Recent UNO Alumni Debut Feature Film at Grauman's Chinese Theatre in Los Angeles
Recent UNO Alumni Head to L.A., Find Out Filmmaking Is a Good Idea
"In L.A., we were terrified about how people would respond," said Owen "Chip" Hornstein III, a screenwriter, producer and actor in the film. "When we test-screened the film at the UNO Film Festival, it was all of our friends there, laughing, as we were there in the audience and they watched us acting in the movie. In Hollywood, we didn't know anyone. The fact that they laughed really validated it. It was a huge eye-opener. 'Praise the stars. People really like the movie.'"
The 81-minute comedy Steve Chong Finds Out That Suicide Is a Bad Idea is about four friends who "embark on a misadventure to a remote lake house where one of them announces that he plans to kill himself," according to a film synopsis. The four friends who serve as main characters are recent college graduates struggling to find their place in the world.
The dramatic midnight announcement by a drunken Chong, who says he wants to kill himself, "sets off a comedic steamroller of events," said Hornstein, who graduated from UNO film school in 2009.
"We wanted to have a movie that reflected where we were in time, post-college: struggling through an economic recession, the job market and the world being a bigger place than you think it is."
A Coming-of-Age Comedy
Produced with a $6,000 budget, Steve Chong Finds Out That Suicide Is A Bad Idea debuted June 7 at Dances with Films 16, an independent film festival that prides itself on celebrating the "innovation, talent, creativity and sweat equity that revolutionized the entertainment industry" and has launched Oscar-worthy actors, directors and producers, according to its website.
UNO alumnus Stanley Wong, now an actor in Hollywood, had that and more when he visited the SXSW Film Festival in Austin, Tex., shortly after graduation in May 2009, Hornstein said. Inspired by the number of films made and launched on shoestring budgets, he returned home and pulled together some of his UNO filmmaking friends to make a movie.
Together Wong, Joe Sokmen and Tyler Russell – all members of the Class of 2009 -- brainstormed ideas. They decided that the Wong family lake house – available for free – was as good a setting as any.
They conscripted Hornstein to write a script around four guys in a lake house. Hornstein, who struggled with notions of suicide in high school, believed the film needed a stronger thrust or anchor to its central story.
The film couldn't just be about four guys hanging out in a lake house, Hornstein said. There had to be a stronger force beyond the characters' control that drove them to reevaluate their friendships and their lives and helped them, ultimately, to change. He suggested: Suicide.
"But I thought maybe we could make that funny, because I've never seen the comedic aspects of suicide played out," said Hornstein, who was quick to say that while suicide is a serious topic, "some aspects can be quite funny -- if you look at them objectively."
Making It Happen
By then, the group had looped in Charlie LaVoy, another UNO alumnus. The five lived together for one year in a double-shotgun house in New Orleans, retreating to the Wong lake house near Chalmette on weekends.
"We lived together in one big house and that was stressful in and of itself," said Hornstein. "It was a big creative house with no freedom and no privacy... Everyone had their input to the story."
He laughed, adding that he wrote all day, sent scripts out via email, then walked into the kitchen for dinner to be greeted by criticism, arguments or, sometimes, whispering.
Together, the group wrote and produced a script centered around a young Asian man who finds himself failing at nearly everything he tries to do. Steve Chong, played by Stanley Wong, documents his failures – from the most minute and mundane to the obvious – on index cards that he tapes on his wall floor to ceiling.
As he wrote, Hornstein lightened up his dramatic material with scenes that involved Chong's friends suicide-proofing a house, inviting girls from a nearby lake house to visit Chong, in hopes of distraction; and walking on eggshells as they tried to determine whether Chong's threats were real.
"By trying not to say the wrong thing, you end up saying the wrong thing, and that's funny. Humor along those lines," said Hornstein, who said "there are so many ways to look at" suicide."
Filming took place over a five-month period in 2010, primarily at the Wongs' lake house, which sits on stilts above Lake Pontchartrain near Manchac, La. Other scenes were filmed in two restaurants owned by the Wongs.
Early on, the group agreed that they would each "spend $1,000 for the budget and that was it," said Hornstein. None had feature film experience. They drew on the screenwriting, directing, producing and acting skills they had gleaned making short films for classes at UNO.
"It was a very different process from film school because in film school you're in this circle of creativity," said Hornstein. "Everybody's making movies and talking about movies."
Drawing On Their UNO Education
All five of the film's original creators were working day jobs and struggling to make it in "the real world," as they lived together and wrote the script, he said. Ultimately, one dozen recent UNO alumni helped to create the feature film.
Stanley Wong served as actor, producer, editor -- and Hornstein as screenwriter, producer and actor. Tyler Russell and Joe Sokmen both served as actors and producers. Charles LaVoy served as director and producer.
Kevin Hughes starred as director of photography, Josie Parden as production designer and Patrick Simmons as art director. Michael Damare and Joshua Lilly served as grips and camera assistants. Michael Gilbert provided stunt help, served as associate producer and "made everything happen," said Hornstein, who described his friend as an "all-around miracle worker."
"The teachers of UNO have well equipped us for the miserable world of filmmaking. The way movies are going right now you have to go out there and do it yourself," said Hornstein, who said that getting started in film requires "a do-it-yourself attitude and UNO does a good job of helping you get used to doing that. They teach you that you can make a movie on a low-budget and they teach you how to expand on your knowledge."
Professors and students at UNO also provided the necessary criticism critical to identifying a good idea, writing and honing an effective script, producing a worthy film and making a good work great, said Hornstein, who enjoyed film school so much he forgot to register to graduate.
"They're very real about how it is," he said. "The professors and student body help put you in a world that prepares you for making film independently. It teaches you a lot of technical skills that...'You can't get away with it if you fail at this'...If you have a movie that looks bad or sounds bad, then they're not going to watch it. With screenplays and stories, they had professors there that taught you how to make scripts get better, get to the point faster, really make you look deeper into stories."
A Grand Finale, But Not The End
The filmmakers screened Steve Chong Finds Out That Suicide Is A Bad Idea at the UNO Film Fest in 2011, then finished the film and won a $20,000 grant from the Louisiana Independent Filmmakers Program that they used for editing, post-production audio and polishing – and hiring a publicist.
They sent the film out and received "rejection after rejection after rejection," said Hornstein. Then the film was accepted to the Asian American Film Festival in New York, which takes place this August. The win made them rethink their messaging and early target demographics.
Soon the filmmakers got word that Steve Chong would be aired at Grauman's Chinese Theatre in Los Angeles -- possibly the world's most famous movie theatre -- for the Dances with Film 16 film festival. The airing would be a world premiere of the feature film that by now had consumed five years of their young lives.
Two weeks ago, the group hit L.A., a place that they had all dreamed and talked about but where only Wong (who is now a resident) had lived.
"We're in talks with a distribution company," said Hornstein, who won't say more because he doesn't want to "jinx" anything. "...And we're hoping for a positive outcome."