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Interview with Michael Jolls

He is a film producer from the Las Vegas and Chicagoland area and has devoted his life to the art of moviemaking. He began working in the literary field as assistant editor on David Fincher: Interviews for the University Press of Mississippi. Jolls went on to write The Films of Steven Spielberg and The biography, Rev. William Netstraeter.

His latest book, Make Hollywood Great Again: Cinema in the Era of President Trump released last year and examines the film industry’s retaliation to Donald Trump’s four years in office. Against All Odds: A Retrospective on the Films of Ron Howard, his next book will be releasing 2022.

Q.1 Tell us something about yourself not many people know?
Huh. That’s an oddly tough question. In this social media-driven age, we’re so fixated on what we “want” people to know about us versus what we “don’t want” people to know about us. I’ll share one rather appropriate thing and a dirty secret of mine: one of the best compliments I’ve ever received was for being a voracious reader, and I slightly shutter at that compliment and am compelled to tell the person why, or rather how I’m able to read so much. I might as well disclose it publicly: I read and listen.

The idea hit me years ago when they started making audiobooks digital. The problem is that audiobooks are read slowly-the speed is perfect for a car ride, but otherwise, it’s far too slow to just listen to. Once these apps showed up-specifically OverDrive, Hoopla, and Audible - I could double the speed of the tracks. When I read, the vast majority of the time, I track down the physical book and the audiobook, then do both simultaneously. By doing that, I’m reinforcing what I’m reading with both my eyes and ears.

Q.2 Do you have any upcoming books? What are you currently working on?
I actually have three that are “in the shop.” The one is a ghost-written autobiography that I’ve been working on with my best friend since late-2018, but the logistics of getting that one finished are what spurs the most delays because of scheduling conflicts. It’s called Are You Ready for a Rockshow? and I’m convinced people are going to love it.

The other two are film-related: I’m working on a volume on Ron Howard that will probably be finished first. It consists of over two-dozen essays, one on each of his directed films. In a perfect world, I’ll have that finished by the end of 2021, but early 2022 for sure. The other is a detailed filmography on Sam Mendes.

Q.3 When did you decide to write Make Hollywood Great Again: Cinema in the Era of President Trump?
At the earliest July, but for sure by August of 2019. It wasn’t a book I was progressively working on throughout President Trump’s term. However, I was unconsciously preparing for it the whole time by reading and watching the political melee of his four years in office unfold.

They were two main reasons I did the book: the first was that I had read many of the political books that were released during his tenure, both the ones that were critical of his administration and the ones that were positive about it. Eventually, I started getting concerned about binging too much to politics and not paying attention to my film career. However, I put all that “research” to good use to Make Hollywood Great Again.

The second aspect that really compelled me to do the book was that I was so fixated on my studies that I paid little attention to the political atmosphere when I was in college. I made an effort to keep an eye on it, but I couldn’t keep up because film school was more important and, frankly, way more interesting to me at the time. I was interested in the Obama-McCain race and the Obama-Romney race, but I wasn’t following it closely. On the other hand, the Trump-Clinton race was dynamic, and I was hooked by early summer 2016. Anyway, Make Hollywood Great Again was something I wrote for “me,” meaning today's film students ten years later. So the book was paradoxically personal in that sense.

Q.4 Did you face any difficulties while writing this book or after publication?
Honestly, Make Hollywood Great Again was the smoothest construction of a book I’ve done. The difficulties were relatively simplistic such as deciding if I wanted to include The Hunt (2020, Craig Zobel) or not, or condensing large ideas into cohesive chapters, or the formatting. The usual headaches.

The real difficulty came once the book was released because we hit a major roadblock with advertising. After all, it fell under “politics,” and with social media companies regulating political ads, a book like Make Hollywood Great Again was quickly flagged. You couldn’t just pay to promote the book without a proper declaration of funding the advertising. When Barnes and Noble wouldn’t pick it up, that was the first red flag that trouble was coming. Commercially it was a flop, which looking back a year later doesn’t surprise me for several reasons. First, the book was instantly attacked by both the right and left strictly based on the cover: blue voters, who are predominant in the film industry, automatically hated it because of Trump. Meanwhile, the red voters hated it because they hate Hollywood. The comments on social media revealed many of these knee-jerk reactions to the book, which I expected, but I didn’t expect it to be stagnant. And… the icing on the cake… those who read Make Hollywood Great Again loved it! At the very least, I liked it.

Personally, I’m very content with the book, which is rare for me to say with almost anything I do. Make Hollywood Great Again was one of those rare projects I looked at when it was finished a couple months later and went, “damn, that one came out good.” I think it has legs going forward because it contextualized many cinemas and the history of the late 2010s. I’m fairly confident that film lovers will ultimately rediscover it.

Q.5 If you could tell your younger writing self anything, what would it be?
Unfortunately, I go right to a sore subject on that question due to a serious dilemma that I faced about two years into my writing career. It was a very complicated mess that progressively developed over the course of six months. With that said, bad things happen for good reasons, and horrible things happen for great reasons. This was in the horrible category. One of the many takeaways from this experience was my failure to trust my gut instinct. As life goes on, I’ve learned to trust my gut more than I did before because gut instinct is a great indicator of when you’re being cheated and/or lied to. That’s something I would have told my younger self.

One thing that was hammered into me in film school was that right after Clint Eastwood did the Spaghetti Westerns, he decided to self-manage his own career with his own studio and had a personal stake in nearly all the films he’s done since. Eastwood’s mindset was: if someone’s going to mess up my career, it might as well be me.

Q.6 How many books have you written? Which one is your favorite?
Officially three, but technically four. The first book was on Sam Mendes, but I don’t count it for several reasons. In fact, I was able to get nearly all the distributors to remove that first book from their website; one day, it’ll come out as it should have, but the reason I scrubbed it had to do with the shady publishers who released it.

So to date, there are three: The Films of Steven Spielberg (March 2018); Rev. William Netstraeter (October 2019), which I co-wrote with my brother; and the most recent being Make Hollywood Great Again (May 2020). Of the three, I would have to say Make Hollywood Great Again only because, again, it really “felt” satisfactory for what I intended it to be.

Q.7 What is something a reader can expect from your books?
History for sure-but history that can be comprehended. I’m a big Ron Chernow fan, and the reason is that when he writes about stories from a different era, you can just soak them up with relative ease. They’re relatable even though I was never a general in war (George Washington, Ulysses S. Grant) or a business tycoon (John D. Rockefeller). 

Furthermore, you’ll get true information from my books because I’m a stickler for historical accuracy. In doing a book about modern politics, where readers will bring their emotions and opinions into the book with them, I had to assess everything from both sides. That was the fun in breaking down Spike Lee’s views on Trump or Steven Spielberg’s relationship with Trump. At the same time, what have those filmmakers said about the various “talking points” that then related to the Trump era?

Q.8 Do you feel that your career in cinema helped you with your writing? And if so, how?
Yes,, for a trillion reasons. That in itself would be an essay-length answer, and even more so because most of what I write about is film-related. A significant portion of the film theory books are clearly written by people that have little-to-no experience on set, and it’s a little obvious if and when they get condescending.

I did a documentary on Fr. Netstraeter called Cathedral of the North Shore (2013), and what drew me to doing a formal biography on the guy was all the new history that came out over the years after we finished the film. Let’s go a step further: I’m working on a documentary right to collect a mountain of historical material. The executive producer asked me if there was a possibility of a small book that would release in tandem with the project. I was emphatically supportive of this idea because a book template is a great way to organize all the material. I won’t necessarily be the “author” of this book since it’ll pull from all the historians we’ve been talking with. Still, my experience in writing and book publishing correlates back to this documentary. Bottom line: when I said a trillion reasons, I mean it.

Q.9 Do you read your book reviews? How do you deal with good or bad ones?
Of course. I haven’t met anyone who doesn’t read their own book reviews.

I’ll tell you something about bad reviews that I heard from another author named Matthew Kelly, and he’s 100% right about this: he’ll get hundreds of compliments on any given title of his, but there’s always that one bad review that’ll criticize something or point out a flaw. So suddenly, those hundreds and hundreds of great reviews become irrelevant because it’s that one bad review that eats at your mind. So, therefore, it’s important to be grateful for all those good reviews.

I’ll add: I started doing live-streaming about six months ago and got some pretty humbling feedback from people watching the broadcasts. By my count, I’ve gotten five complaints-four of them. Those complaints were actually constructive because they pointed out flaws I wasn’t aware of. We addressed them, we corrected them, and our stuff got even better! But the one… One complaint was so utterly petty and useless that it indirectly told us what we were doing right. Of course, Live-streaming and books are two different entities, but the concepts of how feedback and reviews works are still applicable.

Q.10 What is your writing schedule while you’re working?
Oh wow! I’ve never had anyone phrase the question like that before because that’s a brutally honest way of addressing writing. Most of the time, that question comes as “What’s your writing style?” but let’s be realistic; 95% of all published authors have other jobs. Probably closer to 98% or 99%. In my case, most of the time, it’s done in the evening. I use to have a day off in the middle of the week that allowed me to do a significant amount of writing, but now I do a fair amount of it in the evenings. Of course, once in a blue moon, I’ll have something hit you in the middle of the day, and I’ll stop what I’m doing to write out a paragraph, but most of the time, it’s done in one solid chunk of time.

For Make Hollywood Great Again, the bulk of it was actually written when I wasn’t working the generic 9-to-5 because I had a career change. I started working at different hours, which allowed me more writing time during the day, becoming wildly more productive. I realize I need to carve out a day in my schedule to devote to them for future books.

Q.11 Where do you hope to take your writing in the future?
There’s a variety of different goals I have with it, but the two that are the most predominant is to have enough books out there that eventually, years down the road, I start making steady money off residuals. Not a lot, as I don’t expect to get rich off of them, but supplemental income is a nice thing. The other goal is that I would love to edit an interviews volume for the Conversations with Filmmakers Series. I was assistant editor on David Fincher: Interviews (August 2014), which was one of the most rewarding experiences ever, and I would love to do that again.

Q.12 Do you believe in writer’s block? If yes, how do you deal with it?
Do I believe in it? Yes. Is what I experience the same as someone else’s? Probably not.

I have two forms of “writer's block”- the first is that I have a concept that’s trapped in my head, but I can’t articulate it on paper, usually because I start fussing over sentence phrasing. Honestly, my go-to remedy for this is two or three shots of vodka. Sorry, I know that’s not the appropriate answer. However, it helps me stop fretting over minute details and loosens me to write a stream of consciousness. After that, the idea(s) pretty much fall out onto the page. Then the next morning, I go back and clean it up because… well, you know. Luckily it’s not something I do all the time and is not habitual.

The other form of “writer's block” is becoming disengaged. I mentioned the Ron Howard book I’m working on, which I inadvertently completed the entire rough draft for, by hand, in May 2018 when I was hired to do a lengthy article for a website. Transforming that into a book was a fascinating idea, but it takes a lot of work, and eventually, you just run out of steam. It takes being away from the manuscript a month or two to let the batteries recharge before you’re ready to hit it hard again.

Q.13 What makes your books stand out from the crowd?
I’d hope that my books stand out because they’re understandable. Film theory tends to be too academic, and I try to be a little more relatable in discussing complex ideas. For Rev. William Netstraeter, the biography needed to be read smoothly.

Q.14 What is your favorite book from other authors and why?
I’m going to have to give you quick answers on this because I could easily ramble: for Ron Chernow, it’s Grant because I really like U.S. Grant. For Jon Meacham, it’d have to be Destiny & Power. For fun, I’ll say, Donald Trump, who’s fantastic when it comes to those self-help books, even though he has a ghostwriter assist on those. Finally, Finally, I’d have to go with Think Big and Kick Ass as one that I enjoyed the most. Outside of that, I’m not too sure because I don’t follow authors per se. I don’t go out of my way to read every single book they’ve ever written.

In conjunction with that, although I said Chernow’s Grant, I didn’t mention all the other books about President Grant that I’ve read.

Q.15 How do your family/friends feel about your book or writing venture in general?
This will probably sound bad, but I don’t write for my family and friends. Now, with the one I’m ghostwriting with my best friend, that would totally be something I want my friends to read because I’m sure they’ll enjoy it.

Q.16 Is it vital to get exposure and target the right readers for your writing? Tell us about your marketing campaign?
Of course. The target audience will champion the book the most, and they’ll likely draw other readers. My marketing campaign always consists of emails, Facebook groups, interviews like this, mini book trailers, and getting the book available in as many formats as possible. I’m not an e-book reader, but I always make sure that my books are available on Kindle. My one regret about Make Hollywood Great Again is that there isn’t an audiobook version… yet. There will be at some point in the future, but audiobooks are a production unto themselves.

Q.17 What advice do you have for aspiring authors?
Find small-time publishers, ask them what they want, and deliver the goods. There are many more publishers out there than one might realize, and some are rather approachable. See what they’re looking for. Yes, everyone will tell you to write about what makes you happy because that will bring you the most joy, but you need to “give one to the man” or “do one for them” every once. The Films of Steven Spielberg started that way, and I don’t regret doing the book.

Q.18 Which famous person, living or dead, would you like to meet and why?
That’s going to be another essay-length answer.

For living, I would have to say, Ron Howard, which I know is a clique given that I’ve mentioned doing a book on him. However, unlike any of the other directors I’ve done books on, Howard is one whose authorship I know intricately very well. So I have a few poignant questions I would love to ask him, whereas getting to meet Spielberg or Fincher or Eastwood, as much as I love those guys, I wouldn’t feel as if I could have a really worthwhile conversation with them outside of being a fan.

Deceased, it would have to be either Adolf Hitler or Jesus of Nazareth. Jesus because… well, it’s Jesus. I have a theory that Jesus was so common that you would have difficulty picking him out of the crowd of two, meaning that there was nothing remarkable about him at-a-glance. Also, God in human form? What’s that encounter like? We know the stories, and you get the sense that these people really did come away with a sense of purpose interacting with this man. And Hitler because I’d be curious to see how charming evil can be face to face. We know he had outbursts, but I’m curious how gracious he was as a person. I’ve run into some pretty big scumbags in my time, and they disarm you because they have a gift of slickness. 

Another terrible clique answer would be Father Netstrater.

Q.19 Who designed your book covers?
I do. I fell into graphic design during my college years because I had a knack for it, and we had a situation in the office I worked in that we needed someone who could do it. Immediately. I was 19 or 20 at the time, and it was easier to get the kid some training and have him do it than scrambling to find someone. Graphic design became my bread and butter for over a decade, and I’m still doing it, albeit in different capacities. By no means am I an expert, and I’ve worked with others who are profoundly better at it than I am-but it came in handy when designing book covers.

Q.20 Share the experience of your journey so far?
Writing is something that I’ve always been comfortable with; doing papers and essays in school never frightened me- in fact, I always preferred it over multiple-choice tests. There was a lot of paper writing in college, which warmed me up to the idea of doing books, but writing books didn’t come until January 2016.

Mind you that the publishing company I worked with for two years ended up severely screwing me over, but that experience forced me to take the reigns of my own career. Again, the Eastwood theory of managing one’s own career. I’ve had some pretty heavy disappointments in film or technical glitches that were devastating, but I didn’t think that level of catastrophe would come from the publishing world, but it did. There’s a part of me that’s grateful for the hardships because it opened the door to so many other great possibilities with book publishing.

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