Filmmaker Spotlight: Interview with Director Mark Cummins

This week’s Filmmaker Spotlight focuses on Director Mark Cummins, whose film was showcased at the AT&T Center in downtown Los Angeles as part of NewFilmmakers Los Angeles. Learn about his film, The Most Girl Part of You, as Cummins discusses making the film, lessons he’s learned and where you can catch him next.

Tell us a little bit about your project and how long you’ve been working on it.

I worked on this project for a long time. It started with me reading the original short story by Amy Hempel. Upon finishing it, I immediately went back and re-read it, which is unusual for literature. We don’t think of it as a pop song you put on repeat. But the story was like that. It had a lightness and buoyancy even though it dealt with heavy material, and I felt exhilarated at the end of it. I had just abandoned a short script as overly long and too expensive to produce. I wasn’t consciously looking for material, but it was similar thematically to the story I had abandoned but I realized more optimistic than the piece I had written. As opposed to a story where someone learns they’ll never get what they want, I thought I would now make a short that was about someone getting what they wanted, but having to leave their comfort zone to do so.

This film was made as my thesis film at USC and they are strict about rights and permissions, so first I would need the author’s permission. There was a point where I was afraid I would have to abandon the project when I didn’t think she was going to give me the go-ahead. I took buses and planes to literally stake out her office hours. It was creepy and devotional in keeping with the actions of the character in the story. Today, I probably wouldn’t go about it the same way.

After that things began to fall into place. The film won awards from FotoKem and Kodak that allowed us to shoot on 35mm. Production had the usual snafus–losing your lead actress a week before shooting, getting kicked out of your locations by South Pasadena and shooting in your house (it helped that my roommate was the DP)—but overall it was one of best weeks of my life. As part of the award from Fotokem, I watched print dailies in a dark theater, which is probably an experience I’ll never have again unless I work on a Paul Thomas Anderson movie. The first day I could see the footage looked incredible and the choice to shoot on film in 35 had been the appropriate one. As a director I could also see the movie we were actually making, and understand the actors better and what they brought to the characters. I knew the story we were telling. It was an invaluable learning process.

The post-process was protracted. Despite the lessons learned on set and my happiness with my footage, I spent a lot of time in the editing process looking for the right structure. The film had a trajectory but it wasn’t exactly linear–I had written and shot the film as fragments–so I essentially had infinite options in terms of how the film could be edited. I also could rewrite the voiceover as necessary and always felt like I was just one change away from finally cracking it. But progress was more incremental. I had to overcome the romantic idea of completion, to learn that things are never finished only abandoned.

Is there anyone you’d like to thank for helping out with this film?

Amy Hempel for writing the original story and allowing me to adapt it. Gail Duncan at Kodak, FotoKem, and USC for supporting the film through post-production. My family and friends. The families who let us shoot in their homes. And all my collaborators on the film.

How does it feel to have your film part of the NewFilmmakers Screening at the AT&T Center?

I’m very excited to have the film selected by New Filmmakers. It’s great to see the film connect with other people after living with it for so long. With every screening, it feels less and less like the film belongs to me, which is how I like it. Los Angeles is my home now, so it’s important to me to feel like my neighbors and peers feel like my movie has something to say.

What inspires you?

Anger is an energy that I find more helpful generally than positive feedback. I have a repressed competitive streak, that comes out when someone says I can’t do something, I think, “I’ll show them.”

Who are your influences and who do you admire?

I grew up in New York City, educated by the Jesuits, listening to rap music and reading literary fiction. Those are my earliest influences. In my filmmaking, I’m guided by the kind of humanism practiced by such directors as Ernst Lubitsch, Jean Renoir, John Cassavetes, Ozu, Bresson, Eric Rohmer, Hal Ashby and Edward Yang. I would like to be able as John Huston did to adapt literature freely as feature films.

What lessons have you learned from the industry so far?

The lessons you learn from the industry aren’t ones you should really take it heart, because the logic of industry is depressing. They are programming, so it is a constant fight to preserve your creativity within that.

If you could collaborate with anybody, who would it be?

I would like to make a movie with Felicity Jones and Daniel Day Lewis.

What is the toughest experience you’ve ever had to overcome?

I’ve had a largely middle-class life bereft of great trauma or sacrifice. The single toughest thing for me is to overcome a kind of innate pessimism I have about human life, which can be summed up as “Why try?” It’s so much easier to not do stuff than it is to do stuff. Inertia is stronger than will often. The stories I wish to tell are inspired by the rift between things as they are and things as we want them to be: We have our ideals but cannot live up to them; we wish to be virtuous but then act selfishly; we dislike our lives but do not change them; we prefer illusion to reality; and

What is the best piece of advice someone has given to you?

It’s easy to get 90% of the way there, but for the last 10% you really need a buddy. Sort of like moving out of your apartment. Don’t ever try to move alone.

What advice would you give to new filmmakers starting out in the industry?

Don’t do the tortured solo genius thing. Find people who share a similar sensibility and bounce your ideas off them. Your collaborators will make your ideas better or suggest better ones. And having to advocate or defend them to trusted friends will make your ideas sharper, smarter and more universal. And if/when you fail, you’ll have more fun with a group.

Where can we expect to see you next?

I’m looking forward to making some weird shit for the web and more adaptations.

Let our readers know where they can find more information about you and your projects.

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About the Author

Formerly an editor at Demand Media, writer at Citysearch, The Examiner and proofreader at The Los Angeles Daily News, Christy Buena decided to start Disarray Magazine because she missed writing what she wanted. From hiring writers, to contacting publicists and making assignments, Christy is responsible for the editorial strategy of Disarray Magazine. Get to know the team of talented contributors.

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