A highlight at this year’s Fantasia Festival, this fun, warm and brutal chronicle of LA’s underbelly comes to Horror Channel FrightFest on 28 August 2017.
The 2017 edition of the Fantasia Festival was rich in beautifully crafted, unusual gems, and Lowlife ranked high among them, deservedly drawing a warmly enthusiastic response from the Montreal crowd. Category-defying, genre-mixing and cliché-blasting, its intricate narrative follows the interconnected stories of a luchador, a pregnant drug addict, a motel owner with a past, an ex-con with an unfortunate facial tattoo, and a chicken shack organ-trafficker in the midst of LA. Fresh, funny, violent, sordid, unsentimental and heart-breaking, it tells about the brutality of life on the margins and redefines heroism with a light touch and a lot of soul.
Virginie Sélavy had the pleasure of talking to the cast and crew at the Fantasia Festival in Montreal in July 2017 during a lively session where Southern storytelling, everyday heroism, the power of genre and that man were discussed.
Virginie Sélavy: You describe yourself as a Southerner. Do you feel that this has had an influence on your filmmaking?
Ryan Prows (director): 100% yes. Culturally, I grew up with folk stories, family stories, crazy backwoods country stuff. There is this rich tradition of oral storytelling, of music, country, folk, hip hop – Outkast are from Atlanta. And Southerners have a reputation, and that kind of initial judgement of what you are feeds into a lot of my work, making your mind up before you even talk to somebody. I’m from Georgia, and my family and my wife are from Alabama, and if you tell people you’re from Alabama, everyone already has an opinion before you even start talking, usually negative. That part of the country is disregarded, I think there is this dismissal of Southern culture.
Are the interconnected stories part of that tradition?
RP: We designed the film so that initially you make an assumption about what it’s going to be and the fun is that you’re surprised that it is actually thoughtful and entertaining and it touches on things that you didn’t know it was going to touch on.
The sections are called Fiends, Thugs, Criminals and Monsters.
RP: They’re all judgements. The audience makes their mind up, they prejudge, they label the characters, as in society at large, it’s how they would be perceived, and then you start unwinding that, you see that there’s more than meets the eye. Hopefully that’s the fun of watching the film.
You wrote the film with four other people. How did the writing process work?
RP: The initial idea was that we were going to do an anthology film, so that we could shoot this piece and then move on to the next thing, but as we were writing we started thinking that the stories had to link together, and the characters had to meet and interacting because this is so exciting. I remember it really felt like we had something.
There’s a lot of warmth to the film, and the characters are very diverse, complex, multi-faceted and cliché-free.
Nicki Micheaux (Crystal): When I first read the script I was so into it, I couldn’t stop turning the pages. It was so exciting to play such a dynamic character and try to approach her in a way that was not going to be me judging the character. A black woman, a drug addict, you play with a certain expectation, and I thought, what if she went to college and then just went left, because that happens. I’m so happy about it because sometimes if you play a more traditional or stereotypical version of a character, the audience will dismiss you. They won’t take it in, because they feel it has nothing to do with them. And the point is to have the audience identify with her, even though it’s a crazy world, crazy character. But still there’s a heart, there is a mother who wants her child. She starts off incredibly selfish. That’s the whole point, some of us humans make really horrible, selfish, self-destructive choices. And it’s nice to look at it without judgement, I think it’s cool.
The Teddy ‘Bear’ character is the only one to not have many facets to him, he’s the Big Bad Wolf that all the other characters have to confront.
Mark Burnham (Teddy ‘Bear’): I firmly believe that if my character isn’t above your level of comprehension of evil then their struggle will look superficial and unrealistic and you won’t buy it. So he’s bad, he’s worse than anything could think of, and that’s what I love about creating villains like that.
Santana Dempsey (Kaylee): He makes you confront your own demons because he is that demon, but then you have to go OK, how do I get out of this situation, and I have to make that decision to go this way or go that way. That confrontation for each character happens in a really authentic and beautiful way. I don’t relate to my character Kaylee in the sense of being pregnant and being on drugs, because if I got pregnant I think I would do everything to be the best kind of mum, but then I realised my birth mum, that was her. I was adopted and my birth mum was on and off drugs and so we were taken away. And so I wonder if psychologically I knew that and I was able to tap in, into how you make these characters, because that seems so crazy, but if you are in this world, and she was molested and raped by her adopted father, this is where she would be. She doesn’t feel worthy of anything else.
The film deals with some very serious issues, illegal immigrants, drug addiction, poverty, but the genre framework stops it from feeling like a lecture.
RP: It is always about trying to figure out how to not soap-boxing, we still want to make it entertaining and tell stories and show characters that you haven’t seen before. That is definitely the balance. For me it’s a value to go that far so hopefully it shocks somebody into listening to any of this stuff and thinking about it. Obviously we’re playing with the tone, and we go fun and crazy and funny, but we’re 100% set out to making a statement and we really want to talk about something with this film, that was really important.
Tim Cairo: It’s the power of genre. Genre allows you to do this without feeling like you’re preaching.
Did you know the sort of issues you wanted to tackle from the beginning?
RP: It wasn’t like we had a board and we thought we’ve got to tackle this issue and that issue, but once we were in it, it was about how we could focus this and pull this out without drawing attention to it, like an issues movie that’s going to win all these awards because it’s about these things, and people feel good for watching it or supporting it. We were trying to get to the heart of something and talk about it without it being boring, otherwise people will shut out.
TC: I think it’s also clearly an artefact of the Trump presidency although we weren’t thinking consciously about that.
RP: It was in the air, this fucking nasty shit was all in the air when we were writing.
Where did the excellent luchador character come from?
RP: It’s incredibly that they’re giving an award to Mil Máscaras this year [at Fantasia]. A bunch of us are into wrestling and the old luchador movies, and we were like, why has no one done a modern-day luchador movie where he’s a fucking hero? They’re superheroes but they’re also out to dinner in their suits eating steak, it’s the greatest mix, and it was like, OK, people are obviously not making that, so we’ve got make it. We were trying to find those people who are dismissed, even in the media. Those people are not as popular as they should be, because they’re incredible.
Through that character you offer a great twist on heroism.
RP: We found as we were writing the film and making it, that it wasn’t just the characters themselves alone who find their heroism, they need each other to rise up and fight back.
They are all outlaws of a kind and they cannot count on any help outside of themselves, in particular the police. The world they inhabit is fairly lawless and brutal.
RP: That is the real America, there are so many of those people who can’t depend on what anyone has been taking for granted. I can all the cops, and that’s going to be cool, but a lot of people can’t call the cops and get help.
TC: The writers debated a lot where the cops are during all of this. It’s something that we talked about all the way into production, and Ryan finally said, there are no cops, in an official capacity, because they don’t exist for these people.
RP: The first sound edit had sirens in the background, but I was like, no, they don’t fucking come here. They won’t come so there’s never going to be a siren. You can blatantly shoot a rifle into a building and drag someone away and that’s normal.
It’s a film that keeps surprising you, and what happens with the luchador legend at the end is brilliantly unexpected.
RP: It wasn’t even the initial ending. We didn’t start from this. We were writing and we arrived at this. It’s the most satisfying thing when you’re watching a movie and you think, of course that’s got to happen, but also, I didn’t see that coming.
Shaye Obgbonna (Keith/writer): I also didn’t realise that the two women in the car at the end is such a powerful image. There are a lot of powerful images in the movie, one being them bursting into the chicken shack, luchador, black woman, guy with swastika on his face, and they’re like a team, and that’s awesome. But that last scene with the two women in a car, that’s an image you hardly ever see. It comes out as these two strong, powerful women who have been put in this crazy situation and them finding each other and finding strength. You could think it’s a guy’s film, but it’s not, and I can’t remember the last time I saw that.
NM: I love to kick ass as much as anybody but what I love about it is that Crystal has a lot of courage but it’s hard for her to take those steps. She’s a normal woman, she’s flawed, and that’s what makes her strong. These two women are their own heroes, they save themselves, and that’s the beauty, that’s the strength.
RP: It’s the messy scramble of the whole thing, it feels like life.
Interview by Virginie Sélavy
Watch the trailer: