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Producer David Lancaster

Born December 29, 1952, movie producer David Lancaster grew up in Texas, graduating around 1975 with a degree in Drama from Southern Methodist University in Dallas.

"I went to the Actor's Theatre in Louisville, which at the time was a hotbed of new plays," Lancaster told me at his office near Studio City, March 13, 2002. "Jon Jory had engineered an incredible theatre there that attracted people from around the world. Louisville doesn't have the international prominence it once had. Unfortunately, plays have lost a lot of the impact they had 15 years ago.

"I worked as an actor for a few years. I got my Equity card [signifies membership in the stage actor's union]. I did television and got my SAG card. I worked on a TV soap opera and I soon realized that it was the most boring thing in the world and there was no way I was going to be able to sit for it. Then I worked as a stockbroker. I met these guys who I encouraged to invest in plays I produced. My first movies all came from plays. My first movie was 1985's The Laundromat for HBO. Marsha Norman wrote the play and Robert Altman directed. Carol Burnett and Amy Madigan starred."

Luke: "What was it like working with Bob Altman?"

David: "It was great. He was just licking his chops over some punk producer. He put me in the movie so I couldn't do anything. I played the attendant in a laundromat. I was in about half the shots. And I was supposed to be asleep the whole time so he could do what he wanted to. He completely immobilized me. And all the time he's telling me, 'You're doing a great job.'

"I've learned that plays don't translate well to film. There are not enough fancy camera moves in the world to make theatre interesting film. 'Night Mother is phenomenally moving in the theatre and yet on film it loses its immediacy.

"I like story driven pictures as opposed to high concept Armageddon type films. The films I want to make are not necessarily the type of films that studios want to make. As wonderful as LA Confidential was, it didn't make a whole lot of money."

Luke: "You auditioned Heather Graham for the lead role in 1993's Quick and instead went with Teri Polo. What do you remember about Heather Graham?"

David laughs. "What do you think you'd remember about Heather Graham?"

Luke: "Her bright sparkly personality."

David: "Something like that. Actually, she was really good. I liked her a lot."

Luke: "Was she really hot looking?"

David: "Yes. I thought she was great. It was between her and Teri. We fought about it and finally went with Teri. I did want Heather.

"It's a B movie. The way I figured out how to get it financed was to put Jeff Fahey, Tia Carrera and Robert Davi in the bad guy roles. And then cast the two leads with unknowns - Teri Polo and Martin Donovan - who I knew were great actors. That way I could come up with a good movie without having to cast the usual names you have to have to finance a movie. I think it is some of Teri's best work though she probably wishes she'd never done it because it was such a B movie."

Luke: "Tell me about 1993's Scam."

David: "I learned another producer lesson. Always read the first ten pages of a script. It was a blind submission. It sat in a pile for weeks. One day I determined I'd read ten pages in every script and then throw them away. I loved the Scam script and called the writer immediately. I took the project to Viacom and they bought it. Six months later, we were in production. Christopher Walken and Lorraine Bracco starred.

"I have lots of crazy stories about Lorraine Bracco. She was with Edward James Almos and was going through a divorce with Harvey Keitel. And it just so happened that there was a scandal about Eddie and one of Lorraine's daughters... Do you remember that? That happened in Jamaica on my set. I didn't realize it was going on. I knew the little girl. She was cute. Then Harvey filed suit and it turned into a mess."

[In his divorce from Lorraine, Harvey Keitel accused Almos of having sex with one of Lorraine's underage daughters.]

David: "It was a tough shoot. In Jamaica, I had a battle with one of the execs at Viacom and they tried to throw me off the set. I fought back. I got the stars to agree that they'd walk off the set if I got thrown off the set. Chris Walken is a hero in Jamaica because of the 1990 picture The King of New York, where Chris plays the white head of a black gang and is really tough and bad. In Jamaica, he's a god.

"We had a huge scene one day with tons of extras. Our production manager went down at the end of the day with a suitcase chained to his wrist. And we thought he was going to get killed. Once you start passing out money, everyone says, 'I was there.' The poverty in Jamaica is so intense. I heard a similar situation happened on Ali on the big scene where they got a bunch of free extras. And they were paying some of them. And it's tricky thing to do in an impoverished third world country.

"The Sadness of Sex [1995] is the most creative and intellectually satisfying movie I've ever made but it is extremely difficult to absorb in one sitting. I befriended this writer Barry Yourgrau who wrote these short flash fiction stories of less than a page long. He performs them in a standup setting and has a cult following in New York, LA and San Francisco. This was a compilation of ten of those stories, directed by Rupert Wainright, that we put together as one vaguely narrative structure about a hapless romantic.

"We got all these fabulous composers like Stuart Copeland, The Cowboy Junkies, to write something for free when we sent them one of our little stories. The film will visually blow your mind but it is hard to sit through in its entirety because it is so full of energy. But taken in pieces it is phenomenal.

"A couple of years ago, we posted pieces of it on IFilm.com. And at the time, it was the highest number of hits they'd ever had on IFilm.com. [Lead] Peta Wilson was nobody at the time. Then she got La Femme Nikita, the TV series, which became a huge hit. So people got crazy about her and that drove a lot of hits to IFilm.com to see our film. She was the girl of Barry's dreams. We had this phenomenal image of her in angel's wings and a garter belt. We had a distributor for the film that went broke. The story is a trail of tears. It never got properly released theatrically. It's not out on video. It's nowhere but the internet."

Luke: "Tell me about your 1999 movie Loving Jezebel - A man is cursed with falling in love with other men's women."

David: "I try to do one movie every couple of years out of love as my independent role of the dice. I try to put it together any way I can on a low budget. Loving Jezebel features a first-time writer-director Kwyn Bader. It was a black-white romantic comedy that made no mention of race. A black guy falls in love with a white girl. It was so refreshing not to even address it [race] at all. I don't think race matters much for urban kids anymore. We got it released through Universal and the [distributor] Shooting Gallery, just at the time Shooting Gallery was going bust."

Luke: "Don't Look Under the Bed [1999]."

David: "We sold an idea to the Disney Channel about a young girl who has a bogeyman under her bed.

"I haven't shot a film in LA in years. It is too expensive. I'm amazed I could shoot Loving Jezebel in New York City. That's the only film I've shot in the location where the story is set in years. I've shot several films in South Africa. Caracara is set in New York but I shot it in Toronto. I took a guerilla second unit into New York City one day and shot out of the back of a van. I know the old-timer tricks for making movies look like some place they aren't.

"I'm a traditional kind of producer. I'm always on set."

Luke: "What do you do on set?"

David: "I'm crying. I'm pulling my hair out. I shoot second-unit [a second film crew] a lot. I know what we need to get. These are short schedules and low budgets and I had to grab whatever I can. It's part of the formula I've come up with to make these 24-day movies. They're not the full studio shoot and they're not TV movies. They're indy features that usually debut on HBO."

Luke: "You've shot several films in South Africa. Isn't that a dangerous place?"

David: "That's a misperception. I walk around at night. I bring my family over. I feel safer in Capetown than I do in LA. It's such a modern country now. Communication and transportation is first class. The people are gracious and hospitable. The artistry is excellent. The feel there is like America 15 years ago. There's hope rather than cynicism. We do what we want to do because we like it. There isn't the jaded angry mentality that exists here now."

I talked to David about the economics of movie making.

David: "The [independent movie] business has been circumvented by the consolidation of the channels of distribution."

Luke: "How has the retraction in foreign sales affected you?"

David: "Tremendously. I'm strictly an independent producer. I generate my own material and go out and try to sell it. I raise the money. I package it. There's been a steady decline in foreign sales over the past five years. The loss of the German market in the past two years. It was Japan four years ago that fell out of the box.

"Germany's collapse started with the collapse of the [high tech] Neur market, which is similar to our Nasdaq. The Neuhr market floated tons of new issues [during the high tech boom] and many of them aggressively bought up TV stations, etc., and consolidated assets. Just like our Internet tech bubble, there was too easy money chasing too bad deals. The market blew up and the valuations went to hell. The German market was already oversaturated with American product. And in foreign countries, there's always sensitivity about having only American product and no indigenous product.

"The video market has also consolidated. Blockbuster is essentially the only game in town. When people first got VCRs, they were watching anything."

Luke: "So what will you do?"

David: "What's interesting about the film business is that there's always somebody who's willing to put up some money to make a movie because ultimately there's a level of subjectivity to making movies that can never be corporatized. As Robert Altman has proved, people will always be attracted to something that is good. You can't marginalize good material and material is what ultimately drives everything. That's why I don't spend my time schmoozing people much. I spend my time trying to find good scripts.

"There will always be someone out there somewhere with a camera and an ability to tell a story, like The Blair Witch Project, which will make all of us look like idiots."

Luke: "Why don't you make studio films?"

David: "Nobody has asked me. I made my second film, 'Night Mother, for a studio. I've made other projects for studios too but they always end up in development hell. An executive leaves and the project falls apart. I like to make movies and I've been successful. I think the best revenge in Hollywood is to make another movie. You can sit around and take three years to get a movie made, but I don't have the patience for it."

David has lived in this house for 15 years. "Every movie represents something in this house. 'Night Mother bought me the house. I added one room after one movie. I built this office. I added the pool after Scam."

Married for seven years to Karen, David has a nine year-old son Jackson Lee, and a 17-year old highschool senior, Nick. "That's why I have to work so much."

Federal Protection

I interviewed producer David Lancaster at his office-home March 13. He's a mild mannered cerebral guy in his mid 40s. Straight forward, low key, and pale.

Then Wednesday night, March 20, I drove up Robertson Blvd to a screening of his latest movie, Federal Protection, and watched David erupt with joy.

I parked and walked past various art shops then turned into the club Moomba at 655 N. Robertson Blvd. I wandered downstairs and ran into David, along with several beautiful slender blondes and the movie director Anthony Hickox.

Anthony's mom Anne Coates, a famous editor (Lawrence of Arabia, Erin Brokovich fame), came by along with British movie music composer Guy Farley.

The movie, which premiered last Friday night on pay TV, garnering HBO's highest ratings in that time slot for two years, then played on a medium sized videoscreen. The tables were lit with candles. People drank lots of alcohol.

Throughout the movie, cell phones went off, the cash register clinked and people next to me chattered.

I had a hard time understanding the beginning of the film, but within ten minutes, it gripped me and drew me into this story of a man hunted by the Mob while he tries to hide out in the Witness Protection program.

It's the most violent film I've seen in a long time and it made my stomach churn. But most disconcerting of all, everytime the movie turned bloody, David's table erupted in loud cheers. Led by David, they were applauding the virtuosity of their filmmaking - a 23-day $2.5 million dollar shoot. In feature land, that's a low budget. Above a TV movie but below a regular feature. Federal Protection was a gripping B-movie.

But during its many scenes of sex and violence, I grew to pondering - is this really how the Holy One, Blessed Be He, wants us to be entertained? How could I pray twice a day in an Orthodox shul and then seek out this type of movie? Wouldn't my time be better spent studying Rashi's Torah commentary?

I thought that the scenes where actress Dina Meyer fellated her sister's husband David Lipper in a park, and engaged in spanking with him, particularly deviated from the way that God intended us to express our sexuality.

After the screening, I spoke to an exultant and intoxicated David Lancaster. He was punching the air, exultant with how his latest movie had turned out.

David: "If you put Julia Roberts, Ashley Judd and Morgan Freeman in that film, it's a $100 million movie. Paramount has made a franchise out of Judd-Freeman thrillers. There's no difference between Federal Protection, aside from stars, and True Lies, Basic Instinct... And those movies had 90-days to shoot.

"We shot this in just 23 days in Montreal. We shot that whole hotel sequence where we have blood, guts, a shot through the guy's head, and a stiletto heel through the guy's forehead, in one day. All that blood and effects in one day. Then the whole sequence in the end, where he's chasing across the backyard with the machine guns firing and him jumping into the pool, that was all in one fucking night.

"We had the whole neighborhood up at 4AM because we were blowing off 20 mg machine gun shots. They threw us out the next night. We had to get it done that night. It's like the theater of the limited. At the end of the day, you have what you have, and you have to cut that and make it work.

"Like LA Confidential, you're seeing multiple subplots. The A-plot consists of Arman Assante and Angela Featherstone fall in love while he's on the run from the Mob. In the B-plot, you see Angela's husband David Lipper carry on an affair with the Dina Meyer character and try to get the money. Most Hollywood movies want to have an extremely linear story with no subplotting. I like to introduce several storylines so that it is much more mentally stimulating.

"Federal Protection had more B-movie texturing. Though many B-movies are linear. Roger Corman's movies are linear."

Anthony Hickox's mom Anne Coates helped with the editing of the movie. She thought the film too violent and she said she'd give her son Anthony a talking to about it.