In the film industry since the 1960s, writer-director-producer Ron Colby has worked alongside legends like Francis Ford Coppola and George Lucas. His career began with Coppola’s company, American Zoetrope, working on pictures like “The Godfather: Part II.”
After decades in Hollywood, Colby became unhappy with the trend in motion pictures and the studio system, and started his own production company, Artists Confederacy, in 2005. He has directed and produced three feature-length documentaries, all of which are available on FlickU.me. (Buy them on Artists Confederacy’s FlickU.me studio page here.) “Pirate for the Sea” is a biography of marine environmental activist Captain Paul Watson. “Scotland’s Caddies” is a spirited romp through the Scottish countryside and golf courses, listening to the wit, wisdom and irreverence of Scottish caddies.
“Jones Beach Boys” is a personal look at ocean lifeguards living the best years of their lives. Patricia van Ryker joined the company in 2006, financing and directing “Twenty Five Hundred & One,” about Oaxacan artist Alejandro Santiago sculpting life-size statues, also available on FlickU.me here.
Colby feels it is now time to turn his full attention to creating a slate of films from the writings of those whose work he admires, and on subjects he believes offer something unique and important to viewers.
“The Spotlight” recently talked with Colby about his journey from major studios to the indie world, what inspires him, and what the latest trends in digital distribution mean for indie filmmakers.
THE SPOTLIGHT: How did you first find your way into film?
RON COLBY: It’s been a long and circuitous path. I started as a playwright and actor in New York. I worked there for six or seven years after college and grad school. I was hired by Francis Coppola very early on to be his assistant and play a small part in a film, and help him cast the film. Then I did a season at the Pittsburgh Playhouse. After that I was brought to California by Coppola to play a part in a film and, more importantly, to assist him in a lot of areas – casting and generally helping him out in things. After that, serendipitously, Francis got to direct a film of his choice, primarily because the people he used to work for bought Warner Brothers, and they said, “Okay, kid, what do you want to do?” He wanted to make this film “The Rain People” (1969), which was a road picture. I wound up as co-producer on that film. I got to learn quite a bit about the film business from that, from inception of the film to completion. Unfortunately, during the making of that film, the studio was sent back up for sale and the film was not a tremendous hit… However, that film influenced a lot of thinking in Hollywood about young people. George Lucas joined us on that film – he made a documentary on the making of “Rain People.” He got to make “THX 1138” (1971), which I cast, right at the end of the making of “The Rain People.” As people watch that film [“THX 1138”], they will see a lot of what George was preoccupied with. Then an interesting thing happened – we all went broke, and I returned to New York with an idea of continuing writing. Because I was broke, I took a job at a small commercial production company, wound up producing commercials for that, but also I would shoot second camera on them, and that experience of working with this company for a year and a half, flying around the world and shooting these commercials, basically helped me round a lot of what I was looking to do.
SPOTLIGHT: How did you begin making films yourself?
COLBY: When we were doing George’s picture [“THX 1138”], I cast the film, and I also shot a little documentary on the making of the picture. I was a fairly accomplished still photographer, so I wound up shooting a lot of the production stills on “The Rain People.” When George was shooting “THX,” I had a guy who was a sound person and a camera man. After a day of me telling him what to do, he looked at me, took the camera, put it in my hands, said, “You’re a good cameraperson – you shoot it.” It was the first time I had a motion picture camera in my hands.
SPOTLIGHT: Do you have any kind of formal education in film?
COLBY: I was a theater major, so I got a bachelor’s degree from Hofstra, and then I got a master’s degree from NYU. I was a theater person completely, but when I worked on Coppola’s first movie, and I looked around at all the activity and all the new toys and all the different permutations of making a film – I kind of got hooked. I decided I was tired of theater and wanted to get into film.
SPOTLIGHT: Your IMDb listing shows dozens of credits in many different roles – from actor to executive producer. What is your favorite role to play in the industry? What really speaks to you?
COLBY: I really enjoy making documentaries. I would like to make some feature films as well, with myself directing them. The problem here in Hollywood is if you’re trying to get a film going, it’s extremely difficult. There are a blizzard of screenplays flying around this town, and it’s impossible almost to get anyone’s attention. That’s why the same players seem to be repeating themselves in the film business. They all hang out together on a certain level and they can feed one another, and consequently you see the same people making the films over and over, and they don’t always necessarily make good ones. Certain people like Marty Scorsese and Woody Allen, where they can make anything they want, that’s as good as it gets. Consequently, after a while in this business, I decided to try to make films myself. I knew how to shoot them – the question was finding some subject matter.
SPOTLIGHT: Where does the inspiration for your films come from?
COLBY: Twenty-five years ago, I was totally taken by Paul Watson’s exploits. I decided to make a film about his early exploits – not a doc, but a feature film. I wrote a screenplay about his early events – the sinking of the pirate [whaling vessel] Sierra and the forming of his own organization, but I could never get that film going. Meanwhile, Paul kept inviting me to go on these campaigns, and these campaigns are lengthy. You’re gone for at least a month. I was at a point where I just wanted to make films no matter what, and I was beginning to structure Artists Confederacy, where we were going to make some feature films and docs, in order to support ourselves, leading to our goal of self-sufficiency. Paul invited me to go on a campaign to Costa Rica and confront the poachers out there… I picked up my camera, went down, and spent five and a half weeks with him. It turned into an adventure. He was arrested and we were chased all over the place. I saw the importance of what Paul was doing, but I realized it was a [film] project that was going to take some years. I thought about what other films I had, what I wanted to do. I wanted to make films with a subject of something that I know something about. So I made “Jones Beach Boys,” and that took me traveling back and forth for three summers.
SPOTLIGHT: What is different working on documentaries, versus features?
COLBY: Docs are very different, as opposed to a feature film – not that features don’t have their complications. In the film business, you do have a script, and when you start shooting you’re going to try to shoot that script. That blueprint helps you… as opposed to a doc, where you’re shooting all of the time, half the time you have no editorial facilities because you’re out in the field, and you’re searching for your film. You have a general idea of what you want it to be, but you’re searching for it. Then you come back and you look at what you’ve shot, then you think, “Now what?” And you start in laboriously trying to put it together. As one of our editors told me, you have an idea of what your film should be, but you should leave yourself open in case the film starts going in a different direction, and you’re not forcing it to go into this preconceived notion of what it was “supposed” to be.
SPOTLIGHT: Do your documentary subjects have to be subjects you are personally invested in or interested in?
COLBY: We [at Artists Confederacy] are expanding subjects a little bit. I have a partner [Patricia van Ryker] and she has some interests. “Jones Beach Boys” was a personal interest for me. I had been an ocean lifeguard on that beach, and wanted to get into why they keep coming back, how it affected their lifestyles… The next documentary we made was called “Scotland’s Caddies.” I had been to Scotland previously and I remembered these caddies. Scottish caddies are a breed apart and quite a lot of fun. My partner was working on a show and the show ran a long time – 10 years – and she was interested in documentary films. She had six weeks off, her show went on hiatus, and she asked where we were going on vacation. I said I can go away, if I can come back with a film. We went to Scotland and shot “Scotland’s Caddies” while we were there. The improvisatory aspect of shooting like that is just great, and if you’re fortunate enough to make contact with some of the people you were looking for, it turns out very well. We made a rather charming, poignant and hopefully interesting documentary about these guys who have been caddying for 500 years.
SPOTLIGHT: What do you think draws audiences to people in your documentaries?
COLBY: Each film – whether a fiction film, a play or a documentary – should touch some part of the audience, or at least interest them intellectually, if not emotionally. Ideally, you’d want to do both. To me, you follow your instincts on these things. Why would anybody write any film or any book? You have something that speaks to you, and that’s what you would follow through on. There’s this thing in Hollywood, where if something is successful, there’s a real tendency to follow that, to cash in on it. It’s hard to be totally original. But one of the things about documentaries is that it is possible to be totally original – pick a subject matter that nobody dealt with and bring it to people.
SPOTLIGHT: Does the work you’re doing now feel more meaningful, more satisfying to you, personally and professionally?
COLBY: Well, I would like to say yes, but it’s not entirely true. But part of my professional genetic makeup is dealing with actors and writing, so it’s part of my plan and my desire, my need almost to try to direct some feature films. Once again, however, following the documentary lead, these are films that I think are interesting and potentially important, but I don’t know that anybody else in the Hollywood community does. It’s practically an impossibility to get a film made in Hollywood these days – that’s why a lot of small indies are making the films that they want. It’s an error to make something they think the studios might make. I think there’s room to make feature films, fictional films, that speak to you as an author. But most of the times people are just trying to figure out how to put right peg in right hole and hopefully they get distribution.
SPOTLIGHT: How do you normally distribute or screen your films?
COLBY: We finished “Pirate for the Sea” on a Thursday, had it completely finished, and on Saturday night, I was showing this film to 500 people in the outdoor arena at Telluride. At the end, people stood up and gave this long ovation. People were moved by this picture. I thought, “Wow, we’re off and running.” And the truth of the matter is, we couldn’t get distribution. It was 2008, the economy crashed, and what I anticipated as a financial plan just crumbled. That was discouraging, frightening and financially draining. We self-funded it. There’s the saying, “Never put your money into a film” – after 30 years in the business, you would have thought I had known better. Now, trying to figure out how to do these things – distribute and make money – is a whole other deal. We’ve had to re-educate ourselves on how to get them out there. I have to say, it’s not a whole lot of fun. Other filmmakers don’t mind making a film and walking around with it for years, but my rhythm is to make a film and walk away, and then somebody else picks it up, sells it, do what they need to do. But it’s not the best way to go about it now, with so many films out there. You have to known how to move own project around. There are new outlets all the time. If you have a film that has made some impression at some of the film festivals, you will get some kind of distribution. The problem is, the distributors make sure they get their money first, and you’re left standing on the street corner hoping something is going to come your way. There has to be a better way. There are some filmmakers that are finding their way around this, getting their picture out there. It’s a very difficult deal and totally time-consuming. We’ve moved into a new way of doing business. Our last film, “Twenty Five Hundred & One,” won festivals and did very well, but we realized we weren’t going to make money on this, so now we’re looking for funding first, and then making the pictures. We feel we have proven ourselves that we can make quality product. If we can find a subject matter of interest to a certain community, then within that community, we can raise some money.
SPOTLIGHT: Do you think the advances in digital recording and online distribution are a benefit to indie filmmakers?
COLBY: Absolutely. The advantages are tremendous, where now you can get a camera relatively inexpensively and shoot for hours – compared to the old days when you were shooting film – and online distribution is a real positive advantage. The problem is, it’s a crowded area. It used to be there were just a couple of film colleges in this county for film – USC, UCLA, NYU. Beyond that, film was handled like a distant cousin, and not one held in the best regard. But now a lot of colleges have film departments, and everybody wants to be Stanley Kubrick. That’s a difficult assignment. It’s gotten more and more and more crowded, so you have to figure out how, in this crowded world, you can make your mark. I think you have to have a project that is going to get some attention, either because it’s so brilliantly made, or the subject matter itself is so compelling that people want to see it. There used to be just a couple documentaries about the environment, and now you can look around at all of them. I don’t know what the answer is, except “follow your bliss,” as Joe Campbell used to say. If this speaks to you, you should pursue it. You’re not going to make a lot of money, like the guys in the olden days. This is going to be a much more thrifty existence. That said, it’s an interesting way to go about making a few bucks.
SPOTLIGHT: Do you have any tips or advice you can share with up-and-coming filmmakers? Can young filmmakers do what you are doing, or do they have to go through the studios?
COLBY: I don’t think the studios have much to offer, quite frankly, unless you’re in the feature film world and you get lucky. If you want to work as a grip or a cameraman, there’s a definite progression. If you’re really good, chances are you’re going to find your way to the top. But that’s not necessarily true as a filmmaker. Things get much more complicated then. Part of it has to do with personality and your own salesmanship. I think it’s much more difficult. Other jobs within the industry are there, but shrinking. The studios used to make a lot of movies, but now they’ll make 15 and pick up some stuff from the independents. [Studios] concentrate on the big tent-pole movies, and those are very difficult to pull off. From a technical aspect today, these films are fascinating, what you get to do with a “Batman” or a “Spider-man.” It’s very interesting from a technical standpoint, but you’re still making “Batman” or “Spider-man,” you’re not making “Death of a Salesman.” It’s a different world, really.
SPOTLIGHT: What are you working on now?
COLBY: I have somebody who has promised me that he’s going to get some money for a feature film early next year. Meanwhile, we have a few documentaries – one on Leonora Carrington, who was a surrealist artist who had an incredible life through WWII, an ex-pat in Mexico. We actually went down and interviewed her just before she died last year. She’s not terribly well-known, but her life was quite fascinating. We put in a little seed money of our own. We have a couple of others, as well. Ideally, I hope that we get to make a feature film next year and do the Carrington documentary. And my idea is also not to have this just be for Ron Colby or Patricia van Ryker, but other filmmakers. If we can just turn the corner and be a little more profitable and a little more connected, we can do more with more filmmakers.
It’s the rhythm of my life now to make films. Other people have different rhythms. Once you get into that, it’s part of you and it speaks to you internally. You want to get out there.