MELVIN JAMES: STUDIO FILMS, INDEPENDENT FILMS AND TELEVISION…EYES ON THE PRIZE
Melvin James is an extraordinary, multi talented, award winning filmmaker who needs no introduction. However, we’ll grant one and make it brief before we get to this insightful, educative and inspirational one on one interview with him.
Melvin James has directed two studio films, he’s produced and directed Cannes Film Festival selection films and he’s directed for BET (College Hill).
ONE ON ONE WITH MELVIN JAMES
What led you to become a filmmaker, specifically a director?
I started writing screenplays when I was a Political Science/Pre Law major at Howard University. It was there that I first fell in love with the craft of making films. When I returned home after finishing school I got the opportunity to work under acclaimed director, Sidney Lumet. I got to see first hand the process of how films were put together. Sidney Lumet was a huge inspiration for me deciding to give the craft of directing a try.
After working with Sidney I went to work on the film Donnie Brasco and was fortunate to get great advice from people like producers Mark Johnson and Barry Levinson. After we wrapped on Donnie Brasco I worked on a few more films like The Devils Own, Gloria and Sleepers. I just soaked up everything that I could learn from watching these great filmmakers in action during the process of making these films.
I began to dedicate all of my time to studying filmmaking and learning the craft. I went on to direct my first indie feature film, King of Hearts, and I learned a lot more during the process of realizing how much I still didn’t know. There’s nothing like growing from your mistakes. Fortunately, the film got picked up for distribution and it led to me becoming hired as the director of my first studio film with Lions Gate Films. I went on to direct two studio films and as well as a few television pilots for major networks, including the number one rated series at the time on BET, College Hill.
You’re an extremely multi talented person, we’ve seen your work. From filmmaker, photographer, designer, drawer/animator, digital artist, entrepreneur and the list goes on. With so much talent, how do you stay sharp in filmmaking?
I have always had a deep love for all things creative so I tend to feed my creative drive in many forms. I started as a pretty skilled sketch artist at age seven and as a photographer at the age of twelve. My father bought me my first 35mm camera and it went everywhere with me. This was before the age of digital cameras and Photoshop. I developed crucial skills as a photographer at a very young age on how to create and capture great images within the camera.
I strongly believe that all forms of creativity that an artist engages in helps to fuel ideas and the creative aptitude of making movies. I don’t want to be limited to one thing. If I feel the urge to indulge in something I just go for it. The exploration of ideas must be infinite. I believe that an artist must always be curious about finding new ways to express themselves.
Your filmography is extensive. It ranges from working on big budget films to low budget independently made films. Can you share the most valuable lesson you’ve learned as a director and filmmaker from these experiences?
The most valuable lesson I learned as a director is to never become settled. To not only be open to growth but to actively and aggressively seek it. After making two studio films, I knew that I needed to become a better director in my ability to get great performances out of actors. If I didn’t understand the actor’s process from a practical standpoint then I was doing myself and them a disservice.
I knew I had the ability to perceive the level of performance that I wanted out of actors. It was always as clear as day to me. However, understanding what it took to get there was the missing link. So I went and studied under famed acting coach, James Price at The Acting Studio in New York City. James Price was an apprentice of Sanford Meisner and helped to usher many seasoned actors into the business. I wanted to study under the best so that’s what I did.
As a director, what in particular draws you to a specific film project versus another?
It’s all about the story and interesting characters that are multi-faceted. I like projects that I can really sink my teeth into and peel back layers in the story and in the characters. I look for projects that are moving and that have traction. Projects that are not necessarily limited to any one genre, although I’m usually drawn to dramas. But if it’s an interesting idea the first thing I usually want to know is how well can it be executed.
When casting for talent for a film project, what is it that ultimately leads you to a particular talent versus another?
I’ve become very keen and extremely selective in casting talent over the years. That old saying “Casting is half the battle” is absolutely true. I want people who are extremely passionate about the craft of acting and I stay away from those who haven’t yet come to the decision to live and breathe the craft. I’ve been through too much to deal with people who have one foot in the door and one foot out. There’s a certain level of dedication and work ethic that goes into an actor’s process of working on a character. That process isn’t to be hindered by anything. Things like fear, insecurity and doubt get beaten back by an actors priority to become completely committed to a character.
It’s the kind of passion that prevails in the face of anything and everything in it’s path. I love working with actors who see their craft through that kind of lens. I speak their language and I love being entrenched in the process with them. I would never ask an actor to do something that I wouldn’t be willing to do myself. And there aren’t many things that I wouldn’t be willing to do.
What advice can you give to aspiring film directors?
Learn everything under the sun when it’s comes to art, ideas, concepts and master the rules so that you know how to break them correctly. It’s not breaking the rules if you never knew the rules in the first place. Knowledge only serves your art and the more knowledge you possess the more tools you have to create. Learn by doing. Practical application is the best teacher. Never be afraid to fail, embrace it. I’ve made more than my share of mistakes but that was the road I traveled to get to the level of artistry that I’m on now and my journey continues. We learn by leaps and bounds through the mistakes that we make.
Make money when you can but never be driven to do it for the money. If you love what you do, you will become good at it. And when you become good at it people will beat a path to your door to pay you to do it.
What projects are you working on now and what’s ahead?
I’m coming off my third film selected into the Cannes International Film Festival and I have a few other projects on my slate. Currently I’m in pre production on another feature film called Sister Trouble, we will be shooting it in Atlanta. I also have a drama series in development called Brooklyn Breed. In addition, I’m writing and executive producing a new biopic with Usher’s mentor and teacher, AJ Alexander, called Discovered.
I’m just happy to have been able to get to a point where the discussion of Emmys and Oscars are a real possibility and I’m definitely keeping my eyes on the prize.
KEEP UP WITH MELVIN JAMES
View Donnie Brasco, starting Al Pacino and Johnny Depp available on Amazon. It’s a film that not only inspired Melvin, but he also participated in the making of it.
FILMS ON MARILYNFILMS.COM
Below is a button link to view films available here on MarilynFilms.com. We encourage you to support independent filmmaking by viewing the films and we’d love to hear your take on them. You can simply comment below or send us your comments via our CONTACT page.
Hey, why not subscribe to our newsletter? We’ll keep you updated with everything MarilynFilms.com and you’ll receive promo codes directly to your inbox (one email a month).
Also, would you share this article? It’s extremely helpful in our mission to promote independent filmmakers and their films. You can do so simply by clicking on your favorite of the social media icons listed below (scroll down). Cheers ??.