Portrait of the Poet as Aspiring Filmmaker

Portrait of the Poet as Aspiring Filmmaker


John T. Trigonis –  Filmmaker/Poet

Every now and then someone will ask me what made me want to be a filmmaker. “Nothing,” I reply and watch their brows crease. “What do you mean?” the person will ask, and I say “I wanted to be a poet, and that’s what I am.”

Filmmaking is a natural extension of my poetic persona, and like poetry, I like it on my terms– –free-form and forever flowing. I never could see myself suited and tied and seated across some investor-type talking about attaching money and his or her opinions to my film (heck, I gave up my one and only suit after bombing an interview for a full-time teaching position!) Though I know this isn’t exactly how deals are done nowadays, crowdfunding seemed like a more worthwhile way to raise the extra funds I needed for my latest short film Cerise, by asking everyday Janets and Marks to believe in Cerise’s story instead of a possible ROI.

Scene from Perfekt

With all that’s happened over the past year––from Cerise’s conception and its crowdfunding success on IndieGoGo to its eventual completion after a score of sound issues, as well as its acceptance into EgoFest, NYC Downtown Short, Bergenfield, and Staten Island Film Festivals, along with our validation for Cannes Short Film Corner––I’ve been blessed, not only with this wonderful short I’m proud to put my surname on, but with newfound relationships I might not have made had I handled things entirely on my own.

In the past, I’d have used my own money to make a film. The 30 pages of what would’ve been my first short filled up 16 MiniDV tapes that were edited into a $500 feature. My second short, The Coconut, went from sound to silent because of a broken XLR adapter. The Hotel Edwards was my first experience with co-writing (yielding an A+ script) and co-directing (giving way to a C grade film), and along with The Coconut cost me less than $500. Perfekt was made with $5K I’d originally saved up to go to California for a weekend retreat to see if I could hack pursuing a Ph.D in mythology. Speed Musing, another silent, was an exercise in extreme collaboration and a chance to challenge myself to explore strictly visual storytelling.

Scene from Cerise

Like my poems, each film is personal, and I’ve found that the poetry that comes from making these kinds of films gets tainted when they’re not my own, or if I’m doing them for pay. (Strange, I know!) I spent one year working on other people’s films for some pretty decent paychecks. But after directing a skit for a wine company’s interactive website, shooting a friend’s short film, and directing an award-winning pilot episode of a web series, plus helping out on a handful of sets and holding jobs ranging from boom operator to script supervisor, I decided that this is not the road I want to wind myself down ‘cause it might wind down the poet in me. I wanted to take the road less traveled.

It begs the question, I suppose: Do I want to be a filmmaker? That’s difficult to address. If I really wanted to be a filmmaker, I probably be trying to finance my work through grants and private investors. If I wanted to be a filmmaker, I might’ve moved to LA by now, or at least be bouncing between both coasts. I’d probably make sure to attend as many Sundances and SXSWs as possible just to chance encounter the Ted Hopes and Harvey Weinsteins of Hollyworld because the Golden Truth is that Talent always clocks in at a close third to Who You Know and Where You Are On The Map.

But the other side of the coin is that I’m really not the type who wants to cruise from meeting to meeting talking about marketing strategies and above- and below-the-line expenses. I much rather just go with the natural flow of the universe, which is the best advice I’d ever picked up studying Taoism during my undergrad years (and finally understanding those concepts from The Tao of Pooh!) See, alongside not having any formal training in film, I also have no education in business either. Not even Economics 101! When I was younger, I was too busy writing anti-corporate odes and blank verse manifestoes about freeing oneself from the dollar sign handcuffs that bind more than just our hands.

When I was a kid about eight or nine years old, I spent weekends at my brother’s house in Bergenfield, NJ. Back then, my “poetry” was drawing. I used to recreate comic book covers and sell them to the neighborhood kids and distant cousins for 50¢ up to $2. It was my first and only lucrative startup and much better than competing with the lemonade stands lined up along my little suburban hideaway.

Then, my dad forbade me to see my brother and sister. You see, a while back he’d loaned my brother some money and was angry because, after two years, the amount was never repaid in full. It was the first time in my young life I felt my dad was wrong. After a couple months spending seven straight days trapped in Weehawken, I confronted him. I remember firing words like “unfair,” “ransom,” and “wrong” in my strongest sentences, the ones that wounded my dad most––I could see this in his eyes. The following weekend, I was back in Bergenfield.

Since then, I’ve had an issue with money, hence the reason I use my own when I embark on a new short film venture. (“Neither a borrower nor a lender be,” Polonius advises his son in Hamlet, “For loan oft loses both itself and friend.”) Because of this fiasco early on in my childhood, I’ve drawn (unconsciously, perhaps) a thick line in the sand between art and commerce, and I seldom, if ever, cross it. It’s the same with Cerise. Even though it’s the first commercial film I’ve ever made (everything else being silent or a bit eccentric), I can’t make a penny from it because Nintendo allowed me to use footage from Wii Boxing, footage that’s integral to the visual story being told. So Cerise is my calling card (just in case Who You Know and Where You Are On The Map are looking to congratulate Talent for coming out on top for once.)

Poster from Cerise

So why do I make films if I’m not planning on putting together a director’s reel to land gigs working on other people’s films? Why do I do it if I’m not trying to sustain myself through my art? There are simply some stories that demand more than five or ten couplets. Sometimes there are stories so important or unique that they won’t settle for the meager audience of poetry lovers, but desire to stretch beyond that wall of words.

Like Blake or Bukowski, Pasolini, Cocteau and Kieslowski, Jarmusch and Spielberg, I live to breathe poetry into the art I create. If you can take home a few bucks without any bruises from the muse––sell your art without compromising your art––more power to you. But whether it’s a poem published in a small press journal no one outside of a few hipsters and hobnobbing professors will pick up at the bottom shelf of a Barnes and Noble magazine rack or a short film screening at film festivals alongside other works of cinema, it’s enough for me just to breathe in that refreshing air of momentary and transient peace.

Now that’s something to which we should all truly aspire.

A poet primarily, John T. Trigonis has published work in a variety of poetry and literary journals all over the world. In 2007 he was a nominee for a Pushcart Prize in Poetry. He has also self-published a number of free chapbooks, including Fifth Avenue Bomb in the Covergirl Heart, Androids with Angel Faces, Wanderland, and Warehouse City Blues.

Between 1999 and 2006, Trigonis was an active presence in the NY/NJ spoken word/open mic scene, performing his signature “ explicitly honest” verse. Since then, he’ s taken time away from the written word to focus on his other passion: film.

Trigonis has written and directed seven shorts, including Cerise, Speed Musing, Perfekt, The Hotel Edwards and The Coconut, and a feature-length film. Each film has screened at various film festivals across the world. He also directed the pilot episode of an ongoing web series called Something About Ryan, which won four awards between 2008 – 2010.

He is currently working on a rewrite of a feature-length screenplay A Beautiful Unlife while outlining another dark comedy called Caput.

When not working on his creative endeavors, Trigonis teaches humanities and writing courses at various universities across New Jersey as a freelance professor.

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