June 17, 2015

SCA Family Stories: Producers of the Land

An interview with recent grads on producing their first film

Blake Pickens and Stephen Love Jr. (both Stark ‘14) are two young alumni who are in the trenches of the film world, both indie and studio. Their first feature film, The Land, begins filming in Cleveland this summer and, to give back to the University, the two sat down with SCA Family Stories to discuss their roles as producers, why they chose to work on the Land, and to give advice to students considering becoming film producers.

For more information on Blake and Stephen, please visit: @BlakePickens @Docta_Love

Stephen Love Jr '14

Let's start with an elevator pitch on the Land. Blake Pickens: The Land is about these four boys in Cleveland who use skateboarding as their way out of the streets. They turn to selling drugs while trying to reach their dreams and end up getting caught in the web of a Queen Pin in the underworld of Cleveland.

How did you come on board with this project? Stephen Love: We actually went to School with writer/director Steven Caple Jr. He was working on this project which, at the time, wasn't even a script; it was just an amazing idea. We worked on the script with him. We shot a short, a little piece to accompany that script, and that process took about a year.

Then, after that, we brought on a seasoned producer based in Cleveland. Six months after that we were looking for financing. We signed options super early and—a full two years after signing onto the project—we're going to photography. It all started because we were looking for a thesis project.

A Stark Thesis? SL: Yes.

What else did you do on the project? SL: We did a little bit of everything. From developing the story to attaching cast, to going out and finding financing. We put out fires on a daily basis.

Blake Pickens '14

BP: You manage everything, but mostly you manage people. You have to make sure that no one's in conflict with each other. There's a lot of money in play and everyone has really high emotions. You have to make sure that you're the one that keeps a level head when everyone else is going a little crazy.

SL: It's a creative process too—helping the writer/director protect the vision they have in their head and get it on the page. You figure out how to shape what's on the page into something that can get financed, which can be two very different things. The vision that you have doesn't always make sense to the outside world. Early on, that's what it is. After that, like Blake said, you have to manage the people—literally. The producer is the only person that has to play roles on both sides of the fence. It's a creative role as well as a business.

Fortunately, we love it. And it was great with The Land because both sides had the same goal. We've been blessed. There are times where those two sides of the fence are at odds. The Producer is in the middle. The producer is the person that says, "We need to work together."

What is it about the Land that got you two excited to come on as Producers? BP: A lot of it came from the fact that it's about skateboarding. It's about the inner city. It's about kids trying to get out of a bad situation. It's about consequences. It's about the truth. I come from the South Side of Oklahoma City, skateboarding in the same sort of neighborhood that the kids in the story grew up in. All of it was very real to me. I lived that, you know? I know what that is. That's what really got the interest with me.

SL: For me, I didn't grow up skateboarding. I grew up in the country in South Carolina. For me, it was about telling the truth. If you can’t see it, it’s hard to be it. I was blessed with great parents who believed it was important for me to see more than just my small town and have different experiences.

For the kids in The Land, they don’t have positive role models. No one encouraged them to go past what they can physically see, to work toward a vision for themselves. That was very interesting to me. I know the value of family. I know friends who didn't have role models. They were just as smart, or smarter than me but didn't make it out. I just happened to have parents who were adamant that I saw other things. The absence of that support is what moved me about the story.

BP: If Stephen's going to talk about his parents, I feel like I should mention that I had very good parents, too. [LAUGHTER] They were really awesome. They were not like the other parents in my neighborhood. So, I need to make it clear they were good people, too. Very good people, the best people actually.

Why did you choose to study at the Peter Stark Producing Program? BP: I chose it because it's the best program in the world for Producing. I want to be the best at what I do. I want to work with the best people, so it was a no-brainer for me. I knew that was the program I needed to get into. It was my first choice when I was applying, and lucky for me I got rejected by every other program except Stark. So I guess it was meant to be.

SL: For me, I was an undergraduate at Morehouse in Business Administration. I always wanted to be a producer, but I didn't want to go to a producer's program where I took half business classes and took half in film. I wanted to have a truly holistic experience of what producing is. I appreciated that they taught indie as well as studio producing. That's important. It's important to know both sides of the coin.

BP: There isn't any other program that has what Stark has -- or all of USC, for that matter -- in terms of connections to the industry. Hands down, it’s the best. You go out swinging. I wouldn't have gotten that at any other school.

A table read for The Land

What is a concrete lesson that you learned as a Starkie that helped you produce the Land? SL: One lesson? That's tough. The one that really helped with the Land—and I'm sure Blake will agree—is that you need to protect yourself and do things the right way. What I mean by "the right way" is to option scripts the right way and to do things in good order, professionally, ethically, and above board.

Even if you haven't made movies before, at least you know the basics of what real producing is. [CHAIR OF THE STARK PROGRAM] Larry Turman calls Stark the “buffet of the industry”. You end up knowing a little about everything. Even if you don't know everything, it helps you when you go out into the world. You're available to have an intelligent conversation with anybody: financiers, creatives—anyone.

BP: Like Stephen said, the concrete word is to know buzzwords. Jargon. If you use those, people think you're really smart. You sound like you're up on things. It's helpful. Joking aside, the number one thing is to get material optioned—locked down. If we wouldn't have done that, by the time we would have gotten to where we are with The Land, we could have been kicked off. We could have easily not gotten appropriate credit for the work we've done. We got everything on the table. It was hammered into us at Stark. You want to stay on something, get an option. We wouldn't have known that if it weren't for Stark. We would have just worked on it because we like it. Everything wouldn't have been fine. Ultimately, at the end of the day, we were protected.

That was hammered into us.

Where can people find out more about the Land or get in touch with you two?

Twitter: @Blake Pickens @Docta_Love
Facebook: Blake Pickens Stephen ‘Docta’ Love
Instagram: @BlakePickens @doctalove12