May 11, 2020

First Look 2020: Piggy Bank Proposition

Piggy Bank Proposition Wins Industry Award for Comedy

The First Look Film Festival is the USC School of Cinematic Arts’ celebration of the best advanced student films of the year. Presented by the Office of Industry Relations.

This is one in a series of stories about the filmmakers’ motivations behind their First Look projects. Click here for an overview of all First Look winners.

Piggy Bank Proposition

Industry Award: Comedy

Ericka de Alexander ‘19, Producer
Rachael Garcia ‘19, Production Designer
Michael Lappen ‘19, Director
Madalyn Maghdessian ’19, Producer

Piggy Bank Proposition is a dark comedy about Ella, a young girl who tries to hire a hitman to kill her abusive step-father, and the kinship that develops between them.

Although it’s a comedy, Piggy Bank Proposition does have an emotional message at its core. “Interwoven within the goofy antics is a grounded through-line, that tragedy doesn’t have to define us,” says Director Michael Lappen. “It seems that there’s a propensity for adults to allow tragic events to sink into them. However, Ella is still young and malleable; there’s hope that…she might be able to retain her sense of spritely wonder and innocence. In this way, the short tackles heavy subject matter but does so through levity and wit, retaining an overarchingly joyful tone throughout.”

Producer Ericka de Alexander, who is originally from Mexico, says she is drawn to filmmaking because of the medium’s ability to effect social change. “I want to focus on bringing visibility to, and normalize, queer narratives. To defy social and cultural stigmas against women and people with disabilities, while applying Mexican and Japanese influences to my stories,” she says. With this film, not only was de Alexander able to tackle a heavy subject using humor, she was also drawn to the project because she had partnered with Lappen in previous classes and enjoyed working with him. Plus, she found the humor in the script by writer Pimvenus Clark irresistible. “Piggy Bank made me laugh a lot when I read it,” says de Alexander.

Production Designer Rachael Garcia found her inspiration by thinking deeply about the lead characters, Ella and her hit man/father figure Tom. “Who was Tom, why is he a hitman, how does he view his work? This helped me inform my decisions about designing his warehouse,” says Garcia. “We decided that he had high-end clientele, which helped us create the political fundraiser scene at the mansion. We also didn't want to stereotype the broken home/abusive parent so we decided on Ella to come from a middle-class background, which helped design the look of her home. I wanted to show a contrast from her world and Tom's world and focus on her being a child, despite her thinking she's grown up.”

Piggy Bank Proposition won the award for Best of the Fest—Advanced Student Film (Worldwide) at the Catalina Film Festival and was an Official Selection at the Austin Comedy Shorts Film Festival and the San Diego International Film Festival. Lappen says being chosen to helm an advanced project (known as a 480) gave him and the crew the confidence to get it right. “CTPR 480 put countless new resources at my disposal, a generous budget, a sizable crew, and the backing of an influential school. So, naturally, I shot high,” says Lappen. “With Piggy Bank, I aimed to cultivate a "mini feature", a complete narrative, with a first, second, and third act, that propelled our protagonist on a substantial journey. We had to be crafty, leaning into our limitations without compromising on our vision for the production. For example, by location scouting at the very beginning of our break, long before the start of the semester, we managed to lock down all three of our locations (none of which we could afford) for free: a mansion, an auto-body shop, and a house.”

That allowed the crew to focus their money on the incredible production design. “Budgeting was tough, especially when it came to having to dress a political fundraiser, in which people were probably spending $50,000 on a table,” says Garcia. “We couldn't use cheap linen or glassware but couldn't afford the real stuff. So, we outsourced from crew members parents. Someone's mom is a party planner so could get us a big discount on tables and linen and another's mom had crystal drinkware. It was a communal effort that pulled it off.” Producer Madalyn Maghdessian says that not only did it all work out, but they didn’t miss a beat. “I'll never forget shooting the party scene, with sixty cast, crew and extras, and somehow managing to finish wrapping on time, on schedule, on budget,” says Maghdessian. “If that isn't a success story, I don't know what is! Piggy Bank Proposition taught me so much and more about myself, and the production process.”

These pitching-in experiences help the crew bond on a deep level, says Lappen: “Our crew quickly became like family and we struck an almost effortless balance, professional and focused, yet welcoming and light-hearted. I'm still in contact with the majority of our thirty-plus crew and have shot with many of them since.”

For more about the filmmakers, check out their websites:

Ericka de Alexander:

Rachael Garcia:

Michael Lappen: