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How I Shot That (LAFF Edition): Prison Shoots and Having Faith in ‘The Life and Mind of Mark DeFriest’

How I Shot That (LAFF Edition): Prison Shoots and Having Faith in 'The Life and Mind of Mark DeFriest'

Gabriel London isn’t one to back away from risks. He loves to push the boundaries and conquer unchartered territory. At LAFF he will premiere his new documentary “The Life and Mind of Mark DeFriest.” The film recounts the eighteen escape attempts by DeFriest from various institutions, analyzing why exactly he tried to escape in the first place. The film showcases in-depth interviews and even animated sequences. London previously directed documentaries such as “Bigg Snoop Dogg’s Youth Authority” and “The Rodney Hulin Story: Prison Rape in America.”

[Editor’s Note: Indiewire reached out to filmmakers with films playing at the 20th LA Film Festival (June 11-19) to ask them about how they shot their indie, and what advice they had for other filmmakers. We’ll be posting their responses throughout the run of the festival. Go HERE for the master list.]

What camera and lens did you use? We used 7 different cameras over the course of production, essentially tracking technology as it advanced: 
Panasonic DVX 100, Panasonic HVX 100, Panasonic GH-2, Sony PD100, Sony EX-1, Sony FS-100, Canon 5D with Nikon glass.

What was the most difficult shoot on your movie and how did you pull it off?
The hardest shoot on the movie – notwithstanding the incredibly difficult, multi-year push to get in to film an interview with Mark DeFriest in prison – would probably be the Volusia County Jail re-creation of Mark’s prison environment. It took imagination to take an empty jail and make it Mark’s prison world: the solitary cell door, the signage, the guards stalking the halls. We took a POV approach, and created the claustrophobic feel Mark would have felt looking through bars and staring at walls. We also found ways of stylizing the lighting – shadows cast by barred doors, a lighter flicking through a red-tinted window of a cell door, and the hints of natural light penetrating that tomb-like place.

What’s the one thing you wish someone had told you BEFORE you started your movie?
I wish I had heard some oracle like that I could be believe in along the lines of ‘Your success is inevitable,” but then I probably wouldn’t have fought for this film like it was the impossible dream. That said, I often needed something that increased my faith, and lessened my doubt that the story would get told. I knew that I would tell Mark’s story from the moment I found it, but I also never could have guessed it would have taken so long – 13 years – from discovery to completion. We will premiere Friday the 13th of June after 13 years of work, so I guess I would love to have heard: you’ll make it, but don’t fret if it takes over a decade – the time it takes encompasses a marriage, a move, the birth of your two children and the building of a separate career before you get there.

What’s the worst piece of advice you ever got?
The worst piece of advice was to find a more sympathetic character that is more “innocent.” The advice came from two well-known film financiers that like to target US political policies in “argu-mentaries.” But I think it’s a cheap shot to cherry pick stories that are black and white, and choosing the most extreme case to make your argument does not necessarily mean you’ve got the best or truest story. Today in America we have so many exonerated people – with many more deserving ones awaiting exoneration – but in highlighting cases of misappropriated “justice” we risk giving the illusion that the prison system is full of innocent people. That misses the point, because there is a principle at stake in how we treat EVERY single prisoner. The justice system fails the innocent it incarcerates, but the prison system fails both the innocent and the guilty. We have a duty to show the prison system for what it is, and I believe Mark’s story does that in uncommon ways. Where his culpability ends and the prison system’s starts – that tension – is one of the most interesting questions in the movie.

What’s the best?
Be patient AND persistent. I don’t remember who told me that or whether it more just became a mantra. It’s kind of a contradictory sentiment, but it’s clear over the years of making this film that there were times to pull back and other times to push. I tend to push more than be patient, but the times when I cultivated patience allowed me to keep at it longer. It’s all about pacing. Oh, and timing is everything.

What advice do you have for aspiring or first-time filmmakers?
Seek out relationships with people and organizations that can become invested in your success. There are many opportunities for mentoring both from individuals – some of whom you can work for/learn from – and organizations that have programming set up for filmmakers – be it labs for writing or rough cuts. Finding funds is undoubtedly the hardest thing to get through those relationships, but there’s a lot of value tied up in meeting people along your path who can help you reach your goals be it in ways direct and indirect.

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