In a round about way, a dislike for writing term papers proved to be the impetus and driving force behind John McDonald’s successful filmmaking career.
He knows it sounds flippant, but it’s true.
When a young McDonald was a biology major during his freshman year at Occidental College, on a whim he took a class called the History and Aesthetics of the Cinema taught by Professor Marsha Kinder.
“The class focused a lot on the French New Wave movement, and I really fell in love with the art of film,” McDonald recalled. “All the students were required to write a term paper, which I dreaded.”
McDonald went to Dr. Kinder and asked if he could make a movie instead of cranking out a typed document, which accounted for a large part of his grade. Good news came his way when she said, “Go for it!”
Those three words helped launch a rewarding future, playing a big part in what later would become John McDonald Productions, his own firm which turned out a series of award-winning industry, education and television projects before the company concentrated on making documentaries.
“My rather esoteric short film about a runner made every mistake in the book, but I learned from it, and I passed the class,” reflected McDonald of his college film at Occidental. “I was able to utilize this ‘trick’ again in an English literature class after transferring to the cinema school at USC, making a film based on William Butler Yeats’ one-act play, ‘Purgatory,’ in lieu of writing a term paper.”
The project was the springboard to an interest in film for McDonald, who recently bid farewell to South Pasadena after 27 years, as he continues his career in Seattle today.
Among his initial works was the highly acclaimed “Cotton Eyed Joe,” a true story about an African-American vagabond named Joe. Down the road he produced the feature length documentary “The Ghost Mountain Experiment,” shown on an episode of the late Huell Howser’s “California Gold.” Later came “Never Give Up,” a short documentary about South Pasadena’s long battle against the 710-Freeway extension.
Over the years, McDonald shot the short documentary “Squires of San Quentin,” which depicts “The Squires,” inmates who attempt to convince troubled children to avoid criminal behavior. Another documentary, viewed on ABC – “The Youngest Victim” – earned an Emmy.
“I would say my favorite film is the feature-length documentary I’m nearing completion on, “Call me Mule,” said McDonald when asked his favorite film to date. “It’s about an old nomad who has been roaming the country with his three pack mules for over 30 years. I started filming at the end of 2012 and spent 27 months on the road with them. There was no crew – just me capturing both the images and the sound. In the years since the last day of filming, I have spent a lot of time fundraising and applying for grants in order to pay the editing team and the myriad of other post-production costs. ‘Mule’ is now nearing the finish line, and I’m pretty excited about it.”
McDonald’s next treasured project goes back 50 years when he studied film at USC, the documentary “Cotton Eyed Joe,” that looks at a day in the life of a squatter living in his makeshift home in Elysian Park, a neighborhood in central Los Angeles.
“I was fortunate to get permission to use the music of Nina Simone and B.B. King in the soundtrack,” McDonald said, looking back. “This film is even more special to me because it led to meeting my future wife at a film festival in Germany.”
“’Cotton Eyed Joe’ won the top film prize, but I’ve always considered Lydia to be the greater prize!”
Over the years, People have pointed out “I seem to be drawn to stories about ‘outsiders’ because of ‘The Ghost Mountain Experiment.’”
The film documents the life of a family who lived off the grid for 17 years in the middle of the Anza Borrego Desert. “This project probably garnered the most attention because of its long festival run and PBS airings,” noted McDonald.
From 2006 to 2008, funding the project himself, McDonald filmed “Never Give Up-The 710 Freeway Fight” extensively, conducting lengthy interviews, including with individuals closely tied to South Pasadena’s efforts to stop a freeway from bisecting the community, only to see the project came to a halt. “My goal was to make a comprehensive feature documentary, but I gave up when I realized it was just more that I could handle with my limited resources,” recalls McDonald. “However, in 2019, I got a call from South Pasadena City Librarian Steve Fjeldsted, who had remembered that I had mentioned the documentary to him years earlier. The library was planning to host an event to celebrate the final legislation that would end the 710 Freeway plans forever. Steve asked if I could put something together for the event. I didn’t say yes right away, but with the arm-twisting and support of freeway fighter Joanne Nuckols, I eventually agreed and am happy I did.”
“Never Give Up” can be seen at the City of South Pasadena website under “Local History:710 Freeway.”
The old phrase “Family Comes First,” had an impact on McDonald and Lydia, who decided to leave their longtime home on Bushnell Avenue in South Pasadena after nearly 30 years and head for the Northwest, settling in the Admiral District of Seattle. “The idea of moving all started when we went up for a two-month stay last summer to help one of our daughters and her husband with the care of our two-year old grandson,” explained McDonald. “We love the Puget Sound area and find our grandson to be irresistibly adorable. We ended up buying a house – a 10-minute walk from their home in the Admiral District of West Seattle.”
McDonald’s fondest memories of South Pasadena will be what he calls the “simple things,” he said, the biggest, perhaps, of sitting on the front porch of their family’s 1910 Bushnell Avenue Craftsman-style home and talking to neighbors, followed by a close second of “lying in the backyard hammock on a nice day and thinking that there is no other place in the world I would rather be.”
Walking the dog to Garfield Park or around the Nature Center down at the Arroyo are among other activities that will also be missed.
The street he’s saying goodbye to has been the backdrop for many major motion pictures, most notably “Back to the Future” filmed in 1984. “We moved into our home on Bushnell in 1993 without any knowledge that such a famous film, or any films for that matter, were shot on our street,” McDonald said. “Not long after moving in, I noticed people would frequently be lingering and posing for photos at the camphor tree in the parkway in front of our house. I eventually went out to talk to a couple, who turned out to be from Europe, about what they were doing there. Instead of answering, they asked me, ‘Don’t you know the most pivotal scene in the greatest film in the history of cinema was filmed at this tree?’ I scratched my head and replied, ‘Huh? Really? What movie?’ Then I learned the tree was where Marty McFly (Michael J. Fox) found his dad, George McFly (Crispin Glover), using binoculars to peep into Lorraine Baines’ (Lea Thomson) bedroom window. Visiting the tree as well as the other locations on the street was like going to mecca for any serious ‘Back to the Future’ fan. I eventually made a short documentary about the allure of the movie’s locations on our street.”
In 2015, fans filled Bushnell Avenue for a festive 25th anniversary of the classic American science fiction film directed by Robert Zemeckis.
McDonald also put together a “Back to the Future (BTTF) on Bushnell Avenue” website and Facebook page, saying, “I met so many wonderful BTTF fans from all over the world.”
Homes on Bushnell Avenue have been used in a some other feature films including: “Old School,” “Teen Wolf,” “Ghost Dad,” “Welcome Home,” “Roxy Carmichael,” and “Back to the Future Part II.”
In addition, dozens of television and commercial production companies have used the roadway for its perfect “non-SoCal location,” noted McDonald, who won’t soon forget the small town feel of South Pasadena, and Bushnell Avenue, with its Craftsman homes, canopied camphor trees, and the street’s annual block party.
“It was about as idyllic as it could get,” he said of the place he called home for 27 years. “Our neighbors were so welcoming from the day we first arrived and so supportive through the years.”
The springtime Eclectic Music Festival that filled Mission Street with bands in the days long before COVID-19 will forever be among his memories, along with bringing his Misty Isle and later Pasadena Scots bagpipe bands to the city’s 4th of July Parade, along with performing a medley of Christmas carols on his bagpipes in his neighborhood over the years. Then there are the numerous library programs featuring a host of interesting speakers presented by Fjeldsted, joining the 710 Freeway fight and those involved in it, raising two daughters, and the community’s top school system as lasting impressions.
“It’s a wonderful town to raise kids,” he said, bidding farewell to the city he admires with the Looney Tunes signature closing sequence: “That’s all folks.”
For more about McDonald’s work, including a free showing of “Cotton Eyed Joe, visit his website at www.McDonaldProductions.com.