Interview: David Winning

Filmmaker David Winning, whose many credits include “Andromeda” and “Something Beneath” with Kevin, gave us many great answers in this interesting interview, as well as some good advice for being and staying in show biz. Normally, I would post a brief bio, but I’ll let him tell you himself. Please see his website for a complete bio and more:  http://www.davidwinning.com/

SW: What fascinated you about film that even as a child you knew you wanted to make movies?

DW: I actually started out at the age of 9 as a ventriloquist and magician; used to do shows for schools and libraries, etc. before discovering a passion for special effects. I started making films when I was young. Dad got me a Kodak Instamatic Super 8mm camera that I was glued to for most of my teens. My first professional job was working as a dubber-loader for a sound studio in Calgary. I also got experience as a director’s assistant at ACCESS Television, an educational programming channel in Alberta that produced docu-dramas. I directed my first feature, “Storm,” at age 22 in 1983. This led eventually to directing episodes of Paramount’s “Friday the 13th: The Series” in Toronto. Thirteen features and 20 series later, I’m still around.

When I was 10 I became obsessed with creating effects with superimpositions, double-exposures and pixilation. This is an animation technique where you use live actors and move them a bit at a time to create flying sequences or driving on the ground with an invisible car. This interest in film as stories began to develop, and it just became a very serious hobby through my teens starting with a documentary about my parent’s trip to the zoo in 1971.

I struggled for a long time in my twenties working on passionate projects that took years to finish. Most of my twenties were spent making my first feature, “Storm,” which I loved. In some ways, you realize later that if you hadn’t spent years making those first films, you wouldn’t have had the career that followed because “Storm” led to everything else I’ve ever done.

I was asked at age 27 to direct episodes of “Friday the 13th: The Series” for Paramount Pictures Television, filming in Toronto, Canada, and that became my first paying job. Success in the entertainment business seems to always be a matter of good timing. When Preparation meets Opportunity, as the saying goes… I have a box full of super 8mm films I made between about ages 10 and 16, plan to go through it someday and transfer it all over to DVD or digital just to preserve it. Spent many years of my teens making films with friends in the back yard and coming up with all sorts of strange and exciting stories to amuse ourselves. Some of them are pretty good too! I’ll have to put them as extras on some of my features like M. Night Shyamalan does. Might be worth a chuckle.

SW: What do you look for in movie and television scripts?

DW: “Andromeda,” the family and the series, was a major piece of good fortune for me obviously. Also, I really enjoyed the dramatic impact and powerful writing of the Pax series, “Twice in a Lifetime.” I directed 10 episodes in 1999 and 2000 and got to work with a brilliant producing writing team of Steve Brackley and Pam Long. Also, in the first season (I) got to work with the old master, Barney Rosensweig, who created “Charlie’s Angels” among other things in the ’70s. The series was a remarkable blend of humour and bittersweet drama, and I got the chance to direct some amazing guest stars and character actors from Patrick Duffy to Michelle Phillips, Markie Post, Bruce Boxleitner, Earle Hyman, Daniel Baldwin, Martin Mull, Jere Burns, and Brent Carver.

I’m pretty proud of just plain “surviving” in a very tough industry; lots of twists and turns over the years. My favourite feature project I’ve directed would probably be “Exception to the Rule” starring Sean Young, Eric McCormack, Kim Cattrall, and William Devane. There have been so many great moments over the years. I think one that sticks in my mind is taking “Exception” to the 1997 Houston Film Festival and showing it to a packed movie theatre. We won “Best Thriller” that year and it was just a wild night. Nothing like watching one of your films with 600 excited moviegoers; people jumped and laughed in all the right places and afterward Michael Bateman, the film’s editor, and I answered questions for about an hour. I think that’s really the payoff for all the hard work: to see a movie with a crowd and have it really work for them.

SW: How did you get involved with “Andromeda” and “Something Beneath”?

DW: I was fortunate enough to be in on the ground floor of “Andromeda,” directing one of the first episodes ever filmed in season one, “Banks of The Lethe,” where Kevin is reunited with his wife Sam. The big difference between “Andromeda” and “Stargate: Atlantis,” for example, is budgetary! “Stargate” is operating on a much bigger amount of money, which made “Andromeda” all the more challenging because I think both shows looked great. There is also obviously a different dynamic happening on both series because it’s an entirely different group of people and the energy will always be unique.

“Something Beneath” was part five of a five-part monster movie series called, “Maneater,” produced by RHIEntertainment in New York and Phyllis Laing of Buffalo Gal Pictures in Winnipeg, Canada. The movies aired on the SyFy Channel in the U.S. I completed a trilogy eventually with two more movies filmed in Montreal: “Black Swarm,” starring Robert Englund, and “Swamp Devil,” starring Bruce Dern (right).

SW: You and Kevin seem to have an amicable, mutual respect relationship. What is it like working with him?

DW: Kevin is one of the best collaborators and bosses I’ve had – very personable, very creative and involved, and he has a great sense of humour. The lead actor’s temperament is so vital to a series because the aura he creates trickles down to every department. The best people in the business are the ones with the invisible egos. And if you haven’t had the pleasure of meeting Kevin, let me tell you, he’s exactly as humble and friendly as you’d hope he’d be. Very few people can survive becoming international stars recognized anywhere in the world and not also becoming jerks. Kevin has avoided this  fortunately.

SW: What is happening with “Illuminati”?

DW: Kevin and I are still very jazzed about getting this project going. We had a great press conference at the American Film Market in Los Angeles (L.A.) to launch it. It’s the dream project of L.A. producer Elizabeth Fowler at Clear Pictures Entertainment. It’s a very action-packed and thoughtful thriller about a complex society that may or may not still exist. Kevin will play Thomas Mant, the lead assassin of a powerful group that decides to defect. Very similar to “Marathon Man,” one of my favorite thrillers of all time – with cool elements of “The Fugitive” thrown in. Hoping to get it up and running in 2010, but the business is very finicky about what it likes and doesn’t like from week to week. The script is solid and Kevin will be great in it. Part of the decision needing to be made is budgetary, is it a six million dollar film or a 60 million dollar epic…

SW: What is it like to be in the film industry?

DW: I always get asked about how to get into the business. The best way to break into television or movies is to write a great original script. The power of a good script is unbelievable in Hollywood, then everything else has to come together just right, too. A really good story is so rare. It’s hard to make a good movie from a bad script, although I think I’ve done it a couple of times. Syd Field’s books on screenwriting are great – as is anything by William Goldman, who I think is a genius. The most original writers in Hollywood today are the Coen Brothers and Tarantino. Hey, it’s just my opinion.

The creative side of me believes filmmaking is an art form, but I always tell people the process is a little like painting a picture when seven people are holding the brush. The director is the ringleader; the job is to get creative forces working together to get the best result. I like to create an environment that’s fun for people to work in. It’s such a delicate balance, especially when you’re trying to coax the best performances out of actors, especially when the material is tough. You have to create a little cocoon for them to work in. In science fiction the task can be harder because many elements physically don’t exist on set. I’ve always said I think the best actors are in SciFi. They’re really working with just their imaginations in some scenes.

My advice to anybody wanting to get into the business – or stay in the business? Don’t ever, EVER give up. It’s a hard job, but if you decide to give in, believe me, there are thousands behind you very eager to take your place. I believe in order to succeed in this crazy biz, you don’t have to necessarily be the most creative director or the one who thinks of the coolest shots. You just have to simply want it badly enough. But, it is not all plain sailing. I worked as a ticket taker, bouncer, bartender, you name it. Raised a whole bunch of money and was all set to go to film school in L.A. Shocked my Dad when I was 22: Told him I was going to instead make my own feature! My own film school for four years. No better way to learn. Pretty traumatic at the time, but it all worked out.

I used to be asked the question, what would you do if you hit the lottery and won $20 million. Make a movie? Ofcourse not, I’d make ten!! Big budgets can really be overrated. The creativity on the screen does not have a dollar figure attached. In some ways, my earlier feature work was forced to be more creative because we had no money and had to cut corners. Makes you think further than “outside the box.” Forget the box, there is no box. My only big budget experience to date in the feature world has been the Power Rangers Sequel for 20th Century Fox: 23 million dollars and a 12-week shooting schedule. I was directing eight camera units, including an underwater and miniature unit. The movie grossed nearly $170 million in video sales and was the fourth highest selling cassette in the U.S. in 1997.

Makes you think. All the other movies have been shot in 16 days for less than $1.5 million. A few of them are better movies, too. I think I’m going back to Winnipeg, Canada to shoot a couple more low-budget movies over the winter. We shot “Something Beneath” there in 2006 with Kevin. Minus 45 (degrees) in underground sewer pipes in the winter was memorable.

SW: What are you working on now?

DW: I’ve got a bunch of projects in various stages of development; always trying to keep busy. Optioned a great monster pic script from a friend last year that I’ve been working on called, “Ghosts of Odessa,” (a) cross between “The Abyss” and “Con Air” (about) a bunch of prisoners (who) are sent down to a Russian sub to find out what’s wrong with it.

I’m currently developing a couple of other Indie feature projects for production next summer and fall, likely in Canada. Also, have just been re-approached about a possible project in India being co-produced by Wes Craven. Also, recently have been talking to a production company about a spy thriller shooting next summer in Hawaii. Always something coming down the road.

The cool thing about the job is you really never know where you’re going to be next week. I was touring the JFK Museum in Dallas a few years ago, and while there got a phone call from Hungary regarding ABC’S “Dinotopia” series – two days later I was in meetings in Budapest! And shooting there for three months! Travel miles are very healthy in this job.

I’m currently shooting episodes of a series for Space Channel in Canada called, “Todd and the Book of Pure Evil,” (a) high school horror/comedy series that’s very unique. It’s based on a 2003 short film that was produced at Norman Jewison’s Canadian Film Centre.

Thanks for your interest. More cool stuff at http://www.davidwinning.com/ and please check out some of my videos on YouTube at http://www.youtube.com/profile?user=groundstar83#g/u.

(Photos courtesy of David Winning)

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  1. May 25, 2010 at 7:36 am

    Great article, Jan! Mr. Winning seems to be a lovely person too, like Kevin.
    Thank you for posting, darling!

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