INT: Lance Mungia

The Arrow interviews Lance Mungia

Writer, Director Lance Mungia made a name for himself via his low budget hit Six-String Samurai. Now he tackles the fourth installment in the beloved Crow franchise; THE CROW WICKED PRAYER (hitting DVD shelves on July 19 2005). The film stars Edward Furlong, Tara "my future wife" Reid, the great David Boreanaz and more! I had the chance to take flight with Lance and here's what he had to say about the making of the picture.

The Crow City of Angels or The Crow Salvation; which one do you prefer?

Which one did I prefer? COA is sorta funky, isn’t it? I saw COA opening weekend in Bakersfield when it came out. The original Crow had left a deep impression on me but COA did not leave as deep a mark. Honestly, I remembered visual images from COA, like Sarah’s wings, and an old woman throwing rose pedals into the river from that low angle, but I really didn’t reflect much on it for years until just recently when I got the boxed set. It’s still funky and I think it holds up for me better now than then.

Salvation. I never saw it before I was involved with WP. Both of these films are part of the Crow family and that makes it harder for me to say which I prefer, as I no longer really look at them as movies but more as cultural markers for where I was at when I saw them and where I am now. When I saw Salvation I was knee deep in shit trying to climb out of a bell tower with my AK, in other words already in development hell, so I didn’t watch it clearly. I enjoyed some of the visuals, especially last November when I digitized/ripped them off to put into my movie. Whoever did that cool rippling Crow in the sky we used… cool shot. What can I say, it really is a cool shot. Y’know what, I’ll just say that I prefer both and neither. Kind of like your sister’s kids, they are what they are, and you have to love them because after all, they’re your family.

What was it about The Crow Wicked Prayer project that made it for you, the ideal follow to Six-String Samurai?

WTF is an ideal follow up to Six String Samurai? You know, it’s funny because time has a way of passing and you don’t even realize it. I hadn’t seen it for many years and I sat there with Kristan Bernier, the D.P. of Six String Samurai, and watched it over beers. We laughed our asses off. That movie is better for me now that I can see it with fresh eyes and I realize how proud I am to have done it, and also that I should be paid more. I just ran across some photos of shooting SSS and I look like this obsessed kid.

I’m sort of weird because I never know just what I will get obsessed with. I just recently looked up at the clock and realized that The Crow: Wicked Prayer was finally over with and after taking a moment to be baffled at the loss of my youth, I now am wondering what my next obsession will be and trembling with the fear it will be something that takes as much of my time and energy as WP did. I think “Girls Gone Loco III” will be the perfect follow up this time. Low stress, good perks, quicker turn around.

After Six String Samurai I wrote a few screenplays that I still haven’t sent out or shown anyone, I’m still writing some of them on and off. I was sent projects and still am but I don’t get obsessed over most of them, and the ones I do get interested in, well, people can talk for years about making movies and they don’t always get made. They should teach classes in the art of talking. But I was also young and too stupid back then to know that Hollywood only makes twelve 80 Million Dollar Movies a year. Then I started making a few videos and got hooked on the fast cars, booze and women… no not really, I wish. When I was approached about The Crow, I liked the idea of being a part of the legacy that the first film had created and which I thought there was still more to explore within.

The first Crow with Brandon Lee was burnt into my mind and that scared me because I didn’t want to do the same sort of thing or just do a fanboy session on the original. After it was brought up to me, I went home and I thought about it. I popped in a dvd of Alien 2, and listened to James Cameron talk about what it was like to take on a franchise like Alien. He said, “If you’re going to take on a popular franchise, you either have to top the first in exactly the same way, or you have to spin it on it’s head and make it your own, which your audience will hopefully appreciate.” I knew that you can’t top a classic like the Crow head on, it is it’s own thing, but I also thought that I could contribute something on the subject and that if I got lucky I could bring something fresh to The Crow. I also was ready for the fact that not everybody would be prepared for my take, but the challenge I guess of making something new and yet familiar out of something I personally loved is what first attracted me to it, I think.

I liked the idea of conflict within the characters that made them more three dimensional than what had been done and that became the core of my interest at the start. Whether that succeeded or not in the final film, isn’t up to me really, now I’m just collecting my millions… but that was what started the ball. It seemed then that the other people involved were open to trying some new things with it, so I got sucked in, and once I get sucked in, well, I’m stuck with it to the end. I thought it would take six months to that end. It took over three years from concept to apple martini. It was the roughest, most paranoid, most creative trip I’ve yet had. I wish I was still an obsessed kid but I’m a bit sad to say that I’ve learned so much on this journey that I’m now an obsessed near adult/old man.

How long did it take to flesh out the screenplay and how would you describe the process?

The screenplay…wow. It was a long, long, long process. I’d never dealt with writing a screenplay in the way this was written. Right away I wanted to bring on Jeff Most to help me write it because I felt he had some great ideas and he was a link back to the original, because he produced them and was involved with the first script, and I initially was having a block at getting around the original. I’d messed myself up by picking a project that I idolized. Jeff helped me let some of the old baggage go and we had a lot of fun writing the first draft together, which is the draft we sent to Eddie Furlong and that got him involved. We wrote that in fourteen days. We used to sit in his kitchen at three a.m., writing, acting out scenes, trying not to wake his kids. And then other times we’d argue for days, but it was always with the best of intentions, and I love nothing more than a good creative argument as long as it comes from the heart.

At first I thought the script process would be pretty simple. But I find that as the writing process goes on, especially in a more structured environment like this was, people throw ideas at you from all different places and you get varying notes about things you barely even knew existed and you can get pulled here and there. Pretty soon, if you’re not careful, you can get lost in the details. I think that is where Sean Hood came in at the end, as we started pre-pro, and was very helpful, in just trimming it down and making the script more graspable. It still perplexes me however, how so many people can look at page count and relate it directly to budget and time. Do you think they budgeted correctly on that scale for “Atlanta Burns.” in the “Gone With The Wind” Script? It can be frustrating because as you get closer to production everyone starts to worry so much about page count, when in reality ten pages of dialogue are very different than a page of action. Short isn’t always better but if it’s an easier read, (film school types who love description pay attention) it’s an easier sell. At least in L.A. In New York, I hear they look at you funny if it’s under a hundred and forty pages.

The way this script came together at the end, it was very much a chess game, to figure out where to spend the time rewriting and where to leave well enough alone as it went draft to draft. But we were always fighting the clock. As you go, you figure out the resources you have, and the actors, you have to make quick adjustments. Like I said it can be frustrating, but also fun too because it’s a good healthy challenge and it can make things better. That happened in at least a few cases with the script, where necessity bred something creative. But for me the funnest part of the script process was working with the actors in the process. Eddie Furlong was very involved with the script from the earliest stages and we spent many a night playing Nintendo at his pad just talking about his character and what made it unique to us.

And luckily we got an unheard of week of rehearsal with the actors, well at least the primary ones, and I was able to work out a few kinks through that creative process as well. I love how with a script each person involved, each actor, or creative type, adds a new flavor or color to it. I liked the energy of that a great deal when working with Eddie, and David Boreanaz and Danny Trejo and Dave Ortiz and Emmanuel and the rest. I think the results came through in the subtext of their performances.

Overall, I can’t say it was the perfect writing environment, but what is? Bottom line, with this script, there are things that have remained the same since the start and some things that I would have done differently for sure, I always would have added to it, but it all came down to figuring out how I could win the chess game, and still keep the most pieces on the board. At some point you just hope you did enough and all you could and you dive in, because it’s not just about u in a room anymore. I can say that the experience of writing Wicked Prayer taught me a great deal. I’m a better filmmaker now because of the long, drawn out, painfully slow process of writing it.

In doing this third sequel to The Crow; what we’re your goals? What did you want to do different?

Is it the third sequel? You mean there were other sequels? When? I talked about some of this above, but I think it goes back to taking something revered, something that I myself loved and have a great deal of respect for, and making it my own. The Crow historically is about revenge. I wanted to make a movie more about the process of revenge, the winding, circular course that hatred can take on it’s path to revenge. That’s why the villains have their own motives, and why Jimmy is not the basic innocent guy, but a convict. Everybody in Wicked Prayer feels like they’ve been wronged somehow, that was very intentional. It sprang from the feelings I had after the Columbine Shootings occurred and 911. I didn’t think of this in a high brow way, but I liked referring to the concept that hatred begets hatred and I felt that the previous Crow movies were very clear cut about how they viewed good and evil, and my views were slightly more off center to that. I thought that my take could make for an interesting addition and change to what had been done.

My goal was to comment on the previous films, do my own standalone, while still homaging them in a way as a geek fan of them. I don’t know how well I succeeded, I’m still too weary and worn down from the long ass dramatic process of the film’s delivery. But I really thought it was interesting to take the most unlikely hero possible, a guy that everyone hated except his true love, and make him the savior this town has been crying out for. I like the underdog in Furlong. I also liked that the villains could have just as easily been ordinary people too at one point. That they chose the path they are on for good reason, all of them, because nobody thinks of themselves as bad, and I’m suspicious of people that think of themselves as righteous, and it seems there’s more and more of that these days all around. So it seemed timely.

As a filmmaker, I get a kick out of taking things that are very B, and making them A. I wanted to take a bunch of B concepts like a guy rising from the grave, Satan, Good versus Evil, and make them A, through the quality of the script and the performances by the actors. I think because we infused that quality in the script, it is why we attracted so many amazing actors to the project, and it paid off, for me anyway. The other Crow movies, and other movies about revenge in general, you leave the viewing feeling satisfied, the bad guy got his. I didn’t really want that. I wanted to create a more ambiguous feeling, so that by the time Jimmy gets to his true love at the end, you’re not so sure that she is going to be there waiting, because there’s a feeling of unease.

Eddie at one point wanted to end before Lily arrives, with him alone there, like we’re not sure if he’s earned the reunion, but I knew that ultimately the film should be about rising above our failings, that in the end we are human and that love prevails above our wrongs and our thirst for revenge. It was more internal than the others. I think the world would be a lot better off if people in general felt a little bit more uneasy about their concepts of justice and revenge anyway. That was my jumping off point and what I wanted to discuss and getting back to an earlier question, that’s why I decided to make the movie in a nutshell.

Did you watch the other films beforehand as preparation or did you avoid them?

I saw the original Crow twice on opening weekend, and it affected me both cinematically and on a more personal level. I really dug the notion that love outlasts death, that the everyman has a chance to overcome, and the visual style… well, it’s a masterpiece that I wouldn’t even try to duplicate, which is why I decided to go with the rich look this time, which is more my thing. I never watched COA in preparation for the film. I think the one time I saw it beforehand after my initial viewing years earlier, I was at Jeff Most’s house, I had been drinking heavily and probably intentionally not trying to pay too much attention so I didn’t mess myself up, or maybe I just didn’t remember much due to my hangover. Salvation I had never seen until I was already writing WP. I’m glad I didn’t see it sooner because I think it would have affected me, held me in tighter to the feel and locales of those films. Honestly I purposefully didn’t really pay much attention to COA or Salvation because I knew I wanted to do something that harkened back to the romanticism of the original.

The film is heavy in name talent. Was it ever an option/thought during pre prod to cut down on the name cast to put more money on the screen?

Ha Ha. That’s a good one. I would have loved to use all unknowns and put Danny Trejo’s twenty million dollar salary back up on the screen. I busted ass to varying degrees of success in always arguing to create characters that would attract actors that just normally wouldn’t be in an installment of a franchise. And I passionately could see each of those characters, and I fall in love with all my actors as a rule and respect their craft with a sort of awe and envy, and I think the actors we met with just dug both the script and the energy I was trying to create. At least I hope that was it, and not the huge payoffs Jeff Most was slipping them… I always tried to come at WP from an actor’s perspective, much more so than I did on Six String Samurai, because that to me was more of a visual sketch, while WP was more of an actor’s movie.

I love actors and my favorite part of the process is working with them. I know we had a meeting early on with an actor that I didn’t think would work, before we really had a script, and one producer I think was nervous I wouldn’t know how to talk to actors because I was quiet at the meeting. In reality, I just wasn’t obsessed with that actor and didn’t see that person in the role, I needed something to spark off of and I never found it. When I first met David B. or Eddie, it clicked. It just felt like a reunion of friends and creative ideas and I think it’s the strongest aspect of the film, budget notwithstanding. But getting back to the idea of putting more money on the screen, eh. I could have used another fifty days of shooting, who couldn’t? But who couldn’t?

A lot of times money can get freed up only to disappear back into a hole again. That’s the thing that sucks about filmmaking with any sort of budget and I’m sure anyone can tell you, it’s still a business, and you’ve got to be responsible with other people’s money and there’s never enough of it to go around because how do u put a budget on your imagination? If I could have done anything to put more on the screen, I would’ve. As it is, everyone from Fred M. Andrews, the production designer, to Jamie Christopherson, the composer, down through the whole cast on up and down, really put more of themselves into the film to make it work than they would had they been paid a basket of money. You can’t get people to devote the attention that only their passion evokes. There was not really a whole lot that was standard about making this film, except passion. That doesn’t make the film better or worse, it is what it is and we’ve all moved on by now, but it’s my perspective on it and the only way I ever would like to do it again, if I ever do it again.

What would you say was your most difficult obstacle to surmount during this particular shoot?

Time. Time is a bitch and it just keeps on coming and going. We either didn’t have enough or we had too much. From months of development while I squirmed in my unemployment chair, to thanking God every day that I was blessed with actors who all clicked on take one or two, to months and months of sitting at home waiting for somebody to call and tell me that our distributor still existed in the real world and that our negative hadn’t been burned in a “mysterious vault fire” or something just as horrid. Bad timing with the whole breakup, the whole nonsense. Either that or a good excuse. I was either hurrying or waiting through the last few years and I wish that I was like other directors that could hop into thirty things at once but unfortunately my tunnel vision is all encompassing at times. I did do other things, videos, some t.v. I wouldn’t admit to, writing, but this film was always there and I couldn’t get over it.

Did your Six-String Samurai experience help you in any way when it came to filming the fight sequences in Wicked Prayer?

Yes and no. The style of fighting in this movie is totally different than what was done in Six String. But the way it was shot and edited on Six String helped immensely in knowing that we only needed various pieces to make any given scene work. I learned an incredible amount from Jeffrey Falcon about HK techniques in editing and action direction while doing Six String, but I didn’t want to apply those techniques here too overdramatically, especially since there wasn’t time to micromanage everything the way I could with a more liberal schedule. Believe it or not I actually had a lot more time to shoot Six String Samurai’s action.

I wanted that to be like ballet, this on the other hand was more in your face and simple, from the earliest I wanted the end fight to be simple blows traded, two men, mono a mono. If we’d had a HK fight director he would have walked off on day three because we didn’t design things to work around a martial arts style. Actually, The Crow has never been about martial arts and I wanted to remain true to that. It would have been weird to see the Crow doing a flying crescent kick. Six String was all about set pieces and this wasn’t. The action on WP was just there to serve the characters, whereas in Six String the action and Buddy were all the same. When making what is basically and independent movie on both counts, you have to make hard choices and decide where to allocate resources.

If I hadn’t figured that out making Six String in a big way, I would have been pretty screwed up on WP because I would have had eyes bigger than my stomach. As it is, I got big blue eyes baby. But this time I cared more to focus them on scenes with dialogue and character, something I’ve always loved about movies but didn’t get to do on Six String as much. Give me 50 Million dollars or unlimited time and we can make the most kickass action on earth. With this, I just wanted good actors and I was lucky enough to get them.

Fanboy question; at the end of the film there’s a villain who is spared. Since he/she partook in the murder of Lily and taking into account The Crow rules, how was it that Jimmy was allowed to join her in the after life at the end?

That is an excellent question. Big spoiler here. From the earliest draft, going back to the core themes that revenge is a circle and that none of these people are pure good or pure evil, we debated that ending alot. I thought it was too neat and clean to have Jimmy Cuervo go up to her and just kill her/him. There were a few choices about how to handle it but in the end it was kept simple. Deep down I wanted Danny to blow him/her away, but I like that Tanner comes full circle too, that he’s realized that to take that action, he is the same as the bad guys are, and I think it’s a good subtle moment between Dave Ortiz as Tanner and Danny Trejo there at the end when Danny almost does it. Screw the mythology or whatever, it just worked for me on a character level for them, which I think takes precedent. It’s so subtle and silent though, you really have to watch Danny’s face, and Dave’s. Just one of those things…

I’m surprised no one has ever asked that about the mythology of The Crow and him finishing his mission before. I think in this film, it is more about Jimmy making peace with who he is, the violent things he’s had to do, and getting her eyes back. That’s what was different in this one, it wasn’t so much an act of revenge as an act of love that kept the Crow on his mission. If it had just been revenge, well, Jimmy Cuervo didn’t even want to come back, he didn’t want that mission, but he did it because he had to face both his own anger and his love of Emmanuel’s character. Yeah, it messes with the mythology a bit, but I always sort of spaced out in that class anyway. I just hope that it entertains at least some of the fans, I know it will never get all of them, but there’s a whole generation of new potential fans out there now that may not have even seen the others and I hope they find the film somehow and that they judge it on it’s own without giving too much weight to scripture, both in the genre and in the franchise.

What’s next for you? Any other projects on the horizon?

I am currently completely development on a screenplay to direct for LucasFilm. I am writing and directing the next three installments of the Star Wars franchise, episodes 7, 8 and 9. Yeah, that’s the ticket. Just kidding, actually I have a swell job at McDonalds now, and I’m thinking of becoming a ride operator at Disneyland, just in time for the summer rush. Okay, fine. I’m writing. I’m always writing. It never ends. I’m writing a quirky little horror movie for Lion’s Gate to produce and I hope to be done with my next three films in the same amount of long ass time it took to do WP. I also opened a small post house with some friends to edit my own stuff and do editorial work for others, Samurai Post, which can be found at samuraipost.com.

What was the first drink that you consumed at the Wicked Prayer Wrap Party?

An Apple Martini of course. Would the martini shot deserve any less? I will probably be drinking the same at the premiere party Monday if you would care to show up and buy me one or three. Trust me, I need at least four.

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