Oh, and did we mention it stars Missi Pyle?
This kinetic film by Pete Lee was shot in a blur over four days, which isn’t impossible, but gets much harder when it involves 15 pages of a work-in-progress script and a low budget. Lee, who you might remember meeting in our popular Sundance short film podcast last year, was on a mission to make this film before his circle of Bay Area film friends dissolved. He called in all kinds of favors to make up for the low, low budget, and it was his first shoot in LA. (Actually, he tells No Film School that it technically was his second. “My first being a weird music video I made with Boots and Patton that was just Margaux and me and an intern and a leopard print couch.”)
Don’t Be A Hero is an electric ride that combines dolly shots with neon lights and a talented Missi Pyle (Gone Girl, Galaxy Quest) in fake mustaches. (Of course, she’s not unfamiliar with prosthetics.) Check it out, and get the scoop on how Lee pulled it off in our interview below.
No Film School: Don't Be a Hero is inspired by a true story. How did you find out about the story, and what the process was to adapt it into this short?
Pete Lee: I remember reading about a cross-dressing bank robber in a couple of articles that really moved me (especially one from the Texas Monthly, that's now being turned into a feature in its own right). My life is as far away from a single middle-aged-white-woman-living-in-East-Texas-dressing-up-as-a-cowboy-to-rob-banks-while-watching-her-life-pass-by as one can get, but I just couldn't stop talking about her story to anyone who'd listen.
Eventually, I thought I'd try my hand at turning it into a feature script just as a private exercise. I was making films with friends in Oakland, and the idea of making a feature film seemed so distant and abstract. Then we got some experience under our belts and began crossing paths with more and more filmmakers our age who are making things happen. Pretty soon, the idea of having lil' ol' me take responsibility for an entire feature didn't seem so fantastical. As more and more filmmakers left the Bay for grander opportunities and cheaper rent, we knew this thing wouldn't last forever, so I ripped 15 pages out of the very, very rough feature draft, and everyone hopped onboard to bring this to life.
NFS: Did using the true story source material help spur the creative process of writing the script, or did you ever feel stuck in the 'real life' details?
Lee: Like I said, nothing from my upbringing qualified me as an expert to tell the real story, so I had to hunt for details that would make this thing feel personal to me. At some point during the writing, I realized I wasn't interested in recreating anything in detail, but instead just wanted to use it as a catalyst to explore this world I'd never visited before. I changed up enough about the world (for example, setting it in Kern County California as opposed to East Texas) just so I wouldn't get completely lost, and then I researched the setting pretty rigorously so I could put in my own findings, as opposed to what the news stories gave me.
For example, my producer Colin and I drank at all the bars in Bakersfield that we could squeeze in during our scout, and that climactic scene taking place in a weird little bowling alley cowboy bar was the amalgamation of that. Trying to get the details right was especially stressful, not that I was unfamiliar with very white places, but having moved to this country as a teenager, I remember vividly what it felt like to see yourself or your culture so casually twisted. I wanted to do everything I could to get someone else's story right, even if she were my invention.
NFS: How did you come up with the visual storytelling style you use here, all the cool shots and the movement?
Lee: My DP Drew Daniels (It Comes At Night, Krisha) and I have been working for a decade now. He met his wife, the production designer Margaux Rust, on a music video that I directed. Way before production, they invited me to crash at their place, where every day we'd toss ideas back and forth, or re-enact an entire scene in the living room. I really needed those exercises because—and this might be a weird thing to say—I am not a very visual person. I have friends who can visualize the lens and the color and the level of contrast in a shot as they wrote the script. I just knew a bunch of ingredients that don't always go together and could yield some interesting problems and results.
In San Francisco, the filmmaking community is pretty small, so I sometimes look to other types of artist for inspiration. We have some of the world's most outstanding chefs here, many of them grew up overseas or in Asian American households, and I've always loved seeing how they play with the ingredients that come from unexpected places and have the final result mean something. My process with Drew and Margaux was the same way—trying to take Bong Joon-Ho's blocking, Kieslowski's dolly moves, the texture of Margaux's childhood blanket, the colors from a photo I snapped at an Oakland bar...etc., and hoping the result would be as satisfying as the fried rice at Mister Jiu's.
NFS: How did you get Missi Pyle as your lead actress and what was it like to work with her?
Lee: Missi is beloved for a reason. I found her through my casting director Charlene Lee. I'd never worked with a casting director on this scale before, and through my EPs Jonathan Duffy and Kelly Williams, I was lucky to be connected to her. Charlene is this young Korean girl who just has a knack for characters and faces. Even though we're both Asian American, we both have this deep love with Americana art. She understood what I was going for right away and banged out the most beautiful pull of actors. It was agonizing picking the cast out from what she gave me, because everyone was amazing, and I just couldn't believe that they'd want to throw down for our little movie. I guess that's Charlene's pull. She's a boss lady.
So Charlene, who had a long list for even the most incidental of characters, had only ONE name for the lead: Missi Pyle. I mean she still gave me a long list (I asked for someone with a background in comedy who can really, really act, someone whose face we've all seen before, but maybe hasn't gotten to show her melancholy side very much), but she basically said "there's Missi Pyle and there's everyone else."
Working with her was a real treat. We talked a bunch of the character, but really didn't get to rehearse much, and there were days where we'd only have 45 minutes to cover a three-page dialogue scene, so we had to go off of our gut. Our last night in Anaheim was brutal, shooting around the schedule of the bowling alley bar. We were running behind, like by a few hours, and the schedule worked out so the most important scene was somehow saved for last when we were all running on empty. But, Missi just stepped up and nailed every take, no matter how tired she would be between the takes. It was like a knockdown drag out type of game.
This went on until about 4:30; when Missi saw the time, suddenly she had this jolt of energy. She said the traffic back to LA was about to be brutal and asked if we could wrap her in an hour. I said we could try, knowing that I wanted at least four more setups for our big dialogue scene. We weren't even at the dialogue scene yet, we were trying to grab one very quick insert of Missi turning and leaving the frame, then we were going to break things down and shoot some dialogue. Well, Missi turned, the camera was supposed to stay still, I was supposed to say cut, but none of that happened. The camera panned to reveal this beautiful wide shot, where everything was lit with the bar neon. Missi just went up to the other actor and they started doing their lines. Drew sat on his dolly, he looked over to me, I gestured to him to keep going. His grip saw the signal and started pushing the dolly really slowly and suddenly we had our scene in one continuous dolly shot. I gave some notes, grabbed a couple of close-ups for safety, and sent everybody home by 6.
They all still got stuck behind nightmare traffic.
NFS: Advice for others based on what you learned making Don't Be a Hero?
Lee: Haha. So many. When people jump in on a project like this, they're most likely not doing it for the money, so always make sure you make the experience and the work worth it for them. Even if you are a very selfish director, you should at least recognize that it's in your best interest to identify what they're good at and what they love doing for the good of the film. I've worked with amazing crew before, but this was my first time working with a cast like this. Some of them drove for hours just to say one line for not a lot of cash. Try to make sure they all got to do something interesting, and give them characters and back stories. The leads were amazing, but the background folks absolutely brought the scene to life. Try it. I'm gonna end this by quoting my mentor Stu Mascwitz quoting Cher: "Honey, if you call people extras then they'll act like extras, but if you call them talent then they will give you talent!"
Oh—and fight fascism.