Texan born filmmaker John Matysiak has a range of reel under his belt from features,commercials, to shorts that have premiered at Cannes Film Festival. Recently John has taken on all roles from behind the camera to acting along with his wife, Michelle Fine, to create ‘At Altitude.’ The power couple rope together to complete the short film to bring the story of a couple that treks up Mount Rainier and faces the challenges not only the climb but the struggles within the relationship. Two filmmakers, ten days, one mountain, and one amazing dynamic duo.
John also shares with us his beginning as a filmmaker, upcoming features, the reward in storytelling and advice for freelance filmmakers.
Tell me about your background:
I am originally from Sugar Land, TX, small suburb of Houston. I got started like many people, making videos with my friends growing up. One day my history teacher, Coach Madden, gave our class the option to create a video presentation instead of writing a research paper, I think from then on, I knew I wanted to make films for the rest of my life. It just wasn’t until applying for college several years later that I realized you could actually go to school and get a degree and do it for a living. I think both my parents thought I was a little crazy and out of my mind.
How did you get your start in the film industry?
My summer of my senior year in high school, I got a job as an intern for a large studio in Houston, and that’s really where I learned the basics of the workings of the set. What the different departments are, what the hierarchy is on a film production, particularly commercial production. By the end of the summer I knew all of the grip and electrical gear and had worked my way up from unpaid intern to actually being hired out on commercials as a grip. This more than anything else gave me an advantage upon arriving at film school.
After I left film school, the main reason I went freelance was that no one would hire me full-time at a production company. I tried for months, countless interviews and countless resumes later I still was unemployed when a good friend of mine called me and asked if I wanted to work as a best boy on a feature, I’ve been freelancing to this day.
Have you thought about starting your own production company?
I haven’t given it any real thought, in terms of starting my own production company. At the moment I find myself busy working on other people’s movies and enjoy the freedom being able to work for a wide range of companies. As the industry changes, I may change my mind but who knows.
What comes easiest to you as a filmmaker?
As a filmmaker and cinematographer, I believe composition may come the easiest. It’s always been instinctual, it seems like, my parents bought me a still camera at an early age, perhaps I got all of my bad pictures out-of-the-way when I was younger. But as I continually push myself on each job and project I do find myself trying to question my compositions, is this really the best, is there a better angle or lens choice for this particular shot. The key is, even if it comes easy or natural you do have to continue to push yourself to grow with each time you’re behind the camera.
Where do you find inspiration?
Inspiration. Inspiration is an interesting one. The stories inspire me, people inspire me. The whole notion of a team of people creating a world from scratch inspires me. When I read a script, I immediately begin to see the film in my head, like most people. I suppose that more than anything inspires me, reading something from a page and being able to visualize it, then months later being able to be on set and bring that story to life, with a team of craftsmen and artisans , it’s a pretty special experience. But other than that I’d say that daily life inspires me. I’m constantly looking at how light reacts to the world and different locations. Whether it’s an unusual way the sun is reflecting off of a surface or how practical lighting is used.
Tell me about your short film making history and your short that went to HollyShorts:
Like many filmmakers, I started making shorts earlier on,what began as video projects with friends in high school turned into short films all through film school and even into the professional world. As you build your reel as a cinematographer you’re constantly trying to find scripts and projects that will push yourself and help you develop your techniques and visual style. I’d say ever since I was able to actually call myself a cinematographer, I’d usually work on one or two shorts a year. I’ve been fortunate to work on some shorts that have done really well and played festivals all over the world. CERTIFIED, which played at HollyShorts actually premiered at the Cannes Film Festival, which was an incredible experience, you never know what can come out of a one day shoot sometimes. I recently finished up a short film that I shot with my wife called ‘At Altitude‘ in which we were the only crew, doing everything from sound to acting. We shot for 6 days on the side of Mount Rainer while climbing to the summit.
Any features in the works?
I’m in the beginning stages of prep on several features that start shooting before the end of the year. Lately I’ve been shooting more commercials than anything else, which has been great in terms of expanding my horizon. I come from a feature world, having shot over a dozen features in the last three years, so its been a nice change of pace to focus on an extreme short form of story telling.
What is your favorite thing about being a filmmaker?
Being able to visual a story, collaborate with others and then bring that story to life and share it with an audience is a huge reward. Traveling and experiencing different cultures has been a close second. It’s been life enriching beyond belief, and has ultimately changed the way I live my life and how I see and look at the world.
What advice do you have to filmmakers starting out? In the freelancing world?
Shoot. Shoot as often as you can. Shoot as much as you can. Try to surround yourself with people who will help build you up and help push and inspire you. One of the greatest things about an institution like a film school is the competitive nature of the environment. Trying to force yourself to acknowledge your peer’s work as well as really bring the best work out of yourself. The industry has changed so much since I starting working freelance. The technology has changed, the landscape has changed, even visual aesthetics have changed. It is important to keep up with current trends, not in a sense of copying or imitating but just in terms of being knowledgeable of our industry.