What was your filmmaking background before making Lesson Before Love?
DUI: Screenwriting has always been my one true passion, I’ve been writing plays and films as long as I can remember. But, I really didn’t see a true reality of getting any of my scripts produced until I went to a film festival in New Orleans and saw a short film back in 2006. I had heard of short films but I had absolutely no idea what they were.
I grew up in Arkansas in the 90’s and we just didn’t have access to the film industry outside of the local theater, I honestly didn’t even know film schools existed.
When I saw all those shorts, I was hooked. I directed my first short in 2007 and quickly followed it up with another a few months later.
Since then, I’ve had traveling plays, more shorts, a web series, and I recently completed my dream...my first feature film.
Where did the idea come from and what was the writing process like?
DUI: Funny you should ask that. I always have some type of story or character floating around my head. I had all four of the main characters floating around my head in separate stories for years, then on Valentine’s Day 2008 it all came together.
It’s hard to find modern character stories in African- American film, so I decided to write a film that explored self-discovery in the landscape of love. I just thought an interesting dynamic would be finding yourself, while finding love.
I’m not belabored by the writing process like many people are. I love it, even though it is an arduous process. It took me about three weeks to pen the initial screenplay, then I just keep studying screenwriting and keep re-writing. I may have done about 30 plus drafts, with major and small characters tweaks or story arc shifts during that time.
Can you talk about how you raised your budget and your plan for recouping your costs?
DUI: This is one part of the journey of a filmmaker that I have come to appreciate. We had three budgets: the first was bare bones with no star power with the other two increasing from there.
I took meetings with everyone! One investor presented us with our mid-range budget and we thought the film was definitely going to happen. But something in me told me that it wasn’t right and we walked away from the table. I lost a good friend because of that too. Sometimes in pursuit of a dream, especially when money is involved, people shift on you. It can be emotional, financially or based on lack of a common vision, and that’s hard, but you must do what feels right.
If you don’t feel right about something, no matter what anybody says, don’t do it. Oddly enough, almost a year to the date, we approached an entrepreneur named Scotty. But this time we took it slow. We worked on small projects to build trust and went from there. We did the film on even less than our "bare bones" budget. It was really really tough, but we all sacrificed and got the film done.
Just recently, we’ve started to get regular calls from distributors, which is great, but until the ink dries we understand there are no guarantees. So, we’ve taken a very proactive approach to recouping the budget. The film has got into some major festivals and we embarked on an 8-city BUZZ tour of the film for promotion. We’ve booked several theaters for a spring release as well, so we are gearing up for that.
What kind of camera did you use to shoot the movie -- and what did you love about it and hate about it?
DUI: We shot the entire production on Mark 7D. My DP calls it his daughter, so I guess that makes her my niece. It is a great camera for a first-time feature director. It was versatile and easy to manage the media. We have several different prime lenses, so it was easy to make different decisions based on the location and look we were going for.
The problem with it is that it's not film. Shooting on film is the ultimate desire of any filmmaker. So to achieve that true film look, we really had to study and shoot with the camera a lot. Once we learned how to use it and how the different lenses react to light, we were able to be skillful in the way we shot the picture.
How did you and your DP go about creating the look for the movie?
DUI: I probably had more discussions about the look of the film than perhaps anything else. We first took an honest look at our resources and decided not to try techniques at which we were not skilled. We weren’t going to let the tools we didn’t have stop us from making something beautiful.
Tyler (DP) and I love 60’s and early 70’s films, and if you look at them you would see there isn’t a lot of movement or complicated lighting plots. There is a purity to them: holding frames and honest, thematic lighting. So we drew off of that base and infused it with some Spike Lee/ Ernest Dickerson color techniques from the late 80’s and early 90’s. Then, from the two of us working together so often, we developed our own style and that’s mostly what we used.
Each character had a lighting color and we lit them in those colors, as there were certain key emotional shits in the characters' lives. It gave a very subtle but deeply felt effect when you watch the film.
You wore a lot of hats on the movie -- director, writer, producer, editor. What's the upside and the downside to taking on all those tasks yourself?
DUI: I did wear a lot of hats on this film, but initially it wasn’t designed that way. One thing I’ve learned from being on so many sets is that nothing ever goes the way it's planned. EVER! Being the writer didn’t affect the film much negatively because it's done prior to production, but the upside is, we didn’t have a script supervisor on set and because the screenplay came from me, if the actors missed a line, I immediately caught it.
Directing a feature was my dream, so I loved every minute of that. Not a single moment went by where I didn’t live each moment to the fullest.
Producing and editing, for me were by far the biggest challenges. I never understood how necessary a strong producer was cause I had been producing my own shorts. Organizing the film shoots, dealing with the production crew, and figuring out schedules is unbelievably difficult when you're trying to create. My 1st AD, Mesheka, really stepped up on that.
Another tough decision was editing the film myself because that wasn’t the plan. The editor we hired just proved to be extremely unreliable on such a time sensitive project. Luckily, I had some years of editing under my belt, so I could do it. My DP, Tyler, helped out a lot on that as well. Although it would have been nice to see what a talented, responsible editor could have brought to the project.
Upside - I COULD do it all. Downside - I HAD TO do it all.
What was the smartest thing you did during production? The dumbest?
DUI: The smartest thing we did was actually completely unintentional. The first time we were at the table to produce the film, I planned the film out completely. Script breakdowns, wardrobe vision, source music samples, EVERYTHING! So, when I walked away from that investor, I thought I had wasted time. However, when the other investor showed up he didn’t give us much time to get everything rolling. But because we had already produced everything, we were ready.
Another smart thing was that I personally spoke with everyone involved in the production about what this film meant to me. That made our days go by so much easier! I loved the cast and crew to death. They got paid pennies and worked for me as if I were President Obama.
The dumbest thing I did was to have a 18-day shoot. Not that we didn’t get everything we needed, but I would have loved to spend another week on set with that cast and crew. They added to my life in such a special way, words almost can’t describe it. Some days I wish I could do another film just to hangout with them.
And, finally, what did you learn from making the film that you have taken to other projects?
DUI: Filmmaking is about people. It is about an earnest human connection and that experience is what making entertainment is all about. I came to that project constantly reminding myself to bring a positive and enlightening energy to set. They took that energy and returned it in kind. I will take that to every set I ever get the blessing to work on.