We had the good fortune of connecting with Tom Ptasinski and we’ve shared our conversation below.
Hi Tom, what led you to pursuing a creative path professionally?
I couldn’t imagine myself doing anything else. As far back as I can recall, I have always possessed creative and artistic impulses. Making up stories for my parents at the dinner table or corralling my grade school friends to put on a full production of A Christmas Carol (which I wrote down from memory). It was the most satisfying way to express myself. When I started to have audiences of parents and peers they seemed to respond genuinely to what I was doing so that gave me confidence that it was an arena where I could succeed. Though my creative nature was usually stymied by Midwestern teachers and authority figures who meant well but were unsure how to handle a young kid with boundless artistic energy and a need to express it. They just thought I was “peculiar.”
Then I found filmmaking. I am in love with filmmaking because it is an exciting combination of so many great art forms and crafts (photography, writing, acting, composing, VFX, etc.) into one piece. When I directed my talents toward learning that craft I found a strong personal fulfillment in the work that remains to this day. It’s hard work and nothing is guaranteed or given to you. Filmmaking’s demands for fresh and better work is constant. That demand meets the needs of that young kid who had all this creative energy and was looking for a place to channel it.
Alright, so let’s move onto what keeps you busy professionally?
My journey as a filmmaker discovering his art and outlook through school and the film business has been volatile, challenging, and enlightening .
Film school was a joyful experience. It gave me the space and encouragement to find my point of view as an artist and discover which stories move and inspire me. That, in turn, motivated me to tell the best version of those stories which enhanced my directing, writing, and storytelling skills. My talents were promising but raw and I was sure they would sharpen as I progressed professionally. My professors and fellow student filmmakers were encouraging and it gave me a security in myself and my work that I would quickly find I needed.
My first few years in the film industry were difficult and full of unsavory characters and setbacks. My first jobs were for cruel men of little talent who could B.S. their way onto good projects. I got a cold dose of reality dealing with the darker side of the film business, full of egos, pettiness, vindictive and vituperative behavior toward me and my fellow co-workers. Some days, though fortunately not many, down right verbal and physical abuse in the form of thrown objects and red-faced shouting inches from my face. I was young, naive, well-meaning, and desperate to succeed in the film business so I put up with it and internalized it. The effort it took to manage those ordeals stifled my creativity and I lost my way. My skin thickened but cynicism festered. I let those bullies get to me, until finally, a professional line was crossed by one boss that awoke me from the all the glitzy madness and I quit. That was a hard period of my life but I’m thankful for the early lessons I now pass on to my students and mentees. Mainly that there are toxic people everywhere and you have to learn to manage them and not give them any personal power over you even if they are your “superior” in the office. Don’t be afraid to push back and stand your ground, you have the right too, no matter what anyone may say. Most of all, it is not your job to fix broken people but allow yourself room for perspective and detachment from negative behavior and realize that broken people beget broken people. If you can tolerate that environment and find a path to some kind of gain, great. If you believe you can successfully fight back, even better. Most of all, you always have the option to leave and seek out other opportunities where you will be treated with respect and appreciated for what you have to offer. That insight helped me rebuild my confidence and focus on doing what I wanted to, make movies.
Next, I began working on the Paramount Lot for The Dr. Phil Show. It was a good job with wonderful co-workers and unlike the assistant world, allowed me time to write and make my own films again . In that time, some scripts and shorts were noticed by festivals and I also had the opportunity to direct a few stage shows. This was a tremendous period of growth for me, there is nothing that can duplicated the challenge of directing, writing, or producing a creative piece from the ground up in this tough industry. I learned how to be a team leader, how to manage my own personal life, how to take and give criticism in high pressure creative situations, and how to inspire those with talent who I could not pay fully to be excited to work on my projects. A good college friend also hired me to the world of commercial production, where I got to work with a lot of old college friends on some interesting shoots. There really is nothing like making movies with your trusted friends, I highly recommend it. The demand of slick and professional looking work on slim budgets was invaluable and contributed even more to my drive to make movies on my one and not have to rely on too much of the wheeling and dealing I had experienced earlier in my career.
The success of my own work got me hired to write my first professional screenplay for an actor of renown in Hollywood. The story involved the fantastical adventures of a young girl and her grandfather and it was a surprising but fun challenge to tackle as a writer. I had amazing and talented producers (who once again were trusted film friends) and the experience of getting paid to be a sole writer on a feature film, which was a personal goal of mine. Writing to please yourself is hard, writing to please others, at times, feels impossible. But I did it. I layered my characters, plotted my action, and instilled themes and humor unlike any project I had done before. I realized that writing someone else’s film can be freeing since it gives you permission to try things you may not have considered for your own work. My draft was key in securing some final funding that made the film a go, one of my proudest achievements so far. The film did not make it to production for other financial reasons (a common occurrence in the movie business) but I walked away more certain than ever of my talents for filmmaking and storytelling.
Screenwriting was my way in and what I have been primarily focused on lately.
My professional success led to some invitations for guest lectures at universities which then turned into teaching classes on film production and storytelling. Teachers were pivotal in my life and I could not pass on the chance to return the favor. My teaching work also allowed me the freedom to have time to write my scripts and direct my movies. The discoveries I make in that creative process (and it’s an endless process of discovery) are now twofold, they don’t just inform me but my students and I hope they can take something away from it. It’s an inspiring thing teaching young artists about their art, since you’re not only educating them, they’re educating you as well. That insight has been invaluable to me and my work, and offered human insights I don’t know I would find sitting behind a desk rolling calls or answering endless email chains (all my lose to those who do it successfully).
I found my films and scripts are often about characters who are trying to change for the better but face the temptations, pushback, and indifference of some force be it others in their life, suppressive communities, or an indifferent world they inhabit. It’s a theme that resonates with me and one that I have captured with some success, like in my award-winning short, “A Good Brother.” It’s a kind of story that I find resonates with audiences since most of us feel, whether we admit it or not, that we would like to be striving toward the best versions of ourselves though life never makes it easy or simple. Those are the kind of stories I will fight to tell until I’ve had my last breath.
Any places to eat or things to do that you can share with our readers? If they have a friend visiting town, what are some spots they could take them to?
Start in historic Los Angeles and Hollywood, we would visit classic sites in movie history as well as some L.A. staples: Hollywood Bowl and Blvd., Paramount Lot, Yamashiro in the Hollywood Hills, try to see a movie in the Cinerama Dome. Then we’d head up to Malibu for some beaches and hiking. Rodeo Dr. to people watch and window shop. If they’re meat eaters, we’ll go to Gwen’s, Musso and Frank, and Dear Johns for some steak and atmosphere, if they’re plant-based, Sage and Crossroads.
Shoutout is all about shouting out others who you feel deserve additional recognition and exposure. Who would you like to shoutout?
I feel blessed that I have had so many great mentors and supporters in my life story and I worry about leaving any of them out. It feels like an Oscars’ speech and the orchestra is on the verge of playing me off.
I must, of course, credit my loving parents. They had very difficult childhoods and overcame a lot of adversity to provide a wonderful life for my sister and I. Beyond just the material support, they recognized early on that I had creative and artistic skill and did all they could to seek out opportunities for me which, back then, were slim. I can’t imagine having worked so hard to get out poverty and a tough neighborhood, only to have your son tell you that he wants to be a filmmaker. It’s not the safest or most lucrative of professions but they believe and support me, not everyone is lucky enough to get that from their parents and it’s the reason they are my heroes.
I must also mention two stellar teachers I had in high school. Mr. Murphy and Mr. Dribin, or to their students, Murphy and Dribin, were the drama and speech teachers at my high school and brought out talents in me that I did not see. Dribin convinced me to try out for the speech team my freshman year when I was new to town and terrified of speaking in public. Thanks to his patience and encouragement, I literally found my voice and now mark my public speaking skills as one of my strongest traits. Murphy let me be his assistant director on all the plays we put on and gave me access to what it was like to direct, my first passion. He introduced me to the world of theater, modern works and classics, discipline, hard work, creative responsibility to yourself and the production you are trying to stage. He encouraged the value of seeking culture and broadening your horizons to be a better artist and human being. He also gave me one of my favorite quotes, “It takes a true artist like Michelangelo to sculpt “David” and any idiot with a hammer to destroy it.” Translation: Criticism is easy, creating is hard. Focus on creating. I have fond memories of sitting in their back office in our school’s theater shop and listening to them talk about movies, art, theater, and occasionally throw a play at me or a movie, tell me to read or watch and tell them what I thought. It filled me which such confidence and exposed me to works and ideas I’m not sure I would have sought out on my own. Their influence later inspired me to become a teacher. I hope to encourage other quiet, shy, self-doubting students to find their passion and voice, the same way Murphy and Dribin did for me.
Other: Vimeo – https://vimeo.com/user6596238 IMDb – https://www.imdb.com/name/nm2916844/?ref_=fn_al_nm_1