By Randi Altman
Long before he ever stepped into Hazzard County or behind the wheel of the General Lee, John Schneider was a kid from Mount Kisco, New York, making movies with a Super 8 camera and cutting them the old-fashioned way — with razors and tape. And while he loved acting, starting in theater at the age of 8, it was the art of filmmaking that was his real passion.
“Acting was a diversion… Dukes of Hazzard was a diversion,” shares actor/writer/director/editor John Schneider, who is probably best known for his iconic role as Bo Duke on the popular TV series that ran from 1979-1985, as well as for playing Superman’s dad on Smallville. “I was a kid, shooting 50 feet of film at a time and waiting a week or more for it to be developed at my local Caldor. I was cutting footage together on a shag carpet with, basically, a razor blade, and I put it together with what was essentially Scotch tape.”
Schneider started on Dukes — what he refers to as a “fantastic time” — when he was 18, but the filmmaking bug that he caught so early never left. “I would watch movies and study the good ways to tell stories, the bad ways to tell stories and the better ways to tell stories. It occurred to me during that time that it had more to do with writing and editing than it had to do with acting.”
I recently spoke to Schneider as he sat in an edit suite at his John Schneider Studios (JSS) in Louisiana, which is equidistant between the Baton Rouge and New Orleans airports. JSS offers 58 acres to shoot on, with such varied locations as a river, a lake, a swamp, a baseball field, an Olympic-size swimming pool and five acres of Southeast Asia-like bamboo forest. In other words, it offers filmmakers many different settings in one location. There are also two 5,000-square-foot soundstages and two large houses on the property, one of which houses two edit suites.
Would you say your time on Dukes gave you an opportunity to learn even more about production and post?
Yes, in fact, I wrote and directed the last episode of Dukes. I don’t know if that is a testimony to my writing or not (he laughs). I also spent a lot of time in Russ Livingstone‘s edit room; we cut Dukes on a Moviola, but I remember when the flatbed came in. This thing was a revolutionary step up from the Moviola, and I just loved it. I know why bins in NLEs are called bins: because there were bins hanging from the back of my green Moviola!
I have always wondered what the difference between Sam Peckinpah and everybody else was. What the difference between Howard Hawks and John Ford was. How did they tell stories differently? Likely, it’s through editing. As the saying goes, “You shoot something, and then the editor makes the movie.” I’m the editor and the writer.
What did it feel like the first time you got your hands on a nonlinear editor?
Premiere was my foray into nonlinear editing. Then there was Final Cut, but then came version 10, which i feel destroyed the professional view of Final Cut. I started using Avid Media Composer when it came to the cloud and they allowed you to pay for it monthly. Once I learned it, Avid became my favorite of the bunch.
What do you use for storage?
I use a few different things, but my favorite is the big LaCie. It’s got eight drives in it, it’s flat and it weighs about 45 pounds. It’s pretty bulletproof and fast. I also use a WD My Book, which is a 4TB drive.
Let’s take you out of the edit bay for a bit. What prompted you to buy 58 acres in Louisiana and start your own studio?
I’ve wanted to make and tell my stories since I was eight years old. Then I saw this place. I discovered it when scouting locations for my horror/comedy Smothered, which came out in late March. That was the first film I shot here.
I believe that there are places that embrace you, and this particular 58 acres of land seems to be one of those places. Sometimes the actors and crew who shoot here don’t want to leave. They got their rental cars parked outside ready to go; they are an hour from New Orleans, but nobody winds up leaving. They stay by the fireplace or the fire pit outside and they wander through the bamboo forest (below, left). It’s a great testimony to the heart of this place.
So they stay overnight?
Many of the directors who’ve worked here stay, as do their first ADs. That way they can be here early in the morning ready to go. There are four bunk beds in the mess hall, and another room with two queen-sized beds, so if you are a fan of cozy, this is great. If you are like, “I want room service,” then this is not for you.
What kinds of projects are being shot at John Schneider Studios?
Sean Brosnan shot and directed My Father Die here. It’s a motorcycle/almost horror film that is really graphic and features rough territory… prisoners running through a swamp and stuff like that. I play a detective in that one. Then there was the horror film Exit 14, directed by Joe Salcedo. That shot here and featured Tom Sizemore and myself. In terms of commercials, the Louisiana Department of Tourism was here — they needed hills, cypress leaves, a river, old barns and things. We had everything they needed in one place.
The cool thing about this studio is if you’re looking for a controllable wilderness or environment, we can do that. There are no hikers, or traffic or people that are wandering by asking what you are doing. Plus you can post here. A recent movie that shot here was Ozark Shark, and they were doing a rough cut while they were filming. I think two days into shooting they had a rough cut, which is a great because you have all that stuff fresh in your mind as a director.
What about your own films?
We did three films last year, and it worked out great. While we were filming Inadmissible, there was a rough assembly getting put together, and we had a rough about 10 days after we finished filming. Alicia Allain, my producing partner, and I went away for a week and when we came back it was time for me to jump into the cut. I like that.
Where do you go for finishing?
I will take my hard drives down to friends of mine at Celtic, which is in Baton Rouge. We’ll do the color correction, the audio mixing and the ADR there. The goal is to have all of that in-house at some point. Actually, as soon as we add a monitor, we will be offering color correction here via Blackmagic’s DaVinci Resolve. It’s just amazing.
We have a 30-seat theater where we watch dailies and screenings, so I’m thinking about turning that into the sound mixing room. When we put in the edit bay, we wired it so we could watch dailies in the room right next door.
How do all these different parts of you — writer, director, actor, editor — inform the other parts?
That is such a great question. I’ve been wearing one hat or another since 1968, and what I’ve learned is what not to worry about. Because I’m an actor, I want actors to enjoy themselves. I want them to explore and have a great time. I want them to be better than they are. The biggest compliment that John Schneider, the actor, can give a director is, “You made me better than I am.” You have to trust that the director knows what they’re doing, because you’re basically putting your heart and soul in their hands. I make people comfortable. If they mess up a line, I say, “I promise that when I cut this together, I won’t use anything that sucked. Nobody will know.”
The editor in me knows what pieces he needs, and if something goes a little south while we’re filming I don’t worry because we are going to have to cut-away, so we better shoot this cut-away while we’re sitting here. It’s all quite wonderful. I don’t know how directors who have not acted, or directors who have not cut their own film together, can possibly know what not to do. There are a lot of things to do, and you can be taught that, but you have to actually be in the trenches to know what not to do, and what not to worry about.
You sound pretty happy doing what you do.
I love every minute of it — getting a group of creative people together and fleshing out a story. I am so fortunate that I get to do this, pretty much every day, in this magic place here in Louisiana.