Preston Barta // Film Critic
Ron Judkins is an American production sound mixer and writer-director. He has won two Academy Awards for Best Sound (“Jurassic Park,” “Saving Private Ryan”) and has been nominated for another three in the same category.
His latest film,”Finding Neighbors,” premiered last night at Dallas’ USA Film Festival. The story focuses on a group of neighbors living in Los Angeles, a mid-life crisis, a fading marriage and the human bonds they test.
Red Carpet Crash sat down with Judkins this week to talk about his first film as a writer and director in nearly 15 years, working with Steven Spielberg and how he went from being a film student at SMU to having two Oscars on his shelf.
At the end of the film, Sammy, played by Michael O’Keefe (“Michael Clayton”), talks about the beauty of creation and writing, because we never know where it will come from. Where did the idea for the film come from, and did you go through some of the things that Sammy went through in the film?
Ron Judkins: “I did. I feel lucky that I kind of have two parallel careers. I do production sound for big budget films. I’ve had a good amount of success doing that. But I’ve always wanted to tell my own stories. That was my original dream. I directed my first feature in 1999 and it was called ‘The Hi-Line,’ which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival. It was bought by Showtime. I thought that film was going to catapult me into studio financed films. I got an agent. I did all the stuff you do. But then 10 years went by and nothing happened.
I finally got to the point where I just thought I’d make a movies with whatever resources I could gather and do it for no money. So in that process and writing this script, I really wanted to write about a guy who was going through a similar situation. I was a late bloomer for my first film. Our film culture is really obsessed with youth. So you get to a certain age and think, ‘Well, is there anything that I have to say that will mean anything to anyone?’
I wrote the script and started showing it to my friends, and so many people would get back to me – artists and filmmakers – and they would say, ‘I’m that guy! I totally get it.’ When that happened, I started to think, ‘OK. There’s some relevance here.’
I went to SMU in the mid-70’s. So I wasn’t here for the big 60’s youth movement. I was on the tail-end of it. A lot of us felt that we were a part of this generation that was going to change the world. You’re full of that vim, vigor and vitality, but then you wake up 30 years later and go, ‘What happened?’ But how do you find a way to express yourself, as an older person who’s still full of passion?”
In the beginning of the film, Sammy has all this pressure on him to complete this graphic novel he’s doing. What’s the most pressure you’ve felt in this business to complete something on time?
Judkins: “That’s a really good question. I’ve never been asked that. I think there’s a process where you shoot the film – you put everything you got into it – and then you see the first cut of it and you think, ‘Oh my God, this thing is a total failure.’ You ask questions like, ‘What was I thinking?’ Then I started questioning myself like Sammy does in the film. But you have to realize with films, they always say your movie is never as good as your dailies, but never as bad as your first cut. You’ll often watch stuff you shot that day, the dailies, and you’ll think it was magnificent. But when you cut it together, it sucks. But it’s a process – you start to work on this scene, work on that scene and it starts to assume a shape. It begins to have a life of its own later and becomes what it is supposed to be. But there’s a period of some months where you don’t know. You’ve gotten the crew together, you have all these investors in your movie and you go, ‘Well, what if I let all these people down? What if I don’t have what it takes?’
I really relate to what Sam is going through. Interestingly enough, Michael O’Keefe had a very similar experience with his career. He was nominated for an Academy Award for ‘The Great Santini’ and he was the caddy in ‘Caddyshack.’ He started right at the top of his game, and ever since he’s been trying to play catch up. He admits that now he has a hard time even getting a job. So when he read the script he wanted to do it so badly because he said that he was that guy too.”
Has Steven Spielberg seen your film yet?
Judkins: “He hasn’t seen this one yet, but he saw ‘The Hi-Line.’ I was so nervous when he watched it, but he was very complimentary. It was amazing because I have a certain kind of relationship with Steven, doing sound for him. When we finished ‘The Hi-Line’ and went to Sundance, he invited me over to screen it at his house. So to have a conversation with him, one-on-one, was one of the high points of my life.”
What do you think creates the trust between you guys, since you’ve been working with him for so long?
Judkins: “That’s a good question too. I think the trust comes from a long-standing relationship. After a few movies in with a certain director, you tend to kind of know how they like to work. You know when to stay out of their way.
There’s also a respect from my side about not repeating their process – Not crying wolf about little problems that I have about sound or things that are affecting us, because over time you get to know what I can deal with and what I can’t. For instance, on ‘Lincoln,’ when I had to go to him: ‘Hey, Steven. This may be problematic for you later.’ He knows he needs to listen. As a filmmaker, I come with him with a suggestion. I never say, ‘Hey. You can’t do this.’ I go, ‘It might be better if we moved it over a little bit.’ No one ever likes to be told no.
But after awhile, after working with Steven and Janusz Kaminski, the cinematographer on his films, it really becomes an extended family. You’ve work with the people and there’s a comfort going into films, knowing that you know how to talk to people and you know what the relationships are. Like a family, there are people who you don’t get along with so well, but you work out your issues and know how to move forward.”
As an aspiring filmmaker, can you tell me how to go from being a film student to getting in the actual film business?
Judkins: “First thing it takes is not being afraid to pick up the phone, network, ask for help and get yourself out there. It also takes perseverance. It doesn’t happen over night. You always here about so-and-so’s film being discovered at Sundance and you look into it and they’ve been making films for 15 years. So have patience and go for it.”
Lastly, if you go back to college and teach a course of your creation, what do you think you would teach?
Judkins: “It’s funny that you mention that because I’ve been thinking recently about teaching a course, or a workshop about the art and practice of independent film. I think films schools tend to teach towards traditionally Hollywood, and that’s great. It’s a really great place to start, especially in terms of craft and how you put a film together. But no one really knows how to write a business plan for an independent film and how you find investors. You know, frankly, an independent film is like the worst investment you could ever make. So you really want to look for people that have a secondary interest in what you’re doing. Do they like you? Do they relate to an issue that’s in your film? If an when your film doesn’t make a dime, you got something out of it. But I would love to teach a course on independent movies and how they get done. I would like to bring filmmakers in, watch their movie and talk about how it happened for them. I think that would be a great course.”
“Finding Neighbors” opens later this year.
For ticket information or the full schedule, visit usafilmfestival.com.
Feature Photo: Two-time Academy Award winner Ron Judkins on the set of “Finding Neighbors.” Photo courtesy of USA Film Festival.
Center Photo: Michael O’Keefe and Catherine Dent star in “Finding Neighbors.” Photo courtesy of USA Film Festival.