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SxSW ’09 Interview: “Luckey” Director Laura Longsworth

Luckey - At SxSW Film
by Jason Whyte

“Initially, “Luckey” was a film about an exceedingly quirky artist, but it quickly turned into a family drama. Tom Luckey, a sculptor, fell through a window and became fully paralyzed just as he was trying to build the largest, most complicated work of his career. Once he's paralyzed, Tom's wife becomes his caretaker and he enlists his son Spencer, from his first marriage, to help him finish the sculpture. The family relationships and dynamics are complicated to begin with. All the characters are all tremendously stressed by Tom's accident. Then to care for him and help him succeed, family members are essentially forced to rally together under very difficult circumstances that don't seem to have an end in sight. As the sculpture is built, the family fractures and crumbles.” Director Laura Longsworth on the film “Luckey” which screens at this year’s South By Southwest Film.

Is this your first film in SxSW? Do you have any other festival experience? Do you plan to be in Austin for the screenings?

Luckey is my first film at SxSW. It’s also the first film I have directed. The film also got into IDFA so I went to Amsterdam in November, which was a lot of fun. Coming off that, I wouldn’t miss the opportunity to be in Austin for the screenings, so I will absolutely be there.

Could you give me a little look into your background (your own personal biography, if you will), and what led you to the desire to want to make film?

Stories have always had a central role in my life. I was a huge reader as a kid, but wasn’t really allowed to watch TV and didn’t go to the movies much. So, I got into writing and became a newspaper reporter. I also had this idea that I needed to contribute to society in some way. So, I started doing research for public television documentaries, at which point it dawned on me that true and meaningful stories could be told visually, not just with words. It sounds a little dopey and obvious, but this was kind of a revelation to me. So, figuring out how to tell a great story in this multi-dimensional way was, and still is, exciting to me. I love the process of making a film. In many ways it’s far more cumbersome and awkward than writing and I do question the carbon footprint issue a lot. But on a personal level, the challenges of making a film play right into my need for adventure and action. And I think there’s nothing quite like the experience of seeing other people be compelled or moved by a film. That makes me want to find good stories and keep making films.

Growing up, you were no doubt asked the eternal question “When I grow up I want to be a …” Finish this sentence, please!

My answer to the question “What do want to be when you grow up?” was “I don’t know.” Or, if I were feeling recalcitrant, I would say “a hermit” because I had this vague fantasy of living on an island on a far-away lake in Canada. Truthfully, I’ve never really had a super clear vision for the future and I still don’t. I concentrate on the present and the near-term.

How did this whole project come together?

Tom Luckey, the main character, is a friend of my father-in-law from Yale, where they both were undergraduates and then attended the School of Architecture. I had met Tom a few times before his accident and knew that based on personality, and had kind of registered him in my mind as a really big, great personality. Then, after his accident, when he was through his various surgeries and out of physical rehab and wanted to get back to work, I knew that if he was willing to have a film made about him, the combination of great character and difficult circumstance would make for a compelling story. I was a little reluctant to approach him because he was so severely injured that I didn’t want to seem predatory. Then, out of the blue he called me up and said he wanted to make a film. So, that’s how it all started. I went down to meet him and I met Spencer, his son, the other main character. My main concern was whether as a family the Luckeys could open up as much as I knew they would need to. It’s a lot to ask of people, to expose themselves on this level, but we talked it over and they agreed and embraced that idea to the end.

What was the biggest challenge in the production of the movie, be it the script, principal photography or post-production stage?

I think principal photography was the most challenging and stressful phase over all, for a few different reasons. I was creating a film for which it was often hard to do advance planning in terms of when to shoot. The subjects lived 2.5 hours from me and things I wanted to shoot often came together on short notice, so I was constantly throwing together shoots at the last minute. I had worked on public affairs films before, so fortunately I was used to the idea of tracking stories from far away and then making split decisions about when to shoot. The entire process can be stressful, time consuming and can break a budget if you’re not super careful. This was a difficult time for the Luckeys and tensions within the family grew during filming. In between shoots when I would talk on the phone with them, I didn’t get the same perspective from any of the three main characters so I was often tracking three different stories from a distance. I was both producer and director so I was essentially alone in mentally sifting through and deciding what to shoot. Sometimes the decisions were very difficult to make and I was constantly questioning whether I was getting what the film needed. At the same time, I had to maintain my own balance, perspective and good relationships with all three of the main characters.

Please tell me about the technical side of the film; your relation to the film’s cinematographer, what the film was shot on and why it was decided to be photographed this way.

Technically, this film was simple. We shot on a Panasonic DVX100a. Shooting on this camera was a financial and logistical decision. The principal photography took place in two main locations: Boston, MA. and New Haven, CT. For financial reasons I couldn’t afford for the one cinematographer to travel a lot, so I ended up working primarily with two cinematographers—one who lives in Boston and another who lives in New Haven. They each did most of the shooting in their respective cities. They each owned the camera, which is an inexpensive camera, so it was a reasonable financial proposition for me to hire them and their gear. The camera can shoot 24p, so that also made sense.

Talk a bit about the experiences (festival or non-festival) that you have had with this particular film. Have you had any interesting audience stories or questions that have arisen at screenings? If this is your first screening premiere, what do you hope to expect at the screenings of the film?

I’m always shocked at how many people have encountered Tom Luckey. He is definitely a person whom you will remember if you meet him. In fact, here’s an excerpt from an email I got an hour ago from a high school classmate with whom I’m in sporadic contact and who just heard about the film:

“Holy Hell, Laura! I didn’t realize you were up to this. I ended up going to college (and lived down the hall my sophomore year) from Spencer. His father even came to school for a very raucous guest appearance singing lead on a cover of the Dead’s “Scarlet Begonias” in Spencer’s band, “Captain Dickhead”…TOTAL life of the party! Hilarious. So sad to hear what happened to him…”

On a more serious note, I’ve had personal and email conversations with many people who have had sick or injured family members. These caretakers connect with the people in the film and their struggle to keep Tom viable and alive, while keeping themselves whole too.

Who would you say is “the audience” for this film? Do you want to reach everyone possible or any particular type of filmgoer?

I feel like this film has many universal themes, mostly related to family dynamics. Every family has its difficulties, very sad times, and conflicts. Some are greater than others. But, of all the astounding things the Luckeys go through, and some of it is extreme, their responses and feelings are so human that people truly relate to them and end up thinking about their own families, or how they would respond.

Who would you say your biggest inspirations are in the film world (directors, actors, cinematographers, etc)? Did you have any direct inspirations from filmmakers for this project in particular?

I would say my biggest inspiration is the screenwriter Charlie Kaufman. I’m a huge fan of his. I think constantly of his ability to tell multiple stories simultaneously. It’s something done all the time in novels, but to me he’s taken it to a new place in films. As his fraternal twin, or maybe he’s the fraternal twin of her, I’m very inspired by Susan Orlean’s work. There is a reason her writing keeps being made into movies and that’s because it’s so true and so visual.

How far do you think you would want to go in this industry? Do you see yourself working on larger stories for a larger budget under the studio system, or do you feel that you would like to continue down the independent film path?

I would like to stay on the independent documentary path. I think that’s where the freedom to tell the best stories is – for the most part. Sometimes money represents freedom in a different way. I don’t care about money, except if it allows me to make a film I want to make, then I care. On that note, some amazing people really had faith in me making this film and put their money behind it, for which I will be forever grateful.

If you weren’t in this profession, what other line of work do think you would be involved with?

Another profession…not sure. I guess I would start writing again, or maybe I would pack in the whole thing and raise miniature cattle. It’s easy to romanticize farming, of course, but all these urban and suburban dwellers are starting to raise chickens and I think miniature cows are going to be the next wave.

Please tell me some filmmakers, actors or other talent that you would love to work with, even if money was no object.

Ang Lee.

How important do you think the critical/media response is to film these days, be it a large production, independent film or festival title?

The response of critics and media to a film is very important because it has such a huge impact on how many people see a film. There are so many films and there is so much on TV that it can be hard to sift through. I don’t always agree with critics, but they make a huge difference and often alert me to films I find valuable and worth seeing for myself.

What would you say to someone on the street to see your film instead of the latest blockbuster playing at the local megaplex?

To convince someone on the street to see my film over a blockbuster at a megaplex, first I would tell them the heat or AC broke at the megaplex and that they’re out of popcorn. Then I would tell them that my film was a contender for an Academy Award…but I’m a pretty lousy liar, so I would probably break down then and tell them I had made this film about family drama that’s so much more real than what they would possibly get at the megaplex!

What would you say or do to someone who is talking during or conversing/texting on their cell phone while you’re watching a movie (if at your own screening or another movie you attend)?

“Cut the crap!”

What do you love the most about this business of making movies?

I love meeting the people along the way. Making documentaries is the best vehicle ever for meeting interesting and varied people the world over.

No doubt there are a lot of aspiring filmmakers at film festivals who are out there curious about making a film of their own. Do you have any advice that you could provide for those looking to get a start?

You should think through your story and funding strategy carefully. If you think you have a likelihood of money and story, go for it because once you get rolling and if are persistent, you will find that people will help you in a pinch. Other people want good films!

And finally…what is your all time favourite motion picture, and why?

Of all time? Come on! This is always such a hard, hard question, and it has changed over time. When I was a kid, I loved the Clint Eastwood movies with Clyde the chimp, Every Which Way But Loose. Then as a teenager, I loved Harold and Maude. I really liked Adaptation. Having had a kid, my movie viewing and memory have both dropped off a lot recently, but I saw a documentary in Amsterdam that I loved called Kasim the Dream.

This is one of the many films that is screening at this year’s South by Southwest Film Festival. For more information on this film, screening times and for other information on SxSW, point your browser to

Jason Whyte,

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originally posted: 03/11/09 02:09:19
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