by Tonja Brown
Thomas Morgan is an award winning documentary filmmaker. He brings inspiring stories to screens around the world, yet his is own life and career journey are just as compelling. He sat down with Glass Ceiling for an introspective career interview. Thomas shares the multiple paths and life experiences that led to finding and eventually living his true passion.
Part III brings us to the end of our interview with Thomas Morgan. We have explored doubt and the role it played in his life and we looked back at moments that shaped his career change. In Part III we discuss the realities of his dream job.
Thomas’s most recent documentary “Soufra” is being shown at Film Festivals around the world including Cannes in May 2018.
This interview series is a reminder that our careers and lives are never linear. At Glass Ceiling, we strive to go beneath the surface of success – fueled by curiosity and without judgment – to uncover lessons and realities that can help inform your career.
How has your definition of success changed since starting a new career in the film industry?
For me, it was redefining what success was. It’s not just the film or the economics of the film. It’s what is the greater purpose? My films cost money. I have made no money. I haven’t taken a salary. I’ve made no money on my first three films. Zero dollars.
What keeps investors coming back and wanting to get involved is not just the film. We built an orphanage in Nepal. They want to be associated with something that has deeper meaning or adds something to their lives. Which is something that most people don’t get a chance to be a part of.
On the economics side, it’s no less a struggle now than when I first started. It is what it is.
Have you ever had moments when you wished you had gone to film school?
I think sometimes those barriers get in your way. Maybe the fact that I didn’t have access to film school and didn’t know that you’re supposed to raise all the money first, before you start the films. I didn’t know that these were the rules that somebody else has made up. Maybe it’s benefited me in a strange way.
I am sure you get asked a lot of questions about being a documentary filmmaker. What is your least favorite question to be asked?
What I do despise, quite frankly, is when I get the question “Do you think you’ll ever make any real movies?” There’s nothing more real than a documentary film. When you don’t know what the outcome is…when you don’t know what the answer is…when you don’t know what’s gonna happen and you have to make THAT into a story…
The script is a guideline by which you just follow. You can put your own flare into those guidelines, but still you’re getting a set of directions that are already on a piece of paper.
We make this stuff without directions. So I have the utmost respect for anybody who makes a documentary film that’s completely unscripted – from the time they start ’til the time they finish – because I know how hard it is.
What keeps you going when the economics of a film becomes an issue?
As a kid, I remember the most impactful film that I ever saw in my life was Rocky. There’s a point in the original Rocky, where he’s sitting in bed and he says out loud, “I can’t win. I know I can’t win.” And Adrian’s crying and he’s like just sitting, clearly in a deep struggle. She says “Well what are you gonna do?” He says, “Finish.” Then he says, “Okay, it’s not gonna be pretty and I’m gonna probably get my teeth kicked in, but I’m gonna finish.”
That for me is why I want to keep telling these stories.
I want to tell stories where it’s doubtful whether Miriam (primary focus of the newly released “Soufra” documentary) was gonna make it or not. Whether she was gonna get to the food truck or not. Where it’s doubtful these kids in Nepal, will make it. Kids who had their teeth kicked in their whole life, been beat up, pushed out, set aside and labeled as “those prison kids”. Kids who are categorized as “the problem”.
No, they are the opportunities. We have to tell these stories and get their voices out there.
When it comes to the financing of your films you’ve said, “somehow things always seem to work out”. Do you have an example of a close call, when it appeared the economics wouldn’t work out?
When I started Storied Streets, this gentleman had committed $50,000 to the film. We started filming. The crew had left LA and were gonna drive from LA to New York. I was supposed to put ’em up in hotels and pay for their gas, equipment rentals – everything. They got to Las Vegas, which is about four hours into the trip. I got a call saying that the gentleman who’s supposed to give me the money couldn’t give me the money!
I was told his wife had filed for divorce and I was probably gonna hear from her attorney to make sure that he hadn’t given me the money. And I did. I did hear for her attorney, so I knew it was legitimate.
I didn’t have any money. I’m paying out of my own pocket and put in credit cards just to get these kids across the country. As we got closer to NY, I ran out of money. Not to pay them, I was supposed to pay them at the end, but just to get them there.
So I had this Tag watch, which aside of a house and a car, was the most expensive thing I ever owned. My wife had given it to me for my 40th birthday and I asked someone to sell that watch. And he was like “Dude, you can’t sell the watch.” I’m like “No, I have to sell the watch, only way I’ll get ’em in.” So I sold the watch. That was a real turning point.
It was a turning point in what way?
That’s when you know you’re committed. Not only taking this chance, but also now you’re really all in emotionally and financially. Then…I was standing in Panera Bread; I’ll never forget it was in Charlotte, North Carolina. A guy I met maybe three or four times in my whole life, he’s standing in there. He said, “Well, you look pretty stressed.” I was like “Yeah, I’m stressed.”
For whatever reason, he was the guy that I told the story of what happened. I hadn’t told my wife. I hadn’t told anybody. I kept it all in, just keeping the faith, hoping it’s gonna work out. I was trying to get other people to invest and I think the more desperate you get, the more people don’t want to get involved. It was just crazy. My first film and I had no track record of ever making anything, right? So I could totally see why they were hesitant. I had even called my investment bank friends “Hey, can you help us out with this?” Nobody wanted to touch it. They wanted to know what the “ROI was on their investment?” And I’m like nothing, it’s gonna be nothing.
But this guy who’d I’d met, said “Well, just keep doing what you’re doing. I think you’re doing the right thing.” I in a very calming voice said, “Oh, okay, thanks a lot.” The next day, he wired $50,000 with a note that said, “I’d been saving this money but I wasn’t sure what for. Keep doing what you’re doing, you’re doing the right thing.”
That’s when it felt like, “Okay, well maybe this is meant to be. Maybe there’s something to this.”
That is pretty incredible. Was his gift enough to cover all of your production expenses for the documentary?
From there I was able to put some of the clips together. Then I was able to raise some more money so we could finish the film. The rest is history.
But there are those pivotal moments of despair. When people were like “Oh, once you made that decision, everything was easy.” No, there have been a lot of moments where you’re just questioning every decision that you’ve made. Wondering, “Can you continue” and “should I continue?” And “Isn’t there an easier way?”
Yet you continue on and recently released the documentary Soufra. What inspired you to tell the story of an entrepreneurial woman and a food truck?
Like the Rocky, I want to tell stories of underdogs. I grew up in a very blue-collar town where nobody expected anything out of anybody. So failure’s not that big of a deal because you’re already so close to the ground. It’s not like it’s gonna hurt when you fall.
I always felt like an underdog. So those are the stories I want to tell. It just so happens that when you’re gonna go in and make a film, you have to bet on that person. You’re placing a financial bet on that person to finish. I will bet on a woman every single time. There’s something about their instincts, their commitment to community, their commitment to their families, their commitment to other people. That is far greater than 99% of every man in the world.
Also I can feel it. I know this sounds so crazy, but you just can feel it. I’ve met other people who are doing amazing things, but I just think to myself, I’m sure you’re amazing, but I can’t… I don’t feel it.
But it never enters my mind that I’m gonna do a story about a woman. It’s always, I’m gonna do another story about this kind of person. It just turns out that over and over again, it happens to be women. I love being a voice for strong women. It’s not rhetoric; it’s me telling the stories of people I want to hold up in our society as pillars. People who we should emulate, people who we want our daughters and our sons to emulate. There’s not a gender bias one-way or the other, these are just amazing people.
So I guess that’s my path right now.
Thank you for sharing your path.