President of Filmmakers Alliance and an icon at International film festivals and markets and an Independent film festival and distribution guru.
By Bobby Leigh
Hello Jacques. Wow! This is an honor. Welcome and thank you for taking the time to talk to us. I think our readers are really going to benefit from your knowledge, leadership and experience.
Q: Can you start us off and tell us where did you grow up, and what were you like as a child?
A: I grew up in the projects in Brooklyn, then moved to rural Colorado when I was 9. Then to Tehran, Iran when I was 16. I was a kinda cautious, but outgoing kid. Loved playing. Loved sports. Read a lot. Was good in school. Lead an active fantasy life. Sucked my finger and carried around a blanket like Linus until deep into adolescence and would smack anybody who made a comment about it. Occasionally combative, but that’s what happens when you do childhood in the projects.
Q: LOL! That’s funny. Was your family also into film? And what was it that made you think that you wanted to make movies?
A: Not really, no one I knew was particularly into film. But my dad loved public television and would watch classic movies on that station and I loved watching them with him. Also, he bought an 8mm camera for home movies that us kids hijacked and made tons of stupid little films. I also liked to write from a young age, and as I said, had an active fantasy life. I think all those things combined led me to film.
Q: What were some of your first or favorite movies or shows you saw on television?
A: I didn’t go to a lot of movies as a kid, but watched a lot on tv. But definitely preferred movies over tv shows. As a young kid, I liked a lot of comedy – Abbott and Costello, Laurel and Hardy, that sorta stuff. But I also loved the stuff I saw on PBS with my dad like Kurosawa’s The 7 Samurai. But once I saw The Godfather, when I was around 12, that was it for me.
Q: Do you remember your first movie at a theatre or cinema?
A: I’m sure I saw other movies in a theatre previously, but the first movie I actually remember seeing in a theatre was The Boston Strangler with my mom. I was 8.
Q: Do you consider yourself as a producer, director, writer or simply a filmmaker?
A: Simply a filmmaker because I’ve done so much of all those things – and many more different things on other people’s films – that it’s hard to think of myself as one specific thing.
Q: What or who are some of your major filmmaker influences?
A: Influences have changed over the years. Early on, as I said, I wanted to make something like The Godfather and was a huge fan of Coppola during those years. And Scorcese. But as I went through film school and educated myself on my own, I became aware of so many amazing films and filmmakers and I feel they all made a big impact on me. However, I did go through a serious Tarkovsky phase and still think his work is genius.
Q: I heard that you got a writing deal out of college, what kind of stuff were you writing?
A: I wrote a spec script while in school that generated some interest thanks to my teacher and mentor the late Sally Merlin, and it got me a rewrite job that lead to a big agent at William Morris (the legendary Lee Cohen, who just died a few days ago) who then got me a 3-picture deal at Imagine. Although I was paid well, that deal kinda went nowhere, but I got a bunch of rewrite assignments after that. Mostly very commercial stuff even though the spec script I wrote was very moody and indie in feel/tone. Wasn’t really satisfying creatively, but I was kinda livin’ the dream at an early age.
Q2: Did you start writing in high school or when, also can you tell us about one of your first scripts?
A: I wrote my first script almost immediately after I decided to study film – after my second year in college, around 19. Before that, I had written a bunch of essays, short stories, poems and even songs – whatever was in my head. My first script was not strictly about me, but it borrowed from a lot of aspects of my life. It was about what I knew, a mixed race kid transitioning from boy to man without any clear direction and learning a lot of hard life lessons.
George Zaver, Carrie Keagan (media personality, actress), Jacques Thelemaque.
Q: What is your writing process? Do you write with someone or do you write alone?
A: I almost always write alone. I actually have no idea how people write together. I go to such a deep internal place, even when I’m writing silly stuff, that anybody else’s energy simply feels distracting. As for my process, it varies from project to project. It really depends on how the idea forms in my head. Sometimes it’s a full blown story, or sometimes it’s just a compelling character or set of characters and other times it’s just a theme or situation I want to explore. So, depending on what comes to me most strongly, I start trying to flesh it out with all of the stuff that is not coming to me so strongly. So, I essentially do a lot of thinking about all aspects of the story/script and make notes. Then at some point, I write a brief treatment or outline. Not everyone does this, but it’s a must for me cuz I can easily get lost in tangential stuff. I don’t always stick to the outline, but I use it like a map from which I can explore alternative paths when I choose, but always have someplace to return if I need. After the treatment/outline, I start in on the script from page one. Sometimes I write out of order, like if a strong scene just pops in my head and I gotta get it out. But usually, I start at page one and just keep writing – as often as I can using a mix of inspiration and discipline – until the first draft is finished. Then rewrites. And rewrites. And then, more rewrites.
Q: Can you tell us about that first deal with Imagine, and how did it come about, and also what did you write?
A: I mentioned earlier that I’d written a spec script in class that Sally – who was an amazing writing coach/teacher/mentor – took around to all her contacts. And she had many. One film company exec really liked my writing and hired me to rewrite a fantasy comedy so unlike the script they read I was like “wtf?”, but I did the gig. Apparently, I did a good enough job that it got me a top agent, who set up the deal at Imagine.
Jacques Thelemaque, Paul Schrader (Taxi Driver, Raging Bull), unknown.
Q: That must have been amazing working with Imagine Entertainment with Brian Grazer and Ron Howard, can you tell us about that?
A: Ha. I never even saw those guys. I worked with their Head of Production, Gil Netter, who was a really awesome guy. Very smart, very cool. Not so much like the other industry people I was meeting. They put me in an office on the lot in Culver City where they were shooting BeetleJuice. So, I would see the cast everyday and shot hoops with Alec Baldwin. He seemed so nice and mellow.
Q: What did you do between Imagine and starting Filmmakers Alliance?
A: Spent my money. All of it. Kinda torpedoed my writing career. But met the luminous and amazing Diane Gaidry and got married. She made me realize the Hollywood hack writer life wasn’t for me. She insisted I get a real job and told me we had to start Filmmakers Alliance and make our own films. So that’s what we did.
Q: What made you decide to create a filmmaking co-op like Filmmakers Alliance; did you feel there was a need or a void?
A: It was all Diane’s idea. She said, sitting in traffic one day, a voice told her to start a filmmaking collective and she actually visualized it. It was actually something she discussed with friends often in the past. She came home excitedly that day and told me we had to do it. I was reluctant, still trying to recover the rewrite career I torched. But she was persistent. So, I told her if she gets everybody to show up for a meeting, I’ll create an agenda (she hated doing administrative stuff) and help her manage everything. So, 8 filmmakers showed up and we started as a true collective where we shared everything and made all decisions collectively. But that wasn’t very practical and there was a lot of management stuff that nobody wanted to do, so I did it. Diane and I quickly found a very complimentary division of duties and we basically ran it together for many, many years.
Drunkin' film folk at Sundance Film Festival. (See Park City Police records)
Q: A lot of people have said that You, Diane Gaidry and Filmmakers Alliance has created some of the most successful and influential filmmakers in independent cinema, I mean aside from the plethora of awards you have received, your films have screened all over the world. Tell us more about FA and your work there?
A: Who’s spreading these lies about us? Filmmakers Alliance has definitely been a home and/or starting place for a lot of very talented filmmakers and film professionals who have done very well out in the world. And I think that was made possible by the simple idea that was the genesis of FA – mutual support. I help you, you help me, we help them. Simple as that. And that support could come in many ways: financial, material, educational, creative, psychological, spiritual, whatever. If you have something that cannot only help me make my film, but make it better, please share and I’ll do the same for you. That core concept always made people feel like there was a community that had there back, so they felt emboldened to make stuff happen for themselves. And they were pushed by that community to take their work to the highest level possible. And to this day, that is still what Filmmakers Alliance is all about.
Q: Does Filmmakers Alliance have any screenings, events or anything coming up?
A: Yes, we have our big annual event – VisionFest (sponsored by Vimeo) happening on Friday, October 28th. It’s a big screening and party. And since it’s Halloween weekend, we’re going for the creepy/spooky theme and encouraging people to dress up. But we haven’t done the event since 2018 – three years of that because of Covid. So, this is a big re-launch for us, which makes the event extra special.