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Meet Carl Bird McLaughlin

Today we’d like to introduce you to Carl Bird McLaughlin.

Every artist has a unique story. Can you briefly walk us through yours?
I grew up in the small suburban desert town of Canyon Country, California, thirty miles north of Los Angeles. In many ways, my story starts with the people who influenced my work from the beginning, my parents. They had come to LA in the sixties and seventies to pursue show business; my father, a theater trained actor coming from a long line of thespians, and mother, a singer and actress from a rural town in Wisconsin. They met in an acting class, and as my dad tells it, he was the teacher, but I’ve heard many versions of this story throughout the years.

Growing up, performing wasn’t merely encouraged; it was celebrated. As early as I can remember, I was acting out movies I had seen around the house, including my personal favorite, the entire Home Alone storyline in real-time. Talent shows in elementary school were my next venture in entertainment, where I would do impressions of Jim Carrey and John Travolta or perform song and dance numbers, working my way up to an MC by fifth grade. This is where I first felt that the stage was the best place in the world to be. Crippling anxiety would turn to inexhaustible energy the moment I stepped in front of a crowd. I didn’t know it at the time, but I was experiencing what they call “flow state,” something I’ve been chasing ever since.

In fourth grade, my parents separated, ultimately divorcing. As common as this is for American families today, I’m surprised how little it is discussed. Those who have experienced it, especially at a young age, know that it tears a hole in the fabric of reality. It was like a storm had come and turned everyone involved into another person. We all had to change. And at ten years old, I learned I had to recreate who I was, using the pain I was experiencing. I had to adapt to this new circumstance, living with my mother full time and seeing my father on weekends. My mother, a woman of faith, became a beacon of light for me, doing everything in her power to make life as normal as possible. Working long hours at a salon, taking clients out of our house, she was the epitome of a self-sufficient, hardworking, single mother. She also took care of her mother, my grandmother, who suffered from severe mental illness. I learned a lot about life, tough-love, and spirituality during those years from my mother.

On the weekends, my father reigned. In his little one-bedroom apartment, we watched cassette after cassette. The Video Depot was our Mecca, the cineplex our Vatican. A seasoned movie buff, my father passed down his love of cinema to me. I was probably too young for such content, but Apocalypse Now, Heat, Taxi Driver, The Deer Hunter, and Five Easy Pieces were always resting atop the TV set, ready to be plugged in. What can I say? These were masculine movies, and they all had a common thread, the anti-hero and the art film. This was my first film school. My father, in many ways, embodied the anti-heroes of these stories. His life was full of random successes, tragedies, and misadventures. He is the real-life rebel without a cause, and he instilled a love for this type of character in me. I remember one time when rewatching Taxi Driver, I asked my dad, “Why does the movie look like this? Who is in charge of how this looks?” He explained to me what a director and a cinematographer does, and the role they play in the style of a picture. This planted something in me I didn’t realize until much later. I wanted to be an auteur. The author of my own work. Though the pain was great, the divorce brought me closer to both my parents and I wouldn’t be who I am today without that experience.

Years went by, my mother remarried, and I changed school districts, forcing me to recreate my persona once more. I started again from scratch. I found a kind of power from being faceless, nameless. I created new characters, ones that made people laugh, or ones with mystique. I believe we all create these characters to survive. We just use them in different ways.

I started taking film courses during high school at our local community college, College of the Canyons. This is where I became a filmmaker. I didn’t have the grades for NYU or USC film school, so I took my time and stayed in community college. There I met instructors and filmmakers, Mike Ott and David Nordstrom, who introduced me to an array of personal and foreign cinema. The work of Werner Herzog, Krzysztof Kieślowski and Lars Von Trier to name a few. I learned during this time to write about what I know. My family, my experience, the stories only I know. A couple of years later, I was accepted to the California Institute of the Arts. CalArts was the perfect environment for me to expand my personal expression, exploring experimental and documentary filmmaking, though I always came back to narrative storytelling. CalArts gave me the freedom I needed to find my own voice.

After receiving my BFA from CalArts, I jumped into working in the industry. Saying yes to everything, I worked as a production assistant, an actor, cinematographer, whatever I could get my hands on. Nights and weekends I worked as a server to make ends meet. I’m grateful after all those years, learning all sides of the camera, that my journey has led me to being a filmmaker.

Above all, I’m grateful for my family and what we’ve been through together. My parents, including my step-father, have always supported me, and have been a source of inspiration to me and my work. I currently live in Glendale, California, with my wife, Brittany Ackerman, a writer and Voyage LA alum.

Please tell us about your art.
The one thing I wish everyone to take away from my work is self-reflection. I want people to find insight into their lives after watching my films. Of course, it will be different for everyone, but I hope that my audience takes away something that may be useful to them. Whether it makes them understand a relationship a little better, or help them deal with pain, whatever it is, I hope it gives them a moment of pause. My mentor at CalArts, Gary Mairs, said something that always stuck with me, “One of the best compliments you can receive from your work is when people are done watching your film, they go out to the bars and talk about it.” I’ll take that any day of the week.

In addition to my film work, I am also a photographer. My photos are shot mainly on 35mm film. When my wife lets me, I hit the streets of Los Angeles at night and shoot landscapes using long exposures. When I’m not making night moves, I’m taking candid pictures of people. There’s nothing better than capturing a special moment between family or lovers, or a street scene between strangers where everything comes together in a meaningful composition. It’s invigorating. I also make prints and will often set up a portable darkroom so I can process my own film and develop my own images. It’s an addictive hobby. I try to always have my camera with me because I find it encourages me to really see the world and be in the moment. I post some of my film photos on my Instagram page @carlbird_.

What do you think is the biggest challenge facing artists today?
Distractions, or what Steven Pressfield would call, “Resistance” (with a capital “R”). I love the interconnectivity that comes with technology and innovation, but it is undoubtedly a huge distraction. I see a lot of artists, including myself, get side-tracked by the newest gadget, political upheaval, or anything that isn’t what they should be doing, which is making meaningful work. For me, I will do anything to distract myself from something I know I need to do. I’ll clean every corner of my apartment, go for an excruciatingly long hike, and return every email before I sit down to write. Avoiding what I know, I must do, which is to make my art. This is the resistance. Resisting something that you know will be extremely difficult, but will ultimately bring meaning to your life, and potentially others. We can be our own worst enemy, so you have to fight that voice that tells you you’re not good enough every single day. Because there is only one you, and you owe the world your perspective.

How or where can people see your work? How can people support your work?
People can see my work on my website, carlbirdmclaughlin.com. My new short film Human Sun is out now on Omeleto and FilmShortage, they can also see it and some other short work on my Vimeo page (vimeo.com/carlbirdmclaughlin). You can support my work by watching and sharing it with others. Also, subscribe, leave comments and reach out! I love connecting with people and hearing their unique reactions and interpretations.

Contact Info:

Image Credit:
Carl Bird McLaughlin, Brittany Ackerman, Kai Saul

Getting in touch: VoyageLA is built on recommendations from the community; it’s how we uncover hidden gems, so if you know someone who deserves recognition, please let us know here.

1 Comment

  1. Bobbi Burrows

    July 23, 2019 at 19:10

    This is a fascinating article. Truly and inspiration to anyone who takes their artistic career seriously. Carl’s honesty and way of expressing his life is authentic and positive. He has obviously chosen to grow immensely through the pains of life. Overcoming difficulty and growing from it obviously has become his strategy and he expresses it in his filmmaking. I am a fan.

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