How One Sri Lankan Filmmaker Got Tips from Hollywood Masters

Akash Sunethkumara was homebound during the pandemic and figured his idols were too. He decided to reach out for answers to his biggest questions.

This past year has seen an abundance of remote webinars and online content, but none so unlikely and prolific as Junkyard Theory’s filmmaking series.

Founded by Sri Lankan filmmaker Akash Sunethkumara, it’s a testament to tenacity, determination, and six degrees of separation. Everybody is out looking for their pandemic silver lining, and for Sunethkumara, it was about getting in touch with similarly homebound film masters and getting them to share their craft.

We spoke with Sunethkumara about how he accomplished this.

No Film School: How did the idea of doing a webinar series start?

Akash and sound editor Don Sylvester showing off his Academy Award for 'Ford v Ferrari' on the Instagram livestream.

Akash Sunethkumara: The pandemic hit Sri Lanka mid-late March last year, sending us into curfews and lockdowns. I began wondering if there was anything positive and worthwhile I could do by using livestreaming. I thought, why not start a filmmaking livestream that could potentially host people who actually worked in Hollywood but were probably stuck in their homes like we were? I knew nothing of the kind had been done in Sri Lanka before. 

I needed a starting point so I reached out to my mentor from my MA program, David Worth, who had worked with Clint Eastwood as his cinematographer in two movies. He immediately agreed to come on board. I also contacted my friend Whitney Donald who had worked as a production designer/researcher on Godzilla: King of the Monsters (2019).

I hosted David and Whitney for the first two episodes, but I wanted to book more guests. So every night I sent cold messages to countless film personnel asking if they’d be willing to join a livestream to discuss their craft. I started this first as a masterclass for myself as much as it was for the viewer. If you’re curious about filmmaking, you can relate to me and enjoy it as much as I do.

NFS: What were the challenges in reaching your subjects?

Sunethkumara: There was no guarantee that any of the people I had messaged would reply. For every reply I got, I think I must have sent out north of 50 messages. Paul Hirsch, editor of Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope (1977), was the first to connect with me from all the people I had messaged. He agreed to go live in order to talk about his new book.

Another obstacle I faced was dealing with PR personnel while trying to book some of my guests. It would usually take a large number of messages before I managed to lock down a date and even then, some guests would not be available till right before the live session was due to begin.

Most of the guests that I wanted to book were the ones who had worked on movies I grew up watching as a kid. One man I really wanted on the show was Dean Cundey, DP on Jurassic Park (1993) and the Back to the Future trilogy. While I managed to get in touch with him, his schedule was so busy that it took me nearly three months of exchanging messages with his wife in order to book a session with him.

Getting Fabian Wagner (DP, The Snyder Cut) on the show took around four months of exchanging messages in order to figure out a convenient time. Also, working around different time zones is difficult because it might be daytime for me but past midnight for the guest and it also affects the viewer count for a live session, so striking that balance was a challenge.

Some interviews had to be pre-recorded on Zoom to deal with the time difference.
NFS: What was your pitch to get them to agree?

Sunethkumara: I reached out greeting them and hoping that they were safe amidst the pandemic. I introduced myself and told them a little bit about the why of the whole project. I said that I recently started a live series with guests from Hollywood and that this was being catered to the upcoming filmmakers in Sri Lanka. Essentially, I made it clear that I would love to talk to them about their job. Crew who work below the line are the unsung heroes of any film, and I guess giving them a platform to talk about what they do and share their knowledge was appealing. Everyone I’ve hosted has been very humble and very willing to share their experiences.

NFS: What are the highlights of things you’ve learned from these masters?

Sunethkumara: Despite how technical some fields can be, they all start off with the story. Whatever department my guests work in, they all refer to the story and how best to complement or add to the characters and the world in which they reside. Be it costuming, cinematography, or production design, everyone starts off with the story.

And more importantly, every master approaches every project like a novice—that is, with a blank slate. They are all learners. They have genuine interest in learning more not only about their own fields but various others too. These end up creating transferable skills that aid the filmmaking process. 

Additionally, I realized that despite the massive-budgeted productions my guests had worked on, their approach was not too different from my own independent approach to filmmaking. And in a way that was reassuring since most of them had very humble beginnings in independent films as well.

Akash on set.
NFS: Why is it important for you to bring awareness to Sri Lanka’s film culture?

Sunethkumara: The newer generation of filmmakers in Sri Lanka are embracing all the new tech available to them in order to tell stories. They’re continually exposed to international films and they know the quality of storytelling and filmmaking which exists out there, and I’ve seen youngsters striving to achieve that on a very minimal budget here. I think that effort can go a long way, and I’d love to see more Sri Lankans create films worthy of an international audience because I know they can.

For me, I think Junkyard Theory is a way of giving back to the community over here. We don’t have that many film schools so I figured exposing the younger audience to knowledge from veteran filmmakers in Hollywood was all the film school they’d need since they’re already going out there and making films on their own.

Some of the films Akash created along with his filmmaking partners.
NFS: What’s next for Junkyard Theory now that the end of the pandemic is in sight?

Sunethkumara: We started out as a webinar/podcast live series last year and we’ve expanded to a sort of online educational platform this year. I plan to continue with the live sessions and host more prominent guests down the line and maybe even start up an educational institution. I’d like to be an alternative to the more traditional film schools in Sri Lanka. Together with my film collective, the High School Junkies, I'd like to be able to share our knowledge of problem-solving and storytelling which is essentially what filmmaking is. Down the line, I’d love to bring some of these guests down to Sri Lanka, who knows—maybe a film convention?

NFS: What advice would you give people who want to start something similar?

Sunethkumara: The internet has basically connected everyone around the world, and the pandemic showed us how powerful a tool that can be. And like any tool, use it to your advantage. The possibilities are endless. Resilience is an important quality to develop as a filmmaker, to keep hammering away at something even when you don’t necessarily see immediate results. Resilience and patience together result in small returns on your effort which compound into bigger results in time. Have genuine interest and curiosity in the topic you want to learn about and pursue it relentlessly.      

Follow Junkyard Theory on Instagram to hear about upcoming live events.

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