Sunday, March 10, 2013

SAGEBRUSH: CRAWLSPACE (2011)—The Evening Class Interview With Actors Kristy Leigh Lussier and Jim Lile

My involvement with the sophomore edition of the Sun Valley Film Festival (March 14-17, 2013) has involved negotiations with the Idaho Film Office (IFO) to increase media visibility for the event, in hopes of shaping the festival to become a desirable destination experience for out-of-state visitors wishing to combine recreational skiing with film viewing; a package that Idaho—and Sun Valley in particular—are poised to provide. The IFO, of course, is hoping that some of those visitors will be scouting for locations for upcoming film projects, which is admittedly the presiding objective of a film commission. But even as Idaho woos financial investment from out-of-state, it celebrates its regional production by exhibiting a curated selection of films crafted partially or wholly within the Gem State. With exhibition being the weakest aspect of Idaho's film culture, the role of the Sun Valley Film Festival (SVFF) as an exhibition venue has become increasingly vital. Producing a film that few will see is of limited value; thus, my hat goes off to SVFF for providing local talent a chance to shine and to, hopefully, be seen by a broader audience. Although the tension between national cinemas within an international network of distribution has been discussed at length, attention to the difficulties that regional cinema faces in achieving a national identity is equally important, though too often blithely disregarded.

Regional programming makes sense of course. The Toronto International Film Festival—which has evolved into one of the world's largest film markets—began as an effort of frustrated Canadian filmmakers wanting their films to be seen by the world. A comparable impulse is inspiring the development of the Panama International Film Festival, which—like SVFF—held its inaugural edition last year at about the same time. For me it's an interesting exercise to watch two film festivals being built upon similar impulses, if on dissimilar scale. Bruce Fletcher, who programmed the now defunct Idaho International Film Festival, was the one who invited me to consider the importance of regional filmmaking and with my visit to the Idaho International in October 2007 my interest in Idaho's film community began. Since then it's been of considerable interest to monitor Idaho's "community", as inspired and fractured as it now appears. Once I moved to Boise, attending the monthly Boise Cutters meetings at the Owyhee Hotel has proven to be a great introduction to creative individuals and projects being endeavored at the local level. This is how I met the team behind the 2011 short Crawlspace, produced by All Fools Productions, co-directed by Christian Lybrook and Tom Hamilton, and starring Jim Lile in the lead role with Kristy Leigh Lussier in a strong supporting turn.

All Fools Productions came to do a preview presentation of Crawlspace at Boise Cutters and I was not satisfied with the teaser—I wanted more—so I turned to Lybrook, who was sitting near me, and I said, "I know you have a screener in your backpack. Give it to me." He was startled if obedient and I took the screener home and watched it. Crawlspace impressed me. I found it to be an evocative and ghostly tale of coming to terms with one's past. It felt perfectly honed down to its essential core, which reflected the care and responsibility taken with the script. I'm grateful to Jonathan Marlow at Fandor for agreeing to stream the film concurrent with the Sun Valley Film Festival, along with Lybrook's more recent venture The Seed (2013), to promote not only All Fools Productions but SVFF itself. When that stream goes live, it will be accompanied by a conversation held earlier with Lybrook.

One thing I need to stress about Christian Lybrook is that he is adamantly non-auteurial, in the sense that he isn't trying to grandstand or claim all credit for himself. This is actually quite an attractive quality. Lybrook has made it clear to me that both Crawlspace and The Seed are collaborative ventures with his creative partners; but, it just so happens that he's the guy out in front because Tom Hamilton is preoccupied with a newborn and Chris Brock—co-writer, co-producer, assistant director and miscellaneous crew—is either shy or unfamiliar with self-promotion. So as a caveat, though the Fandor piece is being billed as a conversation with Christian Lybrook, he is speaking on behalf of the team and wants that to be known up-front.

Two members of the film's extended team, however, were out in front of the camera. I spoke with Kristy Leigh Lussier at the following Boise Cutters meeting and met with Jim Lile more recently in my home. My thanks to both of them for being willing to discuss their involvement with Crawlspace. I'll approach this in a mannered way and present Kristy first.  Photos courtesy of All Fools Productions.

* * *

Michael Guillén: As I've been interviewing folks in Boise about its local film production scene, I've been struck by the absence of women, particularly as directors. Either I find women behind the scenes engaged in production or in front of the camera as actors, like yourself. Can you speak to your background and how you came to acting? And what it's been like for you to be an actor in the Treasure Valley?

Kristy Leigh Lussier: I moved to Boise almost six years ago. My background is similar to Christian's: creative writing and an English literature background. I did some film study work in the Midwest, have done a lot of production work, and actually used to work with South by Southwest. I did a lot of independents down in Austin as a production assistant and got my feet wet on film sets down there.

For fun—when I first met Christian, Chris and Tom—I mentioned to them that I was a screenwriter and have always loved the writing element of filmmaking, but have always wanted to be onscreen as well. I did a lot of theater in high school and in college. Early last year I thought, "Gosh, I really have to get back into the film realm." I had taken a break, had a couple of kids, and wasn't doing much more than caring for my babies at home. But I'd heard about film projects going on and knew films were being shot around town so I began paying attention.

I started surfing Craig's List to get back into the scene. That's where I spotted Christian's ad for Crawlspace. He was looking for an actress to read for the part of Beth. We met and he cast me in the role. Crawlspace was the first thing I did in Boise's film community after years of being away from filmmaking. We shot it in May. Since then, I've worked on at least 9 or 10 other projects, including Brandon Freeman's Mark of the Veil, a couple of I-48s, an H-48 with Troy Custer, and last summer I was cast as a lead actress in a feature film project by Kim Kovac [A Ghost Of A Chance] out of Mountain Home.

Facebook and social media have helped me to network, to find out what's going on in the community, and have led me to projects like Crawlspace. I met Jim Lile working on Crawlspace and, since then, Jim and I have worked on the bulk of all these projects together. You meet other actors who are involved in a project and then you keep each other connected. If you hear about something, even something you can't do, then you offer it to someone else. "I've heard about this audition. I can't make it but you should try." I've noticed that a lot of people in the community really keep each other informed. So if it's a role that I won't fit because I'm too old or not young enough, I'll send the notice to a girlfriend of mine or someone who I might know that could fit the part or might be interested in the role. Boise's acting community keep each other in the loop and help each other out.

Guillén: I'm glad to hear you acknowledge that there is a community.

Lussier: I've only been involved with it for a year, but what I've noticed is its entrepreneurial sense; friends like Christian, Chris and Tom who say, "We can do this. We're not experts, we don't have a million dollars, but we can do this." I've been so happy over this last year with all the projects I've gotten to be a part of because most of these people want to tell a great story, they have great ideas, and they pull together people who they trust and who want to help them tell that story. Most of us work at careers outside of these projects, but we do them for fun and as a form of self-expression.

Guillén: Have you signed up with local casting director Catrine McGregor?

Lussier: Her name keeps popping up but I've never met her, though I would definitely consider that. Obviously, I would love to go further. Everyone wants to go further. Sure, I'd like to wake up and make movies every day and get paid to do it; but, if I only continue doing this, for fun the way I have been, and meeting a lot of people and having a good time with my friends making films on the weekend, I would still do that. I love the nature and the spirit of it.

Guillén: It seems to me that most of the positions available for films in Boise are in production. You mentioned you've trained as a production assistant. Would you consider going back into the production side of things?

Lussier: I would love to stay on camera. If I did move into the production realm, it would probably be writing or directing (though I have some fear about directing). As a screenwriter, it's a part of me and a piece of my soul to put it down on paper and tell the story that way. I feel confident that way. I feel confident as an actor to bring a script, a role, a person's story to life. To translate that story to screen as a director? I haven't done it yet. I'd be up to the challenge, but I'm hesitant to go in that direction. It's a matter of time.

Ironically, because of I48 I spent the weekend hanging out with a lot of local film people. I spent Saturday evening talking to some well-known people around town about a script that I had written last year and tossed around ideas about how to get the script to feature and put it to film. How would we shoot it in Idaho? How would we fund it? By its nature the script asks for a big budget. But I love that independent feel and I don't want to leave Idaho. I would rather shoot here. I would rather put people in Idaho to work behind the camera and in front of the camera. I love writing and, sure, I would love to get a million-dollar paycheck for a script, but if I had a chance to make it here instead of selling it, I would make it here in a heartbeat.

It's a lot of fun to have people in the community that you can go to and say, "Hey, I'm working on this script. Can you read it? Can you give me your ideas? Can you give me your thoughts?" Or, "So and so's working on this project and I thought of you. What do you think of his idea? Do you think you can do this? Would you come shoot it?" It's a lot of, "Hey, come help us do something and make something and bring something to life." A lot of people around town are willing.

Guillén: Can you recommend other women who are doing good film work here in Boise?

Lussier: Whitney Maunie is a great young actress who's been doing good work around Boise for the past few years. Kirsten Strough is a good producer-director out of the Boise State University group who's just graduated recently.

* * *

Guillén: So Jim, what's your background? How did you come to acting?

Jim Lile: Like many people who have an interest in the industry, I was just a fan of movies; but, the more I watched films, the more I watched actors and how they acted. I was always jealous of people who could act and play roles and as I developed professionally and no longer worried about standing in front of a group of people and giving presentations, I knew my skills were ready.

Gregory Bayne had an open casting call for a handful of positions for his film Person of Interest. I'm a corporate guy, usually in a suit during the day most of the time, and I thought, "Well, I'll play one of the FBI agents. That'd be an easy introduction." Then as I sat there, I scratched my head and thought, "Wait a minute. There's a role for a guy who's a war vet with PTSD who's lost a leg, is kind of weird, and is pivotal in this one scene, even though it's a small part." Even though he didn't have a lot of time on screen, his character underpinned the story. I decided I wanted to do that, which was good because the role of the FBI agent ended up being completely cut out of the film. So I got that part and got such an energy rush from doing it; it was a natural high. I was excited to get the role and loved being on set during rehearsals.

Guillén: You had no official training as an actor?

Lile: No. I've started official training two months ago. I work over at Nike in Portland and I take classes from Jana Lee Hamblin at Act Now Studio. I get great feedback from her. Now that I have a handful of films under my belt, I feel good about getting more training. I feel doors are opening. I've started to work with an agency. Grimm's interested in meeting with me! It's filmed in Portland. Knock knock on wood.

Guillén: So after Person of Interest, Crawlspace was your second project?

Lile: Yes, and my first as a lead.

Guillén: What is the value of getting your start as an actor in Idaho?

Lile: The benefit is the work. I just turned 40 a couple of weeks ago and I often see movies that have roles for guys 35-40 as the leading character. There's not a lot of competition for that in Idaho. I feel that I'm getting consistent work and that definitely feels good. It gives me on-the-job training. I've learned my own way of reading a script and thinking about mannerisms or how my presence comes off on film when there are cameras around. Interestingly, many of the things I've taught myself are 80% in the ballpark as to how professionals organize and learn their dialogue, and their actions and reactions to scenes. That's definitely a pro.

The con is that there are a lot of people who have an idea about a project, they write a story and have a camera and a couple of guys and they want to make a film but they don't understand the editing process, or lighting, or what it means to add music and undertones to a film. Probably half of the local projects I've done have never been finished. Maybe, ultimately, that's a good thing? I don't know.

Guillén: You've mentioned that you're continuing your training in Portland because it's convenient to your work, but would you have considered training here in Idaho? Is there any kind of real training for actors in Idaho?

Lile: There's some training. There's a lot of stage work. The people who offer training tend to come up to this area from Salt Lake to do training; but, I'm not quite sure how I feel about some of those folks who are brought up here to do the training. I get a mixed review from local actors. Why would I want to get training from someone questionable?

Guillén: And the point is that training builds upon natural instincts, natural talent, which I suspect you have as an actor. When I was talking to Christian about the filming of Crawlspace, he told me you filmed the last and most powerful scene first.

Lile: He was ambitious.

Guillén: He said he was stunned by your performance in that scene and that he knew the film was going to work after he saw what you did. He said you came right into the scene, grabbed the emotion, and wowed everyone on the set. So my question would be: without any official training as an actor, where did that come from? How did you know how to emotionally inhabit that character and ground him in your performance so quickly?

Lile: The simplest way to answer that is that you read the story and—if you believe in the story and if you understand the character and what he's gone through—then you can do it. I associated any feelings I had of unresolved guilt in my own life to the character. I felt that final scene was a moment of reconciliation in my character's life. He had come to terms with his brother's death. I thought about it and felt he had to first break before he could rise. He needed to hurt and feel his pain and then let it go. He realized he shouldn't carry this burden anymore. So that's how I thought about it and then I brought personal sadness to it to make the connection more real to myself.

Guillén: Christian said no one expected you to actually cry in that scene.

Lile: Right. [Laughs.] I wondered. Nobody said anything. It got really quiet and dark for a minute and I said, "Give me one second." Then I sat down, thought about these things, and put myself in the mood. I thought of a phoenix. Even though you don't really see me rise, you do see me cry with the relief of letting go. That's what I wanted to show. Christian didn't actually even know that I cried at first because he was at such a distance underneath the crawlspace and the way he was all tucked down. He was having a hard time seeing through the camera. But we did one shot, one take, and I got up and everybody was really quiet. It was a little embarrassing. I walked off and gathered my thoughts and everyone was standing there staring at me. I was wondering if they thought I was mental. Then I came to find out when he got home that night that he didn't know I had cried, but he made me feel really good about it. I think it shocked people. I grew up as a tough sports guy so people who knew me then who have seen the film say it really moved them.

Guillén: Hey, Channing Tatum has built a career being the butch guy with a vulnerable side. Audiences lap it up. So you're on a winning track there. Since you've had an opportunity now to work with a few of Idaho's filmmakers, and can compare, can you give me a sense of Christian's style? Of what it's like to work with him?

Lile: I absolutely enjoyed working with Christian. I've also much enjoyed working with Troy Custer. They're probably not that different in some ways. As an actor, you get their artistic creativity. You get that they spend time on setting up their films. They prep their films. They both have a strong grasp of the visual impact of their films with many cuts and many different angles that help the film build.

I've done more work with Troy Custer than anybody. Troy's a great character. He has such a passion for film. He is probably as good of a DP or DP coach—knows how to set up shots and scenes—as anybody I've seen. The product he delivers is as good as Christian's. They both have beautiful shots. Half the failure I see of films shot around Boise, even films I've been in that I haven't liked, is not so much the quality of the acting, but the quality of the film: how they cut in, the tone, the speed of things. You can have a great performance in a film and watch that performance and be enthralled, but that same performance filmed from many angles, many shots, the right tone in lighting, the right look with the close-ups and the cutaways will make it work that much better. Definitely, I would love to work with either of them again.

Guillén: Who else have you worked with that bears promise?

Lile: I'd work with Greg Bayne again. It was a great experience. His was a very comfortable environment, well-organized, smooth, polished, no stress. It was like you were walking into somebody's house to have a cup of coffee and then, "Okay, let's start filming." I see it as a Clint Eastwood style: "Take your time. Get ready. We'll start when you're ready to go."

Kristy and I both acted in a feature-length film called Ghost Of A Chance by Kim Kovac which is now in post. I need to go back and re-shoot one scene with her but I think most of the film is ready to go. We'll see how that goes. It'll be interesting. She's never done a full-length project and there's a lot of newness to it.

Guillén: I need to ask the dreaded question. In order to develop as an actor, will you need to leave Idaho?

Lile: I have been pushing and trying for probably a year and a half to help produce and create projects. A couple have been failed attempts. I've taken the approach of trying to build a project that's right for me and would work for me in terms of characterization and story, with the right ensemble of crew, professionals like Christian or Troy, but the problem is we don't have the right network in place, with the right screenwriters and production crew that can step in. We don't have that professional level of people to drive projects. Half the time people will come into a read or an audition and the script's not even done. Then it's two months before you get a callback. They don't have a distribution model. They don't know what they're going after. Their only plan is to submit to film festivals—which isn't a bad route in a lot of cases—but folks don't seem to know much past that. They don't know that there are mechanisms to get to DirecTV and cable contracts.

Guillén: Gregory Bayne has the best sense of that among the local filmmakers I've interviewed.

Lile: Completely! So, to answer your question, will I be able to stay in Idaho? My goal is to build a killer film in Idaho that will take me out of Idaho. This is my arrogant view of the world: I'd rather not go stand in a cattle call line in L.A. thinking I have some skills as a guy who's now 40. I'd rather have somebody see a film and think, "Wow, that was a really good film. I loved that actor. I want to use him for this role." That's my pipe dream goal. I would love to see it work that way.