Hey kids, this weekend we have a special edition of On The Rise with… Normally, you can catch OTRW on Tuesdays, but Michael Marcelin had a special bonus edition, so we’re getting this one out there over the weekend.
Michael is talking with Canyon Prince and James Thomas who are paving their own way in the filmmaking world. They shot two films back to back and both have gotten distribution.
I know we have a lot of up and coming filmmakers and film fans out there, I think this would be a great learning tool for you guys!
Check it out below!
On The Rise with…
Canyon Prince and James Thomas
Meet Canyon Prince and James Thomas, two very talented writer-director-producers who had the nutty (albeit very profitable) idea to produce two films, back-to-back, with only a weekend break in between…
Michael Marcelin: Let’s start from the beginning, before your Two Guys and a Film endeavor came about, to give our readers some background on you two individually.
Canyon, you started out as an actor, while simultaneously working as a production assistant on various TV shows and films. A lot of actors just starting out usually stick to finding work in front of the camera. What made you decide to work both sides?
Canyon Prince: I guess it was something that just kind of happened. I moved out here to pursue acting, though I was always shooting little movies with my buddies growing up. I started working out in L.A. on television sets doing background work. During that time I started really paying attention to what went into the process. I got to know a lot of the Assistant Directors and that ultimately led to me getting hired on the production side.
MM: What were some of your favorite experiences both in front of and behind the camera up to the point before you created Two Guys and A Film?
CP – There’s been so many. I was fortunate enough to have my first full time production job be on “The X-Files”. I worked the entire last season of that show and got to do so many different jobs. I really learned a ton on that show. After that, I went on to do the final season of “American Dreams” which was also a wonderful experience. On-set production was basically my film school.
MM: James, you, too, started out as a production assistant on some popular TV series. How did you break into that competitive field?
James Thomas: I answered a Craigslist ad looking for production assistants on some Master P music videos. That Production Coordinator brought me onto “The Apprentice”, and that was my first real job in TV. Every job I’ve gotten after that was based on relationships I’ve made with different people throughout the years. I believe that everyone should PA at the beginning of his or her career. It’s a great way to build character and set etiquette.
MM: What was your ultimate goal for your career? Did you always know you wanted to direct, or was pursuing production work your way of figuring out what you wanted to do within the industry?
JT: I used to shoot little short films and fake music videos with my friends, but never really thought of this as a career. That changed when I saw “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” remake in 2003. I was so enamored by the cinematography that I said: “I want to create that.” Since that day I set out on a path into this business and never looked back!
MM: Canyon, what made you decide to get into writing and directing?
CP: Honestly, it was the WGA strike that finally pushed me into directing. I was riding some really nice momentum on the acting scene. I had just shot one of the last shows to wrap up once the strike happened, which was FX’s “The Riches”. Once the writers went on strike, everything changed. This town screeched to a halt and everyone was unemployed. My longtime friend and future Producer, J Michael Briggs, and I decided that we should just write something and shoot it. Basically create our own work while things were slow.
MM: Tell me about your earlier projects, like “The Romantic Foibles of Esteban” and “First Edition”.
CP: “Esteban” came out of that moment. That’s the show J Michael and I created. Joss Whedon had just done Dr. Horrible and the web world was really in its early beginnings. It was a great time to do something like that, and was my first real professional directing gig. It was like a continuation of film school for me. I hired a bunch of film school students as our crew and then learned from them as I watched them work. When I did “First Edition” a couple years later, it was pretty much a continuation of me feeling out the possibility of directing full time. Nothing had really taken off with “Esteban” and things were totally different after the WGA strike, so “First Edition” was me giving it another shot and seeing what happened. We shot that show like a feature, shooting the whole season straight through in 19 days. That decision would eventually prepare me to direct Hard Sun two years later.
MM: James, tell me about your first forays into writing and directing. I see you worked on some TV/web series and shorts, such as “The 1570” and “The Road To Seattle”.
JT: It actually took me a while to own the fact that I can direct. Honestly, I was scared of it for a while, which is why I threw myself into so many other crew positions. Inevitably, I knew that I would be directing, but I just needed to start to own it. Shooting “The 1570” was the change for me. I had a great group of people that had been pushing me to stop lighting or operating camera and start doing what they could see I was good at. Canyon, Stephen Snavely (“1570” and “HARD SUN” – DP) and my wife were the biggest, among others, that pushed me to do this. That day changed my life because for the first time in the 7 years I had been working in the business, I felt comfortable in my own skin. From that moment on, I’ve realized that things in life that scare us or make us nervous are the things worth doing. Every time I’ve done those things, I’ve had life changing experiences.
MM: How did the two of you first meet? Did you hit it off immediately? Did you know you wanted to work together on eventual projects?
CP: I had heard a lot about James’ talent as a gaffer from people I was working with. I was directing a music video and we brought James in to gaffe. We hit it off instantly and he was really good at what he did. I was super excited because I was trying to move out of DPing all my own stuff to focus strictly on directing, and I thought James was the answer. However, after we started talking, it became real apparent that he was also in transition and had a strong desire to move out of gaffing and fully into directing. We started working on stuff in a director/producer type arrangement…trading off on each others’ projects. Looking back, we were both sizing each other up, trying to figure out if the other was a person we could start a long term professional relationship with.
MM: Tell me about Two Guys and a Film and how the endeavor came about.
JT: After the music video Canyon and I did, and “The 1570”, I got the itch to do a feature. We had previously joked about the possibility of flip-flopping the roles of Director and Producer on two films, but didn’t really take the idea too seriously.
CP: James took me out for my birthday and made the official pitch. He said he had an idea for a film he wanted to direct, and asked if I had any scripts. I had this project called “Fragile Scars” (which would ultimately become “Hard Sun”) that I had written with J Michael about ten years prior. It was just this giant, fifty-five page treatment of a film. I told James that might work. We agreed to each go off and write the scripts and turn in first drafts by January 1st. So that’s what we did. The rest is history.
MM: Your first production was the dramatic feature “Hard Sun”. Tell me about the experience you had working on it.
CP: The script I ended up writing was a bit different than that original treatment and the script we ended up shooting was entirely different from that first draft. It was definitely a crazy experience. The key for James and I was just mentally getting to a place where we knew we were going to do this, no matter what. We did that by setting dates and telling everyone we knew that we were going to do it. Basically creating social accountability. Then it was just about choosing the right people and casting the vision. We were very selective with who we brought on. We knew it was imperative to bring on positive people who were excited about the project and believed in what we were doing.
JT: Hard Sun was very difficult, yet very rewarding. It was our first feature, so the learning curve was sky high. I learned a lot about myself as a producer and filmmaker on this movie.
MM: Then you took a couple of days off to work on your next project, the gritty horror film “Run Like Hell”. Tell us what that film is about. Did you find it harder keeping up the excitement on set, because of the insane turn around from one film to the other?
CP: “Run Like Hell” was definitely grueling. Originally, we were planning to take a week off in the middle, but some production issues on “Hard Sun” caused us to run over by about a week. James ended up taking the last week off from “Hard Sun” to go and prep “Run Like Hell”. We wrapped “Hard Sun” on a Friday night, and that following Monday morning we were on the set of “Run Like Hell”. Originally, we were planning on shooting the films earlier in the year, but raising the funds took a bit longer than anticipated, so the productions ended up getting pushed by a few months. By the time we started “Run Like Hell” that Monday, it was the height of summer. August and 115 degrees outside in Palmdale, CA. All our shooting days were during the day and, with the exception of a few scenes, every location was exterior desert. Luckily, by that time, we had all bonded on “Hard Sun” and had really become like a family. I think that’s what kept us going. Everyone had this attitude of “Well, we’ve made it this far. There’s no way we’re quitting now.”
JT: Everyone was so jazzed that we just completed one movie that it was easy for the crew to pick right up on the next one. Since we used a lot of the same locations and actors we almost planned it like one big shoot. It actually ended up creating such a family feel on set. Still to this day I’ll talk with some of the cast and crew about how much we miss being out there. As a director though, it was difficult because I had to prep most of my stuff prior to “Hard Sun” and then when we’d wrap, I’d be up working on “Run Like Hell”. In the end, I’m glad we did it that way because we walked away with two films in the can!
MM: Let’s talk distribution. Both films have found homes, correct? Tell us where, when, and how we can find them.
CP: Yeah, we’ve sold both films. “Run Like Hell” just released September 23rd on VOD by Gravitas Ventures. A company called Mance Media picked up “Hard Sun” for worldwide distribution. It will hit VOD on November 23rd and it looks like some type of theatrical release is probable as well. The DVD/BluRay release will be just before Christmas.
JT: Post sound took a lot longer than either of us had thought it would take. I think we were just unaware of everything that goes into sound design! It’s incredible and I have such a respect for the guys that excel at that. What that allowed us to do though, was learn the business side of filmmaking. We threw ourselves into learning about distribution and how to negotiate a contract. What are the things to look for? Should we sign an all rights deal or try and carve out certain territories and rights? Once we felt that we had enough knowledge, we started pitching the films to Sales Agents and Distributors. We were lucky enough to find great homes and be able to negotiate fair deals.
*MM Note: For anyone who would like to buy “Run Like Hell”, which I had the pleasure of watching and think is one of the more inventive indie horror films of the year, check it out on iTunes here http://bit.ly/1uesMKC .
MM: Now both films have, if you pardon the expression, defied the odds by getting distribution without having to follow the big Hollywood rule of “always cast a star”. Most filmmakers are often told: if you want your film to be seen, you need a name. However, your films have relative unknowns in all of the major roles. How does it feel to be able to say “Sorry Hollywood, your rules aren’t always true!”?
CP – It’s been interesting. We definitely went back and forth on that before we shot the films, but ultimately decided that the most important thing was to get the films made. Casting names would have made the process inherently longer. At the end of the day, this is a business, and you have to understand that. You may not like it, but there it is. Stars attract audience. What we weren’t expecting was that film festivals have become just as bad as distributors in that aspect. We thought “Hard Sun” was going to be a shoe-in at all the major festivals. It ended up taking a lot longer than we had anticipated to catch momentum on the festival circuit. Again, I get it and am guilty of it myself when choosing what films I’ll go to see during a fest. It’s just part of the beast.
JT: I’ll tell you, we were unknowingly fortunate with “Hard Sun” and “Run Like Hell”. Both films have great performances from amazing actors, but they also each have their own niche. “Run Like Hell” is a horror film and horror fans are some of the most amazing and loyal fans out there. With “Hard Sun”, we also had a lot of good things going for it. It’s a strong female lead, the film deals with Fragile X/Autism, and we premiered during the “Dances With Films” film festival. All of those things together are really what got us a deal. Mance Media, “Hard Sun’s” distributor, saw the potential in the film and really believed in it.
MM: Having said that, would you ever choose to use a name actor in a film if given the chance?
JT: I think that using name actors is a smart move. As filmmakers we have to be in tune with the business side of things just as much as the creative side. Name actors don’t get that name by being terrible. I think moving forward we will go after names for certain roles and at the same time find ways to bring along actors we’ve worked with before. We’ll always be on the lookout for the best actor for the role hands down, but you’ve got to remember that you need to sell this movie. Anything you can do now to help that will benefit you later.
MM: Would you ever do that kind of production again, or are you now sticking to the more traditional “one at a time” production schedule?
CP: We talk about it every now and then when we get anxious. The truth is, the whole process takes such a long time and sometimes, James and I just want to get back on set. But the problem is that you end up doing a lot more work in the long run when you do it that way. We know a lot more now than we did then, and I think that each film needs to have the proper amount of focus and attention put on it that it deserves. But who knows? There’s a ton of things that could make another back-to-back run make sense. Actor schedules, financing, locations, etc.
JT: We’ve definitely seen this model work and work well. I think though that we’ve learned a lot as filmmakers and that may change the way we do the next films or not. Who knows? As William Goldman famously said –
“Nobody knows anything… Not one person in the entire motion picture field knows for a certainty what’s going to work. Every time out it’s a guess and, if you’re lucky, an educated one.” – William Goldman
MM: Do you have any new films or projects on the horizon that you can talk about? And which roles will you be playing on those films?
JT: The next film to go into production will be ‘Lot 310’, which Canyon and I wrote. It’s a horror film in the vein of “The Amityville Horror” and “The Conjuring”, about a family whose home is terrorized by the ghosts of the children who were murdered there, and the man who killed them. Canyon will be directing that film and I will be producing it. The next film I will direct is a sci-fi/thriller project that I’m pretty excited about!
CP: We’ve also got scripts called “Another Tomorrow” and “Decapitator” that we’re looking to shoot. I’ve also got a cult film that’s mulling around in my head. Plus we’ve been working on developing James’ next feature which is going to be this cool urban sci-fi/thriller. In addition, we’ve got a couple television shows we’re developing with a guy named Scott Jones.
MM: As directors and producers, what’s the one movie you wish you could have directed/produced?
CP: That’s a tough one. “Braveheart” is definitely one of my favorite films. I would’ve loved to have been involved with that one. “Titanic”, too. Just the sheer size and technological advances that were involved with making that film a reality. It would’ve been really amazing to be a part of.
JT: Man I don’t even know where to begin! I’d say anything from “Chinatown”, to “The Shining”, to “Gladiator”. These are some of my favorite films and it would have been amazing to work on them!
MM: Who are some of your influences when it comes to your craft?
CP: There’s too many to list. I grew up watching movies. They’re definitely a part of me. Spielberg and Lucas were a huge influence on me. As were James Cameron, Martin Scorsese, Hitchcock, Coppola, Kubrick. Tarantino and Kevin Smith were huge influences on me as a writer. Dialogue is something I’m really comfortable with, and it’s because of those two. Nowadays, Danny Boyle, Darren Aranofsky, David Fincher, Rian Johnson, Baz Luhrmann, Gareth Edwards, Drake Doremus, Adam Wingard, Ti West, Joe Swanberg. So many.
JT: I think that as a creative person you can’t help but be influenced. On “Run Like Hell”, movies like “The Devil’s Rejects” and “The Hills Have Eyes” were big influencers on me. I also love a lot of classic films. I think as filmmakers we have to watch what’s coming out, but we also have to have an appreciation for classics. One of my favorite zombie films is the Bela Lugosi classic, “White Zombie”. I love watching films from this era. As a director, I have many influences: Stanley Kubrick, Alfred Hitchcock, David Fincher, and Christopher Nolan are just a few.
MM: What advice would you give up-and-comers who want to do any aspects of what you guys are doing?
CP: You’ve just gotta get out there and do it. The timing will never be right, the script will never be perfect, the money will never all be there. But you’ve still gotta do it. If you sit around waiting for all those elements to fall into place, you’ll never do it. And be mindful of who you’re listening to. Understand where people are coming from and what their motives are. Some people are there to hurt you creatively. To hold you back. You’ve gotta get rid of those people. Maybe not forever, but at least while you’re making your movie.
JT: I would say don’t be afraid. Just do it! You’re going to have a bunch of people that tell you “Don’t do it” or “You’re Crazy!” You can’t listen to them. You almost have to have tunnel vision. You already know that what you are doing is crazy and feels impossible, but you can’t let that overwhelm you. I would say take it one step at a time. Focus on location scouting until you lock down some locations and then move on to the next item on the list. Before you know it you will be on set shooting your film!
If you’d like to follow these two guys and their filmmaking travails, check them out and follow them on the web below!
Run Like Hell
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