Exclusive Interview with Morgan Schmidt-Feng – co-director, co-producer and cinematographer
Morgan Schmidt-Feng is the founder of Filmsight Productions, and an award-winning director, producer and cinematographer for TV, documentaries, and independent feature films. His feature documentary, On Her Own, premiered at the 2015 Slamdance Film Festival and had its international premiere at Hot Docs in Toronto. Morgan won the 2011 regional Emmy® for Best Documentary for The Next Frontier, a TV documentary about solutions for climate change. Morgan’s feature film experience began as an actor and associate producer on Morgan’s Cake, a collaboration with his father and the film’s director, Rick Schmidt. Morgan lives in the San Francisco Bay Area and graduated from CCA in Oakland.
NY Glam: How long have you been making films and videos?
My first screen credit was as an assistant editor when I was still in high school.
NY Glam: What film was your directorial debut?
My first documentary as a director was GRIP ON HIP-HOP about the politics of rap music and hip-hop culture during the 90s in the San Francisco Bay Area.
NY Glam: What is your recent film about?
I’m currently in post-production on a feature documentary about NYC artist Anton van Dalen.
NY Glam: How did you go about casting for the film?
My co-director, Dennis Mohr, was the one who set up most of the interviews in the film, but one of the most interesting moments I had in the casting of THE RAVENITE was when I was scouting places to shoot in Little Italy and spotted a guy sitting on his stoop in a mad game of fetch with his dog. He lived across the street from Old St. Patrick’s Cathedral. Something told me he might have some first hand stories to tell about the neighborhood. I mentioned how funny it was that his dog was so obsessed with his toy. Turned out the guy on the stoop was Frank Andrews, a famous psychic. He told me some great stories that fit right into our film and luckily he agreed to be interviewed.
NY Glam: What was the most important lesson you had to learn that has had a positive effect on your film? How did that lesson happen?
One of the most important things I had to learn was how to collaborate with my friends from Toronto who all had strong artistic ideas on both process and storytelling. We had to learn how to work together under challenging shooting conditions and then later how to blend our artistic sensibilities to craft the story. I think it pushed the film to a better place. Dennis and I first met eighteen years ago while I worked at Skywalker Ranch as a documentary filmmaker for George Lucas. Dennis was doing an interview with Lucas for a short documentary project of his own. Dennis Emailed me sometime later telling me about a potential project about Alec Wilkinson a writer for the New Yorker and his stories of the Ravenite Social Club.
NY Glam: Tell us a bit about the other films you’ve made and your other projects.
I’ve been both cursed and blessed when I caught the filmmaking bug from my father, writer and film director, Rick Schmidt. I say cursed because working as a filmmaker while supporting a family is never easy but it’s been the greatest creative privilege of my life. Since I was a teen I knew that filmmaking is what I wanted to do. Haven’t lost the desire to keep going, even when I had to hold down 3 other jobs. The first feature film that I worked on was in collaboration with my father for his film, MORGAN’S CAKE, a low-budget feature shot in black and white which was shot in my dad’s unique DIY style. I played the lead character who’s about to turn eighteen and about to get drafted. A bunch of our friends became the rest of the cast and crew and the entire film was heavily improvised. The film premiered at Sundance in competition against Steven Soderbergh’s movie, SEX, LIES & VIDEOTAPE. For an 18 year old guy who had never acted in a movie before it was quite a ride. The highlight of that experience was having a sold-out screening on a Saturday night in NYC at the New Director’s New Films festival. It didn’t hurt that Janet Maslin of the NY Times gave the film a great review.
NY Glam: What role have film festivals played in your life so far?
Film festivals have played a pretty big role in my life from an early age since my dad would take me along with him whenever he was a part of a festival. And then of course more important to my artistic life festivals gave me a chance to see how viewers reacted to the work in real time. Audiences help me understand how the work relates to so many different people, and often in ways I hadn’t imagined it would. It’s a privilege to learn something meaningful about their lives in the process of talking about how the work has touched them.
NY Glam: Is it harder to get started or to keep going? What was the particular thing that you had to conquer to do either?
I would say in the case of The Ravenite it was an easy decision to get started. Co-director Dennis Mohr came to me with his idea to do this film and I immediately felt inspired to collaborate with him on the project especially after seeing his documentary MUGSHOT.
NY Glam: How has your style evolved?
My style has really evolved from doing fictional narrative projects to doing more documentary work. But what consistently draws me into a story is the emotional connection that I develop with my subjects over the course of making a film. It’s this emotional connection that I feel brings a degree of authenticity.
NY Glam: What has been your personal key to success?
The key for me has been guidance and support from both family & friends. A finished film is the reflection of your greater community not just the act of a single person or group.
NY Glam: What are you thinking about doing next?
After finishing the post on Anton I would like to finish shooting a doc about my father and his 50 years of no-budget indie filmmaking.
NY Glam: Where does your studio want to go from here?
I would love the opportunity to continue to share unique stories that might be right in front of everyone but no one’s had a chance to see and hear yet.