I had the great pleasure of getting to know filmmaker Willy Bearden several years back when we worked together on the Mississippi night salue to the GRAMMYs® event. In addition to being a gifted storyteller Willy is also an avid music fan and a lover of all things Memphis. I am so excited he agreed to be featured. I always learn something new from Willy when we get the pleasure of working together.
Meet Willy Bearden from Memphis, TN!
How did you get started in the creative industry? I have been in the business for 35 years. I went to work for Motion Picture Lab in 1978, knowing nothing about the business other than the fact that people who made films used their services. During my nine years at MPL I was a color timer, a film editor, and an account executive.
What is your most favorite project, thus far? I’ve done films for The Elvis Presley Birthplace Museum for several years. That work is extremely satisfying. I am honored and humbled to have a hand in the interpretation and telling of the Elvis Presley story. Also, we made a feature film three years ago, One Came Home. It is a period piece set in post WWII Mississippi. It was hard work but I am very pleased with the outcome.
Any books or websites or resources you would recommend for your field? For film and technology I like nofilmschool.com and dslrfilmnoob.com. I also am a big believer in using the Library of Congress for research and photographs. It is the greatest gift we Americans have ever given ourselves. Prelinger Archives is another great resource for archival footage. Magazines like American Cinematographer, Digital Video, HD Video, and Post Magazine are really good for filmmakers. Also, find a good daily nudge like Ansel Adams for photography or Writers Digest for tips on writing. I find that when these things are in your face every day, you tend to to really pay attention.
I try to advance my knowledge every day.
What aspect is the most challenging part of what you do? To be a filmmaker is to know how to do every job in the business. A person must be well-versed in the art and craft of writing, directing, cinematography, editing, producing, and distributing. In this DIY world, those skills are absolutely necessary. Also, changes in technology and distribution make it imperative for a filmmaker to stay on an aggressive learning path.
How important is it to you to protect your creative work? It is very important to protect my creative property. That said, I have made my creative work (films, books, writing) available to a wide array of organizations and individuals. It has been my experience that creative work has to be seen to be appreciated, and for it to make money in direct or indirect ways.
Tell me a story about a time early on that you screwed up related to your business? What did you do to fix it? I produce lots of live events. Back in 1988, I did a big convention for about 10,000 people. Opening the show was an Elvis tribute artist singing “All Shook Up.” When we looked at the video tape the next week Elvis was there on stage, the music track was on channel one and our “walk-in” music was on channel two. No Elvis vocal!
My client was so jazzed about the live event that he wanted to make tapes of the opening and send them to the top executives. I had to get an Elvis impersonator to come into a recording studio and impersonate the impersonator. they never knew the difference. That single event made me always check and re-check everything we do in producing a live event.
Who are your major influencers? Woody Allen, Martin Scorsese, the Mayleses Brothers. I admire Woody Allen for keeping to his vision of a life in film. He is always writing, filming, editing a film. His body of work is truly amazing.
What one piece of business and/or legal advice do you know now that you wish you had known when you first started out? It rarely pays to do free work when you’re starting out. That person never thinks of you as anything but “free”. I do lots of free work now, but for the first few years I had my company, I fell for the old, “Do this one for free and there will be lots of work coming your way.” Never happened. I began telling people, “Let’s do the first two jobs at my regular rate and I’ll do the third one for free.” No one ever took me up on that.
Also, a good agreement/contract does away with a lot of heartache on the back end. And finally, my gauge of success is how seldom I have to put on the suit and tie to go look for new business. Pick your clients well, keep them happy, and you’ll have a great career.
Overall, a piece of advice for someone interested in entering your field? Read about and study your craft. Listen to everyone. Have “mentors” around you as much as possible. They don’t have to know you’re watching them. Learn from the bad things they do as well as the good. Learn how to create without necessarily being in some state of inspiration. That’s the craft part of it. Take responsibility for your community and your world. Understand that storytelling is the highest form of the art, and that we possess the tools to do it easily. Say yes to projects if you think you can make a difference or if the project can take you to a higher level. Say yes to life. This is not a dress rehearsal.
Upcoming projects? My writing partner and I are working on a screenplay that we plan to shoot in Memphis and Mississippi during the early part of 2014. I have a number of other museum projects and live events I’m working on. I finished a novel in the fall of 2013, and it is being edited by a friend/editor. We’ll see what happens to it…stay tuned.
Now, for the not so serious questions …
1. Hobbies? I play in two bands, The GrayHounds in Rolling Fork, and the Earnestine & Hazel’s Band in Memphis.
2. Charitable organizations that you support? The Blues Foundation, Overton Park Friends, The Levitt Shell, Mississippi’s Lower Delta Partnership, The University of Memphis Libraries, Memphis Public Library, Memphis Heritage.
3. Favorite candy? I’m a fool for chocolate covered espresso beans.
Thanks again to Willy for sharing his insight. You can find him on Facebook or by emailing him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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