Lowlife seemingly came out of nowhere. Ahead of major film festivals there tends to be a buzz around the “can’t miss” screenings. But, somehow, this rollicking mashup with a massive cast seemed to just magically appear at Fantasia International Film Festival. The morning after the film screened to a cheering audience I got to sit down with a good number of the crew and cast to talk about how they thought their premiere went, how director Ryan Prows wrangled such a big and diverse cast, and how they created such dimensional characters in cinematic shorthand.
Your film just had its world premiere at Fantasia. How do you think the screening went?
Ryan Prows (director): It was incredible. It was really great.
Were there any audience reactions that surprised you?
RP: I have one line in there that annoys the fuck out of me, but everybody loves it. It always hits. But last night people were laughing at something right before it, so they missed the line. I was fine with that! It’s cool.
What was the line?
RP: It’s the Mein Kampf joke. “You don’t know my struggle.” It’s funny, and it works, but I wanted to avoid doing it. What I thought was cool, last night, was that the big moments hit, but more of the smaller quiet moments hit too. I initially thought that no one would notice those details, but the audience was hanging on it. They were engaged with the movie, and taking the ride. That was the big surprise for me. I have heard that Fantasia was super wild, but also that they are incredible movie lovers who engage with and follow the story.
Nicki Micheaux (actress, Crystal): I think the part that was most exciting for me was when all of the stories climax. Everyone applauded for all of those moments, and cheered. We’ve seen the film in some smaller screenings in LA, but we had never seen this reaction. It was amazing! They were in this shit. It was so cool.
Your pregnant waddle got a great response. (To Santana Dempsey)
SD: Yeah. I had seen the film one other time, and I cracked up. But I wondered, “Am I being egotistical, laughing at myself on screen?” But I do know funny. Last night I was sitting next to Nicki, crying I was laughing so hard, but it was because of the crowd. And to piggyback on what Ryan said, I looked at the audience a lot. There were a lot of quiet moments. I would see people yawning or scratching their head, and I’d worry that they were bored. But they really were in it, and interested in the film. My girlfriend said that the quiet was because people were invested. They didn’t want to miss anything. I think that it a real tribute to ever person here.
In addition to a lot of plot, Lowlife has so many small moments that really develop character. One of my favorite moments is in the very beginning when Teddy (Mark Burnham) is trying to find the end of a roll of tape.
NM: This was my third time seeing the movie, but my first time noticing that!
Those rich moments happen to each character, but not a lot of attention is called to them. Were all of these moments in the script initially, or did they emerge as each of the actors immersed themselves into their characters.
MB: I don’t know if it was scripted, but we definitely talked about it. “Now get the tape, and tape the coolers.” I had gloves on, and the rings under the gloves, and everything is covered in blood. I started to search for the end of the tape.
RP: We did talk about it. The entire intro was shot as pick-ups, and we needed to set the tone. There was going to be really fucked up shit, and there is going to be funny stuff in the middle of that too. Trying to find those little moments, and find a macabre twist in all that. These human problems that we all face, but in the middle of disposing of a body.
NM: Because it was such a mashup of genres, and I like working with Ryan, I know that I can create anything. I can let my creativity go. I trust his vision enough to know if it isn’t working. There is a great freedom to make choices. There is so much going on with my character, and there is so much going on in the story, I wanted to play the character really honestly. I could have gone a little bigger, because it is a pretty big world, but Ryan said, “No.” It was great to have his clarity. It could get a little out there. The truth is the beauty in the character. The honesty and simplicity, and who they are as people, in this fucked up world.
The tone of the film is very intentional. How much of that is what you set out to do, and how much evolved as the film was pieced together, through the five writers and ensemble cast?
RP: The tone was 100% set from the start. It was almost setup like a challenge. How can we do that? Can we have you rooting for a guy with that tattoo on his face? It was that, but also figuring out how far we could push it, or when to pull back. There was more stuff in the script that needed to be cut because it went too far. There was that give and take on the set.
How did you know when something went too far?
RP: Well, there were five writers. Somebody was going to point out what went too far.
How was the process of building such a complex film with so many writers?
RP: I think it helped that there were five of us. We treated it like a TV writer’s room. We broke story together. We all wrote. We had written a bunch of stuff together already before this. We plotted it out together, then went our own ways to write the individual segments, and then came back and edited together. To me that was a cool, different process. We were able to bust it out a lot faster than if we had been alone. We kept each other honest. No one was getting too precious with anything. If it was working, it worked. If it was not…
Did you give the actors homework to get into their characters, or to get on-board with the tone of the film?
RP: I didn’t want to talk to them at all about tone. They all read the script. Once they signed on to do it, I wasn’t going to tell them the tone. They were given the freedom to react and be in the moment. Luckily I’ve worked with most of them, or we had a good rapport. We did have discussions beforehand. Nicki and I were wishing that we had more time before shooting to workshop or rehearse, but low-budget filmmaking means you just have to do the damn thing.
Did you write the characters with the actors in mind?
RP: Yeah. Not all of them, but most. The germ of the idea came from Nicki’s segment. We had worked together on a short before. So how do we get Nicki with a shotgun in her hand? And it all built around that. Initially it was going to be a crime anthology film. Once we started writing the segments, we started dovetailing one segment to another.
The most tragic character is also the major comic relief in Lowlife. Is it true that Randy was based on Eminem?
Jon Oswald: Yeah, I’m a huge Eminem fan! For me it hard reading the script. Randy was so funny, and I tried not to go too goofy. It’s a fine line between that and being a loveable idiot.
And Kaylee had so many factors in her character too. Pregnancy. An abusive, adoptive father. Heroin addiction. How do you balance all of that?
SD: I don’t believe I’ve talked about this, but I’m adopted. I didn’t have to dig too deep for that. My adoption experience is different - very different - than Kaylee's. But I tried to tap into what it would be like if this was my experience. Also, I’m mixed race, and Kaylee’s birth parents are in an interracial marriage, making her mixed race. You don’t see a lot of multiracial families together on screen today, though it is getting better. It was nice to be able to show that, but not have it be the forefront of the film. And no one has mentioned that, by the way.
NM: No one has mentioned how diverse the cast is.
SD: No one! I’m big on those topics. I found it interesting last night that not one asked about that. Both females are of color. And then you’ve got interracial marriage. You’ve got multiracial families. It’s pretty incredible. And then you’ve got this team of writers, who are all men, who are lots of colors, and were able to write all this. I am truly amazed by it.
How important was it for you to have such diversity in your cast? And to have two female characters who actually talk to each other?
RP: 100%. The diversity of it, and making a Los Angeles story, and not having it just be “white, male Los Angeles” was really important to me. I was really proud of the fact that there is a lot of noise in the film, but it can boil down to two women talking about themselves. Their lives and their struggles, and their agency. We talked about that a ton. Working with Narineh Hacopian, our esteemed producer, she brought a lot of that awesome female energy to it as well.
SD: In case you didn’t notice, there is no real sex appeal with the women.
RP: That’s not true (laughs).
NM: I’m sexy every day!
There is definitely a lack of objectification of the women.
NM: That’s what you are trying to say. Haha!