Thursday, June 11, 2015

Lonzo Liggins on "Stop Pepper Palmer"

What was your filmmaking background before making Stop Pepper Palmer?

LONZO: I went to a film school at a community college but never with the intention of creating films, just working in the industry. I was being laid off by the local power company and needed work and was told that PAs (production assistants) were making a good living in our state (Utah) at the time. Prior to that I had done extra work, featured extra work, and was a production assistant.

I mainly stumbled into the industry out of necessity and not desire, it was something that fascinated me and I felt I would be good at it. As an extra, I would sneak on set and watch the actors and crew working. I picked up the lingo, watched the actors carefully, and never thought I would one day make a film myself.

Six years ago I entered into acting, theater and film, and became a filmmaker out a necessity to create more parts for myself and other actors.

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

LONZO: I was always a writer, during high school I was a rapper and grew a strong affinity for language and poetry. I wrote incessantly and always had ideas popping into my head.

I wrote a paper my senior year for a history class and I knew nothing about the subject and bullshitted my way through the paper. The teacher gave me a D but told me I was a great writer, despite the face that the whole paper was not factual. It was the first time someone had given me any validation for writing. I won a poetry contest for a newspaper, and eventually went on to write freelance articles and wrote for a college newspaper.

It was around that time that I started to study screenwriting. I was an extra on the feature film Firestarter 2: Rekindled, and I looked around and had an epiphany. For the first time on a set I realized that all of the production came out of the mind of one person. All of the jobs were there because one person had an interesting enough idea to be taken seriously, get financial backing and have a film made. It blew my mind. So, I devoured books and screenplays so I could figure out what works and what doesn't.

My writing style is scattered and extremely methodical. I will write down ideas that come to me constantly throughout the day. I may have 3-400 pieces of paper with random character ideas lying around and they all make sense to me. The average person can pick up the piece of paper and be lost but I know exactly where in the story it goes.

I spend anywhere from a month to two or three years developing the characters in my head. Once the characters are developed, then the words come easily. It's a matter of me getting their tone, look, quirks, and nuances down in my head. After that, the character choices are easy and the situations are simple to write.

The actual process of writing the script takes anywhere from three weeks to three months. The re-writes may take a two to three months. I try and not over think the writing process because I think the best ideas are organic and don't need to be forced just channeled. If you can form a character in your brain with enough detail, the character will come alive and tell you everything they will say in every given situation you provide.

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

LONZO: I went to a Sundance workshop and James Cromwell was the guest speaker. He explained that making a move to LA was a bad idea if you wanted to create a career in Hollywood, he said to create your own content and it was more likely to get you recognition.

There were two filmmakers who made a movie called Unicorn City who raised money from a family member and Cromwell suggested trying that route. So, Initially, there was no plan to have a larger budget. I had an idea to create a web series that could be shot on $1500. I was going to use friends and fellow actors to work cheap and for free so we could just get some material out there. What I realized was that people had varying schedules and working for free creates a huge flood of flakiness and lack of commitment.

In addition, I didn't want to spend every weekend trying to rally people together to shoot the series. I switched the idea to making a feature and releasing it, if nothing happened we would just release two minute segments on YouTube or through a website.

My girlfriend had money she had received from a trust and we had always talked about starting a business so we said we should just create a business in something we knew, so she invested $15,000 initially. Once she was able to see the power of the table read and the potential the film may have, she upped the budget to $30,000.

After we began shooting, we realized that having some kind of celebrity cameo would help to secure us a distribution deal, the budget was increased again. Near the end, our budget got increased to $100,000 because of the unforeseen costs and the level of legitimacy we wanted our film to have.

Many of the techniques I learned about distribution I got from Jerome Courshoun's DVD course, Secrets of Distribution. As far as recouping costs, we relied on tapping into the fan base of our celebrity cameos and securing distribution that may capitalize on getting the physical product in a platform like Redbox or a small theatrical run.

How did you cast the film and did the script change once you had the cast in place?

LONZO: I am a theatre and film actor so I am very much plugged into the acting scene. I knew going into the film, with extensive research, that acting, sound, and a bad script would kill a film. So, I put a strong emphasis on acting and casting the right people.

I had written parts for people I knew but some people weren't able to do the parts and others didn't have the time available to take off from work. My strategy was to get people who I knew were great actors from the theatre world and transition them into film. It was a tactic that worked with some of the greatest actors and I wanted to utilize it for the film.

I had them study Michael Caine's Acting in Film series on YouTube and talked to them about the subtleties in film acting. I even went as far as to hold rehearsals and use my iPad to record them and show them the differences in their performances if they tried different approaches.

Because it was a comedy I would say about 85% was scripted and we did some improve. I wanted the set to be as relaxed and at ease as possible. How can you create funny content if everyone is stressed? If an actor wanted to try something we did it, if it worked it worked, if not, I didn't use it in the final edit. I'm a firm believer in a democracy on a film set, not a dictatorship, so allowing the actors some free reign to develop different approaches with the character was encouraged.

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

LONZO: We used a Red One and a Red Scarlett. Most of the shots were steadicam to shave time down and create sense of being in the room with the actors. I loved the look of the Reds but the breakdown and set up process was a lot longer than it would've been had we used a 5d or a 7d.

Plus, whenever you use larger cameras there becomes a crowd control problem. People tend to stop and play the "what are you guys filming game" when there are larger cameras. I don't regret using the Red's and would use them again. It made the editing process much more streamlined.

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

LONZO: Smartest thing we did during production was to shoot in fewer locations so we could lessen the amount of company moves and decrease time. Shooting in fewer locations was a Kevin Smith idea I latched on to.

Once again, going back to creating a sense of comfort with the cast and crew where anyone who came on set felt comfortable was very key to creating a stress free environment that helped everyone do their jobs efficiently. Ego trips and power struggles don't belong in the arts in my opinion. Disagreements and differing opinions, sure, but stopping production to argue over the script, shots, character choices, etc, stifles the process and I can't think of one good outcome that comes from it.

The dumbest thing that happened was not having a plan b for every shot or coming to set unprepared, whether actor or crewmember. We had one day on set that there was a lack of preparation that halted production and caused us to add an extra day to production. We were all exhausted and had hit a wall, no one was to blame but our collective selves for not planning for the unexpected. I would tell any aspiring filmmaker that you can't plan enough.

And finally, what did you learn from the film that you will take to other projects?

LONZO: With the market changing constantly I have learned the value of two things: creating a product that appears to have higher production value, not necessarily by using CGI but by having a larger variation of shots and locations that are well shot.

Also, using a recognizable celebrity to do a cameo or part in the film is a must. This really helps during the distribution process. If you have the budget, find one name to come and shoot for a day. Even if you have to think outside of the box, YouTube stars, well known bloggers, athletes, musicians, TV stars, reality show stars, people who may have a desire to break into film or build their acting reel.

Many times distributors don't even ask about the plot they ask who is in the film. They need to recoup costs just like you do. If they put money and their reputation into a film they want to have the film be profitable and make them look good.

Go into any film with a business mindset and that will help enormously. The artistic part is crucial, but you'll find that the business side is equally crucial. Making a film and then shotgunning it out to film festivals and crossing your fingers is a bad strategy that is employed by more filmmakers than who will care to admit. Studying, understanding distribution, and having a solid plan of action, along with several fallback plans, is a vital factor in securing distribution and getting a film placed in larger platforms like Redbox and Netflix, or getting a theatrical release.

I would learn even more about distribution, how the distribution companies work and the role of a producer’s rep and how vital they may or may not be for your film. I cannot stress how much more you realize you need to know after making a film and then getting distribution, the journey of knowledge has just begun, but it's a journey that I would take again and again. No regrets. 

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