Gil Cates Jr. is on a hot streak. His new film, “Lucky,” was picked up for distribution just a day ahead of its world premiere at the 2011 Dallas International Film Festival. The dark comedy stars Colin Hanks as Ben Keller, a mild-mannered serial killer whose life is turned upside down after winning the state lotto. Ben soon finds himself married to his high school crush, Lucy (Ari Graynor), whose attachment to the mass-murdering millionaire might not be exclusively romantic. When Lucy finds out about Ben’s secret, she faces a difficult decision – turn in her rich Beau or act as a silent accomplice and continue cashing in… The film co-stars veteran actors like “Arrested Development”‘s Jeffery Tambor and the 2011 Dallas International Film Festival Dallas Star recipient, Ann-Margret.
Cates met with indieWIRE in Dallas following the film’s premiere. Below are excerpts from the conversation, where the filmmaker weighs in on the project, his approach to the film and where he stands concerning emerging technologies in the film industry.
How did this project come up?
Kent Sublette wrote the script and he’s one of my best friends. We went to college together and he’s a staff writer right now at Saturday Night Live. We were at his apartment one weekend and I don’t exactly remember how it came up but he said, “What about a movie about a serial killer who wins the lottery?” There were so many ways we could have gone with it. So we began collaborating from that point to come up with a way to tell the story without doing something one-dimensional and overtly commercial. We wanted something interesting and character driven. Kent had the gem of the idea and together we developed the story before he wrote the script.
The film takes place in Iowa, where I understand you shot because of the tax incentives they offered. Where did the film originally take place in the screenplay?
The screenplay originally took place in Roanoke, Virginia. Kent is from there and the idea was to have the movie take place in a town where someone who won the lottery would be a very big deal, a celebrity. If it had been set somewhere like L.A. or Miami it wouldn’t have worked as well. Once we decided to shoot in Iowa it seemed to lend itself perfectly, so there was no reason to make Iowa look like Virginia. So I just called Ken and asked him, “Can we just have the movie take place in Council Bluffs, Iowa?”
Were there any major changes to the script other than the setting?
Honestly, we stuck with the original heart of what the film was supposed to be. We liked our story and the way Lucy (Ari Graynor) fit in. To me the movie is a romance between two people, but it just happens to be that one of them is a serial killer and the other could be seen as a money-hungry opportunist.
I was surprised by how much I engaged with the protagonists in the movie despite how unlikable they were. They might not be great people but their charisma gives them that anti-hero quality that has you rooting for them the whole time. How difficult was casting the film to find that tone?
I don’t know if this is something that I’ve just heard, that casting is 90% of it, but in this case the casting was 99.999% of it. You can do as much as you can with what you have but if the acting doesn’t work you can get stuck. Colin Hanks, Ari Graynor, Ann-Margret and Jeffrey Tambor are all such great, trained professionals who all found something in the script that was out of the ordinary.
The challenge isn’t limited to the actors. With a film like this you have to find the balance so the movie doesn’t veer into slapstick comedy or cheap melodrama. What did you do to establish such a specific, consistent style of comedy?
We had rehearsal time and I was able to point out some movies tonally that I thought would be good for people to watch. “To Die For,” “Fargo,” “Heathers,” movies that are considered dark comedies where the characters have to be real in order for the situations to be real.
Did anything end up in the cutting room floor or was the structure in the script so tight that you just let it guide you through?
We worked on the script for years, partly because we wanted to and partly because we couldn’t get it made. There are scenes we ended up cutting that I feel would’ve still advanced the story. We had a screening after finishing the film and what we’re going out with now is about ten minutes shorter from that screening. The beginning was five minutes longer, but (editor) Gregg Potkin and I felt it affected the pace too much.
The film recently got picked up by Phase 4, a company that has been making a strong VOD push. Is this your first experience with that distribution/exhibition model? What are your thoughts on it?
As a director, yes. The theatrical opening will be in L.A. and New York and hopefully expand from there. This VOD move is exciting with companies like Magnolia, IFC and Phase 4 exploring its possibilities. I guess I’m more old fashioned in that I still like it when you look forward to a movie coming out in the theaters and then get excited when it comes out on DVD six months later. With “Lucky” I really would prefer people to see it in the theater. It’s a film that benefits from an audience, with different people laughing at different times since it’s a dark comedy.
I can definitely see that with this movie, not only because of the subject matter but also in the way you shot it. It’s a movie that takes advantage of the widescreen, using every inch of the frame.
That’s what we were going for. We shot in Super 35 keeping our aspect ratio in mind. I love film, all of the features I’ve directed have been on film. And I’m going to keep on shooting on film until someone tells me I can’t.