Tuesday, March 8, 2011

No Boundaries: An Interview With Kantz, Director of "Urgency"

In the modern era, artistic freedom and financial independence are inextricably linked.  Seeking acceptance and funding from the powers that be can lead to a form of indentured servitude.  Those in charge won’t let anything offset the balance of power, but they will dole out a few crumbs to appease the peasants.  Knowing this, the more ambitious members of the creative community have chosen other means to see their artistic visions realized.  They often have to do so with minimal resources at their disposal, but in the long run it’s worth it.  When you aren’t beholden to corporate benefactors, your vision can be presented to the public as it was originally intended. 

Kantz has been walking that lonely road for a while, and by all accounts he has no regrets.  A student of Hong Kong Action cinema maestros such as Chang Cheh and John Woo, he has incorporated their techniques in fashioning his own form of cinematic Gung-Fu.  With the upcoming thriller Urgency, he continues to expand his resume and defy stereotypes of African American filmmakers.  He sees the future of action cinema as one where the boundaries that confine the genre are broken down.  He continues to chip away at those walls, one film at a time. 

Scott Tre: How did you get involved in filmmaking? 

Kantz:  Basically man, I grew up in a pretty rough neighborhood and my aunt would always encourage me to find things to do to stay busy.  (i.e. stay out of trouble) She had a Super 8 camera and I was just really curious about it.  One day I took it out the box, went out and shot some stuff.  I really didn’t know what I was doing.  I took the footage to the lab, and after it was developed and came back, I was like, “Wow, this is pretty cool.”  I was hooked from that point. 

Kantz shooting Urgency

Scott Tre: Why can’t Hollywood understand that black audiences enjoy variety and quality like everyone else?

Kantz: That’s a good question man, regarding variety; Hollywood does things that have worked in the past.  I can understand that they don’t like taking risks, no business does, but that makes for some predictable features.  I think things are changing and the audience seems to be ready for more adult fare and new concepts like Inception and The Adjustment Bureau.  (Laughs) There is hope.  Filmmakers are responsible for the quality; they have to learn their craft, cinematography, lighting, editing, sound, film versus video.  I think some of the black filmmakers were more concerned with the acting and story than the visual content.

Scott Tre: Do you think that black audiences are complicit in the way they are viewed by Hollywood?  Do you think that we share some of the blame in regards to some of the substandard product that is directed towards us?        

Kantz: You know what?  I have to say that we definitely have some responsibility. There was a film with Don Cheadle called Traitor, which was a good movie.  I told as many people as I could to go see it.  We need to embrace films like that because when we don’t, the industry won’t respond to that type of film again.  They’ll pull Traitor’s box office numbers and say, “Those types of films with a black lead don’t work.”  Don Cheadle was excellent in that film and probably the closest we’re going to get to a black version of Jason Bourne. We have to support these types of projects so we can get things that fall outside the box, but at the end of the day it’s all about the numbers.

Scott Tre: You worked in many different genres.  Which one are you the most passionate about?

A menacing image From Urgency

Kantz: It would definitely be action films.  I grew up watching grind-house films, movies from the 70’s (my favorite period) they were basically action, horror, and sci-fi.  So those are my three favorite genres.  Action is the one that I’m most passionate about. 

Scott Tre: Which genre would you say is the most difficult for you to work in?

Kantz: I would have to say action, due to the fact that it’s very technical and complicated.  I don’t want to disrespect anybody that does dramas or thrillers, but I feel they’re a lot easier, less coverage and effects.  Thrillers and dramas are about emotion and the power of the actors involved, not about shootouts and explosions.  Urgency was like a break for me.

Scott Tre: Do you think that you bring anything unique to the genres that you work in and if so what is it?

Kantz: I would say the ability to work quickly and cost effective while maintaining a strong visual sense that most low budget features don’t have.
Urgency was a thriller and my plan was to shoot it like an action movie, because that would be different.  It feels like an action picture, it breathes like it, looks and moves like it, but isn’t.  I try and bring a different approach to the work that I do or a different point of view. 

Scott Tre: Would you say that it’s harder to work within a limited budget as opposed to an exorbitant one?

An action-packed image from Urgency

Kantz: Oh hell yeah man (laughs). You gotta have all your ducks in a row. Preproduction is really important, how you go about it. I’m a meticulous planner.
Urgency was shot in nine days.  The tenth day was second unit stuff where we drove around and shot all the driving scenes.  Our prep was two weeks, and the only reason we got away with that was because our preproduction was tight. You need a crew that can move and knows what you want.  A limited budget is very challenging and you have to know what you’re doing, experience helps.

Scott Tre: Everyone seems to have an opinion on the Tyler Perry phenomenon.  All of those opinions tend to be extreme.  Most of them are on one end of the spectrum or the other.  Being a fellow African American filmmaker, what’s your take on it?

Kantz: Not to be disrespectful, but I see it as very simple.  It was an audience that was being ignored and this man was smart enough to service that audience.
He’s doing his thing man, even though those films aren’t my cup of tea, I respect his business plan and his drive. Most of my friends are filmmakers and we talk about this a lot all the time, we would like to see it happen more often.  I think it’s an approach that we can all use to get out projects off the ground, find your market and service the hell out of it. (Laughs)

Scott Tre: You wrote and directed Love and a Bullet with Ben Ramsey.

Kantz: Oh yeah, Ben’s fam.

Ben Ramsey

Scott Tre:  How did you come to know and work with Ben Ramsey?  

Kantz: We both started back in Pittsburgh, PA.  We were doing the Time Warner Community Access program (for cable) where you could make your own television shows after you were certified in camera, sound, and editing. We were the only two guys that were making things that looked cinematic.  I heard about him, he heard about me, and finally we met.  I was from the North, and he was from the East, so people thought we wouldn’t get along. But they were wrong. I dug what he was doing; and he dug what I was doing.  I turned him onto John Woo; he turned me onto Luc Besson.  We both loved film and that was our bond.

Scott Tre: You’ve worked with Treach and you’ve worked with Mac-10.  What has your experience been working with rappers?  There’s a lot of controversy regarding their presence in Hollywood.  A lot of black actors and actresses have animosity towards them because they feel rappers are getting roles they don’t deserve.  

The poster for Love and a Bullet

Kantz: Alright, I’m going to hit that in a two-parter.  The first part, with Treach, man…Excellent on set!  He knew his lines.  He came prepared every day.  Homie was very professional.  It was a really great experience.  I’m trying to do something new with him now.  Mac-10 was different because he was not as accessible; due to scheduling conflicts.  He would come in, do his thing, and be out.  Mac knew his lines, but he was doing two or three things at once maybe more.  The second part, a lot of rappers work in several different mediums, it can be challenging for a film schedule.  As far as black actors and actresses I understand their position, but this has being going on forever.  Frank Sinatra and the Rat Pack would cross platforms all the time, going back and forth from singing to acting.  Elvis would be in a movie and then he would go and cut an album.  It’s nothing new.

Scott Tre: Many people complained about how Darth Maul had very little screen time or character development in The Phantom Menace.  Is that part of what inspired you to direct Contract of Evil: A Star Wars Fan Film, to give his character a bit more backstory?  

Kantz: The producer of the short felt the same way and wanted to make something that would feature Darth Maul. He started preproduction: working on wardrobe, makeup, the sets, ect, ect.  He didn’t have a director; so he asked a friend of mine would I be interested in helming it. I like the Star Wars fan films and I wanted to make one that had a really good fight so I accepted.  It debuted at Universal City a few years ago.  That was really crazy because I stood in the back (as I always do) and watched it play on the big screen outside the theaters.  People were walking around like, “Is this part of the new Star Wars films?  What is it?”  They didn’t know.   You could hear a pin drop while it was screening, when the film finished people started clapping. I was relieved.

Scott Tre: You wrote a martial arts/horror script for director Isaac Florentine.  How did you manage to meld those two genres together? 

Kantz: That was the hardest script I’ve ever written in my life, hybrid films, (that’s what I call them.) can be extremely difficult to execute.  The industry is squeezing all the life out of graphic novels.  Somebody has to have to come up with original material.  I think mixing genres is a good idea and one way to get something, dare I say it…new.  For example, I was watching Scott Pilgrim.  I thought I wouldn’t like it, but I really dug it.  It’s like the martial arts film meets the slacker film.  We’ll probably see more mixing of genres in the future.

Scott Tre: Tell me a bit about Urgency.  What’s it about?  What can we expect from it?

Poster for Urgency
Kantz: It’s basically a thriller about a pharmaceutical employee, (Brian Austin Green) whose wife is kidnapped on the day of a major merger.  He’s given a list of things that he has to do or they’re going to kill her.  We shot for nine days, yes nine days. We were running and gunning.  We were getting 60 set ups a day or more.  Brian Austin Green was great.  That kid knows his stuff.  The only thing I regret about Urgency is it didn’t have more action.  Well maybe next time.

Scott Tre: Do you have any upcoming projects that you want to mention?

Kantz: My martial art/horror film, Project Purgatory Bejing is the one we’re working on currently.  Visually it’s like what if Tony Scott did a zombie/martial art flick, what would that look like? We’re in post-production now and I’m pretty excited about that one.  We’re going to put the first ten minutes of the film on Youtube March 27, 2011.  I’m also pretty stoked about a script that I wrote for director Isaac Florentine, (Undisputed 2 and 3 and Ninja) titled Steel that will be filming in the fall.

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