Jesse Randall of JR Vision Films: 5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me When I First Became A Filmmaker

Yitzi Weiner
Authority Magazine
Published in
19 min readFeb 19, 2023

… I want to live in a world where people fundamentally agree that housing is a human right. Sadly, we’re a long way from living in such a world. In order to achieve that, we need to get to a place, globally, where we value people over profits… We can begin by implementing that housing is a human right. There are countless McMansions across Los Angeles that are sitting empty while the homeless crisis continues to spiral out of control. That speaks volumes about how bad wealth inequality in America has become.

As a part of our series called “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me When I First Became A Filmmaker”, I had the distinct pleasure of interviewing Jesse Randall of JR Vision Films.

Jesse Randall is a filmmaker, screenwriter, producer based in Los Angeles who primarily focuses on creating LGBTQIA+ content. His digital series, The Safety Plan, is streaming on Plex TV, Mometu, Revry TV, and more (along with his other films). His upcoming film about the homeless crisis in Los Angeles, Spare Change, will screen on the film festival circuit this year.

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Our readers would love to get to know you a bit better. Can you tell us a bit of the ‘backstory’ of how you grew up?

I grew up in a rural farming town in North Carolina where the same abandoned buildings that sat vacant when I was a child remain empty today. It’s a place where not much has changed over the years. When I was growing up, I wanted to be as far away from it as possible. Now that I’m an adult that has lived in New York and Los Angeles, North Carolina influences a lot of my work. I’m currently developing my first feature film based on a screenplay I wrote that takes place in a fictional version of my hometown about a gay hillbilly who never escaped his upbringing that attends his high school reunion. This project is by far my most well-received screenplay I’ve ever written, and people always specifically comment on how unique the world in the story is. My biggest fear growing up was that I would never escape my hometown, but my hometown has turned out to be one of the biggest sources of inspiration for me as an adult. My life has changed so rapidly in the thirteen years I’ve lived on my own in NY and LA, but my hometown has remained the one unchanged thing in my life. It feels like a foreign planet now; which is probably why I’m so fascinated by it.

Can you share a story with us about what brought you to this specific career path?

Filmmaking has always been the path for me since I was a child, since it was the only thing that helped me make sense of the world around me. Studying films of all kinds was more of an education than going to school, at the time. When it came time to decide if I was actually going to pursue film as a career, I figured I was better off going to New York or Los Angeles instead of finishing school in North Carolina. Though I’d never been to either of those places, I knew it was where I needed to be. I decided on New York without knowing anyone there or having any connections. It was a giant leap, but it was worth it. Slowly, everything came together from there. Carving a career in filmmaking has never been easy. I’ve always faced relentless obstacles, but I kept going against the odds. At times, filmmaking was the only hope I had in the world. It’s definitely not about the money for me because I didn’t make a dime off my work until almost ten years of creating content. I’ve lived below the poverty line pursuing my passion at times. It’s only been in the past few years that I’ve been able to financially support myself using my skills as a filmmaker. That’s how I know I’ve pursued filmmaking for the right reasons. When it all boils down to it, it’s the possibility of exploring human nature and the choices we make to find purpose and meaning in our lives that motivates me as a filmmaker.

Can you share the funniest or most interesting story that occurred to you in the course of your filmmaking career?

I have way too many bizarre stories to share, and I’m saving the best one for the centerpiece questions coming up. I will say that the times in my life where a specific project I was working on was going to be a breakout hit for me were always the projects that didn’t turn out the way I’d hoped. The times in my career where I wasn’t sure if people were going to like the content I made, and was deeply insecure about it, were the times I was really blown away with unexpected positive results. I guess the lesson in that is: it’s better to not have expectations. Living life without expectations opens your eyes to the infinite possibilities that await.

Who are some of the most interesting people you have interacted with? What was that like? Do you have any stories?

I’ve been fortunate to encounter lots of interesting people, but I think the people I’m most intrigued by are the cinematographers I’ve worked with. I have no idea how, but I’ve been so fortunate to work with incredible cinematographers that not only elevated my work and made it look beautiful, but I also have really personal connections with them. I’ve worked with three cinematographers on my projects over the years: Taylor Stanton (on my New York films), Diego Madrigal (on The Safety Plan and two other LA projects), and Gavin Winnett on my upcoming film, Spare Change. Working with all three of these talented artists was not only effortless, but a true collaboration. They were so respectful of my vision while also bringing their own ideas to the project that enhanced the final product beyond measure. I’ve truly enjoyed working with them and getting to know them as people. Finding strong artistic connections and collaborators you can trust with your vision is no easy task. These cinematographers are truly the glue that holds my films together. I wouldn’t have found success without them.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

I’m forever indebted to my very first writing coach, Julie McKee, and my very first acting coach, Lorraine Serabian. They both teach at the historic HB Studios in New York. When I first moved to New York City, I didn’t know anybody, didn’t have any connections, and had very little money. I rented a room in a stranger’s apartment who happened to be an actor. He told me about HB Studios and I signed up for my first legitimate acting class with Loraine Serabian. It changed my life. Though I quickly realized I didn’t want to be an actor, taking acting classes helped me be able to work with actors and understand their process. I also learned incredible life lessons in those acting classes as well. After I decided that I wasn’t going to pursue acting, I started taking playwriting/screenwriting classes with Julie McKee. Having not finished college at the time I started taking writing classes at HB Studios, I was overwhelmed to be in classes with people of a variety of different educational backgrounds. I was the only person there that hadn’t finished college. I was terrified that people would find out. Some of my classmates had graduated from really prestigious universities that I would never be able to get into. When you take the introductory writing classes at HB Studios, you have to work your way through the twelve writing exercises before you can get to the advanced level writing classes. When I got to the advanced level writing courses, it was the first time in my life I received validation as a writer. Getting to present my work every week and get feedback from extremely qualified people was so beneficial to me. When I finally went back to school years later to finish my screenwriting degree at a university, I had great professors, but the curriculum was more focused on completing assignments as a student rather than the quality of your writing. When I got to the final writing course, your assignment was to finish a 90–110-page screenplay. I heard so many young students worrying about completing 90 pages. When I was their age, I was doing that regularly, and I have HB Studios to thank for that. I finished my first full-length screenplay at 20. It was 200 pages long, and it definitely wasn’t very good. But that’s part of the process of becoming a writer: you have to write a lot of crappy screenplays before you can start writing good ones. Though I was a disciplined writer, I didn’t understand story structure until I started taking classes at HB Studios. I don’t know if I’d be the writer I am today had I gone the traditional route of finishing college first. Part of the reason I was constantly producing work and continuously writing was that I knew I didn’t have a degree to fall back on. I knew I had to keep generating work to get noticed because I knew no one would give me the opportunity otherwise. HB Studios guided me through that time in my life, and I owe all of my accomplishments as a filmmaker to my instructors, Julie McKee and Loraine Serabian.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

I live by Stephen Sondheim’s quote: “Having just the vision’s no solution, everything depends on execution.” You can have the greatest idea in the world, but if you don’t execute it properly it won’t turn out well. Vision alone isn’t enough. I apply that quote to everything I do in life, not just my creative endeavors. I’ve definitely gone through a stage in my life where I was caught up in magical thinking, and in such a rush to get ahead that I didn’t consider the quality of my work as much as I should have, and I paid greatly for it. Intention isn’t enough. You can’t cut corners when it comes to the quality of your work. You have to be obsessive about quality checks, but you also have to be careful to avoid getting lost in perfectionism because nothing will ever turn out exactly like you envisioned. One of my favorite directors, Alexander Payne, spoke to one of my classes once, and he said something that I think is the most pragmatic and valuable advice I’ve ever heard when it comes to creative endeavors: “You set out to make an omelet, but you always wind up with scrambled eggs. However, scrambled eggs can still be delicious if you cook them well.” When it comes to content creation, you’re never truly finished working on something. There just comes a point where you stop working on it. I stop working on something when I’ve exhausted all possibilities. Every film has flaws, even if you don’t notice them. I love spotting flaws in my favorite films because it usually takes several viewings to notice them. It’s really reassuring to know that even people working at the top of their game have to deal with flaws. Successful content creation is about finding the balance between finding solutions to make the most out of the footage you shot and accepting certain flaws that you have to work around. Driving yourself crazy with perfectionism is a guaranteed way to burn yourself out, and it’s not healthy. You can still strive for excellence without losing your mind, but you have to be honest with yourself about the quality of your work and the resources available to you.

I am very interested in diversity in the entertainment industry. Can you share three reasons with our readers about why you think it’s important to have diversity represented in film and television? How can that potentially affect our culture?

The first reason why it’s important to have diversity represented in film and television is because everyone wants to see themselves reflected in storytelling. Storytelling is essentially a problem-solving simulation. If you don’t have a conflict, you don’t have a story. We all want to see our lives re-examined in some capacity through the stories we ingest. It helps us figure out who we are and what we want from our lives.

The second reason is that it normalizes another person’s experience, and helps understand their perspective. Life is entirely perspective. The audience gets to experience someone else’s world they might not cross paths with in real life. Seeing stories about other people helps humanize them and generates empathy.

The third reason is that it creates opportunities for marginalized people to tell their stories and level the playing field for equality. As a member of the LGBTQIA+ community, I find that the entertainment industry, along with the rest of the world, has a long way to go in terms of representation and equal job opportunities for queer people. Though strides have been made in mainstream films for LGBTQA+ stories, these stories are often seen through a heteronormative lens. LGBTQIA+ representation, along with other marginalized groups, will continue to be limited in its perspective until we have more equality behind the scenes.

What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now?

My next film debuting on the film festival circuit this year, Spare Change, is about the homeless crisis in Los Angeles. It’s one of my dream projects, and I’m so grateful that I finally got to see it come to fruition. It’s the first project I’ve ever produced with a large team, and it helped me evolve as a filmmaker. I’ll never return to low budget filmmaking where I’m wearing twelve different hats on the project after working on Spare Change. I’ve always struggled with imposter syndrome, but directing such a large crew on Spare Change was the most validating experience as a filmmaker I’ve had to date. In addition to that, the homeless crisis is a cause that’s very close to my heart. I cannot believe our elected officials have failed our community, both Republicans and Democrats. I’m horrified to see so many people struggling to survive the streets of Los Angeles. Housing is a human right. There are more than enough resources available in the world to take care of everybody, especially when billionaires are allowed to exist with such grotesque wealth. Spare Change has such an incredible cast, and I’m so grateful I got to work with them. I’m also developing my first feature-length screenplay. I’m ready to move up to the big leagues. My days of low-budget indie filmmaking are over!

Which aspect of your work makes you most proud? Can you explain or give a story?

I’m really proud that I’ve been able to produce content on a microbudget level that was able to get into film festivals, be nominated for awards, and acquire distribution deals with prominent streaming platforms. I faced countless obstacles getting these projects finished, but somehow, I did. I’m also really proud that I made projects that were (mostly) uncompromising of my vision and my voice as a filmmaker. When it comes to producing content about marginalized communities, there’s a lot of identity politics you have to deal with. With LGBTQIA+ content, there’s quite a divide between people who feel like the media has an obligation to change negative perceptions about the queer community, and others feel like artists shouldn’t have to compromise their vision to cater to those who subscribe to negative perceptions about marginalized people. Heterosexual people don’t have to worry about, “is what I’m making going to make straight people look bad?” I don’t think queer-identifying artists should have to worry about that either. I always wrote about characters with conflicts I found interesting, and they were usually inspired by various people I’ve met throughout my life. Most of my favorite characters in films are people that would drive me crazy in real life, and that’s why I’m intrigued by them. I feel like stories are a window into human nature, and I love exploring why people who drive me crazy in real life are the way they are. While I’ve frequently had to tailor my vision because of low budgets or resources, I’m proud to say I never compromised my vision based on likeability or identity politics. On my most successful project, The Safety Plan, I got the sense that a lot of the actors cast in the project were concerned about their characters being likable, and some initially didn’t want to be associated with the project because of it after filming wrapped. Those actors are more supportive of the project now that it’s a success. I never set out to make “likable” or “unlikeable” characters. I try to be as objective as possible and find humanity in flawed people who are trying to make sense of the chaos around them. I’m much more inspired by characters who start off as trainwrecks and manage to evolve despite the obstacles they face rather than traditional Hollywood “hero” protagonists without a lot of complications in their lives. I think the traditional Hollywood hero is simply a projection of what most people wish they could be, and I don’t find that very interesting. I don’t know a single person who manages to avoid living a complicated life, and I want to see more stories that reflect that. I think storytelling is ultimately about helping people figure out their problems, or seeing their problems in a different light.

Ok super. Here is the main question of our interview. What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.

1. Be careful who you go into business with.

While my upcoming film, Spare Change, was a very successful co-production, another project I produced with someone was the biggest disaster of my entire life. I could teach an entire course on everything that could possibly go wrong independently producing content based on this miserable experience.

2. Always Get A Contract (No Matter Who You’re Working With)!

I made countless mistakes on the worst project I ever worked on. The first mistake was working with someone I didn’t personally know (and we didn’t have a great experience previously working together). The second is, I didn’t protect myself with a proper contract. I’m humiliated to admit that I didn’t have a contract on the nightmare project. Having a proper contract would have protected me from a lot of their lies, and getting screwed into paying for most of the project.

In retrospect, I didn’t get a contract because I didn’t want to seem overprotective or untrusting of them. We had the majority of our conversations through email, and I thought that would be enough. Even if you think you know someone, GET A CONTRACT! This protects everyone involved. If someone is skeptical about signing a contract, don’t work with them.

3. Don’t work with people who aren’t on your level.

Another massive mistake I made working on the worst project of my entire career was that I worked with someone who didn’t have anywhere near the level of experience I had independently producing content, writing, doing the film festival circuit, etc. It sounds a little arrogant to say “they’re not on my level”, but facts are facts. If you end up working with someone who has significantly less experience than you at something, you wind up doing most of the work.

I can’t comprehend going into business with someone who has significantly more experience than you do at something, and being competitive with them about everything. When I’m working with someone who has more experience or education than me at something, I like to surrender to their process so I can get on their level. I don’t want to be the person in the room with the most information EVER. I want to be surrounded by people who help me grow and evolve, without them having to take the time to educate me. That being said, there’s nothing wrong with acknowledging that somebody doesn’t have the same level of experience you do.

4. If the content you’ve created doesn’t turn out to be a quality product, don’t release it.

I live by the words of Stephen Sondheim: “Having just the vision’s no solution, everything depends on execution.” You can have the greatest idea in the world, but it won’t matter if it’s executed poorly. I’ve shelved entire projects that I’ve worked on for years because I had to accept that they weren’t good enough. The entertainment industry is unforgiving to begin with, but the standards for independent content have become astronomically high. Why watch independent content when Hollywood is producing more content than ever? In the age where there’s more accessibility to filmmaking than ever before, there’s very little room for mediocre quality. Shelving a project is certainly painful, but having a quality product be overshadowed by the amount of subpar-quality content you’re putting out is even worse, in the long run.

5. If your only goal is money, you’re wasting your time.

Way too many people get into content creation because they think it’s going to be like being a child at recess forever, or because they think it’s going to make them rich. Both are the absolute worst reasons to get into content creation.

First, creating anything requires work. That doesn’t mean it has to feel like a soulless corporate job, but not every moment of content creation is going to be fun. Though ultimately rewarding, creating quality content is a long process. No matter what industry you’re in, if your only goal is money, it’s going to cost you your soul, and it will be your downfall. With content creation, you should only pursue it if your heart is truly in it. I can truly say I’m not into filmmaking and content creation for the money because it took almost a decade before I sold my work. I released four projects at film festivals that didn’t get a distribution deal until The Safety Plan got a distribution deal. It was painful the films didn’t initially go as far as I’d hoped, but it was a full circle moment when I got a distribution deal for everything I’d ever made. It was worth the wait. I never stopped believing my films would get better and better if I took the lessons I learned from previous projects and applied them to future projects. I’m only achieving the level of success I’m experiencing now because my heart was in it for the right reasons. I’m committed to creating LGBTQIA+ projects and generating more representation for queer storytellers.

When you create a film, which stakeholders have the greatest impact on the artistic and cinematic choices you make? Is it the viewers, the critics, the financiers, or your own personal artistic vision? Can you share a story with us or give an example about what you mean?

For me, I think it’s a balance between your own artistic vision and what audiences are willing to watch. With The Safety Plan, I simply wrote something about a subject I found interesting that I would want to watch as an audience member. I knew it was a tone and a subject I wasn’t really seeing in queer media, but I knew there was an audience for it. That being said, I knew I wasn’t making Love, Simon or Call Me By Your Name. Crowd pleasing gay romances became the status quo of queer media while I was making The Safety Plan. I knew there wouldn’t be as big of a demand to see a social satire about being alone in a society where you’re nobody until somebody loves you. The initial response to The Safety Plan from queer film festivals was quite cold. I was an alumnus of one of the biggest LGBTQIA+ film festivals in existence and I at least expected The Safety Plan to get accepted there, but it wasn’t. The project didn’t get into any queer film festivals, and it was painful. The Safety Plan was made while Trump was in office and there was a push to make “feel good” entertainment to overcompensate for our hateful government at the time. The Safety Plan also had the misfortune of being released in film festivals early on during the pandemic and the pinnacle of the long overdue social justice uprising during the Summer of 2020. It just wasn’t the project, or representation, LGBTQIA+ film festivals were looking for at that moment. Still, I was grateful that it got into SeriesFest and NewFilmmakers Los Angeles, which helped me acquire my first major distribution deal. The film festivals came and went and it seemed like it was going to be a flop because it just wasn’t what people wanted to watch at the time. Still, I had faith it would find an audience because I knew it was a subject that myself and many others had dealt with. The Safety Plan finally got a distribution deal in Fall 2020 and the project took off from there. When you create something based solely on what kind of film you would want to watch, you always take the risk of creating something that maybe mainstream audiences aren’t interested in at the time. However, I think if you’re true to your vision and you’ve made something that is an authentic representation of your voice and the world around you, it will find an audience eventually. The Safety Plan is proof of that, especially now that it has over ten distribution deals.

You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)

As I’ve mentioned, I want to live in a world where people fundamentally agree that housing is a human right. Sadly, we’re a long way from living in such a world. In order to achieve that, we need to get to a place, globally, where we value people over profits. Capitalism runs the world, and it will be our demise. Three US billionaires are now collectively worth more than the 160 million Americans in the bottom half of the wealth distribution. Aside from that being absolutely despicable, it’s proof that there are more than enough resources in our world to take care of everyone. One person shouldn’t be able to acquire that much money, and they only acquire billions of dollars through exploitation. It will take quite a bit of time for our society to deprogram our way of thinking away from capitalism, but we can begin by implementing that housing is a human right. There are countless McMansions across Los Angeles that are sitting empty while the homeless crisis continues to spiral out of control. That speaks volumes about how bad wealth inequality in America has become. We could use the billions of dollars wasted on our inflated military budget and the outrageous police budgets per city to solve this issue and reinvest in communities to abolish homelessness and wealth inequality. It needs to become a priority before it’s too late.

We are very blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might see this. :-)

I’d love to have lunch with any billionaire in America to make my case that housing is a human right and hold them accountable for their wealth. They’ll be paying for lunch as well.

How can our readers further follow you online?

You can follow me on my website at www.jrvisionfilms.com or my Instagram: @JRVISIONFILMS @SPARECHANGETV and @SAFETYPLANTV

This was very meaningful, thank you so much! We wish you continued success!

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Yitzi Weiner
Authority Magazine

A “Positive” Influencer, Founder & Editor of Authority Magazine, CEO of Thought Leader Incubator