Calgary, Alberta (CinemaSpy) – When he was born in 1961, John Putch had show business in his blood. His mother was Emmy- and Golden Globe-winner Jean Stapleton (All in the Family), whose acting career spanned over 50 years. Stapleton was married to producer and director William H. Putch. Together, they ran a summer stock company called The Totem Pole Playhouse. It was there, at the age of five, that John got his first chance to act.
“There was really nothing else to do there,” he told CinemaSpy. “At an early age both my sister and me were thrust on stage to the point where we said, ‘Hey, Dad, can we be in the plays’ and he’d put us in the chorus and stuff.”
As they got older, Putch and his sister Pamela (also now a professional actress) also got involved behind the scenes, Putch said. She would do stage managing and lights and he would park cars and run the follow spot for musicals. John also started to dabble in film directing, something else for which he affectionately blames his father.
“He gave me a [Super 8] movie camera when I was a young boy,” said Putch. “When we were children he would make home movies and star us in them, and make little scenarios. We could get to play the monsters or the vampires or whatever it was, and he would make the films and then edit them for us. Then we’d watch them together. It was a very exciting thing for us.”
Although John got hooked on directing, it was a professional acting career that he considered pursuing when he was in junior high. That approach was mostly a means to an end, however.
“When I applied for college, I was applying to a film school, USC, but they were full,” said Putch. “So I said ‘Alright I’ll go in as an actor and transfer over to film school when I get there.’ … But I couldn’t. I couldn’t get in. They were full, full, full. So I finally just bailed on college and went out into the workforce and I worked quite a bit in the ‘80s as an actor.”
Putch recalled that his first acting credit came in 1966 in a production of the musical "Showboat". His first appearance on television was as a boy scout alongside his mother in All in the Family. That series was created by sitcom specialist Norman Lear. Another sitcom that Lear worked on in the 1970s was One Day at a Time, starring Bonnie Franklin, Mackenzie Phillips and Valerie Bertinelli. One of the recurring roles on One Day at a Time was given to John Putch. It is the part for which he is probably best known, he said.
“[The show] was about a divorced mom raising two teenage girls,” said Putch. “It was on for eight years and I was on it for over six seasons, off-and-on as a character called Bob. He was a very popular character, and if people remember me, they remember me for that.”
In his acting career, Putch has also appeared in several other popular television series, including Fame, The Fall Guy, Family Ties and Hill Street Blues. In 1991 he played a supporting role in an episode of Seinfeld called "The Stranded". His character, a party guest, “was boring Jerry to tears on the couch,” he said. His credits also include being cast as a member of the Benzite race in an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation called "Coming of Age".
“I was always a Star Trek fan,” Putch said. “When I got to work on the show it was really fun. I was an alien-of-the-week. Big make-up deal. Michael Westmore made a giant head for me and it was fun. I became a trading card and an action figure.”
Despite playing a collectable character, Putch was unrecognizable beneath his make-up. The role did provide other benefits, however. These included a call-back from the Next Generation producers for the episode "A Matter of Honor".
“I got to do two episodes where I played the same species but I was different characters,” Putch said. “I was all very impressed by that. I thought, ‘Ah, they love me, they love me.’ What they really loved was that it was me, because they’d spent all that money on making that blue head and it was form fitted to me … I don’t fault them for that. I would have done the same thing, but it’s funny how you are naive about these things when you’re just an actor.”
When Jean Luc Picard’s crew made the transition to the big screen in Star Trek: Generations, Putch was called back again. This time he appeared briefly as a reporter covering James T. Kirk’s last appearance on the bridge of the starship Enterprise.
“It was the same casting director, Junie Lowry, who’s been a friend for years,” Putch said. “If you work enough for the same casting directors, they call you over and over again. She was casting the movie and she called a lot of people in who did the series and asked for favours for these small parts. It was pretty funny. I’m on the bridge with William Shatner. I’ve got so many good stories. Funny stuff. Someday I’ll write a book.”
Star Trek: Generations wasn’t Putch’s first theatrical role. Nor was it his first opportunity to be part of a major film franchise. His feature film debut came in 1983 in Jaws 3D. Putch played Sean Brody, the son of Roy Scheider’s character from the previous Jaws films. As a major studio release, Jaws 3D was a big deal, Putch said. That’s not the only reason why he is pleased to have it in his portfolio, though.
“That was one of the worst movies ever made,” Putch said. “It’s so much fun to see it … I’m proud of it, by the way, being in one of the worst movies ever made. We all thought, ‘This is it, our luck’s going to change now.’ Boy, it sure didn’t … Some people argue that 4 [Jaws: The Revenge] was even worse, but I really don’t think it is. Jaws 3 was the worst. I was hoping the 3D would enhance my performance, but it didn’t.”
While working as an actor, Putch continued to develop his directing skills. He really began to learn the mechanics of filmmaking after making the transition from 8 mm to 16 mm film, he said. That made it more expensive, however.
“I used my acting earnings to support my filmmaking habit,” said Putch. “About the mid-‘80s I was really hoping it would turn and I would be able to get directing work in the same business I was an actor. It took me about 10 years to break in for my first big job. I found it to be not as easy as for some people, but I finally got in there and started working and, when I was able to, I stopped acting … That happened in the mid-90s.”
As a director, Putch’s credits include relatively high budget productions, such as a miniseries remake of The Poseidon Adventure (2005), the Hallmark Channel movies A Time to Remember, Where There’s a Will and M
urder 101, and episodes of the series Scrubs. It is his independent films that seem to satisfy him most, however. His best known indie film is probably Valerie Flake, which premiered at the 1999 Sundance Film Festival and was nominated for an Independent Spirit Award. Other films he has directed include the documentary This is My Father, about William Putch’s work with The Totem Pole Playhouse, the comedy Bachelorman and the dogma-style digital drama Mojave Phone Booth.
With Mojave Phone Booth, Putch wanted to prove a point. In a director’s statement he explained that he wanted to make a movie using a different set of rules from those typically used in Hollywood.
“Mojave Phone Booth is a rebellion against the Hollywood philosophy and all the bloat it stands for,” he said in the statement. “I believe that a compelling story can be told without it costing an arm and leg and I opine that most films have lost touch with the grass roots of that idea.”
Putch set the budget for Mojave Phone Booth at $ 38,469.49 and insisted that all of his cast and crew muck in to get the film made. He also wanted to work on a project that gave him creative freedom.
“When you make a film or direct a television show here in the business, it’s just what most people see,” said Putch. “No one really knows what the director does. The director is not really the author of the movie, and I think there’s a problem with that. What you’re doing is that you are just sort of a hired hand who has to take everybody’s viewpoint, everybody’s needs and wants … Most of them want you to do it their way, or the way they saw it when they read it.”
Putch emphasized that not everyone in a position of power in Hollywood is dismissive of directors’ opinions. In general, however, he feels that directors of commercial film and television are often required to surrender their vision. That is one reason why he likes to make movies on his own.
“I came from the theatre and the director of the play was the one with the script,” he said. “That was it … So naturally that’s how I thought it was for films. When I found out it wasn’t, I had to change my thinking and become a different kind of person if I was hired to direct. [With Mojave Phone Booth] I wanted to make a movie again not unlike the times when I made my own films with my own money.”
The experience of making Mojave Phone Booth was so satisfying for Putch that he used the same approach for his latest independent movie, Route 30. Indeed, one of his ambitions with Route 30 has been to be even more minimalist.
“I am going to try to use less equipment and tweak it a bit from what I learned in the last round,” he said.
Like Mojave Phone Booth, Route 30 has an ensemble cast and tells a set of interconnected stories. In Mojave Phone Booth those stories were linked to a now-dismantled booth in the Mojave Desert; in Route 30 they take place in woods in south-central Pennsylvania, near to where John Putch grew up.
Behind the scenes the cast and crew of Route 30 formed a collective within which the work, and the film’s proceeds, could be shared. That was another commitment that Putch carried forward from Mojave Phone Booth. The cast of Route 30 includes David DeLuise, Christine Elise McCarthy, Kevin Rahm, Robert Romanus and Lee Wilkof. All had worked on Mojave Phone Booth. Maintaining such connections is particularly important to Putch.
“There’s a certain kind of personality that you want to have there,” said Putch. “These are the people that are really confident with themselves, what they do, and they’re not concerned with the trappings. I’m a good identifier of this kind of personality and every cast member in Mojave I had used before in other films … I don’t even know if it would work trying to do it with new people, and frankly I don’t want to do it with new people. I loved working with every one of those people and I’d like to work with them again and I’d like to share a new experience together of our own.”
Since Putch entered Valerie Flake in the Sundance Film Festival, the independent film scene has changed dramatically. Sundance, itself, has grown substantially and hits from that festival have achieved mainstream success. Mojave Phone Booth has won awards at numerous other independent film festivals, but Putch has been unable to get it screened at Sundance. He is not surprised, however.
“They get thousands of submissions,” said Putch. “How on earth do they even whittle those down. It’s huge, just to get it down to 200 movies … To get into that festival now would be a miracle. Like [Sundance] and Cannes and the other big, big ones, there’s hardly any movies that show there that you haven’t heard of, and if there are, they’re documentaries … Mostly, when people say, ‘Hey, we’re going to Sundance,’ everybody rolls their eyes because it’s an exhausting experience, whereas 10 years ago everybody was excited to go.”
As it has increased in size, Sundance has come under criticism for becoming too commercial. Putch agrees with that view.
“Oh my God, yes,” Putch said. “Absolutely. Even Robert Redford is annoyed with it … Like anything – like governments, like companies, like corporations – when they expand and become large and popular, with that comes the undeniable commerce factor. It becomes a very large money making machine, and I don’t think Sundance is an exception to that. It’s an entity that’s now very, very popular.”
Although Sundance may be inaccessible to many independent filmmakers, they can do what Putch has done and screen their films at smaller festivals. The promotional opportunities these provide have increased, not least because of the Internet. It has been a great innovation for the indie film scene, Putch said.
“Do you know how hard it used to be to get a review when you weren’t known,” said Putch. “It was really tough to get a critic to come review your movie. Now there are Internet journalists. It’s wonderful. … Just pony up and make your website and then start sticking your movie in film festivals. Every film festival now has an online presence … So for every festival you’re in, you might appear on three or four webpages … If people search now, your movie’s going to have multiple hits, which it wasn’t before.”
Recent years have also seen a proliferation in the number of websites dedicated to movies. These can play an important role in maintaining a healthy independent film scene if they are willing to look beyond the mainstream, Putch said.
“Somebody has to be interested in the films,” said Putch. “Most retail entities are looking for something that a reader will pick up and read. That’s usually celebrity driven. So, the editor or somebody needs to be okay with exploring films that nobody’s heard of
… We can only hope that’ll continue. If it doesn’t, independent films are pushed off into what I call Indiewood, which are the entities like IFP … If you pick a movie that no-one knows or could see at a festival that has a smaller profile, it could be incredibly interesting. And I think people want to read about it.”
Click here to visit John Putch’s official site.