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SXSW '06 Interview: 'Cocaine Angel' Creators Michael Tully & Damian Lahey

by Scott Weinberg

The 'Cocaine Angel' Pitch: A charming young man, rendered weary by years of substance abuse, reaches the end of the line one unforgettable week in the harsh, suffocating climate of Jacksonville, Florida.

Describe your movie using the smallest number of words possible.
Director Michael Tully: A tragic, yet darkly comic, week in the life of a weary young drug addict in Jacksonville, Florida.
Screenwriter / actor Damian Lahey: A week in the life of an alcoholic cocaine junkie amid the stink, the sweat and the suffocating heat of Jacksonville, Fl.

Is this your first trip to SXSW? Got any other film festival experience? If you’re a festival veteran, let us know your favorite and least-favorite parts of the ride.
MT: This will be my first trip to Austin. I know, shame on me. As for SXSW, I told myself that I didn't want to attend the festival--music or film--unless I was included in either program. I've attended film festivals as press for several years, but I was sick of being on that side. Miraculously, I now appear to have crossed over to the other side. At least for the moment. I just got back from world premiering the film in Rotterdam, which was like a serene, glorious dream. My favorite part of the ride is when someone appears to genuinely respond to the film. My least favorite part is when someone thinks it's adding to the pile of indie shit.
DL: First time at South by Southwest, though I attended the Austin Film Festival for a film I produced, Ding-A-Ling-Less(!!), a couple years ago. We recently got back from International Film Festival Rotterdam - which was the world premiere of Cocaine Angel. It was probably the best time of my life.

Back when you were a little kid, and you were asked that inevitable question, your answer would always be “When I grow up I want to be a …” what?
MT: Basketball player.
DL: I wanted to be a novelist.

Not including your backyard and your Dad’s Handycam, how did you get your real “start” in filmmaking?
MT: I'll let you know when I get my real start. But seriously, I've been involved in so many different film-related capacities that they would take too long to list. As far as the whole 'director' thing goes, it took eight years of living in New York City and meandering around and finally reaching a snapping point. Then it took a good friend to entrust me with his script and allow me to try to be a director.
DL: In terms of education - North Carolina School of the Arts Film School. Actual work - I was the production coordinator for the rap video Shake that thang w/ Cap One, Lil' Blunt and Indo G.

Do you feel any differently about your film now that you know it’s on “the festival circuit?”
MT: I'm more proud of it than ever, but I also see its no-budget-ness more than I did before it entered the "festival circuit" world. That said, I think the no-budget-ness helps in our situation. Not for a deal, per se, but I think audiences will sense the sincerity and spirit behind the project, and will hopefully give us the benefit of the doubt.
DL: Not really - we're just really blessed to have gotten this far with it.

Of all the Muppets, which one do you most relate to?
MT: There's a Muppet reference in our movie. One of the only pop culture references, actually. Thank God for that. Anyway, I guess I most relate to Kermit singing "The Rainbow Connection." That song is heartbreakingly beautiful.
DL: Gonzo, of course. I like the way he operates.

During production did you ever find yourself thinking ahead to film festivals, paying customers, good & bad reviews, etc?
MT: I would be lying if I said that I didn't consider those things, but I will say that I never SERIOUSLY considered them. If that makes any sense.
DL: During pre-production those things were discussed. But during filming, we concentrated on getting the picture made and getting our days in.

How did this film get rolling at the beginning? Give us a brief history from writing to production to post to just last night.
MT: Damian Lahey sent me the script for Cocaine Angel as a Christmas present in 2004. When I read it, I deeply connected to it. I had just bought the Panasonic DVX-100A, and thought the material was perfect for that format. I had nothing else going on in my life. I told Damian I'd love to direct it. He said sure. But I told him I would only do it if he starred in the film. He wouldn't budge. When I finally told him that I wouldn't do it any other way, he budged. I arrived in Jacksonville, Florida, on April 1st, 2005. We locked our cast and locations the first few weeks of April, then began shooting the film in the 20s of that month. On June 6th, we shot our last frame. I headed back to Maryland to edit the film with Dave Lahn, which we did in a burst in June. The next many months were spent screening it for friends and making both major and minor tweaks. On December 6th, I was frustrated, depressed, and about to abandon the project completely. On December 7th, Rotterdam wrote and told us they wanted to world premiere it in late January. A week after that, we got the SXSW news. I just got back from Rotterdam, which was more inspiring than I could have ever imagined. Screening a film in front of a genuinely interested, sold-out audience is one of the coolest things I have ever done in my life. In just a few short weeks that will be happening again. I'm nervous, but i can't wait. I guess that takes us up to this very moment. Hopefully that wasn't too long-winded.
DL: I wrote the film after a period where I hadn't been writing and based it on some experiences I had that can really do some damage to your soul. I wrote the film to prove I could still write that I still had it in me. People really responded to it. I had been friends with the director Michael Tully - we both had scripts we had written but were more costly and we weren't going anywhere with them. We decided to make Cocaine Angel. I originally wrote the script for another friend of mine to play the lead in, but Tully insisted I do it myself or he wouldn't direct the picture. Orginally, we were going to shoot in Maryland, but after sending him some pictures of Jacksonville - we decided to shoot it in my hometown. Shawn Lewallen, the cinematographer, had worked with me on Ding-a-ling-less and another film I produced, The Last Summer. He came down and shot the film. I assembled a documentary size crew. I didn't want to try to look like we were something we weren't and wanted an intimate group to make the shooting more comfortable and fun. I scheduled the film very loosely so that we had the time to get what we needed. The editor Dave Lahn flew down and cut the film as we shot, so we saw how the film was shaping up - it became more lyrical visually, so we began to pare down some of the dailogue and I would rewrite scenes to accomodate how the film was shaping up. Legion Productions did the final output and we used the same color timing deck that was used on the new Superman movie. Brian Jenkins supplied the original music.

If you could share one massive lesson that you learned while making this movie, what would it be?
MT: I would choose an excited, committed amateur over a bitter, worn out 'professional' any day of the week. Work with people with whom you share the same vibe. Sounds hippified, but that's important to me.
DL: In the budget account for post production materials, like postcards, copies, postage, posters, t-shirts, festival submission costs, etc...

What films and filmmakers have acted as your inspirations, be they a lifelong love or a very specific scene composition? Did you watch any movies in pre-production and yell “This! I want something JUST like this …only different.”?
MT: Let's start with question number two: Michael Winterbottom's Wonderland. Other cinematic inspirations for this film specifically were rooted in the New Hollywood of the 1970s, films like Five Easy Pieces and Scarecrow and Minnie and Moskowitz. As for general inspirations, lemme just freestyle for a bit: Cassavetes, Altman (especially 1970-1978), Mike Leigh, Malick, Lynch, Claire Denis, Masculin-Feminin, The Graduate, The Bicycle Thief, Husbands and Wives, Flirting, Come and See... I could keep going, but I'll stop there. (I know as soon as I send this I'm going to
remember some mandatory inclusions, but oh well.)
DL: Once Upon a Time in America, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, Suspiria, The Wild Bunch, Ran, That Obscure Object of Desire - those are some of my favorite films. Peckinpah, Kurosawa, Fellini, Leone, Argento, Kitano, Altman - those are pretty much my favorite filmmakers. Out of the Blue, Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia, Blue Collar, Who'll Stop the Rain, The Last Detail - those films were a sort of inspiration in terms of tone and texture - and also visually how we wanted the film to feel. Oddly enough, we watched the collector's edition of Escape from New York and all the bonus materials over and over during the shooting of the film and tried to get everyone in the cast to watch Straw Dogs.

What actor would you cast as a live-action Homer Simpson?
MT: Paul Giamatti.
DL: Paul Giamatti.

Say you landed a big studio contract tomorrow, and they offered you a semi-huge budget to remake, adapt, or sequelize something. What projects would you tackle?
MT: God, these are the funnest questions ever. Adapt: Revolutionary Road. Remake: Bad Ronald. Sequelize: The Karate Kid.
DL: Elizabeth Gaskell's Ruth, Kirsten Gunn's Rain.

Name an actor in your film that’s absolutely destined for the big-time. And why, of course.
MT: Damian Lahey, because he's a triple-threat! Better chance of success if you produce, write, and act.
DL: I'm not sure. Certainly not myself!! Ha!

Finish this sentence: If I weren’t a filmmaker, I’d almost definitely be...
MT: the moment, I'm not a filmmaker. I'm a guy who made a film. Right now, I most definitely AM a house painter.
DL: sales of some sort, probably.

Who’s an actor you’d kill a small dog to work with? (Don’t worry; nobody would know.)
MT: Kelly Macdonald. (I already have the script written for her--it's called Daydream.) As for the male persuasion, Mos Def.
DL: Nick Nolte.

Have you “made it” yet? If not, what would have to happen for you to be able to say “Yes, wow. I have totally made it!”
MT: To me, making something truly great is 'making it.' Knowing myself, I'll never be able to say that about anything I make--no matter how well it's received. But to answer your question, if I show up in "People" magazine, that's when I know I'll have 'made it,' at least in the way that you're asking.
DL: No. I would need to be making a living doing it in order to say that I've made it in any way shape or form.

Honestly, how important are film critics nowadays?
MT: Critics are only important if you have a cubicle job that you hate and you need to distract yourself from the task at hand. That said, I like the writing of Charles Taylor, Stephanie Zacharek, and Manohla Dargis, as well as many others. I also loathe the writing of many critics, none of which I will mention here for obvious reasons.
DL: There's a need for them for smaller films, they can be extremely influential in helping independent films get out there. For movies like, say - War of the Worlds - I mean, I don't know if they really steer audiences either way.

You’re told that your next movie must have one “product placement” on board, but you can pick the product. What would it be?
MT: Slurpee and/or A1 Sauce.
DL: Flaming Balls of Satan Hot Sauce.

You’re contractually obligated to deliver an R-rated film to your producers. The MPAA says you have to delete a sex scene that’s absolutely integral to the film or you’re getting an NC-17. How do you handle it?
MT: If it were that integral, I'd abandon the project and proceed to cry away my career as a filmmaker. Fortunately, I'm not that interested in filming sex scenes, so I don't think that will ever be a problem.
DL: Discuss the possibility of reshooting the scene a different way with the producers if the narrative hinges on it, so that you're not in breach of contract and the story remains intact. An easy compromise.

What’s your take on the whole “a film by DIRECTOR” issue? Do you feel it’s tacky, because hundreds (or at least dozens) of people collaborate to make a film – or do you think it’s cool, because ultimately the director is the final word on pretty much everything?
MT: Good question. In the case of Cocaine Angel, so few people worked on the film that I gave everyone their own closing title card. That said, I made the first card "Directed by," so I guess that means I'm a pompous asshole. I guess I support the "director as leader" concept, as long as directors don't get carried away with the title.

In closing, we ask you to convince the average movie-watcher to choose your film instead of the trillion other options they have. How do you do it?
MT: I would simply say this: "Hello. I abandoned all semblance of a personal life to make a film that would capture an honest and sincere moment in time. I am 31years old, I am living with my parents until the film is paid off, I don't have a girlfriend because of this, I have no health insurance, I have absolutely no future plan, my intentions were noble and genuine, and I really think our film has a spirit that makes it worth watching. So please see Cocaine Angel. Or don't. It doesn't matter either way. Life and love are more important. So buy your partner flowers and make him or her smile. That would make me happier than you sitting through our film. That said, why not hurry up and go get your partner so both of you can watch it. Please? Pretty please?!?!?!? Do you want me to kill you??? THEN WATCH OUR FUCKING MOVIE!!!!!!!"
DL: Cocaine Angel. That's pretty much it.


Cocaine Angel, starring Damian Lahey, Brenda Benfield, and Kelly Forester, will premiere at the 2006 South By Southwest Film Festival. Click here for more festival information, and be sure to check out the official Cocaine Angel website and filmmaker's blog.

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originally posted: 02/10/06 06:25:55
last updated: 02/10/06 10:33:43
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