Meet Jesse Baget’s Cellmates: How to make a comedic social commentary work

When you pitch a comedy about a Ku Klux Klansman around Hollywood you tend to get a lot of rejections.

I quickly realized that if I wanted to get Cellmates made I would have to get down and dirty and produce it myself. As is the case with all independent filmmakers, once I decided to make the film on my own I faced another uphill battle: Bringing my vision to life with the limited financial resources I was going to have.

A mistake that many writer/directors, including myself, make is to write a script that cannot be completed on a low budget. Many big-scope scripts end up languishing in a drawer, waiting for that fabled big-time producer to step up and make the project a reality. Chances are, that’s not gonna happen.

My co-writer and I knew that to get a movie made we had to write a script with only a handful of characters and even fewer locations. In other words: Doable. The difficulty of writing something that “small” is that you don’t have big set pieces, explosions or car chases to fall back on. What you do have are layered characters and thought-provoking dialogue that can hopefully engage the audience enough that they forget you haven’t blown up a single car.

Finding a unique subject that could be explored with only a few characters was a challenge. I set my sights on race relations and racism. Being from Arizona, I’ve always been aware of the often-strained interactions between different cultures in our country, so the topic was something I’ve always wanted to explore.

Why a comedy? I think when you can get people to find humor in sensitive subject matter it creates the opportunity for frank dialogue. Also, it’s not often that films tackle the subject of racism with humor. The original, ballsy Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner is one of the greatest. I wanted to push the envelope a little further and create a main character utterly unforgiving in his narrow-minded convictions, a sort of modern-day Archie Bunker.

Enter Klansman Leroy Lowe, a flawed man whom the audience would immediately dislike. Slowly we would twist events so that by the end of the film the audience would grow to not only empathize with and appreciate the character’s desire to change, but hopefully root for him to succeed and maybe even grow to like him. We would throw this hate-filled Klansman into a tiny prison cell with a quirky, likable Hispanic immigrant, give them a chance to develop a relationship, toss a sultry Hispanic maid whom Leroy couldn’t help but fall for in the mix and see what would develop. With our fingers tightly crossed, we got down to the business of writing.

Once all was said and done, the script ended up being 114 pages of mostly dialogue. We only had a 13-day shoot, and I knew it was going to be a hell of a challenge. This, as all indie filmmakers know, is the second-biggest obstacle when producing your own film on a limited budget. Shooting on a tight schedule, you don’t have the liberty of numerous takes. You often have to knock out 10 pages in a single day. In this case, those pages were filled with long, difficult passages of dialogue. To pull it off I needed to get my hands on some of the best actors out there.

The role of Leroy Lowe required a superb character actor who could communicate the subtle changes needed to give the story believability. I didn’t want to put a token comic actor in the role, but a seasoned dramatic performer who could keep the story well-grounded in reality. Speaking of the devil, in comes veteran actor Tom Sizemore, who had heard about the project and wanted to read the script. Tom had never played a character quite like Leroy before and was excited to take on a new challenge.

Next, I needed a brilliant comedic actor who could keep the audience laughing while pushing the main character to change. Héctor Jiménez immediately responded to the project. Being from Mexico, the subject of immigration was very close to his heart. He found the script witty yet biting in its social commentary about race relations in America.

We offered the role of the corrupt warden to veteran actor Stacy Keach, for whom we had written the part. Keach responded to the quirky, fast-paced Texas dialogue and decided to come on board. He blew us all away by knocking out 35 pages of script in three days. Hats off to a true professional.

How did I get to work with such talented, well-known actors without industry connections and a suitcase full of money? It all goes back to the script. We wrote characters that actors wanted to portray.

There may not be any neck-breaking chase scenes or big-budget explosions in Cellmates, but thanks to an amazing cast of actors who believed in the project and the small scope of the script, I was able make the film I had envisioned with the limited resources of an indie filmmaker.

Cellmates, directed by Jesse Baget and starring Tom Sizemore, Héctor Jiménez and Stacy Keach, opens tomorrow, June 1st at the Quad Cinema in New York and the Laemmle NoHo 7 in Los Angeles. For more information on the film, now available On Demand, visit www.cellmatesmovie.com.

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