In this edition of GUMworks, we talk to Lucas Joaquin. Joaquin is a film producer who works for Parts & Labor Films, a production company that specializes in “director-driven, collaborative filmmaking.”
He has worked on many films with the writer and director Ira Sachs, including the award-winning 2012 feature Keep the Lights On.
Lucas also worked on the Oscar-nominated drama Beasts of the Southern Wild, which is where we began our conversation.
GUM: How did the idea come about to adapt Lucy Alibar’s play into Beasts of the Southern Wild? Were you involved in that process at all?
Lucas Joaquin: On Beats of the Southern Wild, I was second unit producer. Dan Janvey, Josh Penn, and Michael Gottwald were the developing producers, who developed that with [director and co-writer] Benh Zeitlin. I came on probably in April, 2010 and we started shooting in June, 2010. I produced the shoot that has all of the special effects work. It was directed by Ray Tintori, who is a super-talented guy. We were working in New Orleans, and the main unit was shooting about two hours south. We had this crew of people working in an abandoned firehouse in New Orleans, with a bunch of pigs living in the backyard.
GUM: How was that?
LJ: It was a crew of brilliant artists and fabricators, building some of the larger-scale props that appear in the movie, like aurochs – eight-foot floating auroch puppets that we dragged through the water from a pontoon boat, when Hushpuppy [the main character in Beasts, played by Quvenzhané Wallis] sees aurochs swimming through the water.
When Hushpuppy bombs the levee, we did a miniature shoot of a levee that was built to scale out in a bayou. It was probably three feet high by twelve feet long or something. We blew that up in a bayou outside of New Orleans, and filmed it with two high-speed 16mm cameras, because everything was done on film.
We did these cloud tank effects which you see when the sky is stormy, when the aurochs are coming. We built this big plexiglass tank. You fill it halfway with water, and then halfway with salted water, and then put paint in the tank, and it blooms out in this way that makes these beautiful cloud formations. It’s old-school, in-camera techniques that they use in Ghostbusters and Total Recall that we were doing that there in the fire house.
Then we had the seven-day shoot at the end of the shoot at this old TV studio that had been damaged during Katrina, where we had a giant green screen. We shot all the stuff with the pigs rampaging through the favelas and a bunch of green screen stuff. Anything that has the aurochs at the end, when you have Hushpuppy confronting the aurochs on that bridge, we shot plates on the bridge, and then we shot green screen plates of this piglet named Oliver there in the studio.
GUM: Did you have any kind of philosophy about which shots to use practical effects for, and which ones should use green screen?
LJ: Almost everything we were shooting was in-camera and practical, and the idea we took to was that if we used digital tools to composite or insert these images that were captured in-camera and were real elements, it would convey a sense of reality, but we had an advantage.
For example, Ray Tintori, who’s the director of the unit and a close friend and classmate of Benh’s, had a stack of Cinefex magazines from the 80’s. It is this great trade magazine for special effects shoots. So we went back and looked at those magazines from these movies of the time, and saw they would create these really, really intricate miniature shoots, but they always had the problem that they didn’t have digital tools back then, so a shot could be beautiful except it’d be ruined by seeing one filament or one string.
We could do the same thing, but easily take that filament or string out. So it was recognizing that we wanted the images to be organic and feel natural, especially in a film that has such rich textures, and maintain that, but then have the luxury to be able to then manipulate those images and put them in digitally. So nothing was created digitally. Everything was acquired in-camera and then composited into the main film.
GUM: You have been a producer on a lot of films. “Producer” is one of those words that, when it comes to film, people don’t really understand. In your experience, what is a film producer?
LJ: As you mentioned, I think the title can encapsulate all types of different positions. But for me, it means being a creative producer, and that means seeing a project through from start to finish. So sometimes that’s developing an original idea and bringing on a writer to write a script based on that idea or material they find and develop, bringing on a director, bringing on cast and seeing it through.
More likely in the independent space, it’s working with a writer/director. I work with a company called Parts & Labor. We read tons of scripts that come through, and we develop them very, very closely with the writer/director or with a screenwriter and a director team, and work through that until we’re all satisfied that it’s ready to go into production. Then we really shape the business of the film and make sure it conforms with the creative ambitions of the director. Usually, that has to do with bringing on cast and building a package for the film that is attractive to investors, and then overseeing how we put that money together – whether it’s finding straight equity investors, as is often the case in the United States, or mixing that with some sort of loan against a tax credit, or whether that means being more creative with international partners, if the film warrants that.
So a film like Andrea Arnold’s American Honey, which I wasn’t a part of but which Parts & Labor developed, which premiered at Cannes this year, that was a partnership. It was shot in the United States, but Andrea Arnold is a great British filmmaker, so she had the support of the BFI and Film4. We had investors here in the U.S., too. That allowed us to partner up and do an international co-production.
Being a producer also means overseeing the edit of the film with the director, bringing it to festivals, selling the film for distribution, and then being actively involved in working with the director and distributors to shape the marketing campaign, and ultimately the plan for getting it out into the world. So it’s really being the shepherd for a project, making the right decisions to be faithful to the creative ambitions of the director, and being financially responsible for the project. It’s about making sure that we bring on the best people to collaborate, and that we can deliver the film in a way that’s responsible to our investors, sell it, and ultimately hopefully make a profit on it.
GUM: You’ve done a lot of works with Ira Sachs as a writer/director. Why do you keep working with him?
LJ: I’ve known Ira for a really long time. I actually started out as his intern in 2002, when I was in college. Then I was his assistant. We did a film called Forty Shades of Blue, which won the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance in ‘05, and a film called Married Life in 2006.
From there, after Married Life came out, I kept in touch with him. I started working with Parts & Labor, working on other films and doing other production work – production management, post-production supervision, and producing music videos and short films and things like that. I remained close with Ira, and he came to me in 2010 or 2011 with an idea for a short film called Last Address, and was wondering if I would produce it. It was a very simple documentary where we went and filmed the last known addresses of group of artists who had died of AIDS in the 1980s and 90s in New York.
I helped him put that together. It ended up playing at Sundance and the Berlin Film Festival, and being quite a successful short. It’s in the permanent collection at the MOMA and the Whitney Museum of American Art now.
From there, Ira was getting together a project that was very personal to him called Keep the Lights On, about a relationship that he’d had. He came to me to help oversee that. At the time, he had been trying to get together a film, and he was going about financing it in very traditional ways to studios and to financiers, and running up against frustration.
With Keep the Lights On, he wanted to make a more personal film. We decided we could do it for a lower budget, and really raise money in a different way. So on that film, we had many different investors who came in for smaller amounts. We had a Kickstarter campaign and raised the money that way. Ultimately, Keep the Lights On ended up playing at Sundance and being very well-received critically.
I think it set us on our way for the next two movies that we did together, Love Is Strange and Little Men, both of which we used a similar model for financing. We had investors coming in at smaller amounts who were really interested in supporting Ira, and especially on Keep the Lights On and Love Is Strange, about supporting LGBT stories being told. That’s been a pretty successful model for us. We’ve been able to make these films and keep the budgets relatively low, but to create these intimate stories.
GUM: With Love Is Strange, there are a lot of famous actors [cast members include Alfred Molina, John Lithgow, and Marisa Tomei]. What was it like working with actors that well known?
LJ: John Lithgow, Alfred Molina, and Marisa Tomei are all incredible actors, and it was such a pleasure working with them. Ira has built a reputation as a director who really understands actors and can bring out strong performances.
On Little Men, which will be coming out August 5th, we worked with Greg Kinnear, who’s a great American actor, and Alfred Molina came in for a couple days. He’s just a pleasure to work with. I think they were refreshed by the intimacy of the set and the way that Ira worked with them.
John and Alfred, especially, are such talented actors. It’s rare to be able to find such talent mixed with such warmth and generosity to the process. It’s a really wonderful experience, and I think that shows up onscreen, too.
GUM: One upcoming project you have is Love After Love. What’s going on with that?
LJ: That’s a film by a writer/director named Russell Harbaugh, who took the project through the Sundance Directors and Writers Lab. He did a great short called Rolling on the Floor Laughing that was at Sundance.
I really love this film. We’re about to lock picture. It’s being edited right now. Andie MacDowell and Chris O’Dowd star in it. It’s a movie about a family affected by the death of Andie McDowell’s character’s husband. It’s got a very original style. It’s beautifully done. I’m very proud of it, and I can’t wait to bring it to the world. We’re locking picture in a week or so, and then sending it out to festivals and finding a place to premiere it, so hopefully in early 2017 we’ll be able to bring it out.
GUM: One last thing. When you’re in a studio, what do you need? What helps you feel comfortable?
LJ: It depends on the needs of the shoot. You need wi-fi [laughs]. You need accessible wi-fi and good crafty.