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The Filmmaker Four: Matthew Penn

By May 11, 2022May 2nd, 2024No Comments

Matthew Penn most recently directed Glenn Close in the Public Theater’s production of Mother of the Maid. Penn is an Emmy nominated director who has directed and/or produced over 200 hour-long dramatic television shows. Penn’s credits include some of TV’s most iconic dramas: Law and Order, The Sopranos, NYPD Blue, and Orange is the New Black. Other credits include The Mist, Queen of the South (Co-Executive producer/director) Blue Bloods, Damages, Royal Pains, Secrets and Lies. Penn began his television career at Law and Order where he earned an Emmy nomination for his direction of the episode “Empire” starring Julia Roberts. Penn became the show’s Executive Producer. He began his career directing in the theater in New York. His theater credits include: The Root produced by Daryl Roth The Beauty Queen of Leenane, Vanya and Sonya and Masha and Spike and Mother of the Maid by Jane Anderson at New York’s Public Theater, Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All For You, and The Actor’s Nightmare.

His film, The Sweet Taste of Freedom, is part of BIFF 2022.

What was your first experience on a film set?

My first experience on a set was on a film entitled ‘The Chase.’ Being on a set, even for a little kid was a funny combination of arduous and magical at the same time. If a ‘film’ set can also include a dramatic television show then the first time I directed was on ‘Law and Order.’ As I drove to the set in the morning I passed camper after camper and what seemed like an endless line of equipment trucks. It looked like a small army. It was overwhelming. When I got out of the car and walked onto the set I was sure of only one thing….that they had absolutely picked the wrong guy to direct!…the actors arrived and we rehearsed the scene. The crew then lit the set. When the actors returned from make-up I heard the AD say “Roll sound”, a sound mixer yelled “Speed!”, I saw the camera assistant flip a switch and I heard the camera whir on. The camera operator waved to another assistant holding a slate who said “Scene 9 take 1, mark!” and they clapped the slate. I said “action” and it all began….and I felt right at home.

What was the first film you directed/wrote?

I directed a short film called ‘Fighting Light’ years ago. It was based on a play I directed on the lower east side of NY in a theater no one had ever heard of, in a neighborhood so far into alphabet city it seemed they had run out of letters. The play got a good review and a woman who was a producer felt the story could be a film. She put up a little money for us to shoot a sequence from the play on the docks overlooking the Hudson River. We shot in bitterly cold weather for three days with a tiny crew. I tried to get somebody, anybody to look at the film but agents and producers and managers all had a reason they couldn’t /wouldn’t watch it. The executive producer at Law and Order at the time was a man named Ed Sherin. Ed had a wonderful career as a television and notable theater director. He was intrigued that I had directed the play and the short film and he agreed to take a look. He was impressed and offered me an opportunity to direct on the show.

Who is your favorite filmmaker?

I am biased. My dad was a filmmaker. I love him. So I would have to put him at the top of the list. 🙂 But putting aside family allegiance I would say Billy Wilder, Charlie Chaplin, Howard Hawkes and Steven Spielberg are all pretty tough to beat. They all find something small (or big) and inherently human in every scene they direct.

What are you working on that no one knows about?

I always have 4 or 5 projects that I am developing at the same time. There is a screenplay I love entitled ‘The Huntsman’ about a hit man who spares a life and in so doing ruins his own. It is a film I conceived of with the express purpose of shooting it in the Berkshires. I am also developing the story of a passenger flight that was diverted ‘the wrong way around the world’ on the day after Pearl Harbor. I always have a number of scripts in development. All films require a confluence of timing, talent and money.