Behind The Scenes With “Queen of Knives,” Filmmaker And Star Gene Pope

Photo Credit: Pope 3 Enterprises
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Photo Credit: Peter Konerko

Thank you so much Gene for taking time to do this interview! Before we dig in, congratulations on producing, writing and starring in “QUEEN OF KNIVES.” Tell us more about that project and what inspired it?

Thank you. It’s a pleasure. “Queen of Knives” and its prequel, “King of Knives,” were both roughly based on my own mid-life experiences when I was younger and with many other Baby Boomer and Millennial friends. The title came from a tarot card “King of Swords”. But our writer, Lindsay Joy, changed that one day to “Knives,” and I totally got it. People who are facing mid-life can sometimes try to “play with knives for the excitement,” i.e., “risky behavior.” The moral is: You do that too many times, you might get hurt. Are there serious moments? Absolutely. Life is not always a pack of Pop-Tarts. The humor is pervasive throughout the films. When screening “Queen of Knives”, I would watch from the back row of theaters to sense how it was affecting the audience. It was fascinating to see clumps of people laughing or guffawing at different times in the movie as if a particular scene or piece of dialogue struck a chord, they recognized on a personal level. And that made my day. So, this movie was designed to be a reflective look at issues most of us can relate to and appreciate in limitless ways. Lindsay Joy, the screenwriter, and I spent many nights closing out restaurants, discussing our lives, our parents’ lives, and all the humorous life moments in the midst of chaos. So, Lindsay and I took the inspiration of Brooklyn and tailored a family there who is anything but perfect but who, through thick and thin, manages to find some common… if very carefully selected ground.

Frank (Gene Pope) and Kathy (Mel Harris) provided by QUEEN OF KNIVES

Can you share with us the backstory about what brought you to your specific career path?

It’s a pretty thick path. I quit college because I wanted to get to work. My first job in Chicago was at Brunswick Records, when a very famous recording engineer ran it, Bruce Swedien. This was before his match-up with Quincy Jones in L.A. and his subsequent legendary recordings of Michael Jackson. He was quite the mentor. I then moved back to New Jersey and worked at a major ad agency in the 1970s (Doyle, Dane, Bernbach). This was a golden time to be in advertising. I loved the sheer mega-creativity of all these brilliant copywriters and art directors. Then I had two wonderful children and had to switch jobs to make more money. I moved to Union Carbide (way before the Bhopal disaster) as a film director for internal projects. This was a safe place to learn how to direct. Expectations were low. I won a boxful of awards and made lots of mistakes along the way. Then, I created my own production company as a director and created a short film called “The Mad Ave Wizard,” which was a humorous take on the ad business combined with some state-of-the-art special effects that I had designed. I talked the sound department at Lucasfilm into mixing my short, which they agreed to do to test a new system they had developed.

I worked with a very young and future Academy Award winner Gary Rydstrom. When I heard his mix for the first time, I actually spit coffee all over my lap. It was that good. The film won a Grand Award at the New York International Film & TV Festival. And because of that film, I was snapped up by the commercial production company Levinson, Israelson and Bell, got my DGA card, and became a bi-coastal director of high-end special effects commercials and documentaries. It was about here that my own midlife crisis began. But I returned to my music roots and started an indie record label called PopeMusic. I created new technology to make gold CDs sound closer to the original master recordings. The company was growing very quickly. We were distributed worldwide. I did a lot of orchestral recordings in Moscow in the 1990s, (before the era of Putin). The NY Times stated: “Mr. Pope’s recordings represent the standard for CDs as we know them.” Then Napster came to the internet, and suddenly, all music was free. It was the end of PopeMusic and a lot of other Indy Record labels, and a very sad time for me.

While pondering what to do next, I was talked into trying out for a few local plays and musicals, and I started to get the acting bug again. I was recommended to the Maggie Flannigan Acting School in NYC. The two-year conservatory was a revelation that’s hard to understate. I had to “shut down” my director’s brain and stop observing myself to succeed. Roxi Pope, my youngest, attended a nearby acting conservatory at the same time. Then we shot some short test films to see how we worked together, and the answer was: easy as pie. I met Lindsay Joy as a fellow actor in an evening of short plays, and I fell in love with her written dialogue and suggested we write a full-length script. That took about two years, and the rest is history.

Photo Credit: Peter Konerko

Can you share the most interesting story that has happened to you since you started
working in the film industry?

I really love casting. I usually sit in the back of the room all day long, even during initial casting calls, watching everyone who tries out. I’m always looking for an actor who surprises me, someone I didn’t expect the character to be, but who makes the character uniquely better. So, one morning before one of our initial “King of Knives” sessions, I was looking through the list of names coming in and stopped and stared. I looked up at the casting director and said, “Mel Harris is coming in?” “Yes, she is.” “Wow” was about all I could get out. She came in and was great. Then, at callbacks, when she returned, I got up and said, “Hi Mel, I play Frank.” To which she immediately said, “Oh I know who you are. I checked you out.” We both laughed at that one. And of course, her callback was great, and she got the role of Kathy for both films. We got along fabulously on set, and to this day I know she was the perfect choice for Kathy.

What advice do you have to those seeking an entertainment/film profession?

I feel this is a two-part question. Part I: Do you want to be an actor? If you do, I can’t stress enough how important it is to attend a rigorous two-year conservatory (which includes many classes besides the main acting class) at a school like Maggie Flanigan’s that won’t coddle you, but will push you to your limits, because there’s a lot of competition out there and you need to be prepared to be tough and resilient. I also suggest taking any Master Classes offered after the two-year program. That’s where you’ll meet top talent to compare yourself to see how you can improve, etc. Part II: What part of production do you want to be in? If you examine all the things I did in my career, I could have worked in anything from audio to producing to directing. I probably would pass on lighting as there are better minds than mine for that category.

But you might just love it. So, do some small indie films with like-minded friends and get a name for yourself. And when the time comes, there’s a lot of work out there in the city once you get into the union. Have patience and rise among the ranks. Do good work, and you’ll be noticed. Ask questions. Hook up with a mentor. Prepare to fail. Pick yourself up, rinse, and repeat.

Bottom line: This business contains some of the hardest working people you can imagine. The hours are long. There’s little room for errors. You will not succeed immediately. Be patient with yourself. My journey from 1972 until the beginning to develop the story and script for “Queen of Knives” during COVID was… you do the math. Everything I learned in my entire career in some way helped me to make better films.

Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to
where you are? Can you share a story about that?

Working and learning with Bruce Swedien at Brunswick Records in Chicago, was a life-altering experience for me. He got me on the right track to be a disciplined worker. He was kind and very supportive but expected a lot. Learning to be a recording engineer is not just faders and recording devices and microphones. It’s about developing “an ear,” which takes time. It demands controlling the process while listening and collaborating with the artist. You’re only as good as your reputation, so don’t screw it up with a bad temper. Know when and how to negotiate to get what you know the recording needs. And more than anything else, no excuses, no blaming. If you’re in a good place, great. If you’re not, find another place. Go out and listen to live music… a lot. It’s vital research. Read some books. Improve yourself constantly. Understand what makes some live music sing and others sag. Bruce taught me that creating a truly musical recording requires an engineer to go to the actual studio side and listen to the instruments in there first. He always looked down on the idea of creating a recording by staying in the control room and “creating through the speakers.” In his mind, it was folly. As he used to say: “If the drum sounds bad, replace the drum. Don’t try to fix it at the mixing console.” Bruce sadly, passed away during COVID, and I dearly wish I could have visited him one more time and thanked him for putting me on the right path.

From your experience, what are a few ideas that we can use to effectively offer
support to others who want to work in the industry.

1)Expect to fail. It’s part of the territory. That’s not a pessimistic statement. It’s meant to prepare you for when you think maybe you know everything, then, with a thud, you learn that you didn’t… yet. Learn to pick yourself up and get over it. Otherwise, you’ll get an ulcer (I got one early on in advertising).

2) Respect those above your pay grade. It’s not hard to do. It’s usually greatly appreciated even if you think it’s not noticed. It is noticed, and people will start talking about how professional you are.

3) Do more than what’s expected so you can get a reputation going. Stay late, and be the first to help one of your team. The word will spread that you’re smart (whatever level you’re at, you can be smart) and hard working. Filmmaking has always been difficult. Anything can happen to disrupt things. It’s how you recover after the disruptions that will get you noticed. 4) Be a team player. The cast and crew are a team that must synchronize all the time.

5) Learn to hustle without being told to do so.

Can you please give us your favorite” Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that
was relevant to you in your life?

I’m chuckling here. I’ve had an LLQ for decades now, and it’s really simple: “There is no no!” Be the person who says, “Let me see what we can come up with.” Don’t be “Well, we can’t do that. It’s impossible.” Think of alternative answers to the problem first. Show your desire to try to fix the seemingly unfixable. This mantra became everything to me in my life. And yes, of course, there will be times when “no” becomes the only answer. But I prefer to fight it until its crystal clear there’s no viable solution. That’s how I created
better-sounding CDs. Everyone said it was impossible. I was once jeered during a speech at an audiophile convention because my voice was counter to the “common knowledge.” The crowd thought they knew everything there was to know. Within two years, they weren’t jeering anymore. They wanted to know all about the process I created.

What is next for you? What projects are in the works for Gene Pope?

As you have read, directing was a major part of my career. I fully admit I am not like Bradley Cooper, playing the lead part and directing at the same time. I’d rather do one or the other. But I think it’s time I direct again, or as my producer and friend Jenn Gomez said to me recently: “Gene, if you don’t direct the next feature I’m going to kill you.” And yes, I’m already thinking of concepts. Some books I’ve read recently are absolutely tickling my fancy so stay tuned to this channel.

What is the best way for your fans to follow and connect with you?

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