Oley Sassone [Interview]

I first came to learn about filmmaker Oley Sassone from a very informative documentary that was somewhat about a guy who has been the creative force behind some pretty amazing work….but apparently did something extremely shady, and pretty upsetting. That man was the great Roger Corman. And while I cannot say that I condone his actions showcased in Doomed: The Untold Story of Roger Corman’s The Fantastic Four, I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t going to continue to watch Corman classics on the regular. And as a matter of fact, it was because of him that I learned about the genius that is Oley Sassone!

Oley is another prime example of a man who has created some amazing art in his career, and also happened to turn out to be an incredibly nice person, who gave us some wonderful and lengthy answers to a few of our questions. This is a guy who has brought us some pretty amazing work in a career that is as expansive as it is impressive. When I learned that he directed the amazing video for Mr. Mister’s “Broken Wings”. Hailing from the finest city that America has to offer, New Orleans of course, he is also a legend in the NOLA film community that we have managed to cover quite extensively over the years. Mostly because they are some of the nicest people working in film today!

So, Ladies and Gentlemen, please enjoy some amazing words from the brilliant Oley Sassone!

When did you decide you wanted to join the world of filmmaking? Was it an early passion, or did you just find yourself in this world?

It was shortly after I saw the Beatles movie, A Hard Day’s Night. I was already playing guitar and of course, I wanted to be a rock star, but the movie itself was something I couldn’t stop thinking about. So I went to see it a second time and I was hooked. There was something about the quality of the film in the way it captured not only what the Beatles were all about, their characters, mannerisms, personalties and their music, but it transported me to London and the atmosphere of it all and captured the style and time of what was happening in 1960’s English pop culture. And of course, I was influenced by the girls hysterically screaming at a movie screen! I started talking with a bloody English accent at 12 years old! I was then eager to watch every English black & white film I could find. At that time there was no VHS, DVD or YOU TUBE. There was however a really cool art house theater, The Prytania Theater that is still here in New Orleans that showed a lot of those films, including French and Italian New Wave. And the Public Broadcasting Station started showing the British “Kitchen Sink” dramas, a different one every Saturday morning.Look Back In Anger was the first that is credited for starting this genre, but it was, Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, Billy Liar, and The Leather Boys  that I loved.

I would sit in front of the TV and transport myself into those worlds hanging on every line of dialogue, street scene, bar scene, the grubby apartments. These films dominated the way I started thinking and I started imagining, what it would it be like to do this… make movies like these. My parents didn’t hesitate when I asked them to buy me a Super 8 movie camera and projector. Of course the films that I shot certainly don’t compare, but I did shoot some black and white Super 8 film, which was not easy to find or get processed. That’s how it started. 

What as the very first gig you can remember getting in this business? And did that experience help shape you into the filmmaker you would eventually become? 

My first gig in the film business was working as a Production Assistant on a Sergio Leone spaghetti western, My Name is Nobody, that was partially filmed in New Orleans. I walked onto a set on a street in the French Quarter and asked some guy for a job and he handed me a shovel and told me to start spreading dirt in the street! I nearly turned and walked until I discovered it was for a gunfight scene with Henry Fonda. So I proudly spread dirt. Good thing I hung around. I was asked to come back the next day and they assigned me to be Fonda’s assistant. That was cool. I brought Henry Fonda water and tea, carried his saddle for resetting a shot, carried his chair… and I loved it! I was always right on the edge of the set when they were shooting scenes with him, including the gun fight on Royal Street. The whole experience of watching a film being made on this level definitely shaped who I was to become as a filmmaker. Another thing that happened that was important to figuring out how to shoot film. I was sent to get something (I can’t remember what) out of Sergio Leone’s trailer for him and when I went in, there were comic books tossed all over the place, opened to certain pages, marked and scribbled on. After watching Leone films, I realized that he was inspired by the dramatic comic book images within those frames, extreme angles and such. That was a real revelation for me. I thought, this doesn’t have to be a difficult process. It tore away the unknown for me. I realized how to approach filmmaking — create interesting images within that frame! I had a 35MM Pentax, a good compliment of lenses and some old fresnel studio lights and I started lighting people, my girlfriend at the time, and I got into George Hurrell – the master of Hollywood glamour photos – different angles, extreme contrast lighting, black and white, color slides, creating little scenes with set dressing. I created a rear screen projection with this roll of opaque material hanging off a c-stand in my dining room, with the slide projector set up in the kitchen to get the depth, with scenes of the interiors of European churches and putting my girl friend in front it and matching the lighting and manipulating the exposure so the rear screen image would really “pop”. It was a great time, a great learning experience. 

You have worn several different proverbial hats in the film business. From writing and directing, to producing and cinematography and beyond. With that being said, what would you say is the gig that you enjoy doing the most? 

The question is not “Why?”, but — Why not!? It really comes down to making a living. Staying in the business I love until I’m ready to quit. I took the jobs as they came, however, I always wanted to write and direct my own films. And I did a couple, but they were never to the level of what I had hoped for. They were good films, good entertainment, but not groundbreaking. I always liked cinematography and shot and directed at least 50 of the 100 music videos I did, along with a lot of commercials, but when it came to film, I was hired as a director and that was that. And I was happy to do it. Figuring out how to make a movie and then see it actually take shape in an editing room was and still is a thrill. Then came the opportunity to write and direct. To labor through the writing process, sell the script and then get to direct it…nothing better. But the extra pressure is on too, it’s all on you! Producing now gives me an opportunity to work with other talented filmmakers and get involved with projects that would not come my way as a director. I enjoy the process of producing, not raising money although absolutely necessary, but getting a film into production, sold and distributed. Producing has been an eye-opener and has really made me appreciate the fact that we are in the FILM BUSINESS.

You kicked off your career working in the world of music video direction, showcasing artists like Styx and Eric Clapton (as well as a personal favorite, Mr. Mister). The music video was a relatively new concept back then, so what was it like jumping into this new scene? It seems like it would be quite the wild ride. Is this the case? 

Freedom to create! That was the best thing about doing music videos. When I started, I think MTV was on the air for only a year and its popularity shot off like a rocket. There were no music video execs at the record companies yet. In fact, I remember a guy who came to set who was doing album cover art. It was a wild ride. I started in New Orleans where I produced, directed and shot a video for friends of mine that were signed to CBS Records — The Red Rockers. I knew them from my days of playing in a punk/rock band. CBS refused to give me any money and the band was going up to NY to shoot. I convinced CBS that I could deliver a video within the month. They said go ahead, but still no money. I thought, “Oh shit.” So I pulled it together with a credit card and a loan from a guy who owned a record store and we shot it. The song is called, “China” and the exec jumped on a plane to see a cut of it, mind you this is 16mm film, she saw it, loved it, bought it. CBS started sending me all over the country to shoot videos for their artists and I ended up in L.A. doing a video for The Romantics. A good friend of mine who was an advertising copywriter and who gave me my first commercial, had connections at a production company in L.A. who sent a rep to the set.

The rep sat quietly and watched, handed me his card and asked me to meet with them before I left town. They offered me a job, paid my moving expenses and put me on a retainer. Being in L.A. in the mid 80’s in the midst of this exploding art form of music and film was really exciting and energizing. It created a shift in attitudes at the studios in what eventually became a stepping stone for a new generation of filmmakers such as David Fincher and Michael Bay, both of whom launched their film careers from music videos.

At the height of my career as video director, I was doing about four videos a month and in various cities around the world. Eric Clapton in London, Bruce Hornsby in Austin, Gloria Estefan in Chicago; we would go wherever the artists had their longest break on their tour. I would have to say Mr. Mister’s “Broken Wings” was one of my best, but the thing about doing videos is, you need great songs to make a good video and that was an exceptionally good song. And the trip continues thanks to YOUTUBE. I can watch nearly every video I directed, including my very first one, “China” by The Red Rockers. What a trip.

For those who may be out of the loop on the scandal of your 1994 film adaptation of The Fantastic Four, would you care to give a brief synopsis of what exactly went down. And with that, how accurate was Marty Langford’s Doomed: The Untold Story of Roger Corman’s The Fantastic Four? 

A “scandal”, I like that, but how about scandalous and a huge deception pulled on me, the cast and crew. I was hired by Roger Corman to direct the movie after I had directed two good movies for him. I knew there was no money, but it was The Fantastic Four and I was a Marvel comic fan as a kid, so I jumped in. We all thought as we busted our asses, that we were making a film to be released and hopefully make enough money to convince the powers that be to hire us to do bigger and better films. That’s how it’s supposed to work! But that wasn’t their plan. It was all a ruse for Constantin Film to keep the film rights to the F4 franchise. It was strictly a contractual obligation for a film to be made before the end of that year or Constantin would relinquish the rights. So we finished the film in spite of the fact that no one seemed to be in any hurry to complete it. But once the film was finished, Roger thought it was good enough to release, so he decided to do just that. Marvel had a fit and apparently it was not in any contract that barred Roger from releasing it. So they paid him again, NOT to release the film. They confiscated the negative and the one print of the film and rumor has it that it was burned! Thankfully some guy at a dubbing house in L.A. bootlegged it and the entire film can be seen on You Tube. The only regret about that is, it’s a copy of VHS, to VHS, to VHS. We never got the opportunity of giving the film a good telecine — where the negative is transferred to video. All the gruesome details can be seen in the exceptional documentary which is a very accurate account of the ugly side of Hollywood.

We have managed to go pretty in depth with several folks involved in the NOLA film scene. I understand that you have origins in the area, and have worked extensively in the film community. So with that, in your own personal opinion, what do you believe it is about this film scene that sets it apart from other largely known markets? 

As you have gathered, I’m from New Orleans. As much as I love the city and its people, it’s the Louisiana State Tax Credits that has brought the industry here. However, the local film community has exploded, resulting in a great infrastructure of sound stages, equipment companies and damn good film crews. The one thing I believe that sets the film scene here apart from other markets is the city itself. Who doesn’t want to come to New Orleans? As I have mentioned, I have worked in wonderful cities around the world and have had great experiences, but New Orleans is truly a unique place to visit and to work. And the place looks great on film! Look at Elia Kazan’s Panic in the Street, shot entirely on location in New Orleans in 1950 or Alan Parker’s Angel Heart. These locations, the streets, the buildings are all still here.

What does the future hold for you? Anything you would like to share with our readers? 

As I mentioned, being a producer has opened a lot of doors. I’m working with a number of other producers and filmmakers on multiple projects. One to be shot in Scotland and the U.S., another in London and Paris and of course a couple to be shot in New Orleans. One is called, Butterfly in the Typewriter, a biopic about the author John Kennedy Toole, who wrote the iconic book, A Confederacy of Dunces and a limited series on the young life of Louis Armstrong. 

What was the last thing that made you smile? 

I have to say unabashedly, every morning when I wake up and kiss my wife. Second to that, is hitting a great chord or a guitar lick on stage with the punk/rock band, Sexdog, that regrouped in the last few years and has been playing gigs here in New Orleans.

And because we love it so much, check out this amazing video for Mr. Mister’s “Broken Wings” directed by Oley Sassone:

About rontrembathiii
write. write. write.

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