26-Year-Old Miami Filmmaker Hits the Big Time
26-year-old Miami wunderkind Lee Cipolla called The Juice from Los Angeles, where he recently sold two of his independently made films to Grindstone Entertainment, with DVD distribution by Lionsgate Home Entertainment. One of the films, Know thy Enemy, has been a hit in Blockbusters and Best Buys from coast to coast since its release in May; the other, Harder they Fall, hits stores today. The lovely and talented Cipolla was game for a little Q&A.
What were you like in high school in Miami?
I went to Krop, the magnet school for performing arts in Aventura. I went there in the inaugural year, 1999 - 2000, and was in the first class that graduated from there. I started out in theatre and wrote a one-act play based on an experience I had with my best friend, hanging out one day. He's black and there was some sort of robbery a couple blocks down. The cops arrested him -- it was complete racial profiling; he was taken into jail for the night. I was really affected by the experience and writing the play was the first time I could express my frustration through writing. Andrea Kidd was my theatre teacher - she had the play produced, and it won a bunch of awards -- that compelled me to want to do more and write more. Senior year I wrote couple plays and it turned out the film department wanted to produce them as short films. Long story short, I stepped in as the director at the last second. [From making that,] I got a small scholarship from the National Foundation for the Arts and from there went on to UCF.
Tell me about the movie you made.
It was a short called Taken Away. To make a movie takes money -- you need equipment, you need to lock down locations. We were all poor and had no money. My two friends were martial artists. So we decided to make this action movie with a plot -- about a kid who won this tournament but he cheated against his opponent, a poor kid from Calle Ocho. That kid sees them later and they duke it out on the street. We shot it with a friend's DV handheld camera. We used my parents' camera. When we had to light the boxing ring, we went to Family Dollar and for five dollars bought these field lights. Field Light Films -- that's the name of my company now. That film was more of an experiment. I didn't have the visualization of a movie. But it won a bunch of film fests -- close to 15 film festivals -- in Phoenix, the Hamptons, Palm Beach ... we were collecting a lot of awards! That was back in '02. Anthony Hopkins, Brett Ratner and Edward Norton were at the Palm Beach International Film Festival, at this banquet where they screened all the winners. I met them all. Anthony Hopkins was like, "You did the martial arts film, with the guys fighting! That was great!"
(More interview after the jump.... Trailer for movie below)
What was it like going to UCF?
They have a great film school -- I actually was there for a year and came back to Miami because I couldn't afford tuition. When you go to theatre schools and film schools, you need your free time to develop projects, and you need spending money to develop projects. I guess if you're pursuing a normal degree, you can use your free time to work off loans and pay rent, but I didn't want to pull out a bunch of loans. So I just started developing Taken Away into a full-length feature called] Harder they Fall. That year at UCF changed my perspective. I learned a ton. I learned that you're making art for the audience -- don't make stuff for yourself. One teacher, Barry Sandler -- he's written a couple of screenplays like Kansas City Bomber with Raquel Welch and Crimes of Passion with Kathleen Turner -- he revised my first feature outside of class. He said, 'You should go out and make it. Do what you can." I ended up getting an AA and an AS from Miami-Dade in 2005.
How did you make Harder they Fall ?
I figured I would come home and shoot it that summer, but it ended up taking one and a half years. I would love to tell you how much it cost to make, but under the agreement with Grindstone/Lionsgate, I can't get into that. I can tell you it cost very, very little. At a certain point, it's about who you know. I knew a guy who had a DVX 100 [camera]. I gave him X amount of dollars to rent it for one month. I borrowed [a friend's gym for a location]. We lost a deal to get lights, so I had to use those five dollar field lights again!
But you didn't sell the movie right away.
[For a day job], I worked as a production assistant on movies -- Fast & the Furious for a little bit. I worked on a lot of music videos -- Trick Daddy, Mariah Carey, Rick Ross, Trina, Pitbull, DJ Khaled, Fat Joe. There, I took a lot of notes behind the scenes. [That gave me the idea for another movie,] Know they Enemy -- it's about two rap artsists that are best friends from childhood -- one a street kid and another from music family. The shy and quiet kid gets picked up by a label because he writes amazing lyrics. The label wants to market him as a gangsta rapper but the other kid fits that mold. It's about how the music industry uses false images to sell records.
When I was working on Know thy Enemy -- my friend and I were sitting in a Wendy's parking lot, laughing, saying 'When we finish this movie, we're going to drive to L.A. [and get the movie sold]. The next morning we kind of came back to reality and were making fun of each other. But then we thought, 'Well, let's shoot high and if we get halfway there we'll be pretty happy.' [My producing partner] Jeremy Mitchell came out to L.A. and I came out shortly after him. I can't tell you how many people sat down with us and said 'You will not make a cent off these movies.' Well, through a lawyer, Jeremy got a sales agent. Last year -- it was an hour before my birthday, and I was actually back in Miami working as PA on Marley & Me -- our agent told us Grindstone wanted to pick up Harder they Fall. He told them they couldn't have Harder They Fall [unless it was] a two-picture deal, for both movies. He said, "And by the way, happy birthday!"
Awesome! What's next?
I'm bicoastal now. I 'm out here editing a feature called Immigration Tango, directed by David Burton Morris. I have two more movies that aren't filming yet --- Ultimate, which is a biopic on mixed martial arts; and The Tour -- Jeremy, my producer on Know Thy Enemy, used to be a semi-pro tennis player -- it's about his experiences in tennis world, fiction but based on his own story. This time, we want to get funding from a studio -- get the funding before we shoot it.
Are you rich now?
[Laughs} I'm definitely not rich -- maybe in a couple years! But this is a great first step. Grindstone acquired the movie and are relasing it through Lionsgate on DVD -- they do all the major releases, so it'll be in all the Blockbusters and Best Buys. The deal with getting deals is having stars. We had no stars, so that's a major accomplishment -- most guys don't even watch a movie without a star. The next step would be to raise the budget to have actual stars, to be taken seriously at higher level. Put it this way , I'm working on movies now -- as opposed to being crew, I'm doing bigger creative postions, like editing this feature and working on projects at a higher creative level. But being a PA? I hope those days are over forever.
Do you have advice for people who want to break in the business?
Just get your work done and get it out there. Everyone has their own path. If you like to study and have good people skills, go that [film school] route. If you're dying to make a movie, just go out and shoot it. Find your audience and go make it happen.