Saturday, April 19, 2014

The First One To Clap: Part 1 of an EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW With Writer/Director Francisco Lorite ("Mediation", "Cuco Gomez-Gomez Is Dead!")

Writer/director Francisco Lorite became the toast of the low budget short film world with the release of his award winning short, "Cuco Gomez-Gomez Is Dead!" in 2005.  With his sharp wit and an ear for black comedy, you'd never know just how hard Lorite had to fight to get to his position as recognized screenwriter and filmmaker.

This is the first of a two part phone interview in which Francisco Lorite takes us from his humble beginnings as a 13 year old with a camera and a dream through his successes with "Cuco Gomez-Gomez Is Dead!" and the misfortune that inspired what would have been his debut feature, Random.  We also touch on his latest short film, "Mediation" (check out the review here) starring Freddy Rodriguez and Marley Shelton.

Don't forget to check back for more as we talk more about the experience of directing "Mediation", the challenges of editing and acting and much, much more in part two!

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FCSFR: First of all, I know you've overcome some major obstacles to get to where you are today.  Could you talk a little bit about your beginnings in this business?  What gave you the desire to make films?

FRANCISCO LORITE: I think it was something that was in me from the get go.  My grandma, who was very good at telling stories, she'd tell me stories about the family and I enjoyed those.  And then I graduated to other stories which were comic books -- that was a big part of my childhood, and one of the first books that my mom got me was this dictionary of Greek mythology, and that was just a whole new universe of stories. 

I just kept going until it was time for me to tell my own stories, and so I started making them up.  That started pretty quickly to evolve into films.  The first one I did was with an old Super-8 camera that was lying around on a dusty shelf, and I just started shooting stuff, I was 13, and I haven't stopped since.  The tools have gotten better since (laughs), but the stories are really the only thing that matter.

FCSFR: I was going to ask another question about that.  Like for instance, "Mediation" has a really darkly, almost comic undertone to it.  Is that black comedy something that's always been with you or did it evolve?

LORITE: Yeah, I think that in this particular case, I do enjoy grittier and darker topics and films in general.  I do think that probably comes from a combination of Marvel in my childhood and Greek mythology, which is quite bloody, and I think that was just an inclination in the end, the stuff that I still like, as a spectator, as a fan. 

And I think that in the case of "Mediation", it just, it was appropriate to treat the topic with a dark overtone, because we do some crazy shit for love, there's no doubt about it . . . I think that there's a lot of absurd things that we need to do in order to prove love, or gain love back.  I think that's an interesting topic, and that's why "Mediation" came about.

FCSFR: Sure.  So on that note, do you have any particular filmmakers or writers that inspired you?

LORITE: Yeah, I mean the list is endless, but going back to my childhood, Sergio Leone was a big influence.   I grew up with a bizarre mix of American movies and European movies because I was in Spain, and that's what I saw: like, a healthy, balanced diet of American films, and French films and Spanish films.  

I'm a VCR kid.  I caught up with everything I missed in the 70's and 80's and the 60's, much later, but that's how I learned, that was my film school.  The VCR was my film school, and then NetFlix became my grad school.

I've seen thousands of movies . . . everybody has seen thousands of movies, but the difference is that I remember everything.  So that's how I learned.  I watched others, I didn't . . . I had this DP who I worked with who was from the studio system, and after working together, obviously we had very different styles, and he came to me -- he was an older gentleman, somebody who had a tremendous amount of experience -- and at the end of working together, he came to me and he said, "You know, working with you was interesting because I'm old school and you're new school."  And I said, "No.  You're old school, I'm NO school.  It's different." 

But I'm very conscious of having to learn, and I learn everyday, and sometimes it happens to be on my own set, and sometimes it happens to be watching some other people's work.

FCSFR: Well it's interesting you mention Leone, because I can kind of see that a bit in "Mediation", in terms of the sound design.  You know, there's a lot of buildup, there's a lot of different sounds going on at the same time.  I particularly enjoyed the slowed down bit with the ring as it hit the table, and I believe that happened twice.

LORITE: Yeah, I mean, like I said Leone would definitely be an influence from when I was a kid, and obviously you know Scorsese, and people like that.  Coppola was huge, as far as lighting, and Friedkin, and later on people like P.T . Anderson and Kubrick.  Those people really made me appreciate the craft of showmaking, not just the film for the sake of watching a film and passing the time, but truly, seeing how these people took it to another level because they were very detailed. 

And when you mention sound design, I think that's absolutely crucial.  I mean, yes, you receive the movie through the eye, and eventually through the brain.  But there's nothing that gets quicker to your gut than sound.  Nothing.  That's why music is so important, and to me, I mean, there's no difference between music and sound design to me.  It's something I take very seriously. 

FCSFR: Definitely, definitely.  So according to IMDb, so I have to take it with a grain of salt, because you never know --

LORITE:  Yeah.  A BIG grain of salt.

FCSFR: (laughs) Exactly!  It says you came to New York City at age 20.  Is that right?

LORITE: That is correct, sort of.  I was in high school, and I dropped out of high school, and worked for six months to make enough money to come to the States and I went to San Francisco to learn English.  So I spent six months in San Francisco to learn English, which I did somewhat, and then went back, finished high school -- I decided I wanted to leave what I knew behind and make a new life for myself, and that's why I decided to come to the States.

FCSFR: Because you were born in Spain, right?

LORITE: Yes, I was born in Spain, and lived in several places in Europe, including Switzerland.

FCSFR: Sure.  Do you think there's a difference in the way that people in Spain view filmmaking than in America?

LORITE: I think so.  I do think there's the obvious difference in that, this is very much a business, and art comes second.

FCSFR: It's an inadvertent side effect.

LORITE: I'm sorry?

FCSFR: Art is an inadvertent side effect in Hollywood.

LORITE: (laughs) Yes, I mean, you know, there's something that . . . the studio system still creates incredible movies, so there's enough there to justify the whole thing.  What is incredibly remarkable is that in spite of some of the constraints, people still manage to make fantastic movies within the studio system, you know?  And you have to recognize those people, and see, to me, it's something I don't miss a chance on doing.  I do have to step back and look at people, like [David] Fincher, for example, and go, wow, this is a true artist that still operates within the studio system and delivers consistently great movies.

Look. It's hard to make a good movie, OK?  It's hard to make a bad movie.  But what I mean is it's a lot of effort.  So when somebody manages to make a good movie, you have to just . . . you have to clap, you know?  And I'm very open to other people's movies -- and not just as director, but any of my other fellow filmmakers, but when I see and recognize a quality of effort, and a good story, and a good craft, I'll be the first one to clap. I've no issues with that.   There's no jealousy or ego in that way, because I know what it takes, so when somebody delivers something -- and it might not be my cup of tea at all, I have no problems recognizing quality in somebody else's work, even if it's completely foreign to what I'm interested in.  As a story, I can still say, "Wow, that's a great piece of work." 

FCSFR: OK, so at age 20, you're at New York City.  You became an actor . . .

LORITE: I was lucky enough to make a living as an actor, yes.  I did a lot of off-Broadway shows, which was incredible, just fantastic.  I think it made me a better director.  Made me a better writer as well because I got to study plays, which, you know, obviously is a great way to learn about drama.

And I got to be in the shoes of an actor . . . which allows me to understand what actors go through OFF the set, which I think is important too.  It's something that directors should understand.  And ON the set, which is something I think that mystifies a lot of directors.   

And the difference it makes to me as a writer is that I appreciate, I really try to give a meaty character to play.  And what I try to do is even smaller characters, I try to give them an arc and something to say, so that an actor gets to play as well.  I think that if there's a joy there, and it's not just by the numbers, it's going to help your film.

FCSFR: Could you take us from that acting career to when you decided to make "Cuco Gomez-Gomez Is Dead!"

LORITE: Yes.  I got a bit dissatisfied.  Look, the bottom line is that  I was lucky to be making a living as an actor in New York, and I was very grateful for that, but it wasn't satisfying me as a storyteller, and I really felt that was just a small part of the whole canvas.  I wanted something larger, and so I came to L.A.  And when I came to L.A., I was still working as an actor, but very quickly I moved into this crazy building -- which, by the way I still live in!

FCSFR: (laughs)

LORITE: It's filled with -- it's in the middle of Hollywood, but it was filled at the time, not so much anymore, but at the time filled with a bunch of people from New York.  We all sort of knew each other from gigs and it made for this very interesting kooky community where we got to rely on each other, and talk about our troubles, and bitch, and get a glass of wine at the end of the day.  We'd come in and out of each other's apartments, and it was this fantastic, weird universe unto itself.

And that inspired "Cuco Gomez-Gomez Is Dead!", which is the story of a murder, and a bunch of neighbors getting together and essentially talking about that particular murder.  That was not only inspired by the community I was living in, but MADE by the community I was living in.  I mean, I got all those people -- they all kept saying to me, "Oh, we should do something together."  And I was like, "Hell no.  I know you, and I DON'T want to work with you!"

FCSFR: (laughs)

LORITE: I finally caved, and I had everybody over for spaghetti and wine -- spaghetti being the only thing I know how to cook, still, to this day -- but pretty good though, pretty good spaghetti.

FCSFR: (laughs) Well, that's a pretty good dish.

LORITE: (laughs) Had everybody over, and I said . . .  first thing was, "Look, I wrote this script.  Here's the good news: everybody's in.  I wrote it for all of you guys.  No need to audition, I know your work, you're in.   That's the good news.  The bad news is -- " -- I took out a hundred bucks out of my pocket, put it on the table, and I said, "I'm not raising money for this.  This is a short, we're gonna make it right away or we're not making it.  This is my hundred bucks (the last hundred bucks I had that month)."  And I said, I asked of everyone to put in another hundred bucks each so we could go and shoot it.  They were not happy about that.   And then I made it worse, I said on top of that, you guys have to be the crew.  "We're just gonna make this, quickly."  So when they were done insulting me and cursing me and all that stuff, they finally agreed, and we shot it very quickly over 2 1/2 days I think it was.  A weekend, with a consumer grade camera.  We did the whole post-production on a laptop, even the color correction, everything, and we were really very lucky because it was very well received.  It did, I don't know, I think it was 100, 160 screenings around the world.


LORITE:  I got some interesting phone calls from the industry, and then I got to . . . they flew me to Hong Kong. A bunch of things happened out of it which I didn't plan for.  I had a whole different plan for it.  None of the items on my list happened.  All this, this whole weird parallel universe opened up, where we got to do so many things, and we got a lot of press because of the way it was put together, and we got very lucky because we got a bunch of awards -- 5 or 6 awards -- which was very nice. 

It got me noticed enough that I started getting some gigs as a writer/director.  I started writing scripts for other people, which I did for a while, and again I was very grateful that people would pay me to tell stories, and I did that.  But as I was doing more and more writing, I was sort of drifting away from the directing.  I wanted to combine the two elements.  So I had a chance to do a film called -- well, I almost had a chance to do a film called Random, which was unusually based on something that happened to me in Boston, which is that I got stabbed.

FCSFR: Oh my gosh.

LORITE: Yes, not something I would recommend to anyone --

FCSFR: (laughs) No.

LORITE: I would avoid it.  It's not pleasant. 

So it was a random stabbing.  Ironically I was on my way to get a slice of pizza because all I had in my pocket was two dollars.  So, definitely not worth the kill, but it inspired this story, again very loosely -- more than the story, the actual feeling of rage and frustration that comes out of that, because I had no closure.  Nobody essentially paid for that crime.  You're left with a lot of questions and a lot of doubts and weird feelings that you have to put somewhere but you have nowhere to put them, which is something that people that go through violent trauma and I are familiar with. 

But anyway, the good side of it is that it inspired a script that got me a lot of attention.  I was lucky enough that people wanted to finance it.  And that's how I met Freddy [Rodriguez] actually, because I cast him in it, and we were ready to go, and then the financing fell apart.  That particular day was very painful because I had to go tell a bunch of people who were passionate about the project that it wasn't going to happen. 

So Freddy and I started talking about pooling our resources together.  And because we have a common taste for film and the kind of story we're interested in, we started talking, "Maybe we should put a company [Top Rebel Productions] together."  He introduced me to Bill Winette, who was a friend of his, with a business background.  He actually comes from the music industry, but he's been a businessman for a very long time and has a very good head on his shoulders, and the first thing we decided to do was we needed to plant a flag in the ground and say, "Hey, here we are." 

So we decided to go and do "Mediation", because we thought that would be a good way to say, "Here we are, there's more stuff we're ready to do, and you're going to see more of us soon."

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Thank you to Francisco Lorite for being such a good sport and for answering all my questions with humor and class in equal doses.

Continue with the interview and read part two by clicking here!

Thanks for reading! I'm a screenwriter and script consultant. Most recently, I've worked with LMC Productions and Mad Antz Films in Australia. I helped mold Goodybag Productions' award winning screenplay "The Teacher" and Michael Maguire's feature length script "The Wolfpack", which is still in development.

Check out my blog and let's get in touch!