Sgt. Cole Lewis, mentally and physically scarred by his time served in Iraq and Afghanistan, finds humanity, compassion and friendship in a group of similarly injured veterans in the psychiatric ward at a remote Veterans Hospital. Through humor and pathos, Lewis becomes a ray of hope in the ward, as the men find a way to combat their post-war grief. However, just as their luck starts to change, Lewis soon faces his fiercest battle yet. [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.]
“Happy New Year”
Director: K. Lorrel Manning
Producer: Iain Smith, Whitney Arcaro, Terrence Gray, Michael Cuomo, Karl Jacob, Victoria Hay, Tom Stein
Cast: Michael Cuomo, JD Williams, Monique Gabriela Curnen, Tina Sloan, Alan Dale, Jose Yenque, David Fonteno, Wilmer Calderon, Will Rogers, Noah Mills
Screenwriter: K. Lorrel Manning
Cinematographer: Soopum Sohn
Editor: William Miller
Sound: Allan Zaleski
Music: Paul Brill
Responses courtesy of “Happy New Year” director K. Lorrel Manning.
A restless child…
I discovered I was a storyteller at a very early age. Growing up, my parents were very protective. They were pretty strict about letting me go outside and play with other kids. Thus, I spent a great deal of time alone. I was pretty restless, so I constantly looked for ways to entertain myself. Writing stories and music seemed like a natural fit. I fell in love with film at an early age, but never had any aspirations to become a filmmaker.
Seeing Spike Lee’s “Do the Right Thing” really changed things. It was the first film that I’d ever seen that was entertaining and also made a strong comment about the world in which we lived. Through that film I realized the power of cinema to not only entertain but to affect change. Being a young African-American kid in the South with dreams of sharing powerful stories with the world, this film was was life-changing for me. Spike opened a door which I was now permitted to walk through.
A book leads to a wake up call…
In 2004, I was perusing a bookstore and came across Nina Berman’s “Purple Hearts.” It consisted of portraits and interviews of U.S. soldiers wounded in Iraq. The images were quite shocking and raw, yet painfully beautiful. I’ll be honest; I was not really following the war at that time. It wasn’t really on my radar. This book changed all of that. I purchased it immediately, cancelled my plans for the night, stayed home and read it cover to cover. The next day I hopped onto the internet and started to educate myself as much as I could about what was going on overseas.
In 2005, I had the opportunity to co-produce and star in an Off-broadway revival of Tom Cole’s play “Medal of Honor Rag,” which was based on the true story of Dwight Johnson, a black sergeant who won a Medal of Honor in Vietnam and returned home to Detroit as a troubled hero. During my research for this role, I began to read about the perils of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Throughout the play’s run, the creative team and I reached out to various veterans organizations, invited them to see the show and engage in post-show discussions with the audience. I learned a great deal during these sessions. On one evening in particular, we had veterans from Vietnam, Desert Storm and Iraq on the same stage, engaging in an intense discussion about their individual struggles with PTSD. This had a profound effect on me. I began to see the thread – their wars were different, but their post-war struggles were very similar.
Over the next couple of years, I continued my research, reading and watching everything I could, interviewing and talking with veterans and active duty soldiers whenever I got the opportunity. However, I didn’t have a solid idea of what I wanted to do with all of this research until 2007, when I met an Iraq-vet-turned-cop while in Chicago researching a play that I had been hired to direct. He talked about the horrors that he’d witnessed overseas and how difficult it was for him to return to civilian life. He returned stateside feeling numb, as if his “future had been taken away.” Becoming a policeman made sense to him because it was similar to what he’d done overseas, and he wanted to feel some sort of normalcy. As he talked, I was suddenly inspired.
That night I stayed awake and wrote a one-act play called “Happy New Year” – an intense drama about two Iraq veterans reuniting in a Veterans hospital on New Year’s Eve to contemplate their futures. When I returned to New York, I sent it to my best friend and actor Michael Cuomo for feedback. Michael was quite moved by the piece and strongly encouraged me to continue working on it. For the next few months we began to explore the character of “Sgt. Cole Lewis” in great detail. A few months later, I was given the opportunity to direct and produce the play by the Barrow Group (an award-winning Off-Broadway theatre company in New York), with Michael in the lead role, to great success. One night a group of military mothers saw the play and urged me to consider adapting the play into a short film so that more people could see it. A few weeks after the play closed, Michael and I raised the necessary funds and made the short film. The short received strong reviews on the festival circuit and eventually premiered online via The Huffington Post.
We screened the short for veteran producer Iain Smith who strongly encouraged me to expand the story to a feature-length film. Instead of picking up where the short left off, I decided to challenge myself and go backwards, making the events of the short film one of the final moments in the feature, an extremely daunting task. Though I had done years of research, I felt I needed to do more. For several months, Michael and I interviewed dozens of veterans from various wars – Iraq, Afghanistan, Desert Storm, Vietnam and WWII – their families, as well as various military and VA personnel. As painful as these stories were to hear, we realized how therapeutic the experience was for them and for us. These conversations loosely inspired many of the characters and events in the film.
Gaining a level of trust…
It was very important for me and Soopum Sohn, my cinematographer, to not get in the way of the action. We like to create an environment in which the actors feel totally free and safe to follow their instincts and “play”. That’s not always easy to achieve in film as it is in theatre. In film, many actors are used to showing up on set and being told exactly what to do and when, with very little rehearsal beforehand. Very little room for spontaneity. So, I insisted on intense one-on-one sessions with each actor before shooting. It was important for me to gain a level of trust that would allow me to push them beyond their comfort zones on set. This often resulted in very raw, honest and spontaneous performances.
That level of spontaneity extended to myself and Soopum. We didn’t have a specific shotlist. Soopum has a very Zen-like approach to filmmaking. He likes to see the action and movement of the actors in the actual space, then devise a plan on the spot. We decided that this was the perfect approach to take with this particular story. This may sound like a bad idea for a low-budget film with a limited shoot schedule. It drove my producers to the brink of insanity, but I had absolute faith in myself, Soopum, my amazing crew and most of all, the actors. I definitely think the risk paid off in the end.
Working against the odds…
One of the biggest challenges that Michael and I faced were convincing people to take us seriously and that this story needed to be told. We began to develop the feature, in earnest, in early 2008, right after finishing the short. However, films centered around the Iraq war were not performing well at the box office at that time. Starting out, we had 3 strikes against us – I was an unknown writer-director who had cast an unknown actor in the lead role in a film dealing with an unpopular subject matter. We approached various people in the industry for advice. Nearly all of them suggested that we fix one or more of the strikes. One agent that we approached in terms of securing talent suggested that I go through the script and remove all references to war or the fact that the characters in the film were vets. It was truly bizarre. It didn’t make any sense. Needless to say, we didn’t listen to any of them and eventually found the team who believed in us and the story. They saw what we we saw – that “Happy New Year” was a very universal story focusing on the difficulty of life after trauma that nearly everyone can relate to.
Hit by a blizzard…
Because we were under such pressure to make our days, there was very little room for error. If we didn’t get to a scene on a certain day, there was a very strong chance that we wouldn’t be able to reschedule it. Right in the middle of shooting we were hit with one of the biggest blizzards to hit New York City in years. The entire city was shut down. But for us, the show had to go on. We were scheduled to shoot a critical exterior scene that, in the script, took place in early September. If we didn’t shoot it that day, I would have had to cut it from the film. The night before the blizzard, producer Karl Jacob grabbed some blankets and convinced half the crew to sleep over in the abandoned hospital building that we were shooting in. Everyone woke up at the crack of dawn and started shovelling several feet of snow from the location in question, in efforts to make sure that no snow would be seen in the shot. Now, that’s dedication.
In the works…
There are several projects that I’m developing at the moment. Next up is “Red House,” a surrealistic road movie centered around a young priest on the run.