Don Thompson recently gave an interview with the New York Movie Awards, where his screenplay adaptation of Herman Melville’s ‘Billy Budd’ won a top award. You can find the full interview here.

Last year writer David Dessauer commissioned me to write a screenplay based on his book Harper Lee and Me. The book is based on a 5-year research project where Dessauer tried to unearth what motivated Harper Lee to write her masterpiece novel To Kill A Mockingbird. When Dave approached me with the project, I was struck by the unique perspective he brought to the effort. Much of the thesis he developed surrounding the book grew out of his Christian faith and belief that Harper Lee was essentially trying to do a retelling of the Book of Proverbs with her book.

Gregory Peck and Brock Peters in the film ‘To Kill A Mockingbird’

The challenge was to translate David’s book into a compelling story, as the process of research itself — and even the results of the research — do not necessarily make for a good screen narrative, no matter how interesting and compelling the material is.

It became necessary, therefore, to conduct my own research into Dave’s process and how his family dynamics played a part in order to find the spine of a story that would translate well into film. In essence, the story becomes one of a disillusioned man trying to regain faith in himself and the respect of his family. We follow a hero’s journey arc of separation, descent into the unknown, and return. I based the story on several conversations I had with Dave, where I gleaned the essential love that he had for his family and that they had for him. In addition to Dessauer’s insights into Harper Lee, it was this familial love that I tried to convey in the script.

I do believe that a great (often untold) story of our modern America is the disappointment that people have in the fact that they dreamed of doing numerous things but never really set out to make their dreams a reality. Instead, they live those dreams vicariously through others: celebrities, sports figures, and their children. The ‘reality’ that is paramount becomes, for many, the raising of those children and the focus on their security. People’s dreams can often take a back burner in this process.

Dessauer sought to break that pattern with himself and realize his dream. That essentially becomes the story arc of the screenplay version of Harper Lee and Me — how a man grapples with his sense of limitation and overcomes it. I suspect many people share Dessauer’s feelings of personal disappointment, and many, like Dave Dessauer, do attempt to overcome those feelings. That said, while many would love to have an impact on the world, responsibilities overwhelm them. Within this context, personal — sometimes even small — victories are possible and even necessary. Dreams can be adjusted and made more realistic. Small victories can indeed become large ones; this is another message in Harper Lee and Me.

The script has been a lot of positive attention, including ‘Best Screenplay’ and ‘Best Writer’ awards from the Christian Film Festival and a Finalist nod (for Best Screenplay) from the Branson Film Festival. More recently, the 2022 PopCon Film Festival has nominated the script for ‘Best Feature Screenplay’. We also placed high in both the Stage 32 and Screencraft Family-Friendly script competitions.

PopCon International Film Festival

I’m hopeful we’ll get the film produced. That in itself is a process. I’m optimistic because I believe many people in the modern era share Dave’s journey and feelings. In a society that celebrates the ‘huge’ wins of the rich and famous, perhaps it’s time to also leave a little room for the smaller, yet important, victories of everyday people in everyday life. Harper Lee and Me is such a celebration.

— Don Thompson

Thompson can be contacted at

David Dessauer’s book Harper Lee and Me is available here.

We’re happy to announce that Don Thompson’s feature-length WWII action-drama ‘Kaltenhouse’ has won ‘Best Feature Screenplay’ at the 2020 New York Film Awards.

The script also won two top awards at the Festigious International Film Festival, where it won both the ‘Best Action Screenplay’ and ‘Screenplay of the Month’.

The script also won the Best Drama Screenplay at the Los Angeles Film Awards in 2019.

To say the least, we’re very happy the script is receiving recognition at these competitive and highly regarded festivals and events.

‘Kaltenhouse’ is based on the WWII memoirs of Norman A. Thompson (Don’s father) titled Kaltenhouse Remembered. The book can be found on Amazon here.

nextPix is shopping the project to Los Angeles based production companies and has also been working with European producers to find the best locations for production. If green-lit on schedule, the film should go into production in 2021 and be released in 2022.

‘Signs of a Rebel Buddha’ is a video essay that I developed and produced this year that deals with non-conventional Buddhist teachers and their significance on the development of American (or Western) Buddhism.

The goal was to make the essay relatively accessible — that is, to keep it fun and not to let it get bogged down in what can become the rather arcane language of Buddhism, being that it can be a rather intellectual pursuit. I say ‘pursuit’ because, at least according to some, Buddhism isn’t really a religion but an approach to life and a method of analyzing and experiencing reality with the goal of Spiritual  Enlightenment. I also wanted, by its structure and visual content, to have the film be meditative and transformative by weaving footage of the subject of the video (see below) with the thoughts of various Buddhist traditions and ideas.

The subject of the essay is Dr. Frederick P. Lenz, a teacher I personally studied with for roughly fifteen years, beginning in 1981. Dr. Lenz died in 1998.


Dr. Lenz — AKA Rama (his spiritual name) — reflected a vast array of interests and talents, not the least of which was developing software businesses, a pursuit he focused on predominantly during the years leading up to his death. As a result of his business activities, he made both himself and quite a few others very wealthy.  I can say for myself personally, that as a result of Dr. Lenz’s mentorship I was pretty much set up for life in terms of career and my ability to do pretty much whatever I wanted, including travel, invest in and support a variety of interests, and live quite comfortably.

But was being a successful entrepreneur really what Rama was primarily about? I would argue not.

During the first few years I studied with Rama (primarily in California, and before he suggested a lot of us move to the U.S. East Coast) he introduced myself and many others to what can be termed no less than a wonderland of consciousness. During this period, through both the dreams I had while studying with Rama and the meditations we had as a group, he would help literally catapult me (and many others) into ecstatic states of awareness that are hard to describe to those who have not experienced such things.


It is the deep respect that many of his students (including myself) developed for Dr. Lenz during his early days in California that compelled them to stay with him on his adventures in business when he migrated to the East Coast. Is was this earlier time (in my mind at least) in California that most of his early students remember most fondly and is detailed quite beautifully in Rama’s biography by Liz Lewison titled ‘American Buddhist Rebel.’

But I decided not to focus on this aspect of Rama for ‘Signs of a Rebel Buddha.’ Rather, I drew from my experiences with more traditional Tibetan Buddhist teachers that I studied with after Rama died in an attempt to create a framework for understanding how Rama did or did not compare to the traditionalists.

The result of contemplating this forced me to conclude that Rama actually reflected a rather ancient tradition of the Mahasiddhas and Tantra (not to be confused with explicitly sexual Tantra at times popularized today) as described by authors such as Keith Dowman (who is mentioned in the film) and Dr. Paul Ortega.


As described by Dr. Ortega in his video series on Tantra,  Rama most certainly reflected the ‘path of the householder’ or ‘person of the world’ who engages with the world in their spiritual pursuits rather than retreats from it as a renunciate — with an example source text of this renunciate tradition being the Yoga Sutras of Pantanjali.

Ortega will be quick to point out that he is not claiming that renunciates are ‘wrong’ and the householder or worldly spiritual path is ‘right’ — rather, he is making the case that modern teachers (such as Rama) are re-introducing these traditions to the West as an appropriate vehicle for spiritual growth for many modern people.

The reason is simple. The spiritual traditions as described by Dr. Ortega seek to use and build upon the flowering of individual human potential as key and integral to the path. In other words, to discover your talents and bring them to the world becomes part and parcel of your spiritual journey. The renunciate’s path, on the other hand, subsumes the individual into the quest and seeks to suppress the individual ego in an effort to tame it and wield it to a higher purpose. While for both paths the end goal is often the same, the approaches are radically different.

Rama’s methods also neatly fit in with the American ideals of individualism as seen in the philosophies of Emerson and Thoreau — two transcendentalist and individualistic American thinkers who Rama very much admired.

People such as Paul Ortega and others of who promote a uniquely American version of  Buddhism (also reflected through teachers such as Jack Kornfield, Tara Brach, and others) mark a fundamental shift from the renunciate’s path. They reflect a more ‘worldly’ approach that in fact seeks to secularize much of Buddhist practice and, in the case of Kornfield and Brach, subsume it in what has become known as the mindfulness movement. As it is with His Holiness the Dalai Lama, service to others is often key to the mindfulness path, at least for its leaders.

As far as the video essay ‘Signs of a Rebel Buddha’ — I lay out seven ‘signs’ or qualities that I used to convey the essence of what I term a ‘Rebel Buddha.’

All of these qualities I believe are reflected in the Mahasiddha or Tantric traditions. While I don’t claim to be a scholar, I’m pretty sure many scholars would back me up on this assertion.

So far we’ve submitted the film to several film festivals and it has been accepted (thus far)  primarily at festivals in the East (India, Bhutan, and Russia), where we’ve garnered recognition and  awards. In Bhutan, we won the ‘Oustanding Achievement’ award for documentary — quite a compliment from this Buddhist nation high in the Himalayas! We have also submitted to several ‘spiritual’ and ‘inspirational’ film festivals in the West and are thrilled to have been accepted into the Dreamers of Dreams Film Festival in London. Stay tuned for more!


A road leading to Monument Valley with red truck going at camera, Usa

You can watch the ‘Signs of a Rebel Buddha’ video here.

You can find more information about Rama here.

The video was produced in collaboration with The Frederick P. Lenz Foundation for American Buddhism.

Don Thompson is a producer, filmmaker, and playwright. You can find his bio here. Don has studied with numerous spiritual teachers, including Dr. Frederick Lenz, HE Namkha Drimed Rinpoche, HH Chetsang Rinpoche, HH the 14th Dalai Lama, and Dr. Baskaran Pillai.

Images courtesy of Adobe Stock.

Don Thompson talks about his video essay ‘Signs of a Rebel Buddha’ that is an Official Selection at the Kolkata Shorts International Film Festival (India) 2020.

Conversation #2 between Emmy award-winning journalist Ursula Pfeiffer and Don Thompson of nextPix — some great discussion and dialog, seeking a path forward for society.


“They were like butterflies, it was like they never slept,” said Mr. Vounta, recalling the bombs that the U.S. dropped on Laos from 1964 to 1973. Mr. Vounta is one of the voices featured in This Little Land of Mines, a film by Erin McGoffa 2017 Student Fellow from American University. The film premiered at the Landmark Bethesda Row Theater on ThursdayJuly 18, 2019, to an audience of nearly 200 that filled the theater.

Read more here.

erin-world-premiereErin McGoff at the Q@A for ‘This Little Land of Mines’ World Premiere on July 18th, 2019.

I just finished the audio book by Walter Isaacson about the life of Leonardo da Vinci. I would highly recommend it to all as it conveys a sense of not only the man, but also what a life devoted to creativity can be.

And what is that? Interestingly, it is the liberal spirit of experimentation and willingness to fail, or half complete works, that was the hallmark of Leonardo. For example, he only completed four portraits of women – one of which is considered by many to be the best Renaissance painting and emblematic of the time – the Mona Lisa. Many of his projects, and paintings, were left unfinished.

Another interesting and inspiring aspect of Leonardo was his willingness to invent technique and his success at doing so. Among those techniques was Sfumato – the sfumato-001technique of intentionally blurring lines and color to create an overall sense of realism. How? Because in life there are no ‘lines’, there is only the interplay between light and dark. The two often blend harmoniously.

Leonardo never wrote an overarching treatise – there is no opus book or books that depict his philosophy or conveys his style. Rather, he kept thousands of pages of notes, all that were apparently designed to inform himself and remind himself of certain aspects of whatever craft or art he was trying to master, including the craft of designing buildings and machines of all sorts, some of them machines of war.

He was, then, a blend of artist and scientist, and investigator into the known and unknown, who chronicled what he observed for sometimes mundane, sometimes profound reasons.

A bit more about sfumato. For me, sfumato not only revealed a style, but a perspective on life. In sum, life is not absolute light and dark, good and evil. It is, rather, the sfumato-002constant shades between. So sfumato as a technique is inherently humanizing. It emphasizes that nothing is perfect: there are no straight lines, there is no definitive light and dark, and there certainly is no perfected human form. By inference, there is no perfect human being.

What the technique of sfumato allows to happen is for the innate human inner light to shine through: a light that points to another kind of perfection. That is, that the light is imperceptible in a sense, and yet, perceived on some level as the human spirit. Often, but not always, that spirit is compassionate. Other times it is cruel. At yet other times, mysterious. The genius of Leonardo was his ability to convey that spirit and light in all its forms.

This does not at all mean we should stop attempting to be better human beings or to shape our own moral code.  Rather, it prompts us to have a broader, hopefully wiser perspective.  In other words,  the passion for truth and beauty does lead, it seems to me, to an understanding that no one has an absolute claim on it.  It is, rather, a sfumato. It is a blurring. It is in this blurring that we can find our common humanity and can abide peacefully in the light that pervades all of experience. This ‘great light’ is not so much a ‘spiritual’ light only for the religious – for a artist like da Vinci perceived it without necessarily always being overtly religious. It is the light of sfumato.sfumato-003

You can find a link to the amazon page for Walter Isaacson’s biography of Leonardo here.

Don Thompson is a producer, filmmaker and playwright.

Seeing director Sean Baker’s The Florida Project reminded me quite unabashedly that there is more than one way to tackle the art and craft of filmmaking. In the United States, because filmmaking is so rooted to this day in story telling techniques that can be traced back to the so-called ‘Hollywood style’, The Florida Project will certainly make FP-002some people squirm in their seats because they are not delivered the well-defined story memes heaped up from Hollywood directors like so many pre-packaged and colorful Gummy Bears the viewer might be inclined to purchase prior to entering the theater.

As far as mainstream movies are concerned, Hollywood is generally more worried about box office than art.  In seeming rebellion, The Florida Project reminds me of an alternative universe of storytellers that countered the Hollywood style in the 50’s and 60’s, including but not limited to European directors such as Francois Truffaut, Michelangelo Antonioni, Vittoria De Sica, and others. And in that mix we must also include Asian directors such as Ozu.

These similarities take their shape in terms of both the way the film is shot and edited, as well as its content. The Florida Project was shot and edited in a distinctly non-American style, and its content focuses on the shadow world of poverty that many Americans would prefer to ignore.

In terms of how the film is shot, I was immediately struck by the emphasis on what can only be termed mise-en-scene – literally, the use of the frame and the compositional elements displayed to make a statement, usually using a static, wide shot. The constant wide shots of the film’s child characters marching past Floridian architectural oddities shows the indelible influence of environment and context on the children. It forces us into the moment, rather than moving us kinetically into the next scene via relentless editing.

Mise-en-scene, as such, is a political statement. It tells the viewer that the director wants you to linger on the scene and reflect on it, rather than move on to the next item in the shot list and not think about what you’re seeing too much. A master at this technique was the Japanese director Yasujiro Ozu.

Ozu’s Cinematography (from the review of Early Spring)

Ozu’s mise-en-scene was famously different from most other filmmakers across the globe, although his style has directly influenced some filmmakers, such as Hou Hsiao-Hsien.  His camera is almost invariably set at a low angle, as if from a low sitting position and looking up at the characters.  The image compositions are static, and there is almost no camera movement.  Even when the camera tracks horizontally, it maintains a fixed composition on the principal characters of the shot.  Thus the camera seems to be rooted to the environment, and pays little attention to the eye-line axes of the characters.

It is precisely this effect of ‘rooted in the environment’ that Sean Baker explores with The Florida Project. The use of mise-en-scene, combined with the fact that the film is virtually without music, certainly displays one of the most rebellious directorial styles seen in the United States recently, certainly since Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life – a film that also showed a lot of European influence, including most predominantly the emphasis on architecture (also found in The Florida Project) so prevalent in the films of Michelangelo Antonioni. You can read my review of The Tree of Life here.

That said, Mr. Baker is not quite as serious in intent as Malick, and does seem to want to make audiences happy, and does so with a technique often employed by Francois Truffaut (for example in The 400 Blows) and Vittorio De Sica (in Bicycle Thief) – that is, the prevalence of cute. And even beyond cute, The Florida Project displays a Christ-like innocence that evokes pity.

Cuteness, innocence and pity are the elixir that binds the viewer to the screen with The Florida Project where they might otherwise turn away. A similar tactic was used in the film Little Miss Sunshine, but that film had a much more conventional shooting style than The Florida Project, and was also more cynical in its conclusions about human nature. The primary purveyor of this innocence is The Florida Project is the central child character, Moonee, as played by Brooklynn Prince. Moonee, if taken as a symbol, is the lunar child, the mysterious nature that pervades The Florida Project and would certainly overwhelm the machinations of suburban bliss laid out by mankind should we ever die off of from a plague or other calamity. Moonee’s mother, played with effervescent verve by newcomer Bria Vinaite, is also fundamentally innocent – a passionate activist for her child’s wellbeing – as much a product of an unfair system as anything to do with her own failings.

It is no accident, therefore, that the children want to burn down the house in the cookie cutter suburb that has turned into a dilapidated wasteland. Moonee and her friends, in burning down the house, show that they are in alignment with nature, not with the supposed security of the corporate human as displayed by the ‘normal’ people who swamp into Disney World – a manufactured realm of make-believe that the children of the welfare hotels cannot afford and must therefore turn constantly to their own imaginations to replace. And yet, their ‘crime’ is imbued with innocence – no one is hurt, and perhaps if all the abandoned homes were burned down, nature could more effectively reclaim its rightful status.

The father figure of the film is the ever-present motel manager, played by Willem Dafoe. Dafoe’s character introduces us to the implications of human choice that Mr. Baker FB-003wishes us to contemplate. While the environment and context in The Florida Project may be quite cold, and the omniscient helicopter ‘observer’ of the entire human enterprise that drones endlessly in the background quite detached and empty, human choice is nonetheless a key factor in introducing compassion into the equation. The manager, then, is closer to God than is the environment and nature, which again is shown to be irrevocably detached. God – should he or she be presumed to exist – emerges from nature as a human construct.  The film compels us to conclude that human beings can create good where it otherwise might not exist.

At the end of the film, Moonee’s friend takes her on an excursion back to American normalcy, which to the poor children of the welfare hotel is the fantasy of Disney World and Cinderella’s Castle – the proverbial destination for all young American girls. The fact that the girls never really reach the Castle is, it seems to me, intended – for it is the idea of the Castle, not so much the Castle itself,  that eggs the girls on to their destination. It is the promise of the thing – not the thing itself – that motivates human beings. Seen in a larger context, it is the promise of hope and freedom that elevates people — that no matter how illogical and silly it may seem to cynics, hope is nonetheless a powerful motivator for the supposedly naïve people of the world who still need to believe in something.

For without hope, human beings cannot be said to be fully human. The Florida Project shows us how this truth still resides with us as much as it did a half century ago, or indeed a millennium ago, or even perhaps when human beings first looked out from FB-001over a hilltop, and saw the Promised Land beyond.

Don Thompson is a producer, filmmaker and playwright.

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