Donald G. Jackson: The Filmmaking and the Filmmaker
This is an interview I did regarding the filmmaking career of Donald G. Jackson.
Thanks Scott for agreeing to field my questions. I had hoped to get these to you sooner but life has been so crazy lately. As a quick reminder, these questions pertain to several films: Little Lost Sea Serpent; Baby Ghost; and Rollergator, as well as your filmmaking style, and that of Mark Williams and Don Jackson.
First, can you talk a little bit about your anti-script approach to filmmaking? I know it's your preferred method, but can you identify any drawbacks to that style?
Zen Filmmaking is really about freedom — it’s about freeing up the entire process of filmmaking and allowing the inspiration of the moment to be the only guide. As Donald G. Jackson and I both agreed, “All the stories have already been told,” so why bother attempting to tell a story, with a limited budget, that has been far better depicted in a high-dollar film? But, more to the point, to go into a filmmaking project with a formalized script leaves the filmmaker left simply trying to reenact what is written upon the page instead of allowing spontaneous, true artistic creativity to be the guide in a film’s creation.
The downside to Zen Filmmaking, (if you can call it that), is that there is little story structure. Some finished Zen Films end up with a much more coherent storyline than others. But, story structure is not the sourcepoint for creation in Zen Filmmaking. As a Zen Film is formulated at the editing stage, you are never quite sure what you will end up with. For some filmmakers they love this freedom. But, for the average filmmaker and for the typical movie going audience, they may not.
Zen Filmmaking is about art and spiritually-based artistic expression, while waiting for those moments of cinematic satori. It is not about structure, nor is it about catering to what a particular member of the audience may be expecting or looking for. Zen Filmmaking is cinematic freedom created by capturing moving images.
How well did you know Mark Williams? What was he like as a person and filmmaker?
Personally, I met Mark Williams through Donald G. Jackson. As you may know, he played the character Heavy Metal in the film, The Roller Blade Seven. So, we spent a lot of time together during the period of filming RB7 and its sequel Return of the Roller Blade Seven. Don met Mark through Steve Wang who created the frog masks for the original Hell Comes to Frogtown and the sequels: Frogtown II and Max Hell Frog Warrior. Mark Williams and Steve Wang were friends from the San Jose region of Northern California. They had both moved to L.A. to pursue their film careers. Like Steve, Mark was also an SFX guy and, as such, was pursing a career in that field when he met Don. From this, he helped us with some of the costuming and makeup on RB7 as well as bringing his pet snakes onto the set for the scene where Stella Speed’s (Allison Chase) character is covered with them. He was also instrumental in all of the SFX of Don’s children-based films.
After Roller Blade Seven, when Don and I went to work on separate projects, Mark became an essential element in the filmmaking of Donald G. Jackson, beyond simply the SFX. Don would provide Mark with the concept for a film and Mark would go home and write the entire script in one evening.
Mark, like Don, was a highly comic book influenced individual. So, they worked well together as a creative team; at least for a time.
As a filmmaker, Mark did not possess the intense work ethic of say filmmakers like Donald G. Jackson and myself who were willing to go for hours upon hours, even days upon days, without a break to get a film created. In all fairness, this may be because Mark was internally very ill and did not know it yet. (But, I will address that issue in a moment). Mark saw himself, at least in terms of the films of Donald G. Jackson, as the screenwriter and an actor. Thus, he would come on the set and simply hang around and provide script based story direction. This, in association with the fact that Mark began to smoke cigars constantly, (Don hated smoking). Plus, Mark became dependent upon money from Don; this is something that Don hated when people took this path. In fact, Don became his only source of income during this period of time. All this eventually caused Don to violently dismiss Mark. Thus, their relationship ended.
At this point, Mark went on to find other jobs in the film industry, primarily in SFX departments. He also created a comic book that was financed by Rikki Rockett, the drummer for the band Poison. The last time I personally saw Mark was about a year before his passing. Don and I were at the San Diego Comic Con and we discovered that Mark had a booth for his comic book. I spoke with him but Don refused to.
After this, Mark followed his path of occasional film work and comic book creation. Sadly, Mark passed away from complications from prostate cancer at the young age of thirty-nine. Though Don had not spoken with him since their parting, he, I, and Joe Estevez, (the star of the movies you have asked about), did attend Mark’s memorial, held at Dark Delicacies in Burbank, where Don kindly spoke about their relationship to the gathering.
As someone who I've read was a bit of a wild guy (and who also had experience working on sci-fi and horror films) why do you think he was drawn to making monster/creature films for younger audiences, such as the ones mentioned above?
At his heart, Don was a comic book guy. He loved the characters created within those pages. As such, he made films with that as his focus.
What drew Don Jackson to get involved with Little Lost Sea Serpent, Baby Ghost, and what were the creative objectives for making these sorts of films?
The simple answer is money. Don began working with a company that sought investor financing for his films. Don knew that if he attempted to sell these investors on making the kind of films he actually wanted to make; i.e. more exploitation based films, they would never invest. So, what he did was to take his own unique vision of comic book based characters and create films, which he felt could be viewed by the younger audience. He did this, while syphoning money from those films, so that he could create the kind of movies that he actually wanted to make.
What was it like working on these films?
All of the films that Don was involved with in his later years, and most of those from his earlier years of filmmaking, were made in the guerilla style of filmmaking. Meaning, Don virtually never rented locations or obtained filming permits to shoot at locations. He simply found places where a movie could be filmed with little concern about the public or police involvement. And, for the most part, he got away with filming his movies for free. The crew on his films were always bare bones.
Filming would begin by Don planning for a location. The cast and crew would meet at our offices in North Hollywood, California, get into their cars, and drive to the location and film. Though he would always be sure to feed his cast and crew, there was never anything like Craft Services, a Costuming or Make-up Department, or anything like that as one may find on the higher budget, more traditional type of film production sets. It was just the get out there and do it approach.
You mentioned in a previous message that these particular films were not really your kind of thing. Can you elaborate further?
During this period of Donald G. Jackson’s filmmaking career and, in fact, on virtually every other film he ever made, where I was not directly involved, he based his films around a script. Though he obviously allowed for plenty of room for improv, he felt that he needed a guide for the actors; i.e. a screenplay. As such, I stepped away and simply provided production and post production support.
It is important to note that as a director, Don never really directed his actors. He let them interpret their character any way they wanted to. With a script he was able to step back and concentrate on the cinematography of a film, which was his true love. In some cases, he would become so obsessed with getting a shot right, at least in his own mind, that he would shoot an insane number of takes of a single scene; over and over and over again. I document this practice in the Zen Documentary, Cinematografia Obsesion. But, this obsessional mindset is not how he worked with actors. He pretty much allowed them to speak the lines in any way they felt appropriate. So, by working with a script this allowed him to move away from guiding people in what words they would be speaking and the way they would be speaking them.
Did you ever get a sense of what the creative objectives were with films of this type?
Don never actually liked any of the films you are asking about. He used to make the statement, “Just another piece of shit on the crap pile.”
Don was an obsessional filmmaker. He loved making movies. But, he was willing to make them at any cost. In fact, he was more focused on the process of doing a film than on that of finishing a film. Thus, it was during this period of time, where he was being financed by the aforementioned film finance firm, that he had to hire several people to get these films finished; i.e.: edited, sound tracked, and the like. For, if it were left up to him, none of these movies would have ever been completed. And, finishing them was a requirement of his receiving the financing. This is why when he passed away and left all of his years of random film footage to me that so many more of his films were released than when he was alive. I finished them.
As a filmmaker what is the appeal of creating creatures and scary movies for kids?
If you have seen any of these films, I believe that you would not consider them scary. They are much more, “Campy,” than scary. More like Casper the Friendly Ghost than a horror flick.
Jumping off that, what are some challenges and, on the flip side, luxuries of creating content for kids? What are the advantages and the disadvantages?
I see no advantages in creating films that are focused on the younger market, as there are far too many limitations about what you can present to the younger audience. The disadvantages go hand-in-hand with this. You have to be so careful of what you, as a filmmaker, expose children to; you are truly limited by the genre.
From your experience can you talk a bit about the logistics behind Don Jackson's films, such as: The types of budgets he was usually working with / how funding was obtained / how casting those films were handled / the distribution of these films / and (on average) how long it took to shoot these films?
No matter how much money Don had in his coffers he always shot a film as if it was a completely independent film with no budget. His films were generally created much more like a backyard film than a film possessing some of the high budgets that some of his films actually possessed. As I have long stated, both when he was alive and after his passing, “Don was one of the greatest squanderers of money I have ever met.” He would buy an insane amount of personal possessions, always pay for everyone’s lunch, dinner, bar tabs, concert tickets, strip club visits, pay the rent for the young actresses who were dependent upon him at any given period of time, pay for boob jobs, you name it… But, any money he had rarely went into his films.
As previously explained, the financing for these films, at least during the period of time you are asking about, came from a film finance company.
In terms of casting, the films were cast via a very traditional Hollywood method used in the indie film community at the time. There was a weekly newspaper called, Dramalogue. In this newspaper one would find industry stories, advertisements for photographers and acting classes, and casting notices. Don (and I) cast all of our films via Dramalogue at that point in time.
The distribution of these films was spearheaded by Donald G. Jackson himself. Hand-in-hand with the film financing he received he set up a distribution company that would sell these and other films, (including several films I had created without him), to international buyers at film markets such as the yearly, American Film Market.
The actual shooting schedule on these films would vary. As mentioned, Don was an impulsive filmmaker so there was never any formalized shooting schedule. He might go out and shoot what would translate into several minutes of usable footage or he may go out and return with no usable footage whatsoever. Sometimes he wouldn’t film at all for weeks or even months on end. So, the actual shoot times of these particular films was all over the place, anywhere from one month to more than a year. So was the filmmaking world of Donald G. Jackson…
Thanks again, Scott!
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