Sometimes you can only marvel – or be slightly perturbed – by the intense inner drive that propels an individual to greatness. Those rare people who have the unwavering desire to keep stretching the boundaries of their talents through exhaustive training and regimented discipline.
Kent Lamm’s short film, Will “The Machine”, offers a compelling portrait of a young athlete possessed by such a mentality. A thought-provoking, revealing and unflinching story that transcends the world of sport in more ways than one.
Q: The poster alone fills me with intrigue about the character portrait in Will “The Machine”. What did you want to explore in this story about an elite high school footballer?
A: There were a lot of ideas my writing partner Chris Fornataro and I had been thinking about with this one. We’re both fascinated by highly-functioning, dysfunctional people. It’s like they only can achieve such greatness because of this tragic flaw, and it gives them a mythic quality.
You see it in all walks of life – Steve Jobs is a great example – but it’s just everywhere in sports. Take the insanely competitive Michael Jordan, or Mike Tyson’s rage in his youth, or Herschel Walker’s total self-transformation after suffering from bullying. These people achieved incredible success, but always at a cost. And their stories are fascinating. You don’t need to be a sports fan to love 30 for 30.
We also wanted to explore the question of talent versus discipline. It’s not a level-playing field in life, and some people have great advantages. Can hard work really overcome that? What kind of obsession would that take? Is that obsession itself a talent, or is it ultimately an unhealthy hindrance?
Q: Co-writer and producer Chris Fornataro plays Will. How important was that for you to have someone with experience as a D1 athlete to help formulate and embody this character?
A: Chris and I have been making movies together since we were 11, but he was also playing high-level football the whole time. He was recruited to USC as a running back, so he’s been exposed to more elite athletes than the vast majority of screenwriters out there. This short is based on a feature he wrote a few years back.
I loved the story and characters, but I don’t even watch sports, so there’s no way I’d try to make something like this without his expertise at every step of the way. One big goal of the project was authenticity. It’s easy to over-dramatize what a day of serious training is like for an elite high school athlete. Chris made sure everything was grounded.
Q: The towering presence of Confederate statues in the trailer suggest there are racial undertones to the story. Can you talk about the setting of the film and alluding to the recent statue controversies in the US?
A: We planned to shoot the film in Los Angeles, where we live today. But the white nationalists’ rally in Charlottesville in 2017, and the resulting tragedy, was very top-of-mind for us.
Our hometown of Richmond, VA is about an hour away from Charlottesville, and was the capital of the Confederacy during the Civil War.
We started thinking about racism as a mirror to Will’s insecurities and dysfunction. Once we realized the film could also be an allegory for the history of the city around the Civil War, we knew we couldn’t pass up the opportunity to explore those ideas through Will in our hometown.
At one point, it was going to be very obvious with a Colin Kaepernick jersey and Confederate flags making appearances in the film. But once we landed in Richmond, Chris, Denzel, and I agreed that the statues and a couple of unspoken moments would create all the racial tension we need to get people thinking about the story through that lens.
Q: Denzel Whitaker plays Joe. He’s an actor I’ve enjoyed in a number of films. What role does Joe play in this film and what did Denzel bring to this project?
A: For the Joe character, we needed someone who could bring the strength to stand up to Will, but also the easy openness and vulnerability to connect with him. We’d seen Denzel in movies like Great Debaters, Bad Lieutenant, etc. and luckily we had a mutual friend who introduced us.
Denzel ended up being an amazing cast, as he brought this natural, friendly grace to his character that was a perfect counter to Will’s tense, awkward rhythms.
Denzel is also a great filmmaker in his own right, and was a big shaper of the film from the script all the way through the edit. He was going above and beyond for the project, and brought it to another level behind the scenes, we were glad to have him as an executive producer as well as a lead.
Q: The training images obviously stir thoughts of the Rocky/Creed movies, but the fractured poster reminds me more of a psychological thriller like Aronofsky’s ‘Black Swan’. Where did you draw inspiration from for this film – whether it be film or real life?
A: The athletes I mentioned earlier were the base inspiration for the character. Chris and I are both big fans of the Rocky series, but at one point started joking that this was an anti-Rocky movie. Rocky and Creed’s training scenes were motivating and inspiring. Will’s are miserable and lonely.
For the poster, we wanted to show the idea of a separation between Will and “The Machine” inside him. We often thought of Will as a villain in a superhero movie, and “The Machine” as his alter ego that gives him his power. The fracture idea was from our awesome poster artist, John Godfrey.
Q: You said on Instagram that this was ‘one of the most challenging and personal projects yet’. Can you tell us more about the challenges you faced putting together this project?
A: It was personal because I think Chris and I both saw a lot of our own character flaws in Will. And obviously we’re back filming in our hometown and reconnecting with friends and family, pulling in all the favors to make it happen.
It was challenging because even though this was the largest production we’ve put together in terms of budget and size of cast/crew, we were still wearing way too many hats.
For example, there was a porta-potty at the park location covering the 2nd half of the film. We had 2 days there, and on the first day I discovered that some… thing had destroyed the inside of this toilet in a fit of rage, and then left a frozen Jackson Pollock piece for us made entirely of his own excrement, in such a location that prohibited any practical use of the toilet for our female crew members.
There was nobody on set I was about to ask to clean up that disgrace to civilization, so at 5AM the next day I grabbed a flashlight and found myself director/night janitor of this film.
That kind of thing.
Q: Back in 2011, you had huge online success on a tiny budget with your debut feature film ‘Bad Is Bad’. How do you reflect on that project and the lessons it taught you as a young filmmaker?
A: That project taught me more than anything about filmmaking. Chris and I were 20 when we shot it, and it was the first feature we’d even tried to write. I’m proud of that film for a lot of reasons, but a big one being that we didn’t go with the trends of the time.
For example, we went for wide shots, oners, and deep depth of field whenever we could – the opposite of what most low-budget filmmakers were doing. It was one of the first features shot entirely on a DSLR, and to be given away for free on YouTube and Vimeo.
I also learned about killing your darlings. Our original cut was almost 2 hrs long and felt like 3. I thought the movie was a failure when everyone I showed was falling asleep. I put it in a drawer and walked away from it for 6 months.
Then on a whim, I took a look at it with fresh eyes and clearly saw everything that was wrong with it. I cut out 30 minutes, we put it online, and now it’s been seen by over 5 million people, which still blows my mind.
Q: What is next for Will “The Machine” and for you?
A: Will “The Machine” is premiering at Beverly Hills Film Festival on April 3rd, before heading down to Florida Film Festival, and Chris and I will be traveling with it. Once it’s had a good festival run we’ll release it online.
Other than that, I’m shooting a series of micro-shorts (2-4 min long) over the next few months, testing out some ideas and working as my own DP. I’ll be putting those online as I finish them.
After that I’ll go for something meatier to write and direct. A feature or a pilot.