Fantasia 2017: LOWLIFE's Ryan Prows on Murder, Locations and more
ScreenAnarchy: You have a cast of veritable unknowns, which is a huge part of what makes Lowlife work. Mark Burnham, in particular, is terrifying. Tell us about why you cast who you did.
Ryan Prows: I’d seen Mark in Wrong Cops, and loved his performance and presence in that film. I think of him as the best berater in the business -- he’s just such a pleasure to watch chew someone’s ass up. He has this power to cut people down with just the tone of his voice. I knew his character Teddy “Bear” Haynes needed some kind of vicious charm like that. He’s a character everyone is eager to please, oddly enough, but he’s such an evil fuck and Mark was able to find that balance. He’s also outnumbered, and needed to believably be our big bad threat when it all hits the fan, and Mark delivered both the physical threat and psychopathic panache in spades.
Ricardo Adam Zarate, who played El Monstruo, came in for his audition wearing a suit. He sat down and just immediately nailed his opening monologue from the film like it was coming off the top of his head. We’d seen a few other people for the role, and been kind of snickering at the funny parts of the delivery, but when Ricardo did it it felt real. There was no laughing, it was like he was telling his actual life story. He was perfect. I later found out that he won Mr. Mexico, as did his brother, and his FATHER! The legacy is all! He brought a lot of that to the role with him, but we never really discussed it. I was also concerned about Ricardo being able to emote from under the mask, and worked with our costumer Alicia Ast to make sure we could see enough of him, but Ricardo did such an amazing job with it that you forget the mask is even there after a while.
I’d met Santana Dempsey (Kaylee) a few years before through mutual friends, and she was always in the back of my mind as we were writing and starting to audition. Same with King Orba (Dan). He was the lead in a friend’s short, and I’d been trying to figure out a role for him since. Jose Rosete (Agent Fowler) came in to read cold and terrified me, he was so no-nonsense. Olivia Benavides is the bravest woman I’ve ever met -- she plays the woman in the opening basement scene, and was game to push those scenes where they needed to go once we’d discussed it and she knew it was important to go that far with the gore/nudity. We were super fortunate with our cast. Everyone came ready to win.SA: Have you worked with those actors on previous projects?
RP: I worked with Nicki Micheaux on my AFI thesis Narcocorrido -- shout out to Andy Wolk, a great director and instructor, for insisting Nicki consider doing the short! Lowlife actually started with me trying to figure out how to work with Nicki again, and we worked to create a role you knew she’d just crush. She’s also a strong physical presence, and it was unbelievable to watch her literally transform in front of my eyes everyday into this small, meek, wounded person. We built the rest of the stories around her character, Crystal, as we developed the project, so she’s truly the heart of the film.
I’d also worked with Jon Oswald (Randy) previously on several sketches with Tomm Fondle, and he co-starred in a web series Fondle did called Boomerang Kids. He’s a childhood friend of co-writer/executive producer Jake Gibson and an honest-to-god savant! He was ridiculously easy and fun to work with. I just hope we get to do another film before he skyrockets into the A-List and we can’t afford him!
Shaye Ogbonna rounded out the main cast as Keith. Founding member of Tomm Fondle, co-writer, and actor. He’s usually the lead in most of our sketches, and plays a flummoxed straight man like no other.
SA: Another powerful element of any film is a great script, which you have. However, there are five writers credited on your script — did that make it difficult to get to a shooting script or was it a fun experiment?
RP: Thank you! It was actually a pretty smooth process. The five of us started a group out of AFI that I previously mentioned, Tomm Fondle, and we’ve been writing together for years. We all work on our own stuff independently, and form like Voltron when the world most needs us. The Wu-Tang model of a screenwriting team, if you will. We’ve gone to meetings Full Fondle deep, and it’s pretty hysterical. So we treated the process on Lowlife like a TV writer’s room. We broke story together, went off and wrote segments individually, and then revised the full script as a team. Tim Cairo & Jake Gibson were also producers on the film, Shaye was there playing Keith, and Maxwell Towson was on set with us, so we always had a writer handy and were able to make changes when needed during production. It worked out super great in the end, I think.
SA: With so many characters, did you find it challenging to tell all of their stories? Tell us about that process.
RP: It was a challenge, particularly in regards to managing shifting perspectives from segment to segment. With the structure of the film being this looping narrative we keep doubling back on as we follow each new protagonist, we ended up having to shoot those overlapping scenes together. So that all took some real figuring to make sure we were in the correct character’s POV from take to take. I think it ends up being really satisfying for the audience -- you’re watching a fresh angle of the same situation several times through. What does the new perspective bring to the scene, or how do they complicate and hopefully deepen the story? That was really exciting to work out.
The project initially started as an anthology film. We were going to make each segment a more contained vignette, and basically string a bunch of short films together. This was also the plan out of practical necessity to ensure we’d actually be able to make the film. But we soon realized as we were beating out the story that it would be so much more satisfying to start having the threads overlap and the characters all start playing off each other, so that became a whole new puzzle to solve in both writing and production. We really had to push to make that happen.
SA: If you ran into any issues during production — any location, special effects, etc — I’d love to hear how you overcame them.
RP: We lost our main motel location the Friday before we started production that Monday. We were going to be in the motel for a week, and the owner held us up at zero hour for a lot more money. He had to shoot his shot, I get it, but it almost sank us! Luckily, the motel we ended up in was a million times better for the film, so the movie gods were smiling down on us. But it was an insane scramble to find a place, and then rethink shooting and design and all of that on the fly.
Everything else we faced were your typical low budget filmmaking problems. Locations always being a nightmare. The clock not only your enemy, but a being of pure evil that’s trying to actively murder you. Shooting between the greenlights. A great piece of advice I got, and one we used to the hilt on this film, is to make the budget your aesthetic. Not only use what you have, but make it the foundation of the film. We couldn’t get a little 80s-style asshole Uzi I wanted Teddy to use, so we stuck every dumb attachment on the gun we could get him. It turned out so much funnier. Of course he’s that guy that would buy stupid lasers and grips and scopes and whatever else!
It also helped that everyone on the team is a straight up filmmaking G! Cinematographer Benjamin Kitchens did the damn thing to perfection! Production Designer Callie Andreadis made everything out of nothing. Editors Brett Bachman & Jarod Shannon tag-teamed the cut. It was the most fun I’ve ever had hanging with my very good buds, and we got to make this wild ass movie together! Super intense and stressful, but just the best time ever. We’ll never be this lucky again!
RP: Again, low budget filmmaking, so there wasn’t a lot of wiggle room to be shooting scenes we weren’t going to use! We were able to reshoot the opening during production, which really helped. The perspective beast reared its head on that one -- we open the film with an ICE agent stomping his way in to make an arrest, and I’d initially chose to play the scene from his perspective rather than Crystal’s. It’s kind of interesting to look at the difference between the two scenes, but we luckily figured it out and reshot it from her POV.SA: Any anecdotes from the set you’d like to share?
RP: Callie, our production designer, came on-board right before production started and saved the day. She immediately flew into action, and was driving all over town like crazy collecting set dressing. When she bought a huge Santa Muerte statue to put out on the front lawn of la casa de Monstruos, the seller did everything in their power to warn her off the purchase on some Gremlins shit. She sent us all a photo of her sitting in the cab of the truck with the lady of death, and that was the last we heard from her... for an hour or so. Sure enough, she got in a wreck coming back. She was fine, it was minor, so okay -- keep it moving. We got a movie to make! As soon as she puts the statue in the yard of the house we’re shooting at, the landlord shows up pissed and kicks us out on some bullshit. The statue sat at co-writer/producer Tim Cairo’s house for weeks, mysteriously moving from corner to corner under the cover of night. Producer Narineh Hacopian eventually took the statue home with her for some reason, where it greets her and her husband at the door in what I can only imagine is a terrifying daily ordeal.
SA: How did you feel about the crowd reaction at Fantasia? I imagine you’ll come back with more projects if you can!
RP: It was incredible. I’d heard the audiences were insane, but you could hear a pin drop in the quiet moments of the film. They were really engaged with it, and completely with us for the big moments as well as the small. That was awesome to see.
The place was packed out, there was a line around the building, and the picture and sound was top notch. The Q&A after was dope as well. They asked really smart questions and we all had a good long nerd out session! I’m a 100% Fantasia lifer going forward. Mitch and all the awesome folks at the festival were so kind and supportive and really gave us a huge push! I owe them my life! It’s genuinely the best fest ever!
SA: I loved your film. In fact, I don’t feel shy about calling you the successor to Tarantino. I’ve seen similar praise for your film in other outlets. Is this kind of talk overwhelming, flattering, both? What’s your perspective?
RP: Wow! What do you say to that? It’s extremely overwhelming, of course. He’s a legend, and set the gold standard. Tarantino got me deep diving into movies as a teen. He was my gateway drug to world cinema, so he’s always been a huge influence on me and my filmmaking.
SA: Although you’ve just had your world premiere of Lowlife, you probably have other projects on the horizon. Is there anything you can discuss?
RP: I’m working on a feature version of Narcocorrido. It follows a singer and his family through the narco music scene. Sort of a Sicario meets Boogie Nights. Fondle’s developing a television series. We’ve jumped right back into tackling big themes of the day with all the tools we learned off of Lowlife -- horror, gonzo humor, and heart. I’m excited about that. And looking for more projects to work with Nicki, Jonny, Burnham, Ricardo, and the rest of the gang!
RP: If it pleases the fates. There are many many many more stories to tell with these characters. Too many, really. We could totally run a Lowlifefranchise into the ground if they let us!SA: Is there anything else you’d like to talk about or share?
RP: Big thanks to SA’s own, Jason Gorber, for wearing a Lowlife shirt on national television! A VERY surreal sight to behold!SA: Thanks for taking the time to chat! RP: Thank you very much!