Interview with Director of "Followed" – James Kicklighter

 

 

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Welcome to the “Meet the Director” series of interviews featuring local filmmakers that are screening their works at “Get Connected“. “Followed” will be screening at the January, 2012 event. The mission of Get Connected is to build an industry family, help people gain employment, meet and network with great people, all while having a great time!

Are you looking forward to having “Followed” screened at Get Connected?

I am excited to share Followed in every venue, but I admit it is always exciting to have the opportunity to present a Georgia produced film in-state. At film festivals, it is always an interesting mix of film enthusiasts and professionals. At an event like “Get Connected,” attracting thousands of industry professionals each month, I get to present my work in front of my peers within the state.

Can you tell us your past experience in the industry?

I started JamesWorks Entertainment when I was sixteen, and over the past seven years, we have been fortunate to produce films across the United States and internationally in Italy and Ethiopia. Each film is a different challenge and we do our best to improve an aspect of our work with each project.

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One of my first experiences was producing the documentary That Guy: the Legacy of Dub Taylor for Augusta’s Morris Museum of Art. The day after I graduated from high school, we began interviewing folks in nearly twenty states, including the rocker John Mellencamp, the late Dixie Carter, and director David Zucker.

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It was an eye-opening experience that really taught me a lot about how to effectively produce a film in the future – because my production partners and I made a lot of mistakes with that one. However, without that experience, we really would not be successful today. It taught us how to budget properly, work with agents in Los Angeles, and coordinate crews across the country.

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A few years later, I followed four students on a Study Abroad experience through Italy, examining how they changed the way they saw themselves through the lens of another culture. Di Passaggio is currently sold on Amazon.com and is available through Amazon Video On Demand.

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In fact, Film Threat said in their positive review last year that “[Di Passaggio] captures all the imperfections of group travel in a foreign country, boiled down to the authentically naive reactions by some of the cast to the differing cultures and even their obviously innocent perceptions of the world (that usually don’t get crushed for at least another 5 years).”

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After doing a few assorted documentaries, commercial, and audiobook projects, I met Atlanta-based actress Edith Ivey, who had just finished shooting The Curious Case of Benjamin Button with director David Fincher.

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As an undergraduate at Georgia Southern, I had been asked to direct a documentary about the Golden Age of Radio for the 2009 National Association of Broadcasters’ BEA Festival in Las Vegas. A blogger in Tennessee suggested that we meet with Edith, as she had been a performer in New York during the Golden Age. With the help of SAG/AFTRA Atlanta’s Melissa Goodman, co-producer Jonathan Pope setup the interview at the SAG Office in Atlanta. We hit it off in a successful interview, and I kept my fingers crossed that I would get to cross paths with Edith again.

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Once that project was done, I wanted to turn my attention to a scripted project, as everything that I had done previously was more documentary-based. Before that would happen, we went to Ethiopia to produce Land of Higher Peace, a project about an orphaned children’s village.

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After a strenuous three-week shooting schedule, I finished the final draft for what would become The Car Wash on our twenty-hour flight back to the United States. Upon arrival, I sent Edith the script. Much to my surprise, she sent me back an email with her availability, stating she had to do this material.

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I was terribly nervous to direct Edith for two reasons; one, because I had never done a scripted film before, and two, her most recent collaborator was David Fincher. When she got to set, her presence seemed to make the crew quite efficient and we were able to knock the whole thing out in two six-hour days.

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It was Film School 101, as she was just a fount of knowledge from her years of experience on radio, film and television. Thus, I learned a valuable lesson about directing on that shoot; if you have great talent, you let them loose on the material and never interfere with their process.
The Car Wash went on to have an acclaimed national run at film festivals around the country, winning the Audience Choice Award at the National Film Festival for Talented Youth (the largest festival in the world for people under 22), presented by Volvo Cars of North America, Nike, and Bing, and Best Drama at the Melbourne Independent Filmmakers Festival.

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Sometime during the festival run of The Car Wash, New Mexico-based writer/producer Maureen Cooke watched the film and fell in love with it. She sent me a script and told me that she thought I’d be the perfect director for a socially conscious Zombie project based on an acclaimed short story. I thought she was crazy.

So… What is your film about?

That script Maureen sent was the first draft of what became Followed, which I am very excited to share at Get Connected. Based on the short story from Hugo-award winning writer Will McIntosh, Followed is a socially conscious monster movie in which Zombie’s symbolize society’s disadvantaged and oppressed.

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I admit, when I first read the script, I had to read it a few times. Then, I went to the source material and read and re-read the short story. I did all of this for a good six hours, taking notes while attempting to wrap my head around the concept. It was simply different from any Zombie story that I was familiar with.

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Every production decision at JamesWorks is made with my production partners, Mark Ezra Stokes and Kasey Ray-Stokes (they married in the middle of That Guy: the Legacy of Dub Taylor). I brought them the script, and Mark, being a sci-fi and Zombie fan was immediately enamored. Kasey, like myself, needed some convincing. Attracted to the socially conscious end of it, we felt like the project would be a good fit for the kind of films that we were already making. It also was something decidedly different to add to the Zombie film canon.

How did you come up with the idea?

Being that the film was a short story, I had the responsibility of making sure that the film was an accurate adaptation. Since I had only done one scripted project, this was also an exciting opportunity to interpret the source material for a different medium. Commonly, literary aficionados complain about changes between stories and film adaptations. Thus on Followed, I worked with the writers to ensure that any additions or changes to the short story still honored the themes and message of the original work.

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Of course, Will McIntosh was a tremendous resource and I am continually grateful for his support throughout the process. Allowing a young director such as myself to tackle his work was both an honor and a privilege, especially since his writing had not been produced for film until Followed. However, that will change shortly as his Hugo-award winning story “Bridesicle” has just been optioned by Film4, which brought audiences Slumdog Millionaire.

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How do you go about making the movie?

Like any independent filmmaker, I have to fundraise, fundraise, fundraise for every project that I do. Some producers prefer going the no-budget route, and that is fine for some filmmakers. However, I really like to utilize SAG Indie for my actors and pay my crew something for their hard work and dedication. It may not be much, but at the very least I want to provide a stipend, room and board, transportation and all meals – even for a short. Personally, I’ve never taken a paycheck on a film unless everyone else has been paid and expenses have been covered.

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That said, all of this is especially tricky in the short film arena. There is little evidence to show an investor that a short film is going to make money. However, it can be a tax-write-off, so I constantly look to showcase our projects to investors that believe in us and also have a little change to spare.

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Once we had the script in order, we started getting checks for a few thousand dollars here and there. Eventually, that snowballed into an amount that I was comfortable enough with to greenlight production. We shot all twenty-seven pages in December 2010 during an intense four-day shooting schedule. On some days, our cast, crew, and extras exceeded 150 people.

Tell us about the cast & crew of “Followed” -

Erryn Arkin who plays Peter is the adult lead in Followed. He has worked on Australian Film and Television for the past decade, and happened to make his American debut on our film. He’s done several big series internationally, including “Home and Away” and “Crime Investigation: Australia.” We were really impressed with his demo reel and fortunate to have him.

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Abigail de los Reyes, who plays our Zombie Girl, was discovered in San Francisco. Doing a variety of stage productions and commercials, including a big advertisement for Google, she had never done a film before. One of my professors from college, Dr. Barbara B. Nixon, introduced me to her father on Twitter. I had been scouring auditions for weeks, and Abby just nailed it on her first take. I knew she was the one, and we were able to get them out to Georgia for shooting.

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Supporting cast includes Edith Ivey, who agreed to work with me again after our experiences together on Theater of the Mind and The Car Wash. As always, it was great to see ten or twenty people around her in between takes asking questions about her many years of working in film and television. Sylvia Boykin, who is currently seen in The Tenant and The Fat Boy Chronicles, both on DVD in stores everywhere, plays Jenna, Peter’s girlfriend.

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Jason Winn, who directed The Fat Boy Chronicles (released on DVD at Redbox, Blockbuster, Wal-Mart, etc. this past week), was our Director of Photography, with a score from Bruce Kiesling, who has composed all of my films. He is now the Youth Conductor at the Los Angeles Philharmonic and Conductor for the Venice Symphony Orchestra.

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Maryann Bates, our fabulous set photographer, even gets her work snuck into the film with a picture in The Press-Sentinel, the newspaper of choice for Erryn Arkin’s character Peter. She also designed the Followed poster.

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Of course, I’d be remiss not to mention Renonda Anderson, a producer and makeup artists whose work is frequently seen in Georgia films and at Get Connected. She did a fantastic job executing the makeup design of our Zombies from the concept art and was a great collaborator.

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What do you think audiences will enjoy about your film?

Our cast. Even the folks that have not bought into the premise of Followed have commented about the strength of our cast, and I cannot praise them enough. However, I admit one of the most exciting things to come out of the film was a rave review on Ain’t it Cool News, which really is a kingmaker in the film community. They said that Followed is “an entirely new and refreshing take on the Zombie genre,” and I hope that the audience at Get Connected will agree.

Any war stores from the set?

The temperature on Followed was all over the place. The warmest it got was 40 degrees, and fortunately, that was outside during the big crowd scene. The next day, it dropped down to five degrees with a wind chill of negative fifteen. That became a challenge for both keeping the equipment warm enough to shoot without shutting down and maintaining the body heat of our actors.

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Poor Abby, who already was in a skimpy costume as it was, had to get Long John’s put underneath her costume. We also placed body-warming stickers underneath that to keep her semi-comfortable. In between takes, a production assistant was assigned to throw a blanket over her while running inside a heated area.

I hope I never have to shoot again in negative fifteen-degree weather.

Any tips you can share with others about the production process?

Stay true to your vision and you will always be successful. It does not matter how big or small the project is, but always make the film that you set out to make. There will be compromises along the way, unforeseen obstacles and altered expectations. But if these things still resemble what you started with, then you are always on the right track.

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Be cautious about burning bridges, you never know when you might need help from another person, sometimes in the most unexpected of ways.

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Remain positive throughout the process. There are so many people that approach their work with negativity and that simply is not the way to behave on a film set. If we are coming to work, we are coming to be professionals, but we also are going to enjoy what we are doing. Because it creates a toxic environment, I generally do not tolerate yelling, cursing, or unreasonable demands directed towards the cast and crew on my sets. I do not care what anyone does in their personal time, but on my time, we are going to treat each other with dignity and respect.

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Don’t just finish your film, but make sure people see it in venues around the country. I have never understood why filmmakers produce a project and only show it locally – or worse yet, never show it at all. While it is important to build a solid fan base in your region, it is important to think bigger so that your work can grow as you do through networking. Make financial sacrifices to attend film festivals where your work is accepted to ensure that you are meeting a variety of industry professionals.

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Finally, be persistent. It has taken my company seven years to build a positive reputation, to get people interested in not only watching our films, but writing articles and reviews about them as well. I think many people walk into the entertainment industry desiring fame and fortune. In my experience, those people do not last long because they are not willing to put in the time, energy, and money to build their brand, to create something that will last. You have to do it because you really love creating a product for an audience to consume and hopefully enjoy for years to come.

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All of these things take time, trial and error. Heading towards my twenty-fourth birthday, I certainly have much more to learn and hopefully many new opportunities ahead. But at the end of the day, I believe in the value of good old-fashioned hard work, and that begins with a network that supports and nourishes you along the way.

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