Marlene Rhein’s “The Big Shot Caller” follows Jamie Lessor, a man who’s life is a bit out of focus. Abandoned by his runaway sister, and raised by his grumpy poker-playing father, Jamie is beginning to wonder if true happiness is out of reach. That is, until he meets Elissa. Blinded by love, he can’t see that it’s a mismatch from the start. indieWIRE spoke to Rhein about the film, which has screened at a variety of film festivals – from the New York Latino International Film Festival last summer to the Sacramento Film Festival last month – and opens a the Quad Cinemas in New York today.
What initially attracted you to filmmaking, and how has that interest evolved during your career
From New York originally, I spent many years as a music video director, (including videos for 2Pac and Amy Winehouse), lived in LA and London, and now back in NYC. Since I was a kid, I was very moved by music, emotion, and eventually poetry. A movie to me was an event. Not something you went to to pass two hours, but a world you would jump in to and then come out of changed or moved. When I was young, after I saw the movie “The Champ” and cried my eyes out, I realized the power of film. I wanted to be an orchestrator of vibe. A conductor of photography, poetry and music, who could somehow touch people and do it in a cool and entertaining way. My background as a hip hop dancer made me want to add the ‘cool’ to the ‘touching.’
These days, the more and more I see empty films made simply to capitalize on a marketing niche, the more I want to make movies that real people can relate to.
Are there other aspects of filmmaking that you would still like to explore?
In addition to making my next two films, I would still like to explore performance more; acting and dancing.
Discuss how the idea for this film came about and evolved…
After my share of personal heartbreak, I really wanted to tell a story about loneliness and how we let ourselves fall for the wrong person out of a need to CONNECT. About how we try to resist, but self-acceptance is the only way out. And then, my little brother, who has a rare vision disability that causes his own sense of non-acceptance, went through something that left him more depressed than I’d ever seen him. I decided to tell this story out of my love for him.
Please elaborate a bit on your approach to making the film…
I’ve spent over 15 years as a music video director and became an expert at shooting high value on a low budget. I took that experience combined with my years in acting class and really, mostly, a fiery intention to kick-ass with this film – as my approach to making “The Big Shot Caller.” My main goal for this project is that it gets to be seen by and touch as many people as possible. I would like the theatrical release to roll-out into many more cities and then attain DVD distribution.
What were some of the biggest challenges you faced in either developing the project or making and securing distribution?
Challenges. Ha. There are so many of them constantly. Everything was a challenge and continues to be a challenge. The biggest one I face is that there are no A-list stars in the film which has caused most of the industry to turn a deaf ear to it. Even festivals, because unfortunately most of them are run by the same mentality as the industry – it’s about hype and big names – not necessarily a great unique story. The challenge has been to pick myself up after each disappointment and rejection and continue to believe in myself.
How did the financing and casting for the film come together?
The movie was financed by a private investor. The casting was put together by our Casting Director, Donna McKenna.
What are some of the creative influences that have had the biggest impact on you?
Music is my greatest inspiration. In fact, the song I kept listening to while writing this film was Jeff Buckley’s ‘Hallelujah.’ For some reason, music puts more in my writing mind than movies do.
What is your next project?
I have 2 next projects. One is a hip hop dance movie. The other is a black comedy about the bad economy, selfish corporations, and the bad things people will do when they lose their health-insurance. I’m so eager to shoot again.
What is your definition of “independent film,” and has that changed at all since you first started working?
My definition of independent film is anything that’s made outside of the studio system. The only thing that’s changed, in my view, since I started working is the overwhelming necessity people attribute to attaching stars to even indie films. It’s a shame it can’t be about the story.
What general advice would you impart to emerging filmmakers?
Make a film that burns in your heart and needs to be told. Not something you think will be your ticket to the next one. That’s called ‘delaying your truth.’ Don’t be intimidated by an entire industry that tells you you can’t. They seem to have so much confidence when they tell you what can’t be done. Meanwhile, America is starving for real inspiration. Dare to be the ONLY one who believes you CAN.
Please share an achievement from your career so far that you are most proud of.
I would say…what I’m most proud of is living through the dark days (and I’ve had a lot) to see my first film open in a real movie theater. To the public! It is my dream come true.