Interview with Tony Travis, Filmmaker

by Cathy Sivak
Interview with Tony Travis, Filmmaker

Inspired by Spike Lee, this filmmaker is blazing his own path in the industry while offering a leg up to others aspiring to the field

Before Spike Lee, Tony Travis was on a path to fulfill his grandmother's dream -- the grandson who makes good as a doctor. "Before Spike Lee, I never really saw many African Americans behind the camera, so the thought of pursuing film as a career choice escaped me as an option," Mr. Travis says. "The reality of life is that until you see one of your own succeeding in it, the notion seems unrealistic."

But once he saw there were role models in the field, the Cleveland native started his education in the film studies department at Ohio State University. When the program was temporarily suspended, he took it as a sign, packed his bags and his life savings and headed to New York to join the film program at the New York Film Academy.

Mr. Travis went on to write, direct and produce four short films after completing his studies at the academy, and also wrote three full-length screenplays, Sweet November, Love Goggles and his recent effort, Black Butterflies. His feature film debut Love Goggles -- starring Q-Tip (formally of A Tribe Called Quest) and Sticky Fingaz (of the hip hop group Onyx) -- premiered at the 1999 Hollywood Black Film Festival and received the Jury Award for Best Feature Film.

Mr. Travis notes the goal of his independent film company, 2 Tone Films (established in 1998) is to "develop and produce independent films with a stylistic edge."

Mr. Travis has worked in various capacities in films and TV shows including:

  • The Preacher's Wife, starring Denzel Washington and Whitney Houston
  • A Woman Like That, starring Tyra Banks and Malik Yoba
  • The 1996 "Victoria Secret Fashion Show"
  • "The Rolonda Television Talk Show"
  • "Emeril Live," which won a 1997 Ace Award

In addition to film and TV work, since 1999 Mr. Travis has served as a mentor for The Film Connection, an apprenticeship education program that offers students hands-on experience as an alternative to going to film school. "Make sure you have a passion for filmmaking, because if you don't, film school will just feel like school," he advises.

You & Your Career

Tell us about your film industry career. How did you break into the film industry, and how did you advance to where you are today?

I started off in television as an Audience Coordinator for the Rolonda Watts Television Talk Show, then I worked as a sound guy for The Television Food Network, then I slid into the position as one of the Audience Coordinators for the (at the time an unknown) Emeril Lagasse Show. Following that, I worked on about twenty films including The Preacher's Wife with Penny Marshall, Denzel Washington and Whitney Houston. Finally, I networked myself into raising close to a million dollars, and formed 2 Tone Films.

What do you enjoy most about your filmmaking career?

Filmmaking to me is like having a "God Complex." If you can imagine having a dream and waking up in the morning and writing that dream out on paper, then going out to find locations similar to the ones you saw in your dream and getting people to play the people you saw in your dream, then knowing that every word that comes out of each person's mouth was put there by you, and then having your vision blown up on a big screen in Dolby stereo and having 200 people laugh when they're supposed to laugh and cry when they're supposed to cry, there is no experience that can compare to that. You just created an entire world, and it started from a thought. This is why I do what I do.

Your work has been recognized by prestigious film and TV organizations including the Hollywood Black Film Festival and the Ace Awards. How important is this recognition (as well as other awards and accolades) to you, personally, and to your career?

Well, at first these accolades meant a lot because they validate your talent and hard work. However, these validations are artificial if they don't translate into what you set out to achieve, which is a successful career. However, my previous awards allowed me to slide into big meetings and to be able to place "award-winning filmmaker" in front of my name to those private investors that don't know the difference. The truth is, if you can't say "Academy Award winner" in front of your name, then your titles are nothing but fluff to the informed industry, but sound good to the uninformed.

What has been your personal key to success?

I have four main ingredients to being successful. First is "presentation." When you look like a director, people tend to treat you like one; when you look like you have money, people tend to want to give you more money. If I see a person coughing I'll assume he's sick. This is the way the human mind works: we have to categorize things in order to make sense out of them, we create an illusion of what it is and then we have to satisfy that idea in our heads. Once you understand this, it's easy to deal with people. We're all guilty of pre-judging, whether it is apparent or otherwise, indirect or directly we all do it.

Number two is "fake it until you make it." I don't mean go on a set and pretend that you're the producer when you know that you're not. Let me explain it this way. Earlier in my career I was working on a film as a PA (production assistant), and this lady would pop up periodically very corporately dressed. I automatically assumed she was one of the Executive Producers, so I made sure I was always working extra hard when she came to set. It wasn't until the middle of production that I realized that she was lower on the totem pole than I was. She was the producer's personal assistant. Her duties were to organize the producer's papers, get coffee or what have you. But what this lady did that was smart is that when she was asked to organize papers, she read everything she was organizing, she eavesdropped in on every conversation and meeting the producer had, she studied, and she asked questions so by the end of that production, she knew almost as much as the producer did. By the end of that production, that lady that I assumed was a producer was qualified to produce her own low budget film; she grew into the title in which I created for her.

Thirdly (my favorite), "finding a flaw and improving on it." You should always be looking for holes to fill, and in a production there should be plenty. You're always looking for that producer to approach you and say, "hey, you know we have no idea how we could have done this without you." I live for those moments, because if I can't be better than the next person, then why I am I there? You have to outshine your opponent, which is everybody. I had interns approach me and say, "Tony, I did everything they asked me to do," but what they fail to realize is that, it's not what they ask you to do, it's what they don't ask you to do is what you should be doing.

And finally, it's "passion." If you don't have this, you can't make it.

What films and professionals in the field were the biggest inspirations for your career?

There are too many films and filmmakers to name them all, so instead I'll just name a few: Spike Lee for breaking ground, not only for African American filmmakers, but for independent filmmakers all over the world; Alfred Hitchcock for his innovative and creative way of visually telling a story; Oliver Stone for being a complete filmmaker who introduces something edgy and fresh with each film; and Quentin Tarrintino and Robert Rodrigues for being cowboys of the industry who have no limits to their imagination. They have made commercial success out of independent thoughts, that's what I still aspire to do.

What was your greatest success?

Raising over a million dollars to start my film company was my greatest success. But more than that was the joy I felt when a cab pulled up to my set on the first day of shooting and I saw all the equipment and the crew working so hard for me. Even watching the attention that was put into the craft service table was a joy for me. That's an experience I will never forget.

Tell us about your involvement in the mentoring program, The Film Connection.

It's basically an opportunity to learn filmmaking from actual on-hands experience. This is the perfect way to combat that old excuse of "you have the schooling but no experience." This way you gain experience while learning, it's the biggest shortcut going for making it in the film industry. Its ingenious concept was created by its founder, Jimi Petulla.

Film Connection students have established careers in mediums including feature films, music videos, commercials, documentaries and editing. In addition to working on independent projects, advanced students have also landed jobs with MTV, HBO Films, The Soprano's, In the Cut starring Meg Ryan, Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Minds starring Jim Carry, Spiderman 2 and many more. The program's greatest achievement thus far came in 2004, when former intern Michael 'Dooma' Wendschuh sold a screenplay entitled Willows of the Wind to DreamWorks after a big bidding war with Disney. The film budget is set at $120 million and is slated to go into production in 2006; Michael will receive a producing credit in the film.

Education Information & Advice

How did you initially decide to pursue filmmaking studies?

While in high school, I was originally being groomed to go into the field of medicine. I spent every summer of my high school career taking college courses to become a cardio pulmonary surgeon. Once I entered college, I realized that I was pursing medicine more for my grandmother, rather than because of my own natural talents or interest.

I began to toy around with a few different majors, like psychology, art, and then finally film. At the time, I didn't understand why it took me so long to arrive at this decision because I had always been a big film fanatic. During the summer months, my mom would get ready for bed while I continued to watch movies on cable. She'd awake around 6 a.m. to get ready for work and say "You've been up all-night watching movies again?" With my eyes bloodshot red, I'd simply reply, "yes." And I'd watch everything too, from B Movies, blockbuster hits to the entire Emmanuel series that came on real late on Cinemax; I loved it all.

Later, I realized my actual decision to pursue film as a career was based on the success of Spike Lee. Before him, I never really saw many African Americans behind the camera, so the thought of me pursuing film as a career choice escaped me as an option. The reality of life is that until you see one of your own succeeding in it, the notion seems unrealistic: A rabbit will never attempt to fly unless he sees one of his buddies take off in flight first. That's why it's so important for all groups to be represented and acknowledged in these areas of achievements. That's why it's also important that the history of all cultures and nationalities be taught in schools more than one month out of the year; it is very important for the development of our youth.

In retrospect, what do you know now that you wish you knew before you pursued your film industry education?

How important it is to network. You've heard it since you were a kid, "it's not what you know, it's who you know." And to be quite honest, film is not a hard craft to learn, especially when you spend hours upon hours working on a set. If I watched a bartender all day at work, I'll eventually pick up on how to make a few drinks. But it's not the fact of knowing "how" that's going to get me a job. Unless I open my mouth to network with that bartender, will I actually be considered for job? It's the networking, the contacts that young filmmakers need in order to secure a future in this business.

What advice can you give to prospective students thinking about an education and career in film industry?

Make sure it's what you want to do. Understand that everyone and their family wouldn't mind being somewhere in the film industry, therefore it's very competitive. If you don't feel like waking up at 6 in the morning, rest assured someone else is out the door at 5 a.m. I always say that people don't plan to fail, they just fail to plan. I suggest you map out your plan and stick to it. I would also suggest that in addition to your plan that you write out several alternative routes to achieving your goals just in case "Plan A" doesn't work.

When making your decision about entering the film industry, just remember that being a fan of film doesn't necessarily constitute you as a person that has a passion for making them. Understand that what you see in the theaters is very beautiful and entertaining, but those filmmakers went through hell and back to make this product for you. If you're not up for the challenge of bringing your passion to reality, then this is not the field for you.

What factors should prospective students consider when choosing a school?

Make sure you have a passion for filmmaking, because if you don't, film school will just feel like 'school'. Meaning, if you had a hard time in high school or college or didn't do too well with tests, then going to film school is not necessarily going to make all of your dreams come true. If you fit in this category, it doesn't necessarily mean that you can't make it in this field, it just means that you may possibly learn better by "doing" rather than tests and homework, so enrolling in an apprenticeship program may be the best route for you.

How can prospective filmmaking students assess their skill and aptitude?

Believe it or not, I think renting movies and watching the special features along with the director's commentary is a great way to learn different techniques and theories. You can also rent a cheap 16 mm camera and do test shots, etc. I knew one guy who purchased one of those throw away cameras just to test angles, lighting and style.

What can students applying to film schools do to increase their chances of being accepted?

Perhaps a letter of recommendation from anyone associated in the entertainment industry. Make sure this person has credentials. NYU accepted a letter from my cousin who worked as an editor for ELLE magazine. Although it worked, I took another route.

When is it a good time to go after a graduate degree? Is it necessary?

There are people actually getting graduate degrees for film? Trust me, this is a waste of time and money. I honestly never hired anyone based on their degree or what schools they attended; I only look at the experience, as do most film companies. Remember, Quentin Tarrintino never went to film school.

What is right and wrong with film industry education in America?

They're not teaching these kids the most important thing about being successful in the business. How do I get my film made? How do I get financing? How do I just simply get a job in the film industry without being Bruce Willis' son or daughter? Learning film is relatively easy; the trick is learning how to turn that education into a career.

The Actual Work

What unique challenges and rewards come from working with high-profile actors/actresses/celebrities?

Well, I'm not going to say any names, but I remember working with two celebrities on one project and one was a bigger celebrity than the other. The bigger celebrity granted us a few scenes (cameos) for absolutely no charge. However, the celebrity with fewer credentials was charging us $2,000 per day for a very small role. The outcome was that, although the bigger name charged us nothing, he was very impatient, came late, left early and sometimes never showed up. However, the celebrity with the lesser name was there for everything and knew his lines better than I did. He made my job easy and most of the time we got his scenes in one take. The old lesson is that you get what you pay for, and free isn't always good. The big star really hurt the quality of our film, but his name added to our sales.

What are the tools of the trade that you use the most?

I like the swing tilt lens, and who doesn't love the beautiful crane shot or the smoothness of the camera being on a jib arm? A jib shot can give quality to an otherwise bad scene.

What are the most challenging aspects of your job?

For me, its being friends with someone who has a lot of money and knowing that one day, I'll have to compromise our friendship by asking them to help me finance my next film. Try if you will, but it's impossible to ignore your needs when you're friends with a wealthy person.

Best film making tip for a novice?

Be realistic, keep it simple. On my first student film, my entire crew abandoned me because they told our instructor that I thought I was Spielberg with a $2,000 budget. And they were right, with only $2,000, I had 10 locations with 20 different characters, while trying to shoot the film in the worst winter New York had seen in decades. I remember, it was just me and a DP (director of photography/cinematographer) I was lucky to find. We had actors putting up lights and holding up mics; they had a good spirit and eventually we got the film done, but it turned out horrible. It was a lesson that I laugh at now, but would never repeat. Needless to say, the DP that stuck in there with me is now one of my best friends.

What are the greatest stresses, what causes you the most anxiety?

Knowing that you have a great idea but having to convince the right person to make it happen. This process is harder than finding a needle in a haystack, I'm sure, but it's possible.

What are your pet peeves as a filmmaker?

I have no patience for people who are more in love with the idea of making a film than with actually making one. These are the people who would put a page out in Backstage, go through casting, location scouting and actually have weeks of rehearsal with actors, all while knowing that he or she has not yet raised the money to actually shoot the film. This may sound odd to some people, but it's true, I know tons of filmmakers who've done this. This process actually cost them more money, because certain costs such as transportation and certain out of pocket expenses are paid, when you should have waited until you actually had a budget.

I also have a pet peeve for people in the filmmaking industry who have no integrity for what they do. One time when I was directing a film, I was waiting for my actor to come to set so that we could shoot a particular scene. I asked him why he wasn't dressed for the scene and he said the wardrobe girl wasn't prepared. I called her to set and asked her why, and she said she never received a call sheet which would have told her what scenes were expected to be shot on that particular day. So instead of seeking one out, she decided to head home, knowing that she wasn't prepared for the next day. I then asked her, "So, do you think call sheets wasn't handed out yesterday evening?" She said that they may have been handed out, but the AD (assistant director) department failed to give her one. I then asked her if she thought the AD department had something against her, or if it's a possibility that no one is perfect and that they could have been overwhelmed, and if you agree that they could have been overwhelmed and could have possibly overlooked you or thought one was handed out to you, why then wouldn't you approach them and ask for a copy of the call sheet? Isn't that what a team player is all about? Do you get a greater satisfaction from pointing the finger and to say, "Look who's not doing their job" or do you get a greater satisfaction by saying we're "going to make a great film as a team." Her job depended on her answer, but to be honest, her actions spoke louder than anything that she could have told me at that point. She wasn't a team player. Unless you can sit in every single theater or home once the film comes out, and explain to everyone watching that the reason the wardrobe is off is because the AD department failed to give me a call sheet, then all the audience knows is that the wardrobe is lacking and on the credits reads your name.

Remember that no matter what you feel about a crew, cast, script or production, your name is on the credits, and you better represent for your own career, which could possibly save all of the other weaknesses you otherwise see in the production. Have some passion and integrity for your craft.

Job Information & Advice

Do you feel that is important for someone to be passionate about film industry in order to be successful on both a personal and professional level?

Yes, I personally feel passion is the number one ingredient to being successful in a business that's as competitive and challenging as this. There are too many setbacks, it's like being on a Ferris wheel; those with slippery hands will loose their grip and fall off. But more importantly, if you're working on something that you don't feel passionate about, we'll see it in your work and the product will suffer. I will never take on a job that I don't feel 100% passionate about because it will show. When I'm passionate about a product and I know I have to wake up at 5 a.m., my passion would allow me to wake up at 4 a.m. However, if I'm not really into it, I may hit the alarm clock a few times, causing me to wake up thirty minutes past the time I was supposed to.

What impact has the popularity of the Internet had on the film industry?

A lot. You can actually get an Internet distribution deal, which means you can get your movie seen by millions and make money from the Internet. Speaking of the Internet, I'm addicted to (Internet Movie Database).

Why is film making socially important?

Because it takes you places that you would otherwise never go. If people say that hip hop is the CNN of the ghetto, then movies like Boyz In The Hood and Colors were the epitome of this. Most people didn't even know this type of thing existed until we saw it portrayed in movies. After seeing Colors, I was aware that the Bloods and Crips didn't only exist in Compton, but that they also had organizations set up in almost every major city in the world. That film brought caution and awareness to my everyday life.

Does graduating from a prestigious school make a difference in landing a good job or film project?

Absolutely not!

What is the best way for an internship candidate to shine in the application process?

Name drop, letter of recommendation and stretch the truth a bit; trust me, it works.

What are the best ways to get a foot in the door?

Start concentrating on your reel. Remember, a resume means nothing in this business. We're in a visual medium; therefore your paper resume has to be replaced with a visual one, which is known as your "reel." A director needs a director's reel, a DP needs a cinematographer's reel and an editor needs an editing reel.

What other career advice can you offer film industry school graduates?

I can't say it enough, know someone. Network!

Closing Remarks

Is there anything else you can tell us about yourself, your career, or the film industry profession that would be interesting or helpful to others aspiring to enter and succeed in the field?

Remember that everything you do should be a ploy to get to the next level. When I started out, I was only an intern because at the end of the day (not next week), it would get me closer to the production assistant job. Once I became the production assistant, I looked at it only as a ploy to get closer to the 2nd assistant director job, and so on and so on. I would literally start a job as an intern and would end some jobs as the 2nd AD; in one situation I went in as an intern and came out with a producing credit. That was my plan; my dreams weren't limited to that of an intern. Remember; never let a title define who you are.

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