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Meet the 2011 SXSW Filmmakers | “96 Minutes” Director Aimée Lagos

Meet the 2011 SXSW Filmmakers | "96 Minutes" Director Aimée Lagos

“96 Minutes” is the harrowing story of a carjacking and four kids caught in the terrifying maelstrom of one night. Intercutting between the car and the beginning of that day, we follow the separate stories of each kid – where they come from, who they are, and how they all ended up in one car on this fateful night.

Their worlds are starkly divided along class lines, but on this one night, their lives slam headlong into each other. Not all of them are innocent. Not all of them survive. These 96 minutes will change everything. [Synopsis courtesy of SXSW]

[indieWIRE invited directors with films in the SXSW Narrative, Documentary and Emerging Visions sections to submit responses in their own words about their films. These profiles are being published through the beginning of the 2011 SXSW Film Conference and Festival. To prompt the discussion, indieWIRE asked the filmmakers about what inspired their films, the challenges they faced and other general questions. They were also free to add additional comments related to their projects.]

“96 Minutes”
Narrative Competition
Director: Aimée Lagos
Producer: Lee Clay, Justin Moore-Lewy, Charlie Mason, Paul Gilreath
Cast: Brittany Snow, Evan Ross, Christian Serratos, J. Michael Trautmann, and David Oyelowo
Screenwriter: Aimée Lagos
Cinematographer: Michael Fimognari
Editor: Aram Nigoghossian
Sound: Jeremy Bowker
Music: Kurt Farquhar

Responses courtesy of “96 Minutes” director Aimée Lagos.

A transformative experience…

Truthfully, I’m not one of those people who knew as an eight-year-old kid that they wanted to be a filmmaker – becoming a filmmaker was more of a journey for me. But at the heart of my desire to make movies is my belief in the power of storytelling and the potential for change that exists when a person spends a little time immersed in the sights, sounds and feelings of a life that isn’t their own. For me, the possibility that through that experience someone can change how they see themselves or something about the world around them is incredibly exciting.

My journey towards filmmaking began in theatre. I got interested in directing theatre at a very young age and began studying it seriously when I was 16, but it was really my experiences outside of the entertainment world that sparked my desire to direct film. I spent a lot of time in my early 20s traveling in Europe as well as in Central America and I lived for about a year in a small Mayan community in Guatemala. The experiences I had living in places and with people who were so vastly different from myself were utterly transformative for me. I think a similar transformation can happen when watching a film – a piece of your mind can open up and you start to see things and even yourself a little differently. People often say that there are no new stories to be told, but it seems to me that most peoples’ stories haven’t been told at all. My choice to become a filmmaker was fueled by the desire to tell the stories that often don’t get told; to present a different perspective; to shed light on things we usually just leave in the dark. Film is an incredibly powerful way to do that.

Planting the seeds…

The seeds for the story of “96 Minutes” were planted in my mind when I was in college but I didn’t really start seeing it as a film until much later. I went to a university that, although it was located in a major city, was very sheltered and idyllic. But while I spent most of my time in school, I also spent a lot of time in some of the most impoverished neighborhoods in the inner city doing after-school writing programs for kids and interning with the city’s neighborhood stabilization project aimed at community empowerment. I loved the work I did and the kids I worked with, but coming face-to-face with the harsh reality of their daily lives was stunning and utterly heartbreaking for me. They were young, sweet kids who were just barely getting by, all under constant and immense pressure everyday to join gangs. They would hang out in the hallways trading stories of whose cousin got shot in which drive-by that week, and I’ll never forget the time they all laughed at me when I made a comment about the hope that someday they’d go to college. They laughed because they were all sure that by the time they turned 18 they’d either be in jail or they’d be dead – that was just the way it was.

Those worlds I spent time in seemed starkly divided, until suddenly that all changed. A string of violent attacks rocked our campus community – armed assaults, carjackings, rapes, murder. The often very young kids that were committing these crimes were from the neighborhoods I worked in – they easily could have been the kids I loved so much. The things that were happening to my friends and classmates were horrific and seemed like pure evil, but I knew the story was much deeper than that.

I wanted to tell that story – the story about kids from completely different walks of life, all struggling to find themselves – all wanting nothing more than to be loved, but facing vastly different obstacles in their way. I had watched the kids I worked with get hammered everyday with messages that told them that they were thugs, gangbangers, nothing more. Good kids, doing nothing wrong, just walking home would get accosted by cops, treated like criminals, all because of how they dressed, where they lived or the color of their skin. When the world treats you like you’re a no good criminal even when you’re not, and you’ve got no one giving you any sense of hope, it’s often just easier to become that criminal. I wanted to tell that story, but I also wanted to tell the story of the pain and destruction that comes when that choice to give into the pressure takes hold – when our kids stop seeing possibility – when we stop giving them a reason to hope.

“The real deal”…

Once we finally got through all the challenges of financing a film with a young, multi-ethnic cast (that isn’t a comedy), we had some serious creative and technical challenges to tackle. Truth and authenticity were paramount to me from Day 1. I knew that if there was one false moment in this film, the entire thing would all come undone like a sweater unraveling from a pulled thread. That meant everything had to ring true, from the casting to the locations to the set design, I wanted the real deal. Atlanta was the perfect place to shoot in terms of capturing this kind of authenticity and the camera style my cinematographer, Michael Fimognari, and I developed for the shoot was really all about letting the locations inform the stories of each of the characters while creating a kinetic energy that made it feel like life was just happening right in front of us. However, this perspective posed a particular conundrum in how to approach all the interior car work. A good portion of the film takes place inside a moving car and it was crucial that those scenes feel absolutely true. Often times car work can feel false – the lighting doesn’t look authentic, the perspective out the windows is bizarre because the car is mounted on a process trailer – I wanted to find a new way of doing it.

The first essential element to cracking it was the right camera. Most of the film is shot super 35mm but for the car work we needed something that had a lot of light sensitivity so we didn’t have to over light, and something that was small enough to allow for our kinetic hand-held camera work to carry through these scenes. We did a bunch of tests and found that, given our specific needs, the Canon 7D outfitted with cinema lenses was the perfect camera for the car work, and with the use of Technicolor’s LUT, it cut beautifully with the 35mm footage. So we had our cameras, but there was still the question of how to design the car shoot.

One of my producers, Justin Moore-Lewy, had the idea that we could build a rig for a car that would allow us to drive it from the roof so that the actors, the cinematographer and myself could all be inside the car shooting take after take as we drove through the streets of Atlanta. Amazingly he found a guy to build us what soon became known as the “Franken-Rig.” We scouted driving routes that would give us the lighting scenarios we needed for the different scenes and on the day, we drove these routes over and over again, doing take after take without stopping. It really helped to create an amazing intensity inside that moving set that I think really comes through in the performances.

Any crazy stories?

Too many to even know where to begin! Every day was a wild ride on this shoot, but one thing that happened somewhat by accident had what I think is a fairly big impact on the film. Originally, the Duane character played by David Oyelowo, was written to be a guy who owns and runs a gas station. We scouted and scouted to find a gas station that would work with what I had in my head, but we were coming up short (and everyone was about to kill me!) We were two days out from starting principle photography when my producer, Lee Clay, and Production Designer, Denise Hudson, were out desperately combing the streets of Atlanta for the perfect gas station when they decided to stop for BBQ at what happened to be an old converted gas station turned BBQ joint. They walked inside and found a vibrant space filled with warmth and character. When the owner stepped up to the counter to take their order, Lee was struck by how much this guy reminded him of our character Duane. Lee called me down there and the moment I walked into the joint and saw the owner’s smiling face and wise eyes, I was sold. I immediately called David Oyelowo and told him I wanted to change the setting of Duane’s world and shift his back story a bit. I had met the perfect man for him to model his character after. He was instantly excited by the idea. He hopped on a plane and headed down to Atlanta to spend the day with Greg and learn the ins and outs of running a BBQ place. That location is one of my favorite sets in the film and David’s stunning embodiment of that character brings such tremendous heart and warmth to the story – I can’t imagine it any other way!

Next on the docket…

I have a few things in the pipeline right now, on the writing side. I’ve got a script at Screen Gems that’s looking like it’s getting ready to shoot and I am finishing up another script that’s a bit of a family drama about secrets and lies set in the world of a supernatural thriller. But I am also reading a lot of scripts and looking for something new and exciting that I can sink my teeth into directorially that isn’t necessarily something I’ve written myself.

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