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Victoria Film Festival 2013 Interview - MY FATHER AND THE MAN IN BLACK director Jonathan Holiff

My Father & The Man In Black - At Victoria Film Fest
by Jason Whyte

"An intense personal adventure with universal themes, that just happens to feature one of 20th-century music's greatest icons, "My Father and The Man In Black" tells the inside story of 'bad boy' Johnny Cash, his talented but troubled manager, Saul Holiff, and a son searching for his father in the shadow of a legend. Before there was Johnny and June, there was Johnny and Saul." Director Jonathan Holiff on "My Father And The Man In Black" which screens at the Victoria Film Festival.

Is this your first film at the Victoria Film Festival? Tell me about your festival experience, and if you plan to attend Victoria for the film’s screenings.

I grew up in Victoria so I'm really excited that VFF programmed the film. I will be at both screenings. We've been very fortunate to play more than a dozen film festivals worldwide, winning competitions in Edinburgh and Hamburg. I'm sure this has a lot to do with Johnny Cash. But having visited seven countries since you and I met at VIFF, it's been very gratifying to see most people appreciate the story about fathers and sons...the story I really wanted to tell.

Tell me a little bit about yourself and your background, and what led you to the industry.

I was one of those kids who decided he'd have to compete with his father to get any respect. So, very early on I decided to go into show business. I was a producer at CBC in Toronto for several years before becoming a talent agent at the William Morris agency in Los Angeles. I was a "business guy." I didn't have an artistic bone in my body, or so I thought. I'd never written a story, let alone made a short film. I made this film because I had to tell this story.

How did this whole project come together?

After my father committed suicide, I discovered a storage locker containing materials he had kept for 30 years. Inside were hundreds of letters, many handwritten, between Saul, Johnny and June. But it was a box filled with audiotapes that really shocked me. Saul had kept an audio diary from the time I was born until shortly before he died. And he recorded his phone calls with Johnny too! For a documentary storyteller, this would be like winning the lottery. On top of that, the story was so inherently dramatic. But with all that going for it, nobody would make it. But I hd to, so I did.

Please tell me about the technical side of the film; your relation to the film’s cinematographer, what the film was shot on and why it was decided to be photographed this way.

The story was also very visual. When I listened to those tapes the movie played out in my head, much like it does onscreen. I decided to shoot "no-dialogue, dramatic re-enactments" under Johnny's and Saul's actual voices which is very hard to do well. Most of the "action" takes place in the 1960s and 1970s so it's also a period piece. I felt that 35MM film was the best medium to capture live action to ensure the audience buys it and to make sure it didn't look like an episode of "America's Most Wanted". But live action represents only half of the movie. The other half is high-end motion graphics and visual effects. It took three weeks to shoot the movie. It took one year to do the visual effects. It took two years to edit the whole thing. It's no wonder I'm divorced!

Out of the entire production, what was the most difficult aspect of making this film? Also, what was your favorite moment?

Everything was difficult. If it were easy, everybody would be making independent feature films. But I made it harder on myself by writing, directing and producing. It was like going to war every day for three years and rallying your troops to follow you into what, so often, looked like no-win situations. In other words, as a director you have to a "vision," one that your colleague believe you have the ability to realize. I had a lot of favourite moments making the movie--but only when directing or editing. Producing made me age ten years in three.

Who would you say your biggest inspirations are in the film world? Did you have any direct inspirations from filmmakers for this film in particular?

Like many directors, I couldn't resist the temptation to pay tribute to certain filmmakers or techniques, here and there in my film. I also pay homage to the remake of "A Star is Born" with the cold opening of my film, for reasons only fans of that movie will understand. However, I had to adhere to basic documentary storytelling practices, so my favourite directors are not as relevant as are the various documentaries I admire. They say "plagiarism is the highest form of flattery;" well, I stole heavily from "The Kid Stays in the Picture" for my approach to motion graphics, and "Man on Wire," "The Thin Blue Line," "My Winnipeg," etc., in the way I chose to tell the story.

How important do you think the critical/media response is to film these days, be it a large production, independent film or festival title?

There is no simple answer to this question. My film has received copious press and reviews (The Village Voice called it 'Extraordinary'). But unless you have a theatrical plays in New York (with a review in the New York Times) or Los Angeles (in the Los Angeles Times), nobody really notices. Equally important, are reviews by the Hollywood trades and blogs like IndieWire, etc.. My film has
been a big hit at film festivals worldwide--until you take into account that we failed to play the only four or five major festivals that buyers pay attention to. With an independent film like mine, especially a documentary, we face a Herculean task in getting noticed by the right buyers.

If your film could play in any movie theatre in the world, which one would you choose?

It already has. The Hyland Theatre in London, Ontario, where my father was born.

If you could offer some advice to someone who wanted to make movies, what nuggets of wisdom would you offer?

Do as I say, not as I do. My situation was rather exceptional, as feature films go, but the best advice I received was to make a short film first. In other words: You can make all your mistakes, and you will make them, before tackling a feature film. That being said, and getting advice from knowledgeable and experienced mentors, is critical. The best piece of advice I can offer an aspiring filmmaker is don't take "no" for an answer. You will hear the word "no" every single day, and you must ignore it. The fact is, nobody has "the answers." Independent filmmaking is, at its heart, all about relentless perseverance and unbridled passion.

What would you do or say to someone who is talking, texting or being disruptive during a movie?

I would tell my mother to cut it out! Just kidding.

And finally, what is the single greatest movie that you have seen at a film festival?

"The Decline of the American Empire."

This is one of the many films playing at this year’s Victoria Film Festival. For showtimes and further information visit

Be sure to follow instant happenings of the festival and updates on my Twitter @jasonwhyte!

Jason Whyte,

link directly to this feature at
originally posted: 02/09/13 05:14:41
last updated: 02/09/13 05:15:35
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