Welcome to the first article in our GUMworks series. Each column will feature an interview with an up-and-coming professional working in a different part of the film and television world. We’ll discuss who they are, what they do, and the role studios like GUM play in their lives.
Our first subject in the series is Liam Billingham. Liam is a Brooklyn-based filmmaker who creates documentaries, fiction films, and has even directed plays. He works for BRIC, Brooklyn’s public access arts institute, where he teaches filmmaking and helps non-profit organizations create short films that tell the world about their mission. His award-winning short film Future Perfect can be seen here, and you can find out about everything else he’s up to on his website. We caught up with Liam by phone a few days before Halloween. Our conversation has been edited for clarity and length.
GUM: First off, can you tell us a little bit about who you are and what you do?
Liam Billingham: My name is Liam Billingham, and I live in Brooklyn. I am a filmmaker. I produce short documentaries for local television and nonprofits; I work with schools; and I also teach broadcasting, filmmaking, field photography, editing, sound design, and a documentary arts intensive at BRIC Media in downtown Brooklyn.
GUM: What’s your history as a filmmaker?
LB: I, like a lot of people, fell in love with movies when I was really little. I had my coming of age before the digital film revolution, before you could pick just up an iPhone and make a movie. I didn’t really know how to get into film, so I started doing theater in high school. I did that for couple years, and theater kind of took over.
After college, I wanted to direct plays, and movies took a back seat. So I decided to study acting at the University of New Hampshire. I was lucky enough to have professors who were interested in two things. One, theater history and two, more experimental theater. So I was exposed to the kind of stuff that you should be when you’re 18 or 19 years old, the stuff that’s counterculture and blows your mind a little bit.
I spent a couple years doing theater, and then moved to the Czech Republic and had a small theater company there for a couple years. Then I moved back to New York with the intention of doing theater, but I wasn’t attracted to the scene here, and decided that maybe now would be a good time to pursue film again. I made some films and got into some festivals, but very quickly realized I didn’t have a suitable network for film. So I decided to go to film school, and I ended up at the City College of New York in Harlem.
GUM: What are the primary differences between directing for theater and for film?
LB: This is debateable, but from a traditional standpoint, film is much more a visual storytelling medium, whereas theater is driven predominantly by the playwright. So you have to think differently as a filmmaker. You have to think in terms of shots and shapes, and most importantly in terms of the cut. You’re thinking as an editor, and it takes into account a lot of visual and editorial decisions that inform the production process. Whereas with a play, you’re working usually from a preconceived text that you’re not making significant changes to. So film is a more fluid medium, as it requires up to the minute changes.
My theory is, when you’re directing actors in a play, you want to cast an actor who can withstand several weeks or months of rehearsal. In other words, you want to find an actor who is capable of playing the part, and all it’s really going to take is getting them to that next level so they can achieve it. There has to be a build. They have to learn how to escalate into the performance they’re going to give, and that they’re going to then have to sustain.
Film performances are much more about refinement. When you cast an actor to play a part, you need to know that they can play the character to their very bones. It’s all about simplifying from there, and focusing on what they already have inside of them.
GUM: The documentary films you did, mostly for BRIC, are about a whole range of subjects. There are kids dealing with bullying and racism, people writing their first novels and negotiating self-discovery, even a Japanese man negotiating a foreign culture. What’s the purpose of these projects?
LB: The film about my friend Jun from Japan was in preparation to make my thesis film Future Perfect, which was about ESL students in New York. But it was also personal, because he was a good friend, and he was in a situation over which he had no control. He really wanted to stay here and he felt trapped. There was a part of me that wanted to capture what was happening to him.
The project with the kids was a paid gig. But what eventually happened was, I got really close to them. It ended up becoming very, very important to me to complete the piece in a meaningful way.
The most recent thing that I just finished and just put out into the world is a documentary about a student of mine who was assaulted by an off-duty police officer over the summer. She was out with a friend, and she bumped into this man who, according to her, called her a dyke – she’s black and she’s gay. And he started assaulting her.
When I heard about it, I was like, someone needs to get this story on film now. We’re dealing so much with this issue of community policing and the Black Lives Matter movement and all of these elements. It was a way to contribute to that using a skillset that I had. I feel like it’s important to make a contribution to it and to make sure that these stories are told.
So it’s a variety. Sometimes it’s personal, and sometimes it’s professional. Usually, the ones you see on my website are the projects that took on a more significant meaning for me.
GUM: You mentioned you’re working with BRIC. For people who don’t know, what is it, and what do you do for them?
LB: BRIC is a multi-disciplinary arts center located in downtown Brooklyn, on Fulton Street. It began in 1978 as Celebrate Brooklyn. It eventually became known as BCAT, which stood for Brooklyn Culture And Technology, if I remember correctly. That was basically Brooklyn’s public access, so people could go there and make shows.
It existed in that form for a long time, and then they expanded over the past decade to become this thing called BRIC. It houses an art gallery; it houses TV studios; it houses BRIC TV, which is their professional television department; it has a coffee shop. It’s an all-inclusive arts organization that serves Brooklyn’s populace. I teach people how to get their shows on the air, and how to produce packages and edit. I also work in their partnerships team as a nonprofit producer. So they will pair me with an organization, and I will help them produce media, while teaching them how to do it on their own.
GUM: When you’re doing a piece that’s specifically for an organization, how much of your vision can you get into something like that? Do you help shape a story, or are you just executing something that they lay out for you?
LB: It’s flexible, and dependent on the needs of the org. For example, I have two organizations right now that are technically capable, so I’m just keeping them on track and making sure they get things done, and I’m doing the final edit.
But last year, I was partnered with an organization called ECPAT-USA. Their role is to increase awareness and decrease occurrence of sex trafficking of minors. They were creating a campaign focussed on getting hotels to train their staff on how to to be aware of and therefore curb the occurrence of sex trafficking of minors in hotels. I got paired with them because I got along well with the two women who were representing the org in our training.
When we were having our early meetings, they were talking about how these things happen in hotels and nobody notices them, but there are these telling signs. I came up with the image of an empty hotel room and someone cleaning it. The final piece is a series of moving shots of an empty hotel room, with a voiceover of a young woman talking about her experience being trafficked. So the idea came from me, but we all worked together on the script. It’s gotten about 300,000 hits on YouTube, because it got picked up by CNN and Upworthy and all these orgs. So it definitely was encouraging, because a lot of that original vision came from me, and they supplemented it, added to it, and made it better with their expert knowledge of the situation. I have no idea what a young woman who’s been trafficked is going to say, but they had all this testimony and information that we could use to make the piece feel more authentic.
GUM: I know you spent a bunch of time teaching English classes to non-native speakers, which is something you dramatized in your thesis film. In the process of teaching ESL, did you learn anything about writing or dialogue?
LB: That’s a really interesting question. Probably on some subconscious level.
Like I said, I went to film school knowing a lot more about how plays are written than about how movies are written. One of the things that was said about my first script was, this feels like a play, because it’s only people talking. I was lucky because one of the goals that I got out of that first semester of film school was that I want to write films. And what are films? They’re visual stories, not plays.
Having a character whose English was not very good forced the film to rely on being visual and trying to get inside of his head, as opposed to having him express what he feels verbally. My years spent as an English teacher, and trying to communicate in English with people whose first language was not English, taught me that people express things through body language in similar ways, and that we can get a sense of what people are thinking or feeling not by what they say, but by how they behave. Most filmmakers will agree that what people are doing, as opposed to what they’re saying, is more significant.
GUM: You have a career in film doing a whole bunch of different things. How did that develop? Was there a grand plan? Did you take opportunities as they came up?
LB: A big part of it is saying yes a lot at the beginning, and saying no a lot more later on. I don’t mean this negatively, but I don’t know if I ever planned on teaching film at a public access center in Brooklyn. But it’s led to so many wonderful opportunities.
I went to film school with a pretty narrow view of what films are and what they could be about. Film school doesn’t really open you up. I like the program I did, but I don’t think it was as well rounded as it could have been, in terms of what we watched and what we talked about. But saying yes to working at BRIC has made me a more open-minded person.
There was no grand plan. I always wanted to be a filmmaker. I never wanted to be a guy who made commercials or made industrials or anything like that. I was a guy who wanted to make films, and I’ve been lucky enough to get hired to make films. All of them short, none of them big budgets, and none of them fiction. But most of the great filmmakers that I love began their career in documentary or had a long span of time where they made documentaries. I’ve contextualized the way my work is going now as a way to learn a lot more about the medium. Hopefully I’ll continue to grow and have opportunities to make the films that I want to make, and this early stage of my career when I’m doing docs will only inform and make my fiction and documentary filmmaking much better and more authentic.
GUM: Can you tell me about any current fiction films that you’re working on?
LB: I’m editing a short that I made for fun with my friend Victoria Negri, who’s a filmmaker as well, and my friend Ben Thomas, who was in Future Perfect. It’s going to be my first fiction short since film school. It came out of a need to say, it’s been great making documentaries, but now I need to apply these skills.
So we shot that over a weekend. It’s fired me up for a feature that’s tentatively called The Cape House, which I’m hoping to shoot in May. That’s a feature-length film about a kid and his parents. It’s about divorce and the way a family structure changes. We’re still trying to raise a little bit of money, but the point is to shoot the film in May, because I’m really eager to get a feature film under my belt.
One of the things that happens to filmmakers when they try to make a living is they forget that they want to make personal projects. Personal projects by necessity have to take a backseat to the paid stuff, and that’s a really hard thing to reconcile.
GUM: I know you’ve had a variety of filmmaking gigs over the years. What has been the most bizarre gig you’ve had?
LB: Very early on, Jun and I got hired to shoot a curry-eating contest. It was at this place Go! Go! Curry, in one of the least attractive parts of New York. We got hired to shoot this bunch of big, chubby dudes eating curry. It was small portions of curry, and I think the guy who won ate like 70 bowls of curry in five minutes, or something absolutely ludicrous. And it wasn’t, like, good curry. It was garbage. I think we got paid like $100 and we ate curry. The last thing I wanted to do after you film a guy eating 70 bowls of curry is eat curry!
I’m trying to move away from that kind of stuff. As cool as that work is, I don’t know if it’s a place I want to go anymore.You’d have to pay me a lot more money to shoot a food-eating contest [laughs]. I’m not destined to shoot competitive eating for the rest of my career, I hope.
GUM: Here’s hoping! And finally, when you’re at a soundstage, what kinds of things do you look for?
LB: The place that I work has two TV studios in it, and I’ve been on shoots in TV studios before. All filmmaking – and pretty much everything else – boils down to the ability of people to not be dicks. There’s an attitude and pretension around filmmaking that’s definitely exhibited by some filmmakers, and also equally exhibited by their vendors sometimes. So you’ll go to a camera house and they’re either pretty down to earth, or they’re just too cool for school. I find that I’m less and less able to handle the too cool for school attitude.
What I most look for in a studio – and this is assuming its technical capacities are on par – is that you have people who are going to try and help you with what you need and not put up a front or downplay the significance of your project. Attitude is a big thing, is the short answer to that question. A positive attitude and problem-solving. The best people I work with are problem-solvers.
I will be the first to admit that when I get overwhelmed, I shut down sometimes. That’s when it really helps to have more level-headed people than me around. So I think a studio with technicians who are minded that way, who are more likely to help you solve a problem than to ignore it, is a big help.
Interview by Shawn Setaro