CJ Silberman got his start in filmmaking as a youth, when his parents gave him a Super 8 camera. He honed his craft making experimental films with his neighbors and earned his degree in film history from UC Berkeley, where he worked as an assistant director on a few low budget films. He then attended John F. Kennedy University, where he earned a law degree.
In 2007, Silberman released his first feature length documentary, The Injustice System in America, which examined the unfair treatment of people of color in the prison system.
His latest film, Becoming Jody II – The Coveting, a drama with elements of horror and comedy that Silberman describes as “Eraserhead meets Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolfe?“, will premiere on May 14th at 9:30pm at the Clay Theater in San Francisco. Another screening will take place on June 7th at the New Parkway Theater in Oakland.
What was your upbringing like, and how did it shape who you are today?
I was born in Carmel, CA, then spent most of my youth in the East Bay in Northern California. There weren’t too many children in our neighborhood, so we created other diversions such as making short films and learning how to oil paint with one of our nannies. I was born into a very wealthy family, and my mom and dad encouraged our artistic sides.
Growing up, who were your biggest creative influences?
I loved film early on and loved watching foreign films on PBS like Bergman and Fellini pictures. I also loved Kurt Vonnegut and artists like Van Gogh and Chagall.
Has your legal background helped with your filmmaking career? If so, in what ways?
I was taught to think logically and orderly in law school, and that really helped with my approach to the program management side of filmmaking: scheduling actors and locations and other logistics. Also, my law background has helped me negotiate contracts. I often lecture on negotiation strategies. Recently, I presented a seminar at Draper University on win/win negotiation and will be publishing a paper soon on that topic.
What made you decide to explore the unfairness of the prison system for your first film, The Injustice System in America?
I have always been drawn to champion the underserved. The prison system isn’t a very popular topic and most politicians won’t talk about it, because they’re supposed to be tough on crime. And prisoners can’t vote. Using statistics from the Bureau of Justice, I proved my point.
What inspired the story of Becoming Jody?
My friend Dave found Jody in a garbage heap whilst doing some volunteer work at a trade school in San Jose. The backstory and characters grew out of meditation, even most of the dialog and plot points. There are many stories here, redemption, the attraction of the cup flipper, Amy’s bringing homeless people into her house, failed marriage, etc.
How did you settle on the Historic Hensley House Mansion as the primary filming location for Becoming Jody?
I bought the mansion with the idea of someday making a film there. Becoming Jody seemed like the perfect story for this location.
How have you grown as a filmmaker over the years?
Initially I was drawn toward silly comedies like my first short film, Ashtons Crumbs. It was based on a true story of a man who was put on trial for fondling bread. It was a bit stiff and too long for one joke.
What are some of the most memorable documentaries you’ve seen?
Anything by Errol Morris. The Thin Blue Line is probably the best, and I love Philp Glass’s soundtrack. He’s a genius because the music portends of tension and unresolved climaxes which may never come to fruition.
In 2012, your Shiny Toes laser treatment centers were shut down when you were convicted of practicing medicine without a license and ultimately sentenced to four years and eight months in jail. How do you address these charges? Do you feel that your conviction was justified?
The case was unfounded. I was using what the FDA calls a heat lamp, which can’t injure anyone. There were no complaints from my clients and no injuries. I contacted the medical board prior to starting my business and they told me I just couldn’t use a high powered laser for tattoo removal. The letter was confiscated when my office was raided. The whole thing was political and my family, who attended the trial, couldn’t believe I wasn’t allowed by the judge to call any witnesses.
I only served six months in county jail. The charge used to be a misdemeanor. Mine was the first case where there were no injuries. The trial was a joke and my daughter, who is going to be a lawyer, thought the process was awful. First guilty if arrested then convicted so the county can get more convictions, hence more money. I’m a good religious person and would never hurt anyone. I was a certified homeopath and most clients were happy with my service.
Did your legal issues change your outlook on life or the American legal system? If so, how?
Ironically, I produced a film that is on Netflix, The Injustice System in America. I was an attorney several years ago and never witnessed such an unfair trial. I am now very dubious of the legal system, at least in Santa Clara County where I’ve been told there’s close to a 98% conviction rate. Judge Allegro who heard my case had been accused of several improprieties when a district attorney, including hiding evidence she knew could have exonerated some criminal defendants. I didn’t think I was doing anything wrong at the time and received no warning from the medical board prior to the raiding of my office.
What are you working on next?
My next picture will be Cowboy Lost, Taxi Driver meets Huck Finn.