Interview: A conversation with filmmaker Greg Olliver

Villordsutch chats with filmmaker Greg Olliver…

Greg Olliver and Lemmy

Greg Olliver is a producer and director as well as owner /operator of Secret Weapon Films.  Greg is known for such films as Lemmy (winner of Best film In-Edit/Chile Film Film Festival), Turned Towards the Sun (Official Selection and BFI London Film Festival 2012) and Devoured (reviewed here at Flickering Myth).  In the process of filming documentaries on both American Blues Star Johnny Winters and Boxing Legend Jake LaMotta, Greg takes a few moments out of his life to talk to Villordsutch for FlickeringMyth.com…

Villordsutch: Going straight for an easy one to perhaps allow you to delve into your stock answers for interviews I’m going to start with who, in the world of film, has perhaps had the greatest influence on you to date and why?

Greg Olliver: The Coen Brothers.  My parents dragged me to “Raising Arizona” when I was 14, and I remember not liking the film at all while I was there, only because I was forced to go see it.  It stayed with me though, and after seeing it again a year or so later, I absolutely loved every second of it.   I think I was already playing around with video cameras at that age, but “Raising Arizona” was definitely the film that excited me enough to want to direct.  It showed me how great a film could be… but in a way that made me believe I could eventually make something similar myself.  Clearly I will never be the Coen Brothers… but I will certainly do my best every single time I make a film in hopes that one day someone will watch something I’ve made, and be inspired just enough to make a film of their own.

V: I’ve noticed that your brother Brian is also involved in film (recently a double winner at Big Bear Lake International Festival with his film Gorging). Was being involved in films a dream for you both when you were younger?  Did you sit there watching Star Wars/Silent Running/Krull (delete as appropriate) and say, “We want to do that”, or were your family also interested in film before you thus leading you both to picking up a camera?

GO: KRULL!!!!  I haven’t heard that word in ages – so thanks for that reference!  My parents actually had that film on Laser Disc, and it was a household favourite along with “Time Bandits”.  My brother and I were really lucky.  Our mother is an oil painter and our father is a businessman who loves music… so we got a good combo of artsy / business genes… and neither of our parents ever tried to stop us from pursuing filmmaking.  They encouraged it actually.  My dad won a 8MM Video camera as a door prize sometime in the 80’s, and my brother and I constantly fought over it, both making all sorts of ridiculous home videos.  I’d like to think that Brian has been riding my coat tails all these years, but in fact I have no coat tails and he has always been doing his own thing; him making skate videos while I made music videos… and now him making canyoneering documentaries while I wont go near a canyon, and instead prefer the safety of a band’s tour bus or a horror movie set.

V: I first discovered your work whilst watching Lemmy. I watched it as I am an aging metal fan (38 years old) and I wanted to see what this Rock Behemoth was like as I knew he could be a tiny bit strong willed.  Jumping on to IMDb to look at where I may have also found your work before I was surprised to see (other than Recipe for Disaster) that Devoured is your only film that doesn’t have the word “documentary” in brackets beside it.  May I ask what made you remove the Documentary hat and switch to Movie Director? Also did you enjoy it for I’ve noticed you’ve placed the documentary hat back on?

GO: I feel like I was born to make narrative feature films with actors and car wrecks and guns and adventure etc… but accidentally stumbled into documentaries along the way.  I really had no intentions of making a doc until a reggae artist I was working with on a music video asked me to make a doc about him.  I said yes and instantly fell in love with docs (but unfortunately fell OUT of love with that particular reggae artist after the film fell apart, but that’s a different story).  However, through that project I got connected with Lemmy, and that film turned out to be my first feature doc to make it to fruition.  It was an honor to tell the story of someone like Lemmy who is such an important part of rock & roll history… so I know that film will live on forever as an important part of his legacy.  For me it’s been much easier to make a doc on someone who already has an important story like Lemmy, or was an important part of history like Michael Burn.  Those films NEED to be made, and will remain timeless.  Most narrative feature films don’t necessarily “need” to be made, and are there mostly for entertainment.  I would guess only a small percentage really live on throughout the years and remain timeless… so you have to really be careful picking narrative projects.  I think I’m definitely more gun-shy when it comes to pulling the trigger on a feature film.

Ultimately I see myself as a storyteller, and filmmaking is basically story telling whether it’s a horror or a comedy or a documentary.  I love all of it, so if you can predict one thing from my career, it’s that you can expect all sorts of different type of titles and genres on my IMDB.

V: Quickly running back to the Lemmy film. You met my long-term metal heroes Metallica. For my own curiosity were they as cool as I believe them to be? Did egos and entourage get in your way of filming Lemmy and Metallica or were they truly grounded? (To be honest that question is more for me more than the rest of the world).

GO: I gotta tell ya – when you say you’re “with Lemmy”, everyone is your friend… and Metallica certainly made a point of being friendly to us.  They were fantastic to work with, and even had a “Lemmy Film Crew” dressing room set up for us at one show.  The high point for me, and one of the high points of the entire three-year process, was literally moments before Lemmy went on stage with Metallica in Nashville (a big scene in the film).  We had waited well over a year for that moment to happen. I had always wanted to shoot ON stage with Lemmy at that show, and not just from the pit… but never wanted to ask management since they probably wouldn’t have wanted us up there.  So I literally had to wait for a split second to get James Hetfield alone and ask him in a trembling voice if “I could follow Lem up on stage and shoot there for the duration of the songs since the film was about Lemmy, and not a concert film.”  James took a long moment and stared down at me and then said “What?” and the pulled out his in-ear monitors that prevented him from hearing a single word I said.  I had to repeat myself again, stumbling through the words, and he just smiled and said “Hell yes.  If you’re going to do this you better do it right though, cuz you’re only going to do it once.”  The rest is epic rock & roll history as far as I’m concerned.  I doubt I’ll ever be that stressed out and excited at the same time again.  I had to blow off some steam after that particular shoot and over-served myself with bourbon in downtown Nashville, which then led to a trashed hotel room and fire extinguisher incident that still has certain people mad at me… but I don’t want to bore you with the details of that particular night.

V: Your documentaries leap to and from different subjects; from Lemmy we jump straight to a documentary about the late British Commando Michael Clive Burn, MC (Turned Towards the Sun), from there to Devoured and after that you went straight into the filming of a documentary about the Blues Legend Johnny Winter. Then, I understand, straight to another documentary about Jake LaMotta, the great American boxer famously nick-named “The Raging Bull”.  How do you come across these tales to film? Is it a case of you where flicking through a magazine and came across an article about these people, or did you have a keen interest in their lives before you chased the story behind them?

GO: I really wish I could take credit for all the films I’ve chosen to make so far… but in actuality most have chosen me.  Through the reggae artist, and my first foray into documentary filmmaking, I met a guy who knew Lemmy, which is how that film came about.  While in an airport in the UK on the way to meet up with Motörhead, I randomly met a guy who told me about an old British commando who knew Hitler, helped save Audrey Hepburn’s life, fought in the Raid on St. Nazaire, and even dated the spy Guy Burgess.  That’s how I learned about and made a doc on Michael Burn M.C.  My friend / writer Marc Landau has always wanted to make a horror and asked me to make DEVOURED… even though I had never really imagined myself a horror filmmaker.  (Now I love it).   Backstage at a Joan Jett concert I randomly met a guy who manages the boxer Jake LaMotta, and suggested I do his doc.  I think Johnny Winter is the only project that I pursued on my own.  I grew up in Texas listening to the blues and Stevie Ray Vaughn and ZZ Top etc. so I’ve always wanted to work in that world.  Johnny kicks ass obviously… so I was blessed that he and his manager Paul Nelson said OK, and I’ve had a blast hanging out with them over the past year.

V: Have you ever been interested in taking the reins of a major motion picture?  If yes, what genre would you like to tackle the most – comic book/ sci-fi / thriller etc – and if not, why not?

GO: If you’re asking me if I’d like to make some real money directing a feature film, the answer would be “hell yes”!  I love filmmaking, and even enjoy directing promos and corporate shoots to pay the rent… but I’d much rather be turning down hotel bath-product promos because I am instead starting a big-budget feature film.  The business side of financing and selling independent films is brutal.  I long for the day when someone else pays for and releases a film I make.  I am very, very tired of begging friends and family for money to pay for films!

As for the genre, I’m excited to try my hand at whatever comes my way.  DEVOURED was a great film to make, so I’m hooked on horror/thrillers… but there are so many other films out there to be made that I don’t want to limit myself to one type.

V: I like to ask for any small secret snippet of any project you’re working on.  Obviously names and backers can’t be given but is there anything you can give us a small sliver of to keep us rabidly waiting for its release?

GO: DEVOURED writer Marc Landau and I are about to start up on a pretty cool “virus” themed horror that we plan to shoot this winter.  Ask me again in a couple weeks and I should have more details including lead actors and a title.  Meanwhile I keep chugging along on the Johnny Winter & Jake LaMotta docs… waiting to stumble into the next adventure…

V: My last question is a sharing of information question.  There are millions of people out there now with cameras who are recording footage and making their own mini-films for the web, but for those people who wish to make a career out of film making (documentaries, movies, shorts etc.) what crumb of life school could you give to help them get noticed that little bit more?

GO: Perseverance is the key.  If you know in your heart that you were born to make films… it’s OK to make some bad ones.  Just don’t stop making them.  You’re only going to learn from mistakes, and get better and better each time.  Obviously if for some reason your films get worse and worse each time… I’d suggest you stop.  There are already enough terrible filmmakers out there!

Many thanks to Greg Olliver for taking the time for this interview.

To find out more news and what Greg is up to you can find him on Twitter @GregOliver or at his website. If you haunt Facebook you can find Secret Weapon Films here.

Villordsutch likes his sci-fi and looks like a tubby Viking according to his children. Visit his website and follow him on Twitter.

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