Right before the holidays, I had to the opportunity to interview some of the winning directors from HollyShort — one such interview was with American director/writer/producer Brian Lawes. Now new to the festival circuit or winning jury awards, Brian chatted with us about his most recent short film, “Lost Kings” and what it’s been like on the festival circuit and staying creative and busy during the pandemic.
LV Taylor: Hey Brian, how are you doing?
Brian Lawes: Doing well, how are you doing?
LV Taylor: Pretty good, pretty good…no real complaints. Let’s dive right in. I got a chance to watch “Lost Kings” and I just want to say, great job. A lot of times we often think that issues like this — child hunger — is something that happens far away from us. But this film shows us that a lot of times it’s a lot closer than we realize. So how did this story come about and why did you want to do this film.
Brian Lawes: Thanks! There’s several reasons. It actually began with a longer version, a feature film idea that I started with that involves the same character, the same world — just a longer more fleshed out story. And so after writing that one, I started to realize that there’s a couple different avenues you can go down to bring that larger story to life — one of them is to create a smaller piece. What I did is I adapted the longer piece into the short film, just to kind of show the tone, style and world I’d like to create for the 90 minute version. But even before that, I’ve always been kind of interested in morally ambiguous stories — you know, a situation when it’s a faceless issue and you’re not really thinking of the individual it can become a very black and white situation where it can be easy to classify. Maybe breaking in to a home for some need like that is or isn’t wrong. And it’s always been really interesting to me to introduce an audience to a character in a specific situation and carry them through the actions they might take that, if you weren’t watching, you might just. You’d be quick to categorize them into something without knowing their background, so having a general intuition, those types of stories led me to this idea in general. And hunger is such a common thing that can happen from house to house in the same neighborhood — so it was a pretty natural topic to jump into to explore that. And I think, sadly enough, 2020 has kind of exacerbated that issue.
LV Taylor: Unfortunately, it has. So is the feature version something that you’re currently working on?
Brian Lawes: Actually, I’m working with some producers to try to get that up and running — obviously COVID prevents some of that from moving as fast as you would hope — but taking the short film and sharing that on the festival circuit is kind of our first step in moving towards the future version.
LV Taylor: Nice. So speaking of festival circuits, 2020 has been pretty crazy. How has this festival run been for you so far?
Brian Lawes: Well, it certainly wasn’t what I expected it would be, obviously being virtual. I mean when I started and we were finishing up editing and submitting to the festivals, my idea was always to be in person. Unfortunately, I haven’t been able to watch it in the theater with people yet, which is one of my favorite experiences after doing a film. But there’s actually been some surprising positives to that too. I’ve been able to connect with a lot of different filmmakers at virtual festivals because I can bounce around like on a Zoom call. We’re actually playing at the Anchorage International Film Festival here in a couple weeks in Alaska, and they have a really pretty platform they put together that showcases all the films. It even has direct links that allow people to connect with me and other members of the crew and cast. So there’s kind of a give-and-take. I missed the immersion aspect of it. But we’ve had a lot of really fun premieres and I would have loved to meet people out at HollyShorts, Calgary International Film Festival, Edmonton International or Bentonville. But yeah, that’s the situation we’re in, so I’ve been pleased to see there are some positives. And I hope as we look back we realize maybe this is the new type of festival and maybe even make festivals more connected than they were before. So, that’s my hope.
LV Taylor: Yeah, same here. Being that you have been unable to really get that in person reaction from audience members, have you been able to hear any feedback from anyone — how’s the reception of “Lost Kings” been so far?
Brian Lawes: Yeah, I’m always very interested to see how the audience is responding so I’ve had many, many conversations with people who have watched it in their home, or people who have attended the festival. And it’s been a really overwhelmingly positive response. It’s like, I made some other films and this one’s the most quiet I’ve probably ever made. So, what’s interesting with this one is that people get really quiet to kind of match the volume of the film when they watch. Also it’s a pretty suspenseful film, so as they’re watching they themselves are almost holding their breath for a lot of it. Upon watching it for the first time with people, it was kind of hard to read what they were thinking, until it kind of ends and there’s like an audible sigh of relief. And so it’s been really fun to watch that happen. There’s that moment when you’re first watching people and you don’t know what they’re gonna think — it’s kind of tense but, yeah I’ve been really encouraged that people are really connected with the film in ways that maybe we didn’t even expect. Also, there’s so many talented people involved — from my director of photography to my cast — and I’m really proud that a lot of people are noticing their contributions to the film. It makes me really proud that I can showcase my team.
LV Taylor: Speaking of such, I do remember a scene — I think it’s when he’s (Zuri) riding the bike down the street and you zoom up and see the the leaves and the sunshine coming through, and it’s just such a beautiful shot. So yeah, your team did a great job on this. And while we’re on the subject of your team, your lead actor was amazing (Dash Melrose). How did you get him involved?
Brian Lawes: So we had a casting director, Chris Freihofer that we were working with — and the short answer is that Chris connected us with Dash. We held a lot of auditions and looked at a lot of different people for the role. But it wasn’t too long of a process, but it took some time. The actual end scene that you’re referencing, Dash did part of that in the audition and he just broke down crying — even a little bit more than you see in this moment in the film. And that was kind of what sold it for me — watching him on screen auditioning. It was pretty obvious he was the right pick for it. And then on set he blew me away even more because he’s so well beyond his years and just how talented he is and his intuition for the character. So, we’re lucky to have found him before he’s famous.
LV Taylor: Right. It’s often said that working with children can be quite difficult when it comes to filmmaking — did you have any issues with the filming?
Brian Lawes: Not really, I think I had amazing actors. I mean, I’ve worked with children before in different films and projects, and I think the role of any good director is probably to know when to be quiet and when to speak up and a lot of times when it comes to working with kids, I think their intuition is sometimes sharper than even maybe even my own in a certain moment. They’re pretty in touch with what’s going on and sometimes there’s some slight guiding and maybe a performance like a “little bit more of this little bit less than this.” But I feel that if you do your job in the casting, you really your make your job easy — that was the case for our kids, they were so talented. It was kind of just get out of their way and let them do their thing, with some slight course corrections. So I was fortunate.
LV Taylor: What drew you to filmmaking?
Brian Lawes: Oh man…well it’s a blast, it’s fun! I guess even before I realized how fun it was, as a kid I was always fascinated with movies. I actually started as an actor when I was really young, and really liked that but at some point I made the transition and got behind the camera. I saw just how beautiful the whole process is when you get to work with 10-20 people to create a short and also to sit in the director’s seat and the writer’s seat and craft a story. Then you get to work with the actors and the visuals of the camera department and music and it’s just, I think I loved it as a kid so much. The next step was just how do I make it because I was so inspired and so drawn in — it was a pretty quick story from there. I just fell right into it and and every step along the way just fell in love with it more. I think deep down, I’ve been given such special experiences from watching movies myself that I hope to be able to give back to different audience members — that feeling of connecting me with myself, bringing my emotions to the surface and allowing me to have an authentic experience through someone else’s journey. On the screen, that’s always been such a magical moment for me. So I want to generate it as much as I can and give it back, because it’s always been really special to me. That’s a little bit of an abstract answer but kind of what brought me here.
LV Taylor: I totally get that. Who would you say are some of your influences when it comes to other directors or writers?
Brian Lawes: I’ll give you the short list. There’s like some of those classic people, like Steven Spielberg — I grew up watching stuff like “E.T.” and “Jurassic Park” which certainly left its mark on me in certain ways and my approach to filmmaking. Then, as I’ve gotten older, there’s directors like Destin Cretton — who did “Short Term 12” and more recently “Just Mercy” — I’ve always really connected with the types of stories he tells. I’ve always really admired Christopher Nolan and how he tells very complex, grand stories, but seems to be able to ground them. “Inception,” particularly, is one of those classics that on paper you would look at it and not understand at all what’s going on but there’s an amazing ability to use the visual medium of film to connect you to a human story. I have fun watching stuff like Wes Anderson and Noah Baumbach — those guys just approach things in a different ways than I probably would. Anderson specifically is a blast and Baumbach I love just because he has a ton of people in the same room who disagree with one another but love each other — it’s a blast to watch family conflict like that. So those are some of the guys I think of, and there’s many more, but those are some of the people I often think through that really shaped me as a filmmaker.
LV Taylor: It’s a pretty solid list.
Brian Lawes: Yeah, they’re all pretty, pretty phenomenal.
LV Taylor: So I know that you’re still fairly new, but thinking long term — what would you say you would want your legacy to be — what do you want to leave behind with your body of work?
Brian Lawes: That’s a great question. I’ve touched upon it a little bit, but these types of stories I’m drawn to — morally ambiguous situations. If you really break it down, I think I’m very interested in any stories that are going to generate empathy in the people and audience watching. I think when you look at the world right now — if I could just pick one legacy — you look at the world right now and it’s very easy for people to be compartmentalized and put people in their boxes. You have a lot of animosity towards each other and there seems to be a lacking in the ability to jump in other people’s shoes and consider their perspective and try to approach people from a human level and understand where they’re coming from.
I think any films I can offer in my body of work that can bring people to a point of being willing to consider a side or a situation they previously hadn’t, and then kind of model for them that process in a way that hopefully translates to their life. And then for them to be able to run into a stranger at the store or talk to a family member they don’t agree with, but basically equip them with this practice of like, “oh there’s probably more to this story than what I’ve already seen — it’s probably a background I don’t know about.” So as I approach people, how do I have a gentleness and a patience and an understanding that that’s probably the situation. There’s a background story and things that have shaped them — there’s pains that everyone carry around with them. Everyone has some hurt in their life they carry that’s often unspoken, but often is huge and shaping how they interact with the world. And so, in my body of work, if it can help people be reminded of that and also be reminded of the humanity in themselves, then I’ve done my job. I kind of walk around a little bit more gentle and a little bit more understanding in any conflict in any situation than I would — that would probably be a legacy that I can definitely be very happy to leave.
LV Taylor: Great answer. So just one final question for you — are you currently working on anything other than the feature for the short? Is there anything else in your pipeline?
Brian Lawes: So there’s a couple of different things. Recognizing that COVID was going to make things a little bit unpredictable, I’m kind of in a holding pattern for right now to figure out what’s going on. I’ve written a couple different projects — I wrote another feature during the first lockdown. Not knowing how long it would be, I did a rough draft for that one. Then there’s another feature I’m planning to start here, probably this winter, as we head into maybe times of more cases or a little bit more indoors. There’s a psychological thriller I wanted to write — one that I’m trying to write in a very contained set you know with one, maybe two locations and very minimal actors, as we head into next year kind. You kind of have to be prepared — maybe “Lost Kings” (the feature) is a project that gets pushed back a little because of COVID restrictions. So how do I keep working on stuff and creating a body of work that I can do within those restrictions. But this winter I’m writing with the hope of having that in my back pocket — in case we get to next summer and we need a little more time before we can jump into bigger productions.
And then I’m actually starting a small documentary project — which is not my norm — recognizing all that was going on in the world this past summer with the racial injustice in this country, I wanted me to take a seat of asking more questions and trying to learn more so I started a short documentary shot on 16 mm film — it’s pretty exciting. It’s the first thing I’ve shot on film were I’m interviewing some of my friends, who are artists in the Black community, about their process and about their art, how their experiences in America have shaped their art, and just kind of waiting for that conversation. Asking stuff like “what do you wish people — the white community or other communities — to understood about you, your experience?” It’s kind of the same hope I talked about earlier — the legacy of helping people understand better. A documentary of interest into that conversation — which is very very much in its infancy — I think it’s the first time I’ve ever really mentioned it, but it’s one that I’m hoping to maybe work on this winter or in the spring, COVID dependent.
LV Taylor: Very interesting. I definitely look forward to keeping up with your career and continuing to watch what you come out with. And what you’re working on now sounds really interesting so I’ll definitely keep that on my radar. But thank you so much for taking the time out to chat with me today. I appreciate it.
Brian Lawes: Of course. Thanks for making time. I’m always happy to talk and it was a really fun time. Thank you!
Musings of a Streaming Junkie would like to thank Brian Lawes for talk with us. You can see more of Brian’s work over at his website.