It’s the age-old quandary: “If a tree falls
in the forest and no one is there to hear it, does it make a sound?”
Extrapolating from there, one could wonder “If a person is completely
forgotten, can we be sure he really existed?” This is the theme
that inspired my short film, Richard Roe. The desire to leave
a legacy, or at the very least avoid complete anonymity, is somewhere
in the heart of every moviemaker. The quest for a post-mortem existence
on earth is a natural part of the human design. The conventional
way is procreation, but others are driven to seek immortality through
personal achievements.

The idea for Richard Roe came to me one day
as I was sitting in a coffee shop. A man walked up and greeted me
warmly. This man knew my name and certain things about me, but for
the life of me I couldn’t figure out who he was. For an agonizing
10 minutes I carried on a conversation, hoping that something might
jog my memory. Alas, nothing did, and he eventually left—with me
still completely befuddled.

This man’s only distinguishing characteristic was
that he had no distinguishing characteristics at all. He was perfectly
nondescript. Since we witness the world with only two eyes and two
ears, a majority of the people we encounter will simply be “extras”
in our journey through life. But what if there were certain people
that are so typical of what we consider “average” that we don’t
even notice them?

I had my inspiration. Now all I needed was a script,
a cast, a crew, locations, camera, grip and lighting, permits, insurance
and about $15,000!

Writing the script was the fun part, as the idea
phase usually is. In the beginning, every new project feels like
the next Citizen Kane—until you have to deal with the limitations
of reality, of course. As my concept could easily become preachy
or intellectual in an obnoxious way, I decided to make Richard
a comedy instead of a drama. I’m a believer that films should
first and foremost be entertaining. Not to say they shouldn’t also
be profound, but great themes are lost if the film bores most of
the audience. So thus was born the story of a gumshoe private investigator
searching for a man so “average,” no one can remember him.

Having already made two shorts, I had the luxury
of bringing aboard several great people I’d worked with previously.
Among them, cinematographer Mateo Londono, actor Michael Marsellos
and editor Karl Morton. These individuals, along with several others,
gave me the comfort of familiarity and experience. Finding talented
people you can trust is more uncommon than it should be, so when
you find someone good, grab hold and don’t let go.

I was also determined to avoid making the same mistakes
I’d made on my previous projects. I guess one could hardly expect
a masterpiece from the unimposing $1,500 I spent on my first film,
where I served as writer, director, producer, extra, craft services,
etc. And considering that filming was once interrupted by gang gunfire
50 yards from our location (I was living in a suspect neighborhood
at the time), it’s a miracle the film was made at all. Fortunately,
I had these learning experiences early and at low cost. Too often
I’ve seen people spend a fortune on their first effort only to later
find that their grand opus was just an expensive course in Film
Pitfalls 101.

LEFT TO RIGHT: Michael Marsellos and
Chopper Bernet in Richard Roe; writer/director Ian E Lawrence
and Bernet.

It being 2000, I had recently made some money in
the stock market. Begrudgingly, I sold my “valuable” Internet stocks,
favoring a film over a potential retirement fortune. The market
tanked a few months later, so really I was blessed with a movie
instead of a bunch of worthless stocks.

I chose to shoot Richard Roe on 35mm. My first
short was on BetaSP, the next on Super16, so it was time to make
the jump. I intended Richard Roe to be a festival piece,
and many of the best fests prefer the films they showcase to be
on film. A transfer from DV or Super16 to a 35mm print was nearly
as expensive as shooting it on 35mm from the beginning, so this
was an easy decision.

A project begins with
a simple idea, and with enough momentum it will start to live
and breathe on its own.

Earlier in the year I’d met a sharp and ambitious
individual, Sean O’Riordan, whom I thought could be a good fit for Richard Roe. Coming from the talent management side of the
business, what Sean lacked in production experience he more than
made up for in effort and adaptability. In projects of this nature,
where you don’t have the luxury of enticing people with significant
monetary compensation, enthusiasm and dedication are far and away
the most important attributes. Ultimately, of course, it’s the job
of the person in charge to keep morale high and make sure that everyone
knows they are appreciated. Pay or no pay, the least one can do
is treat people well. There’s no such thing as a project so important
that it justifies treating anyone disrespectfully.

The next and most crucial part was casting. It may
seem obvious, but poor casting is often to blame for projects that
don’t work. Actors tell the story. And the blame of a bad performance
falls as much on the casting and direction as it does on the actor.

Lawrence, with actor Jayme Gallante, script supervisor Andre
Hargunani, DP Mateo Londono, camera operator Michael Ortiz,
Bernet and sound mixer Drew Dalzell.

A director’s ability to work well with actors is vital
to a film’s quality. Take care of the actors and they’ll take care
of the film. I gave myself plenty of time to rehearse in order to
understand each actor’s individual nuances, and ended up altering
some of the dialogue in order to maximize what this talented cast
had to offer. I feel the best way to direct is to provide an environment
that maximizes everyone’s potential. Set parameters, but not hard
boundaries. Find the right people and encourage them, and they will
make your work better.

A project begins with a simple idea, and with enough
momentum it will start to live and breathe on its own. Getting it
over the first hump is the hardest part. But if you have a good
script and are organized and focused, it is amazing how things will
start to happen. Don’t relax, though, until the film is on the screen,
and even then there’s work to be done.

Getting a short seen is even more important than
making one. I started Richard Roe‘s festival screenings with
two familiar places: Sarasota and Hollywood Shorts, the latter of
which helped my film get acquired by Hypnotic. Since then it has
been in about 10 more festivals, including Seattle, Palm Springs
and Telluride IndieFest, and picked up two awards, including the
Audience Award at WestFest. Now that it has done as much as I had
hoped for, Richard Roe is a good sample piece for my feature
project, The Frenchman, which I co-wrote with Jim Houck,
and is being produced by Richard Rothschild and Bob Balaban.

To every artist trying to build a legacy—or at least
avoid total anonymity—I have the following suggestion: get inspired
and go, go, go like hell
. MM