I recently had the opportunity to interview Mattson Tomlin who’s an immensely talented, up and coming Los Angeles-based filmmaker behind the film, Solomon Grundy. I am a proud backer of the film project. I got to watch the film earlier this month and was really amazed how well the film turned out given its story complexity and attention to detail.
Read what Mattson had to say in our interesting Q and A below, there is lots to be learned from his experience.
1. What’s the story behind you wanting to develop “Solomon Grundy” into a film?
The story of how this film came to be born is a long and arduous one. When I was turning eighteen, I was really into old nursery rhymes, which is a strange kind of thing to say. I realized that all of these 5-20 line poems established colorful worlds, tones and characters masterfully and that really got me excited for some reason. I remembered the nursery rhyme by James Orchard Halliwell called Solomon Grundy and thought that it captured the struggle of living really beautifully. It kind of ballooned from there with these other ideas that I was very into imaginary friends and the hauntings of childhood that follow you into adulthood.
What really started the project was a seven minute short film I did in 2009 that got a few thousand hits a week or two after it was put on YouTube. That doesn’t sound like much, but for me at the time, it showed me that this little nursery rhyme and the colorful characters I saw coming out of it had an audience. Those thousands of hits on YouTube kind of gave me the courage (or stupidity) to say “Okay, this should be a feature.”
2. Who was involved with the project?
This project had a really chaotic journey, and there have been a lot of really, really talented and dedicated people who contributed to it. I have to give a lot of credit to the film’s composer, Pick Bickmore. Other than myself, he’s the only person who has been tied to the production in a really tangible “pick up the phone and get something done today” kind of way from the beginning in 2009 until a few weeks ago when we released.
When we shot in the summer of 2010, I was just turning 20 years old and the crew for production consisted pretty much exclusively of my really talented classmates at the SUNY Purchase Film Conservatory. I was the first one in the class to do a feature and everyone was extremely generous and excited at the prospect of someone taking such a big jump into the deep end. I think they wanted to see if I was jumping head first. Everyone worked for free and worked a really scattered schedule from July to December of 2010. We wrapped two days before Christmas.
After the film was wrapped, it kind of went into hibernation because I went directly into production on a really ambitious short film called Dream Lover. By the time I seriously went back to Grundy, a lot of the people who worked on it had moved onto other films of their own and we had lost all of the momentum to complete the film. I graduated from SUNY Purchase and went directly to the American Film Institute, which is where I’m finishing up now. I managed to find time to finish the movie with Pick, as well as my good friend and constant collaborator, Mike Pappa, who did some really stunning visual effects for the movie.
Throughout all of it, really tangible legitimacy and support came from Henry Fernaine who produced the film under his company Bedouin Features. Henry really served as an advisor and a godfather to the project and was always there to lend credibility to my student film when I needed it. It always helps to be able to say ‘from the producer of Revolutionary Road,’ so in a way, it feels like there were two or three crews at different stages of Grundy’s life.
3. How did you attract quality individuals to join your team on your filmmaking journey?
Passion, passion, passion. It’s really like lighter fluid, that stuff. Henry was willing to be the mountain of support because he saw this 19-year-old kid who just wanted to make a movie that felt really different and cool. I think it’s safe to say he really wanted to help foster that passion and point it in the right direction.
The crew worked for free, the cast worked for free, some people put two to three years of their life on this. It was a passion project for us all. People want to be excited. They want to believe in something and the rush you get when you have a dozen people running around a city with cameras at 3 am and you’re nowhere near your home, it’s unlike anything.
Mike Pappa, who has been my production designer on two subsequent films, I met after Grundy was shot and asked him to do the visual effects. This was nearly three years after I shot the film, and he had some questions before he agreed to do it. He said something to the effect of “this is an old movie for you, isn’t it kind of below where you’re at now?” My response was “well yeah, but it’s like my child and I love it, and think about how much cooler it will be when you get your hands on it.” I don’t think Mike would have agreed to put the hundreds of hours of effort he put into it if I had been lukewarm about it.
4. What are the core goals for the film?
I’m not entirely sure how to put that into words. I think when I was 19 and first making the movie, I would have said something about getting into Sundance and starting my career. I’m 23 now, and though that’s not very old, there’s wisdom that comes from having to carry a film for four years when you’re developing so many of your skills. I think the retroactive goal for the film now is that I really went off the deep end with experimenting in the editing and cinematography, when I watch this movie it just simply doesn’t feel like other movies I’ve seen. It was such a beautiful and difficult learning process. I made a lot of mistakes in this film and there’s a lot I would love to approach in a completely altered way but I’m only where I am now because of what I did before.
If it’s more a question about the film itself, I hope it gets you thinking. It’s a narrative film but very experimental in its storytelling and doesn’t spell everything out for you. Kind of like the poem, you have to take a step back from it and ask “what does that mean about life, what is he really saying there?” I hope that Halliwell and I are in alignment with that at least.
5. You successfully raised funding for your film on Kickstarter. How did that process go, and what did you learn about the crowdfunding model that you didn’t know until late in the campaign, or perhaps after it was complete?
My Kickstarting was a really blessed venture. I was really early in on the Kickstarter bubble, I believe one of their staffers told me at one point I was one of their first few hundred, and at the time, twelve grand ($12,000) was a lot of weight on Kickstarter.
My whole approach was to try to avoid the horse shit. I can’t say it any other way. I just kind of had to go out there and say “hey! I’m 19 and I have this awesome idea and I can’t sleep unless I do it and wouldn’t it be awesome if you helped me and gave me ten thousand dollars?” There’s something about that kind of honesty coming from this precocious teenager that I think really got strangers enthusiastic. I didn’t approach it through a contrived pretense of professionalism that a lot of people try to do because I would have been laughed out of the room.
6. What were the biggest project challenges and struggles to overcome?
The biggest challenge was a lack of know-how and a certain degree of winging it that ended up adding years to the production. Just through the necessity of having to break from production in order to shoot another short for school– by the time I returned for the first leg of post-production on Grundy, everyone had scattered and gone onto other things. I was used to cutting short films and having the whole process go 1-3 months from pre-production through completion. It never occurred to me with something the scale of Grundy that there would have to be a team assembled for post the same way that there was for production. I had a lot to learn.
7. How did your team collaboratively manage the project work flow?
With a lot of hiccups. That was the biggest learning process of all. I hadn’t learned how to delegate. I hadn’t learned how to effectively set boundaries and expectations that were very clear. I think it’s really important that each member of your team knows exactly what they are there to do, particularly when you’re working low budget and not paying anyone. The passion and enthusiasm is what will get the machine working but to keep it well-oiled and happy, being honest is always the best way to be.
I’ll be honest, this movie helped me make a lot of friendships and broke a few along the way. I think that particularly on such a guerrilla level, it’s easy for people to feel walked on. I had to learn some really hard lessons with friends that had gone in with guns blazing and walked out feeling under appreciated.
There’s this great quote comparing being a writer and a director. A writer can pick up a pen and write a line of description with one hand. For a director, that pencil weighs ten thousand pounds and is being controlled by fifty people. I think there’s a lot of truth to that, and you have to learn how to get everyone on the same page and to really be a leader. This movie was my crash course for learning those skills and I am lucky that everyone who was a part of it still speaks to me.
8. Do you have any tips and/or insights for effectively green lighting a film project?
I think that if you’re going off to make your short or your feature or whatever, find the two or three people who are going to be on your side no matter what. Find the people who are going to protect you from yourself when you want to cut out all of the dialogue in the movie or make the last act black and white. Find the people who are going to keep you level headed and understand your process and moods.
From there, it’s just a matter of choosing a project that you can stand the sight of for potentially year after year. When you’re on the independent level, there are no studios and no investors holding you to a delivery date. You could literally sit on a movie forever. I am passionate about Solomon Grundy (and anyone who knows the production knows that I love him as much as I hate him) and I would be ready to sit on him and keep kneading the material for more years if that’s what it took. Green light what you have the mettle to finish is the best insight I can give because you’re expected to hold yourself to your own standards, no one else is going to do it for you.
9. I have a copy of your film since I was a proud backer of your project, but can the public rent or buy your film yet to watch it for themselves?
Neville Archambault, the big guy who plays Solomon Grundy, was in this television show of the 90s called Acapulco Bay. It was on Mexican daytime television and it’s just great. He spent about a decade living in Mexico and thus, has a huge following coming out of Mexico. He’s got dozens of people hitting him up each week asking for Grundy with Spanish subtitles or a dub. There’s been enough demand for it, so right now I’m working on the subtitles and a new set of DVDs will be made available around Christmas.
At this point I’m in a unique place for experimenting with self-distribution. There’s a humble following to the movie that has suddenly ballooned from the initial Kickstarter release, and frankly, I made the movie to be seen, and I don’t think the general audience seeks out film festivals unless they are there to see a specific movie. While I would love to screen it with a packed audience in a theater, it’s a film that is tailored to more intimate settings. The short answer–keep plugged into our Facebook page and wait for the announcement in the next few weeks.
10. Any parting shots, do you have anything else to add?
Just a shameless plug. I’m at the American Film Institute now and am shooting my thesis film this January. I’m doing a little film for $60,000 and am raising the money for it as we speak. It’s called PERSUASION and I think it’s the most exciting thing I’ve worked on to date. It feels like a completely different kind of beast and as much as I would love for people to donate to it, I’m just as interested in the audiences’ engagement. I really want people to follow the process of getting the movie made, so at the very least, “Like” our Facebook page because I’ll be on there a lot trying to be as forthcoming as I can be about what making a movie with that kind of budget really is and I would love for you to come along for the ride.
We thank Mattson for his very genuine and insightful answers for filmmakers to learn from! We also wish him and his projects all the best going forward.
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