At 14 years old, Matthew J. Evans is already an accomplished actor, appearing in films such as Bad Teacher and T.V. shows such as It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia. Unexpectedly, he’s also an accomplished documentary filmmaker, with several films under his belt, including a new one called Poetic Justice Project. He spoke to Making the Movie via e-mail.
Making the Movie: You’re 14 years old and already very accomplished in the world of film. When did you first become interested in making movies?
Matthew J. Evans: I have always been fascinated by the film industry. I think I first became interested in making movies during my experience at Sundance Directors Lab where I worked as an actor when I was 10 years old. I would always be asking the crew what they were doing and why, or go up to one of the camera operators and say, “What kind of lens is that? Why are you angled like that?” I started to learn more and more about what went on behind the camera, and my respect and admiration for Robert Redford and his creativity inspired me to believe that I could be an actor and filmmaker too.
How did your latest film, Poetic Justice Project, come about?
My Mom runs a community theater in the town where I live, San Luis Obispo, and the Poetic Justice Project started renting the facility for rehearsals and performances. As I came to know the cast, I was very impressed with them. I really admired the fact that they had come such a long way and worked so hard to turn their lives around in spite of the huge obstacles in their past. I was fascinated hearing their stories and was certain that their message was one that would make a positive impact on people and increase awareness of prison life.
What is it about?
The Poetic Justice Project is about a group of formerly-incarcerated individuals, trying to make their way back into society, who use theater and the arts to help break down prejudices people have towards those who have been in jail or prison. It is a documentary that tracks the lives of several former inmates who are dedicated to helping kids and adults who are at risk of becoming incarcerated. Through original plays and “talkbacks” at the end of their performances the cast members share the realities of prison life and how the arts helped them turn their lives around.
How many days did you you shoot? How much time was spent editing?
I shot for about two months. We went down to East L.A. (escorted by one of the actors and former gang member) and spent some time getting a feel for the gang life. The rest of the time we shot around the San Luis Obispo area. The editing time was about 3 months.
I have a Cannon HV20 HD camcorder, an Azden SMGx shotgun mic, and my lighting consisted of $40 halogen work lights. (They were super bright and hot, and I could never aim them directly in someone’s face, so it was hard to work with.) I’ve since upgraded my lights to a set from Cowboy Studio.
What was the biggest challenge you faced during shooting? Was there anything you had to change or cut at the last minute?
One day after a performance, one of the actors sat down for a one-on-one with an at-risk youth from a juvenile detention facility. It was a really touching moment, but the light was horrible, and there was no time to set anything up. I just filmed right through it, and was able to use a color filter which helped to make the scene more visible and actually gave it an artistic look. Another challenge was creating 3 versions (17:05, 12:00 and 10:00 minutes) to accommodate the requirements of different film festivals.
What was the budget for the film? How did you raise the money?
We only spent what was absolutely necessary – my mom and I financed it. No one was paid. The cost was around $750.00, and an extra few hundred for festival submissions.
What is something you learned on this project which you will take into future projects?
I think I learned to just go with whatever happens. Instead of being nervous about every detail, I’ve learned that the whole documentary style allows for a few mistakes, it makes it real. I’m not saying I don’t try and get the best shots and best content, but the greatest parts of documentaries are the raw emotion, and the most important thing is to capture it, no matter what.
What is next for you as a filmmaker? Any other projects in the works?
I’m currently working on a new documentary about a good friend of mine named Woody Duffy. He was born with a rare disease called MPS1, and at the time he was diagnosed, there was no treatment, or cure, and he was told he was going to die at age 12. The movie will tell the story of him and his mom, Beth, who worked tirelessly to raise money to hire doctors and researchers, until they found the cure. (Woody is now 25 years old.) It’s a really powerful story, and I think it will inspire a lot of people.
What advice to you have for filmmakers who are just starting out?
Have a strong vision of what you want. Even if you don’t have much experience, if you know what you want, and you really believe in it, you can make it happen.
Where should people go to learn more about your work?
There are two of my films people can watch – “A War Story, A Love Story” and “Poetic Justice Project” that they can access through my IMDb page. You can get in contact with me through my Facebook fan page as well.
Matthew J. Evans image courtesy JSquared Photography