An Interview with Paul Brenno,
Director of Covid-19 vs The Magic City
Please tell us about yourself and your career. How did you fall in love with cinema and what made you want to make films? How many projects did you work on before making Covid-19 vs The Magic City?
I grew up in a small town/city of Minot, North Dakota. Minot was a great place to be a kid, grow up, it’s in the north central part of the state, about a 100 miles south of the Canadian border. Minot and ND itself is a rural/agriculture state, focusing on local small businesses, farming/agriculture to the military, Minot Air Force base and most recently, oil. My Mother was in Education, my Father was a Salesman in both Radio/TV
There really isn’t a film/video industry in Minot or North Dakota, but I got my love for film early on. I remember being 5 or 6, loving watching TV, esp cartoons like "Super Friends", etc. I remember going to the movies with my family and friends, seeing movies like Disney to Star Wars. When I was 9/10 yrs old, the movie that made that mark on me was Superman The Movie with Christopher Reeve. I remember going to the theatre, the old classic theatre we had downtown, with the red curtain opening up, then being in a different world for 2 hours. That film planted a seed in me for filmmaking but that film made me want to be Superman, but not yet a Filmmaker!!!
In the 70’s-80’s, TV shows were a big influence, like Battle Star Galactica, Buck Rogers, to Dukes of Hazzard, Knight Rider to Riptide. I loved those shows. My Father, since he worked in TV sales, occasionally I would get hired by the local TV station he worked at to go on location with crew, as an Assistant. I loved it, hard work, but really enjoyed it. I began to do more research into TV Broadcasting, Video Production, Filmmaking, see where this would lead????
I remember going down to Bismarck, our state capital, with my parents on a day trip, at a local store I saw for the first time, the American Cinematographer Magazine. I’d never heard of it before, but I began to read it and discover it was about Cinematographers/Directors of Photography, which sparked that passion in me. I immediately understood the tech elements and knew this was what I wanted to do. My family was happy for my excitement, but wasn’t happy about the decision, since nobody knew anything about Cinematography?????
I understood their concern, as I know they were hoping for my career to be something they could help give me guidance, but this career choice I was so passionate about, they just let me go do it. I never had a film camera growing up, like alot of filmmakers did, I just went to our library and did as much research as I could into Film Lighting to Cinematography and just learned as much as I could, but did Still Photography with a Pentax K1000 I bought, which was great to learn
As there was no film school in North Dakota, in 1989 I joined the US Air Force. I joined to not only grow and mature, but also for the GI Bill for college. I was stationed in Italy first, then in Jan 1991 (just before the Persian Gulf war started), I was home on leave and a buddy of mine went to a film everyone was talking about “Dances with Wolves”. I’d never heard about it, but that film made the biggest impact on me, Dean Semler’s photography made me want to be a Cinematographer, so thank you Dean Semler (ASC/ACS)
I was then stationed in San Antonio, in Nov 1991, I got to meet Emmy Winning Cinematographer Ken Lamkin (ASC). Ken was the first Cinematographer I’d ever met, he was most known to be a TV Cinematographer, from shows like Friends to Wings, to his long stint on the Emmy Winning series “Frasier”. Ken was in San Antonio Directing and Shooting a film. I made contact with his office, Ken called me and invited me on the set for a few days, which was a huge thrill. Ken passed a few years ago, I’ll forever be grateful to him.
I then used my GI Bill to go to film school for my BA in Film at Montana State University in Bozeman. MSU Film was great, I studied all disciplines, esp Cinematography. During my senior year, I had the honor of meeting one of my Cinematographer heroes, Dean Semler! Dean was up in Bozeman area making a feature film. I wrote to Dean, introducing myself to him as a Cinematography student, a week or two later, Dean’s Asst called me, I got to meet Dean one night and watch him direct. That was a huge thrill, got to take a photo with him on the set with his DP Stephen Windon. The TV series "Yellowstone" starring Kevin Costner is set there now.
After graduating, I was hoping to head to CA to find work, but no money to move, no job lined up, I had to get a regular video production job. I started as a Creative Services Producer/Editor on local TV spots, did that for many years, before becoming a Director/DP on a few 30 min programs in Houston TX. After leaving Houston due to lack of work, I was working as a Director/Cinematographer for a Indie film company in Denver CO, when the 2009 recession hit, I lost my job, had to find something else to do, but what and where?
I moved back home, wasn’t doing any films/video production at all, waiting out for what’s next. A year after I was home, my family went through major family tragedies, which hit really hard, I felt lost for many years, my head in a fog. In 2016, after getting laid off again, I found work as a custodian, doing freelance video work on nights and weekends. One day while doing a short video for charity, a young lady approached me about doing a video for her dance group.
She talked to me about doing a news like feature, but my vision was more like a cinematic documentary. The film was “Magic Tap Cloggers”, a short documentary film about 4 woman doing Irish style clogging. This film started to win numerous Cinematography Awards from film fest in Arizona, LA to World Fest Houston to Europe.
In fact, I was so thrilled about my first Cinematography win, I wrote to Dean Semler again, this is now almost 20 years after meeting him in film school, just to thank him for being such as inspiration to me. About a week or two later, I get a call, not knowing the number, but it was from Dean!!!….I missed his call, but he called again a few days later, he wanted to call and thank me for my letter and say congrats to me on my win. I was in shock, I mean what do you say to a living legend(??), but he spoke to me like an equal!! (I can only hope). We spoke about his career, about my film and cinematography, it was the phone call of my life. This award led to more video projects, from commercials for YELP and ZILLOW to music videos and commercials for clients that have also won numerous awards from NY to LA to London.
I was doing alot of work from 2016-2019, many winning awards, Directing my first feature documentary film called "Noble Inc". In early 2020, due to Corona, all film projects cancelled or post-poned so I was just praying for more work to come???
Who are the filmmakers that influenced you and your work?
The biggest influence for me has been Cinematographers Dean Semler (ASC/ACS), Ken Lamkin (ASC), to Caleb Deschanel (ASC) to Geoffrey Unsworth (BSC), basically the members of the ASC, ACS to BSC, Cinematography Societies from US to Australia to Britain, among many others. Having met both Dean and Ken, these men were just down to earth gentleman who were so gracious to me, I hope to be 1/2 as good as they are, a huge goal to pursue. Directors include Kevin Costner, Mel Gibson, Christopher Nolan to Taylor Sheridan
What are the challenges of making a documentary? Tell us about the production.
There are many challenges in making a documentary, from raising money or getting hired to make one, but also making sure you have the needed gear to make the film properly. I had an outdated Canon DSLR, but it shot HD, so I went with it. All my films were very low budget, but for me, the biggest was being in an area where not many films are done, nobody seems to have much interest, so you are alone in the venture. The other is making a film that people actually want to watch. Making Covid 19 wasn’t a big challenge, I just met with the various business and told them my vision, none said no. We had to follow the guidance for being safe, but they all were excited about telling their own story and how they overcame the struggles they faced.
The film focuses on an issue that has become a major concern for many people in the post-Coronavirus world: How does the pandemic affect small businesses and what is the way forward? Where did you get the idea for the film? Does it come from your experiences?
- In late Feb early March 2020, I was out getting some food for my father at a local truck stop my father loved, began to notice large sections of the restaurant were being closed off (???). This was very odd for a restaurant that never closes. My first thought was “this looks like a disaster film”….that idea started to form, I began to think of making a film about covid and how small city USA is affected? I talked to our local city chamber, decided to pick several local businesses and see how this pandemic was affecting them, when/where they first heard of covid, how they reacted to it, how past disasters (like their 2011 flood they went through) what they learned from it, esp with it still being on and not looking back yet, and how 2020 (being a metaphor for perfect vision), how they see the future??? Are small city problems same as major city problems and outlooks??? I wanted to focus on the positive and small portion on the reality of the disaster, esp since a flood or blizzard being natural, this was a government controlled disaster
I wanted to focus on several different businesses, avoiding the national chain stores, so the local businesses from restaurants, a church, a fitness gym, children’s music academy, to tourism board to a firing range. It was fascinating to see how most businesses were now virtual or video remote, some had business fall quite a bit in revenue but stayed open due to loyalty and otehrs thrived! None were angry at the government or authorities, but all of them were just so optimistic and resilient in their outlooks for the future!
How effective are documentaries today? Do you think documentaries can provide answers to people's problems?
I think Ken Burns made documentaries more mainstream now, esp with YouTube to social media giving filmmakers more ways to reach audiences. I remember watching PBS last year, Ken Burns "Country Music", his documentary series, really enjoying it. I usually never liked documentaries growing up, since they were not shot well or really boring, so when I started to make films, commercials to documentaries, I wanted to make them very high quality but most importable just good movies to watch. I think documentaries can be very effective, but it’s not about the “what or subject” being told, but “how they are done”. The content may be very interesting in a documentary, but it's how they make them, with interesting photography to good editing to great music that holds your attention. I do think documentaries can answer question or maybe plant the seed for people problems, but I also think it’s in HOW you tell the story that will tell how they react
Hope and the willingness to overcome the problems and get through the crisis can be seen throughout the film. As a documentary filmmaker, what do you think about life in the post-coronavirus world? How long will it take for people to recover from the setbacks they have experienced?
- Post corona and getting back to normal is really key, for all of us, for me, I'm ready for normal again, but many might not be, just in case, so I understand getting back to non-mask society. We cannot live in fear, but live with hope and optimism about our now and our future. Recovering from this pandemic it’s very hard to say when life for those affected will be back to normal, but I also think a good thing can be in just keeping habits we took for granted can be more focused on, just to be safer and healthier, the Minot community are very resilient, don’t feed off the negative, but they pick themselves up and nothing will stop them!
What was the reaction of those who watched Covid-19 vs The Magic City? Was the feedback what you hoped for?
So far, very positive reactions to the film, esp film festivals, but everyone who saw it and were involved seem to like it I wanted to make this film to show everyone who good people in Minot are, how resilient and hard working the people are
Tell us about your festival run. Did you get the experience and exposure you wanted from film festivals?
I was very honored with multiple film festival awards for Covid, from Winning Best Documentary in LA, Toronto to SemiFinalist for Best Cinematography from LA to NY, so it’s amazing to see it doing so well. I am always stunned and shocked when any film I make, esp those recent ones to any award, even being Nominated as Official Selection only, I feel like I already won.
Please tell us about your future project(s). Are you working on something at the moment?
My future projects include the company I work for now, called Stitchin’ Heaven, in Quitman TX. We're in a very small town east fo Dallas, north of Tyler. I’m the Director of Video Production, so I’m producing commercials, How to videos, tutorials to Facebook Lives. I’m also prepping a documentary film about their story of Owner Deb Luttrell and her journey with this company. In fact, a commercial I just made for Stitchin’ Heaven was honored this April for Semi-Finalist for Best Cinematography from the Indie Shorts Fest in LA, plus the ad is in competition for Best Commercial at the Accolade Global Film Fest in La Jolla CA, waiting to hear back from other fests too. Additional projects include (from initially contact in 2019), a mini-series with Hollywood Actor/Producer Jeff East, a period western. Jeff was in Superman the Movie with Christopher Reeve, played the young Clark Kent, so getting in contact with him was a major career thrill. Another project is with a very special friend of mine, Lesli (who also lives here in TX), she’s an actress/model/businesswoman, we’re talking about projects with her, plus in FL a Producer friend Tammie about doing short films with her, so it’s been wonderful getting notices, most of these are for 2022
Am excited to work on various films and do as much work as I can.