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SXSW '06 Interview: 'Music Is My Life, Politics My Mistress' director Donnie L. Betts

by Scott Weinberg

The 'Music Is My Life, Politics My Mistress' Pitch: A feature documentary on the life of Oscar Brown Jr., an American icon, whose many accomplishments as a musician, writer, playwright, and civil and social activist have the power to change a generation. Described by Don Hickman of the LA Times as "a national treasure who should be honored by the Kennedy Center," this film on Mr. Brown will document his tremendous, yet largely unrecognized contributions to not only the Black community, but to our society at large.

Describe your movie using the smallest number of words possible.
Award winner!

Is this your first trip to SXSW? Got any other film festival experience? If you’re a festival veteran, let us know your favorite and least-favorite parts of the ride.
In 2005 I screened at 12 film festivals or special events. I attended 10. My favorite part has been meeting other filmmakers and seeing their work when I can and trying to stay in touch. The least is horrible time slots and days at a couple of festivals but still selling well or selling out with little or no PR from the festival. Also trying to limit me to a Black audience when the film has a mass appeal and has proven that.

Back when you were a little kid, and you were asked that inevitable question, your answer would always be “When I grow up I want to be a …” what?
A history teacher who played professional football who had his own radio show.

Not including your backyard and your Dad’s Handycam, how did you get your real “start” in filmmaking?
I started as an actor in theatre/turned video editor/storytelling then corporate films to working on any crew I could.

Do you feel any differently about your film now that you know it’s on “the festival circuit?”

Of all the Muppets, which one do you most relate to?
Kermit the MC, or Animal.

During production did you ever find yourself thinking ahead to film festivals, paying customers, good & bad reviews, etc?
Paying customers maybe, but I thought about 3 festivals: SXSW, LA Pan African and Denver International.

How did this film get rolling at the beginning? Give us a brief history from writing to production to post to just last night.
I asked my subject Oscar Brown Jr. if anyone had filmed a documentary on his life. He said no, why don’t you do it, like he had been asked before but nobody had followed through, so my first interview was that day. I researched him at Howard University, his family archives, his friends, wrote grants plus appeal letters. I got turned down by everyone; most said we love the proposal, your sample work, his music but we hate his politics. I cut a trailer sent it and a letter to my old boss from the Carol Burnett show. He said I love Oscar’s writing, I am from Chicago and his voice needs to be heard, here is xxx dollars. I sent him a letter from my 501C3 sponsor KBDI Channel 12 in Denver and filmed my first live performance. Along the way I gave house parties, did work for hire, used American Express, and got the film made. I also hired an amazing editor Dave Wruck and 6 years later here we are in SXSW.

If you could share one massive lesson that you learned while making this movie, what would it be?
Get more funding up front if you can and don’t go into debt, but everyone knows these things -- but hell we have to get our films made.

What films and filmmakers have acted as your inspirations, be they a lifelong love or a very specific scene composition? Did you watch any movies in pre-production and yell “This! I want something JUST like this …only different.”?
Filmmakers John Sayles, William Greaves, Julie Dash. I wanted my film to cool like Oscar Brown Jr., so my subject inspired the look and feel of the film.

What actor would you cast as a live-action Homer Simpson?
Philip Seymour Hoffman.

Say you landed a big studio contract tomorrow, and they offered you a semi-huge budget to remake, adapt, or sequelize something. What projects would you tackle?
So I tell you and someone with juice will read this and make it? Let the contact come and then I will tell you.

Name an actor in your film that’s absolutely destined for the big-time. And why, of course.
It’s a documentary and he died.

Finish this sentence: If I weren’t a filmmaker, I’d almost definitely be...
...a volunteer with kids.

Who’s an actor you’d kill a small dog to work with? (Don’t worry; nobody would know.)
I love dogs but a roach for Don Cheadle.

Have you “made it” yet? If not, what would have to happen for you to be able to say “Yes, wow. I have totally made it!”
I am happy so I have made it.

Honestly, how important are film critics nowadays?
Somewhat, but everyone with the web is a critic; word of mouth is still the best.

You’re told that your next movie must have one “product placement” on board, but you can pick the product. What would it be?
Veggie Booty.

You’re contractually obligated to deliver an R-rated film to your producers. The MPAA says you have to delete a sex scene that’s absolutely integral to the film or you’re getting an NC-17. How do you handle it?
Look long and hard at the scene, if I can’t adjust the scene it stays.

What’s your take on the whole “a film by DIRECTOR” issue? Do you feel it’s tacky, because hundreds (or at least dozens) of people collaborate to make a film – or do you think it’s cool, because ultimately the director is the final word on pretty much everything?
Yes a ton of (people) on a film and each and every role is important, but it is cool (to say) a film by Director donnie l. betts.

In closing, we ask you to convince the average movie-watcher to choose your film instead of the trillion other options they have. How do you do it?
You will laugh, pop your fingers, cry, dance, say damn that was cool, and come of the theatre with some fat between your ears (meaning there was some new knowledge dropped on you).


Music Is My Life, Politics My Mistress, directed by donnie l. betts, will premiere at the 2006 South By Southwest Film Festival. Click here for festival information, and be sure to check out the official Music Is My Life website.

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originally posted: 02/17/06 06:43:40
last updated: 02/28/06 18:10:19
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