Q: If someone were to watch all of your films from start to finish what sort of recurring themes would they notice?
A: They would see an interest in complex situations and in complex communities. That means that my movies aren’t usually heroic. They’re not about someone saving the day. They’re often about people who are put into situations where they have some choices, but none of them are that good.
Q: When you started working in the film industry in the 1970s, did you think that you’d become a politically and socially aware filmmaker?
A: I don’t think I thought in those terms. I thought that if I ever got to make a movie, why would I just do something that a thousand other people were doing? For instance, we made this movie “Amigo” (2011), which is set during the Philippine-American War. There are only three movies about the Philippine-American War made in America, and ours is one of them. And the other two didn’t have any Filipinos in them!
Q: You depict a lot of underrepresented characters. Since you’re not a part of a marginalized group, how do you approach those stories?
A: Some of what you do is listen. You talk to people, you read things people have written, you have your own experiences. I lived in a mixed community and went to a mixed high school, so, people who weren’t white weren’t totally alien to me. When I think about these movies and do my research and talk to certain kinds of people, I’ll only go as far in as I feel comfortable going. Sometimes, it’s not me initially thinking that I’m going to deal with marginalized characters. As I was writing the last movie that I made, “Go for Sisters” (2013), I realized — there are actresses who want to play these roles. And they happen to be African-American. And the sad fact is that African-American women — even if they’re incredible actors — don’t get much work. Since I’ve started making movies, though, there are a lot more African-Americans, Latinos and gay people making movies. So, we’re getting their stories much more than we used to. Not as many as there should be.
Q: Some people believe that American cinema has become more commercialized since the 1970s. Have you experienced such a transition?
A: In the ‘70s, we had a lot of filmmakers — like Martin Scorsese — who were influenced by European films. And European films got into politics and sex in ways that American movies just had not done. They got into what was going on, what younger people cared about. But after “Star Wars” (1977) and “Jaws” (1975), the studios realized that they didn’t have to [fund those European-style films] anymore in order to attract a big audience. I first noticed the change when I was working for Roger Corman (a famous director of low-budget sci-fi and horror movies). They used to make B movies. They had very low budgets. I wrote a movie called “Battle Beyond the Stars” (1980), which was basically “Seven Samurai” (1954) in space, and I think he made it for less than $3 million. By the beginning of the 1980s, those movies were being made for $100 million. They were A movies and the big money-makers. As far as becoming more corporate, I feel like that’s something that always happens. One thing that has changed is that advertising is so much more expensive. The studios think: “Why would we make a risky $3 million movie when we know we have to spend $10 million to advertise it?” That’s a lot of money to make back.
Q: With today’s cinematic franchises and expensive advertising, the current environment doesn’t seem like the brightest place for aspiring filmmakers.
A: It’s a relatively expensive form of storytelling. I don’t see people being able to sustain themselves making those “off-Hollywood movies.” It’s harder than it used to be. It’s easier to get a movie made and harder to get it distributed. That’s kind of the reality of a lot of filmmakers. Everyone knows now how late you have to stay up and how hard it is.
Q: But you’ve been able to sustain yourself within the industry and get money for your projects. What do you think about that?
A: First of all, we haven’t gotten anyone to invest in any of our films in over ten years. We haven’t gotten a company to distribute one of our films, so we’ve paid to have them distributed. I’ve financed my last three or four films by being a screenwriter for hire. I’ve probably written 100 screenplays by now. I eventually amass enough money so that I can be either the sole investor or the main investor in my own movies. Second of all, while I think [that getting into filmmaking] is difficult, I don’t think it’s unimportant. Movies are a part of a cultural conversation. I think if you leave a part of the conversation just to the marketplace, a lot of things don’t get said. As far as what’s going to happen with the movie industry, it’s still unclear whether people are going to monetize all the new delivery forms. You know: streaming, video on demand. But I don’t think being an independent filmmaker is going to be profitable; you have to have another job.
Q: Would you consider working for streaming services?
A: I don’t have a problem with any of them. But with Amazon, it’s kind of a Trojan horse — and not necessarily in a negative way — because it enters a lot of homes and learns things about our shopping habits. They want us to buy from them. These places have a way of getting their money back, an agenda for why they’re making shows. But I’m just trying to make a good show. For instance, I was just out in Los Angeles and I thought it would be great to have a six-to eight-hour show about Louis Armstrong. It’s a great story! But each of these companies would have to ask, “How can we show this and what commercials should we run?”
Q: Besides being a filmmaker, you’ve written several novels. When you sit down and write a novel, how is that creative process different from that of writing a screenplay?
A: I can do anything that I want. If I want the sun to shine, I can write that the sun is shining. You don’t have to worry about how to afford all this stuff. Second of all, it’s just me. Occasionally there’ll be an editor assigned, but that’s a very late conversation. When you’re making a movie, it really is collaborative. There are people I hire who can do things that I can’t do. In movies I tend to work on four or five things at the same time. When I’m working on fiction, that’s all I’m working on.
Q: Is that why you primarily pursue film? Because film gives you the opportunity to work on multiple projects at once?
A: Yeah. And it’s also just — when it looks like you’ve got the money, you better make the movie, because it may go away!