Given my last name, people might assume that I have deep connections to Hollywood and filmmaking. The truth is that I don’t know of any familial connection to the Warner Bros. Pictures studio. I also have no brothers. Growing up in a family of three older sisters, we watched films from time to time, but filmmaking did not become an important part of my life until about four years ago.
At that time, I was in the midst of a career transition and wanted to try something new. I decided to take a couple of film courses at a local community college and quickly dove deep into an ocean of love for filmmaking. I found enjoyment in analyzing and making films with my peers as well as working on film projects with my church.
In 2015, I was finishing up classes at Anne Arundel Community College to get an associate’s degree in Film Studies when I came across the documentary Hoop Dreams, made by Kartemquin Films. Once again, I dove deep into the ocean of love, this time for the documentary form. I had previous training in urban studies and I love sports, so Hoop Dreams was the perfect documentary to begin my quest. Over the course of nearly three hours, I followed the character arcs of Arthur Agee and William Gates as they traversed the pitfalls of living in inner-city Chicago while pursuing the prospects of careers in professional basketball.
Having worked as a newspaper reporter, I saw an overlap between documentary filmmaking and journalism that led me to pursue documentary filmmaking. I had also been part of internships and contract work that allowed me to create non-fiction videos, furthering my interest in documentary films. This led me to GW’s Institute for Documentary Filmmaking in 2016 where I co-produced a short music documentary called Everything Between.
Around this time, I learned about the film company Meridian Hill Pictures and their groundbreaking film City of Trees. I met Lance, Brandon and Michelle over the course of a few months and realized I wanted to be an intern with them. It took a few tries, but finally I was selected as an intern for this fall.
Since becoming an intern for Meridian Hill Pictures, I have learned so much and grown in confidence in pursuing documentary filmmaking as a career. Every task that I have completed has contributed to the betterment of the company. It’s probably one of the best work positions I’ve ever had in my life. I’ve enjoyed it a lot so far and look forward to finishing up the internship strong.
In addition to learning through this internship, I’ve also grown as a filmmaker through a film challenge of watching 365 films this year. You read that right—a film a day for the entire year. I started on January 1st and have watched 336 films so far. I’ve posted on my Facebook page each film I have watched, starting with AFI’s top 100 films (mostly the ones I hadn’t seen before), Best Picture Oscar winners, doing thematic watches like biblical films during the week leading up to Easter, three weeks of only documentaries in October and even a Roald Dahl film-themed week.
Both fiction and non-fiction films alike have informed and shaped me as a filmmaker. While I am more interested in documentary films, fiction films have helped me to see story structure, the dramatic map, the building of scenes and themes—all essential storytelling tools used in cinema verité documentary films. When I’ve watched documentary films, I’ve been able to see the composition of quality documentaries—storyline, capturing emotionally-important moments, character arcs, clear stakes, and excellent cinematography.
As a treat, I’d like to share with you a selection of films that have enhanced my knowledge of filmmaking during this #365Films Challenge. I have 5 fiction films and 5 documentary films that I have chosen from hundreds of films. Certainly there are more that I’d wish I could include, but this blog post has to end at some point. So here are some excellent films you should check out.
Five Fiction Films
- The Best Years of Our Lives—Filmed the year after World War II ended, this film follows three veterans who struggle to adjust to post-war life. The film was ahead of its time, depicting many of the post-war struggles of veterans today, from depicting PTSD to the struggle to find work and life with prosthetics. This film will move you as you connect with the three veterans.
- The King’s Speech—This film follows King George VI who ascends to the throne as King of England, but struggles with speech issues. The film’s twist and turns put you on an emotional roller coaster, but the climax of the film—oh so good! Based on a true story, the film is set in a crucial time in human history—pre-World War II. It packs a huge punch and will leave you envigorated.
- The Good, the Bad and the Ugly—I’m a little biased, but I loved this film so much when I first watched it that I had to watch it again as a birthday treat. The soundtrack alone has impacted our present-day culture greatly as you’ll recognize it the first time you listen to it. A movie with historical context during the Civil War and a timeless adventure to find gold, this film may feel long, but stick around for the climatic scenes—one of the best I’ve seen in all of cinematic history.
- Bringing Up Baby—A hilarious screwball comedy, this film jam-packs as much humor into its plot as humanely possible. Great acting comes from Katharine Hepburn and Cary Grant. I will let you watch it and find out who or what is the “Baby” in this film. You’ll laugh so hard watching this film.
- Modern Times—Another laugh-tastic film, this time from Charlie Chaplin. Although it is a silent film, it rivals many of the “talkies” we take for granted today. The film has timeless truths about working in “Modern Times,” the struggles of being a cog in the industrial machine and romance. One of the best Charlie Chaplin films out there (though there’s a lot of good ones out there). I enjoyed the humor in this film greatly.
Five Non-Fiction Films
- Jiro Dreams of Sushi—In this film, we meet Jiro Ono, a sushi chef of a 3-star Michelin sushi restaurant. The visual form aligns with content very well in this film, as the viewer sees slow-motion cutting of sushi meat, emphasizing the care and dedication that Jiro puts into having his staff make and prepare sushi.
- Step—Following an all women’s step team in Baltimore, this film really captures the struggles and successes of teenage girls who are looking to not only perform step well, but also to make it into college. Set in the time of the death of Freddy Gray, this is an emotionally-powerful film. I especially like how the depiction of conversations was so real to me. The editing was very smooth and it felt like I was there witnessing the conversation happen.
- The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters—This is a fun documentary where the champion scorer in Donkey Kong meets a formidable challenger in deciding who is the Donkey Kong scoring champion. This film has very good character arcs between Billy Mitchell and Steve Wiebe. The cinematography quality may not be the best for a documentary, but the story more than makes up for it. Stay tuned until the end!
- Cameraperson—Kirsten Johnson’s film takes snippets of Johnson’s career as a cameraperson to depict what it really is like to be a cameraperson. I connected with this film on a deep level as a cameraperson, everything from sneezing while operating a camera to facing opposition to your filming. A must-watch for any camera operator, the film may not be a traditional narrative, but the film is clear about showing the exciting and difficult parts of being a cameraperson.
- City of Trees—Do I get bonus points for this one? City of Trees is Meridian Hill Pictures’ ground-breaking film about how an environmental nonprofit wrestles with how to provide job training while the adults who receive the job training wrestle with how to build their lives. The film reminds me of my own work in the cities of Los Angeles, Washington, D.C. and Boston, and the difficulties inherent in producing positive change in communities.
As I continue my internship, I am looking forward to supporting MHP in their work as well as personally preparing for an international filming trip—to Honduras! Much more exciting information hopefully will come in another post. For now, what I will say is that I love the world of independent documentary filmmaking and I am grateful to be a part of Meridian Hill Pictures. I intend to continue my pursuit of becoming an independent documentary filmmaker after the internship, wherever that leads me.
To learn more about Paul's work, visit his personal blog and video portfolio.