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An Interview with Director J.M.R. Luna

 

Director Juan.M.R. Luna has just released his new exciting comedy-crime caper Tell, penned by Timothy Williams. Tell is Luna's surprisingly mature debut movie boasting a brilliant cast that includes Milo Ventimiglia, Katee Sackhoff, Jason Lee, Alan Tudyk, John Michael Higgins and Robert Patrick.

The European filmmaker was educated at some of the most prestigious film institutions in Europe. He graduated with honors from the University of Madrid, was awarded with an Erasmus scholarship for graduate school in Denmark and earned his Masters in Los Angeles.

Juan M.R. Luna took some time away from a busy schedule to talk to Influx Magazine about Tell (read the review here), informing us of how he got his start in making movies. Juan also talks us through getting Tell financed, in this interesting and informative interview.

by Nav Qateel

Nav: How did you come to be involved with Tell?

Juan: About 3 years ago, I was working as DP on a short film. I happened to mention to my writer-director friend that I was looking to direct my first real movie. After reading like 90 scripts that had been sent to me, I still hadn't found anything that spoke to me. After that, I talked to Tell writer Timothy Williams, and convinced him to take a shot on a first-time 25-year-old director. He did. I took out a modest personal loan, opened a LLC, optioned the script and started development.

After a few months of working on the script, I pitched it to American Film Productions' founder George Voskericyan, who I've worked with before on Stripped. He came on board, and together we were able to hire casting directors, and get the ball rolling. It was during this time I met Kevin Mann, Matt Perniciaro and Chris Boyd. Kevin Mann later introduced me to Milo Ventimiglia, who loved the script; one thing led to another with Russ Cundiff and their company Divide Pictures Company also coming on board. With that incredible team helping out, things quickly snowballed.

Nav: As a solo director, Tell was your first. Did you find that co-directing that comedy-horror in 2013 really prepared you for the task?

Juan: Stripped was a very strange case indeed. It was my first gig as director of photography, and at one point the director literary disappeared. I think he had issues with the quality of the movie, and decided to cut his losses.

I stayed on Stripped, as I'm a great believer in finishing what I start, and with the other producer, along with George Voskericyan, we completed the film. Did the pick ups, edited, post production, and we actually sold it! We even recuperate the initial investment. George Voskericyan was really impressed and we developed a good rapport. So, when it came time to make my first movie, George Voskericyan was the first person I approached.

Nav: You ended up with a cast to die for in your debut movie. How difficult was it getting everyone involved?

Juan: As a young director, you have to listen to the experienced people who have been doing this longer than you, you know? Milo sat down with me and went through every cast choice; giving his advice, and really making things happen. For example, I never thought about Katee Sackhoff for the role, and one day Milo brought her name up. He said they had known each other for many years and they had always wanted to do a movie together. We all looked at each other and thought "She's perfect"! I really wanted Alan Tudyk, too. I met with him very early on in the project and he was there from the beginning. I was crazy about working with Jason Lee, and Milo arranged a breakfast with him. Then Milo brought up Robert [Patrick] and he also made that happen. The more I think about it, the more I see that Milo was invaluable.

Nav: So, Stripped was salvaged and from there it was just a natural progression to direct? Did that experience make you ever consider wearing two hats on Tell, being DP and director?

Juan: Getting the cast for a young first-time director from Spain, might not be the easiest thing I've ever done. And I cannot take full credit for it. It was a joint effort by everyone on the team. Everyone pitched in. All the producers, casting director and Milo Ventimiglia in particular. You have no idea how grateful I am. The fact that Milo would pick up the phone and say "It's Milo, I need you to meet with Juan," was a real game changer. Milo was willing to risk some skin on the film, and he is such a genuine and respected actor and human being. So much so, that when Milo asked, people listened ... then began responding to my emails.

Nav: How did you settle on the cast that you finally ended up with? It's rare for a debut movie with a low-budget to boast such strong and seasoned talent. Did they fit the criteria you were looking for?

Juan: I was very pleased, to say the least, with the final cast for Tell. They each nailed their roles, and they also had the right chemistry and understanding of what we were trying to achieve. I think the filmmaking gods answered my prayers. We were very, very lucky.

Nav: Do you feel independent filmmaking is where your future lies, or do you have your eye on larger things?

Juan: I think the line between independent filmmaking and studio filmmaking is rather blurred and constantly changing. I love that. Even though I do enjoy indie filmmaking, to be honest, I moved to LA so I could work with studios and with the great infrastructure they have here. And that's exactly how Tell came together if you think about it. It's an Indie movie, with a first-time director, and distributed by a studio. That's the key.

Make something that studios want, for a price that a studio can't make. They are big machines, they have huge overheads. If you can make commercially successful movies, for a fraction of the cost, they will need to pay attention. Our experience with MGM/Orion has been amazing and I would love to work with them again. So, to answer your question. The future lies on working with the studios, not against them. There is no rivalry, we are all in this together.

Jaun

Nav: Which filmmakers inspire you and why?

Juan: Oh, Nav, there are so many. But I think I can answer this question telling you a little about myself. As I went to film school and as I worked in the industry, I have been able to spot 2 different ways directors work. Either on an emotional level or a rational level. I call it the Creative directors, or the Craftsman. We are all a compendium of both. In some directors like Tarantino, who is a creative genius. Or like Spielberg/Hitchcock that are the master architects. I think I am more on the architects side. I am inspired by Spielberg, Hitchcock, Matthew Vaughn, Guy Ritchie, JJ Abrams, Michael Bay, Scorsese. But here comes the duality... I love the Coen Brothers, Tarantino, Almodovar... the super creative.

Nav: The final scene where Tell (Milo Ventimiglia) explains to Beverly (Katee Sackhoff) about the money for William, was one of my favorites. Milo and Katee nailed that scene under your direction. What scene was your favorite and why?

Juan: Well thank you so much, I don't know if I can take credit for that. They are very experienced actors, and they have done it all. When we talked about the scene, I told them what it meant for me. We all got on the same page... and then my job as a director was to provide them the freedom to do their thing, and to take chances. And Nav... they were both very very good.

When we went into editing (with Michael P. Shawver, an incredible editor, by the way), we had so many choices for that scene. Tears, no tears. Kiss, no kiss. Them hugging each other, or just walking away from each other. And the reason we shot it all on this scene, was because I wanted to have it all so when we went to editing, and we saw how the story unfolds and how we wrap the movie up, we had different places to go to.

Nav: What other scenes stood out for you?

Juan: I have a few favorite scenes for different reasons - I love Jason Lee. I always have. (laughs) I grew up watching his movies and I knew I wanted him for the movie.

I also love the scene with Robert and Alan in the bar after Tell comes out of prison. And I really, really enjoyed the action scenes. The music from Steve R. Davis and the sound mixing from Eric Offin are just unbelievable for this tiny budget.

But if I have to say what the best scene in the movie was for me... I think it's the one at the church apartments when Beverly finally confesses. Yaron Levy (the genius cinematographer) and I designed that scene so the 2 cameras would follow each other and we shot the whole scene as a oner with different set-ups. So that way, the actors could just feel how its building up. We shot it like 6-7 times. And Nav... if you had seen them live.

We were all totally in silence and speechless after every take. Also Maya Siegel (the production designer) designed an incredible set, so overall, that scene is really special. Besides - that was Katee and Milo's first day together. And it was a great place to start.

Nav: Milo worked hard for his producer credit. Did this make you realise just how important it is to have people other than yourself, who're prepared to go that extra mile to help get the film made?

Juan: Milo worked his ass off, and he does still. He is in Twitter promoting, and getting people involve. He is the best collaboration, filmmaker, friend and human being in general that I have met here.

Nav: What do you want viewers to take away from Tell? It had a positive message.

Juan: The message was very important. Doesn't matter what life throws at you, you have to keep fighting. Never give up. I got a lot of pressure since I was very young for wanting to make movies instead of following a safer career. But I stayed true to myself and what I wanted. Just like Tell did. Even after being pushed around. And also, that we all have to be liable for the choices we make. Because they become part of you.

Nav: Do you plan on trying your hand at writing a script or are you happy to leave that part to someone else?

Juan: There's a lot of writing that is involved in my job description as director-producer. I made a lot of changes. This one, I had an amazing writer Timothy Williams who provided me with extraordinary characters and a great story. I hope I can work with him again.

Nav: Was getting Tell financed difficult?

Juan: Yes and no. All the movies can be easy when you have enough pieces that add value and a movie that makes financial sense for the price you are trying to make it for. The hard part is to get those things. I have produced four movies this year with George and American Film Productions. Milo and Russ have produced a lot of stuff, too. And Kevin Mann and Chris Boyd with Haven are a powerhouse of indie filmmaking and so was Matt Perniciaro. Our Sales agents - Arclight Films - are also major players and huge supporters of the movie. Bringing everyone together allowed us to get this little ambitious movie made.

On the producing side. I just reopened Lunatic Films with my friend Derek Tran, to develop and produce. As a Director - I have a few things here and there that I am interested in. Nothing solid yet. I keep reading scripts and books everyday, and I am trying to decide what's going to be my next movie directing. But I would love to bring the whole group back together. Making a movie with friends, it makes all the difference in the world. I don't want to make movies and be happy. I want to be happy making movies.

Nav: Do you have another project in the works?

Juan: I can't talk much about this one. (Laughs) However, now that I know more, and I know what I want, I will most likely be writing in my next movie, but I will be working with other writers. I love collaboration.

Nav: Thank you, Juan M.R. Luna

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