Victor Slezak

Interview with Actor, Writer, Director Paul Fitzgerald

I had the great privilege and pleasure of meeting  Mr. Paul Fitzgerald on the set of TREME.

Paul Fitzgerald

 

Actually, our first meeting took place a few weeks earlier in the kitchen of superstar Chef Tom Colicchio’s restaurant COLICCHIO & SONS in New York City. He and I were preparing as Chef and Poissonere respectively for an upcoming episode of TREME for HBO.

 

As we began
work in New Orleans (on a kitchen set that every real chef that populated the scene was salivating for), I noticed that he was observing the set differently than I was. He was taking in things in a way that made me think that he had directed before. He never said a word or showed off in any way. It was just his demeanor. He was extremely comfortable in the setting. When we began to work, I could not catch him acting. He was immersed in the action of what he was doing. There was no question that we were working in this kitchen together and that he completely understood his place in the hierarchy of this particular world.

 

During a van ride “home” I asked if he had ever directed. That’s when I discovered that not only has Paul directed before, he has written, directed, produced and acted in his own film. FORGIVEN.

 

 

I recently viewed FORGIVEN and was completely taken aback by the scope and breadth of the movies themes. The acting is consistently above par through out and has a unity and believability that has to stem from the direction.

 

FORGIVEN takes on the questions of personal integrity, conscience, religion and ones own moral compass, race, betrayal, friendship and questions what it takes to be a true leader in your own life and a leader of others.

 

I was deeply impressed with Paul’s work all around. The film does not have the look or feel of someone’s first time out. You can feel the obvious commitment and love that went into this project. A few weeks ago I asked Paul if he would be willing to answer some questions that I could later post on my website. He graciously agreed which culminated in the following.

 

 

Can you describe the moment when you realized that you needed to begin writing your script?

I remember a moment sitting at a friends house in LA, and I was just fresh from having read an article in a Northwestern alumni publication about these NU journalism students who had uncovered several cases of wrongly convicted men on death row in Illinois, this is back in early 2002. And I recall having a spitball conversation with my friend about a kind of morality play I was turning over in my head inspired by my emotional response, which was primarily anger, to this unfolding situation in Illinois.

 

From there the process on this script was an evolving bunch of ideas and notes and sketches that eventually started to take shape into a coherent narrative. Sometimes things are more of a bolt of lightening and come to me more fully formed – but this was definitely a script that was birthed by a very, very intense emotional spark – and I think that ends up actually being pretty evident in and consistent with the way the movie turned out – especially in the not uncontroversial climax of the film.

What was the impetus to create your project?

Anger. There were a great many instances in my research where even after a wrongly convicted person’s conviction had been overturned or vacated, the vast majority of the participants on the state’s side – police, District Attorneys, etc. – exhibited an utter lack of humility, remorse or even a vague sense of taking responsibility for the uncovered instances where there was real and proven governmental malfeasance which led to the wrongful convictions.

 

No doubt very few people in the justice system go to work with the intention of catching and convicting the wrong person for a crime, but after such an instance of that happening – numerous instances – the governmental participants’ inability to confront and respond to that reality with decency became of an absolute obsession of mine. Which dovetailed neatly into the Abu Ghraib controversy in early 2004 and led, in the development of the script, to a more far-reaching meditation on our national character and how we face or fail to face up to our actions when we’ve done wrong: apology, making amends, seeking forgiveness, etc. I was writing and prepping the movie all during this time frame from early 2002 to our shooting in fall of 2004.

Anger is a great motivator. Sadly I’ve given it up for lent and I miss it terribly!

Being an actor foremost, did you find that a hindrance or an asset to creating your project or both?

Both. On the hindrance side of the scale, you know one of the fringe benefits of being an actor, particularly in a film context, is that you don’t have to worry about being that last one out and turning off the lights. There really is an infantality, which is a word I’ve just made up, to the way actors are treated and as I’ve gotten older and on in the business I’ve actually come to appreciate why this is so and take it for what it, where I used to think it was all preposterous babying. But either way, you just do your thing and let somebody – a bunch of somebodies – deal with EVERYTHING else.

So in this sense, thrusting myself into the director’s chair, and in a micro indie film scenario one is so many other things besides just the director – hell, you’re lucky if you’re not catering and costume dept. head, as well. But anyways, I was not really prepared for the level of endless responsibility and questions that come at you when you venture into making your own film. But obviously that’s something you get right with quickly or the whole endeavor is gonna be stillborn early in the process. But it was fast and furious learning curve and I definitely had a love-hate relationship with the level of responsibility and accountability I’d brought on myself!

That said, I could wish there was a way to come up through acting on camera the way one does if one trains for the theatre at a school or conservatory, where you do have to do sets, lights, costumes, etc. and learn the whole process from start to finish. I blanch at how far along I was in this business before I actually had a clue what Grip & Electric did.

Additionally on the asset side of the ledger: you really have to be a fearless and an obstinately persistent cuss of an idiotic person to be or survive being an actor. And those are character traits in essential demand when you endeavor to create out of thin air, not just an individual characterization, but an entire piece of legit cinema that with any luck with live on in perpetuity on celluloid somewhere, somehow. Making this film was hands down the hardest thing I’ve ever done, or had to summon the courage to do, and dispositionally, being actor did well prepare me to face down my daily fears in the process.

Who was the first person you told about your project?

My friend and fellow actor-writer Eric Saiet. He’s someone who has now gone onto a very legit screenplay writing career and I trusted him as my first reader and really it was based on his response that I turned some metaphysical corner and a switch flipped in my mind where I said: I am going to make this script into a film if I die trying.

I had written probably two other screenplays prior to Forgiven but I had never crossed that threshold with either of them where I believed they needed to be made into films. And I recall exactly where I was and the moment of realization speaking on my cell phone with Eric like it was yesterday.

How did you find the time to develop your idea?

I made it. I was working steadily enough as an actor to make a living but not working so much that I was making such a good living that I had no time or motivation to write. In retrospect I guess, for me anyway, it’s a pretty specific equation that needed to be just right. And it was.

After that it’s really about the discipline of sitting down and doing. Back when I was starting to dabble with the writing I got a very good piece of advice from the screenwriter Don Roos to limit myself to an hour a day of writing, which may sound odd. But his point I think was: you can set yourself up to fail and get discouraged by demanding larger blocks of time and not being able to meet your goals; but you can most certainly find an hour a day to write and if you can’t you’d do well to realize that you probably don’t really want to do it in the first place.

And also just the way the writing mind works, you need to show up everyday so the story can move and work on its own in your off time. And generally that only happens if you show up for at least a small sliver of time everyday while you’re working on it and DEAL WITH IT!

Did you work with anyone or did you do it on your own?

On my own until my fearless producer, and now beloved friend, Kelly Miller, came on board the project. At that point she got involved in the last phase of re-writes for the three or fours months leading up to the shoot – and her contribution therein was invaluable to the final product.

How do you describe the transition from actor to writer?

You know, at its essence it’s really about seeing the whole story going on around your own, when you step outside of just being the actor of one role and the creator of all the roles and the story stitching all the characters together.

It’s probably made me a better actor, to bend my attention more to the entire story I’m creating within. I suppose the old adage that you really are only responsible for advocating for your POV as your character still applies and maybe in that sense it cuts both ways.

Now that you are thinking like a creator, producer, writer, director, how do you feel it has affected your acting?

I don’t think that it has affected my acting; I do think it has changed me immeasurably as an actor. I feel I’ve definitely fine tuned my ear to hear what a writer is writing, the music of it, and of course that applies mostly, if not exclusively, to the realm of the theatre where writers and words actually matter!

But also I just understand the process better – casting, directors, production – and the business of all that and where and how an actor fits into this insane business. Really being ‘behind the table’ was the most eye opening experience I could ever conceive of and something that has been immeasurably beneficial in terms of the casting process alone. And then just to, frankly and humbly, coming to more fully understand what a small spec you are as an actor when you consider the entire process of making a film. An essential and pivotal spec – but a spec nonetheless.

Have you been writing all along or was it something that you made a decision to do because you had to?

Both. I’d been writing essentially since the beginning of my professional acting career, and that began because I felt I had to write a story/script. And then I finally wrote a story/script that I felt had to be a film.

Do you feel that you are perceived differently in the industry?

I was for the ten minutes before, during and after my film premiered in dramatic competition at Sundance in 2006. Fifteen minutes, whatever. And maybe still in pockets there are people and colleague-fans who’re aware that I’ve made a film and that a more expansive scope of expression than just acting is part of my raison d’être as a creative person. I mean, if you’re gonna start throwing out French phrases to describe your m.o. (or Latin phrases) in life – probably you need to take a time out, but you know what I mean.

It’s really up to me to make what I need to make. And I made a decision amidst my fifteen minutes of fame and the opportunities I had therein to ‘capitalize’ on that momentary success that I really didn’t have the burn in the belly to jump into the industry proper of making films. So I continue to do stuff on my own. And, I guess, finally, in that sense – no, probably not perceived that differently in the industry proper cause I definitely dwell and create outside of it.

Do you feel that you were successful in the execution of your idea?

I do. And there was a lot of back and forth over the long arc of the experience before I came to a simple two-word answer to that question.

How do you feel about the end product?

I’m proud of it. I suppose there are times I’ve seen it and thought: OMG, what a load of crap. And then other times where I think it contains a kind of unbridled brilliance. At the end of the day, I made the film I wanted to and I stand behind what it’s about at its core – regardless of how one may critically parse the quality of the event that is the final movie.

What would you do differently?

Nothing.

What was it like to go around “pitching” your project? Was it any different from auditioning?

I think it was. On paper I guess there are similarities: you’re setting into a scene with an objective, trying to convince the other person/character of thus and thus…but somehow, pitching was just a mad frenzy for me. It was like just trying to spit out enough of something to keep someone’s interest long enough to have them agree to read the script and/or not hang up.

There was a real dynamic enthusiasm necessary that could border on desperation but also had to be polished and self-assured and incredibly charismatic – I mean it’s the mother of all sells when you’re saying: I’ve never directed a movie, I got this script and will you give me money – all at once. I felt prepared as an actor because being afraid to talk I’m not; but from a script standpoint – I was always coming up with shit on the fly. Improv would be a much better corollary.

Do you feel you were seen as an “actor” by money people? Possible producers? Did you feel accepted as a creator?  Or just another actor?

Tricky. I was always having to overcome, what, turns out, was the oft diminutive status of being ‘just an actor’ – and just a working actor at that, not a name – but that was really when I was trying to get the project going, at the beginning. Once we got into the process, all that falls away and you’re just making a movie. I was certainly very fortunate to have a nucleus of people around me creatively that respected my story and the spirit of the entire endeavor – and I never felt diminished or anything but respected as the creative voice and impetus behind the project. But that’s self-selecting I guess. You wind up with people who get it and get you if you’re lucky.

Was it an asset or a liability?

Having gone the distance, from blank page to finished script to selling it, making the movie and finding distribution and learned the business from a completely different perspective after having been an actor for so long, what do you feel you have come way with. Ultimately?

My take away has been: don’t make work unless you absolutely have to. Probably that could be viewed as precious and overly cautious or lazy in some context. But I’m still, after all these years, struck but how hard the getting and doing of it was and how much it cost me – I guess I just have a real drama queen’s take on the act of true creation! Shit is painful. And with film, even when you make it, if you’re even able to, how it then has to be engaged in the process of getting out into the world – which is this whole other beast.

I really have to need to say something and have to believe (admittedly with some degree of delusion and megalomania) that it’s absolutely and utterly imperative that I share it with the world. Otherwise I’d rather fiddle with the guitar, toss around my nephews – or come right down to it: do another shitty guess spot on a CBS primetime procedural.

In all seriousness, making a movie really thrust me deep into the existential ether of what it means to create and put something out into the world, all things – time, resources, energy, even our written words – being finite in terms of what we will be able to produce during our individual and brief turns on this planet. And so my personal metric is simply: is it necessary to do. Absolutely necessary.

Is there anything else you would like to add about your achievement and experience?

All that being said…there’s nothing more fun than making a movie. The highlight of my creative life – with some very, very wonderful runner ups not coming in even a close second.

Thank you Paul, for your time, generosity, insights and for making a damn good film.

Paul Fitzgerald’s film FORGIVEN can be found on NETFLIX.

 

 

 

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