What was your filmmaking background before you made Lunatics, Lovers and Poets?
JOHN: I started as an actor. I did plays in High School. In College I was a scholarship quarterback on the football team, which was always interesting running across campus after football practice to rehearsal. Two words meaning the same thing. Weird. I secretly liked rehearsal more.
After college I moved to New York and studied at HB studios with late Bill Hickey. Booked some commercials etc... but it was moving to L.A. where I really got involved at the Beverly Hills Playhouse. I joined a theater group and we put a lot of original work. I always wanted to write and direct, but I didn't think I was allowed to do something like that. It was reserved for the elite and all knowing. But then I took a chance and wrote scene in acting class and put it up. My acting partner and I didn't tell anyone I wrote it to get an unbiased opinion. They liked it. So it's their fault I'm a writer/director.
From there I wrote and acted in a short film I did with my actor cousin, Neal Matarazzo. I asked my friend Hugh Ross to direct it. Hugh is the voice in The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward... Hugh is an editor now. Anyway we got into The Hamptons International Film Festival and did well. We were the only nobodys there and it was quite awesome. Our film played against Ben Affleck, Griffin Dunne Illeana Douglas etc...
From there I wrote and acted in a Western, The Last Outlaws, and I had Lewis Smith (Southern Comfort, Heavenly Kid) direct it. I thought I was on my way in this business when I got sick. Nobody could diagnose me, lyme disease, lupus, wackadoo syndrome... they said I had an overactive immune system blah blah blah. Within 6 months I had to crawl to the bathroom in the morning and could barely walk. Some kind of arthritis attacked my body, my hands my ankles my knees. Anyway, poor me, the next few years were spent on crutches and I had to leave California and move in with my Mom in Florida because I couldn't work.
Finally after about 30 doctors, I got a doctor to agree to replace my knee and put staples in my ankles and gave me some drugs to kill my immune system. Duh, that doesn't make much sense so I stopped taking them. Good news is I had plenty of time to write after icing my hands. It took a couple of years for the operations and recovery, but I never got back to normal. I'm just grateful I walk now! A friend of mine gave me a job answering phones at his production house so I could move back to L.A. From there I started to P.A. for people who knew me so when my legs swelled up they would let me go sit down on set next to the Director. Very grateful to them.
It was obvious I wasn't going to be Brad Pitt at this point, so I studied every job on the set and watched the Directors like a hawk. I was fortunate to work for some great commercial & music video Directors: Frances Lawrence, Nigel Dick, & Martin Granger. The job allowed me to stay in the business and write. I put plays up and started Directing as well as sending out screenplays. I was trying to rally support to do my first feature, but it bothered me that I didn't know the 35mm camera. I watched Frances pick up the camera on set time after time and I thought if I wanted to do this thing right, I should know the camera. So I took out a loan and went to The Los Angeles Film School. Actually my wife took out the loan. I graduated with honors in Directing & Cinematography and shot my thesis film on 35mm.At that point I had a really good script and got a couple of producers. They set up a co-production with Canada and we were going to shoot in Fiji (It's an Island picture). I had meetings with a couple of really good actors who agreed to do it. Rodrigo Santoro (The 300) and Leanor Varella (Tailor of Panama) The Producer spent a year and a half setting it up and then it all fell apart. Basically an investor backed out. I was pissed and angry and felt like a failure, and told my wife Madeline that I had to do something. I had to do something... now. She was supporting us as an actress and Production Mgr. and agreed that we would do it ourselves. So I took out a play that I wrote, called Raining in Chelsea which was put up in L.A. twice but it never really worked the way I hoped it would as a play, and rewrote it for the screen in two weeks and I liked the direction that it took. Madeline called in every favor she could and became Exec. Prod. We didn't let anything stop us. Not money, not nothing. We just pushed forward because no matter what, we couldn't fail.
Where did you get the idea for the film?
JOHN: Aside from the fact that it is a semi autobiographical, and I've aired some laundry which is frightening in and of itself. Funny enough I hate people who write "tell all books." The original idea for the film came from a statue of a coal miner that my mom brought back from Scotland. (My parents are from Scotland) At the Beverly Hills Playhouse we had to do this thing called a picture exercise -- you find a painting like a Gauguin or Caravaggio, and reproduce that on stage.
Well I took the Coal Miner Statue, wrote a 5 minute monologue about a Scottish Coal Miner and went to Western Costume and got some authentic miner garb from the 40's. I basically played my Grandfather whom I had never met. He died of Black Lung in Scotland when my Mother was young. From there it morphed into a one act, then 3 acts, back to two acts and finally Lunatics, Lovers & Poets.During the writing of the play however I was estranged from my father. He had a tough life, he was homeless in the port of authority in New York for a while. I don't say that to denigrate him, or cast dispersions, because contrarily I loved him and in the end he died in my hands, which had a profound affect on me and the theme of what I write about. There was surrealism in the hospital room before he died. There was pain, and magic and love. He was in a coma and a couple of times about 3 am he would roll over and talk to me. What do you do with that? I can still smell the room, I can see the shadows on the wall, and the sounds. What do you do with that? Write I guess...
How did you script the film and how did that script change during the shooting?
JOHN: Like I said earlier it came from a play I wrote, but it was an amalgamation of experiences and kept morphing. When the play first went up, in my twenties. I thought it was good. But it was like an "oh, woe is me" piece. And had I done the film then, I think the character of the "Dad" would have been one dimensional. Whereas now the "Dad" is complicated, lovable, human, despite his flaws. And I credit Cotter with a lot of that.
Writing Lunatics... was very personal, but the challenge in that was to make my story the audience's story and hopefully hit a universal nerve, it wasn’t like sitting down and saying "okay I want to write a comedy, or horror film." Or right now I've been hired to write this action/comedy which is not my story, I just write based on the production company's story, send it in get notes, and apply those notes. It’s fun and I work at it just as hard, but it's not painful to get the words out. I don't recommend doing your first feature the way I did it. My advice would be write a horror/comedy...
The script changed prior and during shooting somewhat for the better. Here is where I appreciate film school and don't like those who poo poo it. I was learning how to tell a story with images, I'm still learning, and my script was dialogue heavy, there I said it! How could I say the same thing without words? And I love words. So prior to shooting I would "x" out some paragraphs or rewrite the night before the days shooting.
On set the script would change slightly. DP Pete Young, whom I graduated with, helped a lot. He's an artist, period. Now I love actors, disciplined actors, but I don't like improv for the sake of improv. Improv done incorrectly makes a lazy actor. I want to hear what I wrote first. I'm big enough to know what works and what doesn't. If the actors are truly stuck, I want them to struggle their way out of the scene. Because that's real. That's a verb. An actor can play a verb. An actor can struggle. And in that true frustration they may go off book genuinely and create some magic.
That being said, I get ideas on set, and if that discipline and trust has been set up between me and the actors, we can play. A lot of Cotter in the alley was like that, he'd get an idea or I would, such as the "shaving scene" he came up with which I love. It bothered him that he was clean-shaven in one of the scenes, because he had to shoot a TV show the day before. So he asked if he could do a scene "about the homeless alcoholic" Dad" shaving in the alley because he still had his pride. Genius. I love that. Also Jeremy & Leif have about 3 improved scenes, which I decided to shoot on set. One take each. I threw the situation out there and they ran with it. All of those scenes are in the film. So yes the script did change and evolve, and probably would continue to, but you have to say "cut" at some point.
What technology did you employ to shoot the film and what did you like about it?
JOHN: We shot on Super 16-mm for a few reasons. I'm a film snob first of all, and you get about 11 minutes on a 400 Ft load as opposed to 3 1/2 minutes on 35. So I would double processing and telecine costs if I went 35 mm. Most importantly it's a gritty story. And the super 16 is perfect for that. Also we shot fast and had more room to play with exposure in post. The latitude is more vast if we were over or under exposed. We had multiple locations in the Angeles National Forest and High Desert, so Pete was not tethered and had freedom to move when I needed him to move.
We also used the "Red" camera. There is a lot of rain in the film and there ain't much of it in L.A. in August or Sept. So after principal photography was over I waited for the rain for a few months. When it finally did rain, I called Pete and told him to grab the "red" camera and go out and shoot our rain inserts. I think he went out 3 different times without me. I have asked people to point out the "red" shots in the film and they can't. Of course after they read this they will.
I really like the "red", and the reason aside from style and money that we didn't use it was to do it correctly I would have needed a tech/media manager. And at the time the guys I knew weren't up to speed about the nuances, of the camera, which has since changed. Also Otto Nemetz gave my wife the film camera's for next to nothing as a favor. God bless Otto Nemetz.We cut on AVID. Another editor we graduated with, Kyler Boudreaux, had an AVID and so we cut the movie on that. What I didn't like about it is it's a rich man's machine. Not Indie friendly. And so I became a slave to AVID. Meaning, as you go through the post process and move through different post houses, sound, exporting cuts, titles, color correction etc... You can't open an AVID for less than $500 an hour. I even went deep into the valley to a boutique place in a strip mall to fix one tiny thing and it was $500. It took 15 minutes. Now I'm sure it greatly outperforms the other applications out there but in my case, it hindered me.
You wore a lot of hats on the project -- writer, director, producer. What are the advantages and disadvantages to that approach?
JOHN: You can't blame anyone else! The advantages as a writer/director are no one knows the story better. There is no committee when something doesn't work, I can change on the spot or hang on to it. The disadvantages are there is no committee and have to stand tall in your convictions if you want the cast and crew to follow. Because in the end actors put themselves out there on the edge and don't want to fall. They don't want to look silly. They need to know if they lean over you are going to hang on to them and pull back if need be. I can only hope I achieved that.
The Producer thing is new, I've avoided it up to this point but it was the only way the film would get made. Producing keeps me honest. Even when I don't want to be. I have a lot of arguments with myself. It keeps the film from becoming a Fellini knock off. And forces me to think about achieving the same artistry in a more streamline economical way. Also to think about the audience. No one likes playing to empty houses.
It also keeps me aware of the big picture and details I may not want to be bothered with. My wife Madeline helps tremendously with that. She gets stuff done. I used to work for her as a P.A. and didn't like it. She's still the boss but at least I get to talk back now. Sort of... But when she's the actor, and I've directed her about 5 times now, I make her work harder than everyone else. Payback is a ...
What was the smartest thing you did during pre-production or production? The dumbest?
JOHN: Let's see if I can toot my own horn. Necessity is the father of creativity. So that's a good thing. First off I hired Cotter Smith to play the "Dad." That's a genius move I must say. Also I knew Leif Gantvoort (lead actor) from theater. I directed one of his plays, I think the guy does about a play a month. Anyway I gave him the material, (which he loved of course): however, I told him if he wanted the role, he'd have to get in shape and lose 30 pounds. I saw him 3 months later and he had lost 50! And was cut up like a boxer. Amazing transformation. So that was smart.
Another thing is I knew if I just started shooting I would finish, but I didn't have all the money. So I went into my script and scheduled all the M.O.S scenes or shots first. I ended up with the first 10 days without sound, just the crew and Leif. Then I brought in Jeremy Robinson, who by the way likes to tell people that he "gained 50 lb. for the role..." and shot all their scenes together, and so on...
I think lastly I did not settle for mediocrity despite it being an Independent Film. I created an environment where the actors could up their game and I believe they shined. It is an extremely emotional film, sometimes a bit too close to the bone for some, but there is no denying that the cast acted their asses off.The dumbest thing I did was leave a roll regular 16-mm film laying around in my garage which the 1st AC picked up by mistake and loaded. We didn't have dailies so it was a couple of weeks later that I found out. Oops. Although we were able to zoom in during telecine, and save the shots.
And, finally, what did you learn from making the film that you can take to other projects?
JOHN: That it can be done. That I can make a feature film. Which may seem trivial, but it's a huge win for Madeline and I. I'm not waiting on the phone to ring, or permission from some agent or studio head to green-light or validate me or my work. I get to let the viewers decide for better or worse.
We've played 8 festivals and won 3 awards for Lunatics, Lovers & Poets. And that is in stone. Grown men have hugged me after screenings, teary eyed. Still others give the obligatory "...interesting" which is how it should be. I love a blockbuster thriller just as much as the next guy, but I learned there is a niche for me and others like me.
I think the life lessons on this film are that people do care about this subject matter. Everyone loses everyone and it's in the grieving and how we handle that, that makes us human. Of course the Elephants do the same thing but they don't go to movies.
I learned that I can definitely work smarter on the next one. And I think I can attain more for less. In production value, and cinematic story telling. I've already re-written my next script to be more cinematic based on my experiences with Lunatics... And also I learned that the audience doesn't really care, about what kind of adversity you had to go through to get the story on film. They just want to sit down and watch a good movie.
Ultimately no matter how long or hard you work on something, it comes down to "that sucked" or "I cried my eyes out" And I can only hope it's the latter.