Friday 10 February 2012

Interview with Brian McDonald, part 1

Brian McDonald is the author of Invisible Ink: A Practical Guide to Building Stories that Resonate, and The Golden Theme: How to make your writing appeal to the highest common denominator. 
   He is an award winning screenwriter who has taught his craft at several major studios, including Pixar, Disney and Industrial Light & Magic. His award-winning short film White Face has been shown all over the USA. 
   I had the privilege of asking him some questions back in January. What follows is Part 1 of that interview.

* You were born on February 18, 1965 (and named after your mother's favourite actor, Brian Keith) in St. Joseph, Missouri, which—for those who don’t know—is the place "Where the Pony Express started and Jesse James ended."  Your family later moved to Denver, then Seattle, where you grew up.  Tell us something about your childhood and family. 

I have great memories of Saint Jo, but I didn’t live there very long before my father moved us to Denver. My guess is that I was about 3 or 4 at the time. There were three of us kidsmy brother my sister and me. I’m the eldest. I have a vague memory of pulling up to the Denver house for the very first time. We lived there until I was in second grade.
   The great thing about that house was that there was a drive-in theater really close and from the porch we would watch movies at night. We couldn’t hear them, but we could see them. It’s one of those great childhood memories. 

  I remember Disney’s Bedknobs and Broomsticks showed there and I explained what we were watching to my brother and sister because I had seen the film on a kindergarten field trip.
   That film has both live-action and animation, which is probably why I don’t make much of a distinction between the two even to this day.  I loved the idea of being in an animated world and spent a ton of time daydreaming about it.

* You were close to your father.  What is your best memory of him?  Was he a story-teller?

He was a great storyteller. I have an early memory of him talking about having seen Planet Of The Apes (1968)he was amazed by it. He loved it. I remember he was impressed with an ape that smokes in the film. For some reason the smoking ape fascinated him. It’s hard for young people to understand, but the apes make-up was mind-blowing at the time. When I finally saw the film I loved it as much as he did. 

    I didn’t really grow up with Dad because my parents divorced when I was seven. We moved away from Denver and he stayed.
   At Dad’s funeral his friends mentioned what a good storyteller he was. They said that he always had the correct story to help people with things in their lives. His love of movies and storytelling rubbed off on me, I guess.  But my mother loves movies, too, and watched old movies all the time when they came on television. 

* You struggled at school. How old were you when you found out you were dyslexic?

My dyslexia was never officially diagnosed. Most people suspected it because of my terrible spelling, bad hand writing, and my habit of switching letters and words. I was mostly put into special education classes and it was in one of those classes in high school where my teacher told me that he thought I probably had a learning disability
   Back then people didn't talk about dyslexia the way we do now and I just thought I was stupid. It wasn't until a few years later that I connected the dots when I heard more about what dyslexia was. All of my symptoms matched up. I'm sure I was 19 0r 20 before I really knew.

* Were you a football star, an athlete, or the nerd who fell in love with movies?

I just loved movies and never considered how other people might see me because of it. If I was a nerd I had no idea.
   These things get squished together with time, but I think that Bedknobs and Broomsticks, Planet of the Apes, and the 1933 version of King Kong came into my life around the same time and that set the direction of my life. I wanted to do that. Make those things.
   I wanted to know everything about how this stuff was done. So by five, I wanted to make movies. I watched any behind-the-scenes thing that was on TV. There wasn’t much back then, but if there was anything, I’d watch it. This was before anyone ever heard the name Steven Spielberg, so it was slightly unusual to be so interested in movie-making.
   We were pretty poor after my parents divorced and I had no way to get a movie camera. It was my dream to have one. Then one day I saw an episode of a children’s show that taught kids how to make a flipbook, so for years I made flipbooks at every opportunity. Mom worked in an office and brought pads of paper home for me to use. 
   The flipbooks became my way to make movies with no equipment. It taught me a lot. Animation became my way into film; I loved all types movies equally, but leaned slightly towards anything with animation.

* When did you make your first film with an actual camera?

When I was 10 years old I met a friend who had a movie camera and we made a film called The War. This was in 1975. It was a stop-motion film made with green plastic Army men. I can’t tell you how excited I was to really be making a real film.
   A little while later my mom remarried and my stepfather’s dad gave me an old 8mm camera he had. This was when everything was Super 8, so I was behind the times. But I could not have been happier. 
   After Star Wars there was a lot more stuff about films, filmmaking, and special effects in terms of books, magazines and television. I read about films all the time. It was almost all I ever readbooks and things about film.
   I never divided up the jobs of filmmaking in my mindwriting, directing, and special effects were all interesting to me so I read about every aspect of film, thinking I would need to be able to do it all. And at that time I did all of those things. 

* You wrote your first screenplay at the age of 15.  What happened to that script?

I found a place in town called Golden Age Collectables. It was the first comic book store in the U.S., I believe. They sold scripts so I would buy them with money I made mowing lawns. The first script I saw in real life was a Star Trek script called Mirror Mirror. It was the first time I saw the actual format of a script. That made me think I could write one.
   The first feature I wrote was called Problem Infinity and it was about these astronauts who crash-landed on a dinosaur planet. I just wanted to do a bunch of stop-motion. I wrote it with a friend of mine. I’m sure it was awful. We shot some test footage, but never made the film. After that, I bought a stack of screenplays and studied them.

* You grew up in Seattle. One of your early movie jobs was as a production assistant on Sleepless in Seattle, but you worked in New York, not Seattle. Tell us about that experience.

Sleepless in Seattle came kind of late for me, in reality. I will have to backtrack a little to talk about my early work. I got my first film-related job when I was teenager. The dates are fuzzy, but it was around 1979. Because I was obsessed with film I called up everyone in the phonebook who had anything to do with motion pictures (that’s how it was listed) and asked if I could come talk to them. Most said yes. So I went around town and spoke to all of the film people I could. Mostly they were animation people.
   I met a guy named Bruce Walters who did animated titles, motion graphics and effects for commercialsmostly local Seattle stuff, but some national. His company was called Trickfilm. Somehow I impressed him, and he invited me to come back and hang out. Soon I was helping him with his work, on a volunteer basis after school. After a year or so he gave me a job. It was the first job I ever had. I think I was even too young to work legally, now that I think about it.
   I worked with Bruce for a few years on ads and industrial films. It was an old-fashioned mentor-apprentice deal. This was before computers, so most of our work was done on a manual Oxberry animation stand. I learned a ton from Brucewho is some kind of genius when it comes to that stuff. Years later he would invent digital matte painting. Smart guy. He taught me even more about how to observe thingshow to learn from looking. He knew everything about the history of what he did.
   Eventually, Bruce was offered a job at ILM’s animation department to work on Star Trek III: The Search For Spock.     I stayed in Seattle, but over the years, from working for Bruce, I had gotten to know a few animation people in town and so I started working for all of them. This was not always for pay. Sometimes. But a lot of it was me showing up, hanging out and helping where I could. I sometimes got some freelance work.
   I did that for a few years, then at 21, I packed up my car and moved to L.A. which was always the plan since I was a kidmove to L.A. and get paid to write and direct movies. So, by the time I was 21, I had about six years of working experience under my belt. This was in 1986.
   I didn’t work on Sleepless in Seattle until I moved back in 1993. I only worked on the film for two days and was very surprised to see my name in the credits. I was just on the swing gangI moved furniture mostly.

Brian McDonald in 1987 with the make-up fx crew of Return of the Living Dead 2.
* What kind of film work did you do while in Los Angeles?

I was writing, of course, but on spec.  I was staying with a friend of mine from Seattle, Todd Masters, who had moved to L.A. just a little while before me. Todd was starting to work as a creature effects guy. Through Todd, the very first job I had in L.A. was working for a guy named Ted Rae on a movie called Night of the Creeps. Ted did the effects for the film. I was mostly a runner for Ted, but I did get to assist in the making of “creeps” a little bit.
   I worked on a few creature movies, but I don’t think I got credit on any. This whole time I was working on my writing. I wrote a few specs, but couldn’t get them read. 
   I had been reading comics since I was a kid and used them as a way to learn how to tell stories with pictures. So I wrote a couple of comic book stories that got published [titles include Tarzan, Predator, Lost In Space, and the first Hellboy spin-off Abe Sapien - Drums Of The Dead], but was never able to get a foothold there either.
    I had another friend, Ron Pearson, who was a stand-up comic. I started writing for him and then started to do stand-up myself. I did that for seven years or so, in between movie gigs. I was a mediocre stand-up, but it taught me a ton about audiences and communication.
   This was during the ‘comedy boom’ of the 1980s. A lot of people who are big now were just getting started at the time, and I either got to know or work with a lot of them.
   But like all booms, it ended and the work dried up. I was not high enough on the comedy totem pole to make it through the dry spell. Plus, I liked stand-up a lot, but I didn’t love it. So leaving it was sad, but it did not break my heart.
   One reason I left L.A. was practical. I was broke. And it became a hard place to be because it was killing my love of film and making me doubt myself in every way. I left because I wasn’t going to let L.A. beat me.

You can read more about Brian's comedian friends HERE, on his blog.

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