Thursday, May 22, 2014

Karl Lentini on "Cleaver's Destiny"

What was your filmmaking background before making Cleaver's Destiny?

KARL: I began making films with my Dad's Super 8 movie camera, which had sync sound, back in 1983. One day my friend across the street, Tim Maloney (now a filmmaker and film professor), said he got hold of some Super 8 film and asked if I wanted to make a movie. I said yes of course! Tim and I made two films together, then I went on to make films of my own in high school.

After graduating from Boston University’s film school, I moved to Los Angeles where I continued to make short films and write screenplays. Cleaver's Destiny is my first feature.

Where did the idea come from and what was the writing process like? 

KARL: I made a short film comedy in 1993 called Homeless Bill, where I played an eccentric homeless man named Bill. Over the years, I kept thinking about the character -- that he had a daughter he lost track of, that he was in the military, that he had mental problems.

I wish I could say the story came to me all at once, but it came to me in pieces. At one point it was a musical about the Bill character searching for his daughter. Then I realized the story should be about the daughter looking for him, and that's when I knew I had the foundation for a movie. 

I worked on the script for six months in 2004, then stopped to work on a horror script with a friend. In 2007 I returned to the script, working on it all the way up until shooting the film in August 2008. Some scenes I rewrote 25 times.

The original title was Captain of the Snapple Command, in reference to Bill and his collection of Snapple bottles. While the Snapple company would let me show bottles in the movie, they wouldn't let me use Snapple in the title. So Joe di Gennaro (Director of Photography/associate producer/co-editor) and I came up with the current title, Cleaver's Destiny.

Can you talk about how you raised your budget and your financial plan for recouping your costs?

KARL: I financed the movie myself by working lots of overtime hours at my job at NT Audio, a post-production house in Santa Monica. I only put $5,000 on credit cards, an amount I knew I could pay off within a few months. I didn't necessarily make the film in order to turn a profit, but I do hope the film earns revenue by way of online distribution and DVD sales. 

You wore a lot of hats on this project -- writer, director, actor, composer. What's the upside and the downside to doing that?

KARL: The upside of wearing all those hats is I could greenlight my own film. I wasn't waiting for anyone else to approve or disapprove of what I was doing. I could go full steam ahead when I felt ready to do so. Wearing all those hats means you have to be willing to take the blame when things go wrong or when people criticize the movie. But you also get the most credit when and if it succeeds.

The downside is having to deal with more stress, exhaustion, frustration, and financial loss for a longer period of time than anyone else involved with the production. If you can survive all that, then you got yourself a movie.

What was your process for directing yourself?

KARL: I knew what I wanted from my character in each scene I was in. I mapped out my acting plans in my head, then shared my ideas with the DP Joe di Gennaro. Once we knew what the plan was, I could slip into character and do the scene.

I didn't watch playback all that much on camera, which can waste a lot of time on the set. I had to have an internal sensor that told me whether I nailed the scene or needed to do it again. 

I purposely didn't rehearse much with the other actors so they wouldn't quite know what I was going to do. I was playing a mentally ill homeless man and was also the director, so I was able to indulge in the character, which made for some great moments of spontaneity between me and the other actors. 

Joe the DP has years of experience shooting documentaries, and was incredibly adept at adapting to whatever was happening on set and getting the best shot possible.

Also, playing a character disconnected from reality allowed me to temporarily forget my worries as producer and director, which was very freeing. 

What kind of camera did you use to shoot the movie -- and what did you love about it and hate about it?

KARL: We used the Panasonic HVX200, per Joe the DP's recommendation. It was great in allowing us to shoot under the radar on the streets, parks, and beaches of Los Angeles. However, I noticed in the editing that sometimes the camera focused on objects in the background more than the actor in a shot.

You composed the score for you movie. Any tips to others who are thinking of tackling that challenge along with directing?

KARL: Objectively judge your own music, just as you would your own writing, editing, or anything else. Be ready to chuck your own material if you feel it's not right for the scene, or if enough people tell you it isn't working. 

I've always tried to work with musicians who know more than I do, to raise my own level of performance. So, as with everything else, work with the best people you can find.

And give yourself as much time as you can because you're always going to wish you had more time.

What was the smartest thing you did during production? The dumbest?

KARL: The smartest thing I did during production was use one location, a house in Redondo Beach, as five different locations in the script. The smartest thing I did in pre-production was cast Jenny Leona di Gennaro as the lead, who was only 17 at the time but turned in a wonderful performance.

By the way, Jenny is the daughter of Joe di Gennaro, the DP, who I hired first. He asked if his daughter could read for the lead role, and I thought, "Yeah whatever, everyone thinks their kid is brilliant." But she ended up impressing the hell out of me, especially when I read her with Alexis Corey, the actress who plays her mother in the film. Jenny went on to attend Juilliard Drama School and is now building a career as a stage actress on the East Coast.

The dumbest thing I did during production was fail to budget enough money to hire someone competent for a crucial position on the crew. I had to deal with this weak link in the chain all throughout the production, in addition to everything else I was doing. Paying people less can save you money, but then you don't always get the most qualified people.

And, finally, what did you learn from making the film that you have taken to other projects?

KARL: The most important thing I learned as a filmmaker is to make the decision to make the movie. Everything else stems from that.

As a producer, the most important thing is to feed the crew well. If nothing else, keep people well fed and hydrated. Avoid working in extreme heat if you can, and be nice to everyone and respect their talent.

Don't even think about making a movie unless you believe the script is as good as it can be, and you believe in it with all your heart.

Be willing to listen to other people's opinions, but don't be afraid to cast those opinions aside and make your own decision.

And be willing to search for answers to questions you don't even know how to ask yet.

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