Robert Orlando Interview
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I am pleased to welcome Robert Orlando to controlbooth.tv. Mr. Orlando is a filmmaker, producer and director. His projects range in scope from major biopic documentaries – with distribution under Sony Pictures – to shorts, commercials and other select projects for businesses and organizations including Princeton University, Harley Davidson and L’Oreal. He also is the President and Executive Director of Nexus Media LLC a film/video/web production company with headquarters and studio facilities in Princeton, New Jersey.
[TD] Rob, thank you for taking some time out of your busy schedule to chat with us. One of the things I’ve noted regarding many of your projects is that they suggest, or offer the opportunity to discuss difficult or provocative topics.
A polite bribe
For example, A Polite Bribe tells the story of the Apostle Paul thirty years after Christ’s death and highlights Paul’s controversial desire to bring the message of Christianity to the Gentile world. The film makes the point that up until that time the early church was largely geographically, culturally and ethnically homogeneous with the main evangelistic focus being in Jerusalem amongst Jews. The movie suggests Paul’s missionary journeys to the Gentile world were looked at with skepticism by some in church leadership, and a certain power struggle, not just for affirmation of Paul’s missionary work, but also regarding the status of new Gentile believers ensued.
When you decided to do a picture on this topic, did you recognize it as controversial, even provocative? How so?
[RO] I didn’t set out to make a controversial film but to explore in depth the conflict and factions that existed at the heart of early Christianity, and in particular as they were described in Paul’s letters. I was also quite curious about why so many biblical scholars knew this story but not the general audience.
[TD] Any thoughts on why the average Christian today may find these early church squabbles surprising?
[RO] My experience has been that most of the Christian Media market is centered around devotional outlets. While the historical aspects about the Bible are found more in academia or on the main stream cable networks. The story I told about Paul and his struggles was common knowledge to most students of the Bible, but nearly unknown to the main stream churchgoer. If someone wanted an all or nothing divine book without the human aspects I guess it would be a real surprise.
[TD] What motivated you to pursue a movie on this topic?
[RO] I was raised a Catholic and had spent considerable time in Evangelical and Protestant circles including my years in graduate school. Gradually what first became an interest as a matter of faith as I sought understanding became an investigation of the history behind the Bible.
[TD] Now that A Polite Bribe been released a few years, what has been the feedback?
[RO] The film was recognized in most religious and academic circles as breaking new ground and opening up a new world view of the ethnic conflict at the heart of early Christianity. Some might say that Paul’s core conflict was over the “identity politics” of his time.
[TD] “Identity politics.” That’s an interesting phrase considering the current political and cultural climate in the United States. I guess the tendency for people of particular religious, racial, and social subsets to form exclusive alliances is not a new phenomenon.
[RO] Not at all. It’s as old as civilization and the Bible! I am working on a new book and sequel film to further explore this topic, which will include my own journey. The very appeal of Paul’s gospel is an attempt to heal the clash of identity politics.
There is neither Jew nor Gentile (ethnicity), neither slave nor free, nor (class) is there male and female (gender), for you are all one in Christ Jesus. – Galatians 3:28 (NIV)
Paul’s message was a call out to the ancient world and a caution to the modern world.
[TD] How would you define A Polite Bribe’s message then?
[RO] 9/11 changed me. I lived in Manhattan and thought seriously about the danger of fundamentalism. People who lose all self reflection and critical reason and think flying a plane into the World Trade Towers and talking to God on a one way radio … that was extreme Islam but as Christians we also need to be cognizant of our humanity and our frailties. Money is in religion and always has been. Money was also part of an ancient honor code that allowed for social (ethnic) acceptance. Paul had to overcome all these challenges to reach the world with his Gospel. The film’s message is don’t underestimate how much Paul did to make this possible.
[TD] Another of your films, Silence Patton suggests U.S. General George S. Patton predicted the rise of the Soviet state and the spread of communism shortly after World War II and the likelihood of a coming (hot or cold) war between the United States and the Soviets. Patton wished to contain the Soviets to their pre-WW II borders, even if doing so meant armed conflict with our former ally. Considering the fact that Patton’s superiors were inclined to appease and not provoke conflict with Stalin, the movie lays out the case that upon review of evidence, Patton’s death was likely not accidental but instead ordered and the intention of some interested party.
Contrasted with “Christian movies” or more accurately movies sometimes made by Christians which tend to avoid challenging storylines, why is addressing human flaw important? And can a story be engaging without asking us to consider perspectives different than our own?
[RO] People find in history or the Bible what they want to find. If you only want to see the world in terms of the themes that are mythical, devotional, or uplifting, you can. Many do! But the truth is that history — and drama for that matter — is a series of conflicts that evolve over time. Patton was facing a changing world and his warnings were seen by those in power as a threat. It may not have been a conspiracy, but he was silenced.
[TD] When evaluating a topic for a possible movie, what do you look for?
[RO] It does not work that way for me, and it is different for different genres. My documentaries or docudramas usually are efforts to explore questions I have held deeply for some time. Questions I have about history or politics or religion that for me have not been sufficiently answered.
[TD] Are there topics you prefer not to address in film?
[RO] Yes, I have little interest in the modern left-right, binary thinking of our present political discourse, which I think comes from a deep insecurity and the human need to divide the world into good people and bad people, angels and devils. Life is much more complex.
[TD] You’ve expanded beyond filmmaking with these projects. How? Why?
[RO] My job as a filmmaker is to ask questions about people’s—real or imaginary—motivations, their modus operandi and how their actions ripple through the world. And though I operate as any Hollywood Director I really enjoy the deeper digs of research to make new discoveries.
[TD] I meant that in addition to films you have also authored books and packaged complimentary content in mediums other than film. Tell us about that. Strategically what is the goal in doing so and specifically how might churches or non-profits benefit from similar strategies?
[RO] We live in a multi media world where traditional models for communication and distribution have changed. For me there are several ways to cover a subject matter like a film story, or book argument, or even a talk show discussion. Each satisfies a different part of my personality. Maybe one is more cerebral and one more emotional or psychological. My latest project will have all of these components. You can see the book based on the film’s research at thedivineplanmovie.com/book.
The divine plan
[TD] The Divine Plan?
[RO] My new film The Divine Plan, reveals a story from the end of 20th Century that is little known but has impacted all of our lives!
[TD] Hold on! Is this your film about a beloved United States President, the Pope and assassination attempts on both? Tell us more if you can. What’s this film about?
[RO] 1981 Ronald Reagan and John Paul II were nearly killed within six weeks of each other. Both lost more than half the blood in their bodies. When they recovered and met in 1982 they shared that they thought they had been spared for “The Divine Plan,” which was to help bring down Soviet Union. With the help of Thatcher, Gorbachev, Poland, Soviet dissidents, the Vatican and even the CIA they were able to topple the regime and End The Cold War – Amazing story. Coming to a theater near you!
[TD] Cue the trailer …
[TD] As a filmmaker, are you motivated by the “issue” to be addressed in a film or by the “story?” Are you cognizant of the issues? Can you give an example?
[RO] Story is on some level an “argument” and some theorists about drama see this at the heart of the narrative. In Hamlet, during the play within the play a character asks, “what is the argument?” The difference is that drama has multiple points of view. Not a right or wrong. Story and the perspective, or POV, are both part of the process. If it is too one-sided, as Michael Moore’s films are, it borders on propaganda.
[TD] Not a Michael Moore fan? I am curious whether your criticism is regarding his agenda or his film-making? Would you have the same criticism for say Dinesh D’Souza?
[RO] Moore is a real talent. He and D’Souza play the hand (present culture) they were dealt and that is right-left. I don’t see the world through this lens. Dualities are easy ways to organize the world and escape the more complex issues. Perhaps that is why I am a filmmaker first and not part of a cause. Having said that I DO think a filmmaker can genuinely believe in a cause so strongly that it becomes a message they want to tell. I think there is a line that can be crossed between entertainment and propaganda. I don’t know, maybe I am still an idealist?
[TD] Many young filmmakers struggle with finding funding and then finding an audience for their work? What do you suggest?
[RO] To me the main plot of all film careers is the quest to find the dollars to underwrite the movies. There is no secret formula, but I would say the first few projects will be self-funded because most creatives usually don’t consider partnering with others. It would be wise to share the burden until you have a track record that demonstrates to others that you and your project are worth financing.
[TD] How many times have you pitched an idea and been refused? When do you give up and move on?
[RO] You don’t count. You just move on.
[TD] Is there a story you loved but had to let go? Why?
[RO] Many, but if I love the story I am never going to let it go, I only block it out for now.
[TD] From inception of an idea to delivery of a finished product, how many projects do you juggle simultaneously? How long is the process?
[RO] There is a kinetic creative energy at the heart of working with multiple projects at the same time. They feed off one another, but there are limits; so time, resources and sequencing have to come into play at some point. If not, you can live in your head and just spin your wheels.
[TD] Your own personal faith seems important to you? What is your background? How does your faith impact your work?
[RO] At the root of all faith, politics, self identity – you name it – is a story. We are only the stories we choose to express or choose to learn or choose to share with others. Myth at the heart of story is an extraction of culture, so knowledge helps you be empathetic to your audience. Religion gets a bad rap in Hollywood in part because of the fundamentalists’ voices that emerge loudest, and also because we have the tilted view of science as the explanation of all reality.
[TD] I am not sure what you mean, “myth at the heart of story is an extraction of culture, so knowledge helps you be empathetic to your audience.” Can you explain?
[RO] Myth is the narratives that organize cultural values in story. In order to dig down into the formations of these myths, whether it is the 19th century or ancient history, it requires knowledge about the time and context. It requires a deeper dig and that takes a real commitment. If not, we will not say anything but only reflect the same old echo chambers. I say do your homework then tell a wildly entertaining story!
[TD] How has filmmaking changed over the years? What are the opportunities that did not exist before? What are the challenges you face now that were not as formidable before?
[RO] If we track filmmaking from the original studios until now, the difference would be radical. The modern filmmaker also has to be a businessperson. At first, 90 percent of independent filmmaking is business and development and 10 percent is the actual creative work. I am in the process of tipping that percentage now as I move forward.
[TD] Is there any new technology that you are excited about?
[RO] New technology is a double-edged sword. On one hand it opens new doors for amateurs but it also adds a lot of noise to professionals. I think the motion graphic explosion and how it can impact live shooting is amazing. We live in a virtual world and using a virtual representation better connects with younger audiences with their eyes glued to iPhones.
[RO] The good news about the internet is now some genius 15 year old girl in Ohio can become the next Ridley Scott and find an audience on line. But, what about the ten thousand or so 15 year olds who will make 24/7 nonsensical videos? You need to get around them to find the new visionary film? – the Noise.
[TD] Recognizing that audiences are consuming content on mobile devices, does that change in any way how you approach a project?
[RO] Yes, it is a creative and logistical second track that needs to be considered with product creation and in promotion.
[TD] Many of your films incorporate animation. Why do you utilize animation versus live-action reenactments? When is it preferable to use actors? When is it preferable to use animation?
[RO] It is all about the story, its inspiration and the best way to express it. I am working on a new film that has a real-life aspect and a mythical (“noirish”) otherworldly aspect, which opens the door to a graphically virtual world. So it will be part graphic novel and part real life, but they will blend together.
[TD] Many of your films also incorporate on-camera interviews. Any tips for conducting on-camera interviews? How do you make the subject feel comfortable? How do you get the content needed?
[RO] I would say that high profile stars and those familiar with the camera will give you a very short period of time upfront to prove your line of questioning and your knowledge of the subject matter at hand, and if you are not prepared you will be rejected. Cut OFF! After 20 years of this process and hundreds of interviews, I can say with confidence all of my guest choose to engage me and want to continue our discussion.
[TD] Any recommendation when working with talent who are not accustomed or comfortable being on camera?
[RO] Yes. Try to relax them and have them be themselves. It is essential you make them feel comfortable and try to keep them from performing, but rather finding a place within themselves from where they can speak truly and freely. Everyone is different and prep can back fire, but it really all happens on the day of interview.
[TD] What project are you working on now? What can you tell us about it?
[RO] As mentioned I just finished The Divine Plan. It is an incredible recounting of recent history that is part interviews, part graphic novel, part something entirely new. The story consultant Paul Kengor and I are writing a book that expands on the subject matter.
[TD] If you could go back in time and offer advice to Rob Orlando at 18 years of age, what advice would you give yourself?
[RO] Think business first or find someone who could help you think like a businessperson. Creative people are not naturally geared in this direction because our world is ideas and not materialism. We have to realize that there is a real world with real resources and real timelines. For me, running a business has been a help, but I realize that many aspiring filmmakers don’t have that experience.
[TD] How does someone go about getting your job? What will your future replacement need to bring to the table?
[RO] Hey, I am not done yet, just beginning! But if I could train my replacements, I would say THINK STORY FIRST IN EVERY WAY, and I would tell them that for a young person to jump into making film would be just like a young person jumping into surgery without finishing medical school. Our culture does not reinforce the need for skills or the science at the heart of filmmaking. Many young filmmakers think of it as a mystical experience and an escape in which you meet the stars. But the truth is that it is an incredibly difficult profession that takes more dedication and sacrifice than all the other arts put together!
[TD] Thanks Rob, that was appreciated and very insightful. If someone wants to find out more about you, your films or follow you on social media, where should they look?
[RO] They should write an intro email at our company website www.nexusmediasite.com. We are always looking for talented and focused people. If you want to intern or find an intro position, tell us what you offer. If you are looking for a partner, explain what you will bring to the relationship beyond the idea alone. If you are writer, send us samples. We will try to respond asap for a call.
[TD] Thanks Rob for your time and sharing your experience with us. I am happy to call you a friend. Much appreciated!
Tom D’Angelo has worked in television production and AVL corporate theater for nearly four decades. He is Emmy Award nominated (Best Director category, Mid-Atlantic) and has been part of various teams nominated or winning national Emmys. As the Media Director at a megachurch in the 1980’s he developed a love for the Church and church performing and technical artists.