Filmmaking Lessons from
The Beatles

The Beatles have been my favorite band since I was probably in 1st or 2nd grade. My first album was Meet the Beatles. From there it was a years-long and still-current obsession involving things like bootleg purchases, Beatles A-Z weekends on local radio, Beatlefest in Los Angeles, and lyric memorization. I once started a childhood religion based on the worship of John Lennon. But that’s a different blog post.

I know all the trivia involving Paul being dead and Adrienne Kennedy’s adaptation of In His Own Write and John having various threesomes and Eric Burdon being the Eggman.

The obsession, of course, includes films. I’ve visited the sidewalk at Marylebone Station in London where George fell down in A Hard Day’s Night and I can tell you that when it was first broadcast, Magical Mystery Tour, an improvised movie, was in black and white (leading to poor reviews by critics who may have been otherwise swayed by psychedelic colors). These aren’t the most lasting bits of information involving movies, however. My love of everything Beatle (peace and love, peace and love, peace and love, says Ringo) translates into filmmaking lessons based on how they navigated through their bandmate years. It goes something like this:

  • Continually try new things. Stop touring and hit the studio. See what it sounds like singing while lying down. Try making movies in different genres, or spending no money, or based on things like inner city black men who don’t get shot.
  • It’s fine to not make sense sometimes. John Lennon purposely wrote I Am the Walrus to confound school teachers who’d started analyzing his lyrics in classrooms. Don’t worry about what people think, and if they happen to like what you’ve made, all the better.
  • Discover your best way of working. Paul wrote every day. John wrote during moments of inspiration. Ringo created drumbeats after reading lyrics. Find your own way of working instead of listening to what other people say you should do.
  • Work with people smarter than you. This is also called “find your George Martin.” When recording Tomorrow Never Knows, John Lennon didn’t understand the technology behind Artificial Double Tracking so called it “the flange.” Don’t worry about knowing the name of every single piece of grip equipment (unless you’re a grip). Focus on vision and big ideas.
  • Never be afraid of failure. Decca didn’t sign the The Beatles (famous instance of kicking oneself in the ass). For every 10 failures there has to be at least one success. Some successes are larger than others.
  • Put in the hours. Malcolm Gladwell’s now-iconic statistic of The Beatles playing 10,000+ hours in Hamburg, Germany is a great example of how you have to do the work. Keep going. Get behind the camera, spruce up your editing station, and watch thousands of films.
  • Give peace a chance. If you’re always arguing, break up. Filmmaking has many solo moments, but it’s essentially a community effort. If you can’t get along with someone or if someone’s treating you with disrespect….
  • Find your dream team. Fire your Pete Best. Surround yourself with people who support you and whom you respect. There’s no need to work with assholes. Keep at it until there’s chemistry and things click.
  • Provide an environment for new ideas. Yes, The Beatles were loaded. They were supported by a manager, producer, sound technicians, studio heads, and the like. Still, create your own comfortable environment where you know you’ll do your best work. Build your support network.
  • Support your team’s preferences. Lead by example and admit when there’s something you don’t know or would rather not do. Ringo let John, Paul, and George decide who went on the Sgt. Pepper cover, because he didn’t care.
  • Stop if it’s no longer fun. Life’s too short to waste it on something you don’t absolutely love doing. Cut to Abbey Road rooftop as needed.

Bonus anecdote: I cried when John Lennon died. I was in 6th grade and Howard Cosell announced it during Monday Night Football. My mom started crying, too, until she realized it was John and not Paul. “I thought it was the other one,” she said.


Lawrence Nathaniel Newton

Cinemulatto is in London this week with her family, mostly showing her teen daughter touristy things and eating at places like Nando’s. I’m also visiting relatives on my mother’s side I haven’t seen in 23 years, plus new ones I’ve never met.

Not only is the search for Dorothy Newton continuing, but now there’s a beginning to the story. This beginning is my mother’s father, Lawrence Nathaniel Newton.

Lawrence Newton, circa the early 1930s.

I never met my maternal grandfather. I only heard about him in stories, and knew (as mentioned in a previous Cinemulatto post) that my mother had spoken about his swollen heart as witnessed on his deathbed.

My time in London has unearthed several facts:

  • He died from too much drinking, not heart disease, and it was his swollen liver my mother saw.
  • He was Indo-Jamaican. I don’t know anything about my great-grandfather or where in India he came from, but I now know my brothers and I are one-eighth Indian (!).
  • Lawrence was prone to violence. My mother was the only one among his wife and five kids who wasn’t subject to frequent, physical outbursts.
  • He was a tailor. Thus the snazzy outfit above.

I couldn’t stop staring at the picture when I saw it. The prominent eyelids. The downward-curving mouth. Clear signs of “Newton” and traits I’ve inherited.

Why was my mother his favorite? What drove him to drink? What was the nature of his relationship with Mary Dawson, his wife? What are the other parts of his legacy?

More questions, plus the continued search for answers….


Dakota B-B

Due to popular demand (and her personal request), we have a late-March 2013 Mulatto of the Month: my daughter, Dakota Billops-Breaux. Her racial background: Black, White, Native American, Vietnamese, and Chinese. (Our theme song: “One of your own five kinds, stick to your own five kinds.”)

I won’t go into the many, many ways this young woman is extraordinary (bias be damned!), but I will say that our most recent “deep conversation” made me rethink genetics and family history.

It’s a given that in any gay or otherwise blended family, DNA is often secondary to the filial bond. There’s the occasional curiosity about the donor. There are blood lines traced through the birth parent. This has always been part of our family’s reality but only in a cursory way. It’s never determined in any real way how we relate to each other on a day to day basis.

During our London trip, however, as I became obsessed with the image of my grandfather and bonded with my cousins on family matters, Dakota expressed disappointment that she’d never have the “Newton look” or possess that particular connection to me that comes with genetics. My motherly response: I’d rather you have my sense of humor than my nose. Still, tracing one’s family history, even in a gay family context, includes at least partial discussion of blood line. And although it’s the case–even more so with the Supreme Court about to make history–that our relationship is recognized by family, community, and nation, to not respect all the feelings one’s child may encounter in becoming her own person is to do an injustice to all the things that make our gay household loving and tight-knit in the first place.

Happy March, Dakota! Thanks for continuing to teach me things.