It’s nothing short of a miracle that Mark J. Blackman’s body still functions properly.
Just like the T-800 models that shaped his childhood, Blackman works like a relentless machine. A professional filmmaker and award-winning Writer/Director, his extensive, diverse body of work – stretching across the medium of short films, music videos, broadcast promos, and documentaries – not only gives him a vastly eclectic filmmaking résumé, but also means he, quite literally, lives and breathes film (if he even has time to breathe, that is…).
Luckily, here at WTM? we were able to pull him away from his busy schedule to pick his brains on his filmmaking journey so far.
“Oh, Hi Mark” (in our best Tommy Wiseau voice) Tell us a bit about yourself. What’s been your filmmaking path so far?
I have always made films in one form or another, writing them as comic books/short stories as a child when I was too young to understand that filmmaking was an actual thing people did. From that realization, when I was about eight, it’s been non-stop ever since. I’m very happy to say I’m a filmmaker professionally: music videos, brand films, docs, corporates. However, these all get rounded up as the ‘day job’ effectively – a means to an end while I pursue my own projects, something I’ve been doing since I first got my hands on a hokey 8mm camera. Since then, I’ve written and directed a short a year, sometimes more, and am now gearing up towards my first slate of feature films.
Let’s take it back to the beginning – was there one film or moment that ignited the creative spark inside you?
It’s hard to pinpoint a single film that as the catalyst for my passion for film. I grew up with The Hitcher, Highlander and Blade Runner as the most viewed films of my childhood, along with the usual Arnie-fare (esp. Predator, The Terminator and The Running Man). Stone Cold was a huge influence, but so was Mona Lisa, so it’s a real mixed bag.
The main things I’d always take away from the films that fired me up the most, however, were the moods they evoked and the worlds they created. Blade Runner, for example, is an obvious one, but something like Mona Lisa was just as evocative for me growing up – new ways of looking at familiar worlds.
Following that, Japanese and French cinema were HUGE influences on me throughout my teens and into my adult life, lapping up anything Kurosawa, Kitano, Tsukamoto, Gans, Noe and Kounen. Nil By Mouth and Wonderland are huge influences too, though for the exact opposite reason – films that portrayed the familiar all-too perfectly.
You’re both a writer and director – a very busy man. Do you have a preference? Do you find one easier than the other?
For me, writing IS directing and vice versa, at least when I’m covering both roles. I’ve directed material others have written, and love the process of collaborating with them to filter their story through my lens, so to speak. However, when I’m covering both roles, they’re absolutely fused into one another.
The way I write is the exact way I see the film: the pace, the rhythm, the cadence: they’re all so important to me and I leave little to chance in that translation from script to screen. Having said that, I do encourage improvisation and exploration from my cast, though find you can only do this when you and your cast are entirely confident in your script.
Do I prefer one over the other? Not really. Writing can be an incredibly isolating experience but only if you let it: if you have a support group of trusted peers to bounce ideas off of or to call up at 2am to test out an idea then you can find the same level of collaboration as you (should) find on your set.
For me, it’s about forging relationships with those with good taste: if they’re behind you then know you’re on the right track. I’ve worked with people who have zero passion for film, couldn’t name a favourite, haven’t seen Heat, don’t know who Spencer Tracey is and… well, they’ve been the worst collaborations. By far. Why would you start a band if you have no interest in music? Same goes for cinema. It’s all about the passion.
Your films often seem quite varied in subject and tone. Would you say you have a distinct style? Is there a genre you’d say you gravitate to?
The key things I focus on as a writer and director are character, emotion and tone; and how best to present those to an audience with the utmost clarity and effectiveness. From this, I craft the style of the film. Having said that, I suppose there are certain things that are within my DNA that I just can’t shake.
I adore techniques that are purely cinematic and make no bones about my passion for playing with time through cross-cutting, flashbacks or slow motion. For me, these techniques – used correctly – can evoke the most emotion or allow for storytelling that’s purely visual. I have a passion for old circular lenses over anamorphic, am obsessed with grain, adore minimalist electronic scores that go full-bore epic. I can’t shake my passion for club scenes either: bodies writhing in close proximity – nothing fires me up more visually.
Having said that, I adore working with cast and love nothing more than when filming a dialogue scene that you forget to yell cut on because you’re so involved in what’s going on. That’s the sweet spot for me.
When it comes to genre…. I gravitate to wrought, dark dramas, make no mistake about it. However, this is usually because I’m trying to find the light within the darkness and sometimes you need to dive in to the shadows to find that respite.
You’ve been doing the film festival circuit with your latest short ‘NEON’ – how has that been for you?
My producer and I toured extensively with NEON, not just in the UK but overseas and I’m happy to say it’s been one of the most satisfying experiences I have had – not just in filmmaking terms but personally speaking. We’ve attended big festivals and small festivals and the thing that’s struck me is the passion for storytelling that’s out there.
As I’m getting older, I’m realising more and more than awards, wins and laurels don’t validate your film: audiences do. Don’t get me wrong, it’s lovely to win, but when a father and son tap you on the shoulder to shake your hand after seeing your film (and profanity laden Q&A), that’s when your heart jumps into your throat.
Also, the friendships with other filmmakers I’ve made along the way have been fantastic. I’ve made some stellar friends from our NEON tour and am even collaborating on a feature with an L.A producer as a result of a newfound friendship struck over talking about Tales from the Crypt and a mutual love for post-apocalyptic thrillers.
What do you find to be the most difficult obstacles to overcome when making a film?
Time, mostly. I work too much and – as such – give myself too little time for my own projects. I find it incredibly difficult to turn down work but have been doing so this year in order to focus on my first slate of feature screenplays. It used to be technology and money were the biggest hurdles to overcome, but Coppola’s prediction of some teenage girl in Texas making a film on a Pixel vision camera has come and gone: look at Tangerine. A fucking iPhone. There really are no excuses any more. So, yeah… time’s the biggest hurdle. And perfectionism. From that comes hesitation. Is the script good enough? Will people like it? Will it work? Fortunately, I’m surrounded by good people who slap me upside the head and tell me to get over myself and get on with it. That helps a lot.
Your list of awards and accolades is pretty lengthy; but is there one project that you are most proud of?
NEON’s the most complete film I’ve made, the most ‘me’ as it were, full of everything I’ve worked towards so far and everything I hope to be pushing forward. It’s certainly the most accomplished film I’ve made and, in that regard, the one I have the most heart for. Having said that, Animus, a tiny two-hander I shot immediately after that was filmed in a day and work shopped with its wonderful cast was something I was incredibly proud of, as was Kilburn, a music video I directed for no money starring Lou Stanley – still possibly my favourite collaboration to date in many ways. It’s a double-edged sword: I’d change everything about every film I’ve made to date and also nothing: they’re reflections of who you are at any given time – it’s like watching yourself grow up. And in that regard, you also need to be proud of the mistakes you make along the way.
And finally, can you give us a flavour of what is in the pipeline? What can we expect from Mark J. Blackman in the near future?
My producer and I have been working hard this last couple of years with developing several projects. The first that’s likely to be shot is POLE, a single-location chamber piece which is insane, blood-curdling and romantic. Then there’s DELAYED, a single-location real-time survival thriller, THE SIREN, THE CAPTAIN, THE SEA, a kitchen sink Giallo or sorts, then TEARDROP and – finally – a NEON feature. So lots in development. As ever.