Thursday, September 11, 2014

Interview: Indie Writer/Producer Lukas Kendall

Last March, I went to one of my favorite independent theaters in Los Angeles, the Laemmle in North Hollywood, and did what I love doing: saw a micro-budget film that I literally knew nothing about. Lucky Bastard had an amusing title, a salacious poster, and, most importantly for my tastes, an intriguing NC-17 rating. Very few NC-17 are released in any given year, so when one hits theaters, I often take notice.

Lucky Bastard is a found footage film about a fan who is invited to have sex with his favorite porn star on camera. But shortly after the fan arrives on set, it becomes very clear very quickly that this whole setup is a bad idea. I found the film to be an unnerving and brazen experiment of a tired idea. The bulk of Lucky Bastard takes place in a house that is used for actual porn shoots. The set is rigged with dozens of cameras, leaving every area of the house documented. Much of the footage in Lucky Bastard comes from these stationary cameras, thereby giving the tired found footage motif a nice, organic twist. I dug the film when I saw it, but it wasn’t until last week that I became engrossed by the process in which Lucky Bastard was made and released.

A few weeks ago, the film’s co-writer and producer, Lukas Kendall, reached out to me about discussing Lucky Bastard. Below, Lukas comments on the origin of the film, our society’s contradictory fear of pornography, the stigmatization of the NC-17 rating, the hellish road of distributing an independent film, and much more. As a young, independent filmmaker myself, I found Lukas’ inside perspective to be jarring, scary, and completely fascinating.
Betsy Rue and Jay Paulson in Lucky Bastard
What I love about independent cinema is that filmmakers have the freedom to color outside the lines, which Lucky Bastard certainly does. Where did the idea of this film come from?
I stumbled across this sub-genre of porn where fans are invited to have sex with porn stars, and I couldn’t believe it was real. I can see why these videos could be titillating – the whole idea of an average guy who has Tori Black in his lap – but, at the same time, the websites dedicated to these videos often make fun of the guys, or the guys are kind of creepy and weird. It just seemed so fraught with tension. So I was driving one day and I thought what if one of these scenes turned into a nightmare? What if it turned into bloodshed? And if it was shot by porn cameras it could, for once, be a found footage movie that made sense of the fact that everything was actually being filmed. I can’t stand found footage movies when they go find Bigfoot and the first person gets killed and everyone else is running away, but they’re still filming.

So when I mentioned this type of porn and the idea of this movie to my writing and business partner, he thought it was fantastic and was right on the cusp of detailing so many problems of our culture. It was very fertile as an idea, and it was something we could make ourselves and have fun with.

Much of the film is very intense and shocking. What was the attitude like on set and during production?
It was a very smooth shoot. No real problems at all. A friend of mine, Jim Wynorski, is a legend of exploitation cinema. And he’s always told me that if I ever wanted to make a micro-budget film, he’d teach me how to do it. Jim makes a lot of monster movies for the Syfy Channel, but he also makes soft core erotica films for Cinemax. My partner for Lucky Bastard, [co-writer and director] Robert Nathan, comes from very high-end television. He’s worked on Law & Order, ER – he’s spent 20 years doing the classiest network television. So this was our filmmaking experiment. The story was conceived as a very real human drama, but we shot it quickly like an exploitation film with real pros from that world. I mean, Jim is a wizard. And we were lucky, we had terrific actors who were drawn to the crazy material, because it was fun and different and challenging. It was a 10 day shoot and beyond the trivial things that go wrong on any movie, it was a very smooth shoot.

And then moving into post-production…
That was very smooth as well. We loved our editor, Tony Randel, one of Jim’s go-to guys. It was a great movie-making experience. We were all very proud of the film and the story we told.
Jay Paulson as Dave G.
Which brings us to distribution and your MPAA rating. You submitted Lucky Bastard for a rating, and were given an NC-17, which is often cited as the rating of death due to the limitations it puts on distribution.
Well, first of all, the MPAA was totally nice. That’s one of the things people don’t expect. They’re made out to be this sort of Bogeyman, but all the personnel are very easy to get along with. They answer their own phones. Institutionally they are very conservative in the way they rate movies, and I think they’re overly reactive towards sex and “lifestyle issues”—anything that would upset the South or so-called “Heartland.” They’re overly forgiving of violence, especially goreless violence like in say, Man of Steel, where you’re killing millions of people, but it’s sort of off camera, so who cares? That’s the MPAA’s stance. And it’s confusing. There are so many things that get you an NC-17 rating, but if you’re a television show, nobody cares. The things the MPAA said earned Lucky Bastard an NC-17 rating are things that are in nearly every episode of Girls, or True Blood or Game of Thrones.

But look, if you’re determined to get an R rating, then you can get an R rating. You haggle and cut the film, send it back to them, haggle and cut some more. You play the game. It’s a negotiation. But what does tend to happen is that it changes your movie. You end up showing fleeting glimpses of something, then cutting away. And by only showing those fleeting glimpses, you’re stigmatizing the event. So a graphic sex scene – when you cut away from it so quickly, you’re making the act seem dirty, even though the artistic point you’re trying to convey is that it’s not dirty. So we knew very early on in this process that recutting Lucky Bastard to get an R rating would completely change the ideology of the movie.

It’s a ridiculous and unfair process. Those shows I mentioned are a click away in many households. And any kid with a smartphone has access to as much free hardcore pornography as they like. But if you want to show simulated sex in a movie, then you’re stigmatized. I think the MPAA needs to add a soft R rating, call it a “PG-17.” That would be for films with, say, dirty language. And everything else would be an R. The only way a film should get an NC-17 is if it has real, penetrated sex. Everything else should be R.
Don McManus and Rue
For my readers who may be unaware, when you’re movie is rated NC-17, it automatically hinders your distribution. Most major movie theater chains won’t play NC-17 films. Many stores, like Target and Wal-Mart, won’t sell them. Some online hosts won’t stream them. There are exceptions, films like Shame that become so popular that it only makes sense for the places to bend their rules and distribute that film. But for the most part, it’s hard to get an NC-17 movie out there in a wide release.
We’re a hypocritical culture when it comes to pornography. It’s a product that is widely used but rarely discussed by the people who use it, which is understandable. It’s the big, dirty, open secret, and anything that calls attention to it makes people extremely uncomfortable. The characters in our film are mostly normal people with normal problems, who have kids and families and bills. We didn’t stigmatize the porn industry in our film, and I think that made it easy for the MPAA to give us an NC-17.

I really respected that about the movie. It would’ve been so easy for Lucky Bastard to bash the porn industry, but by and large, you depicted it as a seemingly normal profession with normal people.
Well… you’re smarter than the reviewer for Variety, who was the only person I really got upset with. Variety basically hired a film student to do some reviews when they were shorthanded. He did a handful of reviews, making fun of tiny movies that, apparently, Variety thought no one would care about. One of those was our movie and, for all intents and purpose, he called Lucky Bastard the worst movie ever made. And then he went on Twitter and Facebook and Letterboxd to advertise his opinion. And the reason I got upset was that he called the movie homophobic. [Read the original Variety review, and the Letterboxd review by the same author.]

Really? I didn’t get that from the film at all.
It’s crazy. He’s an idiot. First off, our director, Robert Nathan, is gay. He’s been out for 25 years. He was an out, gay television writer back when it could destroy your career. So Robert saw these reviews and hit the roof. And we could only assume that this reviewer felt this way because a few times in the movie, the crazy murderer yells, “Oh so you think I’m a faggot?” And everyone else in the movie says, “What? No.” That was an artistic choice by us, to include that word in the movie. This character is clearly insane, and because he has sexual performance problems, he foolishly assumes that the people on the porn set think he’s gay, which they quickly deny. So when this review called the movie homophobic, it really means this reviewer has interpretive problems, and it shows you where film criticism is at today. But that’s another conversation.
Rue and Paulson
You wrote a remarkable piece for Film School Rejects about the options of distribution for a small, independent, NC-17 rated film. And I wanted to ask you about a few things from that article. At one point you say “You will make more money recycling empty soda cans than selling your movie on Vimeo.” Can you expand on that?
We’ve made about $45 distributing the film on Vimeo. And they were no help whatsoever. In fact, it would be near impossible to find Lucky Bastard on Vimeo unless I told you exactly where to find it on the site.

But then you have this random, saving grace in Hulu, where Lucky Bastard is currently streaming for free and has become a hit. How did that happen?
I honestly don’t know. Hulu seems to have a lot of racy content that iTunes does not. Basically, iTunes doesn’t want these kinds of movies. Amazon will take them, because they take anything—for transaction purposes, though not for Amazon Prime’s free streaming. So will Xbox. But Hulu has a young demographic, we think, and a lot of risqué movies have performed very well there. Our film seems to be attractive to that audience. Lucky Bastard is not pornography, but I do think, like porn, people feel icky paying for it. But if it’s free, they’ll watch it forever.

We tried to distribute the movie any number of ways. We had a brief theatrical run, which was very costly—it feels like we spent nearly half our budget just screening it in New York. We tried festivals, we have it hosted online at pay-for-play sites… but it looks like Hulu, the place where you can watch it for free, is what will help us recoup the cost of the film.

It’s ironic that the site Lucky Bastard is streaming on for free is ultimately the site that will earn you the most money.
That’s independent film distribution for you. But I can’t stress this enough: we made exactly the film we wanted to make. That is a priceless experience. The distributors took our film got behind it, and people are watching it and have heard of it. Just getting people to hear about your movie is 90 percent of the battle. We can thank “porn” for one thing—it’s memorable!

All images from www.luckybastardmovie.com


11 comments:

  1. This seems like a really fascinating film. Kendall also seems like a great person, and I like it when you can tell filmmakers are passionate about movies :)

    Another movie that is in the same vein as Lucky Bastard is Kink. I haven't seen it, and I don't know if you have either, but judging from the trailer, it also looks at the people who are being filmed as normal people.

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    1. Ohh Kink is that James Franco doc right? His films are so curious to me... many of them are compelling topics, but they are executed in a rather dull fashion. "Interior. Leather Bar." sounded amazing to me, but it was so damn boring. A bummer.

      Anyway, thank you so much for reading this interview. Lukas is a great guy and he taught me a lot about the distribution process for indie films, which is stuff I really need to know right now!

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    2. I agree about Lucky Bastard sounding interesting. I might have to give this one a watch this weekend. Lukas sounds like a really cool and passionate guy. (though I have to admit that I hate the poster for this film).

      I actually saw Kink and thought it was really well done. I think Franco only produced that one whereas he co-directed I.L.B. - which I actually think is the best thing he's directed.

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    3. I dig the poster because it doesn't fully make sense unless you've seen the film, which I always enjoy. Plus, I thought it was smart that those YouTube time stamps are actually accurate to the movie.

      Man, I thought the first 20-30 minutes of ILB were so cool, and the subtle way they revealed that it was all fake was ingenious. But after that reveal, it just faded out and became dull. I was stunned how quickly I lost interest in it.

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  2. The premise of the film itself. Plus, Lukas sounds like a nice dude. As for that asswipe who wrote for Variety.... my asshole on a bad day could write a better review. I might give the film a shot if I have the need to watch it.

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    1. I should add that I like the premise of that film and its take on the found-footage genre.

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    2. Hahah shit! Hilarious. I'd be interested to hear what you think about Lucky Bastard. They really did find a convincing way to rework a tired gimmick.

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  3. I really find the plot intriguing, sounds pretty fresh and new. It's always been a fantasy for the average guy to have something happen like this. I will put this in my Queue.

    Nice interview work btw.

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    1. Thanks buddy. It's a groovy little flick for sure. And I love Lukas and Co's courage in talking about the MPAA and other difficult marketing strategies of the biz. Not enough people are so forthright with that information, you know?

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  4. Terrific interview. I'd heard of this, but I had no idea what it was about. It's unfortunate that films like this can't get distributed. I kind of like the idea of a PG-17, though. Seriously, HOW is a film like Once rated R?

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    1. Thanks buddy. I think PG-17 is ingenious. Because yes, how is Once rated R, but, say The Kite Runner (which features a rather graphic adolescent male-on-male rape scene) PG-13. Very odd to me.

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