“Keep your friends close and your cinematographer closer.”
Lights Online Film School caught up with California-based filmmaker Jonathan Singer-Vine to discuss his first feature film, Licks, about a young man who returns to his Oakland neighborhood after serving two years in prison for a robbery gone wrong. The film premiered at SXSW in 2013 and has gone on to play at a variety of festivals.
Jonathan and his team made Licks entirely in-house, from writing to pre to producing to post to marketing. It’s the sort of independent romantic path many filmmakers imagine for themselves, so we wanted to speak with Jonathan to get a sense of how the reality lines up with the dream.
Let’s take a moment to watch the trailer for their film:
Hello, Jonathan, and thanks for chatting with us here at Lights. First of all, congratulations on a film well done! Where did the idea for the story come from? Was it a conversation? Book? Song? Image?
In a lot of ways the story of Licks was less an idea and more a life in the making, or perhaps I should say lives in the making. Growing up in the East Bay; Oakland, Berkeley, Richmond, there is a certain culture, a way of life that you simply can’t ignore. From the earliest age you’re exposed to people and characters of all walks of life and I believe those interactions, those conversations were the earliest inspiration for Licks.
By middle school and especially high school, we had developed such a widespread group of friends, such an incredibly diverse network, that one day you might be kicking in deep East Oakland and the next day your hanging out in the Albany hills. Those friends, that network, are what really birthed the team that created Licks.
So many of the key players, from Director, to Producers, to Actors, either grew up with, or alongside each other. Licks was truly a culmination of stories that myself, and the other team members had heard growing up or in many cases experienced growing up. I, alongside my Co-Writer/Co-Producer, Justin “Hongry” Robinson, used these stories to develop characters, plotlines, and dialogue that would one day become the film.
Once you had the idea, it was time to begin the daunting process of making a feature. I’d love to hear about your screenwriting process – did you write whatever scenes came to mind, or did you adopt a more structured, systematic approach?
If you saw the first script and then watched the film that we recently premiered at SXSW, you would probably think you were watching the wrong movie. The script alone took three years to make and we were adding dialogue, and changing scenes up all the way through production.
One thing that you have to understand about Licks is that so much of where we could go with the stories and characters, was governed by what we had access to. Creating a truly independent film from scratch requires you to use your resources to the best of their abilities. But it’s also about knowing when you cannot do something, or at least not well, and deciding to work with the script or the production to make something else work better.
After about three drafts, once I had put together a somewhat concrete script, It really just came down to working day in and day out with both my Co-Writer/Co-Producer, My Associate Producer, Adrian L. Burrell, and my Producer Niko Philipides to straighten out the kinks, develop the characters, and perfect the dialogue. I also called upon my good friends who worked outside of filmmaking to proofread for grammar and punctuation because I am terrible with both.
Once we had finished casting the film we started rehearsals and it was in rehearsals, working alongside both Justin and Niko, but also with the actors themselves, where we truly finalized the characters and locked in the dialogue. Collaborating with other people was so crucial because the name of the game is authenticity. What better way to write stories, characters and dialogue than to go through it with people who are really from this world and have really lived this life.
So you gave your actors the freedom to create lines for themselves?
Yes. The biggest advantage to giving my actors freedom over the dialogue is that they made it their own! That’s what you want from an actor, you want them to collaborate with you.
Filmmaking is a team sport. You want them to care about the authenticity of their character and make their performance as believable as they can.
Was there a certain narrative element you found yourself coming back to time and again; for example, a visual metaphor, a specific tone or rhythm in the pacing, a dramatic motif, etc.? Something you really pushed for as a unifying force in the film?
My narrative element was realism. Just tried to keep the script as raw and real as I could.
What, if anything, would you change about your screenwriting process for your next film?
The process that ended up becoming Licks proved perfect for that story, that script, and the film it ultimately became.
For another film I’m sure it could be very different. One thing I can say is that I will always use other people in the process of editing and perfecting a script. Writers need friends. You need those other opinions and other perspectives in the writing process, and most importantly you need people around you that aren’t afraid to tell you when something sucks.
What’s surprising is that not only is this your first feature film, it’s also the first feature film for most of your cast! Something like 90% of the talent involved had never been in front of a camera. Understanding the language of film can be difficult even for seasoned actors; especially when shooting out of sequence, common practice on longer shoots.
How did you communicate the story to your cast so they always knew where they were? Did you show them storyboards or shotlists to give them a sense of how everything would fit together in the edit?
One crucial aspect of the process you’re describing is that a large majority of the actors had a very close and personal knowledge and understanding of the story and its characters. So not only did they read and become familiar with the script but they were able to really internalize it so that it made sense.
But aside from that, Licks was really all about rehearsals. Rehearsals were where some of our actors acted for the very first time. Some of our cast were literally learning how to act in front of our eyes and they were doing a damn good job of it. Because almost all of them were from the Bay Area we were really able to tailor the dialogue to what felt most comfortable to them. We rehearsed for months and by the end of those rehearsals everybody was really on the same page for the most part. I can’t tell you how many times an actor would correct me on some piece of the story or some line of dialogue.
Fascinating! So you held open auditions for the film – tell me more about that process. How did you find your talent? Online, audition ads and posters, word of mouth, agents?
Word of mouth was everything when it came to casting Licks. Myself, Niko, and especially Justin, and our Associate Producer, Adrian Burrell, did the vast majority of finding talent. We were calling and texting every friend and family member we knew. We were scrolling through every Facebook friend we had. And along with an online SF Casting call, we really started to put together a pool of people to audition.
A lot of the actors that ended up making the cut were people directly connected to at least one of us in some way or another, and a lot of the people we found elsewhere ended up having a connection anyway. We were sincerely blessed to have both Stanley “DOE” Hunt (Lil’D) and his brother Koran Streets (Rell) at our disposal. Niko, Justin and I had all grown up with their older brother who is actually STUNNAMAN from the rap group “The Pack”. We knew that the two brothers had grown up acting in their mother’s West Oakland Theater Company, The Lower Bottom Playaz, but we were truly blown away when they came to audition.
Rehearsals are great, but being on set is a very different experience. Did you run into any “camera shyness”, or other discrepancies between performances in the rehearsal space versus during the shoot?
With regards to camera shyness, I think it was a huge help that so many of our actors have a background in either music or theater acting. Half of our main cast rap and do other music outside of acting, so they have experience in front of the camera and on stage. They know how the lights and the pressure feel, so it doesn’t come as such a shock when they step on set.
From a directing standpoint, what were some of the biggest challenges working with non-actors?
I have no complaints about working with first time actors. The only challenge was getting them to believe in their characters all the way. We made sure to cast people who weren’t afraid to let go so it only took a couple rehearsals for the “believing” to happen.
How much room did actors have to improvise lines? It sounds like you trusted them with a lot of creative freedom.
You know I think a year before we ever started shooting Licks, we fully assumed that when it came to dialogue (especially considering how many of our actors were new to acting and additionally how many really came from this environment), our actors would be doing a substantial amount of ad-libbing.
The truth is that when you really get into the filmmaking process you realize that it’s not that easy. You need your actors to know exactly what they’re supposed to say, when they’re supposed to say it, so ad-libbing is harder than you would think, especially with new actors. Now with all that said, there were definitely a good number of moments in Licks that came naturally and unscripted.
How long were your shooting days?
Shooting days were anywhere from 12-16 hours. Our crew was pushed to the limit but they handled the pressure like champs!
How many shooting days did you have?
We had around 30 shooting days when it was all said and done.
Intense! On a different note, I love the film’s cinematography. You worked with DoP Rob Witt, with whom you also have collaborated on music video projects. Tell me a bit about how you guys came up with the look of Licks.
The cinematography was incredible. Props to Rob Witt, I’m just lucky to call the guy a good friend let alone work with him.
To come up with a tone for the film we just opened up a dialogue and talked everyday about our locations and our shot list. Then from there we molded our tone and atmosphere. We knew we were going to be shooting in the dead of winter in the East Bay Area and the landscape changes during that time of the year. Rob ended up moving into a room in my house for two months to make the film happen. “Keep your friends close and your cinematographer closer.”
Haha. The more I hear, the more it sounds like Licks was a community effort. What was your relationship with the community like while you were filming? Were people open and willing to to help?
The communities of East and West Oakland were 100% the reason this film was made possible. Like I have mentioned, the talent, the locations, the cars, the extras, the security ;), all came from the very neighborhoods that we depict in the film.
When it came to the actual shoot, we were literally set up on small urban streets with sometimes as many as 30 or 40 people, so needless to say we needed everyone’s cooperation to get through our days. We definitely had a few run-ins, a few angry neighbors (who probably had a right to be angry), but for the most part everything went smoothly. We really appreciated everyone’s help and understanding and hope that they enjoyed taking part in the film.
How did you go about location scouting?
A lot of the locations in the film were through connections, either people we knew directly or friends of friends.
As for every other location it really just came down to knocking on doors, leaning over counters, and in some cases doing a little further reconnaissance. We ran into many kind people who were willing to open their up doors to us and become part of the Licks family.
You’ve run a lot of the film’s promotional campaign in-house. What has this been like? Is it as romantic as some filmmakers might believe?
Definitely not romantic! Let me be clear. There’s nothing romantic or glamorous about promoting a feature film. But we have such a great team of friends that we all use our different talents and resources to get it all done.
How has being a part of SXSW helped to raise the film’s profile? Have you noticed more opportunities since getting into that film festival?
SXSW changed everything!
I’m sure so many other filmmakers and artists can relate; you’ve been working on a project for years now, you think you have something special, your friends and family and other people you’ve shown it to think you have something special, but until you get that real stamp of approval you’re just not quite sure!
SXSW was definitely our stamp of approval. To not only get into one of the premiere festivals in the world, but also to be one of eight films nominated for awards was just more than we could ever have imagined. We made this film for the people, and at the end of the day that’s whose opinion matters, most but it sure don’t hurt when the critics like it too!
For sure! What’s your festival strategy moving forward?
We have had a lot of festivals reach out to us to submit to them and we’re really just going through and finding the ones that we think will work best for Licks.
The festival experience is great, but a heads up to everyone, the application process gets really expensive. And when you get into a festival and that festival isn’t at your doorstep it can cost a lot to get everyone you want out there.
Thanks for this window into the production of a very special film, Jonathan! It’s an inspiration and reality check for us and our readers.
Any distribution plans?
We are currently in talks with several distributors and we should have more information about this coming soon. Cross your fingers.
For more on “Licks”, check out the film’s website.
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