Where did you grow up?
Manchester, New Hampshire. Live Free or Die, baby.
At what age were the arts introduced to you?
I performed as an actor in a regional acting troupe throughout my youth and high school years in New England and New York, but then let it go when I went off to college. It was a blast, and I sometimes wonder where my life may have led if I had kept with it longer, but my interests soon shifted towards basketball, so I just kind of turned my attention to that until I graduated from college.
Do you remember what your first movie experience was?
My first was probably watching “The Godfather” – Parts 1 and 2, as a child during Thanksgiving each year. Those films shook me to my core and I just loved how Coppola wove the many themes of family, honor, crime, and betrayal. I looked forward to that 5-hour window of time each year more than the turkey dinner itself. My family and I used to attend this dingy movie theater in downtown Manchester that always had a leak in the ceiling. We strategically knew what seats to sit in during our monthly viewings. I think my very first film in that theater was, “The Gods Must Be Crazy”, which I found fascinating. “Chariots of Fire” was my second film which also threw me back. There was such a wide-eyed mysticism in the whole movie-going experience for me as a child. I approached entering that theater in the same way I imagine many approach attending church each week. It was sacred.
How did your musical journey begin?
My parents had so many seminal records lying around — The Beach Boys, The Beatles, Motown, Stan Kenton jazz records, so much classic stuff from the ’60s and ’70s. I was really quite fortunate in that regard to be surrounded by distinct genres in such a musical family. We used to do a big cleaning every Sunday morning, and I remember dialing the needle back on my favorite albums while cleaning and vacuuming. This is where my musical training began, and I have them to thank for lighting that fire in me from a very young age. I have fond memories of my mom and I ballroom dancing during Crystal Gayle’s “Don’t It Make My Brown Eyes Blue”. Man, I wish I had that footage!
What was the “moment” you knew you wanted to be an actor?
The moment I knew that this was going to be my profession for the rest of my days was during the fall semester of my senior year at the the University of Redlands, though I’d spent my first semester at American University in Washington, D.C., interning at the U.S. Attorney’s office in preparation for what I thought would be my attending law school once I graduated. I went with a friend to see a double feature and we ended up seeing “Pulp Fiction” and “The Shawshank Redemption”. I was hooked. Although “Pulp Fiction” floored me to no end in terms of its precision and detail-oriented performances, Shawshank just shook me to my core. The sweet story between Red and Andy, the themes of injustice, being imprisoned and wanting to be let out of the internal prison that contains us all…That film, to this day, resonates so deeply with me. I vowed to myself that day that if I could just get one role like Andy Dufresne then I would die a happy camper. Just one. I tried to do my version with THE GOLDEN AGE but instead of it being a love story between Andy and Red, it was a love story between Maya and his devotional path.
Did you have formal training?
I studied with a variety of acting teachers in Los Angeles, some of the best studios and teachers for scene-study, cold-reading, and improvisation, including The Groundlings, but my favorite teacher of them all was Byrne Piven, the late great acting teacher and father of actor Jeremy Piven. He was so passionate and soft, yet really pushed us all in class to take risks and be uncompromisingly bold, while approaching each scene as if it were life and death. I miss that man dearly. He gave so much to all of his students.
Did you have a support group embarking on a career in the Arts?
Yeah, there were some sweet acting organizations and theatre groups that were helpful in finding my community, as well as acting classes themselves. When I graduated college, I was either going to attend law school like many in my family had traditionally done, or take a risk on myself and follow my passion. After graduating, I ended up back East working two jobs 7 days a week to save up enough to head out to Los Angeles and start my acting career. In retrospect, it was pretty crazy at the time to have done that, but that had secretly been my plan after having watched ‘Shawshank’ months earlier in D.C. I’m not sure why I didn’t tell anyone about my plan. Perhaps I was a little embarrassed about taking such a strange leap of faith, and concerned that others might try to talk me out of it. I just sort of kept it to myself, but I knew that was what I was going to do for the rest of my life.
What was the “spark” for you that ignited the idea for THE GOLDEN AGE?
I had been wanting to write and direct my own feature film since the early 2000s after being blown away by the series of Dogme 95 films by Lars von Trier and Harmony Korine. When Korine’s film “Gummo” came out just before then, man — I was blown away. I had just never seen anything so viscerally unique and evocative. “Waiting for Guffman” and the many films from Christopher Guest just inspired me to no end as well. The idea of improvisational documentary-style storytelling in addition to biopics about musicians inspired me to see if I could pull off a similar verite-style film that might make an audience member have trouble discerning what was real or fake. I had tried to get a few scripts of mine off the ground, but never felt compelled to set the sails on them until I started playing music again which took me in an entirely different direction. After releasing my first album, “Kaliyuga,” I found some old super 8mm family films from when I was a child and began writing my personal story with these home films as the impetus. I began writing a musical with a new album in mind, and wrote out and recorded it while writing the script for THE GOLDEN AGE simultaneously, which took about two years in total.
You wear the hats of Writer, Director, Executive Producer, Producer and Actor. Give us some insight into your 10 year journey with the project – which includes the film’s recent release on AMAZON PRIME VIDEO.
Once I had the script finished and album tracked, I began the ins and outs of producing this beast, and was daunted by the idea of how I could possibly pull off this film. Time was probably the main character, delving between footage and storylines for my past, while wanting to make sure that I shot it chronologically to see that the protagonist in the film, Maya O’Malley, naturally aged as he processed his tumultuous past through the narrative arc. I shot my first test footage in Vrindavan, India to see whether the footage would warrant my moving forward with this expansive project. The first six months were like taking baby steps, while hoping to build the confidence and trust within myself to go the full distance. Once I committed fully, it was more work than I could ever begin to explain. Wearing so many hats was certainly exciting, yet unimaginably laborious. Casting, wardrobe, rehearsals, cameras, crews, lighting, shooting each part, one step at a time while packing up my Volvo wagon each week with cameras and lighting gear to go to war for another scene in the film to help create a grand cinematic tapestry. I worked on this project every day, every holiday throughout each year for over a decade. I’m surprised, quite frankly, that I’m still alive to tell the tale. It was a project that consumed me, yet seemed steeped in a karmically creative expulsion that simply needed to be released. If you paid me all of the money in the world, I never would be able to make THE GOLDEN AGE again… No way, no how. I had no choice. It was just one of those projects that had to be made and was simply part of my purpose to bring it about in this lifetime.
How did you find the balance within your multiple roles in the film?
I’m not sure I ever did. It was imbued with an incredible amount of preparation on my end, and I found some balance when I began to let go of any misconceptions about the way things were traditionally done production-wise, even though I had some extensive familiarity with that while being on set as an actor. In those days, instead of hanging out in my trailer, I would study the set, and how things worked, and where things got screwed up, and watched every detail, nuance and intangible so as to take heed of what works and remain cognizant of what went wrong. I knew that at the end of the day, all that mattered was that great footage was captured so that there was more than less compelling material going into the edit room years later. I feel like I’m still recovering from the incredible amount of work and many hats I wore, but that’s just reflective of my tireless East Coast work ethic. In some strange twist of fate, I probably have my dad to thank for most of that.
The actors are wonderful in the film. How did you go about casting?
Yeah, I really lucked out on that front. I used to attend a cold reading showcase for casting directors up in the Valley that had some really incredible actors as part of the weekly troupe. I cast so many of my actors from that talent pool, as well as others I had worked with throughout the years, and then discovered some new ones for particular roles along the way to fill in the blanks. After watching him over the years, I just knew I wanted to cast Christopher May, who plays John Crispin, the A&R music label boss in the film. He has a unique style and was consistently just so damn good every time he got up on stage. I vowed that when I made my first film, I would just offer him the part, and did the same with a few other actors in the film as well. There are so many incredible actors in Hollywood who unfortunately just never see the light of day, so it brought me such joy to be able to let these people know that I thought the world of them and their many gifts and then just offer them roles without them having to hustle around town for one for a change.
What were the challenges in directing yourself?
It was challenging because at the end of each take I had to balance remembering the redirecting note I wanted to give the other actor in the scene and discussing different technical details with the crew, with recalling what I wanted to change in my own performance. It took some getting used to. I began taking notes immediately after yelling ‘Cut’ after each take, just so I wouldn’t forget the directing details in preparation for the next take. It was all-consuming but liberating to develop trust in myself to convey a realistic tone that blurred the line between documentary and narrative.
The original music you wrote for the film is raw and soulful. Describe how you went about writing the music for the film. Did the music come to you before, during or after writing the script?
I wrote and recorded the entire album and script first. It was of paramount importance to make sure that the songs helped tell the story organically and moved the story of Maya’s plight forward. I love musicals but sometimes when I see people lip syncing, it takes me out of the story, so it was essential that the songs be sung in real time.
How did you prepare as an actor to achieve the character depth you reveal to the audience?
I just tried to be as honest as I possibly could. I had been watching a lot of documentaries about musicians’ lives at the time, and when you watch documentaries, there is no artifice, no acting, no performing — so the film and how I directed each actor was imbued with trusting one’s acting chops enough to simply be present and believe that the dialogue would do the heavy lifting. I became obsessed with simply being versus any sort of notion of portraying or performance for performance sake.
How did the name Maya O’Malley come to you for the character’s name?
While I was singing the songs during some of the earliest demos, I noticed I was actually singing differently than I normally do and dubbed this new character ‘Maya’ — really passionately belting songs out — and at the time I was delving deeper into Krishna Consciousness and the teachings of A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, so the name maya in sanskrit — representing the illusion of the material world and all that seeks to distract us from our devotional path — made sense with the themes I was addressing in my own life and where my devotional path towards bhakti was leading me.
Were you able to disconnect from Maya after a day of filming — or did the character embody you throughout the duration of filming?
I think Maya was my secret alter-ego to not only address some uncomfortable parts of my past, but also to embolden myself to be braver, speak the truth, and really not hold anything back. There were times, though, where the line got blurred so deeply that I wasn’t sure who I was or who the character was. Maya became my way of stepping into the light and truth more fluidly – even when the camera stopped rolling.
Your film reveals an abusive past that Maya had with his father. We also witness Maya’s struggle with alcohol and drugs. How did going on Maya’s dark journey affect you as the actor?
Well, a lot of the storyline with the father figure was imbued from my own past with mine. It was a wild, chaotic, and abusive journey as his son, but I now realize we just had some really intense karma together that we needed to absolve. I never went through a major drug phase like Maya had in the storyline, aside from a cigarette addiction that lasted for too many years to mention, but I think if any addiction plagued me, it was my intense workaholism. In many respects, the film flourished because of it, but I’m now learning to just sit with my own stillness more and not work myself to death as I had in years past. I have a book being released later this year that is a companion piece to the film — a sort of memoir of Maya O’Malley entitled A DAY IN THE LIES, which goes deeper into the story of his relationship with his father and other details from his past that the film only loosely addressed. Art imitates life, I suppose.
The spirituality in the film is powerful. Where did that come from for you as the writer?
After I’d moved to LA, I had met a girl who lived at the Hare Krishna temple and I fell madly in love with her. I addressed some of it in the film, but over time after we split up, Prabhupada’s teachings became the bedrock of my life. I kept coming back to his books, and was hooked. His book “The Science of Self-Realization” altered the direction of my life, and was what created much of the backdrop for the entire film itself. I knew the film would incorporate many of his teachings which is why I felt the first footage for the film needed to be shot in Lord Krishna’s Vrindavan, India. I showed up there with an open heart, and the rest is history. After the film completed and I was doing my film festival run, I took harinama initiation with one of Prabhupada’s close associates, Bhakti Vijyan Bharati Goswami Maharaja on Srila Prabhupada’s Disappearance Day in Vrindavan. That experience seemed like an auspicious reunion with not only Prabhupada but the very village where my film’s journey began. It still brings a smile to my face and warms my devotional heart. Sometimes I think my Gurudeva made THE GOLDEN AGE and I simply served as the creative conductor of his grand orchestration to bring me back to both him and these teachings more fully.
Some of the locations are visually stunning. Where did you film?
Outside of some seminal recording studios in Los Angeles, I shot a lot of the footage in nature around the Eastern Sierras, Joshua Tree, Death Valley, and Yosemite, as well as in Varanasi, Jaipur, Rishikesh and Vrindavan, India. I’m a huge fan of Terrence Malick’s work and am thoroughly impressed by how he incorporates natural landscapes as visual backdrops for storytelling. If I’m crazy enough to make another film, I will be pulling from mother nature even more to find a deeper layer of musicality for the next round.
Do you believe in rehearsals before shooting?
Absolutely, but with reservations. Once we had a solid handle on where the scene was headed and something clicked, I left it alone and just waited until we were on set to capture it for real. The initial goal was to honor the scene and script during rehearsals as well as while filming, yet I was always conscious of when a line or button to a scene wasn’t landing in the way I hoped, and so I became open to abandoning the script to offer the actors an opportunity to do their spin on certain parts. I think it’s imperative to have as bulletproof a written scene as possible as a detailed roadmap, while being willing to abandon parts of it when something more exciting or truthful organically arises.
What was your biggest obstacle in making the film?
Lack of Sleep! I was doing the work of 10 people for 10 years, and although it would have been nice to delegate some of it to others, I observed during my years of being an actor that certain aspects of a production’s potency could easily fall short if someone inadvertently dropped the ball, so I chose to control as many of the variables as possible to diminish the potential for that likelihood.
Was there a moment in shooting the film that became emotional for you – and unexpected.
Some of the scripted interviews speaking about Maya’s past that was really my past was beyond challenging. There was one scene in particular that I had to cut out from the film — a really dark admission — where I kind of lost it on camera. It’s by miles my best scene in the film, but it didn’t quite fit within the overall cut, so I had to let it pass. It was important to find an emotional honesty and willingness to fall apart during these more intimate moments, and after the day wrapped, I was both exhilarated and relieved, yet emotionally spent. There’s a scene where Maya is talking about a drunk driving episode with his father but that story is directly lifted from my life with my father. It was shot in one take, which was incredibly challenging in terms of staying composed. Sometimes I think the most evocative scenes in a film are where the character is near the brink of collapse and emotional tears, yet somehow holds it together. As a culture, we rarely cry and express our wounds emotionally, so I think the suspense in trying to contain ones tears is equally compelling, if not more so. We all shudder from another’s intense display of emotion so I tried to keep it contained and have it bubble at the surface rather than break down per se.
Your film also deals with the rise and fall of fame. How do you personally feel about fame as an artist?
I’m not sure what to make of material fame. I think this project was my hedge and protection both for and against it. I needed to set the boundaries and parameters by soberly addressing the idea of fame in the event it ever happens, in the sense that the themes of the film had to be much bigger than any of the material rewards it might ever accrue. I think Maya was my excuse and protective mechanism to deflect any rewards that come from THE GOLDEN AGE. Maya is free to enjoy all the fame he wants, but I was far more interested in trying to speak the truth about the whole mirage of it. I see famous people in LA all the time, but they have their own fears, distresses, and people kowtowing to their every need, so material fame sometimes appears as its own prison of sorts, which liberated me to speak more openly about my take on it. I think this line in the film says it best: “The only kind of fame Maya was ever interested in was in denouncing fame itself.” That line kind of says it all for me.
When we look at Maya O’Malley, are we also getting a glimpse into who Justin Connor is?
Somewhat. Sure, a lot of it reflected my own abusive and chaotic past, but it was more of a satire on material life, fame, musicians, the music business, and the entire trope and structure of how documentaries follow certain guidelines.
So many Indie Filmmakers’ biggest obstacle in producing their own films is budget. How were you able to fund THE GOLDEN AGE?
I was working at two different bars on the weekends, and used the capital I had earned from a number of TV commercials I had booked as an actor and just did everything I could to make the film look as professional as possible. I put every cent I had into it. The rational thinking is never put any of your own money into your own film, but my thinking was the opposite: You make a different film when you have everything so deeply invested in the quality of what you’re producing. So it raised the bar and even somewhat freed me up in knowing that I was willing to float or sink with this creative ship. Many of my friends and cohorts have shot films on someone else’s dime and had to rush the name actors in and out on a fixed or limited shooting schedule and often times you can see it in the final product. It was also somewhat antithetical to the film’s narrative to have anyone famous in the film, because it would have taken away from the overall suspension of disbelief if you saw a name actor in a film engendered to create a story that was designed to be real and have that documentary-style narrative unfold naturally.
What message do you hope Maya leaves with the audience?
That whatever traumas, abuses, or tragedies we face in our lives, it is all happening FOR us and not TO us. That this material game, while we’re trapped in these temporary bodies, careers, and identities is just a funny dance with our own karma — our own cage of imprisonment. If we can view it all with a much wider and, hopefully, more devotional lens, we can see how these events not only actually serve us, but allow us more clarity to offset some of the pain from the harrowing aspects of the events themselves.
You are CEO and Founder of both Anthropomorphic Films and Wiry Pulse Records. What’s next for you?
More Sleep! As I mentioned earlier, I have been notoriously unkind to myself in that regard by working away on this project, so I now need to recuperate for a little bit and make more room for myself, and more specifically, my devotional path. I’ve been doing a lot of painting and drawing each Sunday to break up the monotony of all the many to-do lists associated with the promotion efforts, and that has been really liberating for me. I’ve been working on a series of mixed medium pieces during this Covid mess that I’m really having fun with. It’s the perfect antidote to all of the film’s promotional duties. My first true love has always been painting, so it’s been nice to get back in touch with that which feeds me so deeply. I hope to move out to the country in the next few years and just do more of that, make some weird albums, and plan the next film. Watching plants, flowers and vegetables grow sounds a hell of a lot more fun. I’ve also been fleshing out a slew of songs for my third album, and I’m super excited about getting back into the studio. I love music and songwriting so deeply, I just can’t wait to start tracking drums and piano on them and start the next round of songs and see what arrangements and lyrics are destined to arrive.
Lastly, of all the hats you wear which one is your favorite and why.
Man, that’s hard to say since I have so many creative interests. I will always envision myself as an actor first and foremost, but lately, music and painting have taken center stage. It all comes in waves I suppose, yet each one doesn’t seem much different from the next lately. The one constant I know will always be in my life is music. The eternal puzzle of songwriting forever humbles me. I’ve already mapped out the next 4 or 5 albums, so I know that art form is where my devotional heart resides the deepest. Music is the universal language by which we all communicate, so I take that artistic device as seriously as anything. It has the potential to change the entire world in the blink of an eye.