On indie features, budget constraints don’t always allow for every role to be filled like large studio movies, so the filmmakers oftentimes must wear multiple hats. Director Chris Lawing can speak on this subject, as he is primarily both the DP and director for a lot of his commercial work.

Also, on his latest crime drama/thriller, Penitentia, he was not only the director and DP, but also the writer, producer and editor.


When discussing the benefits of having multiple roles, Chris says, “When you are working on such a low budget, being both the director and DP means that you have one less person to pay. In some ways it’s great to have a collaborator. In other ways, you are trying to move so quickly that by taking out the extra collaborator, it allowed me to make decisions faster.

"They may not have been the better decisions, but they were the faster decisions and we needed to work with speed. The other thing is being the editor, I knew what we got. I knew when the scene had coverage and if I needed to move on because of time, I was confident that I could move on. Not only was I confident thinking about it from the director’s standpoint, or a DP standpoint, but was also thinking about it from the edit”.

Chris speaks more about this and how Penitentia was made below. You can watch Penitentianow.

PENITENTIA | Official 4K Trailer (2023) | CRIME | Film Threat Trailerswww.youtube.com

Editor's Note: the following interview is edited for length and clarity.

No Film School: You both wrote and directed Penitentia. Where did you get the idea for the story?

Chris Lawing: My father had died a year and a half prior to me writing this story, but because of COVID, we hadn’t done his funeral yet. I was driving back to Kansas for the funeral and I knew that I didn’t want to get up and speak. I didn’t want to fall apart in front of a bunch of people. So I thought of ways to honor him and what he stood for. He was a civil rights attorney for 50 years in Wichita, KS.

I came up with this story because he was really passionate about prisoners' rights, as well as other civil rights. I started to think that I could make a story that really honored his memory and what he really cared about. On the drive I started to craft this narrative of an older mentor working with a younger attorney and the younger attorney figures out what law he wants to practice.

NFS:One of the characters in the film was inspired by your own father. Can you talk about this?

Lawing: My father was very focused on social justice. That was his North Star and guiding light. I wanted to create a story, not necessarily about him, but what he cared about was the guiding light of the film. So he plays the role of the mentor to the main character, Ale Villacano. He really challenges Ale to be a different type of lawyer than what Ale imagines that he should be. That’s the inspiration I took from my father and placed him in the role of Marvin Weissman.

NFS:What did the script writing process look like on this film?

Lawing: I knew early on that I wanted to make this an indie feature, and not just write it. My approach was pretty aggressive. I had a three-month window on the writing process for it. I worked with a script consultant; it was the first time I had ever done that. Everything I had written prior to that was on my own. I thought it would be nice to work with someone and having some sort of external compatibility would help me stay tight with that aggressive timeline. My approach was that I had a basic narrative structure. I created a loose outline, and I dove in and was prolific with my pages. Editing down the pages and making sure that the narrative structure didn’t fall apart. Three months later I had a working draft.

NFS: Did you watch any films to get inspiration for Penitentia?

Lawing: Not really. If I did have one film in my mind, that I was a fan of in terms of legal crime drama, that was Michael Clayton. I don’t think I watched it for specific inspiration, I just wanted my story to be rooted in a realistic environment and I thought Michael Clayton did a very good job of this and yet at the same time, kept the narrative moving and the stakes high.

'Penitentia'Mercury Films

NFS: Were there any happy accidents while making Penitentia?

Lawing: I have certainly experienced those in my career where I didn’t realize this, but so much of independent filmmaking is things not working out and you have to pivot. Most of the film really was like that. We came up with a plan and then we were pretty quick to deviate from it. Was there something that looked up and said I didn’t think would really be great and it happened? I don’t have a specific anecdote that I could harp on for that.

NFS: How did directing and being the DP help on this one?

Lawing: There are a couple of things. It definitely helped on the budget. When you're working on such a low budget, that is one less person you have to pay. In some ways it’s great to have a collaborator. But in other ways, you are trying to move so quickly by taking out that extra collaborator, it allowed me to make decisions faster. They may not have been the better decisions, but they were the faster decisions and we needed to work with speed.

The other thing is being the editor. I have a lot of experience as an editor, I knew what we got. I knew when the scene had coverage and if I needed to move on because of time, I was confident that I could move on. Not only was I confident thinking about it from the director’s standpoint, or a DP standpoint, but was also thinking about it from the edit.

NFS: Did you do anything on Penitentia that you haven’t done on any of your previous projects?

Lawing: Yes, absolutely. I wore a lot of hats. Not only was I the writer/director, I had done a number of short films and projects where I was the writer/director. I acted as producer, writer, director, and DP for this one. Wearing all those large hats for such a large project was certainly new. It was pretty much a Herculean task to get done. In terms of new, I would say the scope of the project was definitely a first for me.

'Penitentia'Mercury Films

NFS: Anything else you would like to add about the making of Penitentia that we might not know?

Lawing: We made the film in fifteen days. We had a very low budget. With all that in mind, we hewed pretty tightly with the hours of the day. We weren’t doing crazy hours. We were extremely efficient. Why we were able to be so efficient was because I had a well-prepared cast. We were able to churn through a lot of pages because my cast had extensively studied their lines and characters. I couldn’t have asked for a better cast.

NFS: How would you describe your directing style?

Lawing: I think for me, my directing style is like my writing style. I am rooted in realism. I want to mirror the natural world around us, but it can’t be done. It’s false. If we did it, it would be really boring. You have to manufacture things and condense things. You must raise the stakes, but at the same time be rooted in realism. In my stories, it’s really important for my characters to be rooted in that realistic setting. That informs me what lens choice do I use? How do I light something? What direction do I give the actors? What dialog do I like? Do I write long monologues? What is the dialogue like? All this comes from the idea that I want this to be an accurate reflection of the world around us.

NFS: If you were given a $10 million budget, what would be your ideal film project?

Lawing: When I first got out of college, I wrote a script. It got shopped around a little bit. It was a 1920’s film noir. I have not let go of that script 20 plus years later. $10 million might not be enough to make it, but I think if someone handed me $10 million to make this film, I would work really hard to make it happen.

Mercury Films

NFS: What are you working on next?

Lawing: I am two days out from pre-production on a project called Greg’s Going to Rehab. It’s a Mercury Films’ production. It’s in some ways a love letter to the 1980’s coming-of-age story and metal scene. I am taking the lessons learned from Penitentia and applying those to avoid some of the mistakes I made from Penitentia. What I would like to feel like, would be that next step in the filmmaking process.

In Penitentia, a prestigious job lulls Ale Villacano into the good life, until a pro bono case reawakens his instincts for justice. Caught between his criminal past and his promising future, Ale must decide what kind of lawyer he is really meant to be.

The film stars Glenn Stanton (The Walking Dead), Rusty Schwimmer (The Righteous Gemstones), Chris Bylsma (El Camino: A Breaking Bad Story), Kate Flanagan (The Murder Castle), Nigel Vonas (Arrow) and Natasha Coppola-Shalom (Chrome), and is written and directed by Chris Lawing.