5 Questions for Lori Silverbush & Michael Skolnik, Directors of “On The Outs”
by Eugene Hernandez
Since debuting at the Toronto International Film Festival in September, Lori Silverbush and Michael Skolnik‘s “On The Outs” has stirred audiences, it subsequently screened at Slamdance, then Berlin and Gen Art among other festivals. With the marketing help of Fader Films, filmmakers Silverbush and Skolnik are doing it themselves, reaching out directly to indieWIRE recently to pitch coverage of their film. After seeing them many times on the festival circuit, and at the Independent Spirit Awards earlier this year where they celebrated a pair of nominations, I finally watched the film recently and emailed Silverbush and Skolnik five questions to answer for indieWIRE.
“On The Outs” opened at Film Forum this week as the filmmakers continue to explore theatrical and DVD distribution prospects.
indieWIRE: First up, how did the two of you decide to work together on this project. When did the collaboration begin and can you explain some of the ways that you split up duties on the project, working as co-directors?
Michael Skolnik: Truth be told, I was an actor in my teenage years. I played a punk kid in a short that Lori directed 10 years ago. The collaboration began. I remember that summer the new Nas album came out and that was all that was in my Walkman. I got into Lori’s car one day when she drove me to the location where we shooting the short and she was playing a CD by a new artist named Alanis Morissette. Lori introduced me to the female struggle through Alanis. With “On the Outs,” we worked as equal partners in every aspect of the film, from directing the actors to production design to the editing. Most people cannot understand co-direction, but in fact, it worked to our benefit with such limited resources to make this film.
Lori Silverbush: I cast Michael a hundred years ago in a short film I directed called “Sticks and Stones.” We forged a great relationship, especially as I had cast all local actors in Pittsfield, Mass where the movie was shot, and one kid from NYC — him. So we spent long drives back and forth between NYC and the Berkshires riffing on everything — a real meeting of the minds and a deep friendship was borne. Over the years we wrote two scripts together and stayed big parts of each other’s lives. Collaborating on this felt natural. I knew the film needed the feel of a doc, and Michael is one of the most talented young documentary filmmakers I’ve ever met — utterly fearless. He knew he was ready to branch into the world of narrative filmmaking and knew that was my strength. It seemed like a good fit. And it was.
iW: Paola Mendoza who stars in the film is co-creator of the project with the two of you, can you tell us a bit about how you developed the movie together and also you went about rounding out the cast?
MS: I come from a strong documentary background, working a lot with filmmaker Marc Levin as well as directing some of my own work. I was producing “Back in the Hood: Gang War II” for HBO that Marc directed, when I met a young woman in Little Rock, Arkansas who was selling dope and running with the Crips. I knew that this woman’s story would ultimately be something I would want to dramatize and make into a narrative feature. Paola, who I have known for years since our days at UCLA, was someone who I always wanted to collaborate with on a film, and the three of us got together. Since Paola herself was running with gangs and getting in trouble at a young age while growing up in California, I knew she could bring an incredible amount to the team. The three of us spent 4 months in the Hudson County Juvenile Detention Center where we worked with young women who were incarcerated to develop the stories of the characters. It was that experience that has made this film possible. We loved Judy Marte from “Raising Victor Vargas” and she amazingly agreed to be in the film. Anny Mariano, we met through an audition, and how could we not cast her as Suzette… she just fit the part. The rest of the cast is incredible young actors from New York, from Dominic Colon or Flaco Navaja, or first timer Don Parma. However, much of the cast was real folks from the community in which we shot.
LS: I’ve always respected Paola’s passion and intelligence — I had seen her work both as a director and actor in the theater, and from the start this project was entirely and equally the three of us. At first we thought the movie would be about one girl and Paola would play her, given that her own personal background jibes so closely with that of the characters in our film. But once we started working with the girls in the jail, we realized there was no way we could limit ourselves to one character and do justice to the huge range of experiences that make up the lives of inner-city kids. It’s a real testament to Paola that the day I said, “Guys… I think this needs to be three girls, not one,” she immediately agreed. She was the anti-diva.
We developed the story by listening to what the girls in the jail had to say. Once they grew to trust us, they let us in and shared amazing, beautiful, heart-rending stories. I remember one day in particular — we went into the jail and told the girls that we were going to do a writing exercise. We handed out paper and pencils and instructed each of the girls to create a character by answering questions we threw out: i.e. who is this person? What music does she listen to? What is her family like? What are her biggest struggles? etc. A long list of questions. And at the end we told them they couldn’t name the character after themselves. That bit of instruction freed the girls to write these intensely autobiographical sketches that blew us away. Like they could ‘hide’ behind the fictional name and we wouldn’t know it was them… One girl wrote ‘my character wishes she could get people to see her for the special, beautiful person she really is, not the kid who keeps messing up and going to jail.’
We took those sketches and the girls’ own narratives and returned to my office in Union Square nightly where we hammered out story story story long into the wee hours. We were very invested in having each girl’s arc ‘stand up’ — structurally and otherwise — as if it were solely her movie. And then came the challenge of weaving those three arcs together in an organic and inevitable way.
In terms of rounding out the cast — we reached out to casting directors but no one wanted to work on a no-budget film, so we did it ourselves. Word of mouth, online headshot sites, acting coaches around the city. One in particular, Jose Garcia, who runs a downtown acting workshop (most of the cast of “Victor Vargas” came from him) was an amazing resource… leading us to Judy and to Anny Mariano, who plays Suzette.
iW: The film depicts characters facing tough times and difficult choices in their lives. Can you share a bit more about your reasons for wanting to tell this story and whom you hope to reach with the movie. How are you working to reach out to potential audiences with the movie?
MS: This is a story that needed to be told. After working with the 30 or so young women in the detention center, it was no longer our choice to tell the story, it became our duty. Young women are the fastest growing rate of incarceration in America. Young women are going to jail and prison two times faster than young men. Yet, this film is not an after school special or a cautionary tale… this s**t is real. Real like you can smell the crack when it lights up. Real like you may not understand everything the people say in the movie. We feel strongly that this film can play to the same audiences that saw “City of God,” “Kids,” “Raising Victor Vargas.”
We have partnered with the amazing and incredible company, Fader Films, which is a subsidiary of the Fader Magazine and Cornerstone Promotion. They have devised a marketing plan that is dope as hell. With no distributor, no real marketing budget (yet), no outside publicist, it is because of them that we have gotten so much publicity and strong word of mouth.
LS: I think Michael’s answer says it all.
iW: Will you share some insights with us on how you went about developing a distribution plan for the movie. Your film debuted in Toronto, but it is hard to get low-budget films, without with big name stars, into theaters today. What were some of the hurdles you overcame and lessons you have learned along the way?
MS: We premiered at the Toronto Film Festival, and then went to Slamdance where we took home the Grand Jury Prize and the Audience Award and then played at the Berlin Film Festival. Since Berlin, we have had an amazing run with numerous other festivals around the world and recently were presented with the idea of playing the film at the Film Forum in NYC for two weeks, which we happily accepted. We are still developing a distribution plan for further release of the film. With the strong reviews we have received this week, we hope that will help. However, I come from the hip-hop generation, where we created our own ways of distribution. So, if we have to sell this beautiful film out of the back of my trunk, you know we will. And any young person or parent of a young person who thinks they want to see this film, let us know, we will make sure you get that chance.
LS: Our plan was to take all comers and see what happened. Theatrical is a challenge with no big stars and countless distributors have told us they themselves love the movie — some have come to see it on more than one occasion for personal reasons — but they are timid about taking the risk. Difficult subject matter, dark little movie. Also… the usual milieu of thugs/guns/trash talk, etc. has been pretty much de-glamorized in this film — the shit ain’t sexy, so it’s been a challenge. But that said, we have had interest in cable TV and DVD, and I’m definitely learning about the economics of how that works. In some cases the theatrical run is simply a loss leader for the distrib who is gearing up to make their money on DVD.
iW: Please tell us what you are working on now?
LS: I’m writing a script that I’ll be directing early next year called “Higher Ground” about young people migrating over the U.S. Mexican border for work. It’s a movie about pursuit of the American dream, as it plays out graphically, often tragically, today. I’ve been tapped to direct an adaptation of Andre Dubus‘ (“House of Sand & Fog“) novel “Bluesman” for Vincent Newman Productions and Aaron Ryder (“Memento“) which is set against the Vietnam war — another war fought in a faraway place fought by poor kids, for a murky non-cause — you get my drift… I’ve also been asked to write an adaptation of Alice Hoffman‘s “Illumination Night” for Evan Rachel Wood and Prospect Pictures.
MS: I am currently co-directing with Rebecca Chaiklin, a documentary about the quest by Russell Simmons and others to end the Rockefeller Drug Laws, called “One Strike For Life.” Also Rebecca and I are directing another documentary about musician, Wyclef Jean‘s fight to bring peace to his homeland of Haiti. Finally, I am developing a new feature film that I will be directing which is being produced by Brian Grazer and Imagine Entertainment.