Film Short: Producer/Director Tod Lancaster Talks About His Latest Independent Film – the Disturbing “Shooting April”
On August 30th I had the pleasure of attending the Film Courage Interactive at the Downtown Independent in Los Angeles featuring the World Premiere of Producer/Director Tod Lancaster’s latest independent film “Shooting April”. The movie struck me with the same disturbing uneasiness I experienced years ago after seeing “Looking for Mr. Goodbar” and I was curious to learn more about the filmmaker behind it. So, here is the first part of our Q&A with the intriguing Tod Lancaster.
What was your budget and how many days did it take to film “Shooting April”?
The budget for the film was about $100K. We shot it over the course of 9 non-consecutive days and nights.
How did you raise money to make your film and how long did it take?
We raised money through some well-known sources, primarily Visa, Mastercard and American Express. Which is a glib way of saying we made it happen no matter what. As far as how long it took to raise the money, well, I’ll let you know when we finish paying it off.
There are many filmmakers who find themselves in the position in which we found ourselves prior to making the film; they have an idea, they know they can execute it, but they don’t have money. In my case, I was able to overcome a lot of the normal barriers through the support of friends and family. To execute this particular story, for instance, and to make it completely believable and realistic, there were a lot of stunts that we needed to perform. I’d always wanted to work with Charlie—that’s Charles Grisham, who produced the movie with me—since we’d grown up together and ended up, quite separately, in the same business. But he was also an obvious choice from a purely pragmatic producer’s standpoint: he is an accomplished stunt professional who brought immense resources to the table.
So many of the things I would have paid a lot of money for were built in to the producing team, since I had a producer who was willing to light himself on fire or climb up on top of a moving vehicle.
You mentioned at the Film Courage Interactive that the idea for the film stemmed from being the parent of a teenage girl and a true crime that happened in Orange County. How did you put these two thoughts together and come up with “Shooting April”?
The case in California, where the son of a prominent local official taped himself and his friends raping an unconscious 16-year-old girl, was particularly horrific to me because I had a daughter about that age. I researched that case a bit and found that it was one of a growing number of cases in which perpetrators of criminal acts seemed to feel compelled to record their crimes on video. That struck me as something altogether unique to what I have come to call the YouTube Generation. Video is a large part of their existence; it made sense that it would be a factor in incidents such as these.
I didn’t comprehend this compulsion completely until we actually started filming “Shooting April”. But as the shoot progressed, and as the main character Truman started to unravel, I did come to understand it; the camera becomes an end in itself. In the more extreme cases, like Orange County, it can become, in a crude sort of way, a justification for the act they’re committing.
How does that relate to my daughter? Every father lives in silent terror of the world that might be waiting out there for his child. The fusion of these horrible stories that were in the news and my fatherly concern for my daughter seems inevitable to me in retrospect.
After the screening you said that a director’s job is 80% casting and 20% staying out of the way. Would you elaborate on that a bit more?
I firmly believe that normally, in order to have a good film, you absolutely cannot be without two primary components: a great script and great actors. You need a lot more, of course, depending on the story you’re trying to tell, but these two things are basic necessities, and usually indispensible.
The script is a blueprint from which the entire team works. It’s what enables talented actors to understand their characters. Hearing a director say “your character is sad in this scene” is completely useless to an actor—but by parsing out the actions and the dialogue in a solidly written script that makes sense on a gut level, the actor can analyze and understand that character’s motivations and intentions. That’s when they become capable of real emotion within the context of the story.
With this movie, however, I made the decision early on that there would be no script. So the first component was absent, which made it all the more crucial that the second component, the actors, be absolutely brilliant. They had to be comfortable enough with improve to be able to build the characters I gave them without the blueprint.
As a director, even when there is a script, you can only do so much when it comes to an actor’s performance. When it comes down to it, they either get the characters or they don’t. When Charlie and I had finished casting, I knew with complete confidence that all the actors we’d chosen were supremely capable of becoming their characters, script or no script.
What were the pros and cons of shooting from an “unscripted” script like you did with this picture?
Well, like I said, the script is a blueprint. Not just for the actors, but for the production. You know you can shoot so many pages of dialogue per day, or so many pages of action. Without a script, it was very difficult to know what to expect on a daily basis. It was difficult to prep and to schedule scenes. There were also some cons in post; with normal setups you have more options, especially if you covered everything properly during the shoot. But with “Shooting April” it sometimes felt like we were in uncharted territory. The saving grace in this respect was that our editor, Tom DeWier, also happens to be a highly savvy multi-hyphenate auteur in his own right. There’s not a lot this guy doesn’t know about, and that saved us in many instances.
The pros of going unscripted were primarily on the acting side. I got some of the most realistic performances I’ve ever seen. Actors in general really love the experience of working in an unscripted film; they find it both challenging and liberating.
Explain the challenges of casting parts like Truman, Weasel and April and what convinced you that Matthew, Rachel and Eric were right for the roles?
The most difficult character to cast was Truman, because his character was the most outwardly complex. It’s very difficult for an actor to convey more than one thing at the same time without going over the top, and whichever actor we picked to play Truman had to be a number of things, often simultaneously. He had to be charming, intimidating, daring, and many other things, and somehow the actor had to convey that all of these traits stemmed from an inner weakness. There are not many actors who could have accomplished that.
And yet we found the actor who would eventually play Truman almost immediately. Charlie and I were going through headshots when we found Matt Prater. Charlie’s initial reaction was “this is the guy!”. My initial reaction, at least in my head, was “yeah, it is!”. But I made Charlie put him in the “maybe” pile. We had to be sure. So we read dozens of Trumans, and in the end, none of them stacked up to Matt Prater. In this instance, we could have saved a lot of work by just going with our gut in the first place, but of course that’s not a smart way to operate. So, we went through the list, even if the choice was obvious from the outset.
The other two main characters are April and Weasel. For April, we went into the process, naively I think, wanting a young woman who could cry on cue. When Rachel Seiferth came in for her first audition, she couldn’t bring herself to cry. At first Charles and I were saying to ourselves “c’mon… cry…”. It became this strange preoccupation. Then something happened; I realized that Rachel’s performance—without the tears—was as authentic and heartrending a performance as anything I’d ever seen. I learned something about acting that day that I’ve never forgotten; that once you hand a character to a capable actor, you have to let go of it. As long as it’s the right actor, you should relinquish the character without reservation. Let the actor make the character her own. Rachel taught me that.
Then there was Weasel. As soon as Eric Fagundes walked in the room, I remember exchanging glances with Charlie; this guy really, really looked the part. I thought to myself “please, oh please, let this guy be a good actor”. As it turns out, Eric was and is an incredibly capable actor. He found the character right away. In real life he’s nothing like the character he plays; he’s soulful, brooding and intelligent where Weasel is…at least for much of the film…the epitome of the spineless sidekick. It was really something to watch Eric the intrepid artist transform into Weasel the whipping boy.
“Shooting April” will have its next screening on October 8th at 9:15pm at the Buffalo International Film Festival.
For more information about the film and future screenings go to their Facebook page at www.facebook.com/shootingapril or follow them on Twitter at www.twitter.com/shootingapril or check out their website at www.shootingapril.com.