Nov 9th, 2020
In this episode, I welcome Alden Miller! Alden is a filmmaker and the founder and owner of Alchemy Film Company. He talks about his inspiration to go from sharing fiction to non-fiction stories, and about his passion for encouraging the next generation of filmmakers and artists.
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Episode 26 - Alden Miller
Lindsey Dinneen: Hello, and welcome to Artfully Told, where we share true stories about meaningful encounters with art.
[00:00:07] Krista: I think artists help people have different perspectives on every aspect of life.
[00:00:13] Roman: All I can do is put my part into the world.
[00:00:16] Elizabeth: It doesn't have to be perfect the first time. It doesn't have to be perfect ever really. I mean, as long as you, and you're enjoying doing it and you're trying your best, that can be good enough.
[00:00:23] Elna: Art is something that you can experience with your senses and that you just experience as so beautiful.
[00:00:31]Lindsey Dinneen: Hello, and welcome back to Artfully Told. My name is Lindsey, and I am so excited to have as my guest today, Alden Miller. He is the founder, owner, and filmmaker extraordinare behind Alchemy Film Company. And thank you, Alden, so much for being here today.
[00:00:53] Alden Miller: Thanks for having me.
[00:00:54] Lindsey Dinneen: Of course. Well, I would love to hear a little bit more about you, sort of how you got started and maybe just tell us a little bit about yourself, if you don't mind.
[00:01:05] Alden Miller: Sure. So Alden in a nutshell. I live here in Kansas City now, but I spent most of my time, I lived in Wisconsin and that's where I grew up. I went to school for film, and eventually after that, I had some internships in LA. So I did that for about a year or so. Life brought me back to the Midwest. And so I came back here, ended up getting a job for PBS. And, yeah, I was there for about 10 years and I said, "See you guys. I can do this on my own." And I left them to go do my own documentary type work.
[00:01:39] Lindsey Dinneen: That's very cool. And so what made you start to get interested in filmmaking in the first place? What prompted that?
[00:01:48] Alden Miller: So, well, definitely, well kind of, you know, I'm aging myself with this story, but so I went to the theater when I was senior, senior in high school. I think I ended up going to see a movie in the theater, ended up seeing it like seven times in the theater, which wasn't that common to do--maybe it's, I don't know if it's still common to do it all, but-- and I'm seeing it a bunch of times just because it kind of blew my mind of what, how it was presented. And so, I mean, the movie was "Pulp Fiction." And so, as a teenage boy, of course, you know, I love the guns and the violence and all that stuff, but the non-linear storytelling was the thing that kind of blew my mind. and so then I was like, "Oh my God, like, you can do that?" And so I really liked that, you know, in the future, I find out that he stole that from Japanese storytelling and they did it all the time. But, that was very cool. And so that did that. I kind of switched gears completely because I was a complete science nerd, and I just decided to do that. I was still going to school kind of doing the science-y thing, but halfway through freshman year of college, I just said, "Yep. You know what? I'm just going to go do movie stuff."
[00:02:56]Lindsey Dinneen: Wow. So some of these internships that you had in LA, were they for more of feature-film type movies, or were they--how, how did you switch to documentary making from, you know, your initial interest?
[00:03:14] Alden Miller: Yeah. So when I started film school, I, you know, I went in like every other person that goes into film school, 'cause I'm going to be the next Spielberg, right? So that's what everyone else wants to do. Or maybe, you know, who's that guy-- the guy who did the Batman movies, maybe Chris Nolan is the, is the popular guy. But, so I went in to do that kind of thing, was still kind of into the feature and the narrative type storytelling. And when I left, when I ended up coming back to PBS or fast forward to PBS, documentaries were more on my radar, obviously, because they do a lot of documentary work. And so I was learning like the ins and outs of it. Still doing short films of like, a narrative scripted nature. And then when I kind of went out on my own, I was meeting people that were doing amazing things, and stories that needed to be told that no one knew about. And, you know, it was kinda funny that these people are out doing things, and their stories were much better than the stories that I was making up, or my friends were making up, that we were telling. And so I'm like, these stories need to be told. The world doesn't need another zombie movie. You know, they should learn about this guy that was finding water in Africa with the use of an iPad that had no wifi. That's pretty amazing. Those kinds of stories kind of stuck with me, and I felt that was a little more valuable with my time.
[00:04:39] Lindsey Dinneen: I love that. Yeah. And so your work with PBS sounded like it kind of helped launch your own company eventually, or, you know, a little bit was the inspiration or led into it. But when you stepped out on your own, what was that like? I mean, that's a, that's a huge step forward.
[00:05:01] Alden Miller: Yeah, it was. Well, the funny thing is, is that I just had a kid and I was like, "Hey, we have new baby. Well, you know what I should do, I should probably quit my job and start a new thing." To do something silly like that. But when I did it, I was kind of, you know, doing it, I was planning things out. 'Cause I, since I've moved to Kansas City, I was been there for, you know, eight, 10 years or so. You know, I've, I found my own networks of my own connections and stuff like that. I had three different kind of production houses or whatever kinda just told me like, "Hey, you know, if you, if ever need more freelance work or whatever, like I got your back, like I will send you work." And I know I have to take that with a grain of salt, but I had three or four different companies telling me that I'm like, "You know what, now's the time. Like if one isn't doing it, like then maybe the others will do it." I will have work for me. That first year when I went on my own, no one ever called me. That was a good time. Yeah. So, I just leave it kind of like a little bit of a, a word of warning, but not to scare people away from doing what they want to do.
[00:06:07] Lindsey Dinneen: Yes, it's yes, stepping out on your own, especially if you feel like there's a lot of support upfront, sometimes doesn't pan out quite in the way that you think that it will. So, but, but then you meet other people and you have other clients that become attracted to you and all that. So it works out. Yeah. But yeah. So now, okay, so you've had your own company for now how many years?
[00:06:33] Alden Miller: She's over five. Okay. All right. So just say how old my daughter is. So there you go.
[00:06:43] Lindsey Dinneen: Easy to remember. Okay, so seven years. So when did you start feeling like, "Oh, yeah. Yeah. I can definitely do this." I mean, obviously you can do the work. I don't mean it like that, but being out on your own and developing your company in addition to doing your work, which is a whole other thing.
[00:07:00] Alden Miller: Yeah. I think in year 10, I'm going to be coming into my own there.
[00:07:04]Lindsey Dinneen: Fair enough.
[00:07:05] Alden Miller: I mean, a couple of years, like every, I mean, every year it gets bigger and better. So first year and the first year was like, wasn't even like an official year. Like I went on my own, like in May or June. And I kind of considered up to December that first year. So like the first year was, pretty much sucked. The second year was, got a little bit better and just, you know, step-by-step just getting better, making less mistakes is really the key. Because I made pretty much every mistake you could as a small business and, yeah. Yeah. It's much more about the business than it is about the art when you're doing these kind of things. And that's what they never tell you.
[00:07:41] Lindsey Dinneen: That is so true. That is so true. Yes, indeed. So, but back to your art, what are some of the moments that really stand out to you, or stories that you've been able to tell that really stand out to you as like, "Wow, I'm so glad I got to be a part of that."
[00:08:01] Alden Miller: You know, it's tough because I don't-- nothing jumps ahead of me like this, this particular story here. You know, when I worked with PBS, I guess one of the climax of the PBS was, we did a story on World War II veterans in Missouri. So we went and interviewed all the living World War II vets that lived in Missouri and told their stories. So it could have been a Marine that was, stormed Ujima. It could have been a Rosie Riveter. It could have been, you know, someone in the Navy, you know, and just kind of put all those stories together and made one documentary. So that was very cool. And that probably was one of those things that really cemented or got my eyes on documentary work. Just seeing those stories and kind of put that on the radar. As far as my own, own things, like nothing specifically jumps out. I just really like telling the next story. You know, one of the things--like I am a filmmaker, but really I'm a storyteller. Film is just the avenue that I choose to tell stories, because it's the best way to, in my mind, the best way to get the story told. But I mean, if all cameras broke, like magically broke one day, I would be the first to run around with some crayons and start drawing things. I really don't care what medium it is, but you know, story or video is just what is obviously out there. So that's what I'm using.
[00:09:19] Lindsey Dinneen: Yeah, absolutely. Well, and so we've been using the term "documentary" a lot, but when you do your filmmaking, how long are these average films that you're doing? I mean, are you doing full length documentaries mostly or are they smaller kinds of works or both or?
[00:09:40]Alden Miller: So what I'm doing, what I'm playing with a lot now is more series-based. So, running time-wise, it might be a hundred minutes or beyond, but it's in smaller chunks. So maybe like five minute episodes, or 15 or 20 minute episodes of something that, you know, is a 13 part series. And so you get to tell--like, it's almost like your own little TV series where you get to have the middle, the beginning, the middle, the end, which I find is really cool. I think the series and the shorter form is the way to go.
[00:10:13] Lindsey Dinneen: Yeah. Very cool.
[00:10:15] Alden Miller: I mean, assuming that you want eyeballs on your stories, so, you know.
[00:10:20] Lindsey Dinneen: Right. And so now, who is your typical client? Is it a business? Is it an individual? Is it an artist? What do you normally see?
[00:10:30] Alden Miller: I'm attracted to kind of inspiring stories and stories that I feel are going to change the world, or need to be told. And a lot of those people tend to be startups, and/or nonprofits. And so those are a lot of my clients. I do have some other mainstream clients, you know, because, you know, you need to pay bills, but the ones I'm really, you know, get excited about are kind of the really, in my mind, the cool stories that I feel need to be told.
[00:11:02] Lindsey Dinneen: Yeah, absolutely. Well, you talked about storytelling earlier and I absolutely agree. I think you have a very particular knack for that--but then it's great because you have all the skills needed to put that into a film--but back to the storytelling aspect, I heard you speak one time about the power for a business, the power in storytelling. Do you mind sharing a little bit more about that?
[00:11:29] Alden Miller: Sure. One thing. So one of the, what I was talking about then was, well, the importance of telling the, telling your story on your terms. You know, you're being the steward of your own storytelling instead of letting others talk about you, kind of like a word-of-mouth thing. Like people talk about word-of-mouth being very positive things. Especially in business, like, that's my marketing, my word-of-mouth. Like everyone's talking about me! But it, as long as they're talking about you the way that you want them to be talking about you, you basically have to tell people how to broadcast you out there. And so, you know, for example, like if, if there was a restaurant where, you know, you're telling--Person A is telling Person B like, "Hey, I went to this restaurant last night. It was awesome. It's crazy! Like, the servers, the cooks and stuff like that, they're all like ex-felons or ex-convicts like, they're just outa, they're just outa jail. And then like, you know, they serve your food, you give them their credit card and like run away and come back."
[00:12:22] Like, you know, I don't know if Person B is going to be very excited to go to that restaurant. They're like, " Who's my server?" Because they had that image in their head. Now, if you explain it in a different way and you kind of show what's going on, you tell their stories of like what was going on in their situations, of more of the story behind who these people are, and get their whys and things like that. It's, it becomes a very inspiring story and you learn about the purpose of the entire cafe and why it was there and stuff like that. And so that gets people excited. And then they'll probably end up checking that out as a restaurant, for example.
[00:12:59] Lindsey Dinneen: Right. Absolutely. And it's, and then when you're controlling that narrative, you're able to talk about the redemptive qualities and share the purpose and the mission and why it's so important. So, yeah, that makes a lot of sense. That's really cool. Well, do you have any particular projects coming up that you're really excited about, and I'm sure you can't go super far into the nitty gritty details, but anything in particular, that's really exciting you these days?
[00:13:26] Alden Miller: Well, I'm wrapping up a big one, which I'm pretty excited about, and I'm also equally excited to be wrapping it up just 'cause I'm ready to go do something else. I'm kind of in my own little flux period myself. And so my own storytelling and branding and stuff like that is going to be changing a little bit. And so, you know, hopefully, hopefully that's, that's done. And it's a very exciting thing. Like just thinking about those kinds of things kind of excites me, because I'm kind of a nitpicker type thing. And so I'll just, you know, sit there and tweak things 'til the end of time, so that part of the business part, it's kind of exciting going on. The art stuff, as far as different projects, there's a couple of things on the horizon because of the day and age of where we are as a nation now, it's kind of transformed my business. And so just different ways to tell stories is kind of the, is the challenge and the excitement now.
[00:14:18]Lindsey Dinneen: Absolutely. Yeah. It really, definitely having to adapt to the times, that's been a running theme amongst all the artists that I've been talking to lately for sure. Yeah. Well, so I'm curious, and I'm sure you've dealt with this before in the past, but you know, traditionally or historically, the Midwest hasn't exactly been known for a lot of filmmaking opportunities or at least not the place that you would venture to for it. So how, how has that changed over time and what do you see as being a good thing about being here versus say in LA?
[00:14:57] Alden Miller: So, yeah. So the thing about, the good thing about being here or being in the desert or being in the mountains in Montana or something like that, is that the stories that you live through day in and day out, that you feel are boring, are stories that LA can't tell. And so if you are an aspiring filmmaker, for example, or something that you want to, you know, you want to go do the film school thing and go do your thing and get your stories told, the best thing to do is just to go out your front door and start. Turn on your camera and start telling the stories, because your unique point of view is what is going to sell you. And your stories, because everyone is telling the same exact story in Hollywood. You know, there's only like five narratives going on and they're just being told over and over and over. And everyone, everyone knows that. And at the same time, everyone loves those five stories. So every time that story sells, I'm going to go to the theater, just like everybody else. But, to get out there, you have to be unique. And the easiest way to be unique is to show where you live.
[00:15:59]Lindsey Dinneen: Yeah, I love that. With that, I feel like something that I've observed about your work in particular and kind of who you are as a person, it seems like you do a lot of mentoring-- maybe not formally, sometimes formally--it seems like you bring interns in, and help them learn to sort a lot of on the job training and things. But can you speak to that aspect of what you enjoy or why that's important to you?
[00:16:25] Alden Miller: Yeah. it just feels like it's important to keep the knowledge flowing sort of thing. There's some people that talk about it is your, it is your duty to, like, send the elevator back down sort of thing. Like if you, after you've made it, you send other people down. I, by no means I'm thinking I've made it, but I do like seeing that we're fanning the flames of people being interested in any kind of creative endeavors is probably the best way to describe it. I used to try to fan the flames or throw gasoline on places where I thought there was fire and it doesn't work out very well. I'm taking a little bit of a step back waiting for more initiative to be happened on the other side. But, yeah, mentoring is important, I believe it helps, it makes you be a better artist as well, just so you understand the concepts and things. I find enjoyment in teaching things. And I, I guess I'm pretty decent at it, so I like to do it.
[00:17:21] Lindsey Dinneen: Yeah, absolutely. And then, so sort of along with that, what kind of organizations are you personally involved in that kind of help your creative side come out and also maybe sort of share and, inspire others as well?
[00:17:39] Alden Miller: Yep. So, here in Kansas City, there's a number of different groups that help filmmakers out there. I'm on the board of a couple of them. I currently happen to be the President of the Independent Filmmakers Coalition here in Kansas City. It is a 25-plus-year old organization that's been out there, and making films and showing people how to make films for a while. And it's a good place for a lot of people that come in. There's basically two types of people that come in. There was the person that, they're finding it in their twenties or thirties, and it's a nice artistic outlet for them. And they don't want to, they're not really interested in making filmmaking their vocation. They just want to do it for fun. There's also the younger people that come in, like they happen to find out about it. And they're about to go to film school or they're deciding if they want to go to film school. And so they're trying this out and getting some stuff under their belt before they go off to another school. And then there's some people that are just, they're just to connect with other filmmakers and that's where a lot of the mentoring takes place, I guess, just showing people the ropes. I talked to a lot of people's parents about whether Billy should go to film school or not.
[00:18:50] Lindsey Dinneen: And one of the things that I personally have really admired about that organization is that you all are very collaborative in nature. And I think that that's really, that speaks to the strength of the organization and the people who are involved--but one particular aspect that I really like, in fact, it's how we first met is through-- and you had a great name for it--but basically artists would meet filmmakers. Obviously we're all artists, but different kinds of artists would meet filmmakers and those stories would be told at the Kansas City Fringe Festival. Can you share more about that whole process?
[00:19:32] Alden Miller: Sure, so, and ironically, it just kind of like 90% of those stories are documentary. So it's kind of funny that, you know, those are another one of those things that, telling stories about other artists in the area, whether you're a painter or a sculptor or a dancer or tattoo artists, you know, whatever kind of artistic things that are going on. It's just, it's just good to see other arts being displayed, I guess. And a lot of times those people don't have access to get their story told in that venue or that type of media. And so doing that is just, it's kind of a fun, it's just a fun, little collaborative thing for all the different artists in Kansas City to all work together.
[00:20:12] Lindsey Dinneen: Yeah. It's a really neat opportunity. And I hope in the future that it will continue when things get back to slightly normal, because it is really interesting. And I, one of the things I've always appreciated about the Fringe Festival in particular is how artists are supporting each other across mediums. And there's, there's not like a, "Oh, you're, you're a filmmaker and I'm a visual artist." Or, you know, that doesn't exist. And I think that's really cool about how supportive artists are of each other. Okay, so when you are talking to, let's say a parent, maybe their teen is there too, and you're in, you're trying to give some advice. What do you think is the most important thing to share with them when it comes to--like, what would you tell me if I wanted to maybe pursue this?
[00:21:02] Alden Miller: So the, my biggest thing that I talk about now is that everyone--and this is, you know, I'm sure you've heard this-- this story or this phrase before is that, you know, everyone has a camera in their pocket now. And so there is no excuse. If you want to go tell a story and you wanted to go make a video, like there is nothing holding you back. You know, when I started, I was running around with a film camera-- well, first I was running around with like one of those VCR shoulder-pack things. I went to school, ended up running around with a 16 millimeter camera and you're literally cutting film to piece it together to make your edits. And now we're talking about shooting stuff on your phone with an app and it's done in a minute. There's really no excuse. And so, which is good because you're taking away all the barriers, all the technical barriers. So people can go straight to creativity, and that's pretty much what technology is going to help us do in the future here, is going to make it more and more seamless for us. So we can be telling stories in a much faster and more organic way.
[00:22:04] Lindsey Dinneen: Yeah, absolutely. Awesome. Well, I do have a few questions that I always like to ask my guests if you're okay with that.
[00:22:11] Alden Miller: Mhmm.
[00:22:12] Lindsey Dinneen: Cool. Okay. So the first one is how do you personally define art or what is art to you?
[00:22:18]Alden Miller: Art is presenting whatever is in your head out to the world. It's like your mind's eye just kind of like showing it, you know, "Hey, this is what I'm thinking about, or this is what I'm feeling or showing."
[00:22:31] Lindsey Dinneen: Yeah, absolutely. Okay. And what do you think is the most important role of an artist?
[00:22:38] Alden Miller: The showing or expression of the art, because it does no good for it to be in your head, in your head alone.
[00:22:46]Lindsey Dinneen: Yeah, absolutely. And then I'll define my terms a little bit for my final question, but do you think that art should be inclusive or exclusive? And by inclusive, I'm referring to an artist who puts something out there and they have a little bit of context behind it, whether it's a title or program notes or something, versus exclusive, meaning the artists just puts their work out into the world and then doesn't necessarily put any context behind it. So it's completely up to the viewer what to interpret.
[00:23:21]Alden Miller: So I believe that, from a film point of view, once the filmmaker is put the film out there-- you know, they've told them, they've written their story, they've shot their story, they've edited the story, they've done everything they can possibly do to get the story told in their mind-- and so it's out to the public and it is what it is. And you know, the public can take it for whatever it is, I believe, and they can interpret how they want, and whether that's right or wrong, like, I think the artist really just need to shut up and just let people think what they want to think about a certain thing. And if they don't like the way it has been interpreted, well, better get better next time.
[00:23:58] Lindsey Dinneen: About communicating exactly what you want to communicate essentially. Yeah. Okay. Fair enough. All right. Well, is there a way for people who went to follow your work or, you know, see some of what you've done, is there a way for them to connect with you right now?
[00:24:16] Alden Miller: I think Instagram's probably the easiest way to get ahold of me, and that is @kcfilmmaker and @ @alchemyfilmco is the web address for that.
[00:24:26] Lindsey Dinneen: Perfect. Awesome. Well, thank you again so much for being here today. All I really appreciate it. It was fun to hear your journey and how it's kind of morphed and changed over time. And I appreciate you sharing your perspective. So thank you again. I really appreciate it.
[00:24:44] Alden Miller: No problem, I hope, I hope it was entertaining.
[00:24:47] Lindsey Dinneen: Very. All right. Well, and thank you to everyone who has listened to this episode. And if you're feeling as inspired as I am, I would love if you would share it with a friend or two and we will catch you next time.
[00:25:02] If you have a story to share with us, we would love that so much. And I hope your day has been Artfully Told.
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