Covid-19 vs The Magic City: An Interview with Paul Brenno



Please tell us about yourself. How did you start your career, and how did you get into the world of filmmaking?

I grew up in a small city, Minot North Dakota. My Mother worked in education, my Father in tv/radio sales. I remember always being attracted to movies, TV, broadcasting growing up, got my love for film early when I was studying Photography, just loved capturing images with my still camera.


I remember going to Superman the Movie (1978) and being in awe of the film itself, I was around 9 or 10 I think. I would sometimes go out to see my Father at his work, a local tv station, where he sold advertising, just loved the studio, cameras, lighting, knew I wanted to go into TV/Film from visiting. I remember my Jr/Sr year of high school, going to a local drug store, remember seeing for the first time, American Cinematographer Magazine. I just started reading it, just fell in love with Cinematography, knew this is what I wanted to do.

I joined the Air Force after high school, one of the first movies I saw was when I was home on leave, "Dances with Wolves". I knew nothing of the film, since I'd been stationed in Italy for most of that year, but Dances made such an impact on me. Kevin Costner's direction and Dean Semler's Cinematography just blew me away, that film alone made me want to be a Cinematographer.


While I was stationed in San Antonio, I met Ken Lamkin (Cinematographer of the Frasier sitcom). He was Director/Cinematographer of feature film, he was the first Hollywood Cinematographer I'd met, so watching him work was a major thrill.


I then went to film school at Montana State University in Bozeman, received my BA in Cinematography/Film. In Dec of my senior year, a bunch of features were being shot in the area, one being directed by Oscar Winner Dean Semler! I knew I had to make contact with him, so I just wrote him a letter, just telling him what an inspiration he'd been on my career. Dean called me, invited me on the set, which was a huge thrill. I met Dean, and his Cinematographer Stephen Windon (Fast and Furious films), plus Camera Operator Stephen Campanelli (Camera/Steadicam)


Both Ken and Dean were such gentleman to me, it was such an inspiration to see them do what they do best. Once I graduated, I couldn't afford to go to LA, so I started working as a Commercial Producer/Editor to now being an award winning Cinematographer and Director.

I understand that you have had experiences of working in various areas such as making commercial/marketing videos, music videos, documentaries and etc.

Yes, after being going thru staff reductions, mergers, layoffs, I started doing my own work, just out of need but it was only parttime if that, began to meet some clients, began to produce commercials, documentaries to music videos, which was great to do a variety. My first music video was hip hop rap, won a bunch of awards, so that just kept me motivated to do more. My goal was to do as many different types/genres of projects as I could, plus hoping to win some awards too, give my clients national exposure



As a filmmaker and a producer, who or what are your influences?

What influenced me the most is Cinematographer Dean Semler ASC/ACS, along with Ken Lamkin ASC, Caleb Deschanel ASC, to just name a few, and entire members of the ASC, ACS, BSC. I met Ken first while I was Air Force, then Dean in film school, never met Caleb yet, but those Cinematographers really made a huge impact on me. Directors such as Christopher Nolan, Costner, Mel Gibson to Taylor Sheridan made the most impact on me.

- My family/friends I have too have greatly influenced/inspired me, so my thanks to them. A particular friend kept in touch with me during my hospital stay from covid, she's great, so many others too, so am very thankful for them.


What is your vision as a filmmaker? What types of stories you endeavor to tell through filmmaking?

My vision is to tell just compelling stories that I hope will make a great and positive impact on those watching. I'm not looking for fame, but maybe fortune, as I just look to make a living doing what I love doing. The TV series Yellowstone to films like Interstellar, I'd love to tell stories that can make you laugh, cry or information/entertain. I'd love to be the Cinematographer on a western or just a great film.

- The stories I'd like to tell or keep telling are those that really inspire the viewer, from entertain, inform to educate.



What are the most difficult aspects of making a film today? Similarly, how has Covid-19 affected independent filmmaking?

I think one of the most difficult hurdles is raising funds to make films, plus once getting an idea for a film, getting talent for both in front or below the scenes can be very challenging, wanting to get the best people to help fulfill your vision and making a living doing it. I'm not sure how my film Covid 19 vs The Magic City has affected indie filmmaking, as I made it with just me, nobody else on crew, I took it from start to finish, it seemed to catch the eye of film festivals, which was such an honor


Your film touches upon an important subject. What made you want to make 'Covid-19 vs The Magic City'? Was it from your own experiences of being affected by the pandemic?

The inspiration for making Covid 19 vs the Magic City came in early March 2020. I had been following conversations about covid, some news, but I then started to notice local businesses closing down, restaurants going to the Take Out Only. I was getting dinner for my father/I at a local truck stop, my Dad's old client, started to notice closed off sections. I then went back a week or so later and noticed more sections closed off and more businesses being closed off as well. It then hit me, my town was being hit too with covid, looked like a disaster movie. I then began to think this would make a good film about how covid 19 affects small town America?


My decision became clear to make a film about businesses, how are they affected? My hometown in 2011 fell victim to a major flood, displacing around 4K people, wanted to know what they learned from it, how do they get thru this? How do people come back from a natural disaster to a government controlled disaster?


My own experience with covid, I avoided it for about a year, then took a job in east TX. I was hired to do a documentary for a local business, then in August 2021, a co-worker got covid, I caught it from her. I was rushed to the hospital in late August, almost died, but God had other plans, I survived, spent two months in hospital, now am fully back. I then was released from the hospital to return to work, only to have my hours reduced to parttime, then released mid Nov, so it greatly affected me

What is the most challenging aspect of documentary filmmaking? What were the challenges you faced when making this film?

For me, it's telling a story, about whatever subject you are working with, using your filmmaking skills in the most entertaining and compelling way, whether it's :30 or 1:30. How do you tell a story about a certain person or subject that can appeal to a mass audience(?). Another is getting funds to pay you to make a film, help you make your living.

What has changed since you made 'Covid-19 vs The Magic City'? With the new variants of the virus raging on, what do you think about the future and how it will be for all of us?

I no longer live in Minot, but I know they are very optimistic about the future, as these businesses and people are very resilient, so am I, I don't just give up. It's the spirit of the people in the Minot area to never give up, they support each other like family. The film taught me to always be your best, not in ego, but in your character.


How was the film received at film festivals around the world? Please tell us about your festival run.

The film seemed to be very well received, as it was honored for Best Documentary Nominee, Semi-Finalist, to Finalist and Winner at several national to international film festivals, from LA, NY to Paris France, London toToronto. I was so excited and incredibly honored this little film did so well.

What projects will you be working on next? What kind of films would you like to make in future?

I am just finishing a documentary about foster care mentors. I've been working with a woman in Austin TX, Cheryl, who has her organization "FUNDamentals for Foster Care, the working title "The Hearts that Love". I'm now seeking a steady, long term position, hoping to find the right place to continue working. A few contacts I made last year were about a western period piece, a friend of mine talked about doing her faith journey, plus other opportunities coming up that I hope will come through in 2022.


Paul Brenno Website