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The Slate

Get What You Give

Get What You Give

After winning two academy awards for Best Sound for Jurassic Park and Saving Private Ryan, being nominated for three others and working on more than a dozen films with Steven Spielberg, it might seem like Ron Judkins is unapproachable. But that’s the first myth he squashes in an interview.
“I’ll give seminars and classes to lots of people, and especially not in Los Angeles, they think there’s something special about people who have been successful in the film industry,” he says. “But the thing is that everyone that you think is on a pedestal – at one point, they were sitting next to you in this room. Anyone can do it. It takes perseverance and a strong desire to make it happen.”
Judkins worked hard for his success, moving himself up incrementally within the LA film scene. “I had no rich uncle at the studios,” he emphasizes. He originally attended college with the intent of becoming a photographer, but quickly realized his love of film. Upon graduating from Southern Methodist University in Dallas, he started working at a public television station doing sound. “I was actually bummed out because the sound position didn’t pay as much as my friend’s camera position,” he laughs.
But it didn’t take long for Judkins to move to LA and begin his journey in the film industry, one that began with two and a half years of barely making rent. “You’ve got to be ready for the long haul,” he says. “Lots of times people right on the cusp would give up. It takes longer than you think. Then it’s being in the right place at the right time and beyond that, to also be ready to take the reins of what’s offered to you. A lot of that is having the right attitude. If you put the right energy out into the universe, the universe will answer you.”
Judkins sat down with HFI prior to his visit for the Film Workshop seminar and screening of his latest film, Finding Neighbors, which is currently on the festival circuit and has already won awards. He took the time to explain the relationships dissected in the film, how to succeed in the industry and what it’s like to have the universe answer you.
HFI: First, what does a “sound” person actually do?

RJ: I’m a production mixer. Actors come onto the set and speak lines. Ninety percent of my job is recording dialogue. It’s me, the mixer, the boom operator and a third utility person, sometimes with a second boom operator to mic the scene. It’s interesting that 50 or 60 people will be working on all the digital aspects and it’s three of us trying to get the sound. And recording sound is never perfect. We’re always in a snowstorm or on city streets, things we can’t control. We try to get recordings that are good enough that dialogue is legible.
HFI: When did you start writing scripts?

RJ: I’ve written probably 30 scripts over the years, starting when I first got hooked on films in college. For me, it wasn’t write your first script and go make a million bucks. For me, starting to write was about learning how to write. I’d write and sit on them. Then I started showing them around. I wanted to tell my own stories, but got seduced into the sound world. I have no regrets, I traveled the world and worked on amazing projects, but that success prevented me from picking up the pen and working on my own films. Think I was 40 something and realized, now’s my time.
HFI: Tell me about how you approached the making of Finding Neighbors.

RJ: I thought, if I’m gonna make a film, I’ll make it myself. I wrote a script we could shoot in our neighborhood loosely based on households – mine and those around me. My wife (Jennifer Day Young) and neighbor across the street (Judy Korin) became producers. It was a total neighborhood grassroots effort...My wife and Judy, they started a potluck like five years ago. It happens the third Thursday of every month at a different person’s house. Some of those relationships are now people who worked on the film and let us shoot in their houses...Now we’re in the middle of the festival run and we’re talking to distributors. It’s another instance – if you put the right energy out, the universe answers. It happened so many times on this film.
HFI: How long did this film take to make, start to finish?

RJ: For a typical film, you have a budget where you can keep the process going. Typically it’s eight to ten months or a year. But this was a film where we found investors, made the film and finished, but needed more money to do mixing and post-production, so we did a Kickstarter campaign. Because we all had to make a living, we’d go off for a few months and come back. It doesn’t typically take three years {writing began in March 2011}, but if you watch a lot of independent films it’s not unusual.
HFI: What tips do you have for filmmakers on a tight budget?

RJ: It’s all about how you do it. In our case, we live in this neighborhood, so, what’s free? Our house is free to shoot in, Judy’s house, we have our car, their house, the bakery will let us shoot, the bar will let us for $500. So, OK, what story can I tell with these things? You aggregate all the things that you have and craft the story around that. But it has to be a compelling story, something people will care about. And then, all the people working on the film – allow them to own a part of it. Create a model where anything that comes in, goes to the people who made it. That’s not typically the case.
HFI: This film has very real characters. Tell me how and why you developed the ones you did.

RJ: It’s loosely based on my experiences. I became aware that lots of people in the baby boomer generation had success early on and now they’re saying, now what? When you’re in your 20s you think you can change the world. Then 30 years go by and you think, what happened? How do you replace that energy when you’re 40 or 50? And I wanted a person in some kind of creative area and typically, movies like that about the film business often seem narcissistic. Originally I thought a novelist, but felt I’d seen that movie. I thought, a graphic novelist – I haven’t seen that movie. And illustrations would give a visual texture and open up different possibilities in the film. You experience him as a character and he’s kind of passive. That’s really what his problem is. So, to break out of passivity, he draws. It made sense on a lot of levels.
HFI: I understand the film demonstrates a whole lot about the nature of different types of relationships. Tell me about that.

RJ: At home in LA, on one side of the street we have a gay couple and another couple on the other side and the woman is really flirtatious. It’s a set up for drama, but also a comedic drama. You don’t know which way it’s gonna go. In life, you never know where love or support or empathy or caring is going to come from. Lots of times, the place you think it'll come from, it won't. It comes from an unexpected place. First, that's interesting, and second, as human beings when we open up and give to another human being - sometimes we think that it's not a big deal, but you don't know how meaningful that can be to someone else...It's the family you choose versus the family you have. You never know where your love is going to come from or where it will go when you put it into the universe. Love is not quite the right word, but it's a way of describing our individual humanity. What a beautiful gift it can be when you give it to somebody else.
HFI: What insight did this film about relationships, give you about relationships?

RJ: There was a whole evolution of that during the making of the film. Sometimes you look at life and say, what’s next? You’re depressed. But then you read a book or see a movie and you’ll be inspired. There’s something about that book or movie and you realize that everyone goes through that. I would be very grateful for that writer, what they gave me to help me get through my day, my week. That’s high motivation for me to give back…And as long as this took to make, I thought, did I just waste three years of my life? But then it started showing at festivals and people are saying, ‘that’s me!’ We won the audience award at the Richmond International Film Festival and as soon as the lights came up, a woman, about 55, said, ‘I’m that guy! I was in my 20s doing all this stuff and I haven’t done any of it in 30 years! But I’m going to again.” I teared up. The movie touched her. That woman paid me back right there in that moment and made the whole thing worth it. That’s the evolution of thought in terms of emotional attachment and putting myself into the project three years ago. It’s come back.
HFI: What advice do you have for those aspiring to get into the film industry?

RJ:  Take yourself seriously and don’t be afraid to pick up the phone and ask for help. Every deal is negotiable all the way down to zero depending on how much people want to be involved. So many times connections and opportunities are lost because people are afraid or shy. If you ask people, they’ll probably want to be part of it.
HFI: How did you get involved with Haydenfilms?

RJ: I met Hayden at the DC Independent Film Festival and we hit it off. He reached out about the screening and the panel and I said of course. I think he’s a smart guy and I believe in what he’s doing.

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