Monday, September 2, 2013

The mind of a critic: an interview with Shaun Henisey

A Movie a Week (photo courtesy of Shaun Henisey)
I'm very excited to interview Midwestern film critic Shaun Henisey as this week's Self-Published Writer of the Week. Shaun and I have known each other since I was a freshman in high school. We were  co-editors of the school newspaper together, and we bonded over our love of writing and movies. 

Currently he runs the film review website A Movie a Week.What sets his site apart from other film review publications is that each movie he reviews, he provides in-depth analysis, similar to a critical studies piece that you would find in academia. He reviews old and new releases, and he covers everything from independent films to big blockbusters. If you would like to connect with him, he is on twitter @Amovieaweek and Facebook.


TL: Shaun, thanks for stopping by. Let's talk a little bit about your website, A MOVIE A WEEK. What made you decide to create it?
SH: A Movie A Week began for me as sort of a fluke. I have always loved the movies. I was an only child in a single parent household. My mom worked nights so I would often rent 3 or 4 movies and watch them all in one evening. It was not uncommon for me to watch 20-30 movies a month. I remember purchasing an almanac when I was ten called "Rating the Movies." It was about 1,000 pages of movie titles, synopsises and short reviews. I read through that book dozens of times looking for new movies that looked interesting. What started as a quick impulse purchase over twenty years ago single-handedly sparked my love of film. I began to collect movies and eventually amassed a collection of over 3,000 films at home. Friends would come over for movie night, and we would discuss great films of similar genres. A Movie A Week began as an online attempt to simply share those movies I loved with my friends and family. The idea was that there would be a new title each week for discussion-- kind of like a book club.

TL: I'm continuously amazed at the quality and depth of your film analysis. How do you find the time to write while also managing another job and a personal life? 
SH: Finding the time to write while also managing my career and family is certainly a challenge. I always dedicate a certain night (normally Tuesdays) to watch the movie of that week. Even if I have seen the picture countless times before I always watch the movie from a fresh perspective before writing my review. I take notes and then think about what I want to say over the next several days, piecing together notes that I jot down while thinking. I wake up early on either Saturday or Sunday morning and typically I have enough notes that I can write roughly 1,500-2,500 words relatively quickly. It does help that I am a quick typer. I think the trick to being a writer is to make yourself write as much as possible and dedicate a particular time of day to focus on nothing but writing with no distractions. That being said, I find that when you are passionate about what you are writing the words simply sort of flow out of you. It is a great escape. To me, writing is not work-- not writing is.

"I think the trick to being a writer is to make yourself write as much as possible and dedicate a particular time of day to focus on nothing but writing with no distractions. That being said, I find that when you are passionate about what you are writing about the words simply sort of flow out of you. It is a great escape. To me, writing is not work-- not writing is."
TL: There are many filmmakers out there who want/need exposure to their films, and getting reviews is a great way to receive it. As a film reviewer, you have many options of movies to feature so what makes you choose the movies you select to review?
SH:
How I chose the movies I review is a very difficult question to answer. The website is dedicated to exploring important classic and contemporary films. I try to choose movies that have a certain level of artistic merit-- a certain depth. I pick movies that can actually spawn interesting conversations. Some of the movies I choose are blockbusters (ET/Jaws/The Empire Strikes Back) while others are so obscure many have never heard of them (Ikiru/Synecdoche, NY/Antichrist). I try to span as many genres as possible and shift gears each week to keep things fresh. It is so much easier to look at films through the lens of a genre than from a higher level. I would simply ask myself-- what's the best possible mystery film I could review this week? The next week I would do a foreign film, a comedy, drama, musical, war picture, etc. The idea is to force the reader to branch out to genres that they would not necessarily be drawn upon on their own. I know a lot of people that have never seen a foreign film,  yet when watching Akira Kurosawa's "Ikiru," they weep. The power of film lies in its ability to surprise and resonate. Other factors certainly also influence my writing. Several reviews are direct reflections of things that I may have been going through in my personal life at that time. It is impossible to separate the writer from the writing, and I don't really think I am any exception to that.  
"I try to choose movies that have a certain level of artistic merit-- a certain depth. I pick movies that can actually spawn interesting conversations."
TL: In your opinion, what makes a screenplay great vs. good?
SH: Asking what makes a screenplay great vs. good is such a dangerous question that I almost want to refrain from answering. I love original screenplays as much as the next person, but adaptation is also extraordinarily difficult. Some screenplay's are great because of their complexities-- i.e- Charlie Kaufman's work in Adaptation or Christopher Nolan's inventiveness in  his script for "Inception." Other screenplays are great in their ability to spit out hundreds of years of history in dramatic context- i.e- Steve Zallian and Tony Kushner. Then there are the racounteurs-- the true storytellers that write characters that are simply alive-- like Quentin Tarantino or The Coen Brothers. Some great screenplay's are so different and sparse that they push the medium into more poetic territory- the work of Terrence Malick and Stanley Kubrick comes to mind here. I guess the real benchmark for me is- "Was the picture memorable?" "Was the story effectively told?" Were the characters adequately developed and did they behave in ways that make sense to their motivation?" "Could I listen to a recording of this movie in my headphones at the gym?" If the answer to these questions are yes-- the screenplay is probably a great one. 


 
TL: What are your three favorite films and why?SH: My three favorite films are "Raiders of the Lost Ark," "Raging Bull" and "2001: A Space Odyssey." They are not the "three greatest movies ever made." They are just my favorites. "Raiders" makes me feel like a kid again and is the greatest example of pure cinematic escapism I have ever seen. "Raging Bull" is a movie that resonates with me a great deal in its psychological implications and contains, in my opinion, probably the greatest performance of all time. "2001" is a picture that simply makes me think, contemplate and wonder. It is one of very few pictures that push the limits of what the medium is capable of. That being said, I love so many movies that only stating three is a bit unfair.

The late and great, Roger Ebert
"[Roger Ebert] was as passionate as any person that has lived about the movies and always expressed his opinions in thoughtful and easy to understand ways."
TL: Thanks again for this insightful interview. Now one final question: who are your favorite film reviewers and why?SH: Roger Ebert is my favorite film reviewer, and his "Great Movies" column was also a significant inspiration for A Movie a Week. He was the most trusted pundit in America for years. If you go back and read some of his reviews you can always hear his voice within his written words. He was as passionate as any person that has lived about the movies and always expressed his opinions in thoughtful and easy to understand ways. He is by far my biggest inspiration, although I am also an extreme fan of the late Pauline Kael as well as AO Scott and Magnolia Darghis at the New York Times.Don't forget to check out Shaun's website A Movie a Week.

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I'm a huge advocate of Do-It-Yourself, and I'm looking for other DIY-ers to share their stories. If you're a self-published writer, blogger, independent filmmaker, Youtube star, whatever, tweet me and I may feature you on my blog!

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