As long as I’ve been working in Los Angeles, what has kept me most invigorated is the endless possibility of collaborating with inspired artists.
There was a time when I focused most of my creative energy on filmmaking. It was an exciting time for movies, with films like Reservoir Dogs, El Mariachi, She’s Gotta Have It, Bottle Rocket, Laws of Gravity, and Clerks winning awards on the film festival circuit and playing at the local art house theaters.
Even when I would book a great gig as an actor, it was the discovery of the pending collaborations that fired me up. I remember going up to Seattle to work on a Warner Bros. film that would star River Phoenix, but being more excited to meet Nancy Savoca. She had directed a small film that I still maintain is one of the best romantic comedies about marriage ever made – True Love.
These smaller films, before guys like Tarantino, Rodriguez, and Kevin Smith got their big budgets, are the achievements that set the next trends and hatch the next batch of auteurs. Filmmakers not afraid to throw themselves into the elements, often without permits, to grab their guerilla shots.
I sat down with a few filmmaking pals recently to discuss their films and the agony and bliss of completion. Two of them able to pound their chests and trumpet the DVD release of their endeavors.
Scott Donovan first began working on Black Cobra in June of 2006. Last month, his kung fu action film, starring TJ Storm, became available on DVD, courtesy of Lionsgate. Six years from pen to Netflix. Sound like a long time? Every film that gets made has a story to tell.
“TJ and I went to acting school together for two years,” Scott told me over a massive bowl of tortilla soup at Gladstones in Malibu. “TJ took me under his wing, became my sensai. We studied martial arts together for the next nine years.” Most films spring from relationships built on other merits. But nothing happens without a script.
A guest teacher in the class, Stephanie Cheeva, a former Bulgarian kickboxing champ, approached Scott about a piece of material. She and TJ had both worked in the short film he directed and liked his style. Remember folks, it’s not just who you know…it’s what they think of you.
“Stephanie called me and asked me if I wanted to direct,” he said, a sly grin unfolding across his face. “I was busy at the time developing another short film – but hey, this was a feature.”
“The script was adapted by Sebati Edward Mafate from his pulp novel When the Cobra Strikes,” Scott explained. “It was pretty good, but I told them that if I was going to direct the film, I would have to be able to do a rewrite of my own. They had a little money already in place, and this was really Sebati’s baby; but on the strength of my short film they trusted me to do a good job with it – so they gave me the green light to start writing.”
His greatest concern with the existing script?
“I felt the scope of the story needed to be a little bigger. I’m a big fan of guys like Robert Altman and Paul Thomas Anderson, directors who use big casts. It didn’t really have a solid theme. It was well written and had some cool characters, but it lacked a driving force. To me the perfect motivation for the main character, played by TJ, was to get back to his father. I had been doing a bunch of research on South Africa and thought it would be a great set up for a father-son theme.”
What impressed me most about Black Cobra was its production value. Donovan told me the film cost around $200k. You would never know it by looking at the finished product. It’s a large ensemble cast – the producers secured SAG‘s ultra low budget contract status – with a wide variety of locations and fairly elaborate fight sequences. The action and fight stunts, coordinated by Just Cause Productions, are top-notch and ultimately made the film desirable to distributors. But South Africa?
“We shot the South Africa diamond scenes in Camarillo and at Malibu Creek State Park,” Scott told me, recalling how he had to finesse the second location. “The park ranger was a really nice guy, but super conscientious about making sure we were not endangering any of the terrain or park grounds. I had to beg him to get our final shots. It was tough.”
Finally, after a 22-day shoot that wrapped in June, 2007, Scott and his producers were ready to hunker down in the dark confines of the editing room and cut their film together. One problem: they were out of money.
“Our first money, the money used to get us shooting, came from a friend of our producer Lily Melgar,” he explained. “A young guy making money as a political pollster – he liked the idea of getting involved in the movie business. We couldn’t go back to him, though. But…he had a girlfriend who liked the project and she invested a little money. So I dug in and worked as assistant editor, logging all of our tape, and called in some favors to just get a rough cut assembled. It was brutal. But we were finally able to schedule a screening of our film – without final color or sound – it still went pretty well.”
That screening was held at TJ Storm’s home in the Spring of 2008. Fortunately for Scott Donovan and his team, a team of editors saw the rough cut and offered to help out.
“These were guys who had made really significant films – guys whose opinion meant a lot to me,” Scott told me as we made our way outside to the crowded patio bar. After a few years of mediocrity, Gladstones on PCH and Sunset has regained its mojo. “They thought our film needed a little more action up top, and had a couple of really great ideas for other scenes. They offered to work on a deferred agreement and help us make our final cut. We were stoked.”
But with these types of arrangement on these types of films, the offer always comes with the caveat that the “free” work plays second fiddle to the “paying jobs.”
So the final cut was not ready for eyeballs until April, 2011. For a young director who has tapped out his budget and also paid out of his own pocket, that’s a long 19 months.
Rather than stew and pout, Scott seized an opportunity that arose during that stretch of waiting…and waiting. Stephanie’s husband was working on the hit show 24 and was going to be working in South Africa. Eureka!
Scott went to Best Buy and scooped up the best high def camera he could afford and sent it along to South Africa to pick up some establishing shots for Black Cobra. Finally, with the new South Africa grabs inserted, the final cut was ready for prime time viewing.
An L.A. outfit, Grindstone Entertainment was anxious to see the picture. One exec in particular recognized the name attached to the demo. The director of Black Cobra was a young guy he had befriended over a dozen years before on the elliptical machines at the Powerhouse Gym. Remember what I said about relationships formed on other merits?
Grindstone signed on to represent the film and arranged distribution through Lionsgate. The film was released on DVD last month.
“This movie, in a lot of ways, is all about heart,” Donovan summed up. “A lot of it, my heart. My first feature. It takes so many people to get a film made, but this one really demanded a lot out of me. It’s a tip of the hat not only to kung fu movies, but international thrillers like Enter the Dragon and The French Connection. I’m really proud of it.”
Kevin McCorkle has been consistently working as an actor in Los Angeles for over 25 years. He is as reliable a character actor as you will find in what L.A. folks call “the industry.”
The past few years, Kevin has thrown his clout and capital around behind the camera, producing a handful of indie projects. His most recent, Midnight Son, hit the retail racks at Wal-Mart and Target last week courtesy of Image Entertainment.
Kevin and I spoke in the lobby at the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel on Sunset last week, right after celebrating the DVD launch of Midnight Son.
So how did Kevin and his wife, Lisa Campbell-McCorkle, get involved in producing the edgy vampire love story?
“Director Scott Lebrecht and I worked together all the way back in 2002 on a project called Natural Selection – his AFI thesis film,” Kevin told me as Lisa strolled in to the famous Hollywood hotel and joined us in a corner booth. “Then Scott came to me in 2007 and said ‘I got this movie, and we’re just gonna do it!’ I loved his enthusiasm, so I offered to help him out.”
But, apparently, Scott intended to make Midnight Son a Non-Union show, thus making it undesirable to Kevin, a notable actor with over 40 film credits, and hundreds of television episodic and commercial gigs under his belt.
After some kitchen table talk between Kevin and Lisa, who has worked as a production supervisor and coordinator on several high-profile films, the two decided to jump in and help elevate Lebrecht’s project.
“We we were flush from a commercial spokesman gig I had been doing,” Kevin explained. “So Lisa and I told Scott we would put up the money to make Midnight Son under the SAG ultra low budget contract. He was tickled pink. It was how we were able to get recognizable actors like Tracey Walter and Larry Cedar. It enabled me to work as an actor in the film, which was a lot of fun. We used DP (director of photography) Lyn Moncrief, who also shot the AFI film with Scott – so it was a pretty cool reunion.”
With some exciting new actor attachments and some seed money momentum, the production team was able to attract sexy up and comer Maya Parish to come on board (alongside Zak Kilberg to make up the tragic vampire Romeo & Juliet); and with her as executive producer came the next infusion of production money.
“So that was how we put Midnight Son in the can,” Kevin exhaled, as I ordered another round of cadillac margaritas. “But we still had no money in place for post production. We limped along and limped along with Scott doing most of the editing himself.”
Lisa chimed in “We drifted away from the project for a bit, but never lost faith in Scott’s ability and desire to finish it.”
“Never,” Kevin added. “Like I said before, Scott has a ton of enthusiasm which is just huge in our business.”
“Producer Matt Compton saw some of our rough cut scenes and jumped in to the mix,” Kevin and Lisa smiled big. “He came along in post and really brought it home.”
Now the production team was ready to take their vampire baby out and hit the film festival circuit – a common, and often (but not always) fruitful way to attract and secure distribution deals.
“We played in 20 film festivals worldwide,” Lisa said proudly. “We had a really good festival run – received very well by horror film fans.”
Horror Film Distribution company FEARnet liked what they saw and Midnight Son became available to the viewing public in January of this year with a cable release and internet stream.
Because I’ve known Kevin McCorkle for so long, I can say this: the man is a force of nature. Another film he has been involved with through his Free Lunch Productions, Beyond the Mat, is also nearing a distribution deal and has significant industry buzz. I asked him what advice he has for young filmmakers starting out in Hollywood.
“Have your long term strategy goal in place,” he offered up generously. “Go through every aspect of the process before you start making contacts and calling in your favors. So many people are too eager to just shoot something. But you have to have a strategy to reach completion.”
Black Cobra and Midnight Son are shining examples of film odysseys with happy endings. Most screenplay concepts and development deals die on the vine. Some get so close to completion you can smell the popcorn.
Maverick filmmaker Jhon Doria spent years on his father-son epic, The Grind. An ambitious story of a soldier home from Iraq struggling with his demons as he pieces his civilian life back together and falls in with the wrong crowd.
Doria and his producing partner/cinematographer laid it all on the line putting the film in the can and getting it into post. And then they clashed and the project imploded.
“The thing I regret most,” Doria expressed to me in a cab en route from the airport to his Venice home. “is letting my actors down. They gave me great performances, across the board. On a creative level, the movie is amazing…it’s just wrapped up in legal bullshit right now.”
He paused for a long time as we drove north on Sepulveda Boulevard under the beautiful golden haze of Los Angeles twilight. Then…
“I would rather burn my movie to the ground than prostitute it,” he continued. “Artistically, I didn’t lose an ounce of credibility with myself. I’ll finish the film some day. All in all, it made me a better human being – a better filmmaker.”
Doria had just returned from Evans City, PA, where he visited the cemetery used in the classic zombie flick, Night of the Living Dead.
Doria and his creative partner, Stephen McSwain, are in the final stages of completing the pilot episode of Guitar Nation, a “reality show” about the history of rock n’ roll told through the artistry and craftsmanship of guitar making – and zombies.
Stay tuned, folks, it’s gonna be good.
To all my filmmaking brothers and sisters out there. I tip my hat. To playwright Guy Zimmerman, in the initial stages of script development on his third feature; to the tenacious Jhon Doria, an endless cyclone of creative juices and concepts; to my fellow actor and man of integrity, Blake Robbins, in the deep throes of the editing process on his heartbreaking family drama, The Sublime and the Beautiful; to Shawn Schepps, working away on her dark comedy web series; to my long-time pals Scott Donovan and Kevin McCorkle, may many, many of your DVDs end up in shopping carts, Amazon checkouts, and iMovie downloads. To all of you – keep creating, and never stop believing in the magic of story telling.