What do a luchador, a swastika face tattoo and organ harvesters have in common? They are all involved in crime stories that intersect in Lowlife. There are five stories actually in the debut feature from Ryan Prows.
Prows spoke with We Live Entertainment by phone this week about bringing Lowlife together. Lowlife opens in theaters and VOD on Friday, April 6.
WLE: There were five screenwriters including you. Did each one work on one of the segments of Lowlife?
Ryan Prows: Yeah, we did kind of more of a TV writers room. We all broke story together. We did go away and write separate segments and then came back together and edited and worked on them together. We just brought back what we had and beat each other up over and over again afterwards.
WLE: Did you have to agree on the parts that overlap in each story?
RP: The initial idea was to do just a straight crime anthology of separate stories. As we were plotting it out together, then we started saying, “This would be cool to overlap.” More in the outline phase, we figured out where stuff was going to start overlapping and joined it back up once we were all writing together. That was a big reason why we all needed to go back over everything together. One of the writers, he plays Keith, Shaye Ogbanna, and two of the writers were producers, and obviously myself were there so we were still writing on the fly if anything came up production-wise. I mean, super low budget movie.
WLE: Was there ever talk of co-directors?
RP: I was going to be director and that was even the idea of it being a crime anthology, some way of trying to keep it uniform and some direct vision to it was the idea from the outset. Obviously, as the stories start overlapping, it would’ve been impossible I think. Or not impossible, but from where we were at, we were shooting bits and pieces all over the place. It was more feasible and I’m the director out of the group. We all went to school together. I was directing shorts that they were writing. We were doing sketch comedy and everything out of school. I’ve been the director since the jump.
WLE: Where did you go?
RP: We went to AFI. [Class of] 2011.
WLE: Was scheduling really complicated?
RP: Yeah, it was more keeping track of the points of view. If we were shooting a scene that we knew we were going to keep looping back in different parts of it, keeping production on track of okay, who’s movie is this at this point? A lot of it too is maintaining the tonal shifts and stuff and that was really cool. That, to me, was a lot of fun to be working with the cast on everything. At what point are we breaking into a different beat or a different vibe per scene or scene to scene?
WLE: Doing a crime movie, did you decide from the outset it would be extremely violent?
RP: Yeah, I mean, in the sense of the idea was definitely to give weight to the violence, in my mind. Make it count, not make it super exploitational, more grounded and if you’ve got a luchador and it’s fun, it becomes hyper real when the reality of the situation sets in with all the violent stuff. Yeah, from the jump, it was like how low can we take and how far can we take the characters? How much punishment can we put them through and then hopefully find some kind of light at the end of the tunnel with it as well and not wallow in the misery of the whole thing obviously.
WLE: How much of those violent effects were practical?
RP: Pretty much most of them. We had a really cool team that helped out. It was kind of touch and go just from it being low budget. The company’s named Josh and Sierra Russell. They were working on TV shows and all sorts of stuff. We had an initial laundry list and went through, “Okay, this is doable, this is not.” We figured it out pretty quickly but then we had some VFX to help smooth over things.
WLE: Were your previous shorts all your student films at AFI?
RP: The last official short I did out of school was Narcocorrido and that’s the one that I won the student Academy Award with. The Tomm Fondle stuff was more of a sketch comedy troupe where we were doing online sketches and a web series as well. The web series was a really cool dry run. It’s all told, 90 minutes stretched over 15 episodes. That was pretty much the same production team. That was the same cinematographer and editors and stuff. We did that in an even shorter amount of time and got our ass kicked on that, so it was a good stepping stone too. Like, okay, how do we do this practically? And again, the initial idea even of doing an anthology film was to approach it from however we can do this to get this movie made, if we have to do short films that we shoot nights and weekends was the initial idea. It was kind of borne out of a practicality but also just being within our style as well and purview, interests.
WLE: Were the actors in Lowlife people you’d worked with in school too?
RP: Yes, Nicki Micheaux who plays Crystal, she’s done a lot of TV. She’d actually worked with a teacher of mine from AFI and he put her up. He kind of slid the script to her for my short, so I worked with her in that. We really built the film Lowlife around her. We came up with her character and her situation first and then started filling out the rest of the characters. Jon Oswald who plays Randy, the swastika-faced gentleman, he’s a childhood friend of one of the writers as well. We were all buddies. He came out. He was in a couple other sketches and he‘s in the web series as well. It was that kind of thing. We were working with some of the guys and some people we just did auditions and everything. I had seen Mark Burnham in Wrong Cops which I loved. He walked in cold for an audition and I just freaked out as soon as he walked in. Everyone was like, “What are you talking about?” I’m like, “You’ve got to see this really fucked up movie.”
WLE: What’s been the experience taking Lowlife to film festivals, and did IFC come on right away?
RP: We were talking to them pretty soon after Fantasia. Yeah, it’s been incredible. As the first feature and I think, I don’t know if it’s a hard sell but I think it’s like what is this movie? Once audiences see it, they usually tend to dig so that’s been really cool. It’s been a dream come true, obviously, to travel the world with the movie. It’s pretty wild.
WLE: What kind of movies do you want to do next?
RP: A bunch of the writers and myself are working on a new one now. It’s more of a horror thing, but definitely social satire, social commentary horror. We’re trying to get that going. I’ve been working on a feature version of my short, Narcocorrido. Those are really cool. They’re these Mexican drug ballads. The singers sign about and glorify cartels. They get hired by cartel guys to glorify them, and then they get killed by rival cartel guys. It’s interesting and this is all happening in the States, southwestern States. It’s actually kind of bigger here than it is in Mexico as a genre of music. It’s that kind of stuff. I feel like it’s a little touch of the absurd stuff and hopefully some comedy, some drama, all that sort of stuff in between. Lowlife I feel is a pretty good stamp of the type of stuff I want to do, keep pushing for.
WLE: Narcocorrido is real?
RP: Yeah, it’s pretty crazy. It’s a stranger than fiction kind of thing almost. It’s a really big music scene. It’s actually based, the bigger artists are out of L.A. and they record in L.A. A narco singer got killed three or four months ago. It’s almost like a renaissance patronage sort of thing but with these cartel guys. It’s pretty interesting.
WLE: Did you make the short with an eye towards a feature?
RP: Not initially, no. I’m from Atlanta. When I moved to L.A. I just stumbled across that music genre. I could see it being akin to Outlaw Country or Punk or Gangsta Rap, or something like that. It was definitely fascinating. Once we did the short, the short is almost like a presentation of just a song. The feature goes more along the line of a day in the life of one of these singers. I always pitch it as like an even more fucked up Boogie Nights.
WLE: Who are some of your favorite filmmakers, influences or people you discovered in AFI?
RP: I was always pitching Lowlife when we were first starting as if Paul Verhoeven made a John Cassavetes movie or vice versa. They’re two of my favorites. I love obviously the kitchen sink drama stuff, but if you can heighten it and do some kind of satirical bent on it is really exciting to me. Genre mash stuff. Pretty much most of the greats: Altman, Scorsese, etc. To me, what we were trying to do with Lowlife is if you can entertain and say something without soap boxing, but it’s not just entertainment for pure entertainment’s sake or exploitation for exploitation’s sake, that’s the stuff that really gets me excited. What we were really trying to dig in with Lowlife, I mean it was terrifying when we were shooting it. There was a scene between El Monstro and Kaylee, his wife. It’s this almost staged kitchen sink drama but with a luchador. I was like, “We may be fucking up here. What is this thing? I’ve never seen something like this.” Trying to chase that high again. Can we find stuff to mash together in interesting ways and hopefully keep saying something with it? That would be my continued goal.