Q&A: Bradley Battersby, Ringling College, Sarasota

83D: What have you done in your filmmaking career that readers might recognize?

BB: I've written and directed five feature films. Best known may be the second film, "The Joyriders'' starring Martin Landau, Kris Kristofferson, Heather McComb and Shawn Hatosy. My first film, "Blue Desert,'' starred Courteney Cox, Craig Sheffer and Philip Baker Hall. That film won best first feature at the Palm Springs film festival.

83D: What has been your proudest achievement in filmmaking?

BB: A film that hasn't gotten distribution yet: "Jesus, the Driver.'' It's a wonderful film. But it's very hard to get distribution unless you're doing big, dumb comedies or action pictures. Distribution is really the biggest barrier to doing heart-felt films.

83D: What's the storyline?

BB: It's about a guy who's a day worker. He's a Mexican, works in Palm Springs. He hangs out under the overpass looking for day work. One day he gets picked up by a couple of rednecks who need a driver. But they don't tell him exactly what they're hiring him for. He takes the job because it's better money than he was expecting, and he needs the money. The rednecks then rob a dry cleaners and he's the getaway driver. The whole robbery goes awry and all three are on the run. It's an examination of our country, based on traditional Spanish fairy tales or myths. In the story, he becomes kinda famous, like a Robin Hood. He's in danger of going to jail, yet he's not a bad guy. So he ends up trying to pay back society. He becomes known as "Jesus, the Driver,'' though his name is really the Spanish Jesus (Hay-SOOS).

83D: What are the obstacles to distribution?

BB: Films can't get into theaters without a superstar or a known subject. Distributors aren't willing to take a risk without some kind of insurance. It's hard to offset the marketing costs, particularly for the independent filmmakers.

83D: How do successful independents get their films distributed?

BB: There's a formula. It's math. They can quantify how many people will go to the movies. They try to keep production costs reasonable within the formula.

83D: Is the success of movies like "The King's Speech'' reason for hope or was its distribution all about star power in Colin Firth?

BB: How it happened is a great story. The screenwriters literally dropped the script off at the right person's doorstep. They didn't follow the rules. Didn't depend on an agent. Agents are the gatekeepers. Agents only want blockbusters. "The King's Speech'' probably would never have happened through normal channels. But because Geoffrey Rush and Tom Hooper opened the envelope and actually read the script, the movie got done.

83D: When you're thinking about doing a film, do you aim at a specific audience or demographic?

BB: Doing a great film is all about getting a big idea. If you get a big idea, it shouldn't be a mercenary project. If you aim too directly at a certain demographic, you'll turn the script into crap and underestimate your audience. Smart, independent filmmakers, like the Coen brothers and Alexander Payne, who did "Sideways,'' calculate how much money they can spend making the film based on star power and how many people will probably see it.

83D: What's your current project?

BB: "Take This Man.'' It's based on a real event that took place in 1965. It's a little bit like "American Graffiti'' with great roles for lots of young actors.

83D: What's your role as head of Ringling College's department of Digital Filmmaking?

BB: I do a little teaching but it's more of a visionary role. Ringling College is a very enlightened institution as far as colleges and particularly art schools go. The reason I came to Ringling was because they had tasted success with computer animation. They are recognized as the top film school in the nation for computer animation. In Hollywood, everyone knows it. As soon as you see the work done here, you realize that these guys are the best. The digital film program is only four-years-old, young enough that I knew I could come in and shape it.

83D: Which do you like better, making films or teaching students how to make films?

BB: I've always taught even while I was writing and directing in L.A. It's good to have that balance. Teaching brings you back to the purity of filmmaking. The business of filmmaking is very hard, almost distasteful. Students talk about the pure love of storytelling and filmmaking, not about budgets and distribution. This is an opportunity to put my brand on a college program and work to make the Ringling the best film school in the country.

83D: Define best?

BB: We're going to get there as a boutique film school. We're going to be that special place with the very best facilities, equipment, curriculum, teachers, where you can get lots of individual attention, that goes right to the heart of why I love filmmaking.

83D: Why Sarasota?

BB: Sarasota is primed to be a filmmaking hub. It's an absolutely wonderful place to live. People here aren't jaded about filming in places. Our students shoot anywhere. We shoot on the streets and in multimillion dollar waterfront homes. We always leave a location in better shape than we find it. We're about building. Community building. Building trust. Bringing a whole new industry to Sarasota. It's great for our students who will be primed and ready. And it will stop the brain drain. Almost all the students from the computer animation program end up going to California to practice their trade. A lot of these kids are from Florida. They should have opportunities here.

83D: What is the significance of Ringling bringing in celebrities like Bill Paxton, Martha Stewart, Andy Garcia, Verner Herzog?

BB: Future Films LLC, a film company in Sarasota (founded by Sam Logan of Sarasota and David Shapiro of New York), helps us bring in top tier Hollywood talent to work with students, share creative processes and individual knowledge (through the Digital Filmmaking Studio Lab). Community members support us. Visitors end up falling in love with this area. They see what I saw when I came here from Los Angeles: This is a great place to make films.

83D: What is your greatest yet unrealized opportunity here to make a difference?

BB: I'm looking to the day when our student films start winning every award out there. It's a matter of building the culture of excellence and putting our priorities in the right place. A lot of film schools think it's easy. I'm very much against these 24-hour film contests. They are not the thing to do. They shouldn't even strive for it. Making a film is a very complex task. You need to learn to write, to edit, to design, learn cinematography. It's daunting. The thing that is most important and eventually will set us apart is the priority of story. Great films are all about great scripts. It all comes down to storytelling.

83D: Where did you go to school?

BB: Stanford. I had always wanted to be a director. I figured I could learn the technical stuff from textbooks. So I took theater to learn to work with actors.

83D: How did you get your start in filmmaking?

BB: In commercials. I first went to New York because all my friends were actors and they were going to New York. Doing that actually felt like it slowed me down a bit. The entire film industry was centered in Los Angeles at the time. Now it's all over, in New Orleans, in Michigan, in Florida. Eventually I got to L.A. where I taught at the American Film Institute. In L.A., I directed episodic television and worked with a bunch of actors.

Diane Egner, 83 Degrees publisher and managing editor, shares insights from thought leaders by conducting interviews and editing their answers for succinctness. Comments? Contact 83 Degrees.

Read more articles by Diane Egner.

Diane Egner is the publisher and managing editor at 83 Degrees Media in the Tampa Bay region of Florida. 
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