Meet documentary film-maker Logan Leistikow. The Los Angeles-based director has been making movies in the comedy circuit for years, and his latest documentary, “Walton,” chronicles the experience of stand-up comedian Walton Jordan.
I connected with Logan via Twitter, and he was nice enough to answer some of my questions about “Walton” and his work in comedy.
Tell me about your background. How did you get into directing? What drew you to the field?
As a kid, I always wanted to do something creative when I grew up. It morphed from being a cartoonist to painter to musician, etc. I just wanted to be an artist. Eventually, the magic of movies drew me in. Star Wars and high concept productions like it made me want to be a blockbuster director. I loved the idea of making my cinematic vision come to life.
I actually moved out to Los Angeles with that intention. However, because I was not born into the entertainment industry, I had to find my own pathway in. It just so happens that my first big break was producing Tom Green Live, a comedic celebrity talk show. After that, I very much stayed in the lane of talk/unscripted shows and comedy, if only because that is where my resume took me.
I have to say, though, that I have fallen in love with making documentaries. You can capture and create real emotion, tone, and production value on a shoestring budget and with a small crew. This offers ultimate film-making freedom, as well as the adventure of unpredictability and improvisation.
What was the first thing you ever worked on? What was that experience like for you?
Well, I guess the first thing ever was my high school senior video, which was just a ripoff of jackass.
In college, my friends and I made some video sketches that went viral and got me featured on IFC, which was pretty cool. One of those videos was also a part of a Yahoo! contest where celebrity judge Tom Green said “These guys should have their own sketch comedy show!”
That eventually led to a job at Tom Green Live once I moved out to LA. Getting that gig was surreal. Having heard Tom’s compliment on the Yahoo! show, I applied to work on his talk show. He personally called me on the phone, invited me to lunch, and then showed me his studio and hired me all in the same day. It was a bit overwhelming, but it was just the beginning of my journey.
Tell me about your new documentary, Walton. How did you meet Walton Jordan? Why did you decide to do a documentary about him? And what was the experience like?
Walton is a good friend I have known for years. We met way back in 2007 at a Comedy Garage show. He’s such a sui generis guy with a magnetic personality, he belongs on stage/screen.
I also wanted to present a homeless person who breaks the mold of what people expect. A lot of us make assumptions about the homeless. Although Walton actually indicates he IS homeless by choice, you can’t help but root for him…even if you wouldnever do that to yourself. It humanizes the homeless.
Shooting the documentary with him was so fun and exciting I’m very likely to make more docs about him.
How do you approach a documentary project? Walk me through your process.
Every project comes together differently, but I always search for fascinating people who have a passion.
For the Comedy Garage, I actually attended a show and said to myself “I must make a documentary about this.” It was pure inspiration. I eventually saved up enough money and favors to make it happen. We shot a three camera stand-up show, and interviews leading up to it over a long weekend.
Walton, on the other hand, was shot sporadically over a year in our spare time. I edited as we went and I think that really helped the pacing of the piece and told us what shots we had to get next.I also filmed a minidoc called “Trees” that I filmed by myself in one day with no concept until I hit the editing bay.
My advice would be to find what you are passionate about and cover that in your own way. Figure out what is logistically practical and use your creativity to make it sing. Do you have a client? Do you have backers? Do you work for a network or news organization? Are you independent? Do you know someone who can help? Everything is a factor, so there is no instruction manual. You have to be dynamic.
Your work seems focused on comedians. Is there a reason for that?
There are two main reasons for this: Comedians have a job of holding a mirror up to society and ultimately that is my goal as well. The comedians I know are the most open and honest people around and that makes for really great interviews.
Comedians are also the epitome of freedom of expression and tolerance. Even the squeaky cleanest stand-up comedian you know is exposed to some raunchy humor in their career, whether at open mics or when they open for another comic. They have to tolerate, appreciate, and respectdifferent approaches to humor and different perspectives on endless subjects. The comedy scene in LA is more of a marketplace of ideas than people realize. Its also very diverse.
That being said, I also have productions in development that will not be about comedians.
What’s your advice to aspiring filmmakers looking for inspiration? What would you say to those looking for backing for their work?
When asking for backing, make sure you have your ducks in a row. Be ready for any question, anticipate parts of the pitch that the backer may not like, and pitch for a higher budget while having a plan for a much smaller budget ready. It helps to know your backer personally and appeal to him/her in a personal way. Maybe he/she owns a business that can have product placement in the film. Maybe he/she has a soft spot for animals, so pitch an animal related project. Your creative vision will have to adjust to reality and your planning will have to incorporate what your backer will want.
Again, every production comes together differently, but the bottom line is you need to impress your backer with how knowledgeable and prepared you are.
Also don’t be afraid to just start working even if no one will back you yet. Remember that films like “Clerks” and “Grey Gardens” had no backers and are now classics. “Walton” also had no backers.
As for inspiration: its everywhere. [Ask yourself:] What movie do you want to see that doesn’t exist yet?
You, the reader, probably don’t watch a whole lot of Arabic television, but I do. But this not a list of the differences between Arabic and English television shows. That would be too long.
No, this is the case for incorporating one particular aspect of Arabic drama into the world of Western television, and that aspect is the closed ending.
Consider: the most satisfying aspect of a story in any format is that it’s building towards some kind of climax, followed by a winding down to a sensible end. This is story arcs 101, and there’s a reason for that: it works. When you don’t have a specified end, you force the story to continue in ways that are inorganic and ultimately dissatisfying.
Think about it, how many of your favorite shows ended up going down the tubes after three or four seasons, rehashing old plot-lines and resorting to obnoxious guest characters to force humor and/or drama where none can grow?
Or even worse, how many shows were cancelled after one or two seasons, leaving the dedicated viewer grasping at straws, forced to resort to that dark side of the Internet, fanfiction, in a desperate attempt to gain some form of closure?
Compare that to your average Arabic television drama, which wraps up in quick and easy 30 episodes. This ensures that the show will have a beginning, a middle, and, thankfully, an end. Within that tried and true structure, you have character development, crisis and resolution, and an overall sense of structure. Even when the end is left purposely open, at least you have a sense that the main plot is wrapped up.
There are, of course, many shows that follow a season format, but that’s usually because they cannot, for whatever reason, resolve the major plot points within 30 episodes. At most you’ve got a story that 90 episodes to end. That’s still much less than the average six-season American television show, which at 22 episodes a season is over 120 episodes! That’s not even taking into consideration the fact that a lot of these episodes involve either a) upping the dramatic ante until it reaches previously unheard of levels of insanity (*cough “Grey’s Anatomy” cough*), b) employing ridiculously convoluted plot twists in an attempt to maintain viewer interest (“Pretty Little Liars” is particularly notorious for this), or c) beating the “will they won’t they” drama to death (“Friends” and, increasingly, “New Girl”).
I’m not alone in thinking our shows go on for way too long: more and more new shows are debuting at just 10 episodes in their first season. In an interview with Variety, television producer and the brains behind Parks and Rec, Mike Schur, says, “…there’s more of a sense that shows should have a number of episodes that befits that idea, instead of just, ‘Let’s do as many as we possibly can.'”
It’s a trend that many credit to networks like HBO, AMC, and Starz. But as far as I’m concerned, it’s not enough. The problem is not the number of episodes per season, it’s the number of episodes overall. So I say it’s time to take a page out of the book of Arabic television and commit only to shows that have both a start and an end.