Believe it or not, this site has only been around for only five months, so it's still somewhat a newbie. One of the most popular features in our short history has been discussion of the indie short film On the Low, a beautiful coming of age story. Our initial review was in early June, at the beginning of the summer film festival circuit. Since then, both critics and audiences have fallen in love with the story of two high school boys ... who fall in love. Our only complaint is that this is a short film; we would love to see more.
It looks like that may happen and a feature film could be developed. This week's Rod 2.0 Conversation is with Luther Mace, the director of On the Low, who shared some news about interest expressed in his movie. Like us, Luther is a television writer-producer type (but obviously, more successful), and landed his first agent with a script for Roseanne; he's also worked on the crews of Living Single and Martin, among other productions. Luther's day job is at HBO; he adapted the short film in his spare time. Last week, over espresso and grande vanilla lattes—and through the wonders of TMobile's free nighttime minutes—we had a great convo about On the Low, the creative process, writing scripts, and how many times his two lead actors practiced that on-screen kiss until it was oh-so-hot. Enjoy.
Rod: On the Low has become the darling of the indie film circuit. How does it feel to be the belle of the ball?
Luther Mace: It’s great, a bit overwhelming and totally unexpected. I went into this with no expectations. My goal was to make a movie for the black gay community, because I looked around and saw a dearth of images. The storyline had been part of my psyche for some years. This was before everything that you see now. I didn’t know anything about Noah’s Arc, Brother to Brother or Ski Trip. Notwithstanding those projects, there was an … absence of images.
There still is an absence.
Oh yes. A few movies—even within a year or two—does not make a proliferation. The fact that it’s been so well received is a testament to the message, and hopefully the storytelling.
So your dance card has been full?
HaHa. Yes, we’ve been invited out quite a bit. We are inching toward 22 festivals. Then there were others who invited us, but we couldn’t afford to attend. The movie has been a labor of love; it was never created to make money.
Rod: Let’s talk about that. The project was self-financed?
Luther Mace: Yes, for the most part. As we went along, I paid for everything out of pocket. Of course, donations were accepted when offered.
What was your budget? Pre-production, production, post, marketing … what was the damage?
The project is still active. But I’d say … about 6k.
Wow. I didn’t even know that you could get SAG actors to even wake up for those rates. You have some decent star wattage on this project—Tommy Ford from Martin, Deondray Gossett from Sister Act 2. Even at scale, that’s the budget for three or four actors … over three days?
Ahh, someone has done their homework.
Okay, so you know the system. Let me explain: this project falls under “SAG Experimental.” The talent signs on for low and/or deferred payment. Conceivably, this could make some money; I’m trying to develop this into a feature or release it for other markets. But I don’t have any expectations, this is such a fickle industry. The only thing you can hope for is the opportunity to make more movies.
Earlier you said that you were kicking around this idea for a minute. I read an earlier interview with you where you mentioned that the story was somewhat based on your life growing up in Spanish Harlem.
Yes, On the Low definitely comes from my own personal experience. In 1997, I created the character of Ty Evans for another film. At that time I was developing the concept for a short film called Puppy Love. Basically, I just sat on the story; it never manifested itself. When the time came, I just took Ty—who had many of the same characteristics—to a script called Loving on the Down Low, then The Down Low, and finally On the Low. Because there is a feature involving two Latino men on the down low called ...
Yes, lol. It played the festival circuit in 2004. You know the movie?
Yes, but I haven’t seen it. I know it was at the Chicago Latino Film Festival. The director—Tadeo Garcia—is from Chicago, it was filmed there.
Right. So we couldn’t have two movies with similar titles. The name was changed.
How long is your film? It’s a true short, like 15 or 16 minutes?
Yep. The movie runs 15:29.
So that’s what, like 18 or 19 pages?
Almost. The shooting script runs 21 pages. We cut a couple of scenes in the final editing.
The production took several months. We shot at the Manual Arts High School, used our producers’ homes—
So that was a real high school? I thought, either this is a real school or they booked a great production designer.
Oh yes. We were quite lucky to get the school. We shot the film in two days, and later did some pick-ups. I started writing in October 2003, we were shooting by August 2004. There were upwards to 15 rewrites. You’re WGA, so you can appreciate that I watched television writers for years at work, went through a program, so it paid off.
Someone told me that you were on … Living Single?
That’s right. I was at Living Single as a receptionist and moved over to Martin as a production assistant. That’s how I met Tommy Ford. From there, I moved over to Dangerous Minds, as a writer-trainee.
Having a star of Tommy Ford’s caliber helped to add cache to the production. How did you approach Tommy?
I approached Tommy once my SAG deal was inked. Once I became a signatory in June or July 2004, the script was sent his way. He had some initial questions; his concern was that his character wasn’t just a sounding board.
Oh good. So his role evolved?
Definitely. Once we addressed those character points, he was on board. I’m glad that we did. His scene is so poignant.
Tommy is the voice of reason; he’s like a mentor figure slash alter ego. How did you find Deondray Gossett? He’s a good actor. Had you seen him in Sister Act 2? And whoa, he’s a phine one.
I hadn’t seen him in Sister Act 2, but knew him from Parenthood, and he’s done some work for MTV Productions. I saw him on a pre-casting website and thought, “Okay, there is some potential here.” He came in and read, and I wasn’t moved either way. But he left me his reel, which included a clip from another short film that he did with another same sex kiss. Okay, well, at least we knew that he wouldn’t be afraid to do what the role required. Later, when I took his tape home … It was remarkable. I saw the tape and immediately he became Ty Evans. I knew that if his acting encouraged that sort of visceral response, he was the one.
What about Delpano Wills?
Del was a recast. The original actor had problems with the same-sex kiss.
Ha. Deondray and Del had no such problems. They had chemistry. Like lovers. I remember watching that scene in the theater, and putting my arm around my boyfriend and drawing him closer. It was a very tender moment.
Yes, it was very evident from their audition that there were ... sparks. We did that kiss three times, and when I reviewed the dailies, I was very satisfied with the particular take that I chose. Their scene had gentleness … as you said, tenderness. It was just lovely the way that Deondray stroked Del’s head. This was the first time that the characters kissed. It was more like … wonder. They didn’t know what to expect.
I loved it. It reminded me of the first time I kissed another man. Or boy. Well, I was a boy then, you know what I mean, lol.
Yes, yes. Others have said that. That's the response we're looking for. These actors were consummate professionals.
I read that Deondray is writing or directing another gay-themed movie now?
Right. He’s doing a project called The DL Chronicles, which would be a series. I think he’s close to completing the first episode. Then it will make the rounds, too.
That’s exciting. I'd be interested in seeing that. So let me ask you, speaking of the film festival rounds, how do the audiences differ? Los Angeles versus New York City versus … ?
Well, New York was fantastic, which was unexpected. Couldn't ask for a better audience.
New York’s film audience is very sophisticated. If they don’t like your movie, even the pre-teens will say it sucked and give you story points.
Haha! I know, I know.
What about the other audiences?
It depends. I have realized that if the audience is older, they don’t connect with the material as much. And it goes without saying that ethnicity does play a role. I’m more relaxed if there is an urban presence.
Otherwise, the nuances become lost in translation.
Exactly! You’re so right. For instance, one of the characters looks at another and says, “Tight fade,” talking about the haircut. And of course, we know that it is a pick up line.
OMG! Years ago, that was the entrée. That was how you started your dl-convo.
Yes, yes, I’m so pleased that you caught that. Some of the nuances can be misunderstood, lost in translation as you say, because in our culture, for the most part, we don’t have the luxury of coming out and asking, “Can I get your number.” So when audiences laugh at that, I say, “Ok, great they got it.”
So you can’t be just enjoying the moment? After all, in Hollywood you’re only as good as your last credit. As Janet says, what have you done for me lately?
HaHa, how true. But really, I’m always humbled and honored when I get an acceptance. You never know what will happen will you submit a film. We’re playing in New Mexico tomorrow. It’s wonderful. But yes, I’m working to adapt a feature length version of the film. I just finished first draft.. But we’re a long way from production; there are rewrites, I would like to find collaborators, find money … repeat the entire process. My dream would be in to be in production by the summer of 2007. By then, the scripting would be right, we’d have the appropriate capital.
So let's say I'm a develop exec at Miramax and about to green light your project. No, not Miramax, they're history ...
Let's say Fox Searchlight or the Sundance Channel. Would the feature adaptation remain a coming of age film or would you expand the storyline?
On the Low is a coming of age film, and would remain as such. There’s always a temptation to try something different, or try to make more money or maximize box office. But I feel like, this is the film the audiences responded to. If they enjoyed what they saw, let me give them more of what they appreciated to begin with.
That’s a common mistake of directors, singers, writers. But if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.
Exactly, exactly. “Honor thy audience and they will always respect you.”
You need consistency. Delivering consistent product is the key to establishing brand identity. If you walk in the Safeway and the bread is in a different aisle every time you visit, you'll go somewhere else. The same with television, books or widgets.
Geez, you really are a producer. We have to work together.
My people will call your people.
HaHa. All jokes aside, I really would like to thank you personally. Once you ran that initial review on your site, my traffic increased exponentially. I couldn’t believe it. I saw the numbers at the website and the Yahoo group and was like, what is going on? Someone told me that we were mentioned on Rod 2.0. I looked at the links and found your review and was so pleased; it happened so early and helped to create a buzz. And you’re still sending people over.
Aww, thanks. You’re too kind. But it's a mutual admiration society. My philosophy is to be on the ground floor of a project; it’s exciting to discover a new book or film or something. Why talk about the same stuff that everyone else is? Ugh. So what is next, Mr. Director?
Luther Mace: Everyday is exciting. I’m just so thrilled. When you have no expectations, everything is discovery and wonder. I’m extremely grateful that On the Low has played out; now, I want the film to crossover. Submit it to mainstream festivals, like a short film festival. Everyone is expressing interest, from Austin to Washington DC. And of course, there is my feature script. It’s rewrite time; wish me luck!
On the Low (Official Website)
On the Low (Rod 2.0)
On the Low Movie (Yahoo! Group)
Following are a list of dates that On the Low will play at film festivals and black pride celebrations. Links are provided when possible. The list is not complete and may be updated; it's best to go to the Yahoo! group. Other dates will be provided as available.Austin, Texas - 10/1/05 Baltimore, Maryland - 10/8/05 Sacramento, California - 10/5/05 Jackson, Mississippi - 10/7/05 Tampa, Florida - 10/16/05 Seattle, Washington - 10/15/05 Milwaukee, Wisconsin - 10/7/05 Washington, D.C. - 10/17/05 Nashville, Tennessee - 10/29/05 Detroit, Michigan - 10/23/05