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Pvt. Ravel's Bolero: An Interview with JZ Murdock

Tell us about yourself. What inspired you to become a filmmaker?

I wrote my first screenplay at university working toward my degree in psychology. In my final senior year, I decided to also get a minor degree in creative writing. I did so well in my first fiction writing class that I was voted to write an extra story. My professor then sent me over to the theater department to take playwriting in order to better my character dialog. I didn't really like writing dialog in my short stories at that point.

I also did well in that playwriting class as I was selected for a small, year long team of eight writer students learning script and screenwriting. It was like being on a TV show's writing team. After that I wanted to be a screenwriter. I had never believed I could be an author. But by graduating college I did believe I could be a screenwriter. Though not so much, a film director. And I was wrong on all accounts.

After spending a decade trying to get some screenplays and short stories sold, I finally got a story sold to a horror quarterly magazine. I now have several books of science fiction and horror published. After years of nearly getting a screenplay sold, it never did happen. I simply got tired of waiting and working at it and waiting but never achieving a sale.

For years I had helped a local indie filmmaker friend, Kelly Hughes, on his film sets. At some point, I simply realized that I actually could make my own film. And from my own screenplays.

I first tried producing a narrative film with an eight minute film (“The Rapping”) which proved I could do it.

I had previously produced a documentary in 1993, though of not very good quality. That was fun and I did complete it. It was released on Public Access Cable TV and played twice around the Pacific Northwest in America.

My second film, “Gumdrop”, a short horror. won a few film festival awards. My current anti war film, “Pvt. Ravel's Bolero” is wining a even more awards.

Talk about your last work. What are some of the challenges you faced during production?

There are three things one needs before beginning any production: a good screenplay, the right actors (talent)/crew for the project, and the right/best location(s) to shoot it all at or in.

All productions have the challenges of fixing issues and problems on the fly. Essentially film production is in-the-moment problem solving. I fully expected that from having been on film sets over the years, where I was a help to the director in his own problem solving. As well as seeing how he solved issues, always keeping up the momentum of the production.

I found I was very good at it. Which was what gave me the belief I might be able to do it myself as a director. And it turned out I was pretty good at “wrangling” the talent, and at directing my actors.

So far I've had to be director as well as the entire crew on my films. It's a lot to take on. Too much really, and a crew would save time as well as enhance the production overall. Though a crew does bring with it their own issues and problems.

Filmmaking at this level in the low budget, indie field means one first has to get the best of everything you can. Then you have make it work. It can be frustrating, but in the end is a very rewarding experience. Though perhaps it's not for everyone.

I heard a well known director recently say, if you're going to shoot your first film, his best piece of advice is to get into good physical condition. Film making is a lot of effort and can involve long days. You have to get up day after day and be there to give 100%, until principal photography is completed. Post production is then almost a relief. Though it has its own kind of difficulties.

My current film, “Pvt. Ravel's Bolero”, was a lot of research, of acquiring public domain visuals and audio. Then it was mostly just editing. Several years after writing the poem the film is based on, I had to find all the right resources to use. Then it took me six months of editing to build it all together.

There were times I wanted to quit. Times when I just wanted to be done: “It's good enough! I'm done!” But I kept pushing through until finally one day, there really was nothing more I could do to make it better...and I was indeed done. All throgh the process I showed it to friends and family who would put up with me. Finally one day they agreed. I was done.

Always end your film when the PROJECT is done, NOT when YOU are done!

What makes you want to tell stories? In other words, what are the themes/issues you want to incorporate into your work?

I have wondered about this all my life and finally came up with the realization that, I'm simply just a story teller. I always have been. And I seem to be good at it. Someone once told me that it's the “Irish” half of me. I don't know, but it's a fun consideration, and association.

I have tried to find what the themes are in my writings and films. Right verses wrong. The trials of childhood with its associated fears and abuses. Anti-violence. Peace. Dealing with bullies in life. Treating others with respect. Not imposing your will on others for your personal gain.

Maybe just as doctors vow to do, “Do no harm.”And always leave things better than how you find them.

Please tell us about your vision and your method of approaching a new project?

My personality is based on honesty and facing reality as best I can find or conceive it. I want to entertain, to keep people's attention in ways that makes them want more. But I also to educate, inform, to offer new or interesting insights or perspectives. I spent my entire life trying to expand my understanding of all things and I have greatly enjoyed that. I merely wish to share that with others.

Not just to share new and interesting things and ideas. But to share the orientation of how I find the universe so very fascinating. In as many ways possible, and in ways I've never before considered.

Who are your filmmaking influencers? What are the films that were influential for you?

As a child I was fascinated by all films and TV shows that I came into contact with. At some point in my childhood I discovered our Public Broadcasting network, who back in the 1960s & 70s used to put on a lot of foreign films.

I was exposed to amazing works beginning with Francois Truffaut, who first awakened me to the sense of film as art and not merely entertainment. When I got into college I realized I could actually take classes in cinema studies. I also once took a series of seminars by the great director, Stanley Kramer who had amazing stories about actors he worked with during Hollywood's golden age.

Others I was fascinated with even before I knew what I was learning from watching our local Seattle/Tacoma PBS channel were directors like Jean-Luc Godard, Fellini, Kurosawa, Hitchcock, Kubrick, Orson Welles, Bergman, and others.

How do you think the industry is changing? How has COVID affected independent filmmaking/creation?

There has been a trend for some years now due to budget issues of making films with few or single locations and with as few actors (or one), as possible. The writers' strike of the 1990s gave us reality TV shows. Some were/are great, many were bad.

COVID has exacerbated this issue that was already trending. So there was a paradigm already in place for it to some degree. We have gotten some very good films from this situation. Not to mention, it makes people think, “outside the box”.

Which was what happened with my latest “filmic poem” and documentary film, “Pvt. Ravel's Bolero”. It helped that I had already had a poem that I had written a few years before and had spent time working on it.

Also, I always save snippets of things, I always have small projects in the works. I save ideas for stories, and for future titles. Whenever I cut anything from a story or screenplay, I save it in a file, or folder on my hard drive for later use.

Then whenever I get stuck, I will go to these files and use them. If a sentence or paragraph in a story is brilliant, or beautiful, but does not fit the story well, one has to cut it, to “kill one's children”, as they say. But never kill them completely. They can always be useful at some point in the future. Throw away nothing.

While I was getting over a bad case of COVID, which went into “long COVID”, I knew I did not have the energy yet to work on a set with actors. So I devised a project where I could just sit at my desk and work on the internet and on my audio and video editing software at my own pace.

What came of this project, went far beyond my belief for what could come of it. Though it also certainly helps to have the skills necessary to make it work, as well as having previous writings available.

What advice would you give to aspiring artists? What are some of the things they must follow/avoid?

Someone once said, “Writers write.” That is so true. as it is with anything. Painters paint. Musicians play music. When I am writing, I am a “writer”. When I am making a film, I am a “filmmaker”.

If you wish to be anything, you need to do it every day until, as Malcom Gladwell says, you have your 10,000 hours in. The point there is, do something until it is burned into your very being. Do not think you can do something haphazardly and expect to become an artist in that field. Believe in yourself, but incorporate it into your very being, too.

Do you think films/stories can bring about a change in the world?

Yes, I do. When I was 14, I read the Frank Herbert's book, “Dune”. I loved it! When I finished it, I was inspired to write my first science fiction short story. I believe it is interesting to note that before I read his book, I had read Isaac Asimov's “Foundation” books, a trilogy at that time. Those books laid the foundation for me for better understanding, “Dune”.

I read a lot as a child and as many authors have pointed out, if you wish to be an author, you MUST read many books. If you wish to be a screenwriter, you MUST read many screenplays. To be a writer, you must write as much as possible.

I also believed I needed to learn to write every form of writing possible. Asimov has said if you want to be a good science fiction writer, become a technical writer (and so I did), as all the skills necessary are right there in that career. The same is true for many things. If you wish to be something, learn it completely. Practice it.

My point here is, in reading, “Dune”, it changed my life orientation. Just as watching “2001: A Space Odyssey”, when it came out, changed my life about film, filmmaking, and about life and about my overall orientation to the universe. Just as it affected some astronauts, just as the original TV series Star Trek led many scientists and space industry types to go into their careers.

What do you think people like to watch these days? Has the pandemic changed people's taste?

Yes, I think so. Whenever these major in our lives happen, viewers' orientations change. Just as I pointed out earlier about a writers' strike having changed us about reality TV shows. So too we have changed recently. But I'll leave that up to others to describe.

Please tell us about your upcoming projects.

My horror film, “Gumdrop”, a short horror, is still going around film festivals for a few more months. My latest film, “Pvt. Ravel's Bolero”, will be going around festivals into early 2023. I am still working on that film in promoting it and updating some minor issues I have with it. No matter how much work I did on it in pre-production, I'm still learning new things about Maurice Ravel and WWI.

I have yet to work out what my next project will be. I do find however that I often do not know for a long time, what I'll do next. Until suddenly one day it hits me and I just start working on it, and throw myself fully into it.

It's as if I'm always aware of several projects in the back of my mind until one day I find I have worked out one of them well enough. that I'm ready to dive deeply into it.

I have had short fiction stories like that. Once I decide to write the story, it just falls out of my mind onto the page, as if it's already written. Other times, I find I'm discovering it as I write it. Which is always exciting.

That all being said, I do love working on set with actors and I would like to find a crew to work with. But I also found this last work, in producing a documentary, as very freeing and rewarding. Although, I have been wondering lately if there may be another subject I find fascinating to make a documentary about.

Time will tell.


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