AUSTIN FILM FESTIVAL 2010
By Don Simpson | December 12, 2010
Sal (Cole Selix) and Mel (Mark Potts) run S&M Lawn Care. Mel mows lawns because lawn care is in his blood (his deceased father was once a great lawn care specialist), Sal mows lawns in order to save money to travel to the Amazon. Everything is going as planned until one day someone — Drake (Brand Rackley) — starts stealing S&M’s hard-earned lawns with a slickly produced commercial and seductively clad female assistants, in complete disregard of the Lawn Care Treaty of 1995. Lawns By Drake functions as an allegory for big budget Hollywood films — the filmmakers who put style and sex over substance — while S&M Lawn Care represents the hard-working and big-hearted independent filmmakers of the world.
Besides playing the lead roles, Potts functions as director, co-writer, cinematographer and editor; Selix functions as co-writer. S&M Lawn Care is the third feature from Singletree Productions (The Stanton Family Grave Robbery and Simmons on Vinyl) which was formed in 2006 by Potts and Selix.
I sat down with Potts, Selix and Rackley at the historic Driskill Hotel during the 2010 Austin Film Festival for a humorous and thoughtful discussion about S&M Lawn Care, micro-budget filmmaking, the “Fat Guy, Dressing Up Funny, Falling” genre, gender studies, third acts and their future as filmmakers…
DS: Describe your creative process.
MP: When Cole and I start thinking of ideas, we will start talking them to death; then we also talk with Brand, and now Nick sometimes too. We figure out which idea we want [to develop] and that is when Cole and I start talking it out. With practically everything we have done, we will talk about the idea for four to five months, sometimes even longer, then the actual writing will take a week because we already know what the scenes are.
CS: We talk it to the point that we already have the plot points and what comes before and after [each scene]; so it is practically almost written, just not written down.
DS: How about the sight gags — the visual aspects of your comedy — are they in the script?
MP: Most of them are in the script. S&M had a few that were not, just because of our locations. Like the hammock thing was not in the script; but when we saw the hammock…well, I was really upset because I wanted to break the tree. I thought I was going to break the tree; but then I didn’t, I just fell out. Everyone said “that’s funny” but I really wanted to break the tree!
CS: When you really start thinking about it, I do not think a lot of [the sight gags] are in the script. More of them are developed according to the locations. Like with S&M, Mark was constantly finding things like the hammock, and those poles at the entrance of the mall that Mark was trying to jump over. For that scene, we went to the parking lot of the mall at 11:00 pm at night, and Mark said that I needed to film him going into the mall. Then he suddenly started to try jumping over those poles.
MP: Cole was filming that scene, and I had to do it four times because he kept laughing and shaking the camera.
CS: Eventually I asked for the tripod because I just could not do it.
MP: And [that scene] really hurt! The rule of thumb is: if you are a fat guy wearing funny clothes it is funny, but then you can double that by falling. “Oh look at that fat guy falling! And his clothes are even funnier!” I don’t know how long we can continue using the “Fat Guy, Dressing Up Funny, Falling” genre…
CS: And then when he gets hit in the crotch, that makes it even funnier.
MP: I want to appeal to the Oscar base. I need to get hit in the emotional crotch.
DS: Do your short films serve a different purpose than your features?
MP: We do the shorts just to stay sharp. We do the shorts when we get bored or have nothing else to do. We are working on doing a fourth feature, and every time we talk about that feature we talk about the shorts that we want to shoot while we are shooting that feature. The shorts are great advertising tools. We don’t make a lot of shorts for festivals. Follicle Frolic was not really made for a festival, but I showed it to a couple people, including our friend [the Austin Film Festival’s Film Program Director] Kelly Williams who was also helping program the Dallas International Film Festival, and [DIFF] took it, and it has played at a few film festivals since then. I think we do a lot of the short films now just as a fun viral marketing tool.
CS: Initially when we were making the short films they were a lot more like our features with a more structured plot and a life lesson learned, but now the shorts are kept under five minutes —
BR: — more skit-like —
CS: — and increasingly bizzare.
MP: Yeah, they keep getting weirder. I think the big change was that we made two short films in a row: one was 18-minutes and one was 21-minutes. Kelly Williams didn’t program either one [at AFF]; so I asked him what was wrong with the films. Kelly said, “The thing is Mark, we like them, but nobody programs 20-minute short films.” And other festival programmers were saying the exact same thing — they told us to keep the films short, around five to seven minutes. I think that’s why Brand said that they are more skittish now. We try to think of a basic joke and make it only a few minutes long.
DS: As actors, how do you decide which roll you want to play?
MP: S&M is the first movie that we tried to play characters that are different than us. Simmons on Vinyl was basically just us writing for ourselves, and [The] Stanton [Family Grave Robbery] was kind of the same way. So with S&M we wanted to branch out a little. Brand never played a villain, an all around misogynistic jerk; Cole played the straight man —
CS: — and I’m usually the a-hole comic relief type guy. We flip-flopped, because in Simmons, Mark was pretty much the straight man.
MP: We are starting to approach [acting] as something we like doing, it was always a necessity before. Brand has always been an actor — he acts in a lot of stuff — he knows what he’s doing. I think he gets annoyed with Cole and I sometimes. Brand memorizes his lines and prepares —
CS: — and I’m terrible with that.
BR: — but that works for you.
CS: Yeah, some of our more memorable lines from the movies are crap that [Mark and I] made up on the fly. Almost everything that is on the [S&M promotional] buttons that we have been handing out is stuff that we made up while we were shooting. If it ain’t broke, so don’t fix it.
MP: But we are trying to get better.
CS: Yeah, and the next feature we are doing we won’t even be in.
MP: Brand is one of the main characters, and Cole and I are out of it. So…
DS: Brand, I’m curious about the Drake character. Where did he came from? Was it difficult for you to play a douchebag? How did the style of the character come about?
BR: The style came about because I was taking a samurai class during the summer and I thought it would be funny. I already had long hair and I thought that I could just slick it back but that was too easy. It needed to be something more gaudy. My girlfriend at the time figured out how to do my hair like that. I wore the wrist weights and ankle weights, because I figured Drake was really into his body and would want to work out constantly. I also had under-armer on, so there was that. I just wanted to be as terrible as possible. It is really fun playing a bad guy. You get to take all of the bad stuff inside you and vomit it out. It is very cathartic. Other times I might have been concerned about being too over the top, but S&M was almost an alternate universe, so the sky was the limit.
DS: Where did the actresses who played the two Lawns By Drake employees come from?
BR: One of them was my girlfriend at the time and the other one has worked on some other projects with us.
CS: She is Brice’s [Beckwith, who plays Mouse in S&M,] girlfriend.
BR: And luckily he didn’t mind me licking his girlfriend’s face —
CS: — and slapping her ass on occasion.
BR: It’s funny. I didn’t inappropriately touch my girlfriend at all, but other people’s girlfriends…maybe it was a sub-conscious thing…
CS: Well, you motor-boated your girlfriend.
BR: Oh, yeah, I did! And I bit her bra.
MP: The best thing about the motor-boat scene is her face. She looks so bothered. She looks like she was trying to pass something but can’t.
BR: And that was an improv too — and I can’t improv worth a damn — but I just figured I was going to…get in there. And I should get style points, because I actually bit down on the middle of her bra and snapped it back on her. So…
CS: Poor girl…
DS: Mark and Cole, do you plan on acting in all of your films?
MP: The next feature is about working in a movie theater and Cole and I are going to play customers with four to five lines each. I think that’s fun. We have also talked about if we are ever successful enough to make movies with someone else’s money — big budget films — then while the film is being edited, we can go off and do movies like we used to, as a palate cleanser. Burn a couple grand, all act in it together, and use it as a DVD feature for the big budget movie.
CS: I like acting. It’s fun. It strokes your ego a little bit.
MP: [Us acting in our own films] might come back. I would love for it to come back. But this next screenplay, the characters are kind of based off us but they don’t cater to any of our strengths.
CS: Its a little more dramatic, and we figured we should get real actors since we weren’t sure we could pull off the drama. Brand could do it for sure, but we are staying behind the camera.
DS: Where do you see yourselves in five years in terms of your careers as filmmakers and actors?
MP: Hopefully still making movies. I don’t know where we will be, but it seems like each year we get a little bigger and get a little more recognition and we are getting into bigger festivals. This year we premiered S&M at the Friars Club [Comedy Film Festival] in New York City —
CS: — and we won an award [the 2010 Special Jury Prize for Narrative Film] there too!
MP: It would be great if we could afford to do this without having day jobs.
CS: Fifty grand a piece per year would be great. Just enough that I could afford my mortgage. That only works if we can stay in Oklahoma. I am pretty sure if we had to move, our cost of living would go up — fifty grand would only be a couple months rent in LA.
MP: In summary, we would like to still be making films and hopefully with other people’s money. And now that we don’t have student loans any more, the sky is the limit…
DS: Are all of you out of school?
CS and BR: Yes.
MP: I graduate Graduate School in December .
DS: S&M is your thesis film, right?
MP: S&M became my thesis. We had the idea for S&M before I had to come up with a final project, and then I thought “Why not make this my final project?” I had to defend it a few days ago — and I passed — but we had some really interesting conversations. One of my committee members is a fantastic woman who is a film critic and is in Gender Studies, so you could probably tell what she didn’t like about the movie. Well, she said she really liked it, but she had issues with gender. I really enjoyed talking about it, and it was interesting for me to see it from her perspective. The biggest issue was a misunderstood joke concerning the Darla [Lindsey Newell] character at the cookie store. Every time she eats a cookie or drinks alcohol she moans with pleasure. So, she eats the big cookie and moans and then — in the earlier version that my [thesis] committee saw — she pauses and says “I’m going to go to the bathroom for six minutes” and runs off. [My thesis committee member] thought Darla was running off to vomit because she was bulimic — nobody else saw that at all, but she said that with all of the other body issues in the movie and all of the eating she thought that was the intention.
CS: I had a woman corner me at the Friars Club screening [of S&M] about the body issues. It was very uncomfortable. She had had an eating disorder and weight issues. Somewhere along the line S&M talked to her in a very emotional way. She was very intense.
DS: So how do you feel about having really strong messages in your films? For example, I read S&M as having a strong message about independent filmmakers vs. Hollywood…
MP: About that…We knew some guys in college who were not that good at filmmaking but they owned Red cameras and were getting a lot of attention.
BR: The Red camera in general…everything is about the equipment, not the end product.
MP: I’m not trying to say that we think we are great, but there are a lot of people out there who are good at telling stories but don’t have the money or equipment or the outlets; but then there are a lot of people who have the money and the equipment but they are not good at telling stories and they get the recognition.
BR: Its never about how good or creative the movie is, they get people in seats by saying “This was shot on the Red.”
DS: There is the emotional attachment as well. Sal and Mel love what they do — and you guys seem to really love making movies…
MP: A lot of people in college like to judge you on your aspirations and dreams. In our new project, there is a character — who is based on me — who says that he is going to school to make movies and this other guy says “Oh, and what else?” We have had that before. I don’t think people should judge our big dreams just like we shouldn’t judge people who want to run their family business. People should be able to do what they want.
CS: I have been working full time since I graduated [from college] three years ago; and people definitely think [filmmaking] is cooler now, they say “I don’t like my job either, I wish I had something to aspire to!”
DS: How do you balance your day jobs with filmmaking?
CS: It’s tough. We usually film on weekends and nights, or the random afternoon if enough people are free. The next project we are all going to have to take off from work, but otherwise it has always been whenever we are available.
MP: Simmons on Vinyl was written out of necessity because Brand had night classes and Cole worked during the day. So Brand’s character does all the daytime stuff, and Cole’s character does the night stuff.
CS: Obviously when you are working on something and you are really getting into it, the more it flows the better. So we would prefer to dedicate a big chunk of time and hopefully turn out a really fantastic product, as opposed to filming everything in a disjointed manner. And, for our next project, we are also hoping to have everyone on set at the same time.
DS: Living in Oklahoma has probably kept your filmmaking costs down.
CS: Yeah, we don’t need to get permits. Our biggest concern is whether our shooting is going to inconvenience to someone’s business, so we try to shoot while they are not open.
DS: Did you know a lot of the business owners?
MP: The snow cone place — the manager was just really cool and let us film there. Cole and I used to work at the cookie place, and Cole’s wife was manager and we were friends with the owner. The film was written around the people we knew. Nick [Tankersley] got us the hospital. He has a friend whose dad is a surgeon there. They were really nice. We thought they would just throw us into a room, but they let us use whatever props we needed. They turned on the heart-rate monitor and gave us a chart to use… And it is going to be a difficult transition now that we are going to have some more money involved in the next production; it is going to be difficult to want to spend the money. I was talking with someone the other day and they asked “We make movies for $75,000, how do you guys make movies for $1,600?” It’s really easy, if you only have $1,600 you only spend money when you have to. Now that we are going to have a larger budget, when we come to wanting to spend money, we say “Well, we could buy that. Yeah, maybe we should!” You basically use whatever budget you have. I hope it doesn’t hinder our creativity by being able to fix things with money. I still love writing with the idea of making the movie as cheaply as possible. It makes us have to really think about it.
CS: In the past, if we messed something up — for example if there is something wrong with the continuity — we just went in and added a simple scene rather than re-shooting a more difficult scene.
MP: I feel very blessed to have the opportunity to have the money for this next film. We’ll see where it goes from there. I don’t know how anyone spends $20 million on a film…
DS: How do you raise money for your films — especially your upcoming project?
MP: Every movie we have done has been [funded by] student loans. The first film, we got a bank loan for $3,000 that Cole and I paid off in two years. Now we found some people in Oklahoma that like what we do, and a friend of ours through school has some outlets for fundraising — its great to be getting this recognition from our community. We don’t know anything about the money part, so we are working on the creative part and they will work on the money part. The deal is that they won’t mess with us and we won’t mess with them. Perfect!
DS: What do you see as your greatest strengths and weaknesses as filmmakers?
MP: I can think of a lot of weaknesses.
MP: Oh, thanks Cole!
CS: I mean in general for me too. We are all from the Midwest and were raised with small town sensibilities and brought up to remain humble.
MP: We don’t really have thick skin yet. So reviews can be a bit harsh. The Internet is a terrible litmus test. With the reviews we saw today, two people really liked [S&M] and two people really hated it. Our best strength is that we are all pretty selfless. With Singletree Productions we all have the same goal, we all want the same thing — if anything good happens for one of us, it is good for all of us. We work well together and we are not back-stabbers. There is not much stepping on each other’s toes. We only have one real argument each film —
CS: — and it is usually just because we are tired and grumpy. We also compliment each other. Like before a screening, Mark may get really nervous and upset about attendance; but, like for yesterday’s screening I thought it was a great turnout — we were competing with free BBQ! — we had 170 people and I thought that was awesome. Then sometimes something will happen and I’ll get really angry about something stupid and Mark just tells me to calm down, it will be OK. We go well together. Brand’s just cool about everything.
MP: It works out really well. I may be extremely sad and Cole may be extremely over-optimistic and Brand will just be like “I think its going to work out.”
DS: The third act of S&M seems really strong to me. It seems like you always knew where this film was going…
MP: I appreciate you saying that! I hate starting a project and not knowing how it ends. I love the idea of spontaneity in writing, but I need to know how it will end and how to get there. While writing the script, cool little things may come up, but we try to never lose the path. We always have scenes that have to be in there. With S&M, we knew the story was a little absurd and weird so we had to have an ending that justified everything without making people angry. We spent a lot of time trying to figure that out. We had the chase scene — which we had never done before, so we figured we would throw that in there — and if we kept the audience up to that point, it means they are very willing to accept absurd and odd comedy, so let’s reward them! Thank you for staying around! The first act is hardest for us. We have a lot of ideas but it is hard to figure out where to start the plot. The second and third act is what we focus on the most.
DS: I think that is all the questions I have, do you have anything you would like to add?
MP: I believe that men and women should be paid equally. I believe in gender-blind housing at universities.
BR: As do I.
CS: Gender-blind housing?
MP: Yep. That’s my final thing.
For more info on Mark Potts, Cole Selix and Brand Rackley, please visit: singletree-productions.com
Don Simpson’s review of S&M Lawn Care: smellslikescreenspirit.com/2010/10/sm-lawn-care-review