Reality check for filmmakers who want to call themselves professionals:
Did producers pay you, rather than asking you to work on spec or max out credit cards?
Did your film get a national theatrical release?
Did you get a major city to stop traffic across one of the busiest bridges in the country?
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If you're Mark Young, the answers are yes, yes and ask drivers who waited to cross the Ben Franklin from Philly to South Jersey, while he shot footage of a girl roller-skating on the empty span.
You can see that footage in “Tooth & Nail,” which went nationwide last November as part of the eight-film After Dark Horrorfest package.
He's currently enmeshed in the L.A. shoot of the claustrophobic hostage drama “The Killing Jar” with the same production company, New Jersey-based Morningstar Films.
But ask what it's like to be the first Charlottean in the major leagues, and he responds, “Compared to the real directors, I'm not actually on the field. I'm more like a large, costumed mascot on the sidelines, or a bat boy. That's OK, though: I'm in the ballpark, anyway.”
Maybe it's easier to be humble when you finally get the job you love at age 47. Maybe a 16-year wait between your first, self-financed (and self-suppressed) feature and the breakthrough that made you a full-time writer-director is an ego-silencing interval. But now Young aims to work and work.
“It's frustrating to reach a point where you think, ‘I know what I was put here to do, what my true skill is, but it's too late to find … opportunities to do it.' I was there (a few years ago). But as an artist, you don't have a choice. You have to do it.”
He tried other things first. He grew up in New York City, Pennsylvania and New Jersey before coming down to UNC Charlotte, where he left three credits shy of graduation in 1985. (“I just knew I wasn't going to be an architect.”) He moved to Myrtle Beach to become a tattoo artist and airbrush T-shirts, and moved back to Charlotte to try fine painting. Then he bought an old Kodak 16mm camera and started making experimental films.
“In hindsight, it makes sense: I was painting diptychs and triptychs and writing long artists' statements about what I was trying to accomplish. I was telling stories, in a way, and it made sense to do it on film.”
He describes his virgin voyage, the film noir “The Architect,” as being “like film school for 15 grand. I was the writer, director, the cameraman. I lit it myself, when the only tool I had was one light meter. The movie was a turd: It had an incoherent plot and weak characterization. But it had a look.”
Real life meets reel life
Two things happened next. He shot the short “Dead Bodies” as a calling card. And he wed Cheryl, who directs the travel department at Carolinas HealthCare System. The second marriage for both gave him two fortunate things: a future actress in daughter Emily and financial stability at last.
“When you're in a family and have a child and are begging, borrowing and stealing to make films that don't get sold, you have to have a REALLY understanding wife,” he says. “I've always freelanced, so I've always made some income, but film is all-encompassing. It's a year of your life every time.”
“Mark is not the money person,” says Cheryl Young. “He's creative. I take care of household things and Emily and have my job, but I never saw him as a 9-to-5 guy. When Mark did corporate work, he had a lot of bosses and met deadlines, but I always saw him ultimately doing what he's doing now.
“I'm a good listener for his ups and downs. He's such a perfectionist that when he was editing his own films, it was always, ‘Look what I did wrong there. Oh, I'm not any good.' After the baby was delivered, he would start to see the flaws.”
What others saw, though, was something else: an efficient worker who could shoot with visual flair at top speed.
Young had met Morningstar's John Sachar when he cast the producer-actor in a small role in the religious/vampire film “Southern Gothic.” Sachar and his producing partner, Patrick Durham, were preparing to make a film in Philadelphia and thought of hiring Young.
“They were slated to do a film in fall 2007 and had two actors, Vinnie Jones and Michael Madsen, in a pay-or-play deal,” says Young. “They had also secured an abandoned hospital location that offered production facilities. They were unable to get the rights to a screenplay and were in danger of losing grant money and the actors.
“I got (their script) treatment and didn't connect with it. I've always had difficulty cottoning to other people's writing, anyway. A week or two passed and sure enough, they didn't have time to write it. So they said, ‘Do you want to write and direct?'
“They had 20 days to shoot, two actors who could be there for two days each, and a hospital in really bad shape. I had a week and a half to write the script, and I first had to write a treatment to sell them on it.”
A guy his colleagues can trust
Sachar, who had a small role as a cannibal in the post-apocalyptic “Nail,” was glad to have Young on his team.
“I can get a film going with Mark and leave and work on another film and not worry about it. I'm normally the guy who pushes a film through post-production and looks at the cuts during editing. But in this partnership, he's the driving force. He sends Patrick and me cuts for us to comment on.
“A lot of people in the independent film world don't have the grounding he does; you have to baby-sit them. Mark comes at it from a different angle than guys who don't care, because it's not their money. Yet he has a vision. He really sticks to his guns, and it's hard to sway him from that – and most of the time, he's right.”
Madsen, who has more than 150 projects to his credit (including “Sin City” and “Reservoir Dogs”), confirms this view in a behind-the-scenes video for “Nail”:
“There's nothing worse than being on the set with a director who can't make up his mind whether or not he likes a shot. If you have an indecisive director, everyone starts to doubt each other. Mark shoots something good, he moves on.”
Young, who's working with Madsen again on “Killing Jar,” would like to establish a kind of loose repertory company, because actors who respect each other and him can get into character quickly with almost no rehearsal. One of his key players in “Gothic” and “Nail” was daughter Emily, now 13.
“He said, ‘I'm making a movie and might have you in it, but don't get your hopes up: You have to audition like anybody else.' He likes to put a lot of detail into (characterization) but expects me to put in a lot, too.
“He's definitely a perfectionist. When we took pictures for my first day of school, he said, ‘This lighting is not so good.' I said, ‘We're outside, Dad. There's nothing you can do.' He said, ‘Well, it's incorrect!'”
In his private life, Young's a man of habit. He wears black shirts, jeans and black shoes daily. He works on screenplays (of which he's finished 40 or so) most weekday mornings at Caribou Coffee on East Boulevard. He stuck to his diet of oatmeal and soup even after losing the desired weight, “so I don't have to make decisions.”
But on set, he's comfortable being the master arbiter.
“If I can make films with a $2 million budget for the rest of my life, that's a sweet spot for me,” he says. “I'll have an even shot at being a filmmaker for a living.
“I had business cards printed up six months ago. All my life, I've been a visual designer and had glitzy cards to show I was capable of doing anything a client wanted. Now I have a plain white card: no phone number, nothing on the back. It just says ‘writer-director.'”