Director Richard Raymond returns to Close-up Culture to talk about his Oscar-qualifying short film, A Million Eyes.
Written by Curt Zachariah Jr, it shares the story of a young photographer (played by Elijah M. Cooper), grappling with his mother’s alcoholism, who sets out to capture his own truth.
Q: We spoke last year ahead of Raindance about your awe-inspiring short film, ‘Soul Of Totality’. How do you reflect on the experience you had with that short film and the lessons you learnt from it?
A: It was a profoundly positive and life-changing experience. I got to share the film with audiences around the world, and meet a global community of upcoming filmmakers, who are taking risks and challenging the status quo. It’s inspiring to be surrounded by so many diverse emerging voices who in turn challenge your point of view and have an impact on your own work.
I also realised that successful short films actually receive a greater theatrical release over the course of their festival run than many low budget indie feature films. There’s equal value across the two mediums. Understanding that was liberating for me. Short films are not a stepping stone, they are a distinct medium in which you can tell important stories to a global audience.
Q: What are your thoughts and feelings about returning to Raindance [this interview was conducted in the build up to Raindance 2019] this year with ‘A Million Eyes’?
A: A Million Eyes is an American set story, but I’m a British filmmaker, so to be recognised again at home is very gratifying. I’ve found the audience at Raindance to be comprised of so many types of artists. Painters, musicians, poets, actors, writers… everyone under one roof having a collective experience.
A Million Eyes is a movie that showcases the maturation of an artist, so I think they’ll be a few who’ll understand what that’s like, and recall to that time in their lives when they first discovered that spark which lead to their own artistic voice. How scary it was. How fragile it was. The film tells the importance that mentors play in young people’s lives, especially during the their artistic journeys. I think it’s an important message as the next generation of artists starts to emerge.
Q: IMDb has this down as writer Curt Zachariah Jr.’s first film credit. What drew you to his script and this story of hope, growth and legacy?
A: I was catching up with my friend, producer Josh Reinhold, and lamenting how uninspired I was by scripts coming my way and he told me about this beautiful script he’d read by a first time writer who was part of the Black List Lab. Back then it was called “35mm”. He slipped it my way and I immediately could see it so clearly. It was so visual and lyrical. I understood the lead character of Leroy, I knew what it was like to feel alienated as a kid when you see the world in a different way.
We initially developed it as a feature film but eventually I suggested to Josh that we ask Curt to rework the screenplay into a short, which we could put into production relatively quickly. I think the key element for me personally is that urge to just keep creating, to collaborate with diverse people and tell important stories that engage an audience in a way they’re not expecting.
Q: As you’ve mentioned, Joe Morton’s character in the film speaks to the importance of role models and mentors. Have you had one of these guiding figures in your life as a filmmaker?
A: I think every artist can remember that time when they were supported by a mentor. That’s why in part the film resonates so deeply with audiences.
For me, (this will sound a little Cinema Paradiso), when I was a young teenager, I befriended the projectionist at Theatre 7, Pinewood Film Studios. His name was Nick, he was an older gentleman who had worked there for over 40 years. He was part of the very fabric of Pinewood and loved to regale me with stories about how he played rushes to Alfred Hitchcock. I used to go up there most days after school and he’d just let me to sit beside the projector and watch the daily footage from whatever film was shooting at Pinewood at the time. I’d be up there gazing thru a small window wide-eyed at films like Interview with the Vampire or The Fifth Element— it was like my own private film school.
One day a man looked up at me and waved thanks, thinking I was the projectionist…it was Sean Connery! Nick turned to me and said, “That’s okay, Connery did the same to me in 1961 for Dr. No!” Of course, Nick had an incredible respect and knowledge of cinema and since I was too young for film school he taught me everything he knew. He even bought me a 8mm camera. When Nick passed away everyone at Pinewood threw a big procession for him. He was beloved.
I think a lot of the reasons I connected to A Million Eyes was because of him and the way he encouraged me to keep pursuing my dreams. If it wasn’t for Nick I know my life would have turned out very differently. This film, for me personally, is in honour of him and that definitive time in my life.
Q: It must have been special for you to witness a talented newcomer like Elijah M. Cooper working alongside the experienced presences of Joe Morton and Katie Lowes. How did Elijah adapt to project and working with these two established actors?
A: I thank the universe for our amazing casting director, Chad Darnell. His discovery of Elijah, just 13 years old in his first film role, was the miracle we needed for the film to work. Elijah’s got natural charisma and presence, which isn’t something that can be taught. He brought his own perspective and introverted interpretation to the part. He was a delight to work with, as was his incredibly supportive family who were all with us each day.
One of the things I loved about Elijah was how he stayed in character on set. To do that takes a lot of maturity and focus, which for his age is rare. I think we’ll be seeing a lot more of him in the future.
Q: I found the scenes between Leroy and his mother incredibly honest and moving. Can you talk about their relationship and the power of making art that comes from a personal truth?
A: Any film is only as good as the actors you’re watching and I have to give praise to Katie Lowes. She was extremely collaborative and generous with her time and energy. She bonded genuinely with Elijah and brought such a uniquely human perspective to her character. We’re all flawed in so many ways and Katie wanted to show all the shades of grey with Amber. Here is a mother who has lost the great love of her life and now she’s raising her son alone in a discarded house which is both decaying and full of painful memories. She’s hurting, but she’s keeping it boxed in while trying her best.
It was important to Katie that despite the choices Amber makes, the audience roots for her. There’s nothing to demonise. There’s certainly no judgement from her son, who thinks the world of her and more of less looks after her. In the end, because of Leroy’s art, Amber’s arc is one of acceptance. She’s no longer going to hide. She’s going to face the pain head on. There’s a certain sense of healing about the ending I think. We feel that she’s going to be okay. Now having said all this, for an audience to feel it — that’s all down to Katie’s understated and beautiful performance. She’s a gift to any director.
Q: Last year you promised there were exciting things in the works – and you haven’t disappointed. One of those includes the upcoming feature film, ‘One Thousand Paper Cranes’. Can you reveal anything about the project and what it explores?
A: I am one of the millions of children who read Eleanor Coerr’s book Sadako and the Thousand Paper Cranes in primary school. I remember how our teacher taught us to fold origami cranes and send them to Japan. The entire experience affected me profoundly and, ever since, I have been fascinated with the power of storytelling and how one person’s story can make a strong and lasting impact on our own view of the world.
Years later, I came to discover that there was much more to the story of Sadako Sasaki, a greater untold truth — that of a union between two women who would never meet, but together created a lasting symbol of peace. That’s what the film is about.
Q: Evan Rachel Wood (‘The Wrestler’ and ‘Westworld’) is such a compelling and unique performer. How excited are you to work with her and the rest of this cast?
A: Thrilled. We can’t wait to get going. It’s been six years in the making and there’s no time to waste. We hope to start shooting early 2020 in Japan.
Q: Lastly, what do you hope audiences leave ‘A Million Eyes’ thinking about?
A: A Million Eyes reminds us of the importance of mentors in young children’s lives, especially those discovering their artistic voices. And to recognise the significance that arts education has on kids, especially those in underfunded communities who feel they don’t have any value. They do and in fact they have the most important voices.
Q: Could you talk more about this?
A: 80% of American public schools overall have no art or music teachers, due almost entirely to budget cuts by the administration. That’s unacceptable. Arts programs are the first to go because their impact is not measured by standardised tests. But the positive impact of the arts is absolutely self-evident to so many artists I know and in many respects, adolescent arts students achieve significantly more positive developmental outcomes than those who are not exposed to the arts.