Robin Schmidt is a highly prolific London based filmmaker. He’s directed plenty of things from extreme sports to music videos. However, the director talks to me about his step into directing drama and recently wrapping on his first feature film. Robin was also recently named ‘One to Watch’ by MovieScope Magazine.
Robin has some very interesting and explosive ideas and opinions to give about the film industry, so be sure to read on and comment below.
When did you first get into filmmaking?
I fell into filmmaking; it was never my original intention to become a filmmaker. When I grew up I used to play piano and sing a lot, this was what my parents invested a lot of time in. Film was what other people did. After leaving university, I got into the idea of become a TV presenter which I pursued for a while, but this never quite pulled off. I ended up getting a job with my brother in a marketing consultancy and happened across doing some market research. They put me in charge of their camera and let me have a go editing the thing on the first version of Final cut pro – when iMacs had just come about. As it turned out, I ended up getting interest in this and eventually wanted to do my own TV commercial projects, still with the idea of becoming a presenter.
I ended up making a ski film with a couple of guys who became the trio of our production company in 2002. From here, I just taught myself and knuckled down in London making videos for clients.
It’s a lot easier now to deliver good results of the back of little money. However, back when we were doing it to get a product that looked good and maintain the appearance of being professional was very difficult. So, we learnt a lot, made a lot of mistakes, but built ourselves a decent business around producing videos for extreme sports and more recently, music videos.
You’ve done a lot of commercial work, but when did fiction and storytelling really draw you?
It’s always been there. I look back at our early stuff and we were always informed by the desire to make our stuff feel like film. I think everyone has this desire when they start out; cinema inspires them.
The harsh reality of filmmaking is that you either do the LA thing and you struggle through networking out there from the bottom up, or you go your own route and make a day-to-day business. Unfortunately, you have to make something that you can sell, which means keeping professional. But, in my mind, creativity is boundless; there should be no bounds. So basically, the course of working as a professional, is working out what projects deserve your utmost attention and only giving your time were it is necessary. However, at the top level of filmmaking, this attitude shouldn’t be a consideration. To me, this spirit has been muted by the needs of running a company and being a professional.
In 2009, I left my company to become a freelance professional and started successfully blogging (visit Robin’s blog here). This coincided with the craze of DSLR filmmaking, which really got me excited and enthusiastic again. The result of this was getting excited about work everyday and moving into creating narrative fiction in such a way that I could build a career of it.
Do you still shoot on DSLRs?
I don’t shoot anything on a DSLR now. I used to for about a year and a half, but they’re a bit of a pain in the ass for anything that isn’t a weekend passion job. I wanted a proper movie camera and got an FS100. But, I hate DSLR’s now.
I came across your interesting article on ‘nofilmschool’ about proposing a new distribution model for short films. Could you expand on that idea a bit here?
Basically there are a few things going on. I think that filmmaking is at a crossroads right now because you here debates about whether studios are investing their money in the right kind of projects, whether the business side of film is suffering the creativity. For example, even filmmakers like Martin Scorsese are struggling to get their projects of the ground, which is a great shame. We know these guys at the top of their game aren’t going to mess around. Who’s going to say no to wanting to see Scorsese’s new film? The problem is that this filters down to the likes of us younger ones trying to build our careers, where do I sit amongst all this?
I’m currently in the weird transitional stage where I’ve made my first feature film, so I’m there, but really I’m not there at all. Ultimately we want bigger budgets to get our projects of the ground, which is becoming harder and harder to happen. Where I was heading with the article, was basically to approach the health of the ladder for emerging filmmakers to promising filmmaker to establishing filmmaker. I also approach why short filmmaking content is no longer of any interest to people. We all know that there are more short films getting made than ever before, but there’s so much stuff out there that it seems very difficult for people to get seen. I want to re-spin the idea so that it benefits everyone. There’s also a notion of a selfish audience that no one really talks about. You here things like, know your audience and speak to your audience all the time, but frankly, no one knows what it really means.
There’s a lot of chat surrounding filmmaking in general, most of it is rubbish and there to sell workshops. People don’t know their audience or understand what they really want.
It’s surely hard to predict exactly what someone wants to see; you can’t really know what goes on in the mind of who watches your film?
I don’t think that’s true at all; I believe it is absolutely possible. When you watch your own film you are the audience. I have my own theories on this, but in terms of screenwriting, you won’t hear any screenwriting books talk about the viewer. They’ll talk about character arcs and everything else, but to me all of this subsides to your viewer’s journey, their arc. I find it baffling; the person who views your end product is most important.
So, at the moment, my overriding obsession is about the journey of the viewer through my story. How can I manage that process? In doing so, I can get to know my audience. I come from a marketing background where we do an incredible amount of work understanding what our consumer needs and their experiences, yet as filmmakers we never seem to talk about that.
My argument for the narrative short film distribution was basically to try and see if you could revalue short film as an extension of the artist; the filmmaker as the artist. It needs to be raised above the morass of other short film content that’s out there.
There would an interesting dynamic at play if the guys with the money could invest in statistics of a filmmaker’s trend, which would be made more accessible by respecting short films. It’s a complex and difficult subject, but the overall idea was to try and map the structure from the art world onto the film world.
Everyone keeps talking about the same model or mode of transaction, I create, you buy, done. This is so out molded and inappropriate for short film content, I thought maybe there was another way to look at it. Read the article here.
Would you say that a lot of people are now jumping straight into making features because of this dilemma?
I can’t dictate what someone should do, I mean if they want to make a feature, then let them. Having been through this process, there are quite a few harsh realities that need to be taken on board. You can make a feature film for £1.50. It’s possible, but whether it’s any good or not is another thing.
The question is: what are you going to do once you’ve made it? The thing with a feature film is that it’s a commercial property, a piece of business. If you’re going to make a feature as a learning process, then I’d suggest just making a short film. The pain and sheer buggery of making a feature film is such that you need there to be a pay off at the end. Producing a feature film is incredibly difficult. Getting all your ducks in a row with no money is a great challenge.
I commend people who jump straight into features, but you are best served doing your learning in short form.
I’ve doing something a bit silly which is made a 40-minute short film.
Yeah it has no commercial value at all. It falls right in the middle. However, I have a different plan for it, for me it’s about exposure and putting a different idea down.
Can you tell us a bit more about your feature film After Death?
Basically, the film is a take on the horror genre, put a group of kids in a room ad chop them up. However, it’s done in our own way, which is basically to say that everyone is actually dead before the film even starts. You wake up in hell, what are you going to do? There’s plenty of ideas and philosophy floating around.
We assembled an entire cast of woman, we shot it in 12 days, low budget, and it was a lot of fun! It’s very much a calling card film. I’m realistic and know that I’ll need to make a second film to be successful.
Would you say it’s better to have multiple projects on the go, or just to focus on one?
I don’t know. I do a lot of different stuff: my writing partner and I write for a successful comedy channel. However, what I like to focus on mostly is narrative drama. It’s the most challenging and fun, there’s so much to learn and so many great people. It can be a fantastic job when you let it be. I love it.
Can you sum up why you love filmmaking?
There are lots of things that make it up. Firstly, it’s a great ego trip, I won’t lie. There’s always a buzz about being on set. I also enjoy it because I’m good at it, because it’s demanding, challenging and gets the best out of me. More than anything else, I enjoy it because, at the heart of it, I love film and the opportunity to give other people the great experience they get when watching a film, to me that’s everything.
What advice would you give to filmmakers starting out?
I would say a few things. One is, find a mentor. There’s so much information out there you can access, so many great people to hook up with who are at your level. But, find someone who is much better than you and use him or her as a sounding board for what you want to do, in a polite manor of course. It’s so easy to get lost and not get any feedback, so find someone who is going to be honest with you when it sucks. Too many people, say “oh yeah it’s great.” I have a few people that I mentor right now, and care passionately about giving them good feedback on what they do.
When I was growing up and doing lots of stuff, I would’ve loved someone to say why don’t you just try this? This is knowledge that you won’t get from blogs; you get it from experience by going and doing it.
My second piece of advice is taking your time. Filmmaking is something that takes time. There are no shortcuts, and if you do try and take one, you will most likely get chewed up and spat out. It’s so rare for people to come in early, young and succeed.
My third piece of advice is probably to draw on influences that aren’t necessarily film. Go and see contemporary dance, go to art shows, whatever. There’s so much exposure to TV and film, but you want to be open to other art forms and you can draw influence from these areas. I particularly find stage and theatre work fascinating. So, take a step back and look at other stuff from time to time.
Thanks for your time Robin.
Watch the trailer for After Death below:
Or, check out this hilarious short film directed by Robin: