Port Townsend Film Festival special guest Morgan Neville is interviewed by actress, author and educator Akuyoe Graham to kick off the Port Townsend High School public salons Friday. (Cydney McFarland/Peninsula Daily News)

Academy-Award-winning filmmaker Morgan Neville tells how he got started

PORT TOWNSEND — Academy Award-winning documentary filmmaker Morgan Neville found his life’s work at a young age.

Neville, the Port Townsend Film Festival special guest, was interviewed by actress and educator Akuyoe Graham at Port Townsend High School on Friday.

He spoke to an auditorium full of high school students and a handful of community members about how to break into the arts.

“The seeds of everything I do now started in high school, if not before,” said Neville, a film producer, director and writer based in Los Angeles who has produced more than 50 films.

The film festival, which screened 89 films from 14 nations in eight venues in Port Townsend, continues today with a variety of screenings as well as an awards presentation at 6:15 p.m. at the Rose Theatre.

Neville spoke twice Friday on the opening day of the festival. He addressed high school students in the afternoon and was onstage with Rocky Friedman, founder of the Rose Theatre, that night before the screening of his film “The Music of Strangers: Yo-Yo Ma & The Silk Road Ensemble.”

Other of his films shown over the weekend were “Different Flowers” and “20 Feet from Stardom.”

Neville, 49, started a punk rock band and began shooting short zombie movies before he started high school.

After college, Neville began his professional career as a journalist, covering mostly politics, in San Francisco and New York.

“I had a breakthrough at 24,” Neville said.

That is when he dived into covering the arts, music and literature. Soon, he left his job to shoot a documentary in Los Angeles.

Three years later, Neville had the debut of his first documentary, “Shotgun Freeway: Drives Thru Lost L.A.”

“That’s what I wanted to do and I knew it instantly,” Neville said. “I have a license to get invited into peoples lives and ask them about the most important things in their lives and share those with the world.”

Since then, Neville has worked on a number of documentaries.

He’s been nominated for five Grammys for his films “Muddy Waters: Can’t Be Satisfied,” “Respect Yourself: The Stax Records Story” and “Johnny Cash’s America.”

His film “20 Feet from Stardom” won the Academy Award for best documentary in 2013.

“It was one of those stories that’s hiding in plain sight,” Neville said.

The film looks into the lives and contributions of backup singers in the music industry.

Neville said the film had a meaningful message for young people hoping to break into such competitive fields as music and film.

“What the film was really about was coming to terms with the life you live rather than the life you thought you’d live or the life other people tell you that you should live,” Neville said.

“Most of us are backup singers. There’s not a lot of rock stars out there.”

Since “20 Feet from Stardom,” Neville has continued to work on documentary projects, some of which will be making their debut soon.

In February, Netflix plans to stream a documentary television show Neville made that explores cultures and issues through food, he said.

He is also finishing a film about Fred Rogers, who is known best as Mr. Rogers from the television show “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood.”

“He just believed in kind of this militant kindness,” Neville said. “The neighborhood is all of us, and if there’s ever a time to talk about how we can empathize with someone else, now is the time.”

Neville is also working on a film about director Orson Welles. The film, called “They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead,” will use footage from Welles’ final, and uncompleted, project.

This year was Neville’s first time at the Port Townsend Film Festival, and he had only been in town about five hours before he spoke at the salon Friday.

He said he was looking forward to experiencing more of the festival.

“I’ve been hearing great things about this festival for years from friends,” Neville said. “The word in the film community is that this is a great place.”

Graham, who interviewed Neville on Friday, has been a guest at the festival for three years. Graham is an award-winning actress and has also created a nonprofit, the Spirit Awakening Foundation, which funds writing programs for at-risk teens and incarcerated youths.

Graham will return to Port Townsend in February to perform her one-woman show, “Spirit Awakening,” an autobiographical play about her family’s move from Ghana and her growth as a woman and an artist.

Port Townsend venues are the Starlight Room, the Cotton Building, the Rose Theatre and Rosebud Theatre, the Northwest Maritime Center, the American Legion Hall, the Key City Playhouse and outdoors on Taylor Street, where movies will be offered for free.

The Jefferson County Library in Port Hadlock also showed films for free. Today’s film will be “Different Flowers,” at 2 p.m.

For more information about the film festival, see www.ptfilmfest.com or the hospitality desk at the Northwind Arts Center, 701 Water St.

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Jefferson County Editor/Reporter Cydney McFarland can be reached at 360-385-2335, ext. 55052, or at [email protected]

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