Brian McLaughlin is a film producer and president of Emerald Elephant Entertainment with over fifteen years of film experience and over 25 years of international experience. He has produced four feature films, all acquired for worldwide distribution. He is a member of the Producers Guild of America and SAG-AFTRA and was selected for the 2015 Writers Guild Foundation’s Veterans Writing Project. He was the Media Production Advisor on General Petraeus’ advisory team in Afghanistan, a visiting professor in the film department of the University of Notre Dame, and an instructor at the Los Angeles Film School, Cal State San Bernardino, and The Art Institute of Tucson. His films have won several awards, including two Accolade Awards of Excellence. He spent 20 years in the U.S. Army and Army Reserve as an Infantry officer, most of that time assigned to Special Operations Command Europe, with call-ups for Bosnia and Operation Enduring Freedom, and other assignments as an Airborne Pathfinder commander and general’s aide. He has a bachelor’s degree in Business Administration from Notre Dame and an MBA from Boston University. Brian was recognized by Notre Dame as an Exemplary Asian Pacific Alumnus and has been three-time president of the Independent Film Association of Southern Arizona. He has a son, Collin.
Find interviews like this one on the Military Veterans in Creative Careers podcast.
Justin Sloan: Thank you for agreeing to speak with us, Brian. To get us started, please tell us about your time in the military. Why did you join and what did you do?
Brian McLaughlin: I was in Army ROTC in college, both as a way to pay for school and to serve my country after college. As a business major, I had planned to become a finance officer, but after my exposure to the army during the six-week “summer camp” before senior year, I realized how much fun the Infantry was and changed my plans. My first assignment was as a mechanized Infantry platoon leader, then a General’s aide-de-camp, and finally an Airborne Pathfinder commander. These were all in Wiesbaden, Germany.
Having started a family by the end of that tour, I decided to leave active duty, but remained in the reserves for another 16 years. I served a year with 12th Special Forces Group and thirteen years as an individual mobilization augmentee to Special Operations Command Europe. SOCEUR called me up for Bosnia and after 9-11. In 2011, as a civilian contractor, I was the media production advisor on General Petraeus’ advisory team in Afghanistan.
JS: Do you have any many takeaways from your time in the military? How do you feel that experience has changed your life? How about your creative life?
BM: The army was one of the most formative experiences of my life. It gave me the mindset of always accomplishing the mission, no matter the obstacles. It forged in me a sense of personal responsibility and accountability. I learned to work as an effective leader of a collaborative team to achieve organizational objectives, even when the team members come from widely diverse backgrounds. This carried over into my creative life and enables me to motivate cast and crew through long work days and weeks and demanding circumstances. The sense of responsibility forces me to stick with a project until it is successfully completed and investors yield a positive return.
JS: When you were preparing to leave the military, what was going through your head? Did you have any idea that you wanted to get into the movie business? If not, how did you discover your passion?
BM: I left active duty at a time when officers were expected to be lifers—especially since my career was off to an exceptionally good start. I was treated, to a large extent, like a pariah. But, I chose my familial commitment over the military. However, I stayed in the reserves and continued to serve proudly for another 16 years. Upon leaving the active duty, I went into the business career I had always planned to pursue. I was in corporate finance for a long time, as a business manager on a few international programs.
It wasn’t until my late 30s that I got interested in acting as a hobby, eventually having over 60 roles and joining SAG. After several years, my financial acumen came into play and I researched the business side of the film industry. I left my corporate career of almost two decades to start a film company. Within five years, I had produced four feature films, all acquired for distribution, and joined the Producers Guild of America, sponsored by the legendary Roger Corman. Despite the challenges of the profession, there has been absolutely no looking back.
JS: For other military men and women trying to find their path in life, do you have any advice on discovering and pursuing their passions?
BM: One of the vital aspects of the military is the sense of community and teamwork. Carry those feelings with you into the entertainment industry. Establish connections with your peers and foster mutually supportive relationships. As in the military, there are dozens of career paths in the entertainment industry—be open to changing your path when opportunities present themselves. You may learn that your passion is actually in editing, rather than directing, for example. Let your passion awaken in you, rather than forcing it to be something that might not be the best fit for you.
JS: What were the first steps you took toward becoming a producer?
BM: When I was asked to help find investors for friends’ films (after having already been an actor for several years), I first spent about six months researching the job, reading every book on filmmaking that I could find. I then spent about three months putting together a business plan and a presentation for investors, and close to a year honing that presentation. I met with as many established producers and directors that I could find in Tucson, where I lived at the time, and Phoenix, and got tons of advice from them.
When I started my film company, I partnered with a lawyer, accountant, and marketer—each of whom had some film experience and passion. I also found a business mentor, an iconic finance executive who was also the business advisor to a former studio owner. While developing feature projects, I produced short films, music videos, and corporate and educational videos to gain the skills and knowledge I would need to produce a feature.
JS: What draws you to producing, and the entertainment sector in general?
BM: Producing allows me to satisfy both the creative and business sides of my personality. It is the perfect melding of art and commerce for me. I have always loved movies and TV as a viewer, but it wasn’t until later in life that I saw it as a career path. Once I took my first sip, I was an alcoholic—or more accurately, a cinemaholic.
Ironically, my grandmother had been an artist in the industry, working on such films as Alien and The Deep, but none of my siblings or cousins or I had any interest in the field. I didn’t even dabble in acting until after her death. She probably would have been happy to see the turn my professional life has taken.
JS: Since you have acted and done stunt work, did you (or do you) pursue these paths as a career as well, or has it been more of a side-effect of producing?
BM: Acting was first, however it was never more than a hobby, at least so far. I do love the feeling of making a character come to life and a scene feel like complete reality. But, as much as I am decent at acting and enjoy it, producing is where my heart lies. The little stunt work I have done either came as extensions of my acting roles, coupled with decades of gymnastics, or from my military experience rappelling and rock climbing. It’s fun, but not even close to a passion.
JS: Do you have any crazy stories you can share, to give us an idea of what it means to be a producer or an actor?
BM: On a shoot in southwest Louisiana, the DP (director of photography) informed me one afternoon that he would really like to have a jib for the next morning. This was a brand new need for which we had done zero research or preparation. I basically had four hours to make it happen, and we were in a geographic area where I had no useful contacts. I dove into it, Googling potential equipment suppliers and calling likely candidates. I was eventually referred to a church group which made videos and had their own equipment. They were very cooperative, despite not knowing anything about me, and agreed to lend us their jib—for free, for the entire shoot.
JS: At what point did you start Emerald Elephant production, and how did that come about? How does the company work, and what role do you play there?
BM: When I left my corporate finance job to become a producer, I knew I needed to form a company as a legal entity in order to protect my personal assets. My lawyer partner drafted the required paperwork (although I feel most states have simple enough corporate registration forms that most people can do the paperwork themselves). Originally, I recruited three partners – a lawyer, accountant, and marketer. However, they all kept their day jobs and never really took the leap. As I went on to produce films, and they didn’t have the flexibility to participate, we mutually agreed that the company records would be amended to omit them. So, for the last few years, I am the only person in the company, responsible for choosing projects, developing and packaging them, and overseeing production and distribution. However, my three partners were invaluable in getting the company started and I am very grateful for their involvement. Looking ahead, I will work with one or two producing partners on a project-by-project basis, rather than by adding them to the company records, just for simplicity.
JS: Now that you’ve produced multiple films, what advice do you have for someone who wants to produce their own screenplay?
BM: That’s easy—don’t. If you’re a writer, write. Unless you dedicate the time and effort to learn how to produce, don’t waste your screenplay by trying to produce it yourself. If no one else would ask you to produce their script, then don’t do so with your own. Instead, partner with a producer who can do the job right.
As a corollary, I generally don’t write films that I want to produce—I hire qualified writers to craft a great screenplay. That said, I have read many books on screenwriting and continue to expand my knowledge of that role, most recently participating in the Writers Guild Foundation’s Veterans Writing Project. I am using that opportunity to write my second feature film screenplay, which I hope to produce—even if it means bringing in a better writer for polishing later.
JS: That is awesome that you were able to attend the WGF’s retreat. Can you sell it to other veterans who are considering attending? Who were some of the speakers over the weekend, and what really stood out for you?
BM: The Writers Guild Foundation’s Veterans Writing Project was the best learning experience I’ve had in as long as I can remember. This was in a large part thanks to the two outstanding mentors assigned to my five-person group of veterans, Niceole Levy and April Fitzsimmons. Niceole has been a staff writer on the TV series Ironside and Allegiance. April has been a writer on Secrets & Lies and the upcoming Stitchers, as well as being a veteran herself and a participant in the first year of the workshop. They are examples of the professional caliber of the mentors, who are all established professionals making a living in the industry on well-known films and TV series.
Niceole and April put us through very beneficial writing exercises, helped us develop loglines for our projects (and our lives), advised us on alternative vehicles for our writing (film, series, web series, blog, novel), gave concrete and practical feedback on our work, assigned us relevant overnight homework, got us moving down the road on our projects, and even gave us deadlines for progress over the upcoming month or two. I truly could not have hoped for better mentors.
Additionally, Jason Hall, screenwriter of American Sniper, gave an in-depth and insightful Q&A about his path to success and lessons learned. The chance to network with all the mentors and fellow writers was very valuable. And, over the ensuing year, we will meet to participate in about 18 more mentoring sessions to get further feedback on the evolution of our projects. All in all, it is an unparalleled opportunity not to be missed.
JS: As for submitting our screenplays to production companies and managers, do you have any thoughts about what that screenplay needs to look like? Have you seen patterns that made for success in the films you’ve produced?
BM: For unproduced writers, it’s generally best to follow the Save the Cat! screenplay structure, as described in the book of that name. It is the industry standard. Many—even most—film executives and their script readers use the page numbers defined in that structure as an acid test when considering screenplays. Unless your writing is clearly distinctive in the first couple pages, you better have an inciting incident on page 12 and a clear choice by the main character on page 25.
Beyond that, make sure you have a killer logline that will grab their attention, as well as clearly and concisely telling what the film is about. Save the Cat! has a good format. So does Producer to Producer, by Maureen Ryan. My new favorite, from the WGF Veterans Writing Project is from Jen Grisanti – Who, Dilemma, Action, Goal, Irony.
Finally, build a compelling one-sheet that describes the screenplay and the qualifications of anyone involved in it—especially you, as the writer—and any accolades the script or you have garnered. To this end, entering the script in contests can potentially add to your selling points, along with getting valuable professional feedback.
JS: We met through Veterans in Film and Television. What has been your involvement with the organization? How can veterans best utilize and contribute to this organization?
BM: I LOVE VFT! In addition to the Producers Guild, it is my favorite professional organization. The speakers, networking, training opportunities, camaraderie, job offerings, directory, and especially mutual support make it an indispensable element in my career development. I joined in March 2103 and the first speaker I saw was NBCUniversal President Ron Meyer, which set the bar pretty high. Members and leaders of VFT have supported me in my pursuit of a full-time position in the industry or, alternatively, funding of the projects I have in development.
Likewise, I have given advice and encouragement to countless VFT members. I also edit the VFT blog, a job I could be doing better, I admit. I also arranged the mentorship sessions with A-list director-producer-writer Peter Berg (Lone Survivor) for two VFT members who were competitively selected.
I think the best way to utilize the organization, or any organization, is to give without expectation. That’s a tenet of networking—be generous, rather than self-serving. If you’re just starting out, volunteer to work on projects of other members, learning and making contacts in the process. If you are more experienced, share your knowledge with other members. In either case, VFT should be one of many resources. If you rely solely on any single career asset, you will limit your advancement potential. Instead, let VFT complement everything else you are doing to learn and grow.
JS: Are you aware of any other entertainment sector veteran focused organizations out there?
BM: I am on the board of the fledgling Vets Mentoring Vets, along with fellow VFTers Dale Nowicki and Daryl Hoss. There will be more news about that once we have everything in place. Got Your 6 (http://www.gotyour6.org/) is another important organization. American Corporate Partners (http://www.acp-usa.org/) has an excellent program to connect vets with terrific mentors, although not just in the entertainment industry—my mentor is a Vice President of Human Resources for Gannett. As I’ve mentioned, the Writers Guild Foundation’s Veterans Writing Project (https://www.wgfoundation.org/programs/military-veterans-writing-workshop/) is incredible! We Are the Mighty (http://www.wearethemighty.com/), a multi-channel multi-platform network serving the military and veterans, is terrific for exhibiting veteran-created content.
JS: Thank you, Brian. Can you leave us with a last piece of advice for aspiring producers and actors?
BM: Don’t look for shortcuts. First of all, they don’t exist. More importantly, the knowledge and skills you will gain by traveling each step of the journey will benefit you more in the long run than leapfrogging ahead would. Part of that journey is studying your craft thoroughly. Devour all sources of information, so that you will be fully informed to be the best possible person in your field. Don’t, for example, think you can produce well without first reading dozens of books on film producing (and screenwriting, directing, acting, and cinematography), having several mentors, reading every blog on the subject, going to any workshop and conference you can find, and working as crew or cast on a dozen projects. We can always grow and be better—seek every chance to do so. Focus on the journey, rather than some elusive destination.
These interviews, along with the author’s advice, are available in the book Military Veterans in Creative Careers.
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