Adam Salky: “Life needs the practical”

Life needs the practical. It can take years for a filmmaking career to pay the rent. What are you going to do in the meantime to fund your life? If you want to make films for a living start thinking right away about how you are going to support yourself while you pursue your dreams. Prepare for the long haul.

As a part of our series called “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me When I First Became A Filmmaker”, I had the distinct pleasure of interviewing Adam Salky.

As one of the most-watched talents to break into film and television over the last few years; director, writer, and producer Adam Salky is quickly becoming known for his intimate, character-driven storytelling. This year, Salky is set to release his latest feature film, “Intrusion.” The thriller follows a husband (Logan Marshall-Green) and wife (Freida Pinto) who move to a small town and suffer a home invasion that leaves the wife traumatized and suspicious that those around her might not be who they seem. “Intrusion” is set to debut globally on September 22, 2021, on Netflix.

Salky made his feature film directorial debut with the 2009 drama “Dare” (Strand Releasing). Based on a short film that has over 14 million views on YouTube, “Dare” revolves around a trio of high school seniors from an upper-middle-class Philadelphia suburb during a transformative period in their lives. The film stars Emmy Rossum, Zach Gilford, Alan Cumming, and marks Academy Award nominee Rooney Mara’s first starring role. The film, which was one of the first features to highlight sexual fluidity, garnered a Grand Jury Prize nomination at Sundance Film Festival. Salky’s follow-up film, “I Smile Back” (Broad Green Pictures) was met with similar praise. Starring Sarah Silverman as a destructive suburban mother of two who self-medicates, the film premiered at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival and earned Silverman a 2016 Screen Actors Guild Award nomination.

On the television front, Salky directed “The College Admissions Scandal” for Lifetime in 2019. As a Warner Brothers Television Directors’ Workshop recipient, Salky has directed multiple episodes of NBC’s “Blindspot.” Born and raised in New York, Salky graduated from Emory University and completed his MFA in Film at Columbia University’s Graduate School of the Arts. Upon graduation, Salky began working on his directorial debut, “Dare.”

When he isn’t working behind the camera, Salky is passionate about teaching the next generation of filmmakers. He continues to run the Directing Discipline at The American Film Institute Conservatory and previously served as an advisor at the Sundance Labs. He has also taught directing at USC’s Graduate School of Cinematic Arts and occasionally serves as a guest lecturer at universities and high schools across the country.

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Our readers would love to get to know you a bit better. Can you tell us a bit of the ‘backstory’ of how you grew up?

I was born and raised in New York City. It was a unique way to grow up, constantly surrounded by people from all over the world in a frenetic cityscape. My mother was born in Poland and immigrated to the US at six years old with my grandparents, who survived the Holocaust. That immigrant experience and the sense that we were literally lucky to be alive colored my upbringing in ways I’m still realizing. I didn’t have any filmmakers or artists in my family as role models. I didn’t even realize filmmaking could be a career until after college. But I fell in love with movies at a young age. They were everything to me. Eventually, I started to make short films in my early 20s and that’s how it all started.

Can you share a story with us about what brought you to this specific career path?

I became a director at the end of an organic process of self-discovery. I was relatively directionless at the outset of college. Unsure of what to study, I decided to major in business, which required an application process at my school. I remember holding the acceptance letter and having an out-of-body experience. It was a normal 8.5×11 sheet of paper that couldn’t have weighed more than a feather, but it felt like an anvil, with one end tied around my ankle and the weight dangling over a bridge. I knew somehow deep down that it was the wrong path for me even though I couldn’t quite articulate it. The next day I changed my major to creative writing and my life completely changed. I made my first short film shortly thereafter and fell deeper and deeper in love with filmmaking until it became my life.

Can you share the funniest or most interesting story that occurred to you in the course of your filmmaking career?

Making Intrusion during the Fall of 2020 in the first year of the pandemic, was by far one of the most interesting experiences I’ve ever had in my filmmaking career. The film is a thriller that’s full of suspense and secrets as the wife, played by Frieda Pinto, starts to question what she thinks she knows about everyone around her after a break-in and a shocking act of violence. It’s about the terrifying unknowability of people, and how there is nothing scarier than that blind spot with those closest to you. Making the film felt, at times, like living a real-life thriller. There were no vaccines, testing 5x per week, a health and safety team poking us (literally) to stay 6 ft apart, and a snake wrangler on set every day to make sure nothing bit us while shooting in the New Mexico desert. Even the producers had to watch the footage through a live stream because they weren’t allowed on set, and the editing was done remotely. There were more strange occurrences and changes of circumstances than I can recount here, but one thing is certain: I’ll never have a production experience quite like that one ever again.

Who are some of the most interesting people you have interacted with? What was that like? Do you have any stories?

I love working with actors. They are some of the most interesting people you will encounter in your filmmaking journey. They tend to be incredibly sensitive artists and true collaborators. I’ve been very lucky to work with some of the best. Freida Pinto and Logan Marshall-Green were the best possible partners with which to make Intrusion. Their dedication to their roles inspired me every day.

And a quick non-actor-related story: In 2015 when my film, I Smile Back, was coming out I got a call from a friend telling me to click on a YouTube link he’d sent. As I watched, there was Ridley Scott, one of my filmmaking heroes, sitting at a Hollywood Reporter roundtable and talking about how much he loved I Smile Back and the directing, specifically. My jaw hit the floor. I ended up writing him a letter and he wrote back reaffirming his feelings about my work. There are very few straight-up wins in the film business and that was one. The letter is framed and in my office. It’s a reminder to keep going no matter what happens, that I’m on the right path.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. 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?

The saying “it takes a village to raise a child” has become “it takes a village to make a film” for me. I’ve been incredibly lucky to get support along the way from quite a few people, in particular my parents. They were a bit slow to visualize me as a filmmaker, but once they did, they were all in. I’ve also been very lucky to encounter some incredible supporters of my work along the way. Kim Yutani, now the Director of Programming at Sundance, programmed one of my first short films at Outfest back in 2005. After that, she became an incredible supporter of my work over the last decade. I’m deeply grateful for her help in getting my voice heard. Lastly, my wife is my greatest supporter. Without her, I’d most certainly be lost.

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

“The whole world is a very narrow bridge. And the most important thing is not to be afraid.”
― Rebbe Nachman of Breslov

Fear is something that fascinates me. I’m intrigued by how it drives people or makes them shy away, how it is always there, lurking beneath the surface in life and in cinema. Fear, for me as an artist, has always been an indication of where I should look in my work. This quote reminds me to be open to fear, to know it is there and always will be there, but also to be able to walk through fear, one foot in front of the other, across the narrow bridge.

Intrusion is my first thriller. I loved making a film that deals overtly with fear. It was rewarding to have near-complete control over that emotion in the filmmaking process; when to dial it up or down or draw it out depending on what the moment required.

I am very interested in diversity in the entertainment industry. Can you share three reasons with our readers about why you think it’s important to have diversity represented in film and television? How can that potentially affect our culture?

It is essential that we diversify who makes the art in our world. The whole purpose of art is to be moved, transported, to experience deeply something the artist is expressing. If the art is all from one POV or a limited set of POVs then we are depriving ourselves of the opportunity to be expanded as human beings, to grow and become better people. It’s also essential that all voices are heard. Imagine the feeling — which we’ve all experienced — of being silenced in a friendship, or a relationship. Now magnify that exponentially when it’s the society that is silencing you. A voice is heard through cinema is akin to a feeling of freedom, and the sound of that voice enriches the world. Getting new voices in front of and behind the camera won’t happen by itself. I’m very proud that Intrusion bears the ReFrame stamp, a mark of distinction demonstrating that we achieved gender-balanced hiring. People from an incredibly diverse set of backgrounds, genders, political views, gender identities and sexual preferences worked diligently, together to make this film. I am certain we made a stronger film because of it.

What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now?

There are quite a few upcoming projects including a new thriller that I am so excited about. In many ways, the story is the mirror image of Intrusion. We meet the perfect family whose life is turned upside down when a stranger starts to terrorize them. We slowly start to realize this stranger is connected to the family in ways we never thought possible. The film, like a lot of my work, deals with past traumas and how we overcome them. It’s suspenseful, surprising, and powerful and I can’t wait to make it.

Which aspect of your work makes you most proud? Can you explain or give a story?

There is nothing quite like seeing how your film affects an audience. You never know if the film will be seen by millions of people or dozens, but if you reach someone, that makes all the effort worthwhile. I’m most proud of the reactions from those viewers over the years that connected with the work. Interactions with them have been humbling, enriching, and motivating.

Ok super. Here is the main question of our interview. What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.

  1. Pitching is life. If you want to be a filmmaker, get ready to pitch, all day, every day. I wish I had known that starting out. You must be able to get in front of actors, executives, agents, financiers, managers, producers, theater owners, PR reps, reporters, and audiences and confidently and clearly sell the concepts that make your project worthwhile over 1000s of other possible options. Get comfortable with it. Develop a personal pitch style and leave everything on the field.
  2. Life needs the practical. It can take years for a filmmaking career to pay the rent. What are you going to do in the meantime to fund your life? If you want to make films for a living start thinking right away about how you are going to support yourself while you pursue your dreams. Prepare for the long haul.
  3. Look out for yourself. Filmmaking is a beautiful, challenging, and yes, very stressful career. Cultivate ways to handle that stress. Sleep hygiene. Yoga. Meditation. Exercise. Find your stress relief and cultivate a practice.
  4. Become a juggler. Directors must have as many projects as possible going at any one time. There is the project or two that could be made now, the one a year from now, two or three that could happen in two or three years, and then long-term projects that require slow and steady chipping away. Making your first feature is great, but are you ready to follow up with another project right on its heels? I wasn’t. it took six years to make I Smile Back after Dare. I learned my lesson, and you just did too.
  5. Passion is everything. On one of my first PA jobs, the director convinced me to work for free even though I didn’t totally understand the script. She got me on board because she believed in it so much. She was passionately telling me how great it was going to be, and I was willing to buy into her energy and love for the project. Your passion is what will draw the essential ingredients of a filmmaking career to you (cast, financing, crew, etc.). Sing it loud and clear!

If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

I’m passionate about environmental issues. We need a paradigm shift in how we use packaging in our lives to create less waste. There should be a movement around that. Being a father inspired me to write something for my kids, so I wrote a children’s book about this topic. We need our kids to help us change the world. Book agents ring me if you want to read it!

We are very blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might see this. 🙂

I hope to beat the odds by mentioning four people:

  1. Alfonso Cuaron. I love his work. He’s my favorite working director.
  2. Michelle Obama & Barack Obama. I continued to be inspired by this couple. I’d love to hear about how they raised two daughters while juggling their very complex lives.
  3. Elon Musk. I’m fascinated by space and the unknown of the universe. Would love to pick his brain.

How can our readers further follow you online?

Twitter: @adamsalky

Instagram: @adamsalky

This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!

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