POV: Director of WMMIntl Film Festival Whit Spurgeon
Jun 14, 2021
Cinephile and tastemaker, Whit Spurgeon has been a gift to the WMM community since he first joined almost a decade ago. As an actor, he has flavored many staged readings with his unique presence and sturdy character work, and graced dozens of projects that have come out of the Lab pipeline. As a filmmaker, he has used WMM the way one should -- by absorbing as much knowledge from those with more experience, surrounding himself with equally proficient and determined artists, contributing to the creative conversation, and then going out there and actually telling bold and colorful stories to the best of his ability.
As the Director of WMMIntl Film Festival he incorporates his voracious appetite for all things film, management prowess, foresight, and unadulterated enthusiasm into cultivating a stellar experience for both the audience and filmmaker alike. We are excited to introduce you to the talent and soul of our friend and constant collaborator Whit Spurgeon.
WMM: How do you think growing up around the newspaper industry shaped you personally and artistically?
WS: When I was a teenager, in Muncie, Indiana, my father was the Executive Editor of the Muncie Star and the Muncie Evening Press (he wrote over 10,000 newspaper columns in his lifetime). Growing up in a newspaper family exposed me to lots of culture and areas of knowledge I might not have been privy to otherwise. My parents were both journalists at one point or another in their lives, and they made a point of exposing us to culture outside of Muncie. We took two or three long weekend trips every year to Chicago to see plays and go to museums and eat in the kinds of restaurants we didn't have in Muncie, for instance. My father and mother were also heavily involved in community affairs, including volunteering at Muncie Civic Theatre, the local volunteer theatre housed in an old vaudeville/burlesque theatre of the 1920s. This is where I was first really exposed to acting, and I was never the same...
WMM: You spent a lot of time in Chicago. How was the artistic culture similar and different from LA? What do you miss and what do you still carry from those years?
WS: I lived full-time in Chicago for almost 20 years, and having spent time in London and NYC, I can honestly report that during my years in Chicago I can't think of a single city that had such a rich and amazing theatre scene. Chicago at the time was theatrically more similar to London than NYC, in that the strength of its theatre community was largely in the off-loop, smaller theatres -- what are referred to as "fringe" theatres in London. Chicago was (and still is) also a huge commercial and voiceover hub. During my time there I appeared in over 50 plays and over 30 TV commercials, including several Jeff-Award and Jeff-Citation winning theatre productions. (The Jeffs are the Chicago equivalent of the Tonys). The quality of excellent theatre there ran so deep in the smaller off-Loop venues that after living there for almost 20 years I could still walk in to a theatre I'd never heard of before, see actors I'd never seen before, and come out thinking "That's one of the best shows I've ever seen in my life." Chicago also has amazing museums, an incredible music scene, and some of the best restaurants in the world -- but so does L.A.! So the only thing I really miss out here is the unique and nurturing Chicago theatre scene. L.A. is equal to Chicago in pretty much every other aspect -- and, of course, the weather here is MUCH easier to navigate, even if the highways are equally shitty. The thing I carry from Chicago and my years there in the theatre scene is a sense of ensemble. Every Chicago play that was great that I had the pleasure of acting in, was great because everyone in the play was working together as an ensemble to make it that way. No stars, just dozens of equally important pieces of a larger and greater work of art. I find the same experience here in L.A. -- the best films and TV shows I've appeared in or helped produce are all marked by a sense of group achievement. Many people coming together to make a piece of art or entertainment bigger than their individual selves.
WMM: What actors made you want to be one? What films and filmmakers made an impression on you? How? Why?
WS: I was a weird kid, into darker/weirder/funnier entertainment early, so when I say Jack Nicholson and Diane Keaton as actors (always fresh and unpredictable and fearless) and Bob Fosse and Ridley Scott as directors ("All That Jazz" and "Blade Runner" rocked my world when I was a young teen) it probably should come as no surprise. I've always preferred entertainment and performers that surprise and challenge me over those that make me feel warm, fuzzy, and comfortable. Closure is overrated. So the risk-takers have always been my favorites. My list of beloved/inspiring actors and directors is so huge now that it would be ridiculous to even try to list all of my inspirations (more are added every year!), but they include Martin Scorcese, Agnes Varda, Hal Hartley, Terry Gilliam and Ida Lupino on the director front, and Meryl Streep, Katharine Hepburn, Kate Winslet, Cary Grant and Gary Oldman on the actor side. I also love ANYONE (performer, writer or director) who can find the funny in traditionally unfunny situations.
WMM: Have you always wanted to be a filmmaker? Do you think it is a natural progression or is it something that you moved into because of the climate of the industry?
WS: I've always wanted to be an actor -- it's still my favorite thing to do. Only in the last 10 years or so did I discover I enjoyed being a filmmaker (directing and producing). I'm an occasional photographer, so the desire to create pretty pictures was already there. I did it more out of a sense of curiosity ("Can I do this or will I be terrible at it?") than anything else, but I've discovered I enjoy it, so I'll continue to do it when the opportunities arise or when I'm offered a job that intrigues me or when I've got a specific story idea where I think I'm the best person to hold the reins on the project. At the end of the day, though, if I was acting all the time and didn't have time to produce and direct, I'd miss it, but not enough to do less acting!
WMM: Why were you drawn to WMM and why have you remained an active member of the community?
WS: WMM is unique in that it's a production services company as well as a filmmaking collective, so there's about 10 million different ways they can be helpful when you want to make something. Finding like-minded people who are interested in my projects is the best part -- attend a couple of Wednesday night meetings and talk to enough people and watch enough actors in readings and you can pretty much cast and crew your entire project just with talented WMM folks. I think my favorite thing about it, though, is that what one gets out of the group is pretty much only limited by one's own ambition, and what they're willing to put in. So those who expect the group to do things for them never get as much out of the group as those who just jump in, grab a bunch of allies, and make their shit happen. And those are my kind of artists!
WMM: You have been with WMM for a long time. How has WMM fostered you as an artist? What sets us apart and how are we unique?
WS: WMM was the first filmmaking group I attended out here that reminded me of my favorite ensemble theatre groups in Chicago -- making stuff based on the strengths of its members. WMM fosters me as an artist by recognizing what I bring to the table -- no more, no less -- and by putting me in proximity of other talented artists with similar visions and ideas. They help me, I help them. Everyone's art can get made. My kind of group.
What drove you to get involved with the WMM International Film Festival
? As Director of the festival, how do you plan to grow and cultivate the festival?
WS: Mainly, my friendship with Eric Michael Kochmer, who founded the "International" version of the festival with me in 2019 (Chad Kukahiko started a more local version of the festival, WMMFest, several years prior - it ran in conjunction with the Hollywood Fringe Festival). Eric and I were merely acquaintances until we worked together several years ago on an ultra-low budget film that shot in Topanga Canyon. I heard him talking about Italian neorealism with someone else in the cast, which led to Eric and I chatting about film, and a cinephile friendship was born. Through the years, Eric has introduced me to movies like the 1969 Japanese experimental film "Funeral Parade of Roses" and I've introduced him to stuff like "Harold and Maude." Between the two of us we've got a knowledge of film and film history that's both broad and deep. We're also both filmmakers, and we've taken our individual films to a lot of festivals, and we were both struck at how terrible a lot of the non-major film festivals were -- lots of bad movies, and a festival experience where most filmmakers at a festival don't feel seen -- like now that the festival has your money they're going to show your film and then forget you ever existed. So through the years Eric and I talked about what we'd want a festival to be like -- and when Eric said, "Want to actually start an International festival with me through We Make Movies?" I was like, "F*** yeah!" And here we are, in our 3rd year.
WMM: What creative medium do you feel most at home in? What captures your attention when you are deciding whether or not to pursue a creative endeavor?
WS: Acting, whether in TV, film, theatre or commercial or any experimental combination of the above. What tends to capture my attention is originality, a fascinating character to play, and anything with humor. Life can be funny, even the horrible parts, and I like art (and roles) that reflect that.
WMM: How do you define success in this industry?
WS: I'm not sure how to measure success in the industry. I've appeared in speaking roles on TV, in several films, award-winning plays, and dozens of commercials. That puts me in a very rare club -- most people on the planet can't claim even one of those things. But the metrics by which the industry judges performers are weird: fame = success. Most of the greatest actors I know (Chicago theater actors and a lot of character actors out here in L.A.) will NEVER be famous. But they're still the greatest actors I know! I'm not famous, most people don't know who I am. And it's not that I wouldn't happily take a big paycheck to be a regular on a TV series or something, but that hasn't been my success metric for over 25 years. I continue to be lucky enough to be allowed to be on a TV show or in a movie or short film or play every now and then, and I get to make the occasional movie as a director or producer. Creatively and artistically I've had a very full plate since the mid-90s. I'm certainly not sitting on my hands waiting for the phone to ring. So I feel very successful -- if nothing changed in my life until the day I die, I would die happy. But as to success in "industry" terms? I guess it depends on one's definition of success...
WMM: Is there a particular project that is near and dear to your heart? What is the scariest undertaking you have come across as an artist?
WS: Several plays in Chicago come to mind, including "The Wound Dresser," "The Glory of Living," "Awake and Sing!" and "Hizzoner." Also a couple of short films I've directed, "The Interview," and "Thump." All of my appearances as an actor in TV and feature films have been fun and rewarding so far. The scariest thing was directing my first short film -- I didn't know if I knew enough to make something that even made narrative sense at the end of the day. Fortunately, I was smart enough to surround myself with other people who had actual filmmaking experience, and they helped guide me. By midday of the shoot, I no longer felt like I was having a heart attack, and the resulting film was not a complete dumpster fire, so I'm happy.
WMM: How have you kept yourself busy during the pandemic and what projects are you looking forward to?
WS: We produced last year's WMMIntl Film Festival during the pandemic, for one! THAT was a helluva undertaking -- a LIVE all-internet festival. Also planning this year's festival, reading, reviewing lots of scripts for future projects, tons of Zoom script readings, and gearing up for these new post-pandemic days. I just taped an appearance on a major network game show which should show up on TV in the fall. I make an appearance in, and helped to produce, a high-end short film produced by Eric Michael Kochmer through WMM which shot recently in New Mexico. It was a real adventure, lemme tell ya, and I'm excited for the final product. Mostly, though, the summer will be spent finalizing this year's We Make Movies International Film Festival. It's Sept. 8-12, and I'm thrilled once again with the quality of films we'll be showing from all around the world.
WMM: What would you change if you could, about the entertainment industry? About your own career trajectory?
WS: About the industry? More emphasis on great work, less on fame (or infamy). About my own career trajectory? I really don't know how to answer that, since I'm happy where I'm at, and any changes would put me in a different place. I probably should have studied filmmaking as much as film history in my youth. I feel like a late bloomer in the filmmaking field, and like maybe the learning curve would have been easier when I was younger. But what are you gonna do? I was busy doing theatre, which seemed like the right thing to be doing at the time!
WMM: Any advice/humor/warnings you can impart to other filmmakers/actors?
WS: Believe in yourself, but don't take yourself too seriously. Try to have a sense of humor about your own shortcomings. Learn from your mistakes rather than obsessing about them. Surround yourself with people who know more than you do -- it's the best way to learn. Show up to set on time, don't show up high or drunk, and be as easy and pleasant to work with as possible. In general, to steal from the lips of the great Geoffrey Holder, "Don't be a bitch. Kiss yourselves."
Sapna Gandhi is an actor, singer-songwriter, and content creator. In addition to TV credits such as BOSCH, SHAMELESS and SCANDAL, she has appeared in numerous shorts, features, and series, including festival darlings IN ABSENTIA (Raindance) and THUMPER (Tribeca). Gandhi has produced several series and films under the umbrella of her production company Elegant Grotesque (most recently SCRAP, starring Anthony Rapp and Vivian Kerr, and Noel Gallagher’s High Flying Birds’ STRANDED ON THE EARTH, directed by Mike Bruce). She is also 1/2 of the musical duo, VATAVARAN, was born in England, raised all over the states, studied English and Women’s Studies, and trained at the American Conservatory Theatre in SF.