South By Southwest 2011 Interview - "Happy New Year" director K. Lorel Manning
By Jason Whyte
Posted 03/10/11 16:47:00
""Happy New Year" is the story of “Sgt. Cole Lewis” who, mentally and physically scarred by his time served in Iraq and Afghanistan, finds humanity, compassion and friendship in a group of similarly injured veterans in the psychiatric ward at a remote Veterans Hospital. The group, ranging from guys left behind from WWII and Vietnam, to those recently injured in the Middle East, slowly become Lewis’ new family. Along with them, he will attempt to redefine his sense of self, and find a new place in the world. Through humor and pathos, Lewis becomes a ray of hope in the ward, as the men find a way to combat their post-war grief. However, just as their luck starts to change, Lewis soon faces his fiercest battle yet." Director K. Lorel Manning on "Happy New Year" 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 attend the festival screenings?
"Happy New Year" is my first film at SXSW. At the moment, we have four screenings scheduled, and I plan to attend each one. The short film that it's based on went to various festivals throughout 2008 and 2009 which was so much fun.
Could you give me a little look into your background and what led you to the desire to want to make film?
I was born in NYC but I grew up in the South. I always loved watching movies, but had no real aspirations to become a filmmaker. Seeing Spike Lee's "Do The Right Thing" changed that. The fact that Spike was African-American was incredibly inspiring. He opened a door which I was now permitted to walk through.
Growing up, you were no doubt asked the eternal question “When I grow up I want to be a …”
I knew I wanted to be an entertainer of some sort at an early age. Storytelling, whether it was through acting, writing, or music, seemed to come natural to me.
How did this whole project come together?
In 2004, I came across Nina Berman's book "Purple Hearts" It consisted of portraits and interviews of U.S. soldiers wounded in Iraq. The images were quite shocking and raw, yet painfully beautiful. I'll be honest, I was not really following the war at that time. It wasn't really on my radar. This book changed all of that.
In 2005, I had the opportunity to co-produce and star in an off-Broadway revival of Tom Cole's play “Medal of Honor Rag,” which was based on the true story of Dwight Johnson, a black sergeant who won a Medal of Honor in Vietnam and returned home to Detroit as a troubled hero. During my research for this role, I began to read about Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Throughout the play's run, the creative team and I reached out to various veterans organizations, from Vietnam, Desert Storm and Iraq and had some intense discussions about their individual struggles with PTSD. One night I stayed awake and wrote a one-act play called “Happy New Year” about two Iraq veterans reuniting in a Veterans hospital on New Year's Eve. When I returned to New York, I sent it to my best friend and actor Michael Cuomo for feedback. A few months later, I was given the opportunity to direct and produce the play by the Barrow Group (an award-winning Off-Broadway theatre company in New York), with Michael in the lead role, to great success. One night a group of military mothers saw the play and urged me to consider adapting the play into into a short film so that more people could see it. A few weeks after the play closed, Michael and I made the short film. The short received strong reviews on the festival circuit and eventually premiered online via The Huffington Post.
We screened the short for veteran producer Iain Smith who strongly encouraged me to expand the story to a feature-length film. For several months, Michael and I interviewed dozens of veterans from various wars...Iraq, Afghanistan, Desert Storm, Vietnam and WWII, their families, as well as various military and VA personnel. As painful as these stories were to hear, we realized how therapeutic the experience was for them and for us. These conversations loosely inspired many of the characters and events in the film.
What was the biggest challenge in the production of the movie, be it the script, principal photography or post-production stage?
The biggest challenge for me and Michael Cuomo (lead actor and producer) was getting people to take us and the project seriously. We are both unknown talents attempting to raise money for a film about an unpopular subject matter in terms of box office dollars. Eventually, we found the team and investors who believed in us and the film, and who helped us bring the project to fruition.
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.
“Happy New Year” was shot with the RED camera in 4K. Soopum Sohn, my cinematographer, and I had worked together on the “Happy New Year” short. We developed a great rapport. So, he was a natural choice to shoot the feature. For “Happy New Year”, it was very important for us to not get in the way of the action. We like to create an environment in which the actors feel totally free and safe to follow their instincts and "play". Soopum has a very Zen-like approach to filmmaking. He likes to see the action and movement of the actors in the actual space, then devise a plan on the spot. We decided that this was the perfect approach to take with “Happy New Year.” The actors were pretty well-rehearsed and knew their characters so well, that it was quite easy for them to simply let go and have fun. Many times, they forgot we were there. It was huge risk, but I had faith in myself, Soopum, the actors and the crew. Though I love shooting on film and will definitely go back to it, because of the time constraints that we were under, shooting on the RED allowed me and Soopum a great deal of flexibility.
Who would you say your biggest inspirations are in the film world?
I would say my biggest film inspirations have been Elia Kazan, Martin Scorcese and Spike Lee. For the last decade or so, I have been enamored with the work of Darren Aronofsky, Christopher Nolan and Lee Daniels. In preparation for “Happy New Year”, I watched “Requiem For A Dream” and “The Shining” over and over. Each film had a major effect on my approach on how I chose to tell the story.
If you weren’t in this profession, what other line of work do think you would be involved with?
Well, I also have a serious rock band, La Res. So, if I wasn't writing and directing films, I would most likely be focused on music twenty-four-seven.
How important do you think the critical/media response is to film these days, be it a large production, independent film or festival title?
Some may argue, but I think the power of critics and bloggers is bigger than it's ever been. I don't see that going away anytime soon. There is so much product available these days that people often look to critics to navigate the waters for them. However, there is a great joy in discovering a great film that has not yet been reviewed or heavily marketed. That's why film festivals are so much fun.
If your film could play in any movie theatre in the world, which one would you choose?
Honestly, I think it's a major accomplishment for a director to get a movie into any theatre these days. So, kudos, to those who have. I'm looking forward to joining the pack.
What do you love the most about this business of making movies?
What I love most is getting the chance to collaborate with incredibly talented and dedicated artists; actors, cinematographers, production designers, editors and so forth.
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?
My biggest advice to anyone making his or her first film is to plan, as much as you can, what happens to the film once it's in the can. Most people don't put enough focus on post-production. I know several filmmakers who have raw footage in storage because they didn't raise enough cash for post-production.
And finally…what is your all time favourite motion picture, and why?
That's a tough one, but I would have to say Raoul Walsh's “The Roaring Twenties.” I caught it on cable one night when I was a kid. I remember getting so caught up in the characters and the story that I forgot where I was. It was the first time that I ever felt like I had been transported to another place and time. I've seen it over a hundred times now, and I could easily see it a hundred more. I've never tired of it. Each time, I find something new to appreciate.
This is one of the many films screening at the 2011 SXSW in Austin, Texas between March 11-19. For more information on the film’s screening, point your browser to www.sxsw.com/film.
Jason Whyte, efilmcritic.com
Twitter: @jasonwhyte Facebook: jasonwhyte