It’s disarming to encounter gentle giant Kenny Hargrove for the first time. Sender of cheery “Happy Monday” and “exciting news” greetings, retweeter of film industry feeds to his @peaseblossom7 22.4K Twitter followers, popping up all over L.A. film openings, multi-hyphenate title bearer of filmmaker/producer/director/screenwriter/playwright—it’s a wonder that he has the time to focus on politics. Under his calm, humble, and genial manner, there is a thoughtful scholar (Princeton undergraduate, Columbia Masters in International Affairs) and a sincere emerging filmmaker. His ongoing film project is Snow, a woman’s journey toward love, destiny, and self-knowledge. “33 Minutes to Live” is his second project, a webisode with a pilot already shot that will hopefully turn into a television series about how people cope with the threat of nuclear war. FilmFestivalTraveler.com interviewed Hargrove when he crowdfunded on Indiegogo for his first project. We are back three years later to catch up on his dramatic arc toward his own film destiny.
Follow him on Facebook (www.Facebook.com/33MinutesToLive/) and on Twitter (@33MinutesToLive). Subscribe to his YouTube channel 33 Minutes to Live Webseries https://www.youtube.com/channel/UC6AwI_CShuO_SZw98GTu2vA.
So what's the good news, Kenny?
“33 Minutes To Live” just had its second public screening [after the Silicon Beach Film Festival] at the closing night event of the Broadway International Film Festival at the Mexican Consulate in Los Angeles on October 25. It was a standing room only event with a nice reception. (Our project features actors from Argentina and Mexico and crew from Ecuador, Colombia, and Argentina, among other parts of the world.) I was honored to receive a Certificate of Recognition there from the U.S. Congress. That was a nice surprise!
To go back, what happened to your Indiegogo crowdfunding campaign for your previous film project, Snow, since FilmFestivalTraveler.com last interviewed you three years ago?
We didn't get anywhere near what we needed, but it was great for building a social media presence of the project online. The results of the Indiegogo campaign: We were trying to raise a minimum of twenty-five thousand. We got to just over $9,000 from about 115 unique contributors. After fees and campaign expenses we netted about $6,000. We did well on many levels. Successful campaigns average about $75 per person and we did that. We just had far fewer people than we needed. The campaign was very successful in rebranding me as a filmmaker and letting the world know about Snow.
You know, there's never been a better time to make Snow because of all the push for diversity in Hollywood, with a lot of female-centric projects. As producers of film projects about women now say, their pitch hasn't changed. What's changed is the reception. People actually listen and there are more and more female-centric films being made. It's a good environment to be in compared to five years ago when people would react to Snow by saying “Oh, a chick flick!” and lose interest. Now people take me seriously. It's really a wonderful change.
What it's like to be a black filmmaker, and do you use that identity as a filmmaker?
I think it’s fantastic and long overdue that the ranks of directors of color are rising. I’m very excited about the work of black directors like Barry Jenkins, Ava DuVernay, Antoine Fuqua, Tim Storey, and Steve McQueen. So much has changed in the last few years that benefits us all!
As for me, I just want to make films. Some will have subject matter and cast related to the African Diaspora but some will just have that sensibility of an “other” and an awareness that the world traditionally shown in Hollywood films may not represent the real world in which we live or that we want to live in. That would impact hiring on both sides of the camera but would not exclude or marginalize anyone.
There are so many great stories that cross cultures that have yet to be told which I think that many people can relate to. Great examples would be the films of Hong Kong director Clara Law about the Chinese Diaspora in the run-up to the 1997 Hong Kong Handover, films by Mira Nair, novels by VS Naipaul, or Jennifer Kent’s new film The Nightingale about the brutal conquest of Australia in the early 19th Century and the unlikely alliance of an Aboriginal man and an Irish convict woman in that dangerous world (my favorite film of 2019 so far). However, my personal role model is Ang Lee, who excels at telling stories that cross cultures and races and geographic boundaries.
I definitely have black stories to tell (some of which may be somewhat autobiographical or historical) but maybe they are best set on the stage where a smaller more engaged audience can enjoy them and explore their ideas and concerns, and I won’t have to worry about the commercial pressures of making an expensive film that might appeal to a mass audience. That said, I’m thrilled that Denzel Washington is filming the plays of August Wilson and finding a wide audience to enjoy them so I guess anything is possible.
Kenny, can you talk about what your pilot is about? Why you chose a webisode format?
I was taking a class at Chapman University, and it was called the Advanced Video Production Workshop. It was geared more toward the internet, more towards YouTube and YouTubers, which I'm not. I really wanted to take it to practice more on narrative filmmaking so I got an okay to do a web series pilot, so that's what I did.
At the time, the summer of 2017, Washington and Pyongyang were going at it, talking about who had the bigger button in terms of nuclear weapons. North Korea was launching intercontinental ballistic missiles, and so the whole world was on edge. I thought well, I loved all the old nuclear war feature films like Dr. Strangelove, On the Beach, and Hiroshima Mon Amour so I thought that maybe it's time to go back to that and do it in the web series form. So I created “33 Minutes to Live” because I read online that that's how long it takes for a missile to get from Pyongyang to the American heartland (which is not a lot of time).
Is your film set here in Los Angeles?
It was just because we were here and that's what we could afford. We actually shot in Malibu, because one of my classmates, Brian Nahas, who became an actor and producer for the project, offered his relative’s compound. So it is an L.A. story, but a very international story at its heart. It's got a lesbian relationship between the daughter of the South Korean ambassador to the UN, a wonderful actress, Kat Kim (whose parents are from Korea but she's actually from New York) and a wonderful Argentinian actress, Marina Bakica, who plays her lesbian lover who is also a poetess. We had an international cast and crew. We had a good representation of the world on both sides of the camera.
How important is networking to produce a budget pilot? How did the cast and crew work for free or exchange for favors?
With any film project, there's a whole web of relationships. I had really good producers and a producer brings in their people with them. So it's really important to have a network, actually a bunch of networks. Some of these people might be working with me on future projects, so I wanted to test them out and maybe they wanted to test me out as well.
When you are an unknown with no budget you have to call in some favors. Being a student project at a top film school helped. Being a SAG New Media project helped. Shooting only on weekends helped, as some people have day jobs and could come out to help for fun in their leisure time. Having a rising star cinematographer, Pietro Villani, who’d just shot a feature film starring Oscar winner JK Simmons, helped.
Having in-demand actors like Genia Michaela, Alexandra Hellquist and Abe Martell helped. Unfortunately, it was difficult to schedule additional shooting dates for Alexandra and Abe because they were both involved with plays. So, I had to rewrite a key scene (the opening pool scene) with new characters. Fortunately, Zuri Alexander and Michael Joseph Carr, wonderful actors who’ve participated in several of my play and screenplay readings, were available.
Having four amazing producers helped, including two friends from Filmmakers Alliance (Emily Beach and Todd Howard) who are calm and efficient and quite familiar with putting together and managing quality crews for no and low budget projects. Kimberli Wong, who attended the filmmaking program at Santa Barbara City College (the top junior college film program in the entire country), brought an amazing crew and worked tirelessly to dress the set and buy all of the props. Brian Nahas, an actor who was new to producing, was amazing. He got us the free location in Malibu as well as discounted and free meals from his restaurant-owning friends in the area. These four phenomenal people collectively made my job much easier.
You have to work it to get the money to rent the lights and to rent the camera. Our sound guy, editor, post-production re-recording mixer, and sound editor were paid. However, they offered discounts.
Fortunately, our award-winning cinematographer brought almost everything, and the location had a two-story glass wall that maximized natural light so that’s primarily how people were lit. He and the actors and the crew volunteered their time. Hopefully, that begins a good long collaboration on a variety of projects.
Still, we needed extra money for things like food, computer drives, props, and incidentals. The problem with Malibu is that it isn’t cheap, and you can’t get people to deliver there because it’s so far. Still, I was hoping to shoot everything in one long day but costs kept creeping higher.
I was thinking of either postponing or canceling. Four days before the shoot, I went to bed depressed thinking that I was going to have to make a big announcement about either postponing or canceling the shoot.
“I was thinking of either postponing or canceling. Four days before the shoot, I went to bed depressed thinking that I was going to have to make a big announcement about either postponing or canceling the shoot.”
I understand that you then got some funding from previous donors to your Indiegogo campaign social media? The big lesson is that the people that actually gave, give again because you asked them to.
Yes. I woke up the next morning and said, “Hey, we had a big crowdfunding campaign last year and people gave me money. Why don’t we go back to a few of them, and say, if you give me $200 at least by Friday, I’ll give you co-producer credit?” I think I sent out emails to 16 people and 4 people did respond, so we got a $1,000 bucks. The rest came from me. The total budget, excluding festival submissions and appearances, was about $4,500 (including tuition).
Can you tell me about your LGBTQ couple and your success with that audience?
After I finished the Intensive Directing Workshop at NYU in 2004, I was at the Los Angeles Film Festival closing night party, and I met a couple of actresses from Denmark. They asked if I could come up with a film idea that featured a lesbian couple. That’s how Snow was born. As “33 Minutes To Live” was practice for Snow, it also features a lesbian relationship at its center.
Snow has a lesbian subplot, but it's really about a woman's journey toward love and destiny. It’s about her trying to recreate her life and having a personal epiphany. She's pregnant with the child that her husband may not want. She's a struggling artist trying to find her voice, trying to find herself. She meets this woman who becomes a champion and her lover, who's a poet. That kind of helps her to completely change her belief system about herself so that she's suddenly able to move on, try new things, and break out of her comfort zone.
You've had some success on YouTube, with “33 Minutes to Live” featured on an LGBTQ YouTube channel, OML (One More Lesbian).
I've had a lot more success with “33 Minutes to Live” there, even though I've been posting like mad for over a year on the @33MinutesToLive Twitter handle and the “33 Minutes To Live Webseries Pilot” Page on Facebook to get views on my own YouTube channel. Yet, I’ve had fewer views, about 1,500 compared to about 13,000 on OML.
Thanks to a friend, I was able to get in touch with some lesbian media for the Snow campaign. One of the people that I contacted has her own lesbian media site called One More Lesbian with about 500,000 subscribers that are very enthusiastic about watching lesbian-related short-form stories and documentaries. She said that even though “33 Minutes To Live” isn’t really about romance (like much of the media on that channel) it features a lesbian couple at the center so they were enthusiastic about having the webseries pilot on the channel. When Snow comes out I will definitely approach them again.
Congratulations. So what are your plans for the future of the Snow feature film and the “33 Minutes to Live” webseries pilot?
I want to turn the webseries into a television pilot. It's a one-hour TV pilot scripted drama which contains most of what you saw in the pilot (and a lot more). Some of the characters are gone. There are some interesting new situations, some really good scenes at this point. It kind of centers around the three main characters: the two lesbian lovers, and the crazy next-door neighbor. One of the many characters gets killed off in the first season. I won't say who. Also, we've changed the military buff who tells exactly how long it takes for the missile to arrive from being an American of Middle Eastern descent to being a Russian.
The U.S. and Russia have the two biggest nuclear arsenals in the world. We want people in the room to be able to react to what's happening when the missiles get launched because we won't have government officials there. So a Russian to give a Russian perspective, just as we have South Korea to give the South Korean perspective, and Americans with the American’s perspective. So we don't have to cut to the U.N. or cut to this government or that government. All the key countries are represented there in the room through ordinary people.
I’ll apply to a few more festivals but this may have been the last opportunity to see it on the big screen with an audience. As it’s a webseries pilot, my focus has been getting people to watch it online. So far it has received about 15,000 views on the two different YouTube channels. Hopefully, it’s brought more people into the conversation about nuclear war and the new Arms Race. As we head into an election year, I hope that’s something that voters will ask candidates about.
Now it’s time to pitch the “33 Minutes To Live” television series and to get the “Snow” feature film project moving. Snow is still my main project. I’m very excited that Snow finally has found a lawyer who doesn’t need to be paid until all funds are raised. That means that we can now structure investor agreements and finally move forward without having to worry about paying a retainer or the high hourly wages (at least not immediately) that many entertainment lawyers require. He simply wants to help get the film made, as he did for a friend’s feature film project.
I wish I’d found him before embarking on the Indiegogo donor crowdfunding campaign in late 2015/early 2016. That would have made that less-than-successful campaign unnecessary, as paying legal fees was to have been a major use of funds from that campaign. Nevertheless, the campaign very successfully created an awareness of “Snow” and forced me into the social media world, which is an important skill for a director to have.
Now I have to find equity investors and decide how to structure their participation, whether it’s using fiscal sponsorship or an SEC-registered equity crowdfunding campaign or a more traditional approach. Hopefully, we can get that started before year-end and finally raise funds and shoot the feature film next year. It’s an exciting moment. Everything should be finalized by year-end.
One of the first uses of funds will be to cast a “name” actor or two to increase the chances for commercial visibility and success of the project. Hopefully, having a “name” actor will make the indie film a much more exciting opportunity for potential equity investors too.
Well, good luck, Kenny. We'll check back in a year or two and see what's happening with your progress. It's been a long road, but you've kept at it.