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Interview with filmmaker MP Cunningham

I chanced upon filmmaker MP Cunningham’s latest short film The Observer during one of my daily explorations of Vimeo and became intrigued with his style. That led to my watching several more films and I was really impressed by the high quality of visual aesthetics on display in each of his films.

Let’s start at the beginning: how did you become interested in filmmaking?
Watching movies growing up was almost a spiritual experience for me. My dad loved watching them so he introduced me to a lot at a young age.  I got pretty lost in all of it.  My Uncle Mark has always been interested in film also so I would watch the shorts he would make and loved the idea that I could make my own. He played a big role in my love for film.

With that being said, I come from a long line of farmers and grew up in a small farm town in California so you really didn’t grow up saying you were going to be a filmmaker. It just wasn’t realistic. So until I was about 21 years old I thought I was going to take over the family almond farm.

When I was 25 my buddy had a computer that had Windows Movie Maker on it and I started messing around with it. I was used to editing the old way with my VHS Camcorder which was basically, press record when you want to start the scene and press record when you want the scene to stop. The idea of non-linear editing blew my mind. I would lock myself in my room and read books about filmmaking and watch about 3 or 4 movies a day. I knew I loved certain films but I wanted to understand why and try to mirror it. Once I got a taste I was hooked. I knew it was my passion. I knew I was supposed to do it from that moment on and everyday since I haven’t spent a day where it doesn’t consume my thoughts.

And then what steps did you take to become one—did you go to film school/work with other filmmakers/assist on projects, or just learn on the job?
I needed some footage to edit so I called my dad and asked him to send me the family camera, which had been upgraded to a Pansonic that took DV tapes. The type of camera soccer mom’s in Orange County probably had. Which is rad.

I had a brief stint of college, which consisted of a lot of video games and bad choices. One great thing that came out of it was a film festival that they had at my school. I wasn’t in the film program but now I had a camera and editing software. So I wrote a comedy script and convinced a couple of my friends to make a movie with me. Which is complete crap now that I look back on it but I for sure see signs of my style that I still currently have in my work.  It was called, Kung Poo if that paints any kind of a picture for you.

Well I ended up winning best film. Along with the win, I got an internship in Seattle for the summer editing a feature length documentary. I received a lot of training from this experience. The filmmaker Rick Stevenson kind of took me under his wing and taught me a lot about filmmaking. Because I was editing and learning a lot about documentaries, I wanted to make my own. So I wrote and shot a mockumentary while I was there about a professional shower dancer called Wet Dreams starring me, obviously (Which ended up winning the next year’s film festival).

When I returned home after completing my internship I wanted to make my own real documentary so I spent the next two years following a group of homeless people around. I wanted to show the more personal side of the people I met and listen to their stories of how they got to where they were. It was a pretty eye opening experience, to say the least. After two years I completed the film and it won a couple film festivals. It is titled The Long Look On Life.

When I was done with the film I was so worn out from the pretty traumatic experience that I told myself I’d never do another documentary. I was just focusing on comedy. It’s funnier.

It was not until 2012 that I started getting interested in people’s stories again and telling them. DSLRs had made me interested in cinematography also. Changing lenses and shooting in HD was pretty cool in my mind.

I started the One Minute Doc series because the thought of spending more than a few days on a project sounded boring and YouTube had changed the game — and more importantly — everyone’s attention span.

How do you meet the subjects of the One Minute Doc, and then how easy or difficult is it to convince them to allow you to tell their story?
In the beginning I knew the first couple of subjects. When they started getting some momentum, people contacted me.

I think I am pretty easy to talk to. I always try to make people comfortable in our conversations. If I know they’re uncomfortable I won’t even turn the camera on, I’ll just record their voice. Most of the time I have no idea where I want the conversation to go but when it’s there I know. Everyone has a story to tell. Everyone has experiences unique to only them. I dig that. I was just talking about this to a friend of mine, I kinda get bummed when I think about all the people I won’t meet in my lifetime. I get an overwhelming feeling of anxiety. I know I’m supposed to tell their story. Whatever though, I probably should take medication.

I’ve noticed that you employ different kinds of cameras on different projects – can you explain the reasoning behind some of these choices?
As far as cameras go I have always tried to stay with or ahead of the curve. There was always something better when I started. I always had pretty good cameras but I still knew that there were people with access to better cameras and it bugged me. I knew that if I wanted to be considered with the best I had to have the best. So finally I got a RED Epic. Now the only thing between me and the people winning Oscars, is story and style. There’s no reason why I can’t make something to compete with them and I like the idea of that.

Let’s talk about The Observer: That is a fascinating story told in a style that reminded me of the later (digital) works of Steven Soderbergh coupled with the symmetrical aesthetics of Wes Anderson. How much time do you spend on location thinking about the aesthetics of the film? And how long did it take to film all the material for The Observer?
The Observer is one of my favorite pieces that I’ve got to make.  I had a great crew to help me. To me it’s all about the aesthetics. I’m for sure OCD with certain things in my life and it has carried over into my filmmaking.  Wes Anderson was one of the filmmakers that I obsessively studied when I was finding my own style. So his influence shows in my filmmaking. It took us about 4 hours to shoot The Observer. I wrote the shot list on the train the day of the shoot but I had been picturing it in my mind for about a week.

Give us an average timeline on one of your projects, for example: how long does it take for you to conceptualize/produce/post produce one of your One Minute Docs?
My timeline varies a bit depending on the project. I like to work quickly though. It’s all about momentum for me. I know that I’m not always in the mood to write or shoot so when the wave of energy comes I ride it. Once I start a project I can’t do or think about anything else until it’s done. The Observer was done the next day about 3pm.  Which has it’s pros and cons. I’m sure there are projects that I’ve done that I rushed because I wasn’t patient enough to evaluate things. I’m obsessed with the piece until I’m done. I love it for about 2 hours then I hate it and think it’s terrible. It’s a vicious cycle. It’s good though because it keeps me moving.

Are these projects self-generated or are they in collaboration with an organization?
Most of my One Minute Docs are done because I think the people are interesting. There are some that I was paid to do that I show on my website but majority of the paid ones I don’t show.

Once you’ve completed a video, how do you go about promoting it/ensuring that it is seen by the maximum number of people? Any promotion tips or tricks you can share with us?
Promoting a video is a roll of the dice.  I make stuff that I like and I try my best. I hope other people dig it. Consistency is the only thing that I have learned that works. You get your following one person at a time.

I notice you’re on YouTube as well as Vimeo: what are your thoughts on the two platforms? Do you think they are different? If yes, how so?
I think the difference between YouTube and Vimeo is like comparing Gogurt and Meth. There’s no comparison. YouTube has bred a brand of filmmakers and filmmaking that I want no part of. And that is all I am going to say about that because the Illuminati probably will come after me. Because they own YouTube and Mervyns. I miss Mervyns. Vimeo is pure and clean. Don’t get me wrong, I know everyone is trying to make a buck but I think Vimeo has used their “purity” to their advantage. Vimeo was made with the artist in mind.

How easy or difficult is it to make a living as an independent filmmaker? The business side of it is a matter of much-discussion among young filmmakers and has very little clarity. Could you share your experience with us.
I direct commercials for a living and I’m in charge of the video side of the marketing for a Solar company. For every filmmaker there’s a balance between the corporate side and the stuff you really want to do. Until you get well known enough, you have to pay the bills. Solar is something I can get behind though so I like making commercials for them. I don’t really like the business side of filmmaking but it is necessary.  I’ve worked hard to get to where I’m at today and had to do stuff I didn’t want to do but in the end its gotten me to the point to where I have more freedom and opportunities to follow my heart.

What’s up with The Cronkites? Is that intended as a long-running series? I was quite intrigued by the ‘Family Plan’ episode. Will there be more?
The Cronkites is like the girl you’re kind of embarrassed of but you always find yourself texting her at 1 am. I really love comedy, I think I will always be involved in it. The Cronkites is a group my buddy Clark Kelsey and I started a few years back. I would come up with scripts every so often to shoot and we would throw something together. It wasn’t until my good friend Connor Prady and I met that we started taking it more seriously. So now there are three of us and we try to be more professional about it and take time to really produce something funny and aesthetically pleasing. Deep down inside me there’s a dream to be on Saturday Night Live. So we’ll see what happens. As far as the series goes, Connor is always writing scripts so there will be more. There are about three scripts ready to shoot now. I just always go back and forth between docs and comedy. Depends on my mood. I might be bipolar or have multiple personalities. I’ll try some medication and figure it out I guess.

What’s next for you?
I never really know what’s next for me and the crew. We just love making stuff. We’re making a short film right now and taking it around film festivals to try and get it funded. It’s the next step in my progression (feature films). It’s time. In the meantime I’ll meet more people and tell their story. Maybe I’ll read some books and take up gardening. I have a garden but I don’t know how or when to plant. You’d think an almond farmer would know…


Related Links:
Official Website