Read our roundtable interview with Sean Kirkpatrick, who made his feature film writing/directing debut with the upcoming crime drama ‘Cost of a Soul.’ The independent movie won last year’s “Big Break Movie Contest,” which gives previously undistributed movies the chance to obtain exclusive on-screen distribution rights across the United States. ‘Cost of a Soul’ will be released by Relativity Media’s Rogue Division in 50 AMC Theaters nationwide on May 20 as part of the AMC Independent program. The film follows two wounded military veterans, Tommy Donahue (Played by Chris Kerson) and DD Davis (portrayed by Will Blagrove), as they return home to crime-ridden North Philadelphia from Iraq. Kirkpatrick discusses with us, among other things,
Question (Q): Can you talk about how, as an independent filmmaker, this deal came about, the process between Rogue and AMC Theaters?
Sean Kirkpatrick (SK): How it initially came about, we had been screening at the festival circuit for the last year. It played at about 10 film festivals. We had amazing sell-out screenings, encore screenings, standing ovations, you name it. We had an amazing festival tour. We were coming to the end of it, looking for distribution for it. My co-producer, Jonathan Risinger, walked into an AMC and saw a poster that said “Do you have a movie?” We had a movie. We submitted the film, and the rest is history.
Q: How’s the process been since signing up with them? Did they make any specific cuts?
SK: Unbelievably, no. It’s been incredible. As a first-time filmmaker, it’s so rare that it’s the filmmaker’s film that gets out there without being chopped or cut. The first thing I said, because it’s in the distribution contract that they have the final cut and edit, and they probably would re-cut the movie, and I said, “What are you guys going to change?” They said “Nothing, we love it the way it is. We don’t want to touch it, your movie’s staying intact.” It’s been an amazing experience. They let me maintain creative control throughout. I mean, everything from the design of the movie poster was approved by me. They’ve kept me in the loop on every creative decision possible, which has been amazing, rare thing for a studio like Relativity Media to allow a first-time director (creative control). I mean, they could have just said “Well, see you at the premiere, have a nice day.”
Q: Why do you think they did that?
SK: Well, I think their explanation was “We love the movie, we wouldn’t touch it, we wouldn’t dream of touching it.” That’s what they said. I think the movie just stands on its own, and I think they want the creative input from the artist and the filmmakers, which I think is great. I think that’s important too. It is all about dollars and cents at the end of the day, it is a business. But they were working with me, so we don’t compromise anything, so that I don’t compromise anything, any of the artistry in doing so.
Q: So do you think (Philadelphia) Mayor Nutter will be happy with the film?
SK: Yeah, he was supposed to come to the premiere. I think that anybody who knows North Philadelphia, particularly the sections we filmed in, knows that this is a reality there. Ultimately, the film’s about urban violence. We really felt an obligation to the people who live in these neighborhoods, to portray their story as honestly and truthfully as possible.
Q: The character played by Greg Almquist (Charlie ‘Bernie’ Burns), you can see the Irish mob boss.
SK: In sections in North Philadelphia, there’s a division between Irish neighborhoods and African American neighborhoods. There’s still a huge division between those two neighborhoods, and that’s where the parallels in the storylines come from. There is racial tension and animosity still to this day in a lot of these neighborhoods.
Q: You hear about that a lot more in Boston.
SK: Well, it’s on a smaller scale. I’m talking about smaller sections, neighborhood sections than actual parts of the city.
Q: Speaking of realities, did you come across soldiers who came from Iraq or Afghanistan, one war to enter their home war, in a sense of coming back to the same crime-ridden neighborhood, continuing that psychological downward spiral?
SK: I know a lot of them, and I have a lot of friends who have served in Iraq and Afghanistan, and my brother’s actually stationed in Japan right now. But in terms of coming home to the other war, I didn’t know anyone, per sey, but I knew it was an issue. While we were shooting, the premise of the movie is that these veterans come home from one war zone, and they’re thrust into the war zone that is North Philadelphia. It seemed like everywhere we went, someone would say “Oh, my cousin or my brother or my friend, that happened. They came home, they served in Iraq or Afghanistan, they came home. They ended up getting in trouble or getting shot, or something happened to them months later.” So I knew it was an issue, I knew it was a problem.
Q: Were you inspired by ‘The Departed?”
SK: I love Scorsese. I think I’m inspired by all of Martin Scorsese’s films. He’s my hero, along with Sidney Lumet, Francis Ford Coppola.
Q: Would you hold a separate screening for soldiers who come back from Iraq?
SK: Absolutely, I would.
Q: How would you define a good soldier?
SK: How would I define a good soldier? I think the two things that separate a United States soldier from soldiers throughout the world is that we have a military that cares about its country and our people. Not only that, we have intelligent people in the military. I don’t really like hearing people put the military down. I think we have an extremely intelligent military, a highly intelligent military. They’re the heroes of our country.
Q: There’s a lot of violence in the film. Did you ever think of holding off any violence in any particular scene?
SK: Every time I thought about it, I kept telling myself, when I was writing the script (in 2007), I think North Philadelphia was the murder capital of the country. There were more murders in Philadelphia (than any other city). But you can’t tell a story of these neighborhoods without making it a violent story because it’s something that exists in these neighborhoods on a daily basis.
Q: It’s a reality.
SK: It is a reality, a harsh reality. My goal as a director was to portray the violence in the film, I did not want to glamorize it. I wanted to show it as it was, and I wanted to show the emotional impact of what the violence was. With every violent action, there’s an emotional reaction in the movie.
Q: This is your first (directorial) feature. How long was this in the back of your mind as a PA (production assistant)?
SK: I guess ever since I took a film noir class at Penn state. I fell in love with film noir, the 1940s film noir. Ever since then, I knew I wanted to make a film noir, but I knew I wanted to bring it into the modern context of today’s cinema. I really wanted to hold onto their aspects. I think you see a lot of film noir today, they bring a lot of the camp, but I wanted to hold onto what a film noir really was. Most of the stories are about veterans that come home from World War II, and they’re faced with dealing with the crime in their own city, the corruption and violence in their own cities.
Q: What were some of your favorite film noirs?
SK: I loved the old ones. I loved ‘Cross Fire,’ ‘Murder My Sweet,’ Orsen Welles ‘Touch of Evil.’ I even love the old B movies, like ‘Detour.’
Q: Can you talk about the shootings, and how you went into these locations and built a relationship with the community?
SK: Absolutely. Just to give an idea of the neighborhoods we were going into, I believe there were like three or four drug homicides at our locations, like a day or two before we shot at some of these locations. We made the movie on $100,000, and we didn’t really have the money, the budget, to bring police escorts in. Not only that, it could cause conflict bringing police escorts in. We relied on the community, and we actually built relationships with the community, particularly this one group of guys who used to be knuckleheads, who have seen the error of their ways. They do good things for the community. Their goal is to keep kids off the street. They do a lot of Boys & Girls-type stuff, a lot of charity work. They were our protectors. They still have a lot of respect in the neighborhood, and they were on our sets. Anytime there was any kind of conflict, they would step in, and they were our liaisons for the community. Eventually, what we saw happening was the community just starting to rally around us and supporting us throughout the process. Once they started hearing what the movie was about, I think they saw integrity in what we were doing, in the story we were telling. They were happy to have their story told. That was a huge reflection on the cast and crew, because they got to experience the community of North Philadelphia. They got to understand what they’re all about. It sort of gave us an obligation to portray their stories. While it’s a fictional story, a lot of this stuff is happening to people there on a daily basis, so we definitely felt an obligations.
Q: Did your cast have any reservations working on this film?
SK: No, no they didn’t. There wasn’t a single incident, first off. Nothing was stolen, no one was hurt. A tribute to these actors, they have the guts to really do what it takes. A lot of them even exposed themselves to the underbellies of these neighborhoods in their off time to really get into character.
Q: Going back to film noir, what do you think makes the film noirs classic?
SK: The basic elements that turn film noir into classics, I would say in general, you have these stories, most are really dark. The stories are always brought to life in a metaphor with the visual style. The visual style is always reflecting on the story, on the characters. I think it’s the ability to bring the visual elements and the emotional elements of the story and kind of mesh them and combine them. Everything feeds off something. Form follows function, it’s the easiest way for me to say.
Q: Would you film more films in Philadelphia?
SK: I would love to shoot in Philadelphia again, absolutely. My ultimate goal, I live in Los Angeles, and my ultimate goal is to make a name for myself there so I can actually bring the film community back to Philadelphia and New York. I really love New York. The East Coast is my home, and it’s where my heart and soul is. I can’t see myself not telling Philadelphia stories, it’s where I grew up.
Q: Do you have any projects in the works?
SK: I do, but I can’t tell you the names. One, several A-list actors are currently being contacted. It’s about New York, Hell’s Kitchen in the 1970s and ’80s. The other one is a dramatic television series that I wrote. It’s sort of along the lines of HBO, AMC, Showtime. It’s about corporate corruption through the eyes of a young millionaire who comes from very poor, blue collar upbringing. He’s thrust into this life of a millionaire, and the further up he goes in success, the more his life falls apart.
Q: Were those projects you’d write and direct?
SK: Both of them I wrote.
Q: Is there a specific approach you would or wouldn’t use from your first feature into your second?
SK: I think in terms of my approach, obviously I’d adjust the budget. I definitely made the right approach. I’m glad I made this film for such a low budget, because it taught me to focus on the actors, the performances. I’m going to take everything I learned from this and put it in the next one. You can always get more shots, you can always do this, but we didn’t have the time to do more shots. Most of what you see is two or three shots, a lot of them were done in one or two takes. We didn’t have time. It was really essential I focused on the cast and focused on the actors, really let them tell the story. I think that’s what great cinema comes down to. It all comes down to the actors and their performances. So I’m just glad I learned that early. I can’t wait to take it and use it in my next film.
by Karen Benardello