Film Courage: Where did grow up? What sparked an interest in film?
Justin Liberman: I grew up on the road, traveling around New England from one flea market to the next with my two parents. My father was a salesman and so my mother and I would travel with him and help sell either bootleg pocketbooks, or t-shirts with images of Tweety Bird wearing a Yankee hat and smoking a blunt on it. While most kids went to summer camp I wandered around old drive-ins from the 1950’s large country fair grounds, and small, any-town USA festivals, spending time with an eccentric group of hustlers like the toothless, kind man from Maine who sold tarnished antiques, the hot-blooded Israeli electronic dealer, and the biker-jacket clad airbrush artist. As a young kid going to these places I developed a profound fascination with characters and location. Looking back on it, these experiences were pretty cinematic so film feels like a natural avenue for me to turn to and explore these fascinations and interests.
Film Courage: What movies did you see as a kid which resonate with you today?
Justin: The first time I saw Marathon Man, I remember feeling differently about films. I was twelve or thirteen and I remember staying up all night to watch movies and found it on the USA Channel and from the first frame I was hooked. There was something about the film that just resonated with me. It was so scary without using any horror; it was emotional, nostalgic, action packed, and very reflective. Plus it had “Rain Man” and “Sherriff Brody” in it and I just thought the whole thing was just so cool. It was my first taste of 70’s film and it really woke me up to the artistry of film.
Film Courage: What were your plans out of high school? How did you make your way to Los Angeles?
Justin: When I was in high school I found photography and had a great teacher named Willie Nelson. He was this big lumbering guy who operated the dark room and he would lets us just hang out there whenever we wanted. The only rule was that he controlled the radio, which introduced me to guys like Richie Havens, Neil Young, and Harry Nilson. Willie was the first guy that took my aspirations of being a filmmaker seriously and I remember him saying, in a very matter-of-fact way, “Go to LA. Go make a movie.” I think his casualness really demystified the idea of “L.A.” to me. A few years later, I packed up my car and drove to LA.
Film Courage: You made a few beautiful, award-winning short films while in LA – what made you leave California despite the success of those projects?
Justin: I think LA is a great place to live when you are young and/or working on a project that you are passionate about but I found it very difficult to live there in-between projects or while I was developing material. In those down times, I would slip down that slippery slope of self doubt and hatred and would start thinking about myself as a cliché and just another filmmaker trying to get a piece of the pie. I would lose inspiration and just start living an unmotivated life. Living in Venice however had an appeal to it. It always felt like summer vacation there so I wouldn’t have the right things motivating me to work and write, instead I would get toasted and walk around the beach and play basketball, which was obviously awesome but…
Film Courage: What is the question you’re asked most often by your students? What’s your response?
Justin: The question is always the same, “How did you get your start?” My answer is simple, it’s that I went for it. There are no rules or no step-by-step process to breaking into the film industry or making a film- you just have to want it more than anything else and find a way to do it. I hate to be this cynical but if a young person who thinks they want to be a director (or an actor, producer, etc) they really have to look at themselves in the mirror and take gauge of the fire in their belly. They need to want it more than anything else. I don’t know any filmmaker that started their career by being passive. You have to want it and go after it anyway you can.
Film Courage: What is your favorite film course to teach and why?
Justin: I love teaching my Directing courses. It’s really great to turn students on to the power of the camera and show just how much of an author a director can be. Directors use the camera to write our stories and a lot of young filmmakers are not aware of just how much you can do with the camera.
Film Courage: What is the most difficult film-related subject to teach and why?
Justin: Screenwriting is pretty difficult because you can’t teach people how to think and feel. Outside of teaching the technical aspects of screenwriting and the structure of a three-act narrative I just try to inspire my students to think emotionally about their subjects. One of the greatest lessons I was taught about screenwriting was from my favorite professor at Columbia University, Chris Kelly. He asked me what was under the fingernails of my protagonist? At the time, I was writing about a young African American boy and Chris wanted to know if there was dirt under his nails, because dirt would indicate that maybe we was an adventurous kid, digging in the woods, or if there was Cheetos cheese under his nails, that would illustrate that maybe he was a lazy boy who ate junk food and played video games all day, or finally was there specks of spray-paint under his nails, which would indicate that he is a rebel, maybe tagging walls. It was this minutia of thinking that really inspired me and as a result, I hope to inspire in my students.
Film Courage: What would you advise a person out of high-school who can ‘t afford film school?
Justin: This day and age, filmmaking is such an inexpensive trade that finances shouldn’t be the thing holding anyone back. Almost everyone has a camera in his or her pocket and if someone young really wanted to get into filmmaking they have the technical tools at their disposal. That all said, it’s not about hardware that makes a movie, it’s about understanding how to tell a story. If a young person wanted to become a filmmaker they should really start reading books and learning art history. That’s really where filmmaking starts.
Film Courage: Can you recount a story on set that will always remain as a top experience?
Justin: I just got done directing a film called “Tobacco Burn.” It’s a slave narrative based on an oral history collected by the W.P.A. Writers. I shot the film in my hometown of South Windsor, CT. The entire production was amazing- we built large sets, had a big cast and crew, had period costumes, livestock, etc. If that wasn’t enough, my closest film collaborators and my friends and family from back home surrounded me. The whole experience was surreal and filled with love. However, the moment that really stands out was on the first day, first set up, after myself, my Cinematographer, Zachary Halberd, and my Production Designer, Bridgett Rafferty watched playback we all just looked at each other and joyously broke out in laughter and we started to hug each other. It was just this great moment of real appreciation and pride and it really encapsulated the joys of filmmaking and doing what you love. It was awesome.
Justin: How did you get involved in Broken Badge?
Film Courage: “Broken Badge” came to me through Columbia University and Michael Hausman. He was teaching a producing class for the MFA film program and the entire class was structured around actually making a film. His students sourced a story, hired screenwriters to write the script, and needed a director to bring it to life. They sent out an email to all of the directors in the MFA program and I responded that I was interested. I guess 65 applicants or so applied and I made it to the top three. After a couple meetings and working on a treatment and presenting it to everyone, they decided to go with me. I am really humbled by the experience and working with and getting to know Michael Hausman is really a dream come true.
Film Courage: How much did you research Officer Philip Chlanda’s story beforehand? How did it affect you personally?
Justin: I myself didn’t do too much research about him personally. I read some articles and met a few people that knew him but I wanted to keep a distance between him and I. I felt that if I knew too much about him, I wouldn’t be able to remain focused solely on the drama of the script, instead I would have been more concerned with his details and whether or not we were portraying him in the correct light. Instead I focused my energy on the details of the NYPD and being a young officer and the emotions of heartbreak.
Film Courage: What is your plan for the film?
Justin: We are doing the film festival rounds with the film now, though festival submissions are getting so expensive that it’s hard to submit to all the places we intended to. We are also showing it to some NYPD personnel in hopes of getting it programmed at some NYPD event. I think it’s an important film for young cadets to see.
Film Courage: Any tips on orchestrating a crowd scene on a limited budget?
Justin: Yeah, you get Michael Hausman to produce your film! Seriously this guy is magic. At 81-years-old he had more energy on set than anyone. He hustled and got random people to show up for every take. I remember he pinned a notice to all of the crews back that said something like, “We are filming a movie, come and watch!” So when the crew was working on the shot, people would come up and read their backs and be in the scene. It was a genius move. But all kidding aside, I learned more working with Hausman than I did in four years at film school.
Film Courage: What films have been the biggest teachers toward your own filmmaking style?
Justin: Honestly, they all are. I pull lessons and ideas from everything I watch- the good and the bad. For “Broken Badge” I watched a lot of episodes of “NYPD Blue”, and films like “Pride and Glory” and “Serpico.” I wanted to absorb the traditions of an NYPD drama. For “Tobacco Burn” I watched Michael Mann’s “Ali,” “Unforgiven,” and Malick’s “The New World.” The color pallet of all three films inspired me as did the relationship between man and their surroundings.
Film Courage: What do you hope students will take away from your time with them? Is there a mantra or saying you’re known for amongst your classes?
Justin: I just hope the students find a creatively safe and inspiring space to work with me. I just try to inspire them to commit to the process and enjoy the ride. I realize graduate school is so expensive and these students are making a huge financial and personal sacrifice to return to school that I try to show up to every class with something to really say
Film Courage: What’s the next film project?
Justin: I am working on two feature films, one is a New York outerborough crime film in the spirit of “Little Odessa,” “State of Grace,” and “The French Connection” and the other is set in the world of minor league baseball which I am working with my commercial directing partner, Judah-Lev Dickstein on.
Justin Liberman was a directing fellow at Columbia University Film School where he earned his MFA in film directing. He spent three years working under Michael Mann and David Mamet and was a shadow director for Allen Coulter on “Boardwalk Empire.” His narrative films have screened in many international film festivals, museums, and galleries. Liberman is part of the directing team, Tank +Bunker which is represented by Greenpoint Pictures. His commercials have brought him around the world, for clients such as ESPN, P&G, American Express and Macy’s. As an educator, Liberman is a Visiting Professor at Sacred Heart University’s graduate film school. In 2014, Liberman will release two films, the character driven NYPD drama, “Broken Badge,” and the American slave narrative, “Tobacco Burn.”