I can always go for a feel-good, heartwarming story. It seems to be rather rare these days, especially with the current state of the world. With the indie darling that is Tulsa, you also get a glimpse of the humanity and authenticity that lives outside of the Hollywood system, all heavily inspired by true events.
Biker 'Tommy Colston' (Scott Pryor) is a hopeless addict. When 'Tommy' discovers he has a long-lost daughter named 'Tulsa' (Livi Birch), he reluctantly welcomes the 9-year-old into his home but tries to keep her out of his heart. The head strong girl attempts to use her strong faith to save 'Tommy' from his addictions and the demons of his past. When tragedy strikes, 'Tommy' is forced to face his demons and attempts to become the father of 'Tulsa's' dreams. Inspired by true events from Scott Pryor's client as a trial lawyer, Tulsa is a funny and heartwarming story of redemption, family, and forgiveness, even in the darkest of times.
Scott Pryor, the star, writer and co-director behind 'Tulsa' shares insight behind his journey and love for storytelling, the connection between being creative both in the courtroom and in film, the learning curve behind marketing and distribution as an independent filmmaker and provides very practical advice for those seeking filmmaking as their calling.
This interview has been edited for content and clarity.
Sadie Dean: Jumping in, tell us about your journey from being a lawyer to becoming a filmmaker.
Scott Pryor: My journey began really in high school. It was not a liberal arts high school. It was kind of a blue-collar type school in the Midwest, and we would make up skits for class. And so, me and my friends would make up these kinds of crazy wild skits, and it was just really fun and absolutely entertaining. We just did it every year and that kind of planted the seed. I enjoyed the performance aspect of it. So then moving on I went to law school and in undergrad, I was doing some acting, some Shakespeare – I was a Shakespeare classic player at my school, although I wasn't really involved in the arts in terms of my major. But anyhow, I got into law and what I realized quickly was, we had a lot of success in the courtroom from creativity. The creative side of my brain and kind of how to handle cases but as well as communicating my clients’ story to the judge or jury, and we just have a lot of success with that. And so, then I decided to just take the storytelling aspect of what I did with my clients in the courtroom and translate that into writing actual scripts. And then of course I just started producing my own films, our own films, we have a huge team that helps us but that was the journey.
It wasn't really linear. The common thread is really kind of storytelling as a trial lawyer – I’m a US Marine as well - I'm a fighter and fighting is in my blood, and so I love just getting up and fighting for a cause. My area of law is personal injury and wrongful death, so people who've been injured, you know, just really horrific injuries and then of course killed by somebody else's negligence, such as, you know, a semi-truck runs over and kills a family, I represent the family, the survivors against the insurance companies basically. But in doing this work and sitting down with families, day in and day out, who've gone through just major massive tragedy, horrific tragedy, fighting for them and then telling their story, it just gives me real life true grit, and just a ton of ideas for scripts and so I usually pull in people that I've represented, people who I represented for, you know these different real-life cases and scripts. And so I’ve weaved in stories and that sort of stuff. Tulsa is actually based on several cases that I worked on. I fictionalized of course some of the characters and some of the storylines, but it's actually inspired by actual live cases, people that I've worked on or worked with.
Sadie: Yeah, that's such a great background especially having access to those real and authentic stories and how it resonates with you, it seems like the possibilities are endless for you. Do you as a lawyer and having access to those raw stories, do you have to confer with those clients saying, “Hey I'm using this idea from your story, do I need a clearance or any life rights?” Or are you just really making sure you're fictionalizing as much as you can?
Scott: So, I do confer if I'm using a direct character. I will confer with that character. [laughs] Sometimes after the fact. Like in Tulsa, Bishop Franklin, a friend and mentor of mine is Bishop Franklin and literally his story in the garage to Tommy was the real-life Bishop Franklin story. Now, we're so close that he supports what we do, that I didn't really have to ask, but I said after, “I put you in the film.” And then he lost it and he's like, “It was my honor,” and he's just so thankful. But normally, yes, we, we get that. And I really like to protect the privacy of my clients because most of them, this is such a private, private matter and some of the corporations I go up against, I have to sign confidentiality agreements sometimes. My clients are wonderful people typically, wonderful people and I'm very thankful to have the clients that I have, but every now and then we get somebody who's kind of mean and nasty that slips through and they also make it into my scripts. [laughs] The Foster Monster is in the script is the name of the foster lady in the beginning that is one of my former clients and that was her personality. So, I wrote that in as well.
Sadie: [laughs] A very literal foster monster.
Scott: That's right, if Eminem and Taylor Swift can do it, I can too. [laughs]
Sadie: Going into the writing part of this on Tulsa, what was your writing process with co-writer Ty DeMartino?
Scott: Oh, it was great. Our first two films which were The List, and Blackbear. But Blackbear, mainly, I did the heavy lifting on the script writing and then, you know, had some people look over it. But with Ty, what I love about Ty is – he’s a professional writer that's all he does day in day out is write. And Ty helps me with structure, pacing, timing - he has a really great sense of humor which I enjoy. My sense of humor, although I know that most of my jokes aren't that funny, it's a bit odd, and sometimes I'm not sure that it lands. I'm reluctant at times to write my full-blown sense of humor in a script, because I know that I'm not that funny at times. [laughs] But Ty has got a great sense of humor, and so we joke a lot and we're able to kind of bring that levity, so it was great writing with Ty, it saves me a lot of time because Ty's really good at kind of filling in some of the details. Like my strength is definitely story and drama and like heavy turns and twists. I love really strong characters, I love dialogue. Where I really need the help is the pacing, timing and kind of structure and not going off on rabbit trails and keeping the story as tight as possible.
And so, we write, and we rewrite, we have a pretty solid process where we first we outline the story. And then just refine the outline, refine the outline, refine the outline, then we go to a scene-by-scene quick glance over what the story looks like. Ty did the first pass and then off that foundation we were able to go into work. It can be a tug of war and sometimes we can fight back for scenes. My wife is kind of an unwritten writer as well – her and I have very different personalities. Very, very different personalities, but it brings, kind of a synergy where you know there's a lot of tug of war with certain things and I think that also brings better writing out of it because it's not just my vision or one vision. You’re fighting for different storylines and different things so I think it can certainly be a real synergy. And it was, it was great. I have no tolerance for shoddy work or cutting corners. You know we always want our work to be excellent. And of course, god willing, each script gets better with more experience. I look back on some of my earlier work and I'm like, ‘we could have definitely improved that’.
Sadie: Working on your craft, you definitely will see that it will get better. As long as you stick to it, right?
Scott: That's right, that's right!
Sadie: And speaking of synergy and vision, this is both yours and Gloria Stella’s directorial debut. What made you both decide that this was the film to team up on?
Scott: Well, Gloria and I worked together previously on Blackbear and we had great success with Blackbear. Gloria and I have very different personalities. But I feel that we work very well together because we have different strengths, however, in terms of vision, we think the same way. She’s a very, very hard worker and she's a “get it done” personality. She read the script and loved it. We were talking about directors, and I didn't want to have to direct my own acting just out of the gate. If we had a lot more time and a lot more money, where we could do several takes and then I could jump behind and watch the playback then that would be one thing. I just didn't think it would be wise also playing one of the leads and directing myself. Gloria and I were talking, and she encouraged me to direct, and I needed another pair of eyes and so I said, “Hey why don't you direct?” And she did.
And then of course again my wife is an uncredited pair of eyes, she knows my acting and some quirks, she was a good pair of eyes to make sure things were running.
Sadie: Is your wife Laura a filmmaker as well?
Scott: She is, she is. Pryor Entertainment, she is the secret sauce. It’s me and her both. I'm a little more of the face of it, although she has a much more attractive face than me. She's kind of quiet and reserved. She’s a mathematician and used to be a computer program engineer, flew all over the world while I was in law school. She's also very creative. But again, we're very, very different personalities, but our skills and weaknesses complement each other. And so, working with her there's definitely a strong synergy.
Sadie: That's great to have a partner that balances you out like that, especially creatively.
Scott: Yes, yes, she's very lucky, I mean [laughs] I’m super lucky, very fortunate to have her. And honestly, none of this would have happened without her. She's definitely the secret sauce.
Sadie: Hats off to her. Going back to the film, I noticed the color palettes were very prominent, especially with the color yellow. Was that something that was worked into the script beforehand or was that discussed during pre-production going into production?
Scott: That was that was pre-production. So, my background in undergrad I was an art minor and so I would do painting and different arts. So as a visual artist, whenever I see a movie, I'm always intrigued by the cinematography and the visuals, and how that affects you emotionally and just the actual art itself. When I'm writing the script, I kind of see the scenes play out in my head and so I see the colors. The dance scene with the bikers all driving up on their motorcycles and the bikers line up and then Tommy and Tulsa have the wheelchair in front of the headlights and then you see them go into the headlights, that was all written into the script.
And then, symbolically Tommy's in a very, very, very dark place. Part of storytelling, ie visual color palette is Tommy's in a very dark place and when you see Tommy earlier on in the script, it's more dark and gray. And Tulsa is symbolic of the light, right? So, when you see Tulsa, typically she's wearing yellow, obviously she's blonde. As the story progresses the goal was to become lighter and lighter, lighter as Tommy works through his different issues. So that was all started at the script level and writing the script, but it was definitely spoken about very heavily in pre-production and actually had several movies as an example when we were discussing with our cinematographer. Typically, we didn't want blue in the film because of the color palette. We tried to eliminate a couple but, on our budget, and our timeline, we shot it in 20 days, sometimes locations fall through and then you got to scramble, you just have to deal with it. The color palette was definitely strategic and talked about and implemented throughout the film.
Sadie: Talking about the journey of making the film Tulsa, there's still this kind of mystery of is it even possible to make movies outside of Hollywood. And you are proof that you can. What was it like going from getting it financed to then finding distribution?
Scott: The journey – can you make movies outside of Hollywood? Yes, you can. I think we're proof of that. But I will tell you, it's not easy. Honestly, we traditionally have self-funded. You know, I’m a trial lawyer, we have self-funded our first three films, just because you know I have investors ready to go, but to be honest, I didn't want to lose somebody else's money or put other people's money at risk. I wanted to prove the concept, to prove that we could do it. Now we will raise money for films because not that I know everything there is to know about film but, you know, we've done it three times, we got three films in distribution worldwide and etcetera, etcetera. So, the finances are difficult and honestly, the law practice has basically self-funded these. Again, these are very, very low ultra-low-budget films budget-wise. There are so many constraints, it’s just tough.
In terms of like the distribution again that's the learning curve. Since this is our third film you know each film you do, you get more and more savvy on distribution and what to do and what not to do. And honestly, for theatrical, we had called up Regal – Gloria’s husband had a contact there, he used to work at Regal Cinemas, in a theater when he was a teenager and he had a contact and put us in contact with one of the top guys who greenlight films. We sent him over this trailer of the film and the poster. He's like, “Great, how many theaters do you want?” There was definitely a learning curve there on what to do and all that. And we had a very, very low budget for any sort of advertising or marketing so literally, our budget was a joke, but we knew with Tulsa, we knew it was a very powerful story that would move people. And then our biggest hurdle with Tulsa was to get people watching. Because as long as we get people to watch it, they will then become our ambassadors. We kind of mushroomed from there, but there was definitely a learning curve. It was challenging. Going to script, producing it, going through distribution, theatrical and all this, now we're much, much, much wiser. I'm thrilled to have gone through a lot of the learning lessons. For Tulsa we have somebody who's licensing the film, that’s a separate group, we have for cable and VOD and then we have theatrical VOD. We’ve learned how to kind of negotiate each piece as we've done with Tulsa. So, and again not having much studio involvement, although one or two studios reached out because you probably already know this, but Tulsa during COVID set a record for the second highest-grossing domestic box office for self-distribution in theaters of all time, not just 2020 of all time. That was really cool. And our budget was $100 per theater for advertising and marketing, which is a joke, it’s laughable. So, we just knew we had to get some people in some seats and then that would mushroom and grow.
Sadie: This movie especially skews towards the faith-based market. Was that something that you were marketing towards as well and getting people in the seats in the theater and in specific regions?
Scott: Absolutely. Tulsa kind of bridges that audience. We're very, we're very intentional because you know you can see there's definitely squarely faith-based. But, this is no judgment whatsoever on any other faith-based films, I know other faith-based filmmakers and they're fantastic people and I love their work, but for us, what we wanted to be very intentional about how we present the faith in the movie. For us, it’s typically a struggle about the characters, and we don't want to just like sit down and hear a sermon the whole time. And so the reaction for Tulsa has been, because there are people who are definitely not faith-based film going or loving people by any mean, but it's interesting because we've had people respond on social media and tag us, where they're telling people, “Look, this is a faith-based film, but it’s not offensive, you're not getting beat over the head and it's a great story, and you don't have to be faith-based people to watch it and enjoy this movie.” But we've had other people say they've reconnected with their faith.
Sadie: I think this is a story that can resonate with anybody, faith or no faith.
Scott: Thank you, thank you and that's it and that was our goal as well, to resonate. And we like tackling issues. I don't mind, I want to tackle issues, tough issues. When you reach people and you see these characters and they’re hurting, people identify with the hurting characters who have gone through that, yeah really that resonates with me and I think that's what leads the impact. That’s in the writing and storytelling. That's our goal.
Sadie: Any advice for creatives who have just regular nine to five jobs that want to break into filmmaking?
Scott: A ton of advice, it may not be good, but I have advice. What I would say is, you have to create your own content. Get together with other creators and start creating your own content. Why that's important is, that's how you learn. And literally all year I hear, “I want a shortcut.” Well, I never took shortcuts. Get in there, do the work, work on your skills, but definitely start creating your own content. You can shoot from an iPhone. I would tell people go with the intersection of what you're passionate about, but the other intersection is what you're really good at. When those two points intersect, your passion, and what you're really good at, you're onto something and then just work through that. I tell people volunteer as a PA on anything - commercials, short films independent films, wherever you can go. I don’t care if you want to be a director, go volunteer as a production assistant, so that you get on set and you’re seeing, even if it's for a day or two days, then you're seeing what's going on. And if you work hard, which is essential, if you work hard, grind, great attitude, get along with people and just do what it takes to get the project done. You will be noticed.
We had for Blackbear, we had a kid straight out of high school, I actually went and spoke to his high school, and I said, “Hey keep in touch with me.” So, he's like no problem - he would email like once a week, and he just kept checking in and kept checking in. So, I was like let's bring him on as an intern, I’m like, “Hey man, we’re gonna bring you on as an intern, we’re not gonna pay you, I don’t have the budget,” but he got on set and he worked his butt off. And now, he hasn't stopped working since because of his work ethic. So, get your foot in the door and volunteer on these sets, you know, because a lot of people will take somebody for free right? And then just work your butt off and shoot your own content.
My best advice is to hone your craft. I'm not saying quit your nine to five, most people can't do that. I still run a law practice. I wrote this morning, I'm working on my new scripts, then I went and did a bunch of law, doing this interview, writing more and then I've got more work to do.
Sadie: That's great advice! Definitely hone your craft and get on set, while you can. Well, thank you so much, Scott, it was great chatting with you. Wishing you all the best with your future projects.
Scott: Thank you so much.
Tulsa is available on Amazon, iTunes, Cable, Dish, DirecTV and other VOD platforms, as well as DVD.