Interview with Robert Matzen
Transcript of an interview of Robert Matzen, Paladin Communications, by freelance journalist Martin Osbourne, December 2004.
MO: How did Paladin get started?
RM: Paladin Communications began in 1999 as a general business communications firm. We did writing and editing of print materials and scriptwriting for film and video. Initially our client base was national and spanned all types of communications, from ads to instruction manuals and training video. But in 2000 we began work on the first Braddock documentary and evolved away from general communications so that by today, in 2004, all we do is historical documentary. If you look at the back of my business card, it still says “Champions of Business Communication,” which is about the only remnant of the old days.
MO: Why General Braddock?
RM: You know, I wonder that myself. I grew up 25 miles from Fort Necessity, and my parents used to take me there as a kid. Back then I could never figure out the French & Indian War. Were the French fighting the Indians? If so, how did the English fit in, and why was George Washington fighting for them? Very confusing. Also the battles weren't big enough to be interesting to me—it was 30 guys against 30 guys, when, you know, I was drawn to Gettysburg where it was 60,000 versus 80,000.
MO: Then why do it?
RM: It had never been done. No one ever took the time to make a documentary about GW's early military career. The weird thing, and I think this is very weird, is that when I was researching the first movie back in 2000, I stumbled on a postcard of Fort Necessity from the 1960s, and there in the shot you can see my mom and me standing there at the gate of the fort! I was a little kid at the time. That floored me, like when Christopher Reeve sees the penny in Somewhere in Time. His vision got all kaleidoscopy, and that's how I felt when I saw the postcard. I started to think there was something going on with me and the French & Indian War, some sort of stream I was floating in, that maybe I had floated in before.
MO: Are you talking about metaphysics?
RM: I guess, although that can get wacko pretty fast. A number of factors led Mary and me into making When the Forest Ran Red . The stars aligned in a certain way that we were compelled to make the movie, and we both came to believe that we were destined to tell the story, and not just with the first movie but also with George Washington's First War. I've gone from not having the slightest clue what George Washington was about to actually feeling his spirit and understanding his soul. One time I was up on the old Nemacolin Trail with Bob Bantz ( Braddock Road historian) up in Cumberland, Maryland, and I knew GW was there. He was with us. My spine still tingles when I think of that feeling that day. All alone way up in wilderness with Bob Bantz, and GW was there with us. So yeah, I guess you could say that's metaphysical.
MO: Don't people look at you funny when you get metaphysical?
RM: They can, so I don't. I just don't talk about it much. But I saw too many weird things happen. On the first day of shooting of Forest, a large, impressive and unknown oil painting of General Braddock turned up at our remote location. Bob Bantz, who I'd never met, just brought it over because he thought we might be able to use it. It was like, ‘Hello, meet General Braddock.' So right then, on the first day, we were able to capture on film a painting of Braddock no one had ever seen before. On the last day of shooting 14 months later, at a battle reenactment, one of our cameras fell off its tripod and smashed. We had a long shot list that day. We were out of time. We couldn't not shoot. But [Director of Photography] Rich Schutte tinkered with it right there and son of a gun, it started working again. We proceeded to capture some of the most spectacular battle footage imaginable with the camera literally taped together. At every turn in between we had good fortune. When we needed sun, we got sun. When we needed rain it rained. We thought we didn't need fog but it turned out we did, because it was foggy the morning Washington attacked Jumonville. Mary and I both experienced all that, and we knew we were meant to make Forest.
MO: What's your philosophy in making a documentary? You don't seem to exactly follow the formula you see on the History Channel.
RM: I believe in entertainment first. Hook 'em in, then use the motion picture as a device for informing and educating. Then you'd naturally ask, ‘how do you do that?' You do it by keeping the camera moving, making the shots pretty, putting in pretty music, using active voice in narration, and sucking the audience right in. You do it by making sure people understand the motivations of the characters. It's not just that so-and-so was a good guy or a bad guy; it's that every single character in your play has motivations. They were motivated to act in a certain way, just like we all are, all the time. You're motivated to go to the store because you need milk or eggs. You're motivated to come and interview me, or to buy a computer, or to take your dog for a walk. It's the why that makes a story interesting. I'm always asking myself why he or she did this or that. And that's a critical part of story-telling: creating characters that are interesting in and of themselves, and then making the audience want to understand why they did what they did.
MO: You used the word ‘pretty.' What's that all about? You don't think of history as being something nice to look at.
RM: It's all about beauty to me. The story of GW in the wilderness, or Braddock's army marching on Fort Duquesne , or Beaujeu going out to meet them, is a story of courage, heroism, and tragedy. These are the most beautiful concepts in the human experience. They are what separate us. As humans, we all aspire to higher actions and higher ideals. So when I make a movie, it will be a beautiful thing to look at because that's how I see my characters. That's how I see my story. The camera will always be on the move. If it's standing still, it's for a reason. What you look at will often be attractive. Panoramas, sunsets, mist on the water, mountain streams, grazing horses. When you see historians, they will be in a beautiful setting. We never ever plunk them down on a chair in front of a dropcloth or in limbo or in front of a bookshelf. You never see them badly lit. Almost always you see them outdoors, out where GW was, surrounded by green forests, with blue skies overhead. Sometimes in the background you'll hear the call of a crow or hawk, just like he would have heard. And the music. To me the music is everything. It has to be beautiful music, lots of minor-key music, sometimes sad sometimes heroic, but never discordant. I don't like that loud, bangy action music. I have disagreements with Tom [Wilson, editor of the two movies] about that all the time. In battle scenes, he'll want to use standard action music, and I'll fight him on it and search and search for music that's pretty. He hates the very word anymore. Pretty. He sneers it. He's a musician, and has already forgotten more about music than I'll ever know, so it's a struggle.
MO: What is your background for making documentaries?
RM: Jack of all trades. My degree is in history, and my career has been communications. I've written three books and lots of articles. I write for the government a lot, which sounds like dry stuff but the job is to make an annual report a page turner, and you can, or at least it's worth trying They say you don't really know how to write until your first million words or so, and I know I'm way past that. And in 1992 in the midst of my print career I started writing screenplays for industrial film and video. I was incredibly lucky. I started working for Mike Foster, who was a graduate of the USC film school, and I'm happy to say I'm his disciple in moviemaking.
MO: Any other influences?
RM: A ton. I'm a film buff. Classic cinema. I particularly gravitate to the Warner Brothers style of moviemaking from the 1930s and 40s. Warner Brothers was the place that really concentrated on writing and character, and it's no coincidence they had the stable of actors that became synonymous with the Golden Era. Humphrey Bogart, James Cagney, Bette Davis, Errol Flynn, Olivia de Havilland—all busted out as big stars making Warner Brothers movies. That's where I got my grounding in how to tell stories using the motion picture format. My dad was big on movies, and he passed that love on to me. And he was a musician, and so was my mom. I grew up with the house always full of music of one kind or another. I like to think I know what music feels good, and I think that's helped a lot in film production. If I had to boil it down to one movie, I'd say I shoot for How Green Was My Valley, which is Fox, not Warners. But it's beautiful and lyrical and sentimental, with pretty music. You care about the characters. In only two hours they feel like family and then at the end, you cry because you care. I'm not happy with my own movies until they make me cry at the end. Then I know I have something.
MO: You've told me why you made When the Forest Ran Red . What about the sequel; how did that come about?
RM: We had made the first one, and it was a gut-wrencher. I mean, it took almost a year and a half and cost a small fortune because Mary and I made it ourselves as independents, and we learned on the fly how to make a documentary. But by the fall of 2001 when it premiered, we had a list of best practices, and historian and reenactor contacts, and a lot of footage we could repurpose for another movie. And as it happened, in Forest we had only told the story up to the battle that really started the Seven Years' War. So we felt compelled to tell the rest of the story. And the ghosts kept talking to us. They demanded we tell their story.
MO: You're getting metaphysical again.
RM: That's the kind of experience it's been. It's made me see GW and Braddock and the rest of them as people. Flesh-and-blood people. I feel like I know them. I feel like they know me. One of my favorite shots of all time isn't even in either of the movies. It's in the little featurette, Making When the Forest Ran Red from the DVD. It's a shot of General Braddock appearing at his own grave, hands folded behind his back, surveying the mountains. That shot literally represents Braddock come to life. General Edward Braddock living again in the 21st century. Who would have thought it? Of all the people in the world, I've been given the opportunity to make General Braddock come to life! It's very cool. I love that shot of General Braddock that Kathy [Kruger, editor of the Making of featurettes] and I created in the dark one night, with neither of us in a good mood because of the tight editing schedule.
MO: What's next for Paladin Communications?
RM: Another movie, of course. We've already done a little shooting. We need to raise money because this concept takes everything to the next level. You want to talk about beautiful movies, the one in my head is really something.
MO: And the topic is…
RM: …a secret, thank you. But we want to shoot using new technology and widescreen simply because of the options it gives us for the future. If you want to bump up to 35mm and show your movie in a theater, the only way to go is 24p or HDV. And this movie will be so beautiful that I think people will want to experience it in a theater. We're right on the cusp of HD technology right now—technology that's almost accessible to the independent filmmaker. Recently I was involved in production of a movie for NASA that was shot in HD. The camera package cost upwards of $70,000, and even the per-day rental cost was significant. But new cameras are coming online that an independent can afford.
MO: When will this secret movie be released?
RM: 2006. That's the goal. People ask me all the time. They're anxious. They liked the first two and they want more. This one will be worth the wait, I promise you that.