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An Interview with Rich Newey

Rich Newey is an award-winning director, writer, editor and producer. Having started his career shooting music videos, Rich has collaborated with artists including Phil Collins, Digital Underground, Christina Aguilera, Akon, Missy Elliot, and Mark Ronson. Rich has also worked on series such as Beauty and the Beast, The Fosters, and Blindspot. I spoke with Rich about studying at film school, landing his first directing job, and his upcoming film Killing Eleanor.

Did you always want to pursue a career in filmmaking, and how did you land your first directing job?

It all started very early in my life. I was an 80’s kid and going to the movies was everything, especially coming from a small town with not a lot to do…Indio, California, which is just outside of Palm Springs. I’d sometimes watch the same movie 25 times. And I think as a kid, you don’t really realize it’s a job somebody does— making movies, being a “filmmaker.” Then as you get older and you realize that this is how some people make their living and there are creative individuals, there are artists who get to do this incredible thing. My first inkling of that came when my dad took me to one of his job sites in a country club. He was a plumber and built custom homes for a lot of wealthy people. One of them was Marvin Davis, who ran 20th Century Fox at the time. My dad took me into the basement of this massive house and there was a private screening room with multiple 35mm projectors. I got to meet Mr. Davis and we talked a little about filmmaking. I think I was maybe 10 at the time. I didn’t know it then, but it helped set me on a path, connecting this love of movies I had with the idea of becoming a filmmaker myself. The problem for me was again— small town. It always felt so insulated. How do you navigate that? How do you figure out a way out to pursue your dreams? It seems like an easy question to answer now of course, but back then it was definitely wasn’t.

The first thing I did was take a community college class where you learned how to do live TV. It was taught by a local news anchor. That was the best the desert had to offer at the time, but it felt so important to me. It was a start. That led to gaining enough confidence to try making a few short films on my own. My dad had super 8 cameras and a VHS camera for home movies, so I used those and experimented— editing the footage on two VCR’s and I think I might have had a title maker!

After graduating high school, I found my way up to the Bay area and I discovered the Academy of Art University. They had a film program and although it was still in its infancy (I think there were 424 students doing film) the school invested in their students and their equipment, which was really appealing to me. 35mm, Avid, Pro-Tools, Computer Graphics— it was very hands on learning, which I loved. You got out what you put into it, you know? And we all put in a lot. A buddy of ours graduated ahead of us and ended up getting signed as a commercial director off a spec-spot he made, which won a Clio Award. Although making narrative features was my goal, this presented an alternate path that I thought might be a good steppingstone and maybe at the very least get me on set directing professionally sooner than later. I was always a big fan of hip-hop and there were a lot of great artists in the Bay Area, so I decided to direct a few music videos. At the time videos were still very much in their heyday with huge budgets and we were all inspired by directors like David Fincher and Spike Jonze, who were able to make that leap from videos to features. One of the first music videos I did was for Money B of Digital Underground fame. I was always a huge fan of theirs, so getting to work with Money— that he would take a chance on me— was really cool.

I graduated film school and got signed by a production company as a music video director. But it quickly became a bit of a catch-22 for me since I hadn’t worked with a real record label before or a real budget. No one wanted to take a chance on the new kid. So how do you get the first job? Then the answer presented itself when I stumbled into treatment writing for other directors, writing concepts for them. Word of mouth spread as more and more people read my writing. I think at one point I was working for around 50 different directors. That led to doing some second unit work for directors like Bille Woodruff and Darren Grant and within a year I was directing my first professional music video in Kentucky. A group called Nappy Roots. Suddenly I was firmly on this other path and filmmaking kind of went on hold. I was doing more and more videos and also started directing some commercials. One of the relationships I formed was with the group Bone Thugs N Harmony. I had directed their video “Home” featuring Phil Collins in Switzerland early on, which went really well so a few years later they called me again and hired me to direct a film they wanted to do. That was a great opportunity and led to me getting a manager, who then got me shadowing on TV episodes and it snowballed from there.

So at film school you were doing a mixture of editing, writing, directing etc?

It was a great school in that way because they pushed us to learn all aspects of filmmaking. One of the first classes I had was an editing class and I still edit to this day, I cut this movie (Killing Eleanor). Learning those fundamentals— and look, I don’t profess to be a shooter or a gaffer, or anything— but when you learn the basics of those skills you form a language around it and you can talk to the people you’re working with and they can more easily see your vision.

Was directing always the focus at the beginning?

Yeah, for sure. That and writing. I grew up like everyone else watching Indiana Jones and Star Wars and geeking out on that stuff as a little kid and then as I grew older, in high school I gravitated towards filmmakers like Robert Rodriguez, Tarantino and Scorsese. I remember watching Pulp Fiction in 1994 and it just blew me away. Not that it changed the trajectory of my path I was already on, but it kind of bolstered in me this decision. You know, working in a small town, at the mall and figuring out how to get out of there and go make a movie.

What draws you to a particular project? Do you like to direct your own scripts?

At first, that’s all I thought I wanted to do. But as I grew as a filmmaker and really as I was doing music videos, I fell in love with the collaboration process— everyone uniting to tell the best story and I loved being able to add my perspective and being inspired by others. I think that led me into the episodic TV work I do, which I really love. In TV you’re part of the machine and you all work together to tell these great stories. And with that, there’s a ton of problem solving as a director, which is maybe one of things I love most about what I do.

But as far as what draws me to a project— the real question for me is, do I care? Am I leaning in? Do the characters make me feel something? That’s what inspires me— the first time I look at something, I look at it like a member of the audience. With Killing Eleanor, Annika (who wrote and stars in the film — and I’m also lucky enough to be her husband!) had this idea kicking around for a long time. I read some initial outlines and thought this is a really cool idea. My Dad had passed away not long before that. He had a stroke and spent 22 days in a nursing home before passing. It was hard to see. When I initially read the first draft, I was drawn to Eleanor’s determination to live and die on her own terms.

Do you prefer working with people you’ve collaborated with before?

I think there is a comfort level in working with the same people because there is an inherent trust. There’s never enough time— you're always moving fast— so to work with people you know can be a real gift. My DP on Killing Eleanor, Jessica Young— she and I went to film school together and have known each other for nearly 25 years. We have this incredible shorthand. I think a lot of the time the crew would look at us and say ‘wait, how do they understand what they’re saying to each other? Everything is moving so fast. But we’ve done it a billion times together, you know? The same with my first AD, Jenn Wilkinson. She and I met when I was shadowing on CSI NY, trying to get my first TV gig. We hit it off immediately, we’re very like-minded. She’s also one of the best AD’s in the business and incredibly creative. She was super thoughtful on set, always coming with amazing, nuanced notes that at the very least would pose a great question. The flip side of that is working with new people, which I find can also be really wonderful— because new people bring new ideas and make you look at things a little differently. There are definitely benefits to both.

What would you say was the biggest thing you took away from shadowing directors early on in your career?

Oh, it’s countless really. I was fortunate enough to shadow some really wonderful directors who are incredibly talented. I think universally the thing that I found was prep work is everything— having a plan. Especially in TV. It’s interesting to bring a TV mind-set to independent filmmaking because you have to be so buttoned up. There’s just no time in TV to make mistakes because there is a huge studio spending millions of dollars and the schedule is brutal and you just have to get it right or the machine breaks down. On the independent film side there isn’t a lot of money and you don’t get to go back to those location typically. I love having a plan— going into it knowing what I want. But also, being loose enough in the moment to know when I see some magic happening— to let that magic happen and not be so rigid to this thing you think it’s supposed to be. It took me a minute to learn that. It’s nice to sometimes take a beat and step back— to look at something and say, ‘wait, that was cool. Let’s try that thing and see where it goes.’

Do you think working as writer, editor and producer has helped you as a director?

It’s all part of your toolbox, absolutely. Editing first and foremost. From the moment you read the script you’re figuring out how this thing flows together and what the transitions are. On the writing side also, I think any writer who works with me will tell you that they have a really great experience because I really appreciate the thought that went into every word they wrote. I have a tremendous amount of respect for writers. From the producing end, if you’re so focused on ‘hey I’m the director and I’m trying to make this thing happen, I don’t care long it takes or how much money we spend’— that doesn’t do anybody any good and you’re not going to work for very long because producers are going to realize that you’re not a team player. You’re steering the ship, so you have to take it all into consideration. As I said, the best part of this job is problem solving. Everything you do is problem solving, whether you are blocking a scene, or working with an actor and get that performance, or shot-listing, or dealing with a location that fell through… It’s all in some form problem-solving and that’s the thing I really love.

How does it affect your role as director if you have several actors all with different approaches to their characters?

Well, I think being married to an actor has really helped me. Annika has shared so much wisdom around acting and her process. I feel like I have a secret window into that side of things. Before meeting her I was coming from a music video world where you move everybody around like puzzle pieces, focused more on trying to get the cool visuals. So having found this respect for acting and understanding what goes into an actor’s process is everything. I’ve found, when I’m directing a scene and it’s not working, it’s usually not because the actor can’t do it— there’s something wrong— something inherent that needs to be addressed. Something isn’t making sense and we have to work through it and find the truth in the scene. It might be that the circumstances don’t make sense to the actor or the blocking is wrong— where they are entering or exiting, where the movement is happening. Just being open to that conversation helps so much when working with actors I think.

Could you tell me more about Killing Eleanor?

It was such a magical experience in every way imaginable. The entire cast and crew— all of whom were simply brilliant in their roles and positions— had such passion for making this movie, as did our producing partners Richard Kahan and Angie Gaffney and our investors, the Chicago Media Angels. As filmmakers, Annika and I felt so supported and knew we could do anything with this team, no matter the obstacle. And trust me, there were plenty of obstacles!!

The majority of the shoot took place in the suburbs of Chicago, which was a fantastic setting because it made it very easy to find varying environments to create the feel that Natalie and Eleanor were traveling a great distance. We had thirty locations that we needed to shoot in seventeen days, plus 2 days of second unit with a small team driving up to the Upper Peninsula. So, there was a lot of location moves, a lot of smart strategizing in order to make sure we made our days. That started with our first AD Jenn. We could not have done this without her.

I think the journey to getting to make the movie was just as magical. When Annika put her producer hat on and decided to put one foot in front of the other and say everyday she’s going to do something for this movie, I just knew we were going to get it made. She was so instrumental, so determined. The hardest thing for any filmmaker, I think, is where do you find the money? How do you get there? Through our producer Angie, we were lucky enough to find a group of investors called The Chicago Media Angels and pitched them the package. They saw our vision immediately and became wonderful supporters of the project— not only in providing the financing we needed to go make the movie, but also the moral support and trusting us as filmmakers to see our vision through to the end.

Has COVID delayed the release date?

It’s a whole new world, isn’t it? Everyone is just trying to figure it out I think. On the one hand audiences are starved for content right now because there was the shutdown for a while and that’s still catching up to itself. So, I hope our movie can help fill that void. At the same time movie theaters aren’t really an option these days, so we can’t do that whole thing. Who knows what will happen there. I think theatrical experiences were changing even before Covid. As a filmmaker that makes me sad. I love going to the movies and watching great Indies, but I don’t know if that is where they survive, especially right now. I think they can thrive in the digital space though. And maybe that means more eyeballs on your film, right? To me that’s really appealing and especially for a movie like this, that has a message. Not that we are trying to preach in any way, but just to start a conversation that might be a little awkward to have in some families— that would be really rewarding at the end of the day. This idea of dying on your own terms— it’s still really hard for a lot of people to get their head around. But it doesn’t have to be— especially if we want to honor our loved ones and their wishes.

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