Dialogue With…Jon Wagner
Q: Tell us a bit about yourself
A: I graduated from BGSU in 2005 with a double major in Film Studies and Creative Writing. After spending a summer back home in Cincinnati working at my friend’s family business, I moved to Los Angeles and started my career in the film industry. Like most people, I started at the bottom, finding Production Assistant jobs via Craigslist on really low budget movies, and worked my way up through the production ranks to start Line Producing features. I was also directing as much as I could while I was Line Producing. I did a whole lot of web series and music video projects, and a couple “viral” Youtube videos. I directed my first feature in 2010, and knew that’s what I really wanted to do with my career, and where my passion as a filmmaker really was. In 2014, I Line Produced a film called Bone Tomahawk, which starred Kurt Russell and Richard Jenkins, and was the first film I was a part of that became a real mainstream hit. That sort of kicked my producing career up to the next level, and I was suddenly being sought out for larger budget projects as a Line Producer.
Right before I worked on Bone Tomahawk, I had moved from Los Angeles back to Ohio, as I was getting married and my wife and I knew we wanted to raise our family back home. It was a bit scary at first, wondering if my career was going to be affected, but it turned out to be a great move for my career. With the tax incentives in both Ohio and Kentucky, I found myself working more than ever on bigger and more exciting projects, and that has continued up until now. I do travel a lot for work, working on projects recently in places like the Dominican Republic, Baltimore, Chicago, and Philadelphia, but I always prefer to work at home whenever I can.
Besides having a really cool job, I have a wonderful wife, who I met when I was at BGSU and is an extremely talented poet, and three amazing kids. By far they are what I take the most pride in in my life, and find the most enjoyment out of!
Q: You seem to wear a lot of hats within the film industry. What all does being a producer or a production manager on a film entail? What does your day-to-day look like when working on a film?
A: For the most part, I’ve had two sort of parallel but also intertwined careers, although sometimes the position names or titles fluctuate. The first role, and the one I’ve held most often, is as a Line Producer/ Unit Production Manager. Basically, I am the person who handles all of the actual physical production of the film. There are other producers who develop the material and find financing, and attach cast, etc. I generally come on board once some of that is already in place, and break down the script and create a budget for the film. Then, I’m in charge of hiring crew and all of the day to day “logistics” of making the film... such as securing locations to gear rental, and making sure the film doesn’t go over budget and that the director is getting everything they need to make the film that everyone set out to make. Each film is its own beast. I’ve made dozens of films, and no two have ever been the same experience, which is what I like about my job.
My second career has been as a director. This is what I always wanted to do, and have recently started to shift my focus more towards that end. While I love Line Producing and have made a ton of great friends and connections and memories doing that, I feel truly satisfied as a creative person only when I’m directing. I started directing when in grade school I suppose, making films with my friends on the family VHS camcorder with my action figures. It’s just something I always loved to do. I made some short films when I was at BGSU that I’m still proud of, and when I moved to Los Angeles, I directed whenever I could. I love translating the creative vision in my mind into something tangible on screen that I can share with other people, and especially love the communal aspect of it. There’s nothing quite like the feeling of working with really talented artists like production designers and cinematographers and actors, and watching them add their unique perspective to your creative vision. It really is a magical feeling.
Q: You have done a lot of work with horror films – what drew you to the genre?
A: Ha, I wish I could say it was intentional, but it’s not. First, I think horror tends to be one of the most produced genres of film, because it can be done pretty well on a lower budget, and it translates well into all parts of the world. In fact, I don’t watch much horror outside of the projects I’ve worked on. And, when I’m working on a horror film, I don’t let myself think about it within the confines of that specific genre. Rather, I just focus on making the best movie possible.
Secondly, when I first started line producing films, I was working on what we called “Ultra Low Budget” films, or movies with budgets of around $250k. As you might guess, many of those films don’t always end up being that...well, good... or finding an audience. But, for some reason, quite a few of the films I made in that budget range were horror films that became these little cult classics, and that cemented a bit of a reputation for me early on as someone who really knew how to get a lot out of a small budget. So I think that success just kept similar type projects (horror) coming my way.
Q: You have worked on a couple of M. Night Shyamalan films. Do you have any stories about working with such a famed director and some of his processes?
A: Yeah! That’s been a pretty recent chapter in my career, and a really exciting one. I had worked for M. Night’s producer on some pickups on a different film in Baltimore, and he was talking about how he was looking for a place to shoot M. Night’s next film, which was supposed to take place on a remote beach in the Carribean. I suggested he check out the Dominican Republic, as I had scouted there recently for a film that ended up not being made. Long story short, they ended up liking the location and decided to film there, and the producer asked me to come on board as the UPM. We shot it right in the middle of the pandemic, so it was a bit rough being on a remote part of the island, subject to all the Covid safety protocols, unable to go home or have my family visit at all. The weather didn’t really cooperate and we had some delays when our set was destroyed by a storm... but we made the movie and of course it was OLD, which turned out great and did really well at the box office.
Then, on his last film, I was unavailable for the principal photography in Philadelphia because I was directing a film at the time, but I came on board and UPM’d all of the pickup shots.
As far as M. Night himself, it’s a real pleasure working with him. He’s been a hugely successful director for decades, and it’s a lot of fun watching him work and seeing his process. It’s certainly gratifying to be a part of films that you know are going to be major wide theatrical releases, that you know they are going to be good simply because of the caliber of his work. I certainly hope I can keep working on his films! Once the work starts, though, that’s what it is, and I focus on my job and making sure everything runs smoothly, as I would regardless of whom the director was.
Q: You have continually come back to BGSU – just this academic year you gave two talks and are serving as a judge at the Film and Media Fest this spring. What keeps bringing you back to Bowling Green and the department?
A: It would be impossible to overestimate just how important and foundational my years at BGSU were to me both as a filmmaker and as a person. I made so many lifelong connections and friendships there, and developed so much of who I am as a creative person while I was there. I owe so much to professors like Daniel Williams and Dr. Baron, and I really just love coming back and seeing how much the facilities have improved, but also just how much of the same excitement and creative energy there is amongst all of the students and faculty. It makes me very nostalgic for my college years, and very excited about the future that I know a lot of the students have in the industry. It also doesn’t hurt that I get treated so well every time I come in for a visit!
It’s also really nice when I come for an event, because it gives me a bit of an opportunity to take stock of my career and view it from a bit of an objective lens, which I think is a good thing to do every once in a while. And, being amongst so many young artists that are excited about their future and just getting started is infectious, and gives me a recharge of my own creative batteries.
Q: What advice would you give to students hoping to make films one day or break into the industry?
A: Right now, the opportunities for people when they graduate are so promising in the industry, and I just try to impress that on the students when I’m there. I had no choice but to move to Los Angeles when I graduated if I really wanted to give it a go. But now? There is so much production happening at so many places in the country (including Ohio!), that I don’t think it’s ever been easier to break into the industry without having to move across the country and risk going broke or starving in the process.
When I’m starting prep on a movie, and looking to hire Production Assistants, so much of what I look for is an attitude and excitement and willingness to work hard. So, if someone can be enthusiastic and willing to learn, and takes a bit of initiative to reach out and get an interview or meeting to work on a film, then chances are good you’ll find a job. Once that happens, make as many connections as you can and stay positive.
Most importantly though, there’s no golden ticket or magic answer to how to get your foot in the door. There are no mythical gate keepers trying to keep people out of the industry, and there are so many ways to get your start. If you want it to happen, you can make it happen. With so many streaming services and outlets for content than ever before, every production is always looking for crew, and I don’t see that changing any time soon.
Q: You’re currently in post-production on your film Cabin Girl – can you talk a bit about the film, your directorial process, and what post-production looks like?
A: I’m really excited about CABIN GIRL! We shot it last February/March in Shreveport, and I was just in Los Angeles a couple weeks ago finishing the final sound mix. It’s now officially done except for the opening credits. It’s been a long journey but I couldn’t be more happy with the film. Now, the producers are sending it out looking for distributors, and my hope is it finds a home and gets released sometime this year, which I think it has a good shot at.
As far as my process, it starts with the script. When I read the script I am trying to envision what the film is going to look like, sure, but more importantly I try think about what themes I want to explore and what the emotional core is of both the movie as a whole, but also all of the individual characters. While much of that is on the page, the real fun and creative part is digging below the surface and bringing all those elements out... that’s where the director puts his stamp on the material.
And then, equally important, is hiring great collaborators. The director doesn’t do it all themself. Far from it. You have a to put a team of people together: your cinematographer and production designer and costume designer etc., that you know understand your vision and will also add something special to the film. And then, of course, the cast. Finding the right actors who can turn the characters on the page into something tangible and real and completely unique is incredibly important and really fun.
And finally, in post production it’s sort of like starting a whole new film. You have to find the right editor to collaborate with, who shares your sensibilities and understands how you want to tell your story. The movie is really shaped and created in the editing room, and it’s where you can manipulate all of the emotions and the experience you want your audience to have...basically where you create that vision you imagined in your head when you first read the script.
Q: Are there any other projects you are currently working on or hope to be working on in the future?
A: The nature of being a freelancer is that you have to have all sorts of things circling out there in various states of development all at once. It’s kind of like baseball. If you have ten projects floating around, and 2 or 3 of them actually end up getting made, then you have a pretty good batting average.
I have quite a few projects possibly happening this year on the Line Producing front, but am really most excited about some potential directing jobs, and also finishing a couple scripts I’ve been working on that I hope can become one of my next directing gigs.
Q: I know that you are also a husband and father – how do you balance your work and your home life?
A: I would be lying if I said that working on movies and spending time with your family at the same time is easy. When I’m actually in production on a film, I’m working 15-16 hours every day, and often my weekends are bombarded with phone calls as well. I’m really lucky to have a supporting and understanding wife (Sara Moore Wagner), who basically becomes a single parent when I’m in production. It would be impossible without her. And it helps that she is a creative person as well, and understands why I do what I do. We met at BGSU, and she is a very talented poet who has had in the last several years won quite a few national awards for her work, and had two books published last year (and the creative writing program at BGSU had her up to read her work on March 23!). With her career and national visibility rising, she’s now getting invited all over the country to readings and events for her poetry, so I do my best to return the support that she gives me so she can also live her creative dream in the same way that she supports me in living mine.
So, when I’m not on a film, I spend as much time as possible going to all the games and volunteering in the kid’s classes. We do a lot of fun trips as well, and just try to give the kids a really fun, rounded childhood. And, when I have to travel for work and am out of town, I make sure to zoom with the family and they come visit as much as possible, and I make a point to get home for weekends, etc. It’s not easy, but we make it work!