ONFILM Interview: Rob Bowman

Published on website: July 25, 2011
Categories: OnFilm Interviews
Rob Bowman. Photo by Douglas Kirkland

“Filmmaking like any art is subjective. It is one thing to get excited about an abstract idea and get it on paper as a script. It takes discipline to do the hard work necessary to translate that concept to film. A film look is kind of a magical interpretation of the story and performances. It’s a chemical process that sees images the way we do with our eyes. I know how the light will fall off in the background, and what we’ll see in the foreground. That’s especially important when we are telling stories through people's eyes to show the audience what characters are thinking and feeling. The more I study and practice the art of filmmaking, the more I realize that happiness, frustration, sadness, victory and defeat are universal themes that evoke similar emotions everywhere in our country and the rest of the world. It's a gamble every time you make a film, but that's a really exciting part of being a filmmaker.”

Rob Bowman has produced and/or directed episodes of nearly 40 television series and movies and films for the cinema. He earned four consecutive Emmy nominations for The X-Files. A short list of his diverse credits includes the television series StarTrek: The Next Generation, Parker Lewis, The A-Team and Castle.

[All these films were shot on Kodak motion picture film.]

A CONVERSATION WITH ROB BOWMAN  


  
Filmmaking obviously runs in the Bowman family. Let’s begin this conversation with the father, Chuck Bowman. How long have you been producing and directing films?

CHUCK BOWMAN: I've been directing, producing and sometimes writing and acting in films for about 35 years. Before that I was a television newsman at KTLA in Los Angeles and at various stations in the Midwest.
Rob was born in Wichita Falls, Kansas, while I was working at a television station there. I was working my way to Los Angeles, because my goal was to work in the film industry. I got my first job in Los Angeles when Rob was 3 or 4 years old. I did voiceovers on travel shows.
I got into producing sportscasts and reporting during the mid- to-late 1960s and early 1970s. After a while, I decided it was time for me to buy some 16 mm camera gear and start producing and directing my own industrial films. Rob was the best crew member I had. His enthusiasm never wavered.
In 1976, I started producing television programs, beginning with Black Sheep Squadron, which was also known as Bah Bah Black Sheep. My next show was The Incredible Hulk. I produced and directed a lot of other shows, including about half of the Dr. Quinn: Medicine Woman episodes, among others.

Rob, did you grow up knowing that you wanted to be a filmmaker?
ROB BOWMAN:
As my dad mentioned, when I was very young and living in the Midwest, he brought me to places where he was working. I was a kid when my dad was working at KTLA. George Putnam was the news anchor. Near the end of the show, George would bring me on the set and stand me up on the news desk that he was sitting behind. The turning point was Thanksgiving Day when the station ran The Wizard of Oz. I was sitting on the floor at my uncle’s house. My dad was sitting in a chair right behind me. I remember this moment, exactly. I was completely swept away by the movie. That was the beginning of my fascination with making films. Knowing that things are ‘made’ was a very important lesson in my childhood. My mom was a highly-skilled seamstress and she used to make some of my clothes when I was little. I knew that she ‘made’ them. She had a skill and one can learn a skill. My grandfather was a painter and sculptor. He had a garage in Burbank that was a beautifully organized workshop. That is where I watched him create his artwork. Though he was a stern, old guy, his art always had a sense of humor. I realized he was always trying to entertain people and I found that fascinating.

How did that lead to you thinking about making films?
ROB BOWMAN: My dad was already making films and I wanted to understand the craftsmanship of filmmaking. From 4 years old through my teenage years, I was fascinated with the notion of organizing my thoughts and translating them into images that tell narrative stories. I had a normal childhood. I played sports, had girlfriends and did all the things that kids do. I grew up in Burbank in the shadows of Walt Disney Studios. Walt Disney was alive and The Wonderful World of Disney was on television on Sunday evenings. It was pure magic being a kid growing up in Burbank living near the place where Walt Disney created magic. If you didn't go to Disneyland 50 times by the time you were 15, you weren't up to snuff. I kind of turned away from it during in my late teens. Maybe it was too easy or too close. I went to Utah, where I became a ski bum and did some bartending.

How did you begin your journey into filmmaking?
ROB BOWMAN: I began by helping my dad on his projects. He was making documentaries, industrials and commercials and I worked with him from an early age. I took a film production class at the University of Utah. We were assigned to write, produce and direct a story. It became as clear to me as a Fourth of July fireworks display that was where my passion was. I was one of three people who wrote a screenplay. I got the other two people's drafts and rewrote the whole thing in one night. A buddy of mine who is now a director and friend starred in it. That was the equivalent of putting my toe in the water, and realizing how badly I wanted to swim in the filmmaking business. I couldn't get back to Los Angeles fast enough. I got a job in the mail room at Stephen Cannell's production company. I took film classes and spent my days getting people coffee, Xeroxing scripts and doing whatever I had to do to pay my rent. I realized that a lot of people wanted to be filmmakers. I recall asking myself, ‘Why would somebody hire me?’ That's when I realized I had to find my own point of view, my signature approach to filmmaking. First, I studied the great directors: Steven Spielberg, Billy Wilder, John Huston, Stanley Kubrick and many others. I was on a mission to see what appealed to me about their films and what didn’t. My goal was to develop my own signature. It took me a few years. My time at Cannell's company was where the day-to-day, real world of filmmaking took place.

In retrospect, what were you learning?
ROB BOWMAN: I was learning how they told stories on film. Cannell always aspired to reach the highest levels of filmmaking. That experience helped me to understand and appreciate what it takes to tell a worthwhile story on film. I watched approximately 400 hours of television shows being made during the two-and-a-half years I worked there. It was an incredibly dense, seven-day-a-week education.

Who were the people who influenced you?
ROB BOWMAN: Obviously, my father is at the top of that list. One of the important lessons I learned was his work ethic. Filmmaking, like any art, is subjective. There is no one right way to tell any story on film. It's not like you are selling insurance for a living. I think I was 20 years old when I made a commitment to succeed in the film industry no matter what it took. I wrote a mission statement for myself. I promised myself that I would not fail through lack of effort. Stephen Cannell was also obviously a big influence. I learned that creating art on film takes inspiration, discipline and hard work.

You are more than a little passionate about this subject, aren’t you?
ROB BOWMAN: I love talking about film. Telling stories on film is a very tricky thing to do because you are creating two-dimensional images that you want to have a three-dimensional impact. How do I construct images with dialogue and music so they’ll move the audience? How do I draw the audience into the story and evoke emotions, including laughter, suspense, tension, excitement – all those things and more? Getting it perfect every time is virtually impossible, but that’s the dream I keep chasing. Every day, I ask myself, ‘How can we make this a better story?’ I don't worry about tomorrow. I concentrate on what I have to do to make this scene jump off the screen. It’s more of a challenge today that ever, because there are so many channels and options for the audience. I feel like I'm auditioning for the audience's attention every day that I have a program on the air.

You don’t seem to have focused on comedy, drama or any other genre. You like to do all of it?
ROB BOWMAN: I have always wanted to try my hand at making films which are funny, dramatic, action-packed, creepy, and everything else. I have felt from the beginning that if I have passion and enthusiasm for a project, the only thing that could get in my way is me. I believe that if you never quit, you will never fail. You'll have ups and downs, good times and bad times, including doing your best work when nobody is looking. All you can control is aspiring to produce the highest quality films possible, and don't let rejection, frustration or fatigue discourage you. You are in charge of your own destiny.

How did you decide to focus on producing and directing?
ROB BOWMAN: It was my opinion early on that the director was the one who makes the movie, but I’ve learned that it takes many people to make films. Directing is the creative, organizational process of translating the script to the screen. I also like producing because it enables me to encourage, cajole and nurture other filmmakers. But, the most alive I feel is when I'm directing. It’s also when I feel most vulnerable because of the unpredictable variables. It keeps me on my toes and oddly enough I get bored if I don’t feel slightly overwhelmed.

Don’t you think filmmaking is probably the most collaborative art form?
ROB BOWMAN: No one makes worthwhile stories on film alone. It begins with the writer who starts with an idea and blank pieces of paper. As a director, I draw diagrams of how things should move and the choreography between the subject and camera before I shoot anything. When I walk on the set, I begin working with the cast and crew. But, the writer begins with a blank page. That strikes me as a daunting mission. My first obligation is to deliver what he or she intended. My second obligation is to elevate it and make it better.

When you're reading the script for the first time, do you talk to the writers and make suggestions?
ROB BOWMAN: Absolutely. I torture the writers, because I want to talk about everything. I ask about their intentions for the story because sometimes the writers don’t always get their stories on the page exactly the way they want. We’ll talk about the central idea—is there a better way to express it? Sometimes I may have a suggestion about structure, action or dialogue. It’s that critical back and forth with a writer that I need and enjoy. I cannot say enough how much I appreciate writers.

Obviously, getting the right words on the paper is just the beginning, isn’t it? 
ROB BOWMAN: Everyone makes a contribution. There is a critical relationship with everyone involved in the making of a film or TV show. From the writer to the producers to the actors to the editor to the people who make the sound effects to the composer to the colorist – all the people who touch the project elevate it. By the time it’s finished, it's greater than the sum of the parts.

How about sharing memories about some of your early projects?
ROB BOWMAN: After I left Stephen Cannell's company and floated a video of my work around town, the first people to respond were Rick Berman and Bob Justman, the executive producers of Star Trek: The Next Generation. I was around 26 years old and probably looked like I was 19. Bob Justman said he liked my footage but was concerned about my age. Rick Berman popped his head in the door and asked ‘Are you the pizza delivery boy?’ I said, ‘No, I'm Rob Bowman.’ From that day forward, he would occasionally refer to me as ‘pizza boy’ and say, ‘Hey, great film, can you shoot a little faster?’ I remember the month before I directed my first episode; I was going to the sets quite frequently to figure out what I was going to do. The sets were a big part of the story. They were modified from Star Trek movies and were huge. Star Trek had a large cast, and they all got close-ups. One of my challenges was figuring out how to do that and also use the environment. I storyboarded the entire episode, but I was terrified. We started with a daunting scene with 10 or 12 people on the bridge set. On the first or second day of production, the Enterprise was hit by a photon torpedo. I asked the cinematographer, how do I make the ship shake when the torpedo hits? He grabbed the magazine on the Panaflex camera and said, ‘You tell me when the torpedo hits and I’ll shake it like this.’ I thought he was being sarcastic, and said, ‘Don't play with me. I just want to know how to do it.’ He said, ‘I'm telling you.’ I asked him twice, and he said the same thing twice. So, I said, ‘Okay, shake the camera on cue, but the ship gets hit on the left side, so it's going have to tilt the other way. The cinematographer said, ‘Tell the actors to lean camera right or left.’ The next day the dailies came in and the impact was perfect. It’s difficult explaining how I felt standing on that multimillion dollar Star Trek set with the legendary Gene Roddenberry, creating a believable effect by yanking the camera magazine around.

Does that feeling ever go away?
ROB BOWMAN: No. I have earned a lot of credits for producing and directing, but the thing that has never changed is my love for doing my homework – sitting alone with a pencil and script, dreaming up and executing ideas on a set.

What was the next television show that made an impact on you?
ROB BOWMAN: That’s like asking who my favorite child is. Parker Lewis was interesting, because it was a comedy with aggressive camera movement. That landed me my first movie (Airborne), a little film about rollerblading with a young Jack Black and Seth Green in the cast.

After directing that film, you went back to producing and directing episodic television programs. Please share some thoughts about that.
ROB BOWMAN: I saw a trailer for the pilot of The X-Files. There was a shot of a kid standing in the forest with leaves swirling around him. I said that's the show I want to work on. I called my agent and asked him to get me an interview. I just got to work on one episode during the first season. I loved it. We tried some pretty unusual things to grab attention, including shooting dialogue scenes with silhouettes of characters, and long sequences with no dialogue that required some savvy camerawork. I remember thinking; this is a television show where you have to be a filmmaker. That was what Chris Carter expected from everybody.

You directed more than 30 episodes of The X-Files and earned Emmy® nominations for four consecutive years. You also produced more than 90 episodes. What do you remember most about those years?
ROB BOWMAN: I just felt it was the right place for me. I remember us shooting a night scene on a farm that was like putting the pieces of a puzzle together. I called Chris Carter and told him that in order to get this done in one day, I was going to have to cut back and forth between what they are looking at and their faces. That means you can't change it in editing. He gave me the go ahead. I had a great time because it was a tremendous challenge. The next season, they asked me to stay on as producer/director. It took me about half a second to decide that’s what I wanted to do.

How do you make decisions to make commitments like that?
ROB BOWMAN: I believe it’s the result of having spent all that time with my dad when he was doing those industrial films when I was a kid, and then going through an apprenticeship with Stephen Cannell. I also learned a lot while I was working under Gene Roddenberry on StarTrek: The Next Generation and being mentored by (executive producer/director) Jeff Bleckner. He took me on as sort of a protégé when I directed a few episodes of Mancuso, FBI. Jeff is a wonderfully finessed director who knows where to place the camera and how to talk to actors with brevity and accuracy. Dan Curtis was another great mentor whom I worked with on Dark Shadows. I remember my agent calling me and saying Dan Curtis wanted to meet me. I was 29 years old. At one point in our conversation, Dan asked, ‘If you weren't a director, what would you be doing?’ When I told him that I didn’t have an answer, he said that’s what he had wanted to hear. Dan took me under his wing. He called me his surrogate son. He took me to dailies for other shows and explained what he liked, what he didn’t like and why. After the first day of production of an episode that I directed, he told me that I had what it takes and that he thought I was going to have a big career.

What was the next step on your journey?
ROB BOWMAN: My singular focus was directing and producing The X-Files over the next eight to nine years.

How did you create paranormal monsters?
ROB BOWMAN: That was another learning experience. The monsters were usually either robotic, which meant they moved funny, or it was a guy wearing a rubber suit or prosthetics. Whenever a monster would come on the set, I would turn off lights until there was just enough illumination to get a sense of the creature. Not a literal sense—just sort of a visceral sense of the creature. It was interesting because you couldn't see how big it was or what sort of murderous weaponry it carried. Leaving those things to the imagination was a lot scarier. We took a ‘much less is more’ approach to filming those atmosphere scenes, because there are no limits when you engage the audience's imagination.

That also had to stretch your imagination.
ROB BOWMAN: There is no reason why you can’t take a cinematic approach to storytelling on an episodic television series. Sometimes filmmaking is more about what the audience doesn’t see. It’s like the downbeats in between the notes that engage them.

How do you define cinematic storytelling?
ROB BOWMAN: Using images to evoke emotions and feelings is cinematic storytelling.

When you are directing, are you generally in the video village or at the camera with the actors?
ROB BOWMAN: Both. A lot of the time I want to be with actors who are in front of the camera, where I'm an eye-witness as it is happening. Other times, I want to be at the monitor in the video village because I want to make sure everything is in the right place in the frame.

I can tell from our conversation that you use light, shadows and darkness as well as words and the actors’ performances to tell stories.
ROB BOWMAN: I've always been conscience about how you can use light and the absence of light as a narrative tool. It’s another way of conveying emotions as subtext for the dialogue. Earlier in my career, Stewart Copeland, a drummer for The Police, scored my first movie. He invited me to visit museums in England and see the paintings. I went to his place in the northern countryside and hung out with him for a while. Then, I visited the British Museum which has more mummies than paintings. I went on to Paris, where I stayed in tiny hotel room across the street from the Louvre and other museums. I walked to each museum and looked at 500 to 600 year old paintings that were among the most beautiful things I had ever seen. There was no electricity when those paintings were made. The artists used sunlight and candles, and shadows and darkness like words. It was remarkably simple and effective. I also went to see Dutch master paintings in Amsterdam. There was a painting that had sunlight coming horizontally through a window and falling on a wall covered with heavily textured stucco. I noticed the way that the artist used sunlight reflecting off walls to motivate light on faces.

How did that influence your thinking about producing and directing The X- Files?
ROB BOWMAN: I had the cinematographer place big lights outside of windows. That allowed us to shoot faster while getting the right looks. We used silhouettes and darkness to create a very specific look for the show.

That’s interesting. You almost sound like a cinematographer.
ROB BOWMAN: I get eye rolling when I say this to the wrong person, but I like to paint with light. Lighting films is a form of painting. Sometimes you do it just right and other times you miss. I keep trying to do it better.

We also wanted to ask you to share some memories The A-Team television series. You produced more than 30 episodes of that program.
ROB BOWMAN: The A-Team was produced and aired during the mid-1980s. My claim to fame was that I directed montage scenes. The montages were used as cutaways to close-ups of faces of characters as bridges between first and second unit shots. I have to admit that it was fun.

In 2002, you directed a movie called Reign of Fire. What was that like?
ROB BOWMAN: Reign of Fire was a story about fire-breathing dragons which come out of the center of the Earth and attack mankind. I envisioned a very gritty sort of William Wyler-approach to making this film with dragons that look real. I thought it would take about three weeks to design the dragons. It ended up taking many months.

The visual effects artists started with illustrations and built a digital dragon. We brought a paleontologist in to scrutinize it. He told me it wouldn’t fly because it was too heavy. It needed bigger wings and the legs were too skinny. He explained that the dragon weighs four tons. It needed big legs that could carry that weight. We didn’t want it to look like an alien. It was supposed to be a freak of nature—sort of a hybrid between an alligator and king cobra snake. I was determined that it look like a misfit of nature with the goal of creating a visceral reaction. I wanted everything else to be realistic, including wardrobe, music, set construction, performances, camera work, lighting, color timing and mixing. I was aware of how fragile the idea of that movie was. I planned to focus on what it was like to live in an environment like that. 

Let’s fast-forward to Castle, a relatively new episodic series that you are producing and occasionally directing.
ROB BOWMAN: The story revolves around the relationship between Castle, who writes mystery fiction novels, and a detective named Kathy Beckett. Castle gets permission from the mayor to tag along with Beckett during murder investigations. He is seeking inspiration for new stories. Kathy was motivated to become a homicide detective because her mother was murdered, and her killer was never found. This is serious work for her. She doesn't joke around. Castle, on the other hand, can be goofy and funny at times. 

Their relationship is fascinating. They seem like people we all know.
ROB BOWMAN: Ninety-five percent of what happens in each episode is in the script. The rest are spontaneous things which happen while we are shooting. Stana Katic plays Kate Beckett and Nathan Fillion plays Castle. They have both brought their characters to life. I also have to applaud Andrew Marlowe. He created the concept, writes many of the scripts and shepherds the other screenplays to keep them realistic and occasionally funny.

You are producing Castle and directing some episodes. You have spoken eloquently about why it is so important for different films to have the right visual grammar. Which cinematographer was brought onboard to collaborate on this project?
ROB BOWMAN: The cinematographer is Bill Roe (ASC). We have a tremendous relationship, because Bill knows and appreciates how important his lighting is to me. I admire and respect him for what he does. We push each other and collaborate to keep each other in the game. Bill will ask if it is okay if this person is standing or sitting here instead of there. My answer is always, of course. We push and challenge each other in kind of a brotherly relationship that includes everything from cajoling to sarcasm and criticism. It's a very active verbal relationship that is all in fun and in the right spirit. I admire his ability to create the right images for different situations. We have to shoot so many pages every day, so there is no time for being overly clever. If I can get in my car at the end of the day, and say we did a good job of telling the story, I go home feeling good.

Why do you produce Castle on film?
ROB BOWMAN: If I want to watch a television program with a live look, I’ll tune in a football game or watch the news. A film look is kind of a magical interpretation of the story and performances. It’s a chemical process that sees images the way we do with our eyes. Those images are sent to our brain. There is a random disbursement of silver halide crystals on each frame of film that gets sparked to life by light like its passing through a magical filter. I don’t mean for that to be a technical explanation. It’s something I feel. You are painting pictures with light. The nuances in densities of light falling on someone’s face that we can capture on film is how I see the world with my own eyes. I know exactly what it's going to look like. In fact, I rarely watch dailies, because I know what we are getting when we’re shooting film. I know how the light will fall off in the background and what we’ll see in the foreground. That’s especially important when we are telling stories through people's eyes. I want the audience to know what characters are thinking and feeling. Film gives you that latitude. I know how the images will look on film if we decide to be slightly out of focus. If you shoot the same set with an HD camera that interesting texture in the background becomes a distracting highlight.

Those are intriguing aesthetic issues. Are there also practical issues?
ROB BOWMAN: We have to shoot a lot of pages every day to produce an episodic series. There are enough things that can go wrong and to slow you down. If a film camera gets sick, it tells you right away to stop filming because something is broken. With an HD camera, you can shoot a sequence and move to the next location where the assistant cameraman tells you, it looks like we didn't record anything at the last location.

Are there other intangibles?
ROB BOWMAN: Another intangible is the myth that producing in HD format is cheaper. I don’t agree. One of the studios did a total cost analysis. Because of the perception that digital production costs less, some directors do a lot more takes. They think it is free, but then they have hours of extra dailies that they have to watch. Film is also a proven archival medium. We watch television shows today that were shot on film 40 or more years ago. Digital archives have to be updated and migrated whenever the technology changes.

What role do you think films play in our society? Are they just entertainment or something more?
ROB BOWMAN: Film is a way of telling stories in communal environments, ranging from movie theaters to television screens in our homes. Films influence how we think and feel about the world. We can learn from the experiences of characters in films and television programs about everything from the darker side of life to what it is like to live in the White House.

The first episode of the third season of Castle aired just before we began this conversation. How has it been received by the audience and how is the story evolving?
ROB BOWMAN: The audience for the first episode was 33-percent higher than last year. That tells us that the audience has connected with Rick Castle and Kate Beckett and their dedication to bringing criminals to justice. Filmmaking is a fascinating experience. A writer makes up an adventure and puts the words on paper. You rehearse and decide how it should play on a television screen to engage the attention of millions of people. I think that the more you study and practice the art of filmmaking, you more you realize that happiness, frustration, sadness, victory and defeat are universal themes that evoke similar emotions from people in this country and everywhere else in the rest world. It's a gamble every time you make a film, but that's a really exciting part of being a filmmaker.

When students and other young filmmakers ask you for advice about what it takes to succeed in this very competitive industry what do you tell them?
ROB BOWMAN: I tell them they need the talent to create ideas for telling stories on film, and the discipline that it takes to produce those stories. I tell them that they better have a spine of steel and be committed to dealing with peer pressure, frustration and rejection because filmmaking is a subjective art. You may think something is funny or romantic but someone you are collaborating with may not agree. It can be pretty devastating when someone tells you that you aren’t good enough to make films. I went through so much of that during my 20s, but it just made me more committed to following my dreams.