By Hipolito Navarrete, Managing Editor/Publisher
Independent Filmmaker Mark Columbus has been making his mark in the independent film world for a while now. In his latest project “Love in Moreno Valley,” Directed by Steven Huffaker and written by Steven Huffaker and Jared Lively he used his vast array of talents as a sound mixer.
Sound mixing is a critical asset to a production. Although most folks are focused on the look of the film, a bad sound mix can destroy the marketability of a production, this was very well done. Mark worked with a team of several others mixers in the sound department including Nick Ronzio and Erik Valentine.
We had an opportunity to catch up with Mark briefly after the screening. Here is part of our conversation.
1) How did you get involved in the project?
Steven Huffaker, the director, is a good friend of mine from the MFA program at UCLA. When I found out he and his friend Jared Lively wanted to write and direct a feature about growing up in Moreno Valley, I was drawn to it because I grew up in San Gabriel Valley near Moreno Valley. I noticed our colleagues in film school were mostly into writing films set in Hollywood or self-serious social-issue films, but I have always been into films about personal experiences especially with youth and memories of what it was like to be young and stuff, and his script really captured those so vividly and realistically and specifically Inland Empire to the point that it just so happened to be the same experiences that I went through, really capturing teen conversation I’ve never seen in film before. A lot of teen moments in those famous Hollywood teen movies are usually diluted or carbon copies of other teen experiences, but I felt the experiences and conversations were so real and unique at every word and even with the melting pot of casting choices — that even if the film is not your taste, you have to respect the fact that you know it’s coming from a place of honesty.
2) Was your involvement in the project exclusively sound? I ask because independent film making tends to be an effort of that requires multiple roles from its crew.
Definitely not. Because at UCLA we are taught to do every on-set position, I usually chose sound because it gave me an opportunity to have down-time on set to observe directors and see how they work and allow that to inform my own directing work. I would say my involvement in the film was significant; I was a sound recordist/boom operator for some of the days, I read drafts beforehand and contributed ideas on set, I was there on a lot of the days during casting and had a hand in recommending the co-star of the film Abe (played by Jaire Bowen), and I edited an early cut of the film also.
3) What is the story about?
The story is about two high school students in 1999, James and Abe, who want to spend their sophomore year in high school on a mission to become more noticed by their peers. They do this in various ways like goofing around in school assemblies and going to senior parties, but they are really just seeking validation. It’s based in realness, not super-contrived situations, but a lot of it is through their belief that they have a unique brand of ‘inside’ humor. So this manifests in conflicts between the two boys and their weirdly authoritative Vice Principal Mr Durante (Paul Tirado), and between James’ love interest, Carla (Lili Soto), whom they continually try and impress but fail at, and his dad (John Ennis) with whom he has a broken relationship with, as it all culminates in a Chapel-sponsored talent show at the end. While the story is very universal and accessible, what I believe will give the film its cult status is the unique humor and really interesting characters.
4) How much creativity was required on your part as you designed the sound, was the effort mostly technical?
The film relied heavily on improvisation — so, as the sound mixer and boom operator I had to continually be invested in not only the quality but also the content of the scene and what was happening, because anything could happen, and I had to be prepared to move the mic to where the action could be happening next.
5) Can you give us a glimpse of how your day as a sound mixer was like?
Being on set was really fun – a fun vibe and playful atmosphere always. It was different than working with other directors because there were 20 minute long takes at times, which was great for the actors because by not calling cut it kept the actors in the moment and got the wonderful level of improv that works really well in the film. But as a sound mixer and boom op, holding a boom in a difficult place for 20 minutes straight while trying to mix can be tiring!
6) You are also a film director and screenwriter. What do you prefer?
I prefer screenwriting because that is where most of the work is done that is required for a film to be great. Directing on set is mostly just people management and quality controlling. If the casting and writing isn’t done properly then it doesn’t matter how good of a director you are.
7) What skills would you advise your peers to make sure they continually work on?
I would advise them (and learn to take my own advice) to make sure that when they are on set to not settle for less, and make sure you quality control to the point where you are making what you want before you leave set. That being said, you also have to have the presence of mind and conscientiousness to pick and choose the battles that are worth it to you.
8) What would you advise a new filmmaker or aspiring filmmaker?
I would advise them (and learn to take my own advice) when it comes to choosing what to work on next, to choose a film that is personal and real and that does something creative and excitingly new that sets it apart from the thousands of other indie movies out there….and that best represents you while also falling into a budget that works for you — as opposed to writing something, and then looking for the budget for it.
9) What are you working on?
I freelance direct for Buzzfeed.
Take a look at some of Mark’s work, you will be hearing more from this filmmaker…. we will keep tabs on him.