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Vanessa McMahon

Vanessa is a novel writer, screenwriter, rep and a film producer. She shares her discoveries and film surprises. :-)



Interview with Director/Writer/Actor John Fortson for 'RATED' (2016) @ Palm Springs International Shortfest

Actor/Writer/Producer John Fortson's short film 'RATED' (2016)

Director/Writer/Actor John Fortson's short film 'RATED' (2016) has been making its round to film festivals since its world premiere at Sonoma International Film Festival in April where it won the Jury Award for Best Comedy Short. The film stars John's actor wife Christie Lynn Smith (Justified, The Crazies) who plays the lead Maggie, their daughter Abby Ryder Fortson (Togetherness, Ant-Man), and their son Joshua Fortson. RATED is currently screening at the 2016 Palm Springs International Shortfest.


Read my interview with filmmaker John Fortson here:

ME: I loved the magical realism edge to this film. It forces the viewer to see outside of reality and yet it is more real than 'reality'. What made you come up with the idea?

JOHN: Yes, the magical realism of the stars is fun isn't it? I love talking to people about the film. At first they seem to think, that's neat, that's cute. What a cute idea, that people have stars over their head, then they hear how the stars are locked over the person's head, that the rating is determined by reviews by others, our peers, your mother, your dry cleaner, your boss, and they get serious and say, "that's terrifying." And then the conversation never ends. It seems to be a concept we don't want to happen, but do enjoy imagining it and what it would hold for people if it did happen. Everyone looks at each other and starts debating how many stars each other would have - fun to watch it happen within couples. You're acting like a 2 star, honey!...

...The stars are no joke, they're played as if really happening and it's through the drama of the film that we get the humor and poignancy. The films been compared to Nebraska, About Schmidt, and Silver Linings Playbook. All are films I love. So happy to hear that! I'm always writing about my personal life, in screenplays and plays I've written, so I find my brain is always thinking, writing ideas. And my wife and I use YELP and it's 5 star rating system regularly when we are on the hunt for a new restaurant in and out of town as many people do. Then we needed a new dentist and when friends recommendations weren't panning out, I looked at YELP with it's 5 star ratings and found a great dentist. All kinds of things are rated on YELP, from your favorite beach, to guitar lessons. And we all are looking at Amazon and everything we buy has a rating, even judging a sponge by the 5 star rating... 

...Then I was hearing about, then about Uber. My friends were telling me that you rate the driver and how great it seems to be working because of how nice the Uber/Lift experience is compared to taxi service. Then they told me how the drivers rate us only we can't see the ratings. And that's when the lightbulb went off in my head and I started writing down ideas on paper napkins at the bar, staring off into space. I thought what if this husband and wife woke up one morning and found they were rated with stars locked over their heads. But what if one of them had a bad rating? What would happen and boom I was off and writing. Having written so much about my relationship, I thought of the stars not as the main focus of the film, but as just one of the characters in the film and the one that would act as an intervention in this family's dynamic to help make change for the better.

ME: Do you think it is human nature to judge others with prejudice?

JOHN: I do. I think that it's something that we can learn to rise above, fighting against those thoughts that creep into our heads. Unfortunately or fortunately, I think that human nature has a lot of self centered behavior locked into it and I use the word fortunately because we're probably like that from a survival stand point. We wouldn't be here, wouldn't push ourselves, wouldn't innovate through competition unless we had that self serving nature. Unfortunately, it also causes so much competition and comparison that it naturally lends itself toward the darker side of life; judging, bullying, exclusiveness and segregation, and racism. I think we are all inherently good, but are everyday fighting the darker side of our self indulgences brought on by our insecurities. That fight is interesting to me and part of how the story of RATED developed. This woman, a wife and mother of two, journeying to become aware of her behavior, then to find the courage to own up to it.

ME: If only our natures could be visible to others from the outside forcing us to make change, do you think people would be moved to change their bad behaviors and the world would be a better place?

JOHN: Good question. Yes, I think it could. I think that it could be a power that can be used for good. In some ways it's happening, social media is helping people ban together and stand up for issues they believe in or against discriminatory laws and make changes. And I think that can cause people to look in the mirror. We all need some self reflection to really see what's in our hearts. I think that we give in to bad behavior sometimes, because we think or know we can get away with it. We'll eat a bag of cookies when no one is around... 

...I believe that fear causes these bad behaviors. I don't understand you, so I fear you, so I judge you and act out. Or I fear being my best, so I judge you. Or I fear what you represent, your beliefs, because they are different than mine, so I judge you, or hurt you, verbally, emotionally or physically. So we have to be careful because with the power of knowing everyone's true nature, we also could see the darker side of life as I described above happening. People becoming excluded or singled out. And without proper support to become better in their lives, the results could be drastic. We don't want to lose touch with our natural ability to make decisions for ourselves. I think this is the biggest consequence of rating systems in our lives. We are all so busy so we rely on these ratings to quickly tell us what's best, but what about having an experience that helps us decide for ourselves? How can we grow if we don't experience the negative of life?... 

...Also we all have a bad day, don't we? What if it's not about someone being horrible, but just having bad days. We all have days where we just don't feel like being around people, are overwhelmed, and we are in survival mode and forget to say thank you, or are more blunt and BAM you get a low rating and your life changes for the worse?! BUT - we don't want to be fake everyday either just to keep our 5 star rating. 

ME: How long did it take to make this film?

JOHN: I had the idea in December 2014, wrote until April 2015, then shot for 4 days straight toward the end of April beginning of May 2015. It then took 9 months until February 1, 2016 to complete. But now, that's not all just work, that's me juggling life, two kids, working on other jobs, time with my wife. In the mix, I had 2 editors who loved it and started working on our film, but then drop out for bigger jobs. We had 2 pickup shots, for which I had to beg and borrow a camera that matched our original to shoot on. We had an amazing VFX team in India, called Cinibees Studios, so the film had to be sent to them, spend days in customs, then worked on toward my approval of how I saw the stars looking and acting. They had a month long flood in India that was devastating that caused delays. It all took much more time than I thought it would, especially with me being a first time director. I've acted in so many projects and just been on set so much but you never know all the behind the scenes work that has to be done until you do it. Now I know and I couldn't of done it without my amazing team.

ME: Was it a big budget to shoot?

JOHN: It cost me just over 35K to shoot, edit, VFX, and get to final print. I think that's fairly big for a short, but I've heard of shorts costing three dollars and some costing 250K. Overall, we shot for a very fair price for everyone involved with a few favors, but mostly everyone working below their rate because they believed in the project, but still 35K. I personally funded this film. I thought about kickstarting, but ultimately just took the risk and made it happen. So glad I did. Best money ever spent.

ME: Do you think you will turn this into a feature?

JOHN: Absolutely. I already have the script written and am taking meetings. The feature is so much fun and expands out the short so we really get what's going on in these characters lives. 

ME: You and your wife made this together. Did she volunteer to be the one with the 2 1/2 stars? 

JOHN: She did. I pitched this to her as an idea I thought would work and she immediately said yes, you have to make this one. (I'm always  coming up with ideas) Immediately we started improving off the ideas we had and came up with some form of a story line. I had originally thought that my character would have the lower stars, but she said no it should be the woman, the wife and mother of two, who's overwhelmed with her life. And I'm so happy that she offered that idea. We all go through transitions in life and couples that become parents go through a big one. You're in that survival mode just trying to take care of everyone and everything. On top of that, women's bodies change, their clothes change, their work situations change, and they can easily find themselves lost and or letting that tone come out at every turn while they are figuring out who they are again. It's so hard. On a personal level I have to really give so much respect to my wife and all women who so graciously bring us all into this world and take care of us while honoring the personal struggles they go through...

...On a professional level, I have to give it up for my wife, Christie Lynn Smith, and her amazing performance in the film. She trusted me as her director, and we've coached together for years, but she trusted me and went to all the places the film needed to take the audience on this ride. Her character is tough, because she needs to be vulnerable enough that we like her and feel for her, but see that she has a tone with everyone and deserves her low rating. She nailed it. 

ME: You had your world premiere at the 2016 Sonoma Film Fest. How was that?

JOHN: We world premiered at Sonoma and it was phenomenal. Sonoma is such a supportive festival as well as a town who loves movies. On top of having great screenings, RATED won the Jury Award for Best Comedy Short. It was such an honor, especially for our first festival and my first time out directing. I also loved that Sonoma IFF had a central village set up with a huge tent where the evening parties took place, bands played, and we, the filmmakers, got to interact with all the other filmmakers and townspeople building camaraderie as well as trading great knowledge between filmmakers and hearing feedback from audience members who had come to see your film. Plus there was great wine!

ME: How have audiences reacted to your film?

JOHN: Audiences have loved RATED! We've had sold out shows for most every festival with audiences laughing throughout the film, sighing at poignant times, and then cheering at the end of the film. They've had to turn people away at our screenings which is simply tremendous that so many people connect to the film. I've had so many people come up to me saying they got tears in their eyes because they so identify with feeling like they were rated or didn't act their best on some days. This interaction and exchange of ideas with the audience is my real award and proof that the feature version works. 

ME: What will you be working on next?

JOHN: I'm taking meetings with producers about RATED the feature. We'd love to get shooting later this year. This is an idea which is extremely relevant, resonates strongly with people while being fun to watch, and it's moving too, speaking to our core desire to be liked and our ability to treat others as we would want to be treated. I also have a book that I'm adapting to a screenplay that I'm really passionate about. I love good stories about the internal struggles that we all experience everyday and bringing them to life... ...You mention my wife, actress Christie Lynn Smith (Justified, The Crazies), who plays the lead Maggie, my daughter, actress Abby Ryder Fortson (Togetherness, Ant-Man), is also my daughter in the film as well as my son, Joshua Fortson. We are an acting family. My daughter came up to me when she was four while I was coaching Christie and said, "Okay, Papa, now you're coaching me." And we've just kept going. She loves it, loves meeting people, playing characters and it was so fun to watch her performance come together. I've long admired John Cassavetes, the Coppolas, all those great acting families and their collaborations together. It's so fun to create that life and tell stories together as we did with RATED and will do with the feature and beyond...

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Actor/Writer/Producer John Fortson's short film 'RATED' (2016)

Interview conducted by Vanessa McMahon


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