John W. Comerford, Filmmaker
Writer and filmmaker John W. Comerford is president of Paradigm Studio, an independent film and television production company based in the Pacific Northwest. His most recent documentary, Icons Among Us: Jazz in the Present Tense, offers a glimpse into the vision, dedication, and passion he brings to his work. John is now creating a digital archive for Icons Among Us: Jazz in the Present Tense. He is also working on the next film in the Icons Among Us series—Icons Among Us: Earth Shakers, which focuses on environmental sustainability leaders.
In addition to his documentaries, among other projects, John is working on a feature-length motion picture called Wallflower, based on the 2006 Seattle Capitol Hill Massacre. He is also active in the Seattle music and film communities and teaches at Seattle University.
John talked with Constellation617 about what inspired him to make films, the role of the creative producer, how he views the relationship between music and film, and his latest projects. The interview took place on December 1, 2013, in the interviewer's home in Seattle. In person, John exudes a brilliant energy, enthusiasm, and intelligence.
C617: How did you become interested in film?
John W. Comerford: I grew up in New York City during the late 1970s, early 1980s, in a household where there was a lot of permissiveness. I ventured out, starting at the age of first grade, because we had a school bus strike. My father just sent me out on the public bus in New York with thirty-five cents and said, “Go to school,” and so I did. From that point on, basically first grade, I was starting to travel around New York by myself.
At that time, New York City was really dilapidated. You can see it in any of the films from that era, like Marty Bregman and Sidney Lumet's Dog Day Afternoon. There was a huge diaspora of people moving from the city to the suburbs. Infrastructure was crumbling. Crime was very high. And my family life was such that we’d been fractured through divorce, alcoholism, and drug addiction. I was on my own, to a degree. And I took to it.
So, that meant I went to the movies. A lot. Which is what you’d do in New York, because cinema at that point was primary. Cable television came into our household around the mid-1970s, but if you really wanted to have an experience, it was about cinema.
I saw everything. I saw art house cinema and commercial cinema, and I didn’t differentiate between the two. I just went to see everything that I could, starting at the age of about twelve or thirteen. That was really for me the beginning of an understanding of the power of story and narrative.
C617: Were there any films that especially affected you?
John W. Comerford: There was one film that I saw that changed my perception of the world and of the possibilities and power of cinema forever. I’ll never forget it. I saw it at the UA—United Artist Twin. It was a film called Breaker Morant by Bruce Beresford. It takes place during the Boer War and it’s about three Australians who are conscripted by the British to fight for the British against the Boers—the Dutch, basically, and the Germans—in South Africa.
They used to have these large-scale posters, blow-ups, of reviews outside of movies, and I started reading the poster and thought, “This seems like a war/action kind of fun thing to see.” Well, I didn’t understand what the movie really was about until I was halfway through it. I started feeling the principal theme, which surrounds injustice. It just occurred to me, watching the film, that adults were not all in it together. That it’s a really divided world, and that the world is not fair, and that there are people who follow a path of courage and honor and they sometimes meet a terrible fate. That’s the power of the story, of the narrative.
And I walked out of the cinema and onto the streets of New York, and I was never the same from that point on. From walking out on the street that night, I looked at the world, and particularly adults, in a completely different way. So, that was the beginning.
C617: And then in college you studied film studies?
John W. Comerford: Yes, I did.
C617: Did you ever want to be an actor?
John W. Comerford: I acted in high school. I was good at it, got good grades, and my teacher encouraged me, but I’m dyslexic, and I always had a lot of difficulty with memorization and with repeating things. Once I started developing a relationship with literature—which was difficult for me because I am dyslexic and I read slower and my reading comprehension is slower than most people—but once I started through sheer practice to be able to identify with narrative and emotion expressed through writing and character, I knew there was a thread there for me that would be able to serve as an outlet for expression and as a place where my emotions could roam without the consequences of the real world.
That’s part of what art is about for me. It’s a safety zone for me to explore different ideas and feelings that, when explored out in the real world, can have really negative consequences on others and on yourself. That’s why I’m always in awe of artistic process and what it’s capable of, because it’s unlimited.
C617: Can it be difficult to put those things out there even in an art form?
John W. Comerford: Oh, yeah. There’s tremendous resistance. I’m making a film now entitled Wallflower that’s about the 2006 Capitol Hill [Seattle neighborhood] Massacre. We’ve been successful in raising funds for the film and I think we’re going to be shooting it, but we’re going to be shooting it on a budget that’s lower than we had anticipated because it’s been very difficult to get people to respond with enthusiasm to a story that tackles such difficult subject matter.
The subject matter relates to the alienation and isolation of the antagonist, Kyle Huff, who is one of the central figures in the story. He is also the one who perpetrated those tragedies. Also [it’s difficult] to get the people backing the film to identify with the protagonist, Strobe Rainbow, who is an outsider and having a really difficult time in her life when we enter her story. But we feel that probing the depths of those realities are what narrative is all about. We want our audiences to be close to these emotions and experiences that are far removed—in many ways, thank goodness—from their average experience. But to experience those emotions in the context of the cinema. That way there’s a broader identification and understanding of what actually is at play with these terrible sides of our human condition that we just don’t want to deal with, but when they are left unaddressed, they create problems—real problems—for us. So, I’m embarking on that now and I feel that resistance.
C617: When you decide to make a film, how do you find the story? Do you come up with an idea and find a writer? Or does a writer come to you with a script?
John W. Comerford: I recently had a conversation with a colleague. We were talking about Icons Among Us: Jazz in the Present Tense, which is my latest documentary transmedia project—feature film, television series, and now digital archive—and about the progression of that and how I fell in love with improvisational music. I turned the page back with him all the way to a feeling that I had years ago, which is what really, in hindsight, has echoed through a decade of work with Icons Among Us: Jazz in the Present Tense. It has driven that level of commitment and dedication that I’ve had to this subject. And it was all based on a feeling.
The feeling came to me when I was traveling when I was about seventeen to the Italian coast to meet up with a friend whose family had rented a home in a little town called Forte dei Marmi for a couple of weeks in the summer. Because I was really independent, as I mentioned before, I basically just got on a plane at Kennedy Airport with an address in Italy. I’m traveling in a foreign country alone, I don’t speak the language, and I just had to figure it out.
Eventually I ended up on a train, and I’m riding along this really impressive cliff-laden part of Italy, which turns out to the Cinque Terre. I was looking out the window, and it’s gorgeous, beautiful beyond description, and I’m listening to a Pat Metheny record on my Walkman, Offramp, which was, I think, just released around that time. This would have been around 1983 or so. I remember this serenity and beauty of the ocean and the cliffs and this feeling of possibility and intense emotion, connectivity, and transcendence coming from this music combined with those images and the movement of the train. And I was like: “I’m just in love with what life is offering me in this moment. This combination of things is really what I’ve been after.”
It was for me almost as strong as any human connection I had, because I had a family that was splintered from a lot of drug and alcohol abuse. There was a certain amount of spiritual poverty in my home, and these moments of transcendence and resonance were incredibly important to me. They were my handhold or foothold—my purchase on life. I thought: This is why I’m living. For that feeling.
And I said to my colleague, I followed that feeling all the way through creating a film series on jazz that has traveled the world and affected millions of people.
C617: Did you learn how to become a producer in school or did you have to learn that on your own?
John W. Comerford: To a degree it’s trial by fire. Now there are producing programs more defined, certainly in Southern California, at USC, UCLA, and even at Tisch School of the Arts at NYU in New York. Those programs exist and they’re very powerful. Seattle University, where I currently teach as an adjunct professor, also provides producing opportunities in terms of degrees. But for me, coming of age during the heyday of independent film in the mid-1990s, it was really experience through doing.
I was learning electronic editing coming out of film school. I was at the University of Colorado at Boulder, studying with Stan Brakhage, one of the great experimental filmmakers. He opened up the world of cinema to me in a way that was as important if not more than my experience with Breaker Morant through sharing seminal film experiences, including, for me, Triumph of the Will, Leni Riefenstahl’s film about the rise of the Third Reich. That was a door opening to the power of cinema. No so much on a personal level—you know, not identifying with the propaganda of the Third Reich—but understanding the power and the effect of those images and the construction of narrative in the hands of a master director and seeing how that affected the German people.
And historically, how it affected the British because they smuggled a copy of the film out in the 1930s to Britain. After the defense ministers saw the film, they started rearming immediately, because they understood in a couple of hours what was actually transpiring in Germany. That was the first crystal-clear indication of the sinister implications of that propaganda. I just reconnected with another colleague who was giving a lecture on it and on the use of Wagner’s music in motion pictures, and he spent quite a bit of time talking about Triumph of the Will. So I revisited the film literally thirty years later and was reintroduced to its power.
Getting back to my story, on the producing side, I was approached by a friend to write a screenplay, Around the Fire, which was my first independent feature film. We wrote the script, we had some interest in acquisition of the script, and then I took a class. It was Dov Simens’s 3-Day Film School, and in 1996/97, the word on the street was that you can do this and make a movie independently. You can raise the money and make it happen. [Simens] said, “There will be one or two of you in this room who actually do this.” And I immediately thought, “That’s me. He’s speaking to me.”
My partner, Tommy Rosen, and I decided to make the movie. It was based on our experience with music and touring and the families and relationships that we discovered outside our homes. We found our food out there in the world through the lens of touring music, the axis of which was the Grateful Dead. I had such a powerful experience and feeling with that culture that we decided to do something about it. Doing something at that point in history meant making a movie. And we had an opportunity to include powerful musical forces on the soundtrack and score, including Bill Frisell (score), Dire Straits, Freddy Hubbard, Bob Marley, Phish, and Blind Faith.
C617: Were you working another job while you were doing this?
John W. Comerford: I was running my boutique editing firm about six hours a day and then writing the rest of the day with Tommy.
C617: It sounds like music and film have been intertwined for you since the beginning.
John W. Comerford: I like to think of the marriage of the two as the marriage of the visible and the invisible, with music and sound, and the visibility of the camera image. Those two things married together in the technical construct of cinema are basically creating an illusion. The power of that illusion, when replicated in a dark room with an audience, creates a certain sort of hallucinatory capacity in the audience because you are required to suspend your disbelief in what you’re seeing and you are drawn into this illusion of cinema, which is basically still photography moving at a frame rate. Those conditions—meaning basically pitch black, because you are sitting, whether you know it or not, in the theater almost a third of the time in pitch darkness; that’s the emulsion between the frames—create access to your subconscious and put you in a quasi-dreamlike state that could be compared to a hallucination.
That condition, when experienced collectively with an audience, emotionally and narratively, really allows things to sink in and make deep impressions on you, your nervous system, your subconscious. And your overall consciousness takes that in.
Those realities, meaning the sound and the image, I’ve come to understand are really the effect of rhythm. One of my mentors, Ray Greenfield, used to say rhythm is the connective tissue for all of the arts, both from a sound and a visual perspective, and the interplay of those rhythms. In cinema it happens in a variety of ways—the mise-en-scène, what’s in the frame itself, is a visual rhythm, as if you are composing a still photograph or a painting. And then of course, the motion of the frame in motion pictures is rhythmic and the actors’ movement. Finally, the editing itself, which is hugely rhythmic. When you combine all that with the rhythm of music and sound in the film, you’re working in such a rich continuum, with so many possibilities, it’s literally infinite, it’s a real realm for artistry to flex its muscle in terms of what it’s capable of.
Back to this idea of film and music, I see them as inexorably connected and both having such great weight, the visual arts and the music arts, that when they’re combined, they create a new level. I’m really interested in exploring that, and for me it’s about emotion and feeling.
C617: You seem to have many projects and aspects of projects going on at one time. How do you handle it all?
John W. Comerford: Producing is exhausting. It’s that simple. Producers are moving between so much and are at the confluence of so much energy, depending upon their range. I have a pretty wide range in terms of fictional narrative motion pictures, documentaries, and working constantly with music, sometimes presenting it in the context of documentary filmmaking.
Now I’m involved in my new digital archive, which means the digital realm and the web and learning about that. I’m constantly moving between these realities, which is not only movement between left and right brain activities but also between, most importantly, the groups of individuals that represent these different creative veins. That generally means writers, directors, editors, and technicians—web designers and developers. Moving between these groups of people takes a lot of energy.
It’s very satisfying, for me as a creative producer, to work in the development process and to a degree the production process with people who are assembling the creative instrument. We generally can see the forest through the trees because we have that point of view, that perspective, because we’re high up in the creative stratosphere doing our thing.
We’re also go-betweens. Good producers are expert go-betweens between the needs of the director and/or writer creatively and the needs of the marketplace, of the audience, and the needs of financiers, and of representatives of other talents such as the actors. We go between those worlds. I think part of our strength is that we’re highly adaptive.
C617: You talked a little about the Wallflower film you’re working on. Do you have any other projects that you’re excited about right now?
John W. Comerford: The Icons Among Us: Jazz in the Present Tense project is in this really interesting phase of its life. It’s now a digital archive. We are now able to make all of the source material, interviews, and music performance available to audiences that are interested in digging deeper into individual musicians, their insights and opinions in the interview commentary, and also their performances through essentially what used to be on the “edit room floor.”
You can now go to IconsAmongUs.net, go into the digital archive section, and literally get lost in there for hours and hours enjoying the complete communications of the interviews and performances related to these artists. For music aficionados, jazz aficionados, students, educators, anyone who wants to know more, that world is completely open to them now.
I’m excited about that, especially because we’re taking that whole idea and moving it from jazz into environmental sustainability leaders.
Our next iteration of Icons Among Us is entitled Icons Among Us: Earth Shakers. We’re interested in talking to people in leadership positions with environment and sustainability. We’re organizing them into four groups across four episodes of the series—Path Finders, Warriors, Healers, and Shifters (Shifters being technology people). We’re going to talk with these leaders about their own epiphanies. The aha moment and the moment of discovery are incredibly important moments in personal change and development. People who have made very courageous and committed choices to being involved in work that ultimately may have long-term return or benefits rather than immediate benefits, both in terms of their work and the economic reality they’re faced with in terms of being paid for their labor and expertise, are making a unique set of decisions and looking at the world in a very particular way.
We’re really interested in those moments where their lives changed and their thinking changed and put them on the current track they’re on.
We’re also interested in framing those decisions in what we call the “power spots,” which are places that inspire people, both on a personal basis and a work basis. We want to talk to people in those places about their epiphanies so that we can get the complete picture about what puts them on a path to decision-making and action that’s going to ultimately help to transform society positively.
C617: How do keep your projects moving forward?
John W. Comerford: I had words of encouragement from a colleague recently, who is an Oscar-award winning producer. I’m constantly trying to meet with him when I’m traveling to Los Angeles in order to advance some of my other story ideas. I mentioned to him something in the node of “Am I bugging you? Hopefully, I’m not. I’m just trying to be persistent because you know how much this means to me because you’ve seen twenty communications from me over the years.” And he just wrote back in two sentences, as most high-powered densely scheduled decision-makers do. He basically said, “Persistence will always win the day.” And from a person who is recognized as a leader in motion pictures and television to the degree [this producer] is, I take that as Gospel. And I know it in the fiber of my being to be the truth.
One thing you can do for a producer, if you every have a chance to hang out with them, is help them in any way you can to further their objects, their network. In other words, “Who do you know who might be the magic pixie dust that makes that thing go from idea or intellectual property, which would be a script or an outline, into reality?” The crazy part about it in our world as producers, is you never know. It can literally be someone you bump into at a movie theater or even on the street who will have a key that will turn a lock in a door that allows all of that to take shape, and for that production to happen.
I know that it truly is a network, like a network of nerves in your body or like any other network. You just never know where the clear pathway will come from. And part of that is wrapped up in the destiny of all your collaborators.
C617: What gives you the most satisfaction in creating films?
John W. Comerford: The real satisfaction comes in the work and in the collaboration. It really is about our aha moments in the process of collaborating on something. When those moments hit, there’s a level of satisfaction in inching closer to a change in form in what your art is.
The beauty of creating the recorded arts—meaning music or a film—is that it’s committed through time. You may think this story has ended once that film is locked or that music project is mastered and delivered for replication. But the truth is, it keeps changing. It keeps changing because as it echoes through time, and as succeeding generations come upon that work and discover it, it will affect them in different ways. So, the story keeps having power and keeps changing through the magic of this recorded art process.
For me as a producer, the satisfaction comes in those discoveries and ultimately in presenting them to an audience. For me, it’s never about a level of recognition, because usually, to be honest, you’re so exhausted from the creating that you’re ready to move on. Or you sort of smile inside when somebody gives you that look that says, “I’m overwhelmed with what you’ve created.” But it’s only part of the puzzle and it’s not the main piece of the puzzle. It’s really all about the work. I think for any serious artist, my guess is that they would share similar feelings about that, about the power of process.
Watch the trailers for Icons Among Us: Jazz in the Present Tense and Around the Fire (below).
©2014 Christine Waresak. All rights reserved.