by Kathryn Graham
I’m back with multi-talented writer, actor, producer, and director Jon Paul Burkhart. He has a ton of credits to his name in all of these arenas, and he’s played roles on many popular shows like This is Us, Castle, American Horror Story, Parks & Recreation, and most recently GLOW.
In Part One, we talked about his new film Sick for Toys and his role in it as both an actor and producer. This time, I talk to Jon Paul about producing short films and how we writers can make our own too!
You write and produce short films. Would you be able to tell me how you do that? How others might do it? What would you do differently?
Jon Paul: I would not use my own money for one. But I did. Well, you know when you want to get something made, and no one wants to pay for it… I never intended to be a filmmaker. I didn’t call myself that until the short right before this movie, because I thought: “Oh, I guess I am.”
I made my first short film with my now partner David Gunning. It’s about a man who tests positive for HIV. It’s his first day with this knowledge. How he interacts with people that don’t know who he sees every day. It’s called Stigma.
I wrote it because I had a friend who tested positive for HIV. I was there when it happened, and as you can imagine, it really affected me. As an artist, I wanted to say something about it. I got pushed by several friends to write it as a short. They were like: “You can write it, sure!”
So my friend, who wanted to remain nameless, he read pages for authenticity, and then we made the film. I never expected to love making something so much.
Then the film did really really well in festivals. People just wanted to see it. We played Side by Side Festival in St. Petersburg, Russia in 2015, where people were getting fines like $15,000 for showing any LGBT film or being gay. It was kind of neat, so it was like: “Yeah, take that!”
That’s what started me making films. My partner, David Gunning, he is half-Asian, and he wrote a piece about racism. So our first two films are very socially conscious. We loved doing that. We have to get back to doing that at some point soon. But right now we’re having fun with the horror genre. We’ve made a few horror short films and made a couple for hire.
For making short films: Plan. Plan plan plan plan. And get favors if you can. Also plan on spending a lot on post production.
What takes up the most money in post?
Jon Paul: I can tell you what should: editing and audio. You could say color work too, but for my money, spend it on audio and a good editor.
In terms of fundraising to create your own content, we have a lot of writers who might want to produce their own content, but they don’t know how to start. Fundraising is a big part of that. What do you do for that?
Jon Paul: We have never utilized any of the crowd-funding. Our first two films we funded ourselves. Actually, that’s not true. The second film, David used Kickstarter. But since then we have not used any crowd-funding, we have just gone to friends we have who have a little more money than us and are willing to give 2-3,000 dollars. When you’re making short films, it’s not as much. You shouldn’t spend a lot on a short film, in my opinion.
As far as features, we went to private investors. As an actor I hear ‘no’ all the time. It’s all I ever hear. So hearing ‘no’ over money is just more of the same. But you just need a couple ‘yeses’, and you can make a movie. You just have to not be afraid to ask people for money.
A lot of the time people want to know what their money is used for, and you should, as a filmmaker be able to tell them what it’ll be used for. We’re funding another project right now, and we just had a great meeting with a new investor. It helps that we’ve made and sold a feature already. I think we’re well on our way to funding our next film.
What do you do with shorts once they’re complete? There are festivals, but what’s the pinnacle of a short doing well? Getting awards?
Jon Paul: I don’t think we’ve made any money off of them. I know you can sell them online. You can put them on itunes and there’s all these aggregators who can do it now. We more or less were just making short films because we wanted to.
It was a learning experience. We knew we wanted to get into features. We kept pushing to get into features, and when one would fall through, we’d just make another short instead. It was film school for us. I was a theatre major, so I didn’t know anything about it. I learned a lot. David did too.
What would you say to a writer who wants to become a producer? Where would you start? How did you start?
Jon Paul: If you want to become a producer, find someone who’s done it before and pick their brain. Ask them anything you can think of. Just ask them to tell you about producing. I’ve had people do that to me before, and I’m like: “Okay, I’ll just start.”
When people ask me what producing is I tell them: It’s the ability to solve a lot of problems all at once really fast.
Don’t be afraid of work. If you’re a writer and you want to get into producing, have confidence in your work. Have a lot of confidence in your work. (laughs) Even if it’s misplaced.
That goes a long way. If you believe in yourself, then other people will believe in you and want to work with you. They’ll think: “Oh, he’s going to succeed!” And they want to succeed. Because they’re struggling cameramen or gaffers, etc.
Did you mostly find friends or people you knew already or did you hire folks you didn’t know?
Jon Paul: For the short films, we started off hiring people we knew, but then there’s always positions you have to fill with people you don’t know. But most of the people we worked with have become friends and they work with us on multiple projects. I guess that means we do pretty good.
On Sick for Toys, we had our main production crew from Los Angeles. I think there were six or seven of us. Then we hired the rest of the crew from Dallas, Texas and the surrounding areas. They were fantastic. Dallas is a big market for TV and commercials and the random film. Especially commercials. So their crews are fantastic. We lucked out getting a really good crew on Toys.
I love hiring people. It’s always a chance for me to meet new artists. The first AD we just worked with, he was first AD on Sick for Toys, we hired him to work on our next project because he’s great.
You mentioned you’re used to hearing ‘no’ a lot. That’s pretty much how the business is for all of us. How do you deal with it? A lot of writers and other artists can get down on themselves. Sounds like you don’t as much.
Jon Paul: Not as much as I used to. I think that’s just time.
There’s a role I went out for a couple weeks ago. I’m assuming I didn’t get it at this point. I really wanted it. I really did. I thought it was a great role for me. There are still roles that I feel connected to that I don’t get. It upsets me, but I just try to remember that there’s always going to be another great role out there that’s perfect for me. I just have to wait. It does get frustrating. I’m sure you, as a writer, understand. It’s frustrating putting yourself out there so much and most of the time just getting a: “No. No, thank you.”
I guess no matter where you are in your career, you’re still going to hear no, huh?
Jon Paul: I worked on GLOW season two a few months ago, which comes out soon. I got to talk to Alison Brie for a short second. My call time got pushed to the afternoon. I said I was happy that happened because I got to go to an audition, and I didn’t have to put it on tape. She said: “Oh, I love going in. I hate putting things on tape.”
I looked at her and I said: ”Oh, you audition?” Her eyes got really big, and she said: “For everything.”
That made me feel really good! I just assumed she’s Alison Brie. She just gets offers. But no, she reads. It’s a struggle at every level. Maybe easier the higher you get, but still a struggle.
That is comforting. Everybody’s going through the same thing.
Jon Paul: The grass is always greener.