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 Aengus James Interview (Continued) 
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The Independent Critic

How was the experience of making this film for you? It was your first feature film, but you're not a stranger to the film industry.

Aengus James

When I started this, I was brand new. I had a background in acting. I left acting. I started working on docs, and I really fell in love with the process of making documentaries. I'd never been to film school. I really sort of started out on my own, and then other people came in and I was able to get investors to get bigger crews. In the course of making this film, a lot changed. I directed a travel show for PBS. Then, I got the opportunity to do a series for History Channel that was also about a sub-culture, Americana. Now, I'm mostly creating doc series programs for television. I have a small production company that I run (This is Just a Test Productions). I have another doc feature that I'm trying to get to.

The Independent Critic

Are there things that you learned in this first one that you feel like you're taking with you?

Aengus James

Definitely. I'd say the biggest thing I learned was to not write the story in your head and to recognize when certain things have been revealed to you. I'll give you an example. Max Q was one of the 10 groups that I followed. One of my friends was watching the film and said "Max Q. It's all about Max Q. That's your lead group. There's that conflict inside that they can't win together." It's not that I totally missed it, but the first few cuts of the film didn't quite work because there wasn't that central thing to wrap yourself around. I'd made certain assumptions such as that the young guys like Vocal Spectrum and O.C. Times were more interesting. It wasn't until I went back that I realized that some of these groups with older guys, like Reveille and Max Q, had their own things going on.

The Independent Critic

What made this film different? You talked about having another film that you couldn't quite get fully financed. What made this film different? Did you do something different to make this one work?

Aengus James

I think I just never stopped. It's just impossible to make an independent film. I just have tremendous respect for anyone who does it. It changed me. It even changed the way I go to films. I used to go to films and say "Oh, that film sucks." Now, I'm more likely to say "I understand what they were trying to do." It's so hard to make films in general, but it's even harder to make good films. It's really hard to make them and to make them work. I think I could have stopped two years earlier and had a below average film. I just kept shooting. At the point where I thought I could stop and put my feet up, we just sort of realized that nobody was just going to distribute this film so we sort of invented a distribution model. We called upon people who were fans of the barbershop community to sort of become sponsors of the film and to get the film to their communities. To my great surprise and joy, people came from all over the place.

You don't really do it to make money on the film. I worked it out at one point how much I made an hour working on this film and it was 1/10 of a penny.

The Independent Critic

Fortunately, you do have other jobs. You're not living on 1/10 of a penny. You mentioned that you didn't go to film school. How did all this happen? I looked through your filmography. Not only have you done it, but you've done it with some really amazing people like Barry Levinson. There are people who go their whole career and never have something like that happen.

Aengus James

That was really awesome. I had a theater background in school, and was a finance major in college (University of Maryland- College Park). A lot of making an independent film is like running your own business. I have to be just as much a businessman as I am a filmmaker. I drove this like a business. A lot of that side of it is very formulaic. We really approached it from "Who has a vested interest in seeing this film?" We had to approach it from outside the industry, because at that point we had no inside the industry contacts. Once people start to see your film and like it, those are relationships you try to keep and build upon. That's how the film with Barry (Levinson) happened. He was looking for a cinematographer who was also comfortable interviewing people. He watched our film and liked it.

It's a lot of luck, yeah, but it's also about hitting up every avenue that you have available.

The Independent Critic

It's definitely got to require major networking. I was wondering about that idea of networking and connections. You acted in the film Bringing Down the House, correct?

Aengus James

That was my big break. It was a small role, but it was a big break for me at the time. I think in Hollywood it's really about who you know, but if you have a passion for what you do I think people respond to that.

The Independent Critic

You seem to have found your place in documentaries. Have you let go of the acting?

Aengus James

Yeah, completely. I just didn't feel it anymore. It's an interesting business. Filmmaking is a strange community of people. You have everyone from, like, a hustler type who could be selling snake oil to really eccentric people to people who are really just pursuing fame and artists, as well. The combination of being an actor in that world I found to be unsettling. Everything you do is dependent upon what someone else thinks. You're constantly being judged. I think the networking in that world is much more important. As a filmmaker, you can kind of go off and do your own thing. If you do good work, there's places to show your work. As an actor, you're really reliant on somebody to get that break every time. Acting just wasn't my calling.

The Independent Critic

So, you're a better filmmaker?

Aengus James

I think so. I hope so. I think I see stories from a filmmaker's perspective. As I read a story, I'll think about how it would look and where it would be. I think I see the visual story. 
The Independent Critic

It seems you also like the business side a lot. I see the word "producer" in your filmography a lot. You do have the finance major in your background. Do you like producing?

Aengus James

Yeah, I do. In the TV world, producing is different. In my History Channel series, there was no director. I was more of a creative producer on that. I like either supporting someone else's vision and helping them as this objective person who can come in and help. My preference is definitely to be the one in it ... to have it be my project.

The Independent Critic

Speaking of supporting, I noticed that you also seem to have this strong commitment towards using your gift to help others, non-profits and even in the political realm.

Aengus James

I do a lot of non-profit work, for free most of the time. With non-profits, you tend to have a lot more creative freedom. With businesses, everyone's in it to make a buck. A lot of non-profits are really desperate for people to help them with video. A lot of how I started was by knocking on non-profit's doors and asking them if I could make videos for them. It helped me build my portfolio and reach the point where I could make a living doing this work. There are also a lot of companies out there that are interested in attaching themselves to really important projects. We were able to get a pharmaceutical company to underwrite the entire cost of our short film about the obesity epidemic. I think the future of social justice content, whether that be films or web, is that it's going to have brands sponsoring it because funds have dried up so much that you really have to go get sponsors to come to the table.

The Independent Critic

How was it going into political filmmaking and projects?

Aengus James

Barry's brilliant. He's one of the smartest people I've ever met. The way he sees the world is so interesting. His take on the world is always unique and different. We went to both conventions, and they were very different. It was so interesting to see. There was so much that didn't make the film, because we had so much behind-the-scenes access. It was amazing to see how much political maneuvering and showmanship and performance goes into the political world. It was both fascinating and troubling how often it has very little to do with conviction. It's entertainment. We got amazing insight. In particular, the Republican Convention. I sort of went into it thinking that it would be easier and better access at the Democratic Convention with its progressives and Hollywood connections. The Republican Convention was much more accessible to us. They were much more excited about media exposure and that Barry was there. He's a very left wing guy, so it was really interesting to see.

The Independent Critic

You've also done some things with web-based political media? Was that for specific candidates?

Aengus James

I've never done anything for a specific candidate, really. I did submit a proposal to the John Edwards campaign, but he ended up choosing "the one." I was glad I wasn't part of that.

The Independent Critic

Are you out in L.A.? Did you head out there with this vision of being in film?

Aengus James

I left the great state of New Jersey which, by the way, is a great state.  I went to college at the University of Maryland, and I was a teacher abroad for a year. I came back, and it was always my dream as a kid to work in movies. I came out here and ended up being a really good waiter for a long time.

The Independent Critic

What made you persevere during those times of working as a waiter? Was there every this temptation to say "Screw this, I'm going back to Jersey?"

Aengus James

No, I never had that. I just wanted it really badly. There have definitely been times that were hard. I came from the East Coast, where everybody uses public transportation. Out here, the public transportation is terrible. You could ride a bus for an hour to get someplace that would take me two minutes in a car. There have been frustrations, but I've never thought about giving up. I'm a lifer. I would like to direct scripted film. I love documentaries, and I've adjusted my priorities according to where I saw an opening. I still have goals. I do want to continue to direct documentary films.


American Harmony is currently available from Breaking Glass Pictures on DVD. For more information, visit the film's Breaking Glass Pictures website and be sure to check out The Independent Critic's review of the film. For more information on Aengus James and to keep track of his work, check out the This is Just a Test website.

© 2011, Interview by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic 





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