Movies have depended on music for longer than they have had words. Though silent films used musical scores to guide an audience’s emotional experience of a film, it was Alan Crosland’s The Jazz Singer (1927) that turned Hollywood away from silent movies. Utilizing both synchronized musical scores and lip-synchronized singing and speech Crosland introduced the film industry to a new way of guiding the audiences emotional experience.
Few understand this more than Vohn Regensburger of Gymnopedie Films. Though out his career Regensburger has worked as a musician, composer, writer, and film director. His feature films have taken awards at The New York International Independent Film Festival, Hollywood HD Film Festival, Long Beach Indie Film Festival, Cinema on the Bayou, and Park City Film Music Festival.
Regensburger is committed to work that explores the realities and dramas that come with striving for a creative life and legacy, and a strong focus on music surfaces in the content and presentation of his narrative work. Through the fall of 2021 I spoke with Regensburger about his career and creative process.
Brock Ferlaak: You have lived and studied in areas from New York to Nebraska and then Denver which is where your production company, Gymnopedie Films is based. How has this geography influenced or affected your creative process, and what was the draw of Denver for your film productions?
Vohn Regensburger: My family moved from New York to Denver when I was only five years old. I grew-up in Denver, around a lot of great artistic and creative people including my parents . My mom was a ballerina and I spent a lot of time in my early years hanging out with her at the dance studio. My parents had scores of books, classical and jazz records and we constantly went to the movies growing up.
Later, I went away to college as an acting major and eventually landed back in Denver after transferring to music school as a composer. I really believed in Denver and after graduating, I still spent time asking myself, “Do I need to be on the coast to succeed?” Ultimately, I decided to stay in Denver and try my hand at composing, recording, and eventually making films.
In addition, growing up I had a lot of exposure to the art-house theatres in Denver, and that’s when I began to take the craft of filmmaking more seriously. These films weren’t the typical faire like the movies that Hollywood was putting out at that time; both foreign and independent films which were very low on star-power, but big on telling stories. Being exposed to so many great films still has had an impact on how I work and generate ideas today. Most of what I write has been derived from my own experience or what I’ve witnessed through others. I hold to the belief that you write about what you know best and therefore something genuine has a chance to become reality as the familiar surroundings of Denver continue to inspire my films.
Brock Ferlaak: Are there any other inspirations early on that lead you to the work you do today?
Vohn Regensburger: The TV soundtracks of Patrick Williams, Quincy Jones, Lalo Schifrin and others made a deep emotional impression on me at a young age in the late ‘60’s and early ‘70’s. A lot of the films I loved were inspired by the scores themselves including, Cinema Paradiso, A Man and a Woman, Somewhere in Time, and Out of Africa, as these scores elevated the films up to a higher level. A lot of the great 20th-century music was embodied in film scores. The great would-be classical composers had movies as their stage including Ennio Morricone, John Adams, Francis Lai, etc.
My best friend had an 8mm movie camera, so we made silly films, using G. I. Joe action figures. I continued to grow learning more techniques by collaborating with my friends on projects throughout my teenage years, and eventually I got into film acting which helped me center my craft.
One year, at a composer’s panel, the famous composer John Adams said that there is a key difference between a visual journey and a musical one. Music actually helps to fill-in a lot of the imaginative or emotional gaps that a visual artist takes for granted.
One of my earliest memories of recognizing this in film was when I went to see Jaws in a theatre when it first came out. I came upon a realization that without the musical score, the film would be absurdly funny, not scary. What power the music had to make the film frightening induced by the haunting score by John Williams ever stalking us in the audience. I acquired an understanding then at an early age about the relationship that these two mediums, film and music ,inextricably share.
Brock Ferlaak: Did the familiarity make it easier for location scouts? In a city that’s not used to film production being commonplace, did it help to know homeowners and local businesses?
Denver is a very artistic community that was genuinely excited and open-armed about welcoming my cast and crew in to use certain locations during filming which was such a blessing, not to mention the zero effect on the bottom line financially! That certainly helped out considerably and we were very thankful to those who allowed us in, because our movies couldn’t have been made anywhere else without incurring exorbitant fees. Location scouting in tandem with getting to meet the shop owners of restaurants, museums and funeral halls where we set scenes in the scripts was a windfall as everything we needed was literally gifted of us. I think that my ability to have a handle on the material was benefitted by knowing the locations like the back of my hand.
There’s a scene I really like in Last of the Romantics, because it’s set in the cemetery where I used to take walks, a cemetery park called Crown Hill. The real seed for the movie hit me one day while I was strolling through cemetery sounding out loud taglines from movies, inspired by a tagline of my favorite film, the original 1972, The Heartbreak Kid.
Brock Ferlaak: The original with Charles Grodin? I love that film, and not enough people talk about it!
Vohn Regensburger: It’s such a classic film, and the tagline was as perfect as the movie: He falls for the love of his life… while on his honeymoon! I took it a step further and came up with: He found the love of his life… at a funeral! I just knew I had to take that concept and run with it, and the rest of Last of the Romantics came out of that simple seed. So I began that film with the protagonist walking around the cemetery, the connection is deeply meaningful for me and I believe the audience can sense that authenticity. That’s why I continue to write and film our projects in Denver.
Brock Ferlaak: Tell me a bit about working with your lead actor/co-writer Chris Bruno. When did you two meet and what was did your collaboration look like over two films?
Vohn Regensburger: It’s actually a funny story, one that we refer to as our “family nepotism.” Chris and I are cousins, and when I started writing the script to Last of the Romantics, he had already made a name for himself as an actor in LA.
When I completed the script, a friend of mine urged me to send Chris the script to see how he liked it. At first, the pressure I felt this could put our relationship if he didn’t like the script really weighed on me, but I took the chance and sent it to him. After a few weeks he got back to me and jumped right on board with it. It was through him that I met our casting director, and within weeks, we were on set shooting the film. It was amazing!
I worked closely with Chris and we would workshop the script together daily until we were both comfortable with the dialog and the story arc. He’s very committed to his craft and we were both dedicated to the material. When you work that closely with the script, that’s when you have the room to be spontaneous and find things on the day of shooting.
Brock Ferlaak: I was going to ask about the moment you knew it was right to make that first feature, but it seems like it played out very fast. Did you feel personally ready by the time the film was going into production? Was there some sign, encouragement, or key team effort involved in getting the “green-light”?
Vohn Regensburger: I started writing the script back in 1993 and finally was able to complete it after I went to the Sundance Film Festival in 2003. I had been attending Sundance since 1996 to try and shop my music to filmmakers. That year I saw digital films became, for the first time, a legitimate and viable option as opposed to shooting on 35mm. It was then I said to myself, “I’m going to complete my script.” So, I did, and three months later I had a final working script. It took a lot of percolation, but then the motivation aligned and things started to happen. I said to myself, “We’re coming back next year with our own film and winning this thing.” So, that was the year I made my first feature with my cousin Chris. Four years and many different edited versions later, our film started getting accepted to multiple festivals.
The most encouraging thing was that everyone put in so much effort for the film. Especially Chris who just brings it. In Last of the Romantics, we had to make it look as though he was actually playing the guitar. Since I’m a guitarist, we would shoot the close-ups of my fingers playing the instrument which brought true authenticity to the performance. Chris has some skill himself on the guitar and we shot him in medium-range shots playing the actual pieces I wrote for the film. To his credit, he took the time to “wood-shed” these pieces and got to know them well on his own through hard work. This holds true for the whole process when everyone collaborates to bring their best you can believe in the vision and trust it will work.
Brock Ferlaak: And how many ideas, scripts, etc. got left by the wayside before you got your feature made?
Vohn Regensburger: Actually, this was my first script, but fortunately, many false starts and lesser ideas got left behind. Sometimes things come in a flash, but that’s the myth. Mostly, things come through hard work and tweaking them until they become substantive. You have to be open when the art comes to you. And it’s so important to be a good listener, not just to your team members but also to your characters.
When writing, I try to get into the head of every character. You can’t impose your values upon them, but rather you have to try and understand them as individuals and then let that part come to the surface. It is a real thing, that moment when characters seem to “come to life” and you become surprised what ends up on the page if you’ve fleshed them out properly. It all still comes from your own experience, whether you’re conscious of it or not.
Sometimes, one idea leads to another. For instance, there was a Punk band in Last of the Romantics. The lead singer was a side character and was sort of a throw-away punch-line in this film. When writing, A Remarkable Life, I felt it would be interesting to take her more seriously and create her back-story as I wanted to know more about her and what would happen to her down the line. Because of that, I gave her a strong voice and she ended up becoming Chelsea in, A Remarkable Life, the mentor of the lead character Lenny. If you listen to your characters, it’s amazing where they can lead you.
Brock Ferlaak: Do you feel there are more compromises to be made or more benefit that is had with filmmaking being such a collaborative medium to work in? Compared to being a composer, do you find that are there are more differences in what you initially put in the screenplay vs the end product?
Vohn Regensburger: Collaboration is a double-edged sword, but if you pick your co-conspirators carefully, great ideas can spring forth. I have been very fortunate with those I have chosen to collaborate with and it certainly had proven to be a benefit.
As a composer, I’d say that globally there is a similar expression to both film and music, even down to the methods where ideas are generated, especially if one has a strong vision and refuses to compromise. Film is similar to jazz in that musicians listen closely in the moment to one another on stage just as great actors do on set which generates magical moments spontaneously. The best part is working with others. Every creative member on your team, the actors, the cinematographer, the editor, might all have their own take on your melody, and that’s what gives the whole crew an essential freedom to create their own magic.
Starting out with that map or those scales, the best moments during production occur when somebody brings something remarkable that no one could have thought of in advance until we’re there, shooting the scene. Not only do you get the best of the people you’re working with, but it allows what was written on the page to be malleable, and it’s always in that state up until the film is finally cut. Like a band that practices well, if everyone shows up and works hard in those rehearsals, remarkable things come out when it comes time to perform.
A great example of this was a scene we were shooting in Last of the Romantics. The male lead, Parker, meets his girlfriend’s family for dinner. It is an excruciatingly uncomfortable scene for him as the family literally detests his presence. The child actor was on a very tight time schedule that day as she had a role in an opera later that evening. Lo and behold, we forgot to get the master shot of our coverage before the child actor had left the set for the day. Obviously, this was a huge mistake, but the amazing thing was it turned out to be moment of serendipity where we were left with this tense and claustrophobic coverage which ended up working to the scene’s advantage. Happy accidents like that happen all the time if you trust in them.
Brock Ferlaak: Were there any instances of accidents or the unexpected occurrences on a set where you really doubted that trust or thought it could be disastrous?
Vohn Regensburger: Here is a story with an important note about dialogue, the character Brittany Daniel in Romantics has a scene where she loses Parker and is emotionally reflecting. I had written specific dialog that I was deeply tied to from an emotional experience I personally went through and felt that every word mattered. When we got to filming the scene, Ms. Daniel began to say the lines in her own words. At the time it was frustrating for me as the screenwriter, but later discovered much to my amazement, that the personal emotion she generated for herself worked better for the scene. What a great lesson this proved for me. Trust the actor in the moment!
Brock Ferlaak: What is your process for getting these things done? Do you get up particularly early, keep a tight schedule with all your work and activities mapped out in detail, or any other methods to manage all you have to do?
Vohn Regensburger: I always wake-up very early, jot down ideas for music, scripts and editing music while they are still fresh on my mind. When I was writing with Chris, we would stay up very late and still get a lot of good work done together over the phone; Chris in Los Angeles and me here in Denver. The key thing, regardless of your method, is to practice or write every day. That creates a discipline and successful habits. Just like working-out when exercising a muscle, it has to be done diligently. Music and film are the same in that regard, improvement comes from working on two things: discipline and craft.
Brock Ferlaak: With juggling so many roles do you ever find them hard to balance, or worry that you’ll face creative burnout? Or do you find yourself benefitting from working in a variety of areas on your projects?
Vohn Regensburger: I get asked this question all the time. The answer is of course I do! I want to stress that it is okay to get burned out. Sometimes, I simply need to step back and remind myself that the sun will rise again tomorrow. A fresh start with renewed attitude can make the difference of getting to the finish line. Still, one needs a high degree of self-motivation in order to see this kind of thing through.
It’s very important to have that uncompromising vision and drive, but also to be humble. Realizing that the journey never truly ends and that we always need to try to do better. This is the aspiration that any artist should have. There’s no objective definition of success for this.
Brock Ferlaak: Outside of your features, have you done documentary work before? What ways were the processes different from a fictional narrative to a real-life subject, or in what ways is it very much the same?
Vohn Regensburger: I did work previously on a documentary film many years ago as a composer, so I got to come in and watch the filmmaker’s editing process. I had this experience before doing any of my feature film work which allowed me to witness the craft of editing and filmmaking in a way I hadn’t seen before. I was able to learn a lot about the process by sitting in and observing.
Feature narratives and documentaries are not really that different from the standpoint of process. Both are in search of the best way to communicate an emotion, so the foundational question of, “What is this story?” is what you’re always asking yourself.
For more on Vohn Regensburger and his newest documentary The Longest Walk, please read my article: Charles Burrell & The Longest Walk, also appearing in this issue of The Riverside Quarterly.
“Brock Ferlaak is a writer and filmmaker who originally hails from the lakeshore of West Michigan. He has earned a Bachelor of Fine Arts from the University of North Carolina School of the Arts in Filmmaking. He is passionate about independent cinema for the creative process and collaboration necessary for the revolutionary and unconventional medium to survive. He will soon move to New York to continue writing on entertainment, creativity, as well as works of fiction in addition to pursuing a career as a filmmaker.” For more information visit Ferlaak’s website.Enjoy this article? Share it on your favorite social site.