An interview with Jesse Cowell – By Duane L. Martin

Jesse CowellLet’s start off with your background, education and some personal info about yourself.

I was born and raised in New York City. As a kid, when not being read to by my mom, a novelist, or chasing fires and swat teams with my dad, a news photographer, I spent four days a week watching movies at my favorite neighborhood theater.

My love for film finally found a home in college at the University of Albany, New York, where I met my mentor, Arthur Lennig. Although a relatively unknown school for film, Professor Lennig’s former students included the academy award winning editor of JFK, Brothers McMullen creator Edward Burns, and the producer of Mr. Holland’s Opus who called Lennig “his Mr. Holland”. Professor Lennig, a master of the silent period of cinema, really opened my eyes to the style of communicating without dialogue. And with each passing semester, I upped the ante by making films of increasing length and complexity until they were reaching near feature lengths.

I then attended USC’s Graduate school of film where I acquired numerous new technical skills. Having taught myself several digital editing systems I was commissioned to help create and run USC’s flagship digital editing bullpen, helping other students to turn out over three hundred films a semester.

With the choice to write a final script or make a short film to graduate, I opted to write the script for the feature I’d shoot that summer. Armed with a small digital video camera and donated editing equipment, I began shooting Shades of Gray, an extended version of a beloved film shot in my under-grad years.

Were there any particular films or directors that you feel helped to influence your own filmmaking?

I grew up watching popular films, then switched to studying Silent movies in class while spending my weekends watching things like South Park, Half Baked and Office Space. Though I can’t really say that any one director has influenced me directly, I’d rather include them all in some small way as each has given me a gift by letting me into their worlds. That’s what I believe filmmaking really is – a glimpse into how a director envisions a particular universe. So, I think more important than the idea of influence is the word perspective. And my perspective has come from absorbing a century full of various films universes and then trying to get the camera to capture a moment of mine. Half of what I put on the screen is my reactions to what I’ve been through and the other half – well that’s from that dark place that only comes out to play when it wants to. So, more than influence, the great directors out there have served me very well more by just inspiring me to keep going and challenging myself to be a better storyteller.

The gang.Shades of Gray is a feature length film done in twelve chapters and it’s available to anyone who wants to watch it for free on the web. What led to your decision to release it this way, and do you think it’ll ever see an independent DVD release for those broadband challenged people out there who want to see it but find the long download times for each chapter prohibitive?

Actually, I’d love to have Shades come out with a bigger bang to share it with as many people as possible. If released in it’s current state or if remade for a much bigger budget, I’d love more than anything for it to be seen in theaters.

As for why it’s available on the web – It’s really simple. I had what I thought was a really fun movie, some credentials to back it up and all the desire to get it out there, BUT I still couldn’t get anyone to even watch it in Hollywood.

This went on for a while and maybe I was just stubborn, but I refused to give up hope as the people who had seen it (a couple of friends) watched it again and again AND AGAIN. They then started to pass it to their friends and their friend’s friends to watch.

Soon, there became no doubt that I had something that people enjoyed – that touched a nerve. This was tough as I became even more frustrated when I couldn’t get anyone in Hollywood to reply to my emails, answer the phones or even talk to me on the street. The several times I did get the film seen by a middleman or two – the reaction I’d get would be confusion. They had no idea what to make of my product because they had never seen anything like it.

So, I finally took things into my own hands (I do that a lot) and took the film straight to the people I made it for – my audience. If I wanted to find out if what I had was good enough to break through to the next level and get the attention it deserved, I certainly was going to the right place – the internet.

On the web you simply can’t hide lack of quality. If people don’t like what you’ve done – you’ll not only hear about it – you’ll be seeking some serious therapy to deal with all the massive rejection. But if the film was good…you’d move faster than you could ever by making phone calls and kissing asses as you’d get true respect and real feedback from those the film was intended for.

And thank god – so far – I’ve had thousands of people react in near unanimous fashion as they really seem to love the flick. The same thing seems to have happened on the web as it did with my friends as people watch it over and over again.

After 12 years of making films very intensely. Believe me – this was the best gift I’ve ever gotten. Hell I cried when the first emails poured in. I’m just crossing my finger that I can get more people to see it and in turn get the word out there.

And if there’s one thing I’ve learned from all this is – I really don’t care if someone hates my film – I just want to have the opportunity to share it and have it speak for itself. And for that so far – I’m very grateful.

Searching for the book...One of the obvious questions with a film like Shades of Gray would have to be, were any of the events or characters in the film based on anything that’s happened or anyone you’ve known in real life?

Of course it has!!!! Chris’ Cat scene is based on a friend’s former classmate who the entire school turned on when he admitted he may be attracted to his cat. The Victor scene is based on Victor losing his pants at a party. The hotdog scene actually happened as a sick friend of mine thought it would be funny (he wound up taking a shot in the balls for his sense of humor).

Basically – My friends growing up were and still are a little insane. And everything in the film is or could have been based on some stupid thing we (they) did or happened to us (as recent as say last weekend). Trust me – I’d be scared to make a movie with some of the stuff they (not me of course) did when we were kids growing up in New York. Some crazy times – but as I value friendship more than anything else – I wouldn’t trade it. Those memories make it easy to be a believable sick bastard.

You play the main character…the jerk basically in this film. How fun was that to get to be an ass on screen? It almost seems like it would be a sort of release for most people.

Eric is the person I wish I could be, but am too damn nice! I’m completely and utterly the anti-Eric but was always jealous of those that didn’t have a conscious – that didn’t care who they effected around them as long as they came out on top.

Those people could go with the moment, be selfish and live life to it’s fullest. Me – I’m kind, sweet, blah-blah-blah….In other words, boring. So yes – playing Eric was a release – a guilty pleasure that has no resemblance to my real personality (well except for that time I did spank that old lady 🙂

Some of the situations in the film were really really funny. I loved the brother and sister that were constantly screaming at each other and the part with the Phillipino girl at the party. Is there one particular scene in the film that when you finished shooting and editing it made you say, “Damn that came out awesome!”

Thanks! Now this is the part where I’m supposed to say “I just hoped people liked it” and be modest, but I’ll be straight and pat myself on the back ONLY because you asked me too!

Hands down. The Chris scene is my favorite in the film. I took what could have been a simple monologue and turned it into something magical.

Second would be the Victor scene -, just because of how expansive it is and the pure joy that Eric gets in screwing his friend over. The shot where I run my hands through my hair has affectionately been coined, “The Big Gay Run”.

Third – High Noon. The scene where Eric follows the guys to get the book back is my favorite in terms of overall filmmaking. It combines the right energy in editing, shooting and screenwriting as all the pieces finally intersect in the storyline.

And Fourth – The garage – for the unreal job the actors did as the group turns against each other. It inspires me every time I see it.

Overall, I really love a lot of this film and feel like it came out better than I could have imagined (with a lot of help and support of course). But as most filmmakers should make the film that they want to see most instead of trying to please others – I had better like it!

As far as budget goes, you made the film for around $2,000. What was your biggest production expense and will any of the investments you made in this film as far as equipment and such allow you to make your next film on an even lower budget? Also, do you feel that the money was spent wisely, or do you look back now and wish you had spent it differently in some areas?

With the amount of locations, people in the cast, and time, there was no way to make this film any cheaper. As it was – the film nearly killed me to finish. There were no spending decisions except who was going to get the pizza that day. So again – I could never ever do a film like this for a budget this low EVER AGAIN. Just don’t double dare me though J.

Spankin' Guy's mama with a fish pillow...You did a lot of student projects in school, including some horror films and some comedies. Is there any chance those will see the light of day on the web so we can check those out as well?

Some of them are online as we speak. One of my favorite short films “OnceWas” can be accessed by checking my message boards as of now. I will soon begin pulling other things out of the attic to possible embarrass myself even further.

Just as a fun side question here, I know it’s impossible to do any sort of production without having some really hilarious things happening at times. What’s the most hilarious thing that’s ever happened to you on a production?

Nearly everyday on Shades was fun. From us kidnapping someone’s house in the Hollywood hills, the cast’s relentless tormenting of one another, Jed getting the beat down from the women auditioning for Guys mom, and finally a guy doing a VERY FLAMBOYANT show tunes versions of Chris’ Meow monologue – the whole thing was a ride.

What can we expect to see next from you? Are you currently working on a new film or do you have one planned?

I have an additional seven screenplays. One of which, Doormen, will probably be my follow up comedy to Shades. I am currently searching for financing for all seven and have loads of other ideas raring to go. I just really hope I get the opportunity to unleash my brand of insanity and energy out onto the world. It would be a real pleasure.

Oh and on a side note – Thanks everyone out there for all the support. You have no idea how much it has and continues to mean to me.

If you’d like to see Jesse’s film Shades of Gray, you can check it out by clicking here.