I saw a number of good short films at the 27 Raindance Film Festival in London this year but one really stood out from the crowd called A Million Eyes by British director Richard Raymond. It’s a touching drama about a young boy living with his alcoholic widowed mother in Georgia, USA. Both characters have their own empathetic and engaging transformational character arc which form the central narrative about young Leroy (Elijah M. Cooper) who tries to capture the “truth” in the chaos of the world around him through the lens of an old, broken 35mm stills camera while his mother Amber (Katie Lowes) struggles to be a good mother and battle her ever-enticing addiction.
The film recently received a Special Jury mention at HollyShorts Film Festival and is now under consideration for an Academy Award. I interviewed Richard about the short, working with the writer and cast, and his filmmaking career.
Dan: I really enjoyed A Million Eyes and appreciated the fact that it wasn’t trying to be anything else other than a short cinematic story in its own right, and would love to know how the project evolved.
Richard: I’ve always felt an urge to create and to collaborate with diverse people on different things, and I had reset my career, as I began with a feature film as my first film, and nothing kind of moved for me. And then I became a father, and everything changed in my heart and in my mind and I really felt that I needed to express myself in a new and different way… in a way that represented how I felt about my life and the world. So I did a short film called Souls of Totality which won Raindance last year, and it was the most profoundly positive experience.
Before I had done that short film I had always thought that short films were like the tier below feature films, and it occurred to me that that was completely incorrect and actually they are as distinct and valuable a medium as a feature and in fact short films get a far greater theatrical release than an independent feature film that might go to one or two film festivals and then is on Netflix if you’re lucky. For myself, the appeal and allure for being able to present your work to a community of people sitting in a room many times all over the world is what the medium of short films gives you.
So, I felt that after Souls of Totality I wanted to do it again but this time I wanted to try something that was a bit more soulful, poetic and left the audience with more contemplation than anything else. And I was lamenting this to a producer friend of mine, Josh Reinhold, and he had read a screenplay on the Blacklist Lab called 35MM by a first-time American writer called Curt Zacharias Jnr. who lived in Tennessee, and he slipped me the script, which was a feature script.
I immediately fell in love with it but I didn’t wanna spend two years developing a low budget feature, and so I said, “Look, can we re-develop this where it really does have a beginning, middle and a conclusion, take the essence of the narrative and what we’re trying to say and put it into a short film”… where you feel like you’ve had a full meal, narratively speaking, after twenty minutes or so, and you feel like you know these characters. And bless Curt, he agreed, and Josh, Curt and myself worked together and re-developed this feature script as a short. And low and behold we did it, we got the money together and we shot the film in June and finished the film in August and two weeks later we were at Raindance.
Dan: What made you connect with A Million Eyes and how did making both shorts help you find your cinematic voice?
Richard: A Million Eyes reminded me of my childhood in a very specific way and then in the making of the film I realized that every artist can connect to this type of story because whether you’re a writer, a painter, a poet, a singer, a director, we have all had that first scary moment where we saw things a bit differently and we wanted to express ourselves and we didn’t quite know how, and it’s a very fragile time, and someone came into our lives that saw we had an interest in something in the arts and supported us… that mentor figure.
And it doesn’t have to be as romantic as Cinema Paradiso. For some people it can be very real. And one of the things I was really inspired by was on my last short film Souls of Totality which went all around the world at all these film festivals and I would meet so many young people that felt scared like “Who am I to be a director? Who am I to be an actor? What do I have to do to become this?” And it was just that sense that a lot of people need to realize that they don’t have to reach for a value that’s greater than them, that what they have there in themselves is great enough. And many voices in under-celebrated and under-funded communities are the most important voices and they need to be empowered. Whether it’s a mentor supporting a young kid or film-funding bodies or arts education in schools. The film made me reach back rather than reach forward because I just felt very inspired after meeting all these young people.
The way in which my voice has changed… it’s now much more in line with trusting and listening to my intuition on set and not trying to plan too much ahead of it, and also just allowing the actors to do their thing. Great actors are like racehorses – if you cast it well you can just put ‘em in the gate and lift it up. And I love actors and I learned to put the camera back and allow the camera to tell the story and allow the scene to exist in the frame. And if the writing is good enough, and the acting is good enough it holds.
And instead of what I did on my first film which was so much manipulation, trying to make the performance on the edit, I thought “I’m not gonna do that anymore.” And Souls of Totality was that realization for me – that was a short film that was shot during a real solar eclipse. It was a film that built up to this incredible once in a lifetime moment, and so it had a lot of time-crunch, had a lot of emotional inner and outer conflict in it, and this film was very different.
Dan: And so with A Million Eyes you were essentially following your heart and your instincts much more?
Richard: Exactly. Following your heart and your instincts. You have no idea what you’re gonna connect to. Someone could call me tonight going “You should read this” and then my whole life is changed for the next two years.
Dan: Do you write yourself?
Richard: I love writing but I’m a storyteller, not a writer. The writers I know, they live, breath and eat writing. And I love collaborating with great writers. And I like empowering writers to follow their voice and follow their intuition and I support them in terms of helping develop stories and structure. There are many instances where I’ve written a couple of pages of a treatment, and I had the essence of a structure but at that point I then really wanna bring on and work with writers. Like an actor, you know, you wanna work with the most talented and fresh and diverse voices in their own field.
So no, this film was all Curt. Souls of Totality was written by Kate Trefry and her husband and my dear friend, Ben Bolea. Kate is now one of the writers on Stranger Things and she has her own short film that she directed called How To Be Alone with Maika Monroe, and is brilliant. And Ben’s scripts have now been on the Blacklist twice.
Dan: Considering the original screenplay for A Million Eyes was a feature on the Blacklist, was it a hard sell to get Curt to turn his script into a short and how was the development process working with him?
Richard: I have to say that it was one of the most joyful experiences I’ve ever had, working with Curt Zacharias Jnr. He has not been in any way scarred or beaten down by the industry, so he’s all hope and aspiration and imagination, and also one of the things about Curt is he has great taste. He’s got a great taste in, not just literature, but in film and he is a photographer and lives where the film is set, in an area where the nature is biting back. And it speaks a lot to the way the character Leroy is. I think Curt’s one of the most open and can-do and brilliant writers I’ve met and worked with. I think there’s exciting things to come from him and I’m particularly proud of the work he did and the trust that he gave us to turn it into a short.
Dan: How did you approach the development process, having to cut out so much material in order to tell the story in a short form?
Richard: Curt, Josh and I just focused on “What is this trying to say?” and how can we say it in the shortest time. And one of the wonderful things that happens when you do that is all the exposition goes out the window and you just start showing characters for who they are. And I was worried that in the film, people wouldn’t know that Leroy’s mother was an alcoholic, because her character is not one of your typical trope alcoholics… which is stumbling out the bar, falling on the ground, being violent or dismissive, which we’ve seen so brilliantly done in so many films like Moonlight.
This is someone who I know, someone who many people probably recognize who is a working, functioning heavy drinker, who’s using her addition to mask her pain. But there’s no exposition for that. You know, all we see in the beginning of the film is Leroy exit the house and the camera pans to a picture of his father with the American flag in a triangle which means he died in service. And then eventually you realize the mother’s an alcoholic and start to piece it together in a very subtle way. In a feature film, obviously everything gets told to you because you have the page count to do it.
The other thing is that these types of stories are normally told with a much grittier point of view, and I felt that might be somewhat unconsciously biased. That those types of characters in those types of stories belong in that box, and I really wanted the film to be told from Leroy’s point of view. That’s why we didn’t shoot anything on Steadicam it’s on track. It’s got precision to it. And Leroy sees beauty, and stories, and revelation in the mundane, in places that are ugly. And I wanted that to echo in the way the film was shot.
Dan: How did you go about casting the role of Leroy?
Richard: Josh, the producer, introduced me to a casting director in Atlanta that he knew called Chad Darnell, and Chad sent out the casting calls for thousands of kids, and we saw lots and lots and lots of tapes, and Elijah’s tape came in, and Chad was really passionate about me watching it. And one of the things I loved about Elijah was that he just brought his own point of view and perspective to the character. He became a version of Leroy that I had never expected and that was nothing I thought it would be but everything I hoped it could be. And not only that but he just bleeds charisma. It’s like walking on water – you can do it or you can’t. It’s nothing you can teach and he’s got it in spades. And it made me think “He’s a star.”
And not only was he fantastic but he stayed in character on set and most importantly, his talent exists from the bedrock that is the foundation that his family support him. And his family was with us every step of the way, because when you work with a minor you can only work five hours a day, so it was particularly difficult. And the way I wanted to shoot was a very technical way of shooting, so it was very challenging for him, especially because this was his first ever film, but he just rose to the occasion and I just love Elijah and I think we’ll be seeing a lot more of him in the future.
Dan: Did Elijah bring something to his performance on set that you didn’t expect?
Richard: Oh yeah. He just kept bringing magic on the day to every scene. It’s funny because he’s thirteen years old but he was able to channel some of those beautiful tricks that more experienced actors do when they hold it back until the moment. For instance, that scene where he’s crying by the door… I had no idea that’s what he was gonna do. He just retreated into himself, and he was listening to music, we were ready to shoot, we got the camera loaded by the door… he came on, tucked himself in the corner, and we just couldn’t believe it. I was just blown away by his performance. It was so incredibly moving. And also for the lighter stuff. He’s a very funny, animated person, and his character’s a very introverted, awkward person.
One of the things about Elijah was that he grew about four inches from the moment we cast him to the moment he showed up on set. From size ten shoe to size thirteen shoe. He just had this huge, incredible growth spurt! So he arrived on set taller and he was a bit awkward in his body and I thought that was great, so he brought that to the character.
Dan: And how did you cast the other roles?
Richard: Leroy’s mother is played by Katie Lowes. I wish I could say that I wrote her a letter and begged her to be in the film but the truth is my wife is a friend with her and she was a fan of Souls of Totality and so my wife was like “You gotta meet her” and so we met her for lunch and I was just blown away. She runs a theatre company in Downtown Los Angeles. She does so many things, and I just felt wow, I’ve got a real partner/collaborator here in making a new film and I thought I just have to cast you.
And then Katie was the one who texted Joe Morton and said you gotta be in this film. They had worked together on a TV series called Scandal which is a big thing in America, and Joe said “Sure, send me the script” and Joe gave me a call and you know, I’m the twelve-year-old that put pencil on my face to pretend I had a beard so I could sneak in to see Terminator 2 in 1991… so to work with Joe Morton who’s been in all these films I’ve watched growing up was amazing. And he was adamant that he’d never seen the mentor figure to a young black man be played by a black man. And so he just felt passionate that he wanted to portray this character in a way that harks back to photographers like Gordon Parks that paved the way for the next generation of American artists. And that’s something that only he can really speak to. So we were just blessed. He came in for one day and did all his scenes in that day.
Dan: What it was like working with cinematographer Jarin Blaschke?
Richard: I met Jarin because I was a fan of a film that he was the cinematographer on called The Witch and he also did Souls of Totality with me, and we really struck up a partnership on that film. And so I got to know Jarin, and he is a very passionate fellow when it comes to film and photography. Jarin would literally say to me that anything he saved up he would spend on his photography, and he loves going into his darkroom and geeking out about various film styles and how you’re gonna develop the film, and so it was the obvious thing to make a film about photography with Jarin. And it was wonderful to harness his knowledge and passion about photography into this story.
Jarin took all of Leroy’s photographs and a lot of the ones on Leroy’s bedroom wall too. And he’s got a film coming out called The Lighthouse with Robert Pattinson and Willem Defoe… which looks amazing, black and white film, 35mm. And we both see things quite similarly, in the sense that we like scenes if possible, when possible, to be done in single takes. Where the shot itself has a beginning, a middle and an end and can reveal more about the story. Jarin’s a poet, and anyone that compliments the film looking good, that’s Jarin.
Dan: Who inspires you as a director and writer?
Richard: Less so the films that have been made, but more so the way the directors work. So, for instance, when you grow up watching documentaries on a filmmaker such as James Cameron who gets involved in every single aspect of that film, and will try and not let it go, and be as intricately involved in everything – that really speaks to me.
When I grew up, I was a runner on a film called Shadowlands with Richard Attenborough directing, and I always think back to how he treated his crew and his cast. He was so kind and so loving and so generous. Especially because I was just a sixteen-year-old kid on a film set and he was so inclusive, and honestly for me, that is something I always think back to and that’s the filmmaker I wanna be.
Dan: Where was the film shot?
Richard: It was shot in Atlanta and set in Chattanooga which is a town about two hours north of Atlanta. But at the end of the day there were no film crew in Chattanooga and the film crew we found were all in Atlanta so we re-set it there and they both look exactly the same. And Atlanta’s an amazing place to shoot. It’s like the Hollywood of America. It’s where all the Avengers films are shot and Stranger Things… everything’s shot in Atlanta. And when you embrace the city and not try to pretend it’s New York or San Francisco, and when you actually shoot it for what it is, it’s amazing. The cicada and the rolling thunder storms… it’s a really distinctly beautiful place and the crew there are just amazing. I always thought that in England we were spoilt by brilliant crews but the crews in Atlanta are so good.
Dan: And Atlanta also has tax break for film shoots, correct?
Richard: Exactly. Not that we had any money for a tax break but yeah (laugh). You can’t get a tax break when everybody’s working for free (more laughs).
Dan: How did you raise the money for the film?
Richard: I’m still paying it off! There’s a lot on the credit card right now (laughs). But in all truth, the film was financed by some people that my wife, who’s a producer on the film, knew. She had a group of friends that are very passionate about the arts, mostly spearheaded by women, and we thought that this film would give a window for us to start a conversation about the importance of art in education in school. Especially in England and America where they cut so much arts education at a public school because there’s no real statistical proof and analysis that shows that art education has a positive impact on children’s lives, but that is so blatantly obvious to everybody else. Essentially this film was financed by a group of very brilliant and generous individuals that came together and rallied around that belief, that arts education was something that needed to be talked about.
Dan: What are you working on next?
Richard: I’ve been developing a project for so many years and now it’s finally starting to come together… a feature film called One Thousand Paper Cranes, written by Ben Bolea. It was on the Blacklist and will star Evan Rachel Wood, Rafe Spall, Jim Sturgess, and a bunch of incredible Japanese actors. It’s the true story of the two-year-old girl Sadako Sasaki who survived the atomic bomb from Hiroshima in 1945, and ten years later developed leukemia from the radiation poisoning and was told by doctors she only had two months to live. And she heard a myth that if you fold a thousand paper cranes out of origami then you’ll get a wish by the gods and her wish was to get better so she could go to junior high school.
It’s a story about how a child inspired hope and peace in a new generation, and at the same time it’s the story of a Canadian author that Evan Rachel Wood is going to play, who discovers Sadako’s story and brought it to the world as a children’s book. And it’s the synthesis of these two women who would never meet but who would unwittingly work together to create the symbol of peace in the paper crane. It’s been eight years in the making and I wouldn’t be surprised if it still doesn’t happen for another year but it will happen I know that.
Dan: If there was one thing you learned from the experience of making A Million Eyes to use on your next project, what would it be?
Richard: (long pause) Well, I know what my producers would say… “Don’t use so much track!” (laughs) but honestly it just reaffirms that you need to trust your intuition. Reaffirms that in all aspects. For instance, on this film I really wanted the score to be written from the screenplay. I didn’t want to carry on that trope that we all do of putting temp music to an edit and then falling in love with it, and then asking a composer to come in and try to replicate the feeling of it. You wouldn’t do that to an actor. You wouldn’t show an actor another actor and say “Can you copy this?”.
And that’s what my intuition told me and it worked. The composer Chris Hyson composed the entire film from the script. So we had the music a month before we started filming which is why the post was so quick. The editor David Pergolini finished the film with me in less than two weeks after we started filming because we already had the score. That way when you’re writing music to words it’s the truest representation of how the narrative is making you feel. So again, it’s about listening to your intuition and trying not to plan too much in advance and just allowing ideas to happen that you can react to.