I met Matthew Tibbenham in 2013 when we were both programmed at L.A. WebFest. He’d co-directed The Wrong Guys for the Job, a whimsical mob comedy (yes, it’s possible). Most filmmakers can relate to stories about up-and-comers in over their heads in a workplace filled with ego, danger and guys that work out. And I did. After the festival, I kept track of his career and it wasn’t long before he made a feature film – Surviving Confession – that’s been acquired by California Pictures. Although the plot twists in The Wrong Guys for the Job were exciting and well-constructed, it was Matthew’s decision to hop the pond and move from Los Angeles to London that truly surprised me. In our L.A. self-centeredness, we forget that filmmaking happens all over the world, so I’m grateful to talk to Matthew to learn about his new life as a London filmmaker.
Hunter: You moved from Los Angeles to London. How would you compare the two cities in terms of the opportunities for an independent filmmaker?
Matthew: I think being an independent filmmaker is about making your own opportunities. That’s why I moved overseas. With technology nowadays, I can make movies anywhere in the world. I can write a script in Madrid, film in a dark foggy alley in London, and edit the film on a laptop in a New York cafe. I truly believe the world is becoming smaller and smaller and the film industry can really benefit from that. Even with my upcoming feature film, Surviving Confession, we shot the film in L.A. and I finished most of the editing there, but we didn’t have a distributor while I still lived in L.A. So when I moved to London, I applied to film festivals around the world through Withoutabox and FilmFreeway and eventually found a distributor online that’s based in L.A., even though I didn’t know them while living there. We set up the deal remotely and shipped a hard drive to them with all the footage. With technology, you can make movies wherever you live.
Now on the other hand, some jobs – like acting – it’s better to live in Los Angeles compared to London. Even though some big movies are happening in London, so much more is filmed or at least auditioned in L.A. You can definitely be an actor in London, but you won’t have nearly the amount of opportunities you do in L.A.
Hunter: So place matters, but matters less than ever before is what I’m hearing. I’m curious to know about how filmmaking has shaped you. What’s been the role of filmmaking in your growth as a human being?
Matthew: I definitely find this question the hardest to answer because it’s hard to say. In some parallel universe, there’s another Matthew Tibbenham who never tried to be a film director and writer. Is he a better or worse human being compared to me? I have no idea, but it’s an interesting thought. At the very least, he’s had a less stressful life!
But honestly I wouldn’t trade making movies for anything in the world. It’s given me a creative outlet to express myself and stories I enjoy and on the other hand it’s helped me accomplish things I would have never thought I could have done. It’s helped me discover a lot about myself and helped shape who I am. After every movie I make, I’m always shocked how hard I can push myself and still come out the other side still intact.
It’s also taught me a lot about other people and how I relate to them. A lot of filmmaking, at least from the director’s point of view, is about leadership and getting the best out of people. I’m definitely still learning, but over the years, I’ve learned how much you can really ask from people. Sometimes, I’ve pushed too hard, people quit, and it’s hurt some good relationships I’ve had. It’s about finding the right balance and appreciating everyone and their talents.
Hunter: I noticed that for your directorial debut – Surviving Confession – you chose a film written by someone else. How is that process different than when you co-wrote and co-directed Wrong Guys for the Job. Do you find it more challenging to interpret someone else’s screenplay vs writing your own? Which do you prefer? Why?
Matthew: To direct someone else’s writing, I really have to connect with the material and feel like, even though it’s written by someone else, it’s something I could have written – if only I could write nearly half as well. In the case of Nathan Shane Miller’s script Surviving Confession, it has a very funny, sarcastic sense of humor that I really connected with, plus the dialogue and story was so brilliant, I couldn’t pass it up. We did change a few things and Shane was very open to rewriting a few scenes and adding an extra scene or two. Mainly, I just find that I can visualize his writing very easily. I honestly love all the script he’s written and wish I could direct more of them. That’s not always true with scripts I come across. Sometimes I read a script, and even though I’m sure someone else will find it enjoyable, I just know that I couldn’t direct it because it doesn’t speak to me. I still enjoy directing things I’ve written myself, but if someone can write a brilliant story better than I could, why wouldn’t I direct their work?
Hunter: Ok, let’s move along from the screenplay to the actors who interpret it. Why do you fall in love with some actors but not others? What is it about the ones you love that makes it so? (Or if you don’t fall in love with any, let us know that, too!)
Matthew: I definitely fall in love with some actors. I know this is a cop-out answer, but some actors just have “it.” “It” is that magical unteachable quality that you can’t quite put your finger on, but when you see it, you can’t forget it. They come into the audition room and when they preform a reading, you forget you’re auditioning them.
It’s the same with any art form. Whether it’s writing, directing, painting, or drawing, some people are gifted from the muses. And we mere mortals, can only stand in awe. Now hopefully that doesn’t discourage everyone on your site. There are things you can learn that will help me fall in love with you. First, give it your all. Really go all out for the performance. If it’s an emotional scene, you have to make me feel it. If it’s comedic, you better make me laugh. Also, always be personable while in the room. In addition to how good your performance is, I’m wondering whether I want to spend the great amount of time it will take to get this project done. Are you going to be the type of person I can get along with for days and hours on end? Are you open to taking direction? Do you come up with your own unique ideas?
Hunter: A lot of filmmakers are discussing just how many films are being made. Thousands each and every year as opposed to maybe hundreds a year back in the 1970s. In that kind of landscape, how should filmmakers plan to distribute their films and reach an audience? For the future of filmmaking, how direct a relationship will indie filmmakers have with their eventual audience? Is self-distribution truly viable or do you think we’ll still be in a business fifteen years from now where the audience receives content through a major distributor?
Matthew: I think it will be different for different filmmakers and types of movies. Some filmmakers are great connecting with their audience through social media. Others, like myself, not so much. This is one part of filmmaking (which has nothing to do with actually making movies) I wish I was a great deal better at. That’s why I think there will always be distributors apart from filmmakers. They have different skill sets and do very different things. Both could really benefit from listening to and learning from each other. It’s great we now have the option to self-distribute, but for myself, I’ll always choose to be distributed by a company, over self-distribution because I know myself and I know distribution and marketing are not my skill set.
Hunter: Would you call Surviving Confession a faith-based film? The trailer has a sardonic humor that doesn’t quite feel like a traditional match with that genre. And how important is genre to you? Do you think about the genre of your film a lot before shooting it?
Matthew: I personally wouldn’t call Surviving Confession a faith-based film. On the other hand, I know my distributor is calling it a faith-based film because distributors and viewers like to put movies in boxes so they know what they’re getting into. I personally call Surviving Confession a European art house drama with a lot of comedy, but that’s a hard sell for audiences. It’s not for everyone. The movie’s probably not horribly controversial, but I think it has enough to upset people on both the far right and the far left. It has strong language and content that will upset far right Christians, and deals with issues and doesn’t bash religion like far left liberals might like. It will be interesting to see how people react when it’s released.
Genre is only somewhat important to me, but we did think about it before we started filming. I love movies that push the boundary of different genres and play with the rules. Going into making Surviving Confession, I knew a distributor would market it as a faith-based movie, even though it’s really not. I just wanted to make the movie I read in the script and believed in, even if it’s not quite drama, not quite comedy, and not quite faith-based. I thought it was a beautiful story that had to be told.
Also, we were going to do takes that were less R-rated, but on the day, we were so busy, we forgot. Plus we also felt it didn’t seem to fit the story either. It’s an adult-themed story and not really for younger audiences. It’s more for people who enjoy Criterion Collection films, not ones like God’s Not Dead.
Hunter: Be honest: are the actors in London or Los Angeles more interesting to you? 🙂
Matthew: Of course, when I’m in Los Angeles, the Angelenos are the best. And when I’m in London, the Londoners are the best. 😉
Hunter: You’re not just a filmmaker, but a diplomat, too!
Connect with Matthew Tibbenham on Twitter (@MattTibbenham) or take a look at his work at MatthewTibbenham.com. You can learn more about his debut feature Surviving Confession at SurvivingConfession.com.
Hunter Lee Hughes is an actor-filmmaker living and working in Los Angeles and founder of the open source production company Fatelink.