INTERVIEW 2021
FILM

Janek Ambros

Mondo Hollywoodland
TILL AUGUST 5TH @ arenascreen.com
FROM Aug. 3 on Amazon
assemblylineentertainment.com

A groovy mushrooms dealer and a man from the 5th dimension journey through Hollywood to find the meaning of "Mondo."

 

Hi Janek it's great to have the chance to talk with you, how have you been keeping during these strange Covid times?

I can't complain; I'm fortunate to be able to work from home as my company has a few films that have already been shot or are in the development stage, so I haven't needed to be involved with physical production. I've mostly been involved with preparing releases (such as Mondo), working on our financing aspect of the company which is searching for great projects that need funding, and developing in-house projects we're producing that are in various writing and packaging stages. 

Have you used the time to take up any new hobbies or interests?

 

Editing is something I started doing early in my career (mostly experimental films), so it's been fun to delve back into that as I cut together our marketing campaign for Mondo. Being in quarantine and dealing with shutdowns is obviously a time you can get back into watching, writing, and editing films since those are all pretty isolated endeavours. 

You are about to have a limited release of your latest film Mondo Hollywoodland, do nerves ever set in when you are about to release a new film?

 

Yes, very. Releasing a movie is frustrating because on one hand, you have a responsibility to everyone involved to make sure the movie has a proper release and on the other hand, you sometimes secretly don't want people to see it. But you have to ignore that insecurity so you can produce properly. My first feature was a documentary on the War on Terror's impact on civil liberties and the first review I saw for it was titled "Imminent Boredom," so the reaction to the films can be stressful. Especially since Mondo is very odd, experimental, shot on a phone and was done for very little money.

After everything that has happened with cinema releases, what does it personally mean for you to be able to have this unique cinematic release?

 

I have something called "misophonia '' in which hearing chewing in quiet places causes really bad anxiety so I didn't go to the movies much growing up. I fell in love with movies watching Turner Classic Movies on TV. That said, I still love movie theatres and the idea that people go to escape as a collective body and get into a film. My favourite film is probably Cinema Paradiso; so the magic of a theatre is not lost on me, which is why I'm so excited for the movie to play in a theatre for even just a week. In a technical sense, so much time was spent on the sound design because of the experimental nature so I'm happy people will be able to really hear that properly. 

Can you tell me a little bit about how Mondo Hollywoodland came about, what inspired your screenplay?

 

In 2014, Paul Thomas Anderson showcased Mondo Hollywood (1967) at the AFI Film Festival and my friend and writing partner on this project, Marcus Hart, is a massive PTA fan and told me about the screening. It's a long story that I probably shouldn't get into but I missed the screening then caught it on YouTube later. After watching it, I thought "what if I made an updated Mondo?" I ended up asking the director, Robert Cohen if I could do some sort of sequel and he was fine with it. I planned on shooting it in VR at the time but later ditched the idea. A few years later I wanted to tackle the project again, but this time I didn't want to do it with VR and had no money for production. I bothered Frances Ford Coppola's lawyer for months to try to get a hold of Mr. Coppola and eventually worked and, subsequently, I got to speak to him for a while. He gave me great advice about focusing on a unique story and not worrying about a great camera and all that jazz. So I decided to shoot it with an iPhone as more of a doc. Soon after, I realised I could have it be a bit narrative mixed with the documentary style so I was lucky enough to know Chris Blim and asked if he wanted to make the movie with me. Best decision I ever made; he totally transformed what I had intended and it morphed into a more narrative film and delved more into comedy and thank God. Who knows what type of pretentious movie I may have made!

Had you always intended to play "Derrick" and do you think you will appear in more of your films?

 

Definitely not my intention. It was one of the last roles we needed to cast and Blim actually had the idea. I thought he was kidding at first, but after a few times messing around with the character, I felt pretty comfortable and he and Alex Loynaz were really helpful in that process. I used certain young right-wing talk show hosts as a jumping point with his demeanour. I like shows like Majority Report and The Michael Brooks Show, progressive radio/youtube shows that make fun of the alt-right a lot so that helped. As of now, I would probably act in other people's movies but not sure if I would put myself in another.

You co-wrote Mondo Hollywoodland with Chris Blim & Marcus Hart, how important is the collaborative nature of filmmaking for you when working on a film like this?

 

It's everything. The role of the director is overrated. It's all about collaboration for this film and any film other than maybe very experimental personal films that don't involve actors. I had worked with Marcus in the past on several films and we originally came up with a basic structure and narration of the original VR doc version. Marcus is an incredible thinker, so he was able to really help me try to convey what I was trying to go for with the Titans, Weirdos, and Dreamers angle I was constructing. Having him around is like having William Goldman around; he knows how to immediately fix what's wrong with a scene or sequence, almost always finding how to have a scene have more purpose that serves the overall point of the entire canvas. He has "writer disciple" which is very rare and absolutely crucial.

 

Then when Chris came on board, we'd work on the more narrative side of what happens to characters mostly comedically - our very bizarre sense of comedy. Even if no one else thought it was funny, we at least knew we thought it was funny. I can't imagine writing a comedy without other people; you'd lose the funniest part of it, which is laughing when trying to write it.  Aside from comedy, Blim's extremely creative mind let the film expand into sci-fi, fantastical elements that really kept pushing the film further outside the box. He has the sense of someone like Terry Gilliam or Tim Burton; he doesn't just have a vision of the abstract, but the capability of making that abstraction a reality by putting physical elements into sequences and scenes. Case and point being the chair in Mondo. Then, once Blim and I realised what we wrote needed more structure because so much of it was just nuts, Marcus came back into the writing process and helped us with structure, which is probably the most important aspect of writing movies. There are 7 character's stories in the film so it was a delicate dance of how to go back and forth between stories. We knew it would always come across as experimental and "not structured," but also knew if there wasn't structure underneath that, regardless if the audience was aware, none of it would work. 

I could go on and on about all the talented people in the film and why collaboration is so important. Blim and I, for the most part, were the only crew members so I'm mostly referring to the actors and music. So many of the actors improved their lines; a very high percentage. We'd write a scene and then let them know what the basic framework was. The very talented Miranda Hart, who plays Paloma, was kind enough to introduce us to her friends at UCB so, suddenly, a big chunk of our cast was UCB improv actors, making collaboration even more vital when acting out those scenes. Watching someone like Miranda or Alyssa Sabo (Daphne) who is up there with Gilda Radner is always very fun because you know they're giving so many things you couldn't think of in the writing room because they're two entirely new people now being a part of the conversation of what the film is evolving too. All the actors brought something else that didn't just involve acting, but storytelling as well. 

Where did your passion for filmmaking come from?

I guess there are a lot of stages to that. When I was a kid, family members would put me in the direction of films here and there; my cousins introduced me to Goodfellas and gangster films at a really young age and I loved that. I even made films when I was about seven and eight on those video cameras from the 90s. As a young teenager, in the summer of 2003 or 2004, I was going through some personal stuff and started to become obsessed with films that dealt with finding hope in adversity. That's what really opened it all up; I must have watched over 200 films that summer, starting with the top 250 IMDb list. Whenever I watch any of those classics, I always think of that summer. Then, in my 20s, I got really into politics, human rights, foreign policy, and so on and that morphed my film obsession into docs and films that tackled political issues. Now, I'm probably in some other stage of my passion that I'll understand more in ten years.

"With Mondo, that was something I wanted to continue since it was so chaotic and psychedelic."

Copy of mondo 3.jpg

How did Assembly Line Entertainment come about and what's been the biggest changes to your approach to your film projects changed since your debut film?

 

I started the company right when I moved to Los Angeles when I was about 22. I was really influenced by Frances Ford Coppola's American Zoetrope. I loved the idea of a company filled with artists, directors, writers and actors who are all friends just making movies that are trying to be cutting edge. I wanted to emulate his original vision in the late 60s and I still try to. I wanted to have a company where I'd understand how to make a movie, but also how financing works (which is why I majored in Economics). I would read about him cutting deals with financiers while also writing scripts and doing screen tests with actors and, to me, that was really interesting. That duality. 

The approach really depends on the project and what my role is. My debut film was a documentary, so it's hard for me to know exactly since I haven't made a doc since and haven't really planned to. I've produced a few but I definitely try to help the directors, not mistakes I made when I made mine. Focusing on making sure you have an end strategy before making the film is crucial and something that would probably be the biggest takeaway after making my debut film. Working backwards.


Is there any particular film genre you are most interested in?

 

I don't really have a particular genre I'm interested in, but anything that is political is something I'm more drawn to. Anything that comments on injustices to certain people, evils of the world, or how the average person gets screwed over by a hegemonic system that is subservient to capital. Frank Capra was an influence to me on this. He embedded a lot of political commentary in his classics like It's a Wonderful Life and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. I'm sure if he didn't work with Eisenhower during World War 2 in their campaigns to defeat the Nazis, he would have been questioned a lot more about being a communist. Those classics he made say a lot. A movie like Get Out has a lot to say politically and that's a horror. Wall-E has a lot to say politically and that's animation. And so on. 

How important is it for you to push the boundaries of the films you make?

 

Coming from an editing background, I always want to push editing to its extremes. The filmmaker I'm most influenced by in my career is Thelma Schoonmaker. She's one of the greatest filmmakers to ever live because she pushed boundaries in editing as Eisenstein did in the 1920s. Luckily, I was working on a lot of experimental films when I was younger so I was able to just run wild with editing. With Mondo, that was something I wanted to continue since it was so chaotic and psychedelic. For my next movie, I think I want to try to push the boundaries of film in a different way and relax on the wild editing. 

Has there been any filmmaking advice you've been given that has really stuck with you?

 

I annoyed a lot of great filmmakers assistants over email when I first moved to L.A. and eventually the filmmakers would finally talk to me and give me advice and, in some cases, end up being long-time collaborators and mentors. I mentioned Coppola's advice on worrying about the story over technical camera stuff, so that was one for sure. Barbara De Fina, the brilliant producer behind films like Casino & You Can Count On Me, has given me so much advice, but it's more specific, material, and practical in relation to the projects I work on, which in many ways is the most important advice you can get. Speaking more broadly, there's an old cliche that everyone hears which is to "just make films." That has to be the most important advice. I don't normally like to place responsibility on the individual to "just do it" because that unfairly suggests there are societal structures in place that make it possible for anyone to "just do it," but it probably is something to keep saying to yourself. If you can get a hold of a camera (or phone even) and get to know actors, that's probably your best bet. Bring it back to Coppola again, has a great interview in Hearts of Darkness about being worried people will think you're pretentious if you try to aspire for something new and great. He basically says to just say "fuck it." That's probably the best advice once you start making stuff. 


And finally, what do you want your audiences to take away from Mondo Hollywoodland?

 

I guess the idea that being part of a community should be cherished.