Sammy Kusler came on board the producing team of “Guys Reading Poems” the first time I pitched the project to him. He’s one of those unforgettable personalities on the set that knows when to say something spiritual to calm you down, but also knows when to just quietly slip a blended mocha frappucino in your hand and walk away. He was much beloved on our production and offers his experience and wisdom to other filmmakers on their journey.
Hunter: Sammy, a lot of our readers are prepping their first or second film, whether it’s a short or feature film. “Guys Reading Poems” was your first film working as a co-producer. What general advice can you give to folks starting out?
Sammy: If you have a dream, go for it. I don’t care how old you are, or how broke you are. I don’t care about your excuses –just allow yourself to follow your passion.
Hunter: You have an incredible talent for making people feel good. This is not to be underestimated as an important task on a set where people are working very hard and for long hours. What are some strategies that you had to make the cast and crew feel comfortable?
Sammy: Just basic understanding of human nature. We all want to be loved. We all perform better when we feel like we’re loved. The trick is to know the balance of giving and receiving love and just basically being honest with your emotions. If you have honest emotions, people aren’t afraid that you’re hiding something.
Hunter: What was something about the project that was harder than expected and what was easier than expected?
Sammy: I definitely expected there to be more competition and more stress between people but I found the team that we had was so giving and caring. There was just this great flow between the actors, the crew, the production team. I didn’t expect it to be so easy and wonderful. What was harder than expected…the grueling hours, very long hours. The hours really took a bigger toll than I expected.
Hunter: Food is a big part of your life. You’re such an incredible chef – you often cook for your friends – and you brought that same sense of caring about the food to craft services on the film. It’s such an important area of the set. Any tips for producing teams on how to keep the cast and crew happy with regards to food?
Sammy: Armies move on their stomachs. That’s it. I think that’s basic. The happy time during “Guys Reading Poems” was around the craft services table. That’s where people went to relieve stress and there was good, healthy stuff to help them relieve it.
Hunter: I hope this doesn’t sound too hokey, but you have a shamanistic thing going, too. I remember standing at the dining room table with Patricia [Velasquez] and you pulled out that original Frida Kahlo pendant. I remember in that moment feeling like you were one of the spiritual guides to the film and Patricia just fell in love with you. Do you think there’s some kind of spirituality that comes with making a film? Or am I off-base?
Sammy: What I’ll call it is a deep connection to spirituality. Everything in my life is connected to some deeper pool of spirituality that we all share. It’s all connected. We’re all connected. That’s what I’ve learned, anyway. And it pours out in all kinds of ways, in all kinds of magic moments. That piece of jewelry is one of the greatest treasures of my life because I was born the minute that Frida Kahlo died so it is to me like a talisman to this intense spirit world that I don’t understand…but I feel it.
Hunter: What made you pull it out and show it to Patricia and myself? Since she plays a successful artist in the film, I thought it was just the right thing to do.
Sammy: I didn’t make a decision to do anything at that moment. It was just the next right thing to do. When you listen and you’re connected to the spiritual world like that, things like just happen and magic just appears. [He laughs]. I hope that’s not too corny, but we’re allowed to be corny.
Hunter: Filmmaking is a multi-generational operation. We had some very young people on set from Luke Judy, who is 7, to Blake Sheldon, who was 21 when we started. And Debbie Vandermeulen’s mother showed up to be an extra and I believe she’s 90 or 91. I found that to be very refreshing about our set. Can you talk about that a little?
Sammy: I grew up in a tribal situation, a tribal society and old people were not to be thrown away. They were to be listened to and their stories are what guided our lives. They weren’t some old creepy thing that you bring a present to on Christmas or whatever. They were really our guides. That’s how I feel about older people. And younger people – they are a window to our innocence. Nature combines us and society separates us so it was a natural flow that brought us together on set.
Hunter: I love that you did not allow what some might consider to be “a later start” to deter you from diving into filmmaking. What would you say to others who might want to start at 40, 50, 60, even 70?
Sammy: The cliché is true in this case – just do it! If it comes out, let it happen. Cut through the but’s – ‘but, but, but’ – and the what if’s. If you have a passion, follow it.
Hunter: You’ve seen me in action making a film, warts and all. What could I do better? Or what advice would you give me for “Inside-Out, Outside-In” after observing the process for “Guys Reading Poems”?
Sammy: Don’t overdo it. Delegate.
Hunter: What has been your happiest memory associated with “Guys Reading Poems” so far?
Sammy: My happiest memories are just watching the actors go from being the actor to being the character and that process. Some of them stayed in character the whole time. Some of them dropped the character the minute they walked off the set. And just working with the people on the team – the producers, the director, the crew, the extras. Just the people. It was such a joyous collection.