「Global Entertainment」Well-known Hollywood Director, Screenwriter and Actor Matthew Jacobs’ Magic of Storytelling
Matthew Jacobs is a well known director, writer and actor. Jacobs started his career as a theater director, having graduated from the University of Hull with a major in Drama. He then studied film at the National Film and Television School in England. He has had a successful career in film and television writing. Now, he also teaches film at UCLA and University of Texas in Austin.
His filmography includes Oscar nominated animated film The Emperor’s New Groove, BAFTA award winning film Screen Two (Hallelujah Anyhow and Mothertime), 28th Spanish Goya Award nomination for Best Animation Justin and the Knights of Valour, and Fantasporto nominated for Best Picture Paperhouse. He is known for his work on the Universal Television, BBC Television, BBC Worldwide, and Fox Network’s classic Sci-fi series Doctor Who, Golden Globe Award nominated The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles as well as Star Wars prequel derivative video game Star Wars: Star-Fighter. Acting wise, he starred in Vice, which was nominated at the 91st Academy Awards for Best Picture . Also, he starred in Justin and the Knights of Valour, which was nominated at the Best Animated Feature Film at Venice International Film Festival.
Well-known Hollywood Director, Screenwriter and Actor Matthew Jacobs and Sunny Xiang
Special guest well-known Hollywood director, screenwriter and actor Matthew Jacobs attends an interesting interview with Sunny Xiang at Global Entertainment in Los Angeles. Jacobs elaborates on his process of becoming a well-known Hollywood filmmaker. The following is the Q&A interview.
Sunny Xiang:Are there any interesting things that you can share about your time working on Emperor’s New Groove?
I think one of the most interesting things about working on Emperor’s New Groove was having the chance to work with Roger Allers. My involvement in the Emperor’s New Groove was really towards the beginning of the project. I was brought on after I’d done a new version of Lassie for Paramount and Young Indiana Jones. On Young Indiana Jones I’d done a show that was very much about the environment, and this had come to the attention of Roger Allers. Roger had just finished The Lion King, and it had made a lot of money in ‘94. So I really wanted to work on one of these big animated films. In that era, in the 90s, they only really made one or two of them a year, because Dreamworks was just starting. So it was a very specialized area. One of the things that I learned about working with Disney at that time was the incredibly collaborative process that went on. It was really a whole group of people, it wasn’t an individual’s voice– it was very much a group of people. Like alchemists, they thought they had worked out the way to make gold. They had a method. And I think one of the most interesting things was not only coming together as a community, but how slowly, as we were working on Emperor’s New Groove, Disney’s attitude towards how animation worked started to change. So we started Emperor’s New Groove as a film called Kingdom of the Sun, which was a beautiful musical. I had called it the Llama King. It was very much in the vein of The Lion King as much as it was about people trying to do good. The antagonist in that version was still Kuzco as still the David Spade character and always, right from the very first pitch, the story had been about an arrogant and disliked emperor who gets turned into a llama and then has to learn the true meaning of friendship in order to become a human again. That story was there in Kingdom of the Sun, and it was there all the way to the finished film. That story was a musical, which had Sting doing songs and had dance numbers and romance. That was what I worked on with Roger Allers. So for me it was interesting because during that period from, ‘95 through 2000s, Disney’s attitude towards how they told stories changed, and even though I carried on working for Disney, the finished film is really quite different from what we started with.
Sunny Xiang:Can you share your experience of working on Doctor Who?
Interestingly enough, Doctor Who happened in the middle of the time I was working for Disney. Doctor Who is a classic British science fiction show that has been running since 1963. In the late or mid 80s it became very unpopular, and BBC canceled it. But the audience in America still loved the show, and were still watching it on reruns, so they wanted to bring it back. In the mid 90s they approached me to try and revive the show, bring it back to life, which is basically what I did. But we did it all together: Universal Pictures, Fox TV, and the BBC and Amblin was involved when I started, which was Steven Spielberg’s company. Because I worked for all these different companies, and I had a very simple, clear way of bringing the show back, I got hired. Unlike with The Emperor’s New Groove, I was the last person at the table. So that’s why I ended up with full credit and producing credit along with Philip Segal, whereas on Emperor’s New Groove I was the first person to the table to do my work. So it was kind of the opposite in terms of my involvement.
Writing it was really a deep honor for me, because as a child, I hero-worshiped Doctor Who. My father was involved in it too. So for them to come along and say, “Do you want to create your own Doctor?” was a giant honor and different to Emperor’s New Groove which was an original idea that both Roger Allers and I had, and it wasn’t something that had a big history behind it. Doctor Who was a big honor and at that time in my life, in the 90s, I did a lot of franchise films and television that were very famous. And since then, I have not done so much of that because I wanted to make more of my own projects and teach, which I enjoy doing.
Sunny Xiang:What is the key to storytelling?
Different writers and storytellers have different keys that they use. For me it’s always about the characters. It’s always: am I interested in who the story is about? Is the change that they go through, as a character, interesting to me? Is it layered, does it have different levels? For me that is the key. The key is that this is a story about somebody interesting. For me, I always think about the character first when I’m trying to tell the story.
However, sometimes the situation will throw itself at you as the key, as the thing that unlocks it. You’ll think about the pandemic, a situation happening to everybody. But in order to tell that story I have to find a way to do it through character so even though im telling a story about a pandemic, or an asteroid that is about to hit earth, or whatever high concept that is going on, the key to actually telling the story is through the character for me.
That’s how you identify with the film. If there’s nothing to identify with, it’s very hard to enjoy a film. We’ve all sat through films where we don’t particularly like the people on screen. We don’t actually care about them. We all had that experience, and that’s a very difficult film to watch. I’m not trying to say that those films don’t work. There are films where there are less characters. For example, Stanley Kubrick’s 2001 (A Space Odyssey). If you look at that film the main character is a computer who thinks it can do no wrong, doesn’t learn, and ends up killing astronauts. All the other characters are not really developed. So it is interesting that it’s a masterpiece. That is a wonderful film, but with very little character. So even though I say character is the key, I think there are alternatives.
Sunny Xiang:Are you constantly expressing your personal feelings in the process of creation?
What happens is, as a writer, a filmmaker, an actor or any of these things, I like to think of myself as a filmmaker rather than as a writer because I regard the writing process as just the start of the process of filmmaking. You have to express yourself, have to bring yourself to the table otherwise why should people hire you rather than someone else? You need to have your own fingerprint, your own voice. If people know what your voice is then they can use that on whatever product they are trying to make. I do an exercise when I am teaching called “the fingerprint exercise”, which is about helping you find your voice. And I ask the people I am working with to think about the very first two films that they loved as a child before they decided they wanted to become filmmakers. Nobody will pick the same two films. It’s like a fingerprint, the two films that anybody chooses will be different. Very rarely are they the same. And then we ask questions about the two films and we find at the end of the day what I call a “fingerprint question”, a question that drives you as a creator. It becomes your theme, and you can apply that theme to anything you are doing and you know you are going to do a great job because it’s going to be your voice and feelings that are going to be on the page. And you’ll be a valued member of the group, because that’s what makes a film, you’ve got to be a member of the group. It’s like being in a musical band, a family.
Sunny Xiang:Who or what inspired you to be a screenwriter?
I never really saw myself as a screenwriter when I went to university. Only when I went to film school did that start to happen. When I went to film school, I discovered that I was good at it, and that other filmmakers would come to me to write their scripts. So I kind of fell into it. I wasn’t inspired by anyone in particular. But once I started going, once I started being used by other students at the national film school in Britain to write their screenplays and to help them get their films made, once that started happening, I started looking around thinking all the really good film makers whom I loved are deeply involved in the writing, or they are the writers of their films. It’s not the same as writing literature, it’s much more akin to writing music or designing a building; what you are doing is only the first step. Of course In 1981, the big hit film of that time was Raiders of the Lost Ark. I remember being blown away by that script, and then ten years later, after I had established myself, I then got the offer to work on Young Indiana Jones and work with George Lucas, and became quite good friends with him through the 90s. We worked together a lot and he became my main mentor, taught me, brought me to America and was very supportive of me, and still is. So if you are asking who, I would say George Lucas. And on the other side I have friends from the national film school, Bernard Rose. We are still making films together. We’ve started making films together since 1980. We’ve just finished one, Traveling Light. You keep working with the people you meet at film school. It’s very important.
Sunny Xiang:How do you deal with criticisms towards your writing?
You have to listen carefully to people. When they criticize your work you need to try to work out why they are criticizing your work. Whatever their criticism is, you want to work out why they are saying it and what had caused them to say it, and what they are not understanding that you were trying to communicate. And sometimes the thing they are suggesting is not necessarily the solution, because the reason they are suggesting it is the more important thing to try and understand. If you try to fix that, then you’ll still stay on course.
If someone gives you criticisms and you literally do everything that they say then you end up getting lost, because they mind as well be the one writing it. You need to listen to them and work out where they are coming from, why they are saying that and see if you agree. It may just be a mistake and the real problem is somewhere else. In short, that’s how I deal with criticism: I try to work out where it’s coming from. If I can’t work out where it’s coming from and I still disagree with it, then I just try to ignore it and not worry about it. Because sometimes people just like to criticize. That’s their job. Sometimes you just have to shut your ears to some criticism which is motivated by negativity rather than positivity. If someone is criticizing you in a positive way, they are trying to make it better, then that is good. If they are criticizing you because they are jealous of you, don’t like you, in a bad mood or got out of bed on the wrong side that morning, then those criticisms are best ignored. You can’t rush off and change everything, you have to work out where they are coming from. Why are they making those criticisms? Sometimes people just say stuff because they don’t like your work, and that’s fine, I don’t mind. If everyone loves your work then it means your work is quite ordinary. Do you want to be like baby food? Everybody likes baby food, yet it’s very bland and very boring. So don’t worry too much if there are people out there that dislike your work, wear their criticism with pride.
Sunny Xiang:If you can change one thing about yourself, what would it be?
I’m 65 year old, there are so many things I’d want to change. I can go through each year of my life and say, “I wish I had done that”, but if I stop and worry about that too much, then it is very hard to carry on and go forward. So I try not to worry too much. But, I’d try to have a little more confidence. I have friends who are full of confidence sometimes and that’s a good thing. My confidence is sometimes lacking, but if I was full of confidence I probably would not do such a good job. Sometimes not having confidence means that I question myself more and I find a better answer. But that would still be something I’d like to change: to have more confidence.
Sunny Xiang:What are some words of advice you would give to young filmmakers?
You have to have perseverance. That is the main thing, you have to keep trying, because it takes time. If you keep knocking, the door will open eventually. If you stop knocking then the door is never going to open. You have to keep knocking and keep trying. And as you keep trying, the important thing is to find your voice, find what is unique about your voice. If you can keep trying, persevere, and find your own voice then opportunities will come your way in whatever discipline you are trying to do. Somebody who has an unique voice, an individual voice, a voice that works, a voice that communicates to other people, is entertaining, people enjoy or are moved by that voice; that is pure gold. That is what we all aspire to, having a unique voice that works. And if you can do that then you become a really useful member of your film family.
So first off: perseverance. Second: finding your voice and third: make sure you build a family around yourself, of other filmmakers whom you trust. If you look at any of the great filmmakers, they work with the same people over and over again, because they found people whom they can trust. So don’t try to go alone, try to find people who you’d like to work with. Loyalty is very important in the film business. It is the reason why I stay in touch with people. Because you never know, one day you’ll be working together on the perfect thing. But in order to have the confiance to do that, you need to have your own voice.