If you’ve seen the films Babe or The Queen, the television shows “24” or “Six Feet Under,” or any number of other films or tv in the past four decades, you’ve seen the work of acclaimed actor James Cromwell. But some of the most fascinating insight about this Oscar-nominated, Emmy-nominated actor is revealed in the award-winning short documentary, “A .45 at 50th.”
The film’s co-directors, Joshua Bell and John Cromwell (James’ son who also wrote the documentary and stars in it as his dad in 1968, “Jamie”), first presented “A .45 at 50th” at The Minnesota Historical Society’s “The 1968 Project” film competition. They won Best Film honors!
The Minnesota Historical Society (MNHS) focuses on 1968 as a year of epic change and historically important moments. In 1968, the 28 year old James Cromwell, son of noted actor/director/producer John Cromwell, found himself in an extraordinary situation with controversial left-wing group The Black Panthers through his participation with The Committee to Defend the Panthers. “A .45 at 50th” depicts this compelling (and harrowing!) time in James Cromwell’s life…in just 10 powerful minutes.
Not only did Josh and John’s film win the MNHS competition, but it has gone on to screen at the Dallas International Film Festival and the prestigious Tribeca Film Festival. When I met John recently, he spoke with great respect about his dad’s work and commitment to many causes throughout his life. And Josh Bell provides Mom Culture with insight about this film and James’ reaction to it, as well as speaks very candidly about the less glam side of filmmaking.
Regardless of how you feel about the subject matter in “A .45 at 50th,” the fact is that 1968 prompted a lot of people to take action, and that action altered the landscape of America. 1968 was a watershed year and this film provides an engrossing glimpse of history.
watch “A .45 at 50th”
How did “A .45 at 50th” come about?
I came to the project through August Thurmer, my DP (co-producer), and fellow soul-adventurer. August and I have been making films together since 2000. John and August met in high school in Colorado. I met John four years ago while he was still in LA. We had talked about working together previously, but this was our first collaboration.
“A .45 at 50th” is a short so the challenge is obvious — how do you tell a story with a beginning, middle and end in 10 minutes? Talk about that process as a writer and director.
Short films are a unique and extremely challenging format. Telling a “complete” story in that time requires a huge amount of precision with the storytelling. Usually with most short films, there is next to no latitude or leeway to waste screen time. There is an expression in filmmaking to “get into a scene late and leave early”. I find that many screenwriters in their early work don’t fully understand that “less is more.” When the audience engages with the action – who, what, where, when, why – they are apt to draw parallels and conclusions without every detail spelled out for them.
Our story, in my opinion, could have been a few minutes longer. It doesn’t have too much breathing room, which is perhaps a good thing for the viewer’s experience.
In terms of actually getting the film together, after a pre-interview with James over the phone, John crafted his father’s story skillfully with additional feedback from August and me. We were limited by budget, so to a certain extent, the story of “A .45″ was shaped based on what we could actually shoot.
As far as budget and story, shooting 1968 NYC in 2010 Los Angeles created numerous production challenges that continued to direct how much, or how little, we could spend on the plot points of James’ story. Period recreations were never something I had thought to do. The project kind-of found me (and us) and the rest is history.
In your film, you’re telling someone else’s true story, so there’s probably a lot of pressure to make something they’ll be pleased with. Did this pressure ever interfere with your “creative license” as a writer/director or were you able to stick to your vision regardless?
We were all extremely nervous to show James the film. As much as the story involves a living, breathing Elbert “Big Man” Howard, we were not able to include him in the film. The story is James’, it really happened, and it really affected and helped to shape his political and social consciousness. We definitely took some creative liberties with the story, particularly with some of the humor and accompanying campiness/naivete portrayed by John’s performance.
There were numerous conversations about tone, before, during and after the shoot. We didn’t want to create a comedic film, but James and John are both hilarious and fantastic story tellers, extremely witty and neither one takes themselves too seriously. We tried to reflect those nuances as best we could, while still adhering to the seriousness and magnitude of the story. This is truly a “life or death” story and we needed that danger to be present first and foremost.
James worked with us only on the day we interviewed him, which was Day 1 (of 3) of the shoot. We never showed him rough cuts, only the final presentation. We were nervous, but James very much likes the film, which is great.
He’s very unassuming, approachable and extremely down-to-earth. As he works in the business, and seems to care very little about always trying to do the politically correct thing, his primary concern is telling a great story. He understood our challenges, as well as our need to shape the short into a compelling piece.
Tell us more about James Cromwell’s reaction to the final product.
All his feedback has been positive and he has been 100 % supportive of both the film and our collective artistic pursuits since day one. He joined us at the Tribeca Film Festival which I took as a huge compliment and a statement to his commitment for our success.
What is the path for short documentaries? Will you continue to enter “A .45 at 50th” in film festivals?
Yes, we are submitting to more festivals. No distribution agreements as of now. The film is available free on-line. Short films, by-in-large, never make any money, so the film functions more as a calling card and a piece for our respective reels.
Do you want to continue making more documentaries or do you also want to get into features?
Yes. Actively working on both.
How do you choose a film topic/material? Are you working on any new projects?
Often, it feels as if the stories find me. On a car ride from Brooklyn to JFK recently, my car driver from Egypt told me the most amazing story about his life. There are so many interesting stories to tell.
Currently, we are in post-production on a short docu-drama that we hope to develop into a feature. I have been working for the last 10 years on an Australian Aboriginal doc, music based, which will hopefully finish by summer of next year. That’s a very exciting project and I am reinvigorated to finish it now more than ever.
You went to University of Southern California film school. What are the benefits of a film degree?
Big question. Film school, like any education, only yields results if you put in the time and work. I ultimately decided to get my MFA from University of Southern California (USC), so I would be in a better place to teach at the high school/collegiate level at some future point.
Short term, career-wise, I would be further up the ladder had I not spent 3 years working in isolation as USC. Long term, USC taught me serious visual storytelling fundamentals that I believe will carry me to the higher levels of filmmaking I hope to eventually achieve.
The professional friendships I forged with my peers while at school are invaluable. My peers have been my rock during this phase of my career. We share and commiserate. BTW – film school is not a golden ticket.
Honestly, no one in the industry cares if you went to USC, or UCLA or NYU. Often, it’s a hindrance, because they assume that you think you know about “how the business really works.”
Film school was horrible at preparing me for the bottom-line aspects of the business. You have to learn that part on the job, through trial and error.
There’s a glam side to filmmaking, but what is the other side like…the realities of it?
Filmmaking looks glamorous, but it’s not. Watch any behind-the-scenes DVD and look at the artifice of the craft. Outside the frame line are lights and c-stands and people stressed and tired.It’s a high stakes game where murderers will slit your throat for a penny. There’s an expression called “getting thrown under the bus.” The shit flows downstream always and it creates a culture of fear where no one wants to get caught holding the bag. People are dismissed from jobs without hesitation. Creatives are constantly slaughtered at the hands of “bottom line” execs. It can be very ugly.
If you value sleep, don’t get involved in film. Try operating under extreme pressure with thousands and thousands of dollars at stake after weeks of sleep deprivation. It’s really a form of insanity.
August likes to joke that filmmaking is like “a circus”. If you want to be a carnie or clown, get in line. Some days, it’s that bad. No exaggeration.
Advertising/promotion is a necessity even in non-commercial visual storytelling. After years of denying the existence of commercial (not feature or doc) production, I mostly make my bread and butter from the corporations I rebuke.
I really can’t stand the fact that my creativity – the blood, sweat and tears and I pour into my craft – is harnessed to sell people a bunch of crap they don’t need. I’m still trying to reconcile this my brain.
The advantage to working in commercials is the consistency (even as a freelancer) with the work. It’s a known quantity. The money can be good, and the other craftspeople – the caterers, grips, electrics, cameramen, directors, etc. – are the best in the business. It gives me access to work with different masters of the craft.
I love that part. I also like the relationships forged by assorted crews. Most of us tend to have steady accounts of individuals who we consistently hire. When you spend 12 – 18 hours/day with these people, you become like family.
On the right set, it can be fun, nurturing and very supportive.
What or who got you interested in film, and at what age do you remember being drawn to film?
I started modeling and acting from ages 8 – 18. Mom’s a writer, Dad’s an architect by trade. Both parents love photography and I would consider them artists in their respective careers.
In 1994, my first year at Reed College, I saw a film called Baraka. It’s an extremely interesting and conscious film. It solidified in my mind the necessity of positive, thought-provoking art and inspired me to want to participate.
I always loved film. According to my mom, my brother and I used to return from the movies and recite the entire film verbatim.
Film is the closest thing to dreaming, and it allows us to enter assorted realities. It’s an escape, but also can be nurturing, and occasional borders on the sublime and transcendental…at least for me.
It also fuses all the things I like – music, writing, photography, dance, acting – into a single art form. Also, it’s barely 100 years old. Living filmmakers are potentially creating the canon for the form for the rest of time.
How did your creativity show itself as a child, before you had a camera? How did your parents cultivate your creativity?
Art and writing classes, guitar lessons, competitive freestyle skiing and other athletic endeavors, in addition to summer camp, all nurtured my creative expression. Music, hip-hop in particular, gave me access to vibrant storytelling and revisionist historical understanding. Private school did not necessarily offer me what I needed throughout my adolescence, so I constantly went searching for outlets in other places.
To be honest, it wasn’t until my mid-twenties that I began to identify myself as “an artist.” In 1996, at age 21, DJ-ing and music production allowed me further access to my own creative well.
My favorite snack is: fresh fruit.
Don’t ask me to: stand in front of a strobe light, or shmooze with narcissistic dickheads.
I would put into a time capsule my: nothing. time is an illusion.
My favorite place is: head high, perfect surf, anywhere in the world. Or, in the arms of my beloved.
When I have a creative block I: can’t divulge that
My favorite mantra is: old: a rolling stone grows no moss. new: it’s not the singer, it’s the song.