forgiveness can redeem us. It’s about the idea that we are all doing the best we can, with the best of intentions, but our paths and our choices divide us.

From Marta’s perspective, APTCH is “about identity, and feeling at home culturally, about a woman who is seeking a silence, a peace, but it’s not possible. She’s like an albatross that can’t ever land. Finally she comes home to her mother who rejects her outright because she’s converted to Judaism…. It’s about people’s inability to accept people who they are.” And, on a deeper level, said Marta, “It’s about a time that was bourgeoning in Australia, but also had a disrespectful, righteous, nasty strain running through it … it’s about how far we’ve come, and how far we have to go.”

Largely billed in the U.S. as “Downton Abbey Down Under,” A Place to Call Home has much greater depth than the comparison suggests.

“It wasn’t a Downton Abbey ripoff,” said Marta. “It’s about who we [Australians] are post-war, the secrets and lies that come with that, that still need to be negotiated.” Australians are proud of who they are, and how far they’ve come, she said, but people are aware that, “That conversation needs to keep going. People want that, grander looks at our cultural voice.” As such, Marta said, the show has opened up a space for conversations.

The show is “epic and far reaching,” she said, in a way Australian audiences aren’t as used to. In the U.S., she said, “Your shows really reach quite big and grand. We’re not so used to that in our storytelling.” The challenge of the APTCH production, therefore, lies in “teaching Australian audiences about big and grand storytelling, epic storytelling,” at the same time as they’re enjoying it.

Since many haven’t seen the show I won’t go into any spoilers, but the basic premise, from Amazon is:

In 1950s Australian society, sex, death and secrets are never far below the surface in A Place to Call Home. Marta Dusseldorp leads the cast as Sarah Adams, a woman with a mysterious past who returned to Australia after twenty years abroad. The idyllic way of life in Inverness continues to work its magic on Sarah, enabling her to heal from the horrors of World War II and find love again and A Place to Call Home.

“It’s such a privilege to be central to a story,” said Marta, “because you get to show different sides with different characters.” None of us, she pointed out, is single-sided. We all have multiple aspects to who we are; we all shade our interactions based on whom we’re with. She is thrilled to have the opportunity to portray such depth in a character.

One of the many reasons I love the show is the strong female characters. I mentioned that there’s so much discussion in Hollywood these days about the need for strong female roles; A Place to Call Home has several. In fact, Marta told me, the first two roles cast were the matriarch, Elizabeth Bligh (Noni Hazlehurst), and then Sarah Adams (Marta). All other roles waited until those key roles were in place.

“The creator [Bevan Lee] loves women, loves women who are strong and complicated and compassionate,” said Marta. In creating the character of Sarah Adams, he could only have hoped for someone like Marta for the part. Marta’s portrayal of Sarah can be mesmerizing. Again without spoiling anything, Marta faced the challenge of playing a character who has faced hardships most of us have not endured. In this, she succeeds, coming across the screen with a quiet but deep infusion of strength and calm. You get the sense that there is nothing Sarah Adams can’t handle, that she goes through life with the attitude that she’s survived the worst; now she can survive anything. Sarah is at the same time rock-hard and private, yet willing to be open; she carries a confidence that if something is going to kill her, being open with her emotions isn’t it.

I mentioned that one of my favorite relationships in APTCH is that of Sarah and Roy Biggs, a rough and rugged farmer in whom Sarah finds a true friend. Marta agreed. “Frankie J. Holden [who plays Roy] is the most beautiful man you’ll ever meet. He’s funny and sincere and has a weight of experience in his life that he brings to the show,” she said. “He’s the first one on the set to ask you if you need a cup of tea, to crack a joke if you need it.” As for the Sarah/Roy connection, Marta said, “To Sarah it’s a father figure.” Things happen [no spoilers!] in season two that bond them, and, Marta said, this continues in season three, which will air in Australia starting in September.

With the renewal of APTCH for two more seasons, Marta’s schedule is packed. The day we talked, she had about a week left of APTCH filming, then was going to move straight into filming Jack Irish the next week, then on to Janet King again. Marta takes this busy-ness in stride. “A year ago I didn’t work for a while. It all averages out,” she said.

Marta claims not to be ambitious, “but I’m incredibly serious about what I do.” In her off-time, she’s started developing her own projects. “It’s all in very infant stages,” she said. “It’s an idea I had. Why not? I went to a writer, we’re working on it, we’re going to keep going with it. I also pitched some other people’s ideas to networks…. I’m feeling like I have enough experience now to help seed ideas. I like the idea of getting into a producing role and being up front with projects. I’m happy to fail,” she explained; she’s happy to take on that burden on the road to success. “I’d like to generate my own work. I could do without an audition ever again in my life!” she laughed.

 

Marta with her daughters Maggie and Grace. Photo: Luc Rémond.
Marta with her daughters Maggie and Grace. Photo: Luc Rémond.

In a recent Vogue Australia interview, Marta commented that, “The last year, I guess I was developing an identity: Who is Marta?” I asked her what she has discovered in her soul-searching. Who is Marta?

“I’m a mum of two beautiful girls, they’re very present children. They don’t think very much about anything that’s not happening right now,” she said. (Whether they learned that from their mother, or she learned that from them, I don’t know, but Marta has an aura of being decidedly present.) “I’m someone who likes to be in the present very much, likes to be surrounded with good conversation, good friends and family. I like other human beings and I think we can learn all the time. I try to surround myself with people who are smarter and better. I have a very open, loving family, and I’ve been blessed, really, so much strength. I like being a grown up. I like being a mentor to my children.”

And, I asked her, what is success?

“I think success is respect,” she said. “When I feel I’m amongst peers and they’re all respectful, I feel successful. When I can make an offer that in some way makes it better, that feels successful. The smiles I see coming toward me in the supermarket and on the street because you’re bringing joy to people’s lives, and they’re recognizing something in themselves in your work, that feels successful.”

I get the sense that Marta’s life is exactly as she wants it right now, and she expresses deep gratitude for that. “I’ve gotten to do what I want to do my whole adult life. It’s not always been hunky dory, but when I go to work I still can’t believe it.”

As for her hopes and dreams, “I would love to make my own show, I would love to work in America or England or Prague, a different country, and work with people who have seen and done more than I have, I’d love to travel with my kids, and keep at this level, where you work hard most of the time.”

Thank you so much to Marta for your time! I could have talked to her for hours, but felt that the forty-five minutes she gave me was more than generous of her. But I do hope to interview Marta again one day! And, there’s a possibility I’ll be chatting with others from A Place to Call Home, so watch this space!

If your PBS station isn’t already airing the show, give them a call and let them know you’re interested!

A Place to Call Home also stars Noni Hazlehurst, Brett Climo, Craig Hall, David Berry, Abby Earl, Arianwen Parkes-Lockwood, Aldo Mignone, Frankie J. Holden, Sara Wiseman, Deborah Kennedy, and Jenni Baird.

Find Marta on Twitter.

My deep gratitude to the photographers who gave me permission to use their photos! Check out their sites to see more of their stunning work.

Jason Ireace can be found at his website and on Instagram.

Luc Rémond can be found at his website and on Instagram. Also, see more of Luc’s beautiful photo shoot with Marta and her girls in this article.

Ellis Parrinder can be found at his website, and on Twitter and Instagram.

Also published at my Huffington Post blog.


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“One Day At A Time”: Q&A with Robin Ellis, the “Original Ross Poldark,” on Poldark, Cooking, and Life

Robin Ellis as Ross Poldark (center), with Angharad Rees as Demelza Carne (left) and Judy Geeson as Caroline Penvenen (right) in the original Poldark series, c. 1975. Photo credit: BBC
Robin Ellis as Ross Poldark (center), with Angharad Rees as Demelza Carne (left) and Judy Geeson as Caroline Penvenen (right) in the original Poldark series, c. 1975. Photo credit: BBC

Masterpiece Theatre has done it again — literally. Since early March, millions of people around the world have been captivated by the story of Ross Poldark in Poldark, Masterpiece’s adaptation of Winston Graham’s series, set in Cornwall in the late 18th century. Smoldering Ross Poldark, born a rebel in his elite world, has returned from the American Revolutionary war to find his fiancée, thinking him dead, has become engaged to his cousin. The country and its people face severe hardships; Poldark’s father has died and left his estate and mine in ruins. The story is captivating, the acting mesmerizing. And the breathtaking landscape of Cornwall is a character unto itself.

But this new telling of the Poldark saga stands on the shoulders of the original series, which forty years ago also enchanted the world, led by the “original Poldark,” Robin Ellis.

When my local PBS station, KCTS 9, announced the imminent airing of the new series, I borrowed the DVDs of the original series from a Poldark-loving friend. I hadn’t seen the show when it first aired, but instantly I could see why the world had been so enthralled by Robin and Masterpiece’s original version of Poldark. After watching a few episodes of the new series, in which Robin has a cameo as Reverend Halse in episodes 3 and 6, I knew I wanted to chat with him. Robin graciously agreed to answer my many questions, and his wife, Meredith Wheeler, sent me a plethora of gorgeous photos. My tremendous thanks and best wishes to both Robin and Meredith!

Meredith Wheeler & Robin Ellis on their terrace. Photo courtesy Meredith Wheeler & Robin Ellis
Meredith Wheeler & Robin Ellis on their terrace. Photo courtesy Meredith Wheeler & Robin Ellis

Q: Forty years ago, you were the swoon-worthy Ross Poldark in Masterpiece Theatre’s original series, Poldark, based on the novels by Winston Graham. I’ve read that it was so big, you had some “Beatle-esque” moments. What was it like, going from being a relatively “regular” guy to being an instant star? Was it challenging?

A: The world was a bit different forty years ago. There wasn’t as intense a celebrity culture as there is today. It was like the difference between enjoying a warm summer’s day and enduring a heatwave. I enjoyed the attention (I’m an actor!) which only occasionally got too hot.

Robin with Poldark author Winston Graham in Robin and Meredith's back garden in London, c. 1990. Photo credit: Meredith Wheeler
Robin with Poldark author Winston Graham in Robin and Meredith’s back garden in London, c. 1990. Photo credit: Meredith Wheeler

Q: The original Poldark had an immense following. You’ve said that part of the appeal in, for example, Spain was that the country had two TV channels at the time it was aired, one of which was a government channel. Obviously you were joking (in part). But even today, with hundreds of channels available to people on TV and online, the new series is capturing audiences’ attention worldwide. What do you think it is about the Poldark stories that has such enduring appeal? 

A: People love to be told good stories (I do). These stories endure because they feel authentic. People can identify with them regardless of the fact they take place in a different era. And Winston Graham’s characters don’t come over as manipulated by the puppet master. You feel they have a say in how they run their lives —for better or worse. It helps that the well researched setting happens to be extraordinarily beautiful and cinematically ravishing.

Aidan Turner, the "new Poldark," with Robin, the "original Poldark." Photo credit: Nick Kenyon. Poldark fans, see Nick's website for tons more fabulous Poldark photos!
Aidan Turner, the “new Poldark,” with Robin, the “original Poldark.” Photo credit: Nick Kenyon. Poldark fans, see Nick’s website for tons more fabulous Poldark photos!

Q: I understand that neither Debbie Horsfield (the writer who adapted Graham’s books for the new series) nor Aidan Turner (the “new Ross Poldark”) watched the original series before creating their own interpretations of Graham’s stories. In some cases the end results are quite different, both from Horsfield’s/Turner’s new interpretations, as well as from the fact that four decades have passed and times have changed. What are your thoughts on the new series? 

A: It’s big, it’s beautiful and it’s terrifically acted.

Aidan Turner and Robin Ellis. Photo credit: Nick Kenyon
Aidan Turner and Robin Ellis. Photo credit: Nick Kenyon

Q: Along those lines, in my opinion the new Ross Poldark has in some ways a different personality/characterization than the original Ross Poldark. I don’t want to lead the witness here by telling you the differences I see — what differences do you see?

A: Ross Poldark is a wonderful character to play. He was born an elite but he hates elites and gets into fights with his own kind, sometimes with dire results. He’s bold but sometimes his choices of action get him into trouble and threaten his family and loved ones. In other words, he’s flawed. Like all great characters, there is never a definitive way to play them — no two Hamlets are alike — they reflect the people who play them. Aidan Turner is giving a tremendous and committed performance as Ross. I tried to do the same forty years ago. Ross is that kind of character. You go for it — it allows you to!

Director Ed Bazalgette (crouching with glasses) confers with Robin before the scene is filmed. Photo credit: Nick Kenyon
Director Ed Bazalgette (crouching with glasses) confers with Robin before the scene is filmed. Photo credit: Nick Kenyon

Q: How was it, revisiting Poldark for the new series, this time as Reverend Halse? Did you come at it with a different perspective on acting and life?

A: Not really, it still made me nervous and it still gave me delight. At the end of the day you have to come up with the goods. That hasn’t changed. I found I still cared about coming up with the goods!

Left: Robin and Alexander Arnold who plays Jim Carter in the new series. Middle: Sitting in his trailer awaiting the call. Right: The end of the first day's shoot at Horton Court near Bristol (where some of Wolf Hall was filmed, too!). Photos credit: Meredith Wheeler
Left: Robin and Alexander Arnold who plays Jim Carter in the new series. Middle: Sitting in his trailer awaiting the call. Right: The end of the first day’s shoot at Horton Court near Bristol (where some of Wolf Hall was filmed, too!). Photos credit: Meredith Wheeler

Q: It’s been nearly a decade since your last role (as Tom Lyell on Wallander). Did acting in the new series give you a craving to do more acting again?

A: I wouldn’t describe it as a craving but it whetted my appetite!

Left: Robin's first cookbook. Right: Cooking in his own kitchen. Photos credit: Meredith Wheeler
Left: Robin’s first cookbook. Right: Cooking in his own kitchen. Photos credit: Meredith Wheeler

Q: Speaking of whetted appetites, I was so delighted to learn that these days, your work revolves around the culinary arts! I understand you’ve loved cooking since you were a child, but a medical diagnosis about fifteen years ago gave new life to your passion for the art form. Tell us more about that? 

A: Sixteen years ago I was diagnosed with Type 2 Diabetes. I have collected recipes for years — I learned that from my mother. I started writing up the recipes I cooked every day. Like characters in plays no two versions of a recipe are the same. I found a voice in the writing of them and enjoyed it. People had said to me, “You must write cookbook.” “But there are too many cookbooks,” I thought, “I’m an actor anyway, not a cook.” After I was diagnosed, it felt different. Perhaps a cookbook of recipes describing the way we eat, suggested Meredith, might be a little different and useful to people. Now it made more sense and we presented the idea to a publisher who agreed to run with it.

Left: Robin in his red apron. Right: Robin's second cookbook. Photos credit: Meredith Wheeler
Left: Robin in his red apron. Right: Robin’s second cookbook. Photos credit: Meredith Wheeler

Q: What is it about cooking that you love?

A: The dailyness of it. I cook twice a day for us and it keeps me on my toes, so to speak.

Q: As you noted above, you’ve built on that love of cooking by writing some cookbooks! You have two books out, and a third in the works, is that right? Tell me a bit about each? How did you decide on the recipes to include? Where can people buy them?

A: Meredith eats what I cook each day, though she’s not diabetic. Delicious Dishes for Diabetics, the first, describes the way we eat chez nous every day. It attempts to demonstrate that a diagnosis of diabetes doesn’t mean the end of enjoying your food. The recipes in the book can be enjoyed by everyone — it is not exclusively for diabetics. Healthy Eating for Life is an extension of the first. Mediterranean Cooking for Diabetics is a combination of the two plus new stuff and photos in a bigger paperback format.

Robin with students from a cooking workshop. Photo credit: Meredith Wheeler
Robin with students from a cooking workshop. Photo credit: Meredith Wheeler

Q: Not one to let any grass grow under your feet, you lead cooking workshops too! Who are the classes for (is it only for diabetics?), where do they take place, how long do they last, what do people learn? What made you want to lead these workshops?

A: They are open to all. They take place in a beautiful B&B in our village. There is a demo kitchen in an annex. They last four days and we all cook together and then eat what we cook. It’s a hands-on affair. No lecturing. I met the owner one day at the market and she told me about the new kitchen and I heard myself saying, “Well one day maybe I could run a workshop there….” Voila! That’ll teach me!

Q: Don’t you think Poldark would have been the kind of man who would have liked to cook? He can do pretty much everything else!

A: He’d have to choose time when Prudie was in town — she’d have been shocked to find him at the stove. Did men cook in those days? Very doubtful but if you think of him as I did, as a man out of his time, then anything is possible.

Robin's memoir, reissued with a new chapter in April 2015 -- just released as an audio book, too!
Robin’s memoir, reissued with a new chapter in April 2015 — just released as an audio book, too!

Q: Speaking again of Poldark and of books, you have a memoir out, as well, Making Poldark, with a new expanded version out this year. Am I correct that you first wrote it in 1978, updated it once in 2012 and then it again this year? In the process of going back to update the original text, did you feel you had new perspectives on your time as Poldark and the pivotal role it played in your life? What did you see or understand now, that you might not have seen forty years ago?

A: It has been updated and added to four times I think. It now has a chapter explaining how I became involved in the new go-around of Poldark. I have always felt indebted to Poldark and recognised the large part it has played in my life professionally and personally. I call them “Poldark Perks” and there are many. Appearing in the new version and the revival of interest in me and the first Poldark is yet another “Poldark Perk.” It goes on!

The best "Poldark Perk" -- Robin's wife Meredith! In another interview, Robin told The Express: "I met my wife, Meredith, when she interviewed me in New York in 1986 as part of a trip to celebrate the 15th anniversary of Masterpiece Theatre. I looked into Meredith's eyes and there you go. It was love at first sight."
The best “Poldark Perk” — Robin’s wife Meredith! In another interview, Robin told The Express: “I met my wife, Meredith, when she interviewed me in New York in 1986 as part of a trip to celebrate the 15th anniversary of Masterpiece Theatre. I looked into Meredith’s eyes and there you go. It was love at first sight.”

Q: What’s next? What are you looking forward to?

A: One day at a time — I am looking forward to tomorrow, while inhabiting today.

Q: Finally, some questions I like to ask people, starting with: What is success?

A: I don’t find questions like these easy! Success might be the feeling I had about supper tonight. I made a curry sauce for left-over guinea fowl. In fact I didn’t like the first sauce, so I tried a tomato based one. I was still doubtful about it. In the end I liked it and so did Meredith — success?! One day at a time.

Robin at home in his kitchen, writing his blog. Photo credit: Meredith Wheeler
Robin at home in his kitchen, writing his blog. Photo credit: Meredith Wheeler

Q: What is happiness?

A: Waking up…phew!

Q: What are the elements of a life well-lived?

A: Too early to say — I am still living it!

My thanks again to Robin and Meredith for their time! It was a delight chatting with you! I wish you both continued success, happiness, and lives well-lived.

Find out more about Robin, his life, his books, and his cooking workshops at his website, and follow him on Twitter and on Facebook.

Also published on my Huffington Post blog.


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Q&A: Halfway Star Quinton Aaron on the Film, Acting, James Bond, and His Foundation

Quinton Aaron as Byron in Halfway. © Halfway Film LLC, 2015
Quinton Aaron as Byron in Halfway. © Halfway Film LLC, 2015

The past three weeks I’ve been interviewing key players in the upcoming film Halfway, written and directed by Ben Caird and produced by Jonny Paterson. Today, I’m thrilled to have the opportunity to chat with the film’s star, Quinton Aaron!

Many will remember Quinton from his lead role in The Blind Side with Sandra Bullock, for which he received several nominations including Black Reel Award, Best Breakthrough Performance; Teen Choice Awards 2010, Breakout Male Actor; and MTV Movie Awards 2010, Best Breakout Star. Quinton has also appeared on shows such as Law & Order and One Tree Hill, as well as a smattering of others.

In Halfway, Quinton plays the role of Byron, a recently released convict who finds himself caught between two worlds. Byron’s urban criminal past haunts his new life as the only black man in a predominantly white, conservative Wisconsin farming town. The film chronicles Byron’s struggles as he adapts to his new life on probation, while trying to elude the very real threat of falling back into his old life of crime.

Quinton on the set of Halfway with writer/director Ben Caird. © Halfway Film LLC, 2015
Quinton on the set of Halfway with writer/director Ben Caird. © Halfway Film LLC, 2015

Q: How long have you been acting? What made you want to be an actor? How did you get started?

A: I’ve been acting for as long as I can remember. I grew up on the stage when I was in high school in New York and have just always wanted to be an actor. I’ve been imitating actors from my favorite movies ever since I could talk. I remember being a kid and loving the James Bond movies, I think because I wanted to be a secret agent at that time as well as an actor (and I looked great in a tux!). As I got older, I started to realize that I enjoyed the discipline associated with performance, and that led me to start acting more and more. I joined an organization for teenagers called Teens in Motion, and was lucky enough to be afforded some opportunities to develop that love for acting with them.

Q: What was your first reaction to this script, when Jonny [Paterson, the producer] approached you with it? 

A: As soon as I heard about the story and got the gist of what it was and who the character was, I felt it was a project I could really get behind. One of the cool and defining things about the movie is that is has a strong causal message that resonated with me when I read the script. It’s about a young man who has just been released from prison and finds himself up against a very real set of circumstances: does he take the second chance that has been afforded to him, or does he take the easier route and revert back to a life of crime?

When I observe some of the problems that we create for ourselves in our communities I have felt in the past that we, in a sense, imprison ourselves by feeling a sense of duty to stay committed to the world that we come from, instead of being brave enough to branch out and recognize that that might not be what is best for us. In Halfway, my character Byron maintains ties with his best friend, Paulie (played by Marcus Henderson), and finds it incredibly difficult to make that decision to move on with his life, because he’s a loyal guy but also because it’s how society has sort of trained young men like my character to behave.

Quinton as Byron on the set of Halfway, waiting at Mills Market in Montfort, Wisconsin. © Halfway Film LLC, 2015
Quinton as Byron on the set of Halfway, waiting at Mills Market in Montfort, Wisconsin. © Halfway Film LLC, 2015

Q: What were some of the challenges in taking on this role?

A: We shot the movie over four weeks on the Lepeska family farm in Montfort, WI — a part of the world I had never been to before! So the biggest challenges for me on this project were to try and learn about farm life, manual labour, how to feed calves while adjusting to the smell of being around animals all day and other things of that ilk. It was a very unique experience in that sense and I owe a great deal of thanks to the Lepeska family who went out of their way to show me the ropes. Also, working with the director, Ben Caird, to understand how my character would maneuver in this very alien environment was challenging, but for all the right reasons. Ultimately, I love what I do and am very grateful for the opportunity to grow as a person as well as a performer in each role that I take on.

Q: What did you love about this role?

A: Not only the story that is being told through my character’s eyes, but the message that I hope he can deliver to folks who watch it. If an audience can resonate with Byron, like I did in many ways, they might make better decisions under difficult circumstances. As our producer, Jonny Paterson, said in his interview a few weeks ago, a great outcome for us would be for young men and women who are about to be released from prison to watch the film and resonate with Byron and thus make better decisions when they find themselves released back in to their community. Do they want to be another statistic and fall back into their old ways, or do they want to be stronger and braver and take on the second chance that is afforded to them?

Quinton on the set of Halfway with writer/director Ben Caird and producer Jonny Paterson. © Halfway Film LLC, 2015
Quinton on the set of Halfway with writer/director Ben Caird and producer Jonny Paterson. © Halfway Film LLC, 2015

Q: Did this story impact you personally? If so, how?

A: I haven’t actually seen the movie as of yet, as I’ve asked to wait until it’s finished before I do and so it’s tough for me to answer the question from that perspective. However, from the perspective of having lived as Byron for four weeks in rural Wisconsin and speaking the words that Ben Caird scripted for me, certainly the story impacted me personally. I have a deeper appreciation for how lucky I am to be in this fotunate position to do what I love. To have seen the world through the eyes of Byron was an incredibly sobering experience at times. I’d also say that I have a new found respect for farmers and those hard working Americans who live in rural communities and do an amazing job of farming the food we eat and the milk we drink! I think before I made Halfway that I took certain things for granted in my own life that now, in hindsight, I am more grateful for.

Q: What message do you hope viewers come away with?

A: Everyone has made mistakes in their past, but when life gives you a second chance, take it and move forward with a positive perspective!

Q: How have your past successes changed how you approach a movie and a role?

A: Not too much. I’m the same person, very appreciative of opportunities that I’m afforded and I always approach roles in the same way; not taking anything for granted. The Blind Side was a wonderful opportunity for me, which opened many doors and allowed for me to collaborate with Academy Award winners. It has given me the chance to pursue a career that I’d always dreamed of, since those days watching James Bond and for that I will always be truly thankful. But, while it was a great start for me it definitely isn’t my ending. There’s a lot more to come and I hope that with Halfway audiences are able to see that there is much more to me than just Big Mike.

Quinton on the set of Halfway. © Halfway Film LLC, 2015
Quinton on the set of Halfway. © Halfway Film LLC, 2015

Q: You have a foundation, The Quinton Aaron Foundation, with a mission “to provide hope, encouragement, confidence and resources to children on the brink of suicide or battling the damaging effects on self-esteem and confidence caused by the actions or words of others.” When did you form this foundation, what inspired you to tackle that mission, and what are your goals for the foundation?

A: I formed the foundation in 2012 with a mission inspired by own experiences. I was bullied as a child for my size, crooked teeth, awkwardness etc. After working on The Blind Side, I found myself speaking to a lot of kids for a lot of different organizations, trying to inspire them to follow their dreams, and the majority of kids who came to talk to me wanted to know about how they should deal with bullying. Many of them were going through the same sorts of things that I went through and as a result I felt I had a duty to try and use my experiences to help them. So, The Quinton Aaron Foundation was formed and we continue to go from strength to stregth with a very clear focus on this mission.

Quinton on the set of Halfway with cinematographer Benjamin Thomas. © Halfway Film LLC, 2015
Quinton on the set of Halfway with cinematographer Benjamin Thomas. © Halfway Film LLC, 2015

Q: What are your career goals? Would you like to try writing, directing, producing as well, or is acting your primary passion?

A: Acting is definitely my primary focus, but I’m certainly interested in producing as well. I like being creative and although I don’t consider myself a writer, I do enjoy coming up with ideas and developing them with writers who I like and want to work with. On the producing side, with Halfway my first experience of working more in that capacity (albeit in an executive producorial capacity) I’ve really embraced it. It’s been awesome to work closely with Jonny on this film and I think I’ve learned a lot about what it takes to actually get a movie made. It’s an experience I’ll always carry with me.

Q: What types of roles or movies would you love to be in?

A: Well as I mentioned earlier, I’d love to be James Bond one day!

007, are you listening?!? Thank you so much, Quinton, for your time!

Read the rest of the interviews in this series:

Find Halfway on Facebook and Twitter.
Find Quinton Aaron on Twitter and Facebook.
Find out more about The Quinton Aaron Foundation here.

Q&A with Writer/Director Ben Caird on Writing and His Inspiration for His New Film, Halfway

Ben Caird. Photo by Ben Montemayor. © Halfway Film LLC, 2015
Ben Caird. Photo by Ben Montemayor. © Halfway Film LLC, 2015

Q: Tell us a little about your background — where did you grow up, where did you go to school, what inspired your writing and your love of film?

A: I’m half British (father) and half American (mother) and I grew up in London. My father is a writer and director of theatre, opera and pretty much anything else that can be staged. My mother also worked in theatre through which she met my father in New York.

My brothers and sisters (the ones of working age) all work in the arts. One sister is an art, culture and travel journalist, the other a musician. One brother is a theatre director and AD, the other a fine artist and graphic designer. We were encouraged to get stuck into whatever industry we wanted to; it just so happened that we all ended up in artistic pursuits. There aren’t really any individual seminal moments I can think of that drove me to what I do; rather I don’t really know what else I would do. When your family and so many close friends have careers in the arts, you do have some examples around that make it seem a tangible dream, however crazy it truly is.

My technical training ground was starting a small video production company with a friend that saw us produce music videos, short films and other viral media for tiny budgets where we performed almost every role ourselves. This really allowed us to experiment with cameras, lighting, editing, and the host of other jobs required. However, I knew I wanted to get more into narrative work so I decided to go to film school which is really where I kicked on my storytelling.

Once at The London Film School I really became a full-time student of cinema, an education ever ongoing. Every film I watch, script or story I read or set I work on, whether the experience is positive or negative, I learn a little more about what I think I can offer in my own work.

Ben writing in the shed on the set of Halfway. © Halfway Film LLC, 2015

Q: Is Halfway your first feature-length script?

A: Halfway is certainly my first completed feature-length script. I have other pieces in various stages of development, some as far along as redrafted full scripts, but given that the writing, especially when writing for yourself as a director, is never truly over until the scene is shot (and then even sometimes dialogue is rewritten and rerecorded whilst in post-production) Halfway probably must therefore be considered my first.

Q: Is this the first time you’ve been both writer and director?

A: I wrote [and directed] all of the short films that I’ve made that preceded Halfway. As a new director I think it’s invaluable being able to write for yourself. This is not to say you’re the best writer in the world, simply that, as a director, without being able to write for yourself, you’re relying on good writers letting you cut your teeth on their work. Then, if you do find a great script you want to make, be it short or feature, you have two egos you have to massage through the process.

The most important thing I’ve learned in my young career is not to be too precious about what you’re doing because things change very quickly and you have to be able to react to that. That becomes harder if you’re not just “killing your own babies,” but someone else’s too. This often plays into director’s careers later, when they’re perhaps better equipped to deal with it (or not as the case may be), but I think mitigating that in your first works is rather more liberating.

Ben directing on the set of Halfway
Ben directing on the set of Halfway

Q: Does directing change how you write? In what way?

A: I think knowing you’re going to be the one that directs the script can change the way you write, though it shouldn’t. I know in the beginning it did for me. I think it’s fine if a director’s voice is known. A PT Anderson or Coen Brothers script can be read by financiers, actors, all the key players and know what the deal is. I’m not saying their scripts won’t be complete, just that the bits left out can be filled in by the reader knowing what has come before so what is likely to be filled in.

As a first timer, it’s no good me giving a draft to my producer, who knows my work/style from my shorts, and expecting them to have all the time to make everyone watch my shorts and mood reels to get the tone/content. The script needs to stand-alone as a good piece of writing. Then, if drawn in by it, our collaborators will still want to see what I’ve done before and if I’m someone that has enough of a voice to carry the script.

Ben on the set of Halfway with the film's star, Quinton Aaron. © Halfway Film LLC, 2015
Ben on the set of Halfway with the film’s star, Quinton Aaron. © Halfway Film LLC, 2015

Q: What inspired Halfway?

A: Although I was born and raised in London, UK, my mother is from Wisconsin, USA, so as a child I would spend summers in the States seeing family. With fond memories of playing on my family’s Wisconsin dairy farm, I always felt like an outsider in my inability, even as a child, to do the things my farm-raised cousin could.

As an adult revisiting my family’s farm, I found the chores performed incredibly hypnotic and calming to watch. Farms are a place of tremendous upheaval and mechanical power, but also of baseness, of simplistic physical duty.

Farms are so little understood by the urban dweller, of which our societies are increasingly more becoming. By in essence, sending my protagonist to a farm to cleanse him, I want to show an American Dream story, of social movement and rejection of his past transgressions through physical hard work in a new frontier.

The outsider element at the core of the film is race. I find perception and discrimination due to race fascinating. Clearly the United States still has a problem with race relations in many parts of the country and whilst I cannot try to tackle everything in this film, I certainly wish to pose some social questions.

I’m very much drawn to rite-of-passage stories as I find tremendous drama in looking through a microscope at an individual’s life at certain stages of change, of challenge.

In this film I wish to take my certainly less-than-perfect protagonist and make his battle the audience’s battle.

Q: Did you do research while you were writing to help you understand the story?

A: I’ve spent a lot of time in the last few years in Wisconsin, so my understanding of the setting and people was pretty good. I’ve also kept a keen eye on race relations (as I’m sure many do), and the systemic incarceration flaws over the last years, too, so thinking about the sort of a voice I might be able add to the conversation was key. As a white Brit writing a story dealing with American race issues I thought a good way in for me was by making my protagonist an outsider, as that is where my experience comes from (though of course in very different ways).

Ben on the set of Halfway with producer Jonny Paterson. © Halfway Film LLC, 2015
Ben on the set of Halfway with producer Jonny Paterson. © Halfway Film LLC, 2015

Q: Do you remember the first thing you wrote? What was it?

A: The first story I really remember writing was at twelve years old in an entrance exam to my middle school (secondary school in the UK). I was given a series of titles to select from and I chose “No Man’s Land.” The story involved an island a ship wrecks off of, and the protagonist swimming ashore to find only Amazonian women. I was very proud of my punny take on the title.

Q: When did you write your first script?

A: I wasn’t a filmmaker that started at eight with a video camera telling stories with my friends; far from it. In the last few years of high school I got into reading literature, mainly our course materials, and started to quite enjoy the required essay writing that went along with it. When I left school I took a “gap-year” (a pretty standard break from education in the UK where teenagers work and travel before starting further education).

Having lost my school writing to deadline, I started to really miss the process of writing. I started, like I’m sure many teenagers do, writing what I thought was a novel or a novella, a short semi-autobiographical piece based on a particular experience of mine and some friends. I gave a first pass to my father and he suggested that my writing felt like it had elements of screen/stage direction accidentally incorporated in it. He showed me a basic script structure and I started reworking it in that form. I never made that piece but it was certainly the first actual script I wrote.

Ben on the set of his London Film School MA graduation film Drift. © Halfway Film LLC, 2015
Ben on the set of his London Film School MA graduation film Drift. © Halfway Film LLC, 2015

Q: What else have you written?

A: I have written numerous shorts. During my MA course at the London Film School I wrote many different pieces, some of which materialized as films, many of which hit the script graveyard. I wrote and directed two traditionally narrative shorts during my time there, one set entirely in a prison cell that we built on a school soundstage, The Castle, and my graduation film entitled Drift.

Q: What role do you think film has in our social awareness and in driving our discussions about culture and humanity?

A: I don’t think that filmmakers, or anyone in fact, has a responsibility to drive awareness or discussion of anything. However, clearly there are enough people that take it on themselves to do just that, and, for me, that’s vitally important. Any art form that has an audience, a reader or a listener has the opportunity to evoke some human emotion. Since its genesis film has been used as a platform to engage and inform its viewer, be that for social good or bad. I can’t see this changing. I certainly hope to be able to continue making films with themes I see as important to discuss.

Ben on the set of Halfway with star Quinton Aaron, who plays Byron in the film, and Linda Bright Clay, who plays Byron’s parole officer. © Halfway Film LLC, 2015

Q: What are your short- and long-term goals as a writer and director?

A: I hope that Halfway is received well and that I get to follow it up with another in the coming years. I have lots of stories I’d like to tell so hopefully this is the first of many.

Q: Do you hope to branch out even further, or is writer/director your niche?

A: I also produce. I’ve just finished a small film set in the countryside in the UK, a dark love story, entitled Long Forgotten Fields. We’re just taking that film out to the market now so hopefully there will be some positive news on that front in the coming months. I also have some other projects of varying scopes in the works, some other US, that we’ll hopefully have some exciting announcements about soon.

Two weeks ago: Halfway: the movie

Last week: Q&A with Halfway Producer Jonny Paterson.

Coming next week: Q&A with Halfway star Quinton Aaron.

Find Halfway on Facebook and Twitter. Find Ben Caird at his website.

Ben on the set of Halfway with Quinton Aaron. © Halfway Film LLC, 2015
Ben on the set of Halfway with Quinton Aaron. © Halfway Film LLC, 2015

Also published at my Huffington Post blog.


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Q&A with Halfway Producer Jonny Paterson on the Producer Life

Also published at my Huffington Post blog.

Jonny Paterson © Halfway Film LLC, 2015
Jonny Paterson © Halfway Film LLC, 2015

In chatting last week with Jonny Paterson, producer of Halfway, I found that he had so many interesting thoughts, I had to break up my post into several posts!

The first post addressed the movie itself. In this post, I chat with Jonny more about his own career and work. Still to come are Q&As with Ben Caird, writer/director of the film, and Quinton Aaron, star of Halfway.

Be sure to scroll to the end to find out where you can find Halfway online!

Thank you, Jonny, for being so generous with your time and thoughts!

Q: Can you give me a general overview of your background?

A: I studied at the University of Leeds to get a BA in English Literature and History (Joint Honors) and then went to Carnegie Mellon University to get a Master in Entertainment Industry Management. I worked at a talent agency called ICM briefly before moving on to Lionsgate Entertainment, then I got my job working for Paula Wagner. I assisted her for a year before setting up my own production company, JP International Productions in 2013. I also sit on the board of UK-based charity Football Aid where I have been a non-Executive director for the past five years. The charity was formed in 2001 and has a focus on raising funds to put towards finding a cure for Juvenile Type-1 diabetes. I myself am a Type-1 diabetic.

 Jonny and Quinton Aaron with local Montfort businesswoman Marva Becker © Halfway Film LLC, 2015
Jonny and Quinton Aaron with local Montfort businesswoman Marva Becker © Halfway Film LLC, 2015

Q: What first sparked your interest in films and the entertainment industry?

A: The truth is, coming from a wee country like Scotland, I never really thought having a career in “Hollywood” was realistically attainable. I’ve always been ambitious, but that career path still seemed a bit fantastical. However, as I was preparing to graduate during the recession in 2010, my job prospects were pretty bleak (as was the case for most graduates with liberal arts degrees at the time!). So I started looking further afield and came across a great program at Carnegie Mellon University, which would allow me to get a business degree at the same time as working in an internship capacity in Hollywood. The truth is, when I made it on to that program and subsequently moved to California after a year in Pittsburgh, I still didn’t know what my calling was going to be career-wise, but I was definitely excited to go on the ride and find out.

Q: What sparked your interest in being a producer?

A: Things started to take shape when I got a call from a friend of mine who was Paula Wagner’s assistant saying a position was opening up at her company and she’d like to put me forward for it. The opportunity to learn from someone like Paula was really huge for me, and her reputation as one of the top producers in the industry is renowned. I worked for Paula for a year and got to see what it really meant to be a producer, and a great producer at that. I started to learn that unlike the last couple of places I had worked, where every day kind of felt the same, the total opposite applied to working in production where every hour through up a new set of things to deal with. I loved that it kept me on my feet all the time, and decided thereafter that it was indeed my calling and have been 100% focused on making a success out of myself ever since.

Jonny Paterson © Halfway Film LLC, 2015
Jonny Paterson © Halfway Film LLC, 2015

Q: What does a producer do, more specifically than “everything”?

A: The reason that producers often give the answer “everything” is because it’s not actually that far from the truth! Or at the very least, they have a hand in every major decision that gets made from start to finish, so it always feels like “everything.” However, to put that in the context of Halfway and to offer some examples, my function on the project ranged from finding the source material and “optioning” it (basically getting the exclusive right to produce the material), to bringing Quinton on board as our star and as an executive producer, to drawing up the budget and raising the money, to working out the logistics of getting everyone from LA/Chicago/NYC/London to a small town called Montfort in Wisconsin (a nightmare task!), and then, during production, running the set and making sure everyone had what they needed to do their jobs properly, especially Ben, the [writer and] director, whose vision it was we were all ultimately trying to bring to fruition.

Now that we are in post-production, I have a whole slew of new job functions, but I think you get the point. Basically, I am the only producer on the film and thus I have to take on all the responsibility to make sure the boat sails as smoothly as possible.

Jonny with Halfway writer/director Ben Caird between scenes © Halfway Film LLC, 2015
Jonny with Halfway writer/director Ben Caird between scenes © Halfway Film LLC, 2015

Q: What do you love about producing? What do you not love as much?

A: As I intimated in a previous answer, there is a lot of energy to be mined from doing a job that is constantly evolving and presenting different working parameters on a daily basis. I love waking up in the morning with but a few things on my schedule, yet knowing that by 9 a.m. I’m going to have a backlog of things I need to get done before the day’s end. In a practical sense, in pre-production on Halfway I was very much learning on the job and taking things in my stride, but I can say fundamentally that no two days in a row were the same. Certainly there were successes and failures that overlapped with each other, but I was very much taking the bull by the horns and making things happen without having a blueprint as to how to achieve my goals. I was informed when getting in to production that “no two films are the same,” which is to say that each time I work on a film I will inevitably come up against challenges that will be fresh and unique to anything I’ve done before. I’m really energised by that, and it forces me to focus more and work harder each and every day.

Over the past two years, the other thing that has been a pillar of my success thus far has been my desire and ability to find new talents. On Halfway that would be Ben Caird, on my next project that is someone else and so on and so forth, and that’s incredibly exciting and something I love about producing.

As to what I don’t love so much, at the risk of contradicting myself, there is an uncertainty about where your next project or pay check is coming from that at a certain point isn’t going to be healthy for me. The film industry is notoriously slow moving and there is a great saying that those in my position will understand only too well, and that is that we are always “running so that we can walk.” That is to say, we have short bursts (a week here, a week there) which provide fireworks and incredible jolts of energy for a project that you’re involved with that is truly the most adrenalin-infused, exciting thing in the world. However, you get through that week and then things slow down and the realisation is that, yes, last week was awesome, but this week we need to stop and think, and then get on with the paperwork etc., and then eventually, weeks or months down the line, all the awesomeness of that one week will finally bear some fruits. Running to walk!

Jonny and crew on set © Halfway Film LLC, 2015
Jonny and crew on set © Halfway Film LLC, 2015

Q: What are your short- and long-term career goals?

A: Short term: Successfully guide Halfway through the remainder of the post-production process and towards a premier later this year/start of next year. Thereafter I have two projects in particular that I am focused on and would like to make, one, titled The Scavengers, that I’ll be making in Ireland, and the second is one I can’t divulge too much about at this stage, but would be a step up for me in terms of scope and commercial potential.

Long term: To build a company that affords a sustainable lifestyle for me and my family. That probably looks like one to two movies per year for the foreseeable future, and as I mentioned previously, I don’t have particularly strict designs on scope or genre of film. I’d like to continue to make movies that I’m passionate about, whether they cost $1 million or $100 million. A nice blend of the two would be nice.

Jonny and crew on set © Halfway Film LLC, 2015
Jonny and crew on set © Halfway Film LLC, 2015

Q: With software and modern technology, people making movies on their iPhones, for example, the world of film is opening up to almost everyone. Do you think that’s a good thing or bad thing, and why?

A: A good thing. Ever since Thomas Edison was credited with giving birth to the motion picture industry in the late nineteenth century, it has constantly been faced with challenges that generally fit in to one of three categories: creative, economical, or technological. From the invention of “talkies” in the 1920s with The Jazz Singer to the birth of using colour in films, invention of television, the multinational conglomerate takeover of film studios that still exists today with companies like Time Warner and News Corp ruling the roost over Warner Bros and Fox respectively, the birth and subsequent demise of DVDs — the list goes on. The important thing to know is that the film industry isn’t going anywhere, it is simply evolving in a manner that fits in line with an historical precedent.

I believe that in general it is a good thing that the process of content creation has become so easily accessible. I guarantee we will find an Academy Award-winning writer or director that started out making a short film that someone shot on their GoPro and that got 100,000,000 hits on YouTube (that number isn’t exaggerated!). The downside to this current evolution is that we’re yet to find a truly effective filter for finding the diamonds within the rough. There are a lot of cat videos that garner massive viewership, but that’s not necessarily something that translates in to a great proof-of-concept idea for a feature film.

Last week: Halfway: the movie

Coming next week: Q&A with Halfway writer/director Ben Caird.

Coming in two weeks: Q&A with Halfway star Quinton Aaron.

Find Halfway on Facebook and Twitter.

© Halfway Film LLC, 2015
© Halfway Film LLC, 2015

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Gothard Sisters’ New CD Inspired by “Love of Simple, Timeless, and Transcendent Things”

Also published at my Huffington Post blog.

Photo by Gabriel Bienczycki, Zebra Visual
Photo by Gabriel Bienczycki, Zebra Visual

The Gothard Sisters, three sisters who are “multi-instrumentalist Celtic-influenced folk musicians, songwriters, and performers from the Pacific Northwest, USA,” have a new CD out this week, Mountain Rose (released Tuesday, June 23, 2015). I asked Greta Gothard, the oldest of the three sisters (Willow is second and Solana is youngest), to chat with me briefly about the album and their musical life.

Q: Tell me about the new CD. What were your inspirations, is there a theme, and is there a story behind the cover art?

A: The new album is called Mountain Rose. It comes from a line in one of the lyrics, as well as the name of a waltz on the album, but to me the mountain rose is symbolic of our musical sound — the classical rose becoming a rugged little mountain rose — one who survives the elements and ends up with a grittier, more folky, earthy sound.

The album wasn’t intended to have a theme, but it did! There is a theme of hope, simplicity, patience (what does that mean again? They haven’t texted me back for 30 MINUTES!) and community. There is also this kind of subplot of little wild animals running through the album — there is a tune set called “Cat in a Bush,” which is lovingly dedicated to the neighborhood cat that keeps squashing our lavender bushes, as well as “The Bandit,” that Willow wrote about a raccoon. So that’s where the cover artwork came from — Rosalind the Raccoon, wearing a skirt made out of Nootka rose petals and dancing and playing the fiddle. It’s all very authentic, really; we have always come up with stories about little characters.

From the album’s dedication: “Mountain Rose was inspired by the love of simple, timeless, and transcendent things — patience, courage, community, the beauty and adventure of nature, and most of all the feeling of comfort in being with those you love as the sun sets on summer nights.”
From the album’s dedication: “Mountain Rose was inspired by the love of simple, timeless, and transcendent things — patience, courage, community, the beauty and adventure of nature, and most of all the feeling of comfort in being with those you love as the sun sets on summer nights.”

The album artwork was done by Molly Hashimoto, who is a local Seattle artist who is quite well known, and who teaches art at the North Cascades Institute and the Burke Museum, as well as many other places. The cover art is a wood cut block that was hand-carved and tinted by Molly just for the album and we are just so honored that she wanted to help create the art for this project!

Mountain Rose is our third album of original material as well as new arrangements of traditional Celtic and folk songs. In my opinion, it is our most traditional, yet also the most contemporary album that we have done so far. There are definitely older traditional songs on the album — “Auld Lang Syne” is one of my favorites, and we tried to put a new spin on the song, to do something that hasn’t been tried before. It ended up turning into an almost folk-rock finish from a traditional ballad. Doing something new with this classic material is really fun — we love doing that. There are also original songs on the album. Solana came up with the idea of writing a song about Grace O’Malley, but instead of telling the usual story about the infamous pirate queen and her adventures, this is a song about Grace when she was only nine years old. It’s based on a true story — when she was a little girl she used to sail with her father on his voyages, and once they were attacked by pirates and she saved her father and his crew during the fight. She was a girl with gumption!

There are also love songs — “I Courted A Sailor” is about a woman waiting for her fiancé to come home from an ocean voyage, and “The Boatman’s Call” is about a chance encounter that turns into a simple love story. And of course we always have to have a waltz on the album, so this time it is “Mountain Rose Waltz,” which is a lovely country dance. So many fun songs on this album!

Photo by Gabriel Bienczycki, Zebra Visual
Photo by Gabriel Bienczycki, Zebra Visual

Q: You guys have a really full tour schedule. About how many shows do you do a year?

A: Yes the tour schedule is really full this summer! I think last year we did about ninety shows total, but were away from home a lot longer than that. Someone did the math and found out that we spent a third of the year away from home.

Q: How many years have you been performing?

A: We’ve been performing together for almost ten years now — officially. But we always did little performances together when we were kids so it has probably actually been a lot longer than that!

Q: What do you love most about being musicians? Least?

A: Music is a universal language. It is what feelings sound like. It is cultural heritage and tradition easily shared in a current way. So I love being able to speak and communicate in that language — to literally be able to sit down with musicians from anywhere in the world and find something that you can play together and enjoy each others’ company without even having to speak.

What I like least about being a musician? Having to travel on airplanes with musical instruments and fear for their lives!

Q: I’ve seen evidence of how much you all work. Have you ever figured out about how many hours a day your work on average? 

A: That’s a great question! Our work takes many different forms. There are hours of online work — maintaining websites and social media, booking concerts and advertising concerts — then there are hours spent discussing new ideas and writing new music, which can either happen in a very short period of time (all in one day) or be something that you pick away at for months before it finally clicks. Then of course, there’s practicing each of our instruments and rehearsing things together as well!

Sometimes it can be hard to tell what time is “work” and what time is “time off,” so we try to be organized with our time as much as creative people can be. Usually we’ll be working through an entire normal workday, breakfast ’til dinnertime, and a lot of the time we work through the weekends as well. But one of the perks of the job is that we can also just decide to take an entire week or two off whenever we want. We try to keep it balanced!

Q: What are your short and long-term goals?

A: Short term goals would be to send Mountain Rose out into the world and to keep writing new music and songs. Mountain Rose is actually one of the first albums we’ve put out that has original lyrics on it, and we’ve gotten a  positive response so far, so we’re really excited about that idea! We’re hoping to write more songs and pick up ideas for good stories while on the road this summer.

As for long-term goals, we’re hoping to always do creative things together, no matter what they are! We love making and writing music together, and mostly hope to bring a little joy in some way to other people’s lives.

Find out more about The Gothard Sisters at their website, on Facebook, and on Twitter!


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The Blind Side Actor Takes on the Harsh Realities of Life After Prison in New Film, Halfway

Quinton Aaron as Byron. © Halfway Film LLC, 2015

A recently-released convict finds himself caught between two worlds in the upcoming feature film Halfway, starring Quinton Aaron (The Blind Side). Aaron plays Byron, a man whose urban criminal past haunts his new life as the only black man in a predominantly white, conservative Wisconsin farming town.

The film chronicles Byron’s struggles as he adapts to his new life on probation, while trying to elude the very real threat of falling back into his old life of crime.

I recently chatted with Halfway Producer Jonny Paterson about the movie, the important social issues it seeks to address, and his work on the film.

Q: What are the themes in Halfway, whether underlying or explicit?

A: Halfway is a commentary on the fractured incarceration system in America and the serious socio-economic implications that result from recidivism (the re-incarceration of released felons for a similar crime within a short period of time). The American prison system has been at a breaking point for years, with a 700 percent growth in inmate population since 1973 that now stands at 2.4 million — higher than any other democratic nation in the world. Coupled with the discouraging statistic that nearly 66 percent of released prisoners will find themselves back in prison within three years, and approximately 75 percent within five years, it’s clear that more should be done to ensure that released prisoners are given the opportunity for an actual second chance.

Halfway is a right-of-passage story seen through the eyes of our protagonist and further themes that run through the story include strong family values and the belief that everyone deserves a second chance. Byron’s story asks the audience to consider the serious systematic failure within the American prison system, where a lack of opportunity for those who have transgressed in their past seems to guarantee a future behind bars. Aaron’s character faces harsh realities about decisions that need to be made when someone is given a second chance, in a new and unfamiliar surrounding.

The fish-out-of-water story at the core of the film has to do with race. It is very timely that with the events taking place in Baltimore and Ferguson (among others) that the United States still has a problem with race relations in many parts of the country, and whilst we cannot try and tackle everything in this film, we certainly wish to pose some poignant social questions. Should our past actions allow for prejudice against us? Can we expect to be absolved of all blame simply because we have served our punishment?

Quinton Aaron as Byron. © Halfway Film LLC, 2015
Quinton Aaron as Byron. © Halfway Film LLC, 2015

Q: How did Halfway first come to your attention? What was it about the movie that grabbed you, made you want to be a part of it?

A: My first job in Hollywood was working with Paula Wagner, Tom Cruise’s producer. It was an incredible experience and I learned to track talent on the rise from her. I met Ben Caird at a networking event, liked his work, and he pitched me a film inspired by where he grew up that had to deal with race in America.

Ben has a tone and style to his writing that I’d seen him translate onto the screen with a series of successful short films that he wrote and directed. As I was reading the script for Halfway I could see his vision in my head.

Having worked closely with Quinton Aaron on the film 1982 in 2013 I knew I could introduce the project to him. I told Ben, “If I can get Quinton to do the film, then I think we can get it made.” Quinton responded really positively to the material and came on board after our first meeting. From there on I knew we could do it!

Q: Of all the scripts you read every week, what made this one stand out?

A: Halfway stood out to me for a few reasons, but I’ll focus on one practical reason and one creative reason. From a practical perspective, the story was contained and did not need a massive budget. As a first-time producer, I felt I could raise the money necessary to make the movie. From a creative perspective, I loved Ben’s vision and believed in the team. There is a European sensibility to this American story thanks to an international team; the director, cinematographer Ben Thomas, editor Karel van Bellingen, and I all come from across the pond.

Q: Once you decided you wanted to make this movie, what was the next step?

A: I remember it was on April 1, 2014, when Ben and I looked at each other and said, no matter what we need to do or how much money I can raise, we’re making this movie in October. We shook on it. Within six months everything fell into place and we started filming on Wednesday, October 1, exactly six months later, to the day!

But, in a very practical sense from that moment in April onwards it became a full time job for me, working 12 hours a day to move things forward one step at a time.

Byron with his Parole Officer. © Halfway Film LLC, 2015
Byron with his Parole Officer. © Halfway Film LLC, 2015

Q: What made you decide to take on such an important topic?

A: It is important to me that I make a wide range of movies in my career that reflect not just my personal, creative tastes as a film lover but also satisfy my social beliefs as well. I studied history at undergraduate level in college in the UK and have always been fascinated in the evolution of societies and the powers that govern them. Since I moved to America in 2010, racial tensions have been at a boiling point. Halfway isn’t directly commenting on issues of police violence and racially charged tensions in big cities like Baltimore, but it is telling the story of someone who has been afforded a second chance after paying his debt to society through his incarceration. That’s powerful to me. The fact that ever since I moved to this country, this has been the most contentious socio-economic issue, made it prominent in my own mind, and as such, when this project presented itself to me it seemed like an opportunity to tell a story that is borne out of this world, but hopefully sheds a positive light on how we can move forward as a society if we give people a true second chance.

Q: Are you hoping the movie generates a larger discussion? In your ideal world, what impact would Halfway have on the conversations we are having in our country and around the world about race and the prison system?

A: Yes, I am certainly hoping that the film provides a platform for further discussion on the issues of racially charged tensions in America and the broken prison system’s involvement in inciting that. To that point, I, along with the Executive Producers, have plans to form the Halfway Foundation, which will seek to raise awareness for and create more public initiatives towards reducing recidivism rates.

I’d also love for our movie to be shown in prisons around the country, to young men and women who will soon be sent back out in to the world. I’d love them to identify with our protagonist and think, “One opportunity, no matter how obscure it may seem, is all that I need to get myself straight and make a good life for myself away from all the temptations and troubles of my former life” — I’d feel fantastic about that!

Jonny enjoying himself on the set. © Halfway Film LLC, 2015
Jonny enjoying himself on the set. © Halfway Film LLC, 2015

Q: What do you think are some of the barriers in the way of our having and making progress in these important discussions — whether in our own small social groups or as a nation or world?

A: On a macro level, the prison system in America has become so expensive and the prisons are so overpopulated by people who are incarcerated for misdemeanor offenses that America has found itself in a challenging position to remedy the current state of affairs. To focus on one example, I met with the prison warden of the Prairie du Chien Correctional Institute in Wisconsin, and he told me a lot about the good work that their prison does to rehabilitate their prisoners, by offering them the chance to take classes and learn a trade, preparing them for life back on the outside. Unfortunately I don’t think enough prisons around the country are doing that well enough. And on top of that, the bigger problem is that when young men and women are released back in to society, they’re just sort of thrown back out there and expected to fend for themselves. There is an undeniable lack of opportunity for these people, and when they have to tick a felony box on every job application they make, it’s understandable that the general attitude is quite defeatist.

Q: Who else stars in the movie?

A: We’re incredibly fortunate to have a wonderful supporting cast of actors that includes the amazing Jeffrey DeMunn (Shawshank Redemption, The Green Mile, The Walking Dead), Gillian Zinser (90210), Amy Pietz (The Office), and TJ Power (Eat Pray Love, The Sapphires).

Coming next week: More Q&A with Jonny about his career path and the producer life.

Coming in two weeks: Q&A with Halfway writer/director Ben Caird.

Find Halfway on Facebook and Twitter.

 


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