A few weeks ago, in the sunny city of London and at the best cinema in town (Genesis), the East End Film Festival screened an evocative and stirring independent drama named The Buskers + Lou. Revolving around the city if Portland, it told the story of Lou, a man who had returned after a stint away in hopes to better his life. Struggling to fit in with his friends now, Lou strives to be a better person for security and career purposes, finding that life is filled with little stresses and his carefree compadres aren’t helping with their attitude.
Coming from up and coming direct Alex Cassun, The Buskers + Lou, though at points visually strained was an impressive piece with strong characters and a unique plot that is both relatable and poignant. Luckily, I’m With Geek was able to catch up with Cassun to learn about his processes with the movie and his other projects.
Hello, I’m good just looking forward to a weekend of relaxing.
How was the reception to your film at the East End Film Festival?
It’s quite a nice turn out. Lots of people I didn’t know showed up and I’m hoping it’s a combination of good publicity and word of mouth. I had worked there the year before, covering for a friends blog so when I knew I wanted one of my films screened there. I was actually shocked they’d accepted it as we sent in a rough copy. But they saw potential and ran with it. It’s surprising but exciting.
Tell us a little bit of the backstory with The Buskers + Lou?
A while back, I wrote a screenplay in L.A about a hitchhiker in the passenger seat of an eighteen foot truck. It took place in real time, the whole scoop in three hours whilst the film would be two. In it, there were these different turns and a twist end. The plan was to throw the script out of the window, work with the actors to develop the characters and make sure they stuck within the boundaries. We had an excellent response from producers, so much so that I found myself in all these meetings. They wanted someone like Tommy Lee Jones as the truck driver, throwing these demand for his son to play the hiker, which would have worked too. However, they also wanted a solid script and someone else as a director. At which point the doors shut, they didn’t understand that I wanted a non-script feature but being a first time director, I didn’t have weight to carry it on with them
I was feeling disillusioned with how things were run in Hollywood. So I grabbed a few of my friends and we created Hurricane Emma, which I love it, it gets me emotional. There was no script, just cue cards and a premise. I knew the arc but no one else did. We had to trust in each other. I am impressed with the project though getting sound up to scratch was hard.
For me, with The Buskers + Lou, I wanted to do something similar and have a sister film for Hurricane Emma. We wanted to straddle that “professional amateur” stance. Not “amateur professional,” there’s a distinct difference. I really enjoyed it as I was able to see actors and see what motivates them. I worried less about what composed a shot because you can’t plan that for a non-scripted film. It took me out of my comfort zone and was a real eye opener. I’d never produce a non-scripted thing again but it was really fun.
Great, I’m really pleased with it. We had such a support group there. You know, I come from a reality TV background so I am used to this “run and go” style. However, in your review, you made a comment about insert shots (confusing them for close up shots). We wanted this subtle symbolism. There’s a line of dialogue in Steven Soderbergh’s first feature, Sex, Lies and Videotapes and he says all he wants is his car key and house key so he doesn’t have to worry about them. That’s similar with Lou. He has these keys and he looks at them like “this is pathetic, I need more keys” for security. So we had shots like that.
Though, we had filmmakers who were leaning more to cinematography that used weird angels to cut of Lou because I wanted him out of frame. We ran with it and got what we good. I’m not saying what they did was bad, but if I could reshoot it. I would. I just wanted you to know it wasn’t as deliberate as it seemed.
It wasn’t that it was bad, it was just heavy handed. Very indie with the music and such.
What we wanted to do with the music is to find a balance that epitomised Lou’s struggle. We wanted the natural sounding music with the buskers and on the other side, we had electronic. As Lou found balance, I wanted it to merge but we didn’t have time to get what we wanted. There’s more of a style to it. It wasn’t intended, I’d be more subtle.
Talking about balance and subtlety, the film has one of the most surprising touching endings for Lou.
The end, it was the first time Lou smiles and enjoys his self. I don’t like that shot. I wanted it more obscure with Lou turning his back on the party and looking up at the stars like “I don’t know what’s going to happen.”
But the idea for me was to not be a tyrant. Editor Peter Stewart chose the last shot. I’d thought for a long time on how I wanted it to end. But this is a collaborative project. Peter chose the final scene as it had so much emotion to it. For me, it’s a false ending. Lou still has to wake up the next day and get up and face his problems.
There is definitely still that sense to it.
Oh good, I’m glad that comes across well.
Another moment, is when he sees the poster and realises he does have this support.
When he sees the poster, he knows he has friends are here to help. Right before that he thinks work is going to support them as he works so hard for them. When that doesn’t happen, he is at a loss. He sees that poster, knowing it’s not really going to help but knowing that there are people looking out for him. And that the little things are important.
I’d just moved to Portland and didn’t know anyone. I put a few ads and Marshall showed up. I don’t know what drew us to him. He was a really good actor but not a professional; he was a renaissance man with good taste wanting to try things. I thought he was too much of a pretty boy. But he conveyed his angry with Lou, I don’t know if he was really grouchy but talking to him after, it was clear he understood the grouchiness of Lou.
Casting was different. I had about nine people in different groups; three great actors, three who looked the part and three who were weirdos. That latter group, and I use weirdos as the most endearing term I can think of, were these characters from the city. They would have made a brilliant and interesting film but because I didn’t know them, I couldn’t rely on them so I scrapped it. In the end, Marshall was the best. Jackie looked the part. Tyler, who played Ben, was initially a model for Lou but he was better as Ben. What I liked about the Ben character is that he and Lou were the same person and went off on different trails. Ben’s now a musician and Lou has cashed his chips in.
There is definitely a feel of, for want of a better word, “hipster” culture. Is that what you wanted to represent.
I think the problem with this culture is that “hipsters” attach themselves to anything interesting and ruin it. They are people who try too hard to be cool. Ben, however, has a casual coolness to him. His friend Devon is a bit more centrically hipster with the curled moustache. And interestingly enough, we attracted more artists. For example, the Crow and the Wolf in the park. We’d set up a shot in a park and these girls were performing an exhibit that they were touring. We chatted to them and asked them to join. I ran off and the camera man just shot it. Just shows how important a director is.
What about Jackie? She’s trying to live this carefree life style but on her parents dime.
I don’t think her character isn’t hipster. I’d class her as more bourgeois, definitely art class. She’s not going very far in life and doesn’t want to and like some people, she’s happy with that. Though, she gives him advice on his situation, like “don’t take the job” but doesn’t offer a solid solution.
I have someone in L.A. who has never had to work for anything. He’s such a great writer and we’d stay up for ages talking ideas. I got fed up but he stuck through it. He now has Emmy’s. But he has an affluence background and does stupid things because he can get helped out and not end up in a ditch. It’s an anger at people who don’t have a safety net. Lou doesn’t have one and gets angry at Jackie for not understand and similarly he doesn’t care for Jackie’s help with the van and such.
How about the supervisor Steve, he’s an unlikable character, were you making a comment on minimum wage jobs?
A lot of people said that but I really liked his character. It might be because Robert (Thrush) was so good. He came up to me and asked whether or not the character should be a democrat or a republican. I can’t remember my answer. But I wanted either a sympathetic but strict guy or someone un sympathetic. I guess we went the latter way. He’s someone who is too into the system. He might have compassion for Lou but doesn’t want to help him out as it isn’t part of the code. He doesn’t give Lou the answer he needs to succeed and he doesn’t realise he is exploiting people, because that’s what minimum wage is. It’s the little things like needing a phone or shoes that stress Lou out more than anything, especially as Steve doesn’t tell him straight.
You work in Camden now which has a similar artistic vide to Portland, how do you feel about the juxtaposition.
It may be too touristy but it is Portland-esque and Portland will get to that point too.
What other projects do you have in store?
I have an abundance of ideas, some might say I’m working on too much stuff. I need to zero in on a script. I’ve just come back from Scotland and worked with another writer. We just finished it and I said “what if we made it a female character” so everything’s had to change. It’s a drama that happens to be an action film which is fun and maybe filming in London. I have other projects but I don’t like writing, I’m more of a bigger picture kind of guy and I need people who can do details. Also, I have my company Indieground Films which is working on bringing people together for projects and helping them produce that. So there is lots going on.
Sounds like Alex is on a stellar career path! Keep an eye out for his films such as Hurricane Emma or Buskers & Lou!