The entire landscape of cinema has changed in the past few years. The entire process of making films has become much more accessible, particularly with crowdfunding websites such as Kickstarter.
The hyperactive documentary 12 O’Clock Boys was released into theatres a year ago and was well-received. So, why then, has that same team run into so many obstacles with the making of their second feature film? Interiors spoke with producer John Kassab and writer/director Ted Marcus about their film, Like Lambs, which is seeking final funds on Kickstarter. The making of the film has been a three-year journey for them and this is their final step as the duo faces a win or go home situation.
It’s January 2014 and I’m watching the trailer of the documentary 12 O’Clock Boys. The film is opening in one of my favorite theatres, Laemmle Playhouse 7 in Pasadena, and for me it’ll end up being an entertaining film about bike riders in Baltimore. It’s full of energy and passion, an incredibly fierce film.
It’s March 2015 and I’ve come across a Kickstarter page for a film from the producer of 12 O’Clock Boys. I’m excited that he has a new project in the making, Like Lambs, this time a narrative feature film. I soon find out the production has been a three-year journey for the filmmakers and all they need is an additional $33,000 to cross the finish line.
It’s every filmmaker’s dream that they will premiere a film at the Sundance Film Festival or at the Festival de Cannes. It’s every filmmaker’s dream that their film will open in Los Angeles or New York. It’s also a myth that once one of those things happen, your career has been made. It’s never that easy.
The success and celebration of 12 O’Clock Boys is probably the furthest thing in the mind of producer John Kassab, who is now sharing a one-bedroom apartment in Los Angeles with his writer/director Ted Marcus and spends his evenings (when he has them) sleeping on an air mattress in the living room. This space has been functioning as their living space, production office and editing bay for the past several years.
Like Lambs has a gap that remains in its financing. The filmmakers’ lives are on hold until they can wrap up this passion project. John Kassab is a sound designer who also produced Ted Marcus’ short film, The End. The writer/director suggested they produce a feature film together, which seems like a logical next step for a sound designer who had some experience producing and sound designing short films, such as the animated short film Cabbit and the internet viral sensation Full Circle. John Kassab although is probably best known for sound designing the Oscar winning The Lost Thing and the Sundance and Cannes favorite Deeper Than Yesterday.
The roles are much more similar than they may seem, he says. “The role of a sound designer or supervising sound editor involves bidding for jobs and negotiating with clients, preparing schedules, budgets, employing staff (foley artists, sound editors, mixers, assistance), hiring studios and delivering a director’s vision.” In that sense, the responsibilities of a sound designer and producer sound a little more in line with one another. In addition, “because sound design is the last process and directors and producers are generally exhausted by the time they work with you, I also provide a comfortable, safe collaborative environment which leads to many directors seeking feedback on their picture edits. I also champion the films I work on and bring publicity to them, promoting them for awards and on various media.”
The natural creative drive for collaborating with a like-minded individual was a no-brainer. “The rude awakening was that feature producing has way more moving parts,” notes John Kassab.
Ted Marcus is only 25. Like Lambs is his first feature film, which he made at the age of 24, and it’s been quite an undertaking. In his opinion, there is a big difference between making short films and embarking on a feature film, as he notes, “making a feature is like taking a long sea voyage on a barnacle-encrusted frigate rather than the jaunt around a sheltered bay in a picnic-ready sail boat that is the short film experience.”
The move into a feature has also required a great deal of stamina, both personally and professionally. The writer/director notes that he had a “somewhat secure financial situation” prior to the making of the film, but he has poured everything he has into the project. “I kept thinking of how Quentin Tarantino had gone to jail instead of paying his parking tickets and how Christopher Nolan made his first film shooting on weekends with one or two takes for every shot.” In other words, he completely committed himself to the film, in every possible way.
The filmmakers, after having putting every penny of theirs into the project, spent the following year in “financial freefall.” They filmed for four weeks in a gothic New England castle. They faced another setback when a key actor dropped out of the film at the last minute. Ted Marcus himself stepped in and took on the role of the film’s villain Sebastian, preparing for the role in under a week, while also juggling his directing responsibilities. The extra work meant that John Kassab doubled up his own duties on the set. “I had never done most of these things before so we made it up as we went along, constantly testing our ability to improvise and solve puzzles,” he remarks.
Like Lambs centers on wealthy students who awake one morning and find that the United States is in crisis. The dollar has collapsed, which has led to the sudden, systematic breakdown of the economy. The narrative of the film was born when Ted Marcus was seeking funding for a project as he thought to himself, “How is it possible and acceptable in our society for politicians and corporations to unload billions upon billions of dollars on wasteful and deceptive campaign advertising while funding for films and art has never been more difficult?” That’s when he stumbled on a piece in The Economist about the missing 21 trillion dollars, where he discovered that many of the conspiracy theories were facts, and that a small and secret cabal of individuals representing under 0.1% of our global population now owns some 90% of its wealth, often by illegal means.
Ted Marcus wrote the first draft of the screenplay two weeks. The screenplay was then heavily workshopped in pre-production and on set with John Kassab, co-producer Patrick Jaewon Lee, the members of the cast and other advisors. They made sure to contain the scale of the screenplay from a budgetary perspective while expanding the scope of the picture in the way the narrative was formed and staged. They received feedback from veteran filmmakers as well as high-ranking banking officials, financial advisors and economic theorists who tested and provided feedback on the economic logic in the film. They then cast the actors, found financial support and their location, assembled the troops and went into battle.
They were rookie filmmakers who felt an urge to send a message and provoke some questions while making a film they wanted to see. They didn’t know exactly how they would make the film. They just knew that they had to start the process. They chose film over digital for artistic reasons, shooting on leftover film stock from 12 Years a Slave and The Wolf of Wall Street. They were actually quoted less for a 35mm camera package than a digital package, due to the passion in the industry for the shooting format and generosity from film and camera houses. They even filmed Like Lambs on the same camera that Jaws was filmed on, forty years ago!
John Kassab notes that 35mm became possible “because of the romantic relationship we all have with this medium, from the vendors to the filmmakers, everyone just wanted to see this project go ahead and we were all connected through this love of the medium and our insistence to keep film alive and kicking.” Ted Marcus’ cinematographer Parker Tolifson, who collaborated with him on his first short film, had suggested 35mm for the earlier project. “I’ve been a believer ever since.” The look of film, in Ted Marcus’ opinion, is “deliciously inky, deep and inviting” and was the perfect way to capture the experience of a fading social elite caught in a "gothic apocalypse”.
The filmmakers worked hard, yet they made sure to have as much fun as possible. This fun transitioned into the editing room as well. John Kassab notes that “since we wrapped the shoot in 2013, I co-edited [Like Lambs] with Ted under the moniker of Solomon Belfort, named after the protagonists of the films whose leftover stock we shot with, Solomon Northup of 12 Years a Slave and Jordan Belfort of The Wolf of Wall Street.”
The making of Like Lambs has meant that for the past several years, their lives, families and social existence has been on hold until its release. John Kassab remarks, “I don’t think I would ever make a film like this again but as a creative experience and a test of will, I wouldn’t take it back for the world.” They’re almost to the finish line and must preserve the dream they have fought this long to manifest. John Kassab is excited that “the film has finally, after all of this time, become real (again)” with the launch of its Kickstarter campaign.
Like Lambs was (and still is) a labor of love. Ted Marcus notes that “when challenges push people to the brink, we find that the key is to provide as much love and care as possible” The filmmakers are now seeking a little bit of love and care from the rest of the world, strangers who may want to help them achieve the dream that they have been fighting for these past three years and to bring awareness to the issues of financial and social inequality that the film brings into question.
Like Lambs will only receive its funding if at least $33,000 is pledged by Saturday, April 18, 2015. Please click here for more information about how you can contribute.