This year, Sundance Institute continued its commitment to highlighting work made on microbudgets with its NEXT <=> program. Director Zack Godshall's film "Lord Byron" had its premiere in Park City and the team behind it could not be more surprised and proud. Godshall is a Lafayette, Louisiana native who graduated from UCLA film school and is now a Screenwriter in Residence at LSU. He has produced and directed two previous features, "Low and Behold" which also premiered at Sundance 2007 and the documentary "God's Architects" for which he won Louisiana Filmmaker of the Year in 2009. Before the film showed, I got a chance to speak with Zack about his process in making "Lord Byron" and how he viewed the upcoming screening.
MFM: What is the story behind Lord Byron?
ZG: "Lord Byron is a story about a guy living with his ex wife and her kids and her boyfriend. He is just kind of loafing through life, but fancies himself a ladies' man and he has a few girlfriends, but mostly he spends his life loafing around, smoking marijuana and not doing a lot. But then he starts feeling like he needs something else in his life, this isn't satisfying him. At the beginning of the movie, he announces that he is looking for some kind of change but he doesn't know what to do or where to go and that is the plot.
It is based on a few things, I wrote it with a friend of mine named Ross Brupbacher who is the co producer. He wasn't a filmmaker, just a friend, and we were talking about some ideas for movies and he came up with this idea about a guy who lives with his ex, but while he is looking for something else to do, he decides to become a monk and live in a monastery which is totally different from the life that he is leading. But he isn't really ready to leave his old life of being a ladies' man behind, he can't quite change enough to join the monastery and that is the conflict in the film. It ends up being a comedy about how he faces the situation, and the other characters in the movie are pursuing their own dreams and passions and they are very determined in what they are doing. So it is a juxtaposition against what he is doing, which is not a whole lot. The title comes from the lead character's name, Byron, and we thought that since he sees himself as a romancer, we would name the film after the most romantic of the romantic poets. "
MFM: How did the production actually come together?
ZG: "I had finished making a documentary called 'God's Architects' and I had made that film more or less by myself. I have a background in photography, so I shot that film myself and edited it myself. I was talking with Ross and, through his ideas, we decided to make a feature out of his story. I had my own camera, a Sony HVR Z1U, which was bought 4 years previous. I know most people are using more cutting edge cameras, but I already had this one, I knew how to use it, so no learning curve.
We started with this camera and a couple of pieces of sound gear and we cast a couple of people that we knew. We wrote out the framework of a story, about 15 pages, but we didn't use a script. We never had rehearsals. I knew what we would be looking to get each day and we would just go out with the actors and shoot. We never shot longer than 6 hours a day.
The cast ended up being all kinds of people from around Lafayette. Some of the people had never acted before. We held the audition, just spreading the word around Lafayette, which is pretty easy to do through a few casting directors and community theater outlets. A good array of people came in, all ages and types, in fact we created a few characters for the film based on people who came in that we liked.
The guy who plays the main character, his name is Paul Batiste, was just walking by the arts center where the auditions were and saw the sign and just poked his head in. He was in the waiting room reading our flier and I walked out and asked if he was next. He said he didn't think so, but I had him come in anyway. After he auditioned, we just kind of looked at each other and said 'that's the guy.' He had been in a community theater play in that arts center the year before, but he isn't pursuing acting at all. For a living, he is a barber. "
MFM: How was the experience of working with non actors on the film?
ZG:"Paul was one of the best guys I've ever worked with, totally dedicated to this role. He did all kinds of improvisational things, he rolled around on dirt roads, rode a canoe down through the swamp, he was a great collaborator. We would get together and talk about the scene we wanted, develop some dialog with the actors while we were standing there . We always had a point to the scene, a place we were trying to go with it, but the actors would bring in their own interpretations. I wanted a particular emotion in the scene, the dialog didn't really matter as long as that emotion was conveyed. This was a very organic and creative process. A lot of the people we worked with are artists and musicians, very creative people."
MFM: How did you afford to do the production with so little money? The reported budget is under $1,000.
ZG: "We worked with close friends and used their houses as locations, one guy we met through other people and ended up using his property in the country. We didn't know him before we made the film. In answer to that question, we relied on people we knew and locations we could get for free and our own skills. Others might have been able to raise $100K to make a film like this, but we didn't do that. We worked through friendships and people's willingness to collaborate with us and each of them had a hand in getting this project made. They didn't ask for anything, though we gave some credits in the film, they just wanted to be part of something creative.
It took a year and a half to edit this movie. It was really tough, but without money for an editor, I had to do it. Within that time, I was also touring and promoting 'God's Architects.' Ross is a proficient sound engineer, he has a small sound studio in his house. That would have been another expense for us. So without the skills we brought to the project and the help of other collaborators, we wouldn't have been able to make this film happen."
MFM: How were the legal arrangements figured out? Are the collaborators getting a percentage if the film sells?
ZG: "The percentages are scaled depending on the kind of time each person put in. We had volunteer waivers that everyone signed at the beginning. As we began to see the performances and how special this was going to be, we wanted to make sure they all got some kind of compensation if the film went on to have some kind of life."
MFM: You've been to Sundance before with you film "Low and Behold." Are you preparing for this experience differently than the last time?
ZG: "Last Sundance was literally the first film festival I had ever been to. On one level it was a shock and on another really exciting to be there. The audiences were great, that was probably the biggest thing I took away from it. You sit with your film for over a year, turning it around in your own head and trying to make it the best you can. But really it all boils down to showing it to other people and giving them some kind of experience and affecting them in some way.
'Low and Behold' screened as part of the American Spectrum line up in 2007, a non competitive program. The film was set in New Orleans , a post Katrina story of an unlikely friendship two men form. One is a young insurance claims adjustor and the other is a scruffy character on the street looking for his lost dog. The claims adjustor has an eye opening experience, kind of a naïve guy realizing what despair there is in the world. They each see how the other one lives. We incorporated a lot of documentary footage of real people telling their story in the aftermath of the hurricane. That was the first time I worked with non professional actors. I liked that experience and that is why we did 'Lord Byron' the way we did. Sidetrack Films distributed that film on DVD this past September.
As far as doing the normal industry stuff that is expected at Sundance, getting a sales agent, trying to sell the film, I felt really distracted from the festival experience with that. We didn't sell the film at Sundance, we did get some reviews. This time, I am trying to evaluate my priorities and stay realistic about the possibilities. There are certainly no stars in this film, no one anyone has ever seen before. While this time it is in competition and I understand that there are people who campaign for this, I am really just looking forward to screening it in front of audiences, which are great at Sundance, and just having it in a fantastic festival is an accomplishment. Our goal is really to have people see it, get it reviewed, start building up an audience for it from the recognition it gets just playing a well regarded festival. The main actor, Paul Batiste, will be there with us as will a few of the other cast members."
MFM: From your experience, what are the keys to success in making microbudget films?
ZG: "I can only speak about my own strengths as a writer/director. For me, it has to be a small story. I can't get into complicated effects, action scenes, my forte is talking to people. Making a microbudget feature involves two things really. Not trying to compete with people who have money. You can't compete with Hollywood budgets so don't try to. We had relationships with people, this community of very dedicated and creative people who helped us make this film. You have to work with what you have access to and make the most of it. Second thing, Ross and I knew how to do a lot of the tasks required. So make a story that you can do by yourself or with very little help.
This was the most creative experience I have ever had on a film mostly because of the collaboration with all the others involved who were just there to help execute a vision. The vibe I have gotten from the other Next directors I have spoken with is we are all having this kind of experience in making our films. When you have little to no money, you have to be inventive, innovative."
There were 8 films in this year's Next program and I enjoyed attending Sundance to support their efforts in highlighting these visionary directors who can work with microbudgets. For more information about Lord Byron, please visit the film's website and find it on Facebook.