By Stephen Jay Schwartz
Last year I had the great opportunity to meet and befriend the talented, young film director Kevin Lewis (click to view his reel). Kevin is the creator of GRINDER, the screenplay I was employed to write. It will be the eighth feature film Kevin has directed.
Originally from Denver, Colorado, Kevin’s early film efforts earned him a scholarship to the famed school of cinema at USC. While there he interned with such established entertainment heavies as film directors John McTiernan and Renny Harlin and producer Lynda Obst. Kevin’s first feature film after college, THE METHOD (starring Sean Patrick Flanery, Robert Forster and Natasha Gregson Wagner) was picked up for distribution by Showcase Entertainment at the Slamdance Film Festival.
His next directorial effort, DOWNWARD ANGEL starring Matt Schulze from “The Fast and the Furious,” was picked up by Blockbuster Video and continues to do well in home video and pay TV.
Over the next few years Kevin directed numerous known actors, such as John Savage, Sean Young, Charles Dutton, Jake Muxworthy and Chloe Moretz, in the films THE DROP, DARK HEART, and THE THIRD NAIL.
Kevin currently works with the 3D film conversion company, Venture 3D, located on the Sony Lot in Los Angeles. The company takes traditional two-dimensional film and converts it to 3D using a unique filmic approach that was first designed for medical and military applications. Among others, Venture 3D converted the film PRIEST and is currently converting James Cameron’s TITANIC. HyperEmotive Films is Venture 3D’s sister company, created to produce original motion picture content. GRINDER is a HyperEmotive Film.
In working with Kevin I discovered that we are built from the same stuff. We were weened on the films of the 1970s. Most of our filmic references go back to scenes from Taxi Driver, Apocalypse Now, Midnight Cowboy, Marathon Man, Three Days of the Condor, Dog Day Afternoon, The Godfather…we both agree that films from that era had guts and told stories that Hollywood is unwilling to tell today. Unwilling, or maybe unable to recognize the value. It’s a discussion we have almost every week, and it bonds us.
SS: So, first off, Kevin, thank you for joining us here at Murderati. While all of us are authors, most of us are also big film buffs, and some of us write or have written screenplays professionally. So, there’s quite an interest in learning how you do what you do. To begin with, I’d like to know your opinion of the state of affairs in Hollywood now. Why aren’t they making films like the ones we love, from back in the day? How has Hollywood changed?
KL: Thanks for having me here, Stephen. First off, things just aren’t that good in the biz. I think Hollywood wants to play it safe right now. In the 70’s nobody played it safe, the filmmakers (movie brats) were willing to explore, they wanted to kick out the old guard and take over, and that is what they did. Now, the same movie brats are the ones who have grown complacent. When I hear things about Spielberg, how when he was young he wanted to shoot on location and now he just wonders what hotel room he will get next to the filming location, well, that says it all. We have George Lucas directing in an air conditioned room with thousands of CGI artists around him making a prequel trilogy that pales in comparison to the original.
The executives who run the studios want trans-media properties (ips that cross platform to video games, comic books, etc), they are more interested in “branding” than original content. We have movies that cost over $200m, based on the board games “Battleship” (which, check me if I am wrong, never had aliens in it), “Candyland” and “Monopoly”. Every comic book has either been made or is going to be made into a movie. I think the Hollywood execs have grown up in a pop culture world and this is all they know. I blame a lot of this on the success of blockbuster films like “Star Wars”. And I blame myself as well, for supporting the marketing campaigns that built the blockbusters. I was raised on Lucas/Spielberg films, and I collected the toys (still do), but once it all became about toys it was the end of the creativity. Because now you have marketing execs calling the shots. Last summer there were movies in the theatre that had the number 5 in the title. Studios care more about sequels and prequels than original material.
I also think that in the past we had creative execs who actually understood the creative process or were creative themselves. But now Hollywood has been invaded by MBAs and they do not understand or even want to understand the creative process. We have studio execs that are former agents (how scary is that?) and they have figured out a way to make sure they are “locked” in, even if a movie tanks. The MBA makes sure he gets paid.
And the foreign box office has made things worse because now everything has been converted to “genres,” since genres play cross-platform. A producer once told me that “dialogue is hard to understand in foreign countries, but a bullet speaks a thousand words.” That’s a pretty scary statement.
SS: I find it interesting that you’ve embraced 3D. I saw some footage of the work you’ve done at Venture 3D and it blew my mind. I saw scenes from what looked like a Merchant-Ivory film, it was a period drama, and it felt like I was walking the halls of the film’s castle myself.
KL: 3D stereoscopic is a great opportunity for filmmakers to make their movies more immersive. I like to call it “Story-scopic”, because the 3D has to service the story, and you need to make a good 2D movie first and then accentuate it with the 3D. 3D allows the filmmaker to bring the audience in to their world and make the movie more of an “experience” than just watching a movie. And in this day and age, where you have everything trying to grab the attention of the viewer from Netflix, xbox, ipad, etc., you need to make 3D a motion picture event. If you do it right that’s what it can be – an event.
SS: We authors often talk about how difficult it is for us to write and finish our novels while juggling the responsibilities of having day jobs, families and various other commitments. However, all a writer needs is a pen and paper to practice his craft. A film director needs a crew of fifty and a few hundred thousand dollars, just to start. How do you stay on top of your game? How does a film director practice his craft?
KL: It starts with story, story, story. You have to work on the story whether you wrote it yourself or worked with a writer. Then it becomes about the mechanics, “How do I breathe life into this and make it a reality?” You have to break down the budget and figure out your resources. I am from the Spike Lee school “By Any Means Necessary” and sometimes that’s what it takes. You can also read about directors, producers, and writers. Read scripts, listen to commentaries from people behind the scenes, from directors, producers, writers or other craftsmen. Now technology is really cheap, you can get yourself an HD 1080p camera to shoot and a lap top with Final Cut Pro and you can make your own movie, or just experiment. Practice, practice, practice equates to shoot, shoot, shoot. James Cameron said “The artist should not go to technology, the technology should come to the artist”.
My first feature I had to beg, borrow and steal and I shot on 35mm and used a moviola to cut. Now it would be pretty much all digital for less than half the cost. And that has leveled the playing field. It’s great because technology is at the artist’s fingertips and they can express themselves freely and inexpensively, but it is a determent as well because it has opened the field to pretty much everybody and so the competition is fierce. But I believe if you stick to telling your film YOUR way and use YOUR voice as a filmmaker you will succeed.
SS: By working with you I’ve been impressed with your almost magical ability to turn words into images, or to see images between the lines, so to speak. I feel that I’m a pretty visual person, but you’re a born film director, and it shows. When you read a book, do you always see the movie in your head? How is telling a story in film different from telling it on paper?
KL: Yes, unfortunately I do. My brain constantly charges up a barrage of images. I think and feel visually, always have. Sometimes I wish I could just turn the switch off, but I think it has helped me in this field. Telling a story on film is all about the visuals, that is why film is different from theater and books, it is a director’s medium. The stage is a playwrights medium and novels are the writer’s medium. But even more than that it is a COLLABORATIVE medium. Unlike novels or paintings, making movies means having a lot of chefs in the kitchen (producers, financiers, etc..) and that can make for some interesting dishes. Not all of them taste very good in the end.
SS: The following is a passage that opens one of our fellow Murderati member’s books. How would you shoot the following scene, from CEMETERY ROAD by Gar Anthony Haywood?
What I’ve always remembered most about my last day in Los Angeles is the smell of burning tar. A neighbor across the alley from O’s mother’s garage was having his roof redone and the stench of molten tar hung in the air like a hot, black cloud.
“Goddamn, that shit stinks!” R.J. kept saying.
O’ was late as usual and all through the waiting around had R.J. going through Kools like a chocolate junky through Kisses. By the time O’ finally showed up, over forty minutes after the agreed-upon hour, the floor of the garage was littered with butts, R.J. having crushed them underfoot with an animal-like ferocity to assuage his terror.
KL: I see it shot with a desaturated look, reminds me of Altman’s “McCabe and Mrs. Miller” or shot in black and white (A producer/distributor’s worst nightmare unless you are “The Artist”). I see a nice long lens shot, SLOW MO of a paint brush spreading the tar down on the roof, the heat rippling off. Close-ups of cigs being smoked and then put out with R.J.’s dialogue. –very Howard Hawkesque. Then a shot behind the main character, his shoulders filling frame. The smoke back lit as it seeps out on left side of frame. A nice tracking shot when O shows up, tracking over the cigs with a low angle dolly, huge depth of field like Welles’ “Citizen’s Kane”. That’s what comes to mind when I read that paragraph.
SS: Not many people really understand what it takes to get a movie made. This past year I’ve watched you struggle and fight and persevere against enormous odds. It’s kind of like seeing what my book editor goes through when he fights the advertising department to get the book cover I want, then he turns around and fights for marketing dollars so my book gets noticed, and then he fights to get the right blurbs on the cover, and on and on and on. He does all this on top of reading, evaluating and editing my manuscript. What are the “behind the scenes” things you have to do to ensure your vision makes it to the screen? What are the obstacles? How much time do you actually spend directing the movie?
KL: Making a movie is truly like going to war. You need to prep your soldiers for battle. You need to make sure they have food, clothes, weapons and know the battle plan and, more importantly, the exit plan. Making a movie takes probably a year or more of your life. You have 2-3 months for prep, 1-2 months to shoot (unlike Mission Impossible 4 that takes 6 months just to shoot) and 3-4 months for post. That is if you started NOW with money in the bank, a finished script, cast and locations locked and ready to go. But if you are like most indies, then it will take a lot longer than that. The feature I’m doing now has taken 3 years and I have been directing it every day, whether in my head, on paper, on the phone or through the lens.
SS: What do you look for in a story? What are the things that make a screenplay work for you? What are the mistakes you see in unproduced screenplays, time and again?
KL: The first thing I look for is whether I connect with what’s happening on the page. Movies are about people watching people and you need that emotional connection for the truth. The mistakes I see in a lot of screenplays are poor, cliché dialogue, or scenes that don’t really represent how people interact in the real world. The other thing I see are “mash ups,” like “Point Break meets The Artist”. Really? Just because you take two genres and “mash” them up it doesn’t mean it’ll make a good movie. It’s like if you took two foods like pizza and turkey a la king and combined them and made “pizza a la king”, it doesn’t look pretty and it tastes terrible.
SS: What are the challenges you see in adapting novels for the screen? What should authors be doing to make their books more attractive to film makers?
KL: A book is a book and a movie is a movie and they are very different. The book is almost always better than the movie because it allows the reader to picture the world, characters and story themselves rather than being told the story in the director’s voice. You need to take the “essence” of the book, the soul if you will, and start from scratch. Tolkien believed that film could never capture every nuance in fiction, and I think he was right. You have to take the soul and as long as you stay true to the core and spirit, you are on the right path. The writer has to divorce himself from being the author or it is just too painful, because liberties will be taken and your baby will get mauled. In the same way, the writer/director needs to divorce himself as “writer” once he shoots the movie and the director needs to divorce himself as the “On set director” and put on the “editor” hat once the movie is in post. Being a director means you wear many hats and being a successful director means you have to wear those hats very well.
SS: What are your favorite films and who are your favorite film directors, and why?
KL: It used to be “Raiders of the Lost Ark”, but once that shameful debacle called “Indiana Jones and the Crystal Skull” came out, I had to cut the ties. Raiders was the first movie that made me understand what a director does, but after Skull my love affair was over. It was a serious break-up so I had to go to my number two movie, which is “2001 A Space Odyssey”. They could never and would never make that movie today. And if they did, the dawn of man sequence would be cut out because the producers, studio and focus test groups would say it was “too slow and nothing ever happens,” and Bowman would be played by George Clooney and Hal would be voiced by Brad Pitt and there would be a huge CGI star child war at the end…anyway 2001 for sure, just because of it’s sheer brilliance and audacity. I have never seen a movie like it. I also love “Apocalypse Now”, “Trainspotting”, “Blade Runner”, “On the Waterfront”, “The Conversation” and “The Godfather”. My favorite directors are Kubrick, because nobody made movies like him and nobody ever will, Peter Weir for the emotional pull that he instills in his stories and characters, Coppola (his early work) for his way of tapping into the human condition and showing the truth. In regards to the modern directors, I love Darren Aronofsky, Christopher Nolan and Danny Boyle.
SS: Christ, Kevin, we have exactly the same taste. “Blade Runner” (the director’s cut), “On the Waterfront” and “The Conversation” are personal favorites of mine.
Now, you’ve been working on GRINDER for years, and you’ve seen it grow from the nugget of an idea into various different screenplays, by a few different writers. What is the development process like for you, as the original writer and the film’s director? Is the film shaping up the way you envisioned?
KL: The development process is hard. You nurture it for so long, envision what it is going to sound, look and feel like and then the rug gets pulled out from under you and you change it because a producer or financier has an idea. So you try to make that work, go back to scratch, start to get excited again, thinking, “Yeah that isn’t a bad idea, yeah it’s better, it works” and you envision the sound, look and feel and…wait, another note. Now we’re going to change the female into a male, and the protagonist is going to be the antagonist…it’s like a merry go round – a battle between art and commerce and unfortunately commerce always wins – it is not show-business, it is business-show.
SS: As you mentioned above, film is a collaborative medium. This is one of the reasons many screenwriters run for the hills to begin writing novels. When I write a screenplay I feel that I am writing an outline for what is ultimately a director’s vision. I feel that this is my role in the process. How do you feel about the collaborative nature of making movies?
KL: If your collaborators share the same vision as you, it can be amazing, if they don’t then yes, get your running shoes on.
SS: What’s next for you, Kevin? Where do you see yourself in five years?
KL: I love working in film. Spielberg said “I dream for a living,” and if I can continue to make a living dreaming then I will be happy. As you know, an artist is rarely happy with himself. He strives for greatness, constantly yearning to do better. I want to continue to grow as an artist. I love working on a story, trying to make it better, more real, more human. In the end if I can make movies that touch people and make them think about the world around them, I think I will have achieved success.
SS: You’re doing it, Kevin, and I’m rooting for you. Thanks for being a good sport and spending a little time with the folks in the audience. We can’t wait to see the fruits of your labor.