This week, I’m pleased to interview a very complete Artist, music composer, and filmmaker Nicole Russin-McFarland.
Artist Nicole Russin-McFarland Interview
Please tell us a bit about yourself and your universe?
I am a film director, classical music composer, model, foodie, University of Texas at Austin graduate, native of Illinois in the USA, and entrepreneur with my brand, Lucky Pineapple Books + Films. I work hard. Always have. I started working when I was 13. Unlike most people you hear about, I didn’t have magic fairy dust thrown at me. I had lots of circumstances that should have made me “make it” as opposed to halfway “making it.” I’ve had everything go right the way it’s supposed to and not see the same results as those famous stories we hear about in Hollywood, entertainment, media, and art in general. I realized if I had to do something big, I had to go out on my own, and that is what I’m doing now so that my music and filmmaking will finally be recognized. My motto is, “If you don’t believe in yourself, no one will.”
“If you don’t believe in yourself, no one will”
Nicole Russin-McFarland, were you always interested in art growing up?
Yes. Art takes many forms. I happened to be very much into movies, but I did not know the job I wanted was called being a movie director. I thought pretty actresses like Marilyn Monroe wrote and filmed the movies! When my parents started having me learn about music when I was five, I really got into music. Not always the cool music. Music, nonetheless though, which is what counts! My parents gave me the option to try different things. I seriously hated sports. Luckily, while other people’s parents push them into sports when they dislike them, mine didn’t.
I also stumbled into taking art classes because my elementary school was offering after-school lessons each semester for anyone who wanted to learn basic drawing and cartoons. First, I thought it was all over, until! My art teacher said he was going to teach summer art classes for kids. I followed him to the summer classes! He corrected a lot of my mistakes I made in the classes, as did other kids. I’m glad I did all this younger. I didn’t spend as much time honing in my art because, after elementary, my teacher moved. I wasn’t inspired by the dumb crafts my clueless teachers had made us do. But it set the foundation for me to have basic art skills to know what I’m talking about. Especially for me in the future, as I make more movies, I know I can always draw what I’m talking about to people so they get it.
Practice does make perfect, I’ve learned — and we shouldn’t confuse that with brain exercises. With music, I could be either really good at instruments or mediocre depending on much I rehearse or work on my lessons. Anything is like that. And that you work on what you’re good at. For example, if I want to sound bad on purpose for humor, all I have to do is sing higher notes most girls sing because my voice goes weak, and it’s hilarious! I love doing this for comedic effect, but not too often anymore. So I know to sound “good,” at least Top 40 radio standards, all I need to do one day when I do that if I do is sing in a comfortable tone, work that AutoTune if needed, and rehearse a lot. Or if I want to sound “good” on flute, I’m sure I could if I play flute all day. One thing I’m grateful for is when I was younger, I had a number of teachers who loved film scores and Disney songs. And one was obsessed with getting these wild kids to learn composing skills despite most of them being there for no reason other than one more skill to throw onto a college application.
What composing music has in common with anyone painting or doing modern art displays is…you are really required to think. This is now so much more than knowing how to pick up a flute, or in the case of your readers, picking up a brush and dipping it into paint. There are no rules set in stone telling you what to do. And, you may be challenged in not knowing the next answer! I love not knowing everything. Not one person knows everything about everything!
This separates people who are really good at mimicking stuff, say playing some 14-year-old flute talent who’s only good from nonstop lessons, from people creating the work. Our culture doesn’t yet understand that some guy repainting the Mona Lisa on his iPad, some four year old replaying a famous piano work from memory on YouTube, or whatever our 2016 era gimmick is, is that guy is only mimicking. Yes, it requires basic skills, but anyone can learn that. Monkeys do it all the time! Rehashing stuff others create does not qualify you as a genius to me at all. What takes real talent is creating the new work. The guy who makes the next Mona Lisa, or for me, not being the girl who wants to one day be seen as composing the next great film scores with a big name you remember like Hans Zimmer, we struggle with wanting to do so much more. We struggle with hoping we are talented enough and that our work is actually good. And how to make our work better. Your true amazing work, that genius level stuff worthy of debate in some salon circa 1800’s Paris, doesn’t come until you’re a little bit older and have been around!
Nicole Russin-McFarland, how did you get into an animated movie?
First, because I love animation and always wanted at least my first or second one to be animated. Secondly, because of convenience. Animation allows us to go beyond a schedule if we have a cool idea. We can be at work doing our own things and make time for it when possible. Everyone on this movie except the one actual professional actress may be well known in some way or another, but everyone has other work goals. We each take turns making time for them. To give you an idea, right now, one associate producer took time off from his job to go film in South America for our real backdrops we are using for the cartoon.
My film’s business partner and I are each so busy with making our personal work goals happen. He had a baby, found new band members, and opened another restaurant all during this movie. I’ve been focusing nonstop on my business, Lucky Pineapple Books + Films, and getting my own personal brand out there so I’m more familiar with people. I want people to know the name Nicole Russin-McFarland and immediately think, “At least one female in entertainment wants to be known for substance!”
I don’t mind goofing off, doing social media for fun, talking about makeup, and whatever, though if I were to be frank, I want to also counteract whatever’s going on right now culturally. Women now are supposed to be really stupid, shallow, and unable to speak. This sets a bad example for young people. If more people were to want to be known for music, or at least talk about art topics like you and I are doing now, that makes a difference. And yes, of course, I love girly stuff too, but I’m not going to only want to be known for a sex tape like this new crop of people. I don’t want people to see my name and think, “Sex tape. A career built on nothing.” Of course, like any person, yeah, any man or woman loves hearing compliments about our faces and figures. But I’m not going to be famous because of the bigness or smallness of some body parts! I see the new thing now is to be “the model with a big chest” or “the singer with a big behind.” When you work with gimmicks like that and don’t build talent as much as you can, you’re replaceable. So while sure, it may have taken me longer to get here, I hope I’m not replaceable. That I am a unique person with something special to offer the world. And if you happen to like the way I look in a dress, I always appreciate a compliment, but I am focusing on building my talent so the next girl who looks good in a lace dress to your standards doesn’t come along and knock me off my pedestal, because I’m really concerned about making good movies, including good animation, and good music. And on top of that, a very specific type of music in classical music film scores!
Do you have or have had a mentor or other special person to guide you?
Nobody in particular. I’m inspired by many people I meet or know. Some are in the film industry and some are business people. You don’t have to be famous to inspire me.
Might you talk about your first animated movie “The Eyes of Old Texas”?
The film is long for short film standards. We are definitely hoping to push that 40 minutes cut off as much as possible to make it as much of a real movie. Most short films are five minutes long and don’t have too much of a plot.
Our story is about a bad guy, a Wild West outlaw named Rupert “Bird Beak” Crow, who becomes good and gains confidence. I feel we all at some point struggle with low confidence. He saves the world from the apocalypse caused by non-talent based reality television and the fact people quit reading. The whole thing is very funny, as it’s a parody of Hollywood works past to current, and also a lesson learner for young people facing this when they will grow up. Our theme is you never know if something is real because it looks real. What doesn’t look real could be real. Don’t make fake reality shows into your actual reality. To go with our theme, we have real people in the movie like Who Framed Roger Rabbit? and are including real locales in North America, South America, Asia, and Australia!
The teasers I watched show something very different from we can expect in animated movies. Is there any real-life situation that inspired you?
First, the plot line. Rupert the bird has to save the world from an apocalypse caused by humanity’s obsession with non-talent based reality television shows. This topic is one of heartbreak for me because I noticed as time went on before I formally became a movie director, every person all of a sudden taking work away from me in food journalism, modelling, and really anything I was seeking was not taking the work because they were more qualified in terms of experience, better looking, or simply better at the job. People hired them instead of me, directly and often in front of me as if I and the other job seekers were flies on the wall, because all these new people showing up out of nowhere either were on reality TV or had family who were. I was really sad. Nothing hurts like knowing someone who one day feels like trampling on your territory and can barely speak complete sentences, much less has an understanding of or a passion for the subject area, all of a sudden takes something meaningful from you.
It’s said heartbreak in terms of relationships creates the best songs and films. I hope with all my heart that in my case of this movie, heartbreak through the love of career aspirations would do the same. Besides hitting me on a personal level, I feel sad that nobody under a certain age anymore cares about culture, books, newspapers, music, science, art, and more. Nobody wants to read. My generation and the one before out now both emulate what people are doing on these very scripted TV shows to where it’s ruining humanity.
It used to be you were a career woman who could talk about whatever you do in the day and then, “Yes! I can spend some of my job earnings on a new purse.” Now, all the most successful women I meet can talk about is gossip, what they are wearing or buying, or so on. Men too. Though it mainly has hurt women more than men. I love fashion as much as the next girl and want to eventually sell fashion products. Still, when I’m done having fun, I want to talk about anything else in addition to that stuff. Nobody wants to use their minds.
I additionally saw the change hurt my work beyond not getting as many job opportunities when indeed, I had job opportunities but ran into obstacles created by the new cultural movement. Stuff like people firing me from magazines after I’d interviewed male celebrities because I did not want to ask them vulgar questions nor make fun of them indirectly. That happened several times. I was always humiliated because these guys granted me interviews out of trust. Or how people didn’t like me once they met me because I wanted to promote a positive relationship with food, yet they wanted me to talk about diet trends or food that I knew wasn’t good at all, but its style was trendy.
You’ll see so many people do these things to get ahead. I’m a total businesswoman. But as much of a go getter I’ve been at times doing absolutely everything for work, I won’t compromise my morals by making fun of someone who may not be perfect, but that person is an actual human being. Being an actor in a movie doesn’t make someone less of one. And simply because some of the nouveau television “celebrities” talk about the worst stuff in tabloids, that doesn’t make it acceptable for credible magazines to want to hire me to do that mean stuff to people.
Secondly, I thought of a little cowboy bird when I first went to the University of Texas at Austin when I was feeding birds my leftover giant burrito. I didn’t know what to make of it other than it was an idea. I finally worked out the full story when I combined elements of ideas I had over my life with new ideas and the other ideas from my co-executive producer for this movie.
Where do you derive your influence? Do you have a favorite place or technique that helps you find inspiration?
I don’t like working around busy chatter or noise, such as people yelling in the background. A Starbucks is out of the question. I go to any public snack or eating place when I want to de-stress. I do enjoy working with music on if I am trying to animate the movie or write something, as in writing words. Of course, writing music, I replay the sound clips I upload onto my iPod nonstop over and over to hear mistakes or things I might want to build on.
For music, I keep a diary. I’m really bad at the creative writing I call “old fashioned creative writing,” like essays on how I spent my summer vacation, how I feel in an opinion piece for Time Magazine, that sort of thing. My opinion pieces are horrible as I tend not to have opinions on anything not related to my fields of interest! Another thing I hate about society lately! How we are supposed to have opinions on everything going on globally in everything as if we are experts. We have to be cynical and know so much and rant on some blog, or we are invaluable as human beings.
No, my diary entries are random notes I put together if I’m feeling like saying something. I would recommend this for everyone. If visuals are your thing, make a visual diary in a notebook. I happen to write my “diary” as files I save on GarageBand of themes. If I’m annoyed, I’ll make a theme where you feel how annoyed I am. Sad. Happy. Feeling sexy. Haha! Whatever it is.
As I always say, the theme is what makes a good score. And a good score can have multiple themes, like how Star Wars does for several characters and interactions, if you want a mainstream reference. A score without a theme is worthless. And I want to have enough themes I can use in my future work so when the time comes, the feeling is not only authentic, I also don’t have to worry about crash coursing myself. I’ll have the basics ready to compose what I need.
You’re not only a filmmaker and you composed the entire soundtrack with rocker Brian Tsao. Tell us more about this collaboration.
He covered rock. I covered orchestral. And at times, some songs blend both together. It’s the oddest combination ever that actually works. Brian had China’s first touring metal band. He recently went on SiriusXM Radio’s metal station as a guest DJ! He’s like the Hans Zimmer of metal music. I appreciated his collaboration so much. Both as my film’s co-executive producer and the co-composer on the soundtrack.
In the future, I dream of doing a soundtrack like The Social Network, all tech-like, but with orchestral laid on top. And more metal too. In addition to purely classical music scores too!
And, I want to use scores that involve my own themes and really make them sound evil and villainous. I didn’t get to do that a lot here as we worked with the old song, “The Eyes of Texas,” as our core theme, and it couldn’t get too out there being a cartoon. I had to keep some sanity for the kids so it wouldn’t all be scary. Because the wrong context isn’t good there! We want kids to laugh!
“If nobody hires you, do whatever you can to make your own movie.”
Nicole Russin-McFarland, what’s the best piece of advice you would give to someone who dreams to be a filmmaker?
If nobody hires you, do whatever you can to make your own movie. Many people want to work in film, and there are very few jobs. You can meet any Oscar winners, but if you aren’t someone’s girlfriend, boyfriend, daughter, son, or spouse, they may not help you get in the industry. People only help those with some special meaning to them. You can be Elizabeth Taylor’s first cousin, or some old film star’s daughter, and it won’t matter. People only care if right now, the year of 2016, is your dad a famous pop music producer? Or are you on TV at all, such as a reality show?
Film school isn’t necessary. A lot of people often say film school wasn’t right for them, or the first or second film schools were not, therefore, they had to work to find the best fit. In a decision I hope they will one day regret, my university’s film school did not want to accept me. Make your own film school. I’ve been making my own film school since I was a little girl watching all the movies I could. Read about film. Your desire to learn outweighs any expensive classes. It’s like before in this interview, when I was telling you about kids who didn’t care about learning music? If you sit someplace and only have half a desire to learn, or this is all about making money for you one day and you hate it, film is not for you. Movies are for people who think about them all day long.
Have patience! I didn’t have any until I began making the movie. Your movie will take a while if you want it to be any good. Similar to what you probably already know, if you consider yourself a true artist. If you’re an artist, the typical reader of this website, you can transfer some of what you’ve learned in making your first movie.
Nicole Russin-McFarland, what is your dream project?
I have several. One is my very specific remake of Carmen, the opera, on film. It’s so specific, if multiple Hollywood people came out with their own film interpretations of Carmen, nobody would have mine. Mine really messes with people’s idea of what the old novella and opera stand for. I feel like my version finally answers the questions of why she behaves the unexplainable way she does towards the men she claims to love, among other unanswered things. And the setting and story is so different, yet maintains the original perspective from the old book and opera both. I’ve had this idea in my head ever since I was in junior high when I one day read the translation of the opera, totally bored at the library. Every time I ever met anyone before I formally began making my first movie, the first thing I told them when they asked me about my life goals was, “I don’t know how, when, why, or anything, but I one day am going to make the greatest Carmen film adaptation ever known.”
Another is this popular 19th-century book I don’t want to reveal yet. I absolutely hate and love the original book at the same time. This was my reading material in junior high, so yeah if you imagine, I spent a lot of time wondering about this stuff then! Being a movie director was absolutely a goal of mine. Anyway, I hate the way the story is told in the most boring fashion possible, yet I love the actual story and what it means to me. If you rewrote the book today, it would still stand the test of time. Nothing has changed for society. My intention is to retell this story in a very Matrix, science fiction, futuristic way, mixed with a bit of action movie, though using the original intent from the book and the basic story.
To be clear, when I was 12, 13, 14, I would write down and think about these things but never have a finished ideal. I don’t want to come off like those people who act like they knew everything, who were child perfectionists who talked about schoolwork all day. I was a regular, silly teenage girl. I simply happen to fully flesh out my ideas as I live through life events every year. Every so often, I’ll add onto these stories or have a new approach for them. I change my future films’ outlines mentally all the time. My ideas are now a lot more grown up and sophisticated. And I’m sure more so by the time I make them.
I have some animated films I badly want to work on, as I get the impression I may be primarily an animated movie director for a few years. Some are really special ones that could help kids learn about history or other topics and really speak to them. When most kids view a movie about a serious topic, it goes over their heads. Things have to be told to them in a way that’ll hook them. Which I think I have down!
Lots of more cool and exciting stuff I have written down on my list! Don’t want to talk too much!
Is artistic life lonely? What do you do to counteract it?
It is, but the benefit is, you can leave that loneliness when you go out and do something. You can be holed up all day worrying about a fake world where nothing is real and then, OK, go to the mall. Call someone on the phone. You don’t have to be locked up.
But I do really enjoy the solitude. I appreciate it over the corporate world fakery that I experienced a lot in doing journalism, and way back when, when I did “serious” journalism. I say serious in quotes because real journalism hasn’t existed in the mainstream media for a really long time. I remember all this stuff of being judged on what you look like in the corporate atmosphere, sound like, do, say, want, and beyond that doesn’t come with doing creative work.
When you work with other people in creative work, you’re all doing your own thing. People are focused on doing a good job as an individual. You don’t talk as much. When you do talk, things aren’t awkward. You can relax. None of these forced smiles, people being catty and jealous but wanting to hide it, and all that. If someone dislikes something, he or she tells you. You tell them. Nobody has any fakery because if you hide stuff, your work doesn’t get done. You need open conversations with people to explain your plans. And when it’s all done, you can eat pizza and have fun!
I do love that I can disappear into whatever I’m doing. I do have to do basic office related work of course, via my business and in promoting my work and brand, but it’s not so bad. The rest of the time, I can worry about this nonexistent territory I’m trying to make real. And to make music that goes with the fake world. I can’t wait to do this for the rest of my life.