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Bill Megalos “Do not start working in the movie industry if you do not adore it”

25 March 2010 / 10:03:34  GRReporter
9268 reads

Maria S. Topalova

Special representative of GRReporter in Rockport, Main

In the documentary cinema he is a legend. He has been awarded a golden globe for documentary in 1986 for his movie Down and Out of America, dedicated to the economic policy of the president Ronald Reagan and its effect on the poor and homeless. In 1989 he receives the Emmy award for W. Eugene Smith a biographical movie about the great American photojournalist. He has over 30 full – length documentaries, made for televisions like BBC, Channel 4, PBS. Among them are masterpieces of the documentary cinema like Paris is Burning and A Night in Havana – Dizzy Gilespie in Cuba. In 1985 he wins the award of the World Health Organization for Media Excellence for the series of documentaries dedicated to the family planning in Bangladesh. 

He never hides his Greek origin and despite of the fact that he is a third generation American Greek he speaks the language fluently. He was born in New York and currently he lives and works in Los Angelis. He works as a trainee for Teo Angelopoulos and is part of the team who made the movie “Alexander the Great”, because of which Angelopoulos was awarded the Golden lion in the Film festival in Venice in 1980. Just like every other summer in the past 20 years, this year as well Bill Megalos is teaching a masters class in the Media Workshop of the American state Main where we meet. This year’s topic of the class is “The documentary cinema and the non government organizations”.

 

  • - Bill when do you feel satisfied with your work?
  • - This is not exactly a feeling. Always after one movie is finished comes the next one which has to start right away. In the middle of the 90s, in the boom of the so called “.com” era me and few more people started making television. We had a very good work before we started transmitting. This is the biggest quantity of work I had ever had to do. I created 6 different series of television show programs which had to be broadcasted in this television. I am talking about hundreds of hours television time. With the approaching of the start date of the television I was thinking that this will be the day when we open the Champaign bottles and we celebrate. However when the day came we couldn’t afford to have even one minute of celebrating because we had to prepare the programs for the next day. We said to ourselves: “Good job boys! We did a great job! Let’s get back to work now”. When do I feel satisfied? This is also related to the way the Media Workshop in Main works. At the end of the seminar everybody gathers and present their works. The movie producers rarely have the chance to see the work of other people. When you are in the hall and you watch how people react to your movies – this is what fills me with satisfaction. For example I teach a class in Uganda as well. I have 10 students and each one of them at the end of these two weeks of training presents his movie. We invite all the people in the are who are actually the characters of our movies to watch them together with us and this is very beautiful. However this is something unusual it is not a simple satisfaction from the work because of the work itself. This is another social experience which we usually do not have.

 

 

  • - You work a lot with non government organizations. Why? What does working with them bring you?
  • - I love a lot to travel. And I don’t just love to travel, I love to travel in a certain way. I feel much more comfortable in the developing countries than in those that are already developed. If I am not at least once a year at a place where the life has kept the same as it has always been, I feel immoral and totally lost touch with the real world. If you want to be in places like this, what kind of movies would you make there? Besides this I deeply believe that in the world there has to be poverty. That poverty is not the fault of the people who are poor, but all of us who have created the rest are guilty, for creating this structuring of the world which we currently have. I am doing everything I can to decrease the poverty and hunger around the world and this is the kind of movies I enjoy making.

 

  • - Your work is focused entirely on Africa and Asia. However is there anything in Europe and more precisely in Greece which has the potential to attract your attention as an artist?
  • - Regarding the development, Europe is too well developed. I have always wanted to go in Albania and I deeply regret that I didn’t do it when the time was right. I had to go there many, many years ago, when Enver Hoxha was still there. In the beginning of the 80s of the 20th century to walk on the streets of Albania meant to be walking three or four centuries back in time. I really regret that I didn’t go there on time. I love Greece, I love Eastern Europe and I know that it has some interesting times and I would like to be there more often, but I look at the world from the point of view of its development. There are some project for micro financing and micro crediting, which would be interesting topics for movies. I am sure that if I take a closer look I would also find other interesting things, however I haven’t yet found the time to do it.

 

  • - Which part of making movies is your favorite?
  • - I really love making movies, traveling because this is when you meet people, this is when you live the story of the movie. I wouldn’t say that I like to sit in the editor studio and edit. Despite the fact that I admit that editing is a very important part of the process of making movies, when the film becomes a whole and starts to make sense. In the first 20 even more years of my career I was never personally editing my films. I was working with other editors as a cameraman, who had to provide certain frames. With the invention of the editing program Final Cut Pro and not even with the first, nor with the second, but with its third version I myself started editing my movies. And now I feel great respect for the editing part of the film production.  This program opened for me a completely new world which is very different from the shooting of the film and I am grateful to it for teaching me to work in this way. When you are shooting your attention is focused on the time, on utilizing every minute of the day, to find fast and easy solutions. “We are here for one day. We have to take all the necessary frames for one day and to make all the interviews”. Shooting a film is like dancing, it fills you with enthusiasm, it makes you react fast or you lose the moment. There is nothing like this in editing. In editing there are no easy decisions, just right decisions. I tell to all of my students and all the people I am trying to help that there is only one rule in editing and it says that you have to put your ass on the chair and work. You could find thousands of excuses not to edit. Even the greatest and most famous editors I know are among the biggest loafers. You go in the biggest editing studios in New York where documentaries are created with the biggest budgets and you see all the editors, with no exception, to wonder about all day long and talk to each other and to postpone putting their ass on the chair. Until it comes 4 o’clock in the afternoon when they panic and everybody rushes to his desk and starts working. And works, works, works until it comes midnight. And this happens every single day! It is very boring to edit. You have to lie to yourself in order to do it.

 

  • - How did you get to the Media Workshop of Main for the first time?
  • - It is hard for me to remember how I came here for the first time and who hooked me up with the organization. Somebody who was already teaching had recommended me as a good teacher. However I don’t remember who it was.

 

  • - How long have you been teaching here?
  • - About 20 years, but 15 at the least.

 

  • - This is a very long period of time. What attracts you here?
  • - I really believe in the workshop education model. I have been teaching in a university and I still do teach in a university. However when you teach in a university with young people you spend with them few hours a week. Maximum 4 to 6 hours and the rest of the time they are somewhere else. Around them there always is some drama, other classes, money food, anything. When people visit the Workshop they spend here twenty four hours. They are very concentrated and very motivated to make a big jump, a great artistic jump in their career. They do not think about the life back at home. And something else, which I like very much is that for most people to come here it is a matter of several years of deciding. They first look around before choosing the workshop they will take part in. They have to get a permission to miss from their work, they have to apply for a scholarship and they have to talk to their husbands or wives that: “this year, here is how I am going to spend my vacation”. Because of this the people are very motivated. They are also older and they say to themselves “I want to learn this at all cost”. And this motivation of theirs makes the work of the teacher much more pleasurable. So the students are dedicated to the studying. Besides this, Main is a fantastic state, it is an extraordinary place in the summer and even in the autumn. I have never been teaching here in the winter, however in the summer and the spring it is fantastic. The workshop is a place where a person puts to work all of his work and energy into the art. This means that it is not just me and on the other side my students. Very often when I teach in the university I get the feeling that my students don’t know what they want that they are there because they cannot think of anything else to do. Not all of them, but most of them are like this. They have begged their parents to send them into a university for film making because they think they will have a good time there. Here in the workshop people create themselves, the creative energy is all around.

 

  • - Your students are very happy with you and they claim they learn a lot of things in your class. But is there anything you learn from them?
  • - What I learn from teaching the students is how much I know myself. Once you start working in the film making industry, somehow you become a narrow specialist. Not just for the actors, but for all of us. If you are a cameraman who makes a certain type of frames very well you will only make this kind of frames. Whether you would be a director of commercials with children or commercials with dogs, you will only shoot those. Even a person like me who has a very wide area of activities throughout the whole world, my job is primarily focused on the developing countries, where I make a certain type of documentaries. They are very interesting, however there isn’t too great variety in them. When you become famous for something the industry is keeping you doing this particular thing. Here every student turns to me with the most different questions, needs various help and I realize that I am in the position to pass on this knowledge. This is what I learn in the very process of teaching. From my students I learn the different approach to the subjects. In the moment you start a professional work you start using the easiest for you solutions. When you have been once in a situation and you have found the way out of it, the next time you get there you do not look for a new way out, you just know it. It is not about not doing your job as you should, but you just become lazier in terms of new solutions.

 

  • - What do you prefer  - to make movies or to teach others how to make movies?
  • - To tell you the truth I prefer to play in a band. The truth is that I want to do both. I have found out that if in my life existed only the professor or only the director I would not be happy. I have found out that there are 6 or 7 personalities existing within me – the husband the father, the teacher, the director, the artist, who creates art just for himself, the musician. I have secret features, which nobody else knows they exist. So in order for me to be happy, each personality inside of me to be fulfilled. Otherwise I would not be happy. I would hate it if I just had to teach or just to shoot.

 

  • - What is your advise for the young film directors who are just starting their career?
  • - My advise for the young people who wish to start working in this business is “Do not do it!” I know it sounds terrible, but it is true. This business has changed a lot. I was lucky to start very early to work in this field when there were budgets, which were giving the opportunity to make good movies. I had made many films for BBC, which had such big budgets that everything was done right. The producer and the director could go in the Near East to see with his eyes what is happening there, to come back and to know how to make the movie. Now in advance you talk on the phone, you set up the things, however you practically don’t know what exactly you will cover with the film. I work with non governmental organizations and the only way to make films for them is to do it all alone. I am a good cameraman and a good director. I am also a very good producer. However I cannot do it all equally well. The quality of the film drops. I spent many years as a cameraman, behind the camera. As a boy for everything in my movies, I shoot better than somebody else who is doing everything by himself as well. However I do not reach the quality which we have when we work in a team and everybody participates in his area of knowledge. From the point of view of today’s budgets it is very hard to perform you work in a way to be satisfied by it. That is why my advise to the young people is: “Unless you adore this profession do not start working in this field. Find something else to do. Because if you start working in this business at this time you will be exploit. Everybody will exploit you. And if under these circumstances you do not find the pleasure in your work, find something else to do. However it also has to be something you enjoy”.

 

  • - I think this is true for every profession nowadays.
  • - Yes, we live in a cruel world. We live in a humiliating time. I started my career in the 70s. At that time the people know that if you are a freelancer, this is a certain status. You know the joke that we don’t pay the prostitute for the sex, but to leave afterwards, don’t you. I don’t mean that being a freelancer is like being a prostitute. However at that time we knew that in order to be a freelancer you have to be very good in what you are doing and people hire you and pay you a high fee, however they have no further engagements with you. They do not pay you health insurance, they do not wonder what to do with you when they have no job for you anymore. However they pay you enough money for you to be able to support yourself. Now the money paid to the freelancers is very little. I know many people who cannot afford to have a health insurance. Me personally I work since the 70s and in all this time I only had two years during which my employer was paying me health insurance. As a freelance professional I pay this insurance on my own every year since 1972 until present. In the beginning when I was young I even didn’t have a health insurance. However after I got married and the things at my work started picking up, since the end of the 70s, for 30 years now I pay this by myself. The freelance professional has to earn this money somehow. I have to admit that my worst client in the 70s and 80s was paying more that my best client today is. Our business is very cruel right now and if you don’t love it with no reserves it is better to start looking for other ways to survive.
Tags: interview Bill Megalos documentary cinema
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