"Making movies is what I love most in life"
Cam McHarg is a Los Angeles based director and actor. After winning a Gold Addy Award, Silver Telly Award and being a shortlisted winner for the Cannes Young Director Award, Cam has saw success on the international festival circuit with “Kicking Sand in Your Face” and "The End".
Recently, Cam won the Actors Awards' Best Performance of Fest, for his lead role in Deer Season (which he also wrote and directed).
We asked Cam to join us for an interview, and met a passionate artist who loves making movies more than anything.
First of all, congratulations on winning Best of Fest for your performance as Blaine in Deer Season! Obviously, our jury enjoyed the film! What was your favorite scene to work on?
Hey, thanks a lot! What an honor this is. Seriously. My favorite scene to work on in Deer Season? Hmmm… I had a lot of fun improvising in the truck with Hus Miller. We had scripted lines, but we messed around outside of the script while driving around quite a bit. Most of it obviously didn’t make it in the movie, but that was fun. I love working that way.
You also wrote and directed it. What inspired the story? We hope it's not based on true events...
Haha! No, no… it’s not inspired on true events, but the characters are sort of a conglomeration of myself and guys who I grew up around in that same region where it was shot and based up in the Pacific Northwest. I have a feature film called “Monroe Log” that I’ve written that would be shot in the same area, and it has some of the same themes and atmosphere in some ways, and that one actually is based on true events, but this one just came out of some weird dark place in the back of my mind someplace. I don’t know what that says about me, but it’s true. I just kept having an image about two old friends on a hunting trip in the woods. I had this for several months before I sat down and wrote it and tried to make some sense of it. It’s a culture that I come from that I still have one foot in and will always be part of who I am in some way, and I think I just felt the need to express part of it.
Is this your first collaboration with Hus Miller? How did you meet each other?
It’s actually not our first collaboration and it’s not going to be our last. We actually met on the set of Pearl Harbor years ago and have been friends ever since. We’ve worked on a couple of short films as actors together, in the past, but this is our first go as a director and producer team as well. We’re actually in pre-production on our first feature film that we’ve written together and will work together in pretty much the exact same way that we did on Deer Season. It’s called, “Sitiado”. Deer Season was sort of a way to see and show what we could do as a team together before we go on to make this feature film. Hus actually just finished shooting a feature that he produced and starred in with Peter Fonda called, “You Can’t Say No”. I’m really excited about what we plan on doing together down the road.
How were the other producers brought on board? (Bob Lindemayer and Jacob Rosen)?
Jacob was actually our Director of Photography, and by the way… I cannot say enough good things about him and his talent and just as a person. He was amazing, and this wouldn’t have happened with him and with everyone involved. I met Jacob initially when he was going to shoot a film that I was set to act in up in the Seattle area where he’s based, and we’ve stayed in touch ever since. Jacob brought Bob in as well as basically the entire crew and went above and beyond for this thing because he believed in it that much. He really understand every feeling that I wanted expressed in this thing, and that’s not always an easy thing to communicate. I really value working with good nice people in addition to talented collaborators, and he really fit that mold perfectly.
The cinematography is stunning! How did you and Jacob Rosen prepare for the shoot?
Thank you! Hats off to Jacob Rosen on that, as well as our brilliant colorist, Arianna Shing Star Pane. How badass of a name does she have, by the way? Anyway, Jacob and I spent a lot of time on the phone talking mostly of the feeling that I wanted to express more than anything technically, interestingly enough. He really got it all right away. What a gift that was. I gave him a couple of visual references to go on, but I talked about feelings and moods with him more than anything. He has a heart of a poet. He’s a visual poet. That’s what I needed and that’s what I got in him.
How long was the shoot, and were there any unexpected issues you had to deal with on set? How did you resolve them?
We shot it all in one single day from dark to dark near and around Skykomish, Washington. We flew up there for a few days to do this thing, and I still can’t believe how we pulled it all off. Sure, of course. One thing you basically have to accept as a director is that things will go wrong, and that it almost always doesn’t turn out exactly how you wanted or intended, but sometimes it can be better if you are creative with how you deal with it. I have to say, this one was actually pretty damn close to what I had in my mind with few exceptions. I really wanted this beautiful river scene that we didn’t have time for. Lots of inserts had to be cut, etc. The biggest scare though, was our source for the rifles. We lost that, but we were in such a nice little town that Hus Miller solved it by asking the local hotel owner if someone in town might lend us their hunting rifles, and sure enough, someone did! He became our friend, too. We drank with him at the local tavern the night before we left. This is the kind of experience that makes me love making movies more than anything. This kind of thing is what I love most in life.
How did you find the location? Was it planned to include the train in one of the scenes?
I actually grew up something like thirty minutes away from there. My Grandfather used to take me camping close to where we shot this when I was a kid. I’ve been away for years though, so I flew up and spent a weekend catching up with my sister while driving around with her and scouting for a couple of days. The train shots were not planned at all. One of the things that I told Jacob Rosen early on was that I wanted him to feel free to catch any life or moments around him when he sees it. There were plenty that didn’t make the cut. It’s tough to keep everything in a film that I wanted to keep under ten minutes, but Jacob caught the train while we were rushing to get our shot of us crossing the bridge. It was a fun collaboration, and that’s why this is the most satisfying and complete art form. I love that kind of stuff, and I love to give credit where it’s due.
Deer Season - Teaser
By the time you completed Deer Season, you must have been very emotionally attached to it... you wrote it, produced it, directed it and also starred in it. Did you at any point feel "too connected" or were you worried that you are losing perspective?
That’s a great question. This is the second film that I’ve done all of these roles, and I felt the same way both times. The answer is yes, and I think the way for me to get around that is to work with a very collaborative and creative editor. I’m not a tyrannical director. I make the final decisions and choices, but I love to see what people can bring to the table, so I communicate what I’m basically looking for often more so in emotion and feeling and then let the editor show me what they do, and then work from there. It’s so easy for me to lose perspective, especially when I fall in love with shots that maybe don’t need to be tiger, etc. I was lucky enough to be referred to an outstanding editor named Gabriel Jon Britz at Stitch editorial in Santa Monica. A producer name Vicki Mayer introduced me to him, so hats off to her, too. Gabriel was fantastic. We had an intimate and emotional scene that was essentially shot in one take without coverage, and Gabriel really helped me to make that work, for example.
Let's talk about your background. You grow up in the Pacific Northwest and joined the U.S Marine Corps. When and why did you decide to get into filmmaking and acting?
It’s kind of funny, because it’s all sort of related in a weird way. I got into acting in the 7th grade when I moved to a new school and got involved with the school plays after my folks divorced and my family situation took a really hard and fast turn south. The second play of the year ended up touring all around the schools in the area. I was the lead, and all of a sudden everyone seemed to know me. The 8th grade girls would talk to me. I thought this is really where it’s at! It really helped me to get through a tough time and to express myself as a kid. I was always making little VHS movies at the time as well. The thing was, it really wasn’t the thing for a guy to do as I got older in high school within that class and culture, so I stopped. I was a pretty frustrated and angry teenager. I wanted to go to college, but pretended that I didn’t. I finally got a BFA in film from Art Center College of Design in Pasadena more than a decade later, but that wasn’t in the cards for me then. I always have been draw to difficult things, so I went in the Marine Corps to prove some things to myself. I did, and then I was more than happy to get out. When I got out, I eventually came to a point where I needed to be honest with myself, because I was just miserable. That’s how I went back to acting, and I went at it hard like a monk for years once I dove in. I had a teacher and mentor named Douglas Dirkson who really took me under his wing at a Lee Strasberg Workshop up in Seattle. He changed and probably saved my life. No joke. I still think of him often and I’m grateful to him.
Who are some of the filmmakers that you look up to?
I’m all over the place with that one for different reason, but I’d say P.T. Anderson, the Coen Bros, Jean-Pierre Melville, John Landis, Michael Mann… those are a few off of the top of my head.
You attended the Lee Strasberg Actors Workshop and The Actor's Studio in LA. Would you recommend these institutes? Why?
I went to a Strasberg Workshop in Seattle that is no longer there. It was run by a man named Douglas Dirkson who taught at The Strasberg Institute in Los Angeles under and with Lee Strasberg in the late 70’s and throughout the 80’s. I am not a member of The Actor’s Studio, although that is something that I want to do for sure before I kick off. I was an observer there for the better part of a year or so a while back. Martin Landau and Mark Rydell were teaching. I’d literally be sitting next to people like Al Pacino in there. It was crazy. This work changed and saved my life. It make me self aware. For a while early on, it was to a fault, because I became extremely internal and introspective, but looking back, I really needed it. Everyone has their own way to do things, but this work helped me to see and live the truth within myself. For me, I couldn’t recommend it enough, but it takes a huge amount a work. It’s not for everyone, but it definitely was for me. It’s a never ending process, though.
The Art Center College of Design in Pasadena granted you a scholarship to attend their film program. Tell us about your experience there, what are some of the highlights of the program? What classes did you enjoy the most?
I had a partial scholarship there after I co-produced a movie that ended up screening at Tribeca. I was thrilled to be accepted there. It’s still ranked as the number one design school in the world. The film program was undergoing a bit of a transition from being more commercially and sort of music video oriented and more toward narrative at the time that I went there. It really churns out some amazing cinematographers, too. It was great to be around so many talented photographers and designers and artists. I had a great time there. I ended up becoming really into commercial directing and the idea of telling a story within third seconds, and actually ended up winning some awards and being shortlisted for the Cannes Young Director Award for that stuff while I was there. I had a few truly amazing teachers there, but one of my favorites was a writing class by a guy named Bradd Saunders. He’s just a genius. He still teaches independently, and it goes far beyond just writing. I’m still friends with him today and I actually got the seed of the idea for this short in a class that I took with him just last summer. He’s another teacher and friend in my life that I’m grateful for.
When did you make your first film, Kicking Sand in Your Face, and what was it about?
That was my first short film that I’ve made outside of a Super 8mm film that I made at Los Angeles City College. That was the very last class to shoot and actually cut on real film. Anyway, Kicking Sand in Your Face was the first film that I wrote, directed, and acted in right before I graduated from Art Center. It actually did well in Europe in festivals and I actually sold it to cable networks over there. It was a black comedy about revenge and self-deception and what it means to be a man. There were a lot of big problems that I had to roll with on that short that makes it hard for me to look at in some ways, but it did pretty well and helped me to get my foot in some doors. We actually shot that on Super 16mm. Shooting a short on film now is almost unheard of.
You also won the Gold Addy Award, Silver Telly Award and was shortlisted for the Cannes Young Director Award. These are all very impressive achievements! What is your advice for up-and-coming filmmakers?
Thanks! I think the most important things would be to know why you’re doing it. What is it that you want to say? What’s your deal and who are you? What are you all about? I think when you know these things, the stories will come and you’ll know how and what to do to tell them. Another thing that I learned that you won’t be taught in any school is that directing is leadership. Learn how to lead. Learn how to be a nimble and to be an open thinker and to be decisive. Learn to love actors and make them feel safe to open up and give everything that they have. I have contempt for directors who deride actors. They can be visually talented, but they and their work is often hollow and empty. Let the love of what you do bleed into your work.
If you could pick a filmmaker to collaborate with, (any filmmaker in history), who would it be and why?
Wow, that’s a tough one. You know what? To be honest, I think it may have to be Steven Spielberg. This man created such magic when I was a kid that he quite literally has changed and had a massive impact on the trajectory of my life. I would like to be a part of that magic.
What are you working on next?
I’m in early pre-production on my first feature called, “Sitiado”. It’s actually in partnership with Hus Miller as well. We’ve teamed up with another producer named Tim Rhys, who is also the creator of MovieMaker Magazine. I’m slated to both direct and act in that one as of now. I’m excited about it. I’m also working on getting my passion project made. It’s called, “Monroe Log”. It’s semi-autobiographical and also set in the Pacific Northwest, but back in 1990. I would just be directing that one. I have a film that I’m set to act in with a talented young director whom I respect that I’m excited about. He actually wrote it with me in mind, which is mind-blowingly flattering to me. It’s sort of a Friends of Eddie Coyle/Killing Them Softly type of vibe. It’s exactly what I’ve always wanted to do. I can’t wait.
Is there anything you wish to add?
I’m not sure if I have anything else to add. I feel like I’ve been kind of a windbag at this point. I don’t know…I’ve been at this for a long time. This has really been an honor for me. I don’t take it lightly, and I really appreciate all of this. I just want to do more and better work and hopefully contribute and inspire somehow. That would be the big thing for me. I’ve loved this. Thank you.
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