SXSW 2008 - interview with OTIS director Tony Krantz

The day after seeing Raw Feed’s latest offering Otis at SXSW, I had the opportunity to sit down with director Tony Krantz and writer Erik Jendresen at the Four Seasons in Austin. I spoke with Erik here.

Tony: A real pleasure to meet you.

Collin: It’s a pleasure to meet you, too. Otis seems, in a way, to a be a response to the torture porn films that have really permeated in the horror genre over the last few years. Was there an attempt within the film to comment on that? The role of that sort of film in society? Was that something conscious within Otis?

Tony: Well, really, we didn’t try to make a movie that commented on other horror films in terms of their quality or any of that kind of stuff. We were making a comment on the over-abundance of torture porn, gore porn movies – we said, “Let’s satirize it.” But really, what this film is about, it’s a political film – it really is a meditation on the war in Iraq.

In the film the Lawson family goes after the wrong person and they get their asses handed to them, which is what happened in this country. We went after the wrong person and we’re still paying the consequences. We decided to have that played to comedic effect. In suburban American right now, too, there’s this spate of kidnappings and murders and all these kinds of things, and you see it every time you turn on Headline News or Nancy Grace – it’s all over the news and it’s really over the top in terms of the dramatic value people like Nancy Grace put on it, and it becomes comedic and bizarre and twisted. We wanted to talk about that, showcase it. We did that with this “Leave it to Beaver” family sort of crashing into the smoky, dark world of a serial killer. The fact that Otis is a pizza delivery guy is because recently in Missouri – there was a story of this kid who was kidnapped and was missing for five years. The kidnapper was a pizza delivery guy - we thought that aspect was funny. We weren’t trying to comment on other movies, just the over-abundance of a specific kind of movie in society.

Collin: I love what you’re doing through Raw Feed, taking advantage of some of the freedoms that should be part of the low-budget experience, using the genre to comment on society. I asked a similar question of Erik, but does that attitude seem lacking to you nowadays?

Tony: Well, I think that – I’m not certain it is, I think there are a lot of independent films with something to say. The opportunity Erik and I have had has been by virtue of the deal my partners and I have through Warner Brothers. For me, it started as wanting to build a career as a director. I wanted to make a movie - Sublime - that had a point of view, had something about it which was challenging and Otis is in many ways more commercial, down the middle. But I think that we find ourselves – both Erik and I – in this position because we have established careers already, where we can take chances. We’re not necessarily hungry for our next meal in the way that a number of younger filmmakers are, and we can make political movies or movies that are art for art’s sake – hopefully with enough of a sense that they still have to appeal to an audience. I think we find ourselves, honestly, at a different place in our lives. This is, in many ways, a third career for me. I started as an agent, graduated to a role as a producer, and now work as a director. It’s kind of the perfect time for me because I’m old enough, well versed enough to make movies that have something about them, that aren’t purely commercial pictures. I don’t know I could ever make a movie that was just pure entertainment. I would always want it to have something deeper underneath it. I think that’s different for a lot of young filmmakers, who are struggling to get their movies made, to get them distributed. I am too, in many ways, but I come at it from a different direction.

Collin: I actually wanted to talk with you a little about the path your career has taken. I think there’s a tendency, within the entertainment industry, to find people who become “X” – and you’re seen as “X” – whatever that position may be, from there on. As you said, however, you started out as an agent, you worked as producer in television, and now you’ve moved on to directing. What’s it been like for you to make those transitions?

Tony: The transition from agent to director is, I think, fairly unique. I don’t know if there’s really been anyone else – maybe a few people in the past – who worked as an agent and went on to become a director. I can’t think of a person who’s done that now. There are two kinds of transitions – one’s personal, one’s external. The personal transition was more difficult. When I was leaving CAA I had been there for 15 years, I had golden handcuffs, it was the perfect place, and I had to be willing to chuck it all out the window and start again as a producer, never having produced a frame of film in my life. The fear that I had consumed me for about a year before my wife finally said, “Pick up the phone and call Brian Grazer and talk with him about partnering to produce television.” I knew Brian because I had represented him, and we made a partnership between Brian and Ron (Howard) and myself, and we created Imagine Television. The fear that I had about throwing away the foundation of my life and how I defined myself was very real. Directing is a different kind of thing, too. It’s also something where I personally had to overcome a good deal of fear, because I’m now being judged now as an artist – I’m being judged for “me.” I’m being judged the same way actors are judged, which is based on their work. I had to put it out there, be willing to fail, be willing to not be afforded the kind of respect I had engender in my work as a producer, so I had to overcome that fear. I was able to do it. But the external aspect of it – the manifestation of it, in the business – hasn’t been that tough. It sounds strange to say it, but I’ve directed two movies in 18 months, I have two more that are locked up, Erik and I are going to do another movie together, I’m developing a number of other projects beyond that. Externally, I’ve gotten to a place in the business where I’m not directing big studio features – I’m not sure that’s ever going to be in the cards for me. I look at careers like Steven Soderbergh, Michael Mann, Mike Nichols – I admire them so greatly, and I hope that maybe I can emulate, in terms of dynamics, how they’ve chosen material while forging my own way as the artist I am. So there are personal and external challenges – the personal were the most difficult.

Collin: Your films are eliciting strong reactions. Sublime especially seemed to polarize genre audiences. What does it mean to you that people are having those sorts of reactions – does it help you know you’re doing something right, challenging what peoples’ perceptions are when they sit down to watch a “horror” movie?

Tony: A part of why Sublime polarized audiences, I think, was the cover art – it was misleading in terms of what the level of goriness was. Sublime is, I believe, a thinking man’s horror film. It’s not a slasher picture by any stretch of the imagination, it’s a meditation on fear. In the film people discover what’s been happening wasn’t really happening, there’s a big giant twist at the end. I think that the polarization came out of false advertising, honestly. I think it was also a situation where genre audiences were looking for a particular type of movie - Sublime was marketed to a core genre audience that’s very powerful and lucrative, and people looked at the movie and said, “The body count, the level of blood isn’t as extreme as this cover art.” I think there’ve been people who’ve loved the movie – 10 out of 10 – and there are those vote 0 out of 10. Otis, I think is strangely an audience movie. I commented last night at the Q&A afterwards that I think it’s akin to a Disney movie, it has this weird Disney quality. The reviews that we’re getting are almost all over-the-top raves. People seem to really like the movie, they’re really having fun with it, and that’s unusual to me because I feel like I made this really weird, commercial movie – it’s a little embarrassing, because I have visions of myself as this Berkley artist. I think that Otis is going to be much, much less polarizing. I don’t find it violent – the violence is relatively minimal. That might surprise people, when they look at this movie, that I don’t find it violent. I think it’s violent enough for the core horror fan to not be turned off when they buy the DVD in the way many of them were, I think, when they saw Sublime.

Collin: The style and feel of Otis is so different from Sublime. When you were going into the film and deciding it should be driven by that non-stop soundtrack, what was the process like for you? It all ties in to story so well.

Tony: Otis is a guy who’s stuck in the ‘80s, so all the music is pretty much from that period of time. I went to college in the ‘80s and was a concert promoter at Berkley and I listened to all that music – The Talking Heads, the B-52s – less Quiet Riot, Blue Oyster Cult. I can still appreciate that kind of music. Otis is stuck in the ‘80s, so we thought we should build the soundtrack to reflect that. I have a giant iTunes collection, so I went through it and just started to pick the songs, and we were lucky enough to negotiate the rights for the film. Visually Otis is very different from Sublime. I think you should make movies look ways that are appropriate with regard to the material. Sublime is very surreal. Otis has that sitcom-meets-serial-killer quality to it. We shot the world of the Lawsons like a sitcom on acid – it has a slightly heightened quality, a shininess to it. Otis’ world is in some ways satirical of the genre. The next film I’m going to do, American Voodoo, we want it to look more like The Insider - completely different. I think that all my movies, as I think about them, will have a particular style to them. Hopefully I can put that sort of individual style into a movie without jumping the shark, making the movie too much about style, not about substance. At the end of the day it has to be about substance.

Collin: I know we have to wrap this up but I wanted to ask you about your venture with Andrew Lau and the Weinsteins, Qi Films. What can we expect to see from that team?

Tony: Andrew Lau and I formed a joint venture to do movies in Asia, English-language martial arts movies that work to reinvent the genre a little. I think the genre’s suffered from action scenes which are disconnected from the story, weak storytelling and weak character development. So it’s this sort of Infernal Affairs meets 24 kind of thing – Andrew from Infernal Affairs, myself from 24. The Weinsteins have ordered into production three movies, three have been greenlit. They’re initially intended for direct-to-DVD, but they could certainly wind up as theatrical releases in this country or overseas, in Asia. We’ll be casting all new action stars. We’ll shoot one in Bangkok, one in Macau, and one in Hong Kong. We’re developing the scripts right now, we have writers working, and we hope to be shooting all three by the end of the year. I just can’t wait to do it. Asia is unbelievable. Hong Kong is unbelievable. In this country I don’t think we still quite get it. Because of the Bush administration we’ve become so xenophobic and isolated – not globalized in the way we should be. When you go to Asia you see how far behind we’ve fallen, how much we don’t get it, and how much potential there is for this country in Asia and India, too, by the way. It’s very exciting to be making these movies.

Thanks to Tony Krantz!

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