Morgan Schmidt-Feng: “Sometimes your best training can come from opportunities like that, things that film school can’t teach you, but work experience does”

One thing I didn’t realize when I first started out was that you might be expected to work for next to nothing or free before your career can grow and you meet the goals you’ve set for yourself. Sometimes your best training can come from opportunities like that, things that film school can’t teach you, […]

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One thing I didn’t realize when I first started out was that you might be expected to work for next to nothing or free before your career can grow and you meet the goals you’ve set for yourself. Sometimes your best training can come from opportunities like that, things that film school can’t teach you, but work experience does. Twenty years into my career I’m still learning something new every shoot day. When I learn something new on a shoot, I consider that a great day.

As a part of our series about Stars Making a Social Impact, I had the distinct pleasure of interviewing Morgan Schmidt-Feng.

Morgan is an Emmy-award winning director, producer, cinematographer and the founder of Filmsight Productions, a San Francisco Bay Area independent video production company. Filmsight clients include top media, entertainment, tech and non profit companies such as Disney, Impossible Foods, Tesla Motors, and Khan Academy. Morgan is currently producing a unique storytelling project called COVIDeos (2020), featuring a series of powerful short documentaries made by a talented collective of artists and filmmakers, many of whom are marginalized, and are reflecting on how the COVID-19 pandemic has impacted their lives and the lives of their communities.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! It is a great honor. Our readers would love to learn more about your personal background. Can you tell us the story of how you grew up?

My multi-racial, bilingual family of seven lived in Berkeley in a 100 year-old Victorian home in a neighborhood made up of law students, communists, and working class folks. I lived in two homes. The one in Berkeley with my mother & step-father and sisters, and my father and step-mother’s home in Oakland. When I graduated high school, I took a year off before college so that I could travel, surf, and work to save money for college. That summer my father, [Rick Schmidt, independent filmmaker and author] wrote a script and asked me to play the lead in his movie, Morgan’s Cake (1989), which was my father’s fictionalized version of my real life, and a classic representation of my father’s unique brand of filmmaking. It co-starred my then real girlfriend, and my best friend. My father’s friends played my parents in the movie. Even though my father had written a script he never shared it with me and the dialogue was completely improvised. The way my dad worked is that he’d sometimes want to discuss the concept or idea he had for a scene just before we filmed it, or he’d create dialogue and give direction while the camera was rolling. A year later after the movie premiered at Sundance I got my first real impression of the power of storytelling. My dad definitely got me on the creative path I’ve been on for most of my life and enabled me to tell the kinds of stories that I think are often overlooked. The stories I’m drawn to are those that put a spotlight on the marginalized who for complex reasons lack the same kinds of resources and agency of the privileged few.

What or who inspired you to pursue your career? Can you share the story with us?

Obviously my dad has a lot to do with how I first got interested in my career because of the introduction he gave me to the entire movie making process on Morgan’s Cake. He has consistently shown me the importance of doing something creative every day. If he’s not writing something, he’s thinking about what’s next. So in that same way if I’m not working, I take pictures, watch movies and try to learn from other filmmakers and photographers. My late mother, Sanchi Yanu, was a lawyer, and the main person in my life who grounded me with a strong sense of social justice, activism and spirituality. She came to Berkeley, California during the mid-60s, got involved in the women’s rights movement and was once arrested during a peaceful group protest at the main branch of the Berkeley Library. The group wanted the library to install a women’s authors section. I also remember the day she rounded up the whole family to march during the Cesar Chavez grape boycott in support of farm workers. Protesting is a family tradition! We all benefited from her moral and spiritual support. She also pitched in financially and helped me buy my first professional video camera when I started my career, I really needed help since no equipment rental house would rent a camera to me for a shoot I had in Guyana. Her influence is a constant in my life and my work and relationships. I remember how generous she was with all of us and when things get tough, I try to live by her example of strength and perseverance.

In terms of my artistic influences I have a long list of people in my personal sphere who have had a big influence on my work. My close colleagues and friends, Brad Marshland and Chris Brown, have helped guide and support me for over twenty years, and are two enormously creative filmmakers and writers. The late great documentary filmmaker, Gail Dolgin, who made Daughter from Danang (2002) and The Barber from Birmingham (2003) taught me the fundamental importance of telling unvarnished in-depth stories. Judith Erhlich, who made The Most Dangerous Man In America (2009) and The Good War and Those Who Refused to Fight It (2000) has been a consistent role model for her tenacity. She taught me that documentary filmmaking is a marathon not a sprint. I could go on and on because there are so many gifted inspiring creative people in my life who have helped shape my work.

Some of my earliest influences were these three filmmakers and their films: Spanish-Mexican directorLuis Buñuel’s Los Olvidados (1950), Argentine-Brazilian director Héctor Eduardo Babenco’s Pixote (1981), and Indian-American director Mira Nair’s Salaam Bombay (1988). Casting non-actors to portray fictionalized characters gave their work a level of rawness, intensity and realism that’s stuck with me. A more recent favorite by Alejandro González Iñárritu, Biutiful (2010) which has an unforgettably blistering realism. Marlon Troy Riggs was a filmmaker, professor, poet, and gay rights activist. Two of his documentary films, Tongues Untied (1989) and Color Adjustment (1992) inspiredandinfluenced my first documentary as a director Grip on Hip-Hop (1993) which wasabout the politics of rap music and hip-hop culture during the early 90s in the San Francisco Bay Area. After deeply admiring Riggs’ work and activism it was so meaningful for me to see him speak at my college commencement since his work had such a powerful impact on my work. His unapologetic approach and exploration of subject matter was viewed at the time as taboo by the mainstream. His poetic sensitivity to his subject was ahead of its time.

Can you share the funniest or most interesting mistake that occurred to you in the course of your career? What lesson or take away did you learn from that?

A near fatal mistake I made while I was shooting something was one memorable example of what I’ve had to endure to tell a story I believe in. The story I’m talking about began in 2009 when I shot a one-minute segment for a TV show on local sustainable farming. We interviewed Nancy Prebilich on her family’s 90-acre ranch in Bodega, California. They had worked their land for five generations. Her stories brought me right back to the stories my mother and great-grandmother had told me about hard work and the connection they had to food, to the earth, and to family. After the one-day shoot on the TV show, I asked Nancy if she would be interested in me filming her and her family sometime in the future. I didn’t have a specific plan at that point but I knew that somehow this was a window into my past, and into our collective past as an agrarian nation. Three weeks later, my photographer friend Anthony Lindsey and I returned to Nancy’s family farm to take pictures and film Nancy and her aging parents as they worked at their ranch. Going back to the mistake I made and the lesson I learned … it happened on the very first day of shooting at the ranch. I had my camera sitting on a tripod nearby when Nancy’s father started his two ton chicken truck and the truck jolted forward down the hill, barreling right for me. I grabbed my camera and tripod and jumped out of the way while the truck barrelled past me barely missing me. After the adrenaline settled I learned that no matter how many stories I could recall from my childhood I would never know what this life was really like unless I spent time on the farm with this family. I filmed the family living, working, and experiencing joy and great loss in their lives on the ranch. The family’s story was so universal during the Great Recession I had to tell it. It took five years to shoot and became my feature documentary, On Her Own, which had its world premiere at the 2015 Slamdance Film Festival and had its international premiere at Hot Docs Documentary Film Festival in Toronto in 2016. While it can be found on many streaming platforms and over 300 libraries in America I think I’m most proud of the fact that the family we portrayed, specifically Nancy, was given a chance to begin to heal from what she and her family went through during the making of the film. When she saw how much her story had in common with others and how others appreciated her story it also helped validate something in her that she was still processing at the time. By seeing her story with a live audience, she fully accepted, for the first time, that she had done everything she could to hang onto her family’s ranch. I think the film may have also been the start of her self-forgiveness. When we showed the film in her hometown it really reinforced that for her because these were the people that meant the most to her personally and they gave her an emotional standing ovation. I think her story helped the people in her town recognize what a strong, intelligent, determined person Nancy is and her community has helped support her education and advocacy efforts for urban farming, a tradition that is having a bit of a revival in her county.

In our work, we often focus on how we can thrive in three areas: body, mind, and heart. I’d like to flesh this out with you. You are a very busy leader with a demanding schedule. Can you share with our readers any self care routines, practices or treatments that you do to help your body, mind or heart to thrive? Kindly share a story or an example for each.

Sixteen years ago I made the conscious decision to get healthier. I began to eat a much healthier diet and committed to doing some form of physical exercise every day. In order to keep up with the more extreme physical demands of my job as a cinematographer I was pressed to figure out how to get stronger every day from then on. That meant that on the road I’d have to find time to fit in some exercise even if it was at midnight I’d take a run or do a set of simple exercises to stay fit. These two self-care routines were my basic daily goals. My healthy diet motto: “If it’s brown eat it down and if it’s white it ain’t right” helped me lose 25 lbs in one month. Almost immediately I had more energy and felt far fewer aches and pains after long days of shooting. At the time my exercise mostly consisted of walking long distances or hiking up hills but one day out of the blue my nephew, Brando Farr, invited me to enter a race with him, The 2006 Topanga 10K. At the time the furthest I had ever run was 4 miles and I noticed after looking at the course map that the first 3 miles went straight up the canyon. I didn’t want to disappoint my nephew so I agreed with no real preparation for it. The positive energy generated by the other racers kept me going. At the 3 mile turnaround point a woman running near me encouraged me to keep up with her, and that was so helpful. Her kind words helped me forget about the pain in my legs and the next thing I knew I crossed the finish line. My legs nearly gave out from under me and I walked as though I had 100lbs of lead around my ankles but it felt wonderful to complete the race. For nearly two weeks after that race my legs were sore, but I wasn’t discouraged at all and still try to do a couple of races a year. It’s meant so much to me to find something so transformational and at the same time something that helps me maintain my health and connection to the outdoors which I love. When I was at the height of my racing I think I encouraged all of my close friends and family to race or take up a regular exercise program. Eventually some of them did! I don’t pressure people as much anymore, and I mostly run with a single group of guys. Whenever I race or run past someone who is having a hard time I always offer a kind word or two because I know how much that meant to me when someone bothered to give me that encouragement.

Ok super. Let’s now move to the main part of our discussion. How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world? Can you share with us the meaningful or exciting causes you are working on right now?

At Filmsight, we’ve helped launch major influential companies from their earliest beginnings as well as helped advance some of the most important causes we believe in: literacy, healthcare, and clean energy solutions.

Our most current project that brings some goodness to the world is one that came out of a passionate need to do something positive for our creative community while we were all reeling from the turmoil of a pandemic we barely understood on top of dealing with the most dramatic economic crash of our time. This is a creative project between my company and diverse filmmakers from all over the country, some living abroad, to give a direct response to the time we’re living through now. Called COVIDeos, the collaboration offers stipends and mentorships to marginalized artists and out of work filmmakers at all levels, including people of color, of the Lakota nation, homeless and disabled artists, among others. These are people whose already vulnerable predicaments have only been compounded by the challenges of losing paid work and having to figure out how to work, teach and learn from home. And doing so all while living in the context of a life-threatening health crisis which has tested all of our abilities to cope with a lot of uncertainty and fear. Meanwhile some must deal with the pain, grief and suffering of losing loved ones to the virus.

Can you share with us the story behind why you chose to take up this particular cause?

Since the pandemic I’ve returned to a daily meditation practice, something I do to cope with the rapid changes we’re going through. During one morning meditation the COVIDeos project came to me. I realized one of the best ways I could help others was to do what I do best: tell stories. We reached out to people who we knew were impacted by two troubling issues many are still faced with: trying to stay healthy to avoid catching the virus, and surviving a busted global economy. I got on the phone, spoke to my trusted colleagues and everyone gave their full support. Storytellers were asked to show how the pandemic has impacted them, their families and their communities. Members of the Filmsight & Needle Space Labs team donated their time and expertise, and some generous donors allowed us to award some financial stipends to those who need it most. The stories we have and continue to collect express the full scope of what’s happening right now. Feelings of hope, grief, joy, courage, and the kindness that have made this time bearable. COVIDeos is currently streaming on our website and can be watched here:

Can you share with us a story about a person who was impacted by your cause?

While I would like to be able to tell you about each of the ten COVIDeos shorts I’ll speak to the one I shot and edited. Last week, my partner and co-producer, Suzanna, and I returned to the neighborhood where I recently shot a short interview with a talented artist named Ronnie Goodman, who is featured in our COVIDeos project titled Humanity Scale of Love (2020). Ronnie has lived and worked on the streets in The Mission in San Francisco for many years. Because homelessness is such a huge issue in every major city and even more critical now than before because of the fact that so many people like Ronnie don’t have a place to safely shelter-in-place, I felt it was even more important than ever to give Ronnie an opportunity to speak about his work and talk about his experience during this time.

After that day I put a short piece together and just as soon as I could, I showed it to him to make sure he was okay with it. After he watched it, he was visibly moved, and urged us to share the video with one of his biggest supporters in New York. We learned that Ronnie’s work is part of a group exhibit addressing the ills of mass incarceration (Marking Time: Art in the Time of Mass Incarceration, MoMa PS1). Originally scheduled to show in April through August, the MoMa PS1 show has been postponed until further notice due to the pandemic. In the short time we’ve spent with him we know Ronnie was touched by the story we told and he wanted to share it with his friend and supporter, and that has meant a lot to us. We’re concerned about him out on the street especially during this major health threat and wish we could do more for him. We visited him this week to talk to him some more and delivered a new pair of running shoes & socks, a gift made possible by some of our viewers who felt inspired to help him after they saw his story.

What are your 5 things “I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.

My success has depended on the talented collaborators I’ve been blessed to work with. Their talent and drive have made my work better and they have much to do with my success. Early on, I think I could have avoided some of the production mistakes I’ve made by understanding that clients expect you to deliver work that is 100% mistake-free, and that it really matters who you choose to work with. You don’t always get to choose that of course, and production glitches can’t be avoided sometimes but I’ve learned that preparation is everything. Know what’s expected, go above your client’s expectations and learn how to make things work as close to perfection as you can.

One thing I didn’t realize when I first started out was that you might be expected to work for next to nothing or free before your career can grow and you meet the goals you’ve set for yourself. Sometimes your best training can come from opportunities like that, things that film school can’t teach you, but work experience does. Twenty years into my career I’m still learning something new every shoot day. When I learn something new on a shoot, I consider that a great day.

You are a person of enormous influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

That’s a question I’ve been asking myself for years and one answer that comes to mind over and over is what might happen if we had the budget of a film like King Arthur (2017), which cost nearly 300 million dollars (Indiewire), and instead make 300 — one hour documentaries? With a budget like that, I estimate that 300 filmmakers and their crews could make a fair wage, and instead of having one more fantasy adventure box office flop, hundreds of emerging filmmakers could tell their stories and broaden our perspective and hopefully start a new trend toward supporting a far more diverse group of filmmakers. COVIDeos is a mini version of this idea.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life?

Recently someone shared this quote with me:

Film is incredibly democratic and accessible, it’s probably the best option if you actually want to change the world, not just re-decorate it.

– Banksy

It’s one that really resonates with me not just on a personal level as a filmmaker who tries to do impactful work, but because I’ve witnessed how my work has helped individuals who really needed the support of their communities to move on from some tragic life experiences. I learned a long time ago that if you want to make a movie you can on a reasonable budget but at that time the production tools, cameras, editing systems were costly. Now, more than ever, anyone who wants to tell a story can tell their story with as little equipment as a smartphone and a laptop. Therefore it’s my belief that more talented visual storytellers can have an opportunity to help break down artistic, economic, political, and cultural barriers. Like democracy, that can mean there will also be work that challenges the powers that be and gives rise to voices people may not want to hear, but may need to as we slowly continue to bend towards a more equal and just world. I believe breaking down accessibility barriers and barriers to artistic expression will only help filmmaking evolve. Every voice should have a chance to be heard and counted.

What are the best ways our readers can follow you online?

Readers are welcome to find me on my website:

Thank you for these fantastic insights. We wish you only continued success in your great work!

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