Updated: 5 days ago
Harley Wallen didn’t always want to be in the movie and TV business. Growing up in Sweden, he found martial arts to be his first passion. “That was my original art,” Wallen says adding that he was also a breakdancer on a TV show in Sweden similar to a cabaret/Donny Osmond-type show.
From there, he took advantage of the opportunities as they came up and slowly found himself entering the film business.
“There were lots of musical guests,” Wallen says regarding the TV show he danced on. “We were in there between setups and there would be a line or two, here or there, that needed to be said. They asked if I would be interested in doing it and I said yes.”
This gave Wallen the chance to hang out with actors and discover the complexity of their craft. “I was fascinated with the process because it was more than just ‘pretending’.”
He dove into the craft but soon realized that to pursue acting seriously, he would have to move to halfway around the world – the United States. But his pursuits were sidetracked as he found his ability to move up in a corporate environment.
Promotions weren’t enough and even though 20 years had gone by and he was doing well, he realized he had to leave the corporate world behind if he was going to pursue what he loved.
“When my martial arts career ended, I needed a place for my heart to go,” Wallen states. “Corporate wasn’t creatively satisfying.”
Becoming a filmmaker
When the Michigan tax incentives for film and TV were in effect, Wallen was finding plenty of work, which includes his first major speaking part in Batman v. Superman. When the incentives went away, along with the majority of the production work, Wallen found that the Michigan indie community was bare.
“I felt most of the filmmakers were unreliable or they didn’t care enough about the craft – I want the art to matter,” Wallen says knowing that it’s not the most popular thing to say. He adds, “It’s great when the art is sustainable financially, but it’s more important to tell stories”
He then decided to get involved in production - it was time for him to explore what he could do behind the camera.
Wallen has written several films over the past few years and finds his inspiration in all kinds of different places.
“When I did Moving Parts, it was what I loved,” Wallen says about the film he produced, wrote, and directed. He continues, “My mom loved Agatha Christy books and loved watching these shows. She loved mystery/thrillers. This was my attempt at that – something to figure out – a spiderweb you could get trapped in. It had no meaning beyond that.”
His films find inspiration seemingly out of nowhere. Whether it’s Enigma, which was inspired by the 1998 Denzel Washington thriller Fallen, or Eternal Code based on the fascinating story of an Italian doctor who was involved in a head transplant.
This curiosity got him involved in his latest venture: Tale of Tails.
Set in a seedy strip club, Wallen stars as Nick, the owner of the club who is finding his control over his life slipping away after one of his dancers ends up dead. Wallen also produced, wrote, and directed several episodes.
“Tale of Tails is based on Tevis Marcum who worked in a strip club and had all kinds of stories. He has a whole library of them,” Wallen says. “The original thought was to just tell these stories, but I didn’t think random things to random people was going to work. I suggested we break it down.”
To help with writing Tale of Tails, Wallen brought Steve Kopera on board. Although he has worked with other screenwriters, this was the first time he co-wrote with another writer on a project. Both were able to develop the story of the sleazy strip club beyond the character of Nick.
“From an indie film perspective, I didn’t know if that original idea would hold,” Wallen explains when it came to expanding the narrative. “We manipulated the existing pilot and from there we wrote the main plot, then formulated each episode.”
The Evolving Filmmaker
When Harley Wallen started writing, he free-associated the process and wrote as it came to him.
“It came to me a lot easier if I didn’t force it,” Wallen says. “The process was a nightmare though because then I have to go in and fix it and work with pacing. I threw out the first few scripts because I was trying to write for someone, not for me.”
His writing process has evolved and now he starts by identifying five-to-six scene structures, the things that stick out, and build around those.
“I write out a really strong outline for the main scenes then I figure out the placing.”
Wallen admits that he writes the best through an amazing writer.
This humble approach is reflective of those truly great creative filmmakers who recognize when they don’t have the skillset to create their vision and hire people who can fill in the gaps.
“Hire to your weaknesses. Make sure you hire people better than you,” Wallen says. As an example, he explains, “I’m an okay writer, and seeing what Geoffrey D. Calhoun did with Finding Nicole, I know it’s not always my place to write.” He adds, “If you’re an actor/director and you like to direct performance then hire a technical Director of Photography that knows how to shoot a complex scene, someone who can guide you properly.”
Words of Wisdom
“First things first – build your stamina,” Wallen suggests. “It’s a marathon, a journey. We all think we’re going to make it with our first film but it’s multiple projects that make them serious.”
He recognizes that the likelihood of writing or producing one movie on your own dime won’t lead to a studio gig. Ultimately, it’s about telling the stories you want to tell. He believes that when you care a lot, you’re going to be pretty good at it.
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