Interview
Background Piece
"TAKE2🎬IndieReview sits down with Director Leland Montgomery to discuss his short film – LIKE ANIMALS..."
Take2IndieReview | April 30, 2020
Interview with director – Leland Montgomery

Where did you grow up?

I’m originally from Oakland, California. I did my undergrad in San Diego and then moved pretty immediately thereafter to Los Angeles where I’ve lived ever since.

How were the Arts introduced to you and at what age?

The arts were sort of present in my life for as long as I can remember. My mom and dad had been part of the Oakland Art scene for as long as I can remember. Some of their best friends were the original founders of Burning Man and I remember going to burner parties in warehouses when I was a little kid. My current passion as a filmmaker, however, began when I started doing plays in high school. I remember being interested not only in acting, but also in costume and scenic design. My interest only broadened in college.

Do you remember what your first movie experience was?

As silly as it sounds, the first film that really moved me was SHE’S ALL THAT which I must have made my parents take me to in the theater like six or seven times. I was maybe 10 or 11 when it came out and there was something so glamorous about the world that it created and something so moving about the story that I couldn’t help but be obsessed. Of course, now as an adult, I can recognize it for what it is… which is a vapid (but still fun!) teen comedy – but that was really the first cinematic experience that made me think “Oh wow, movies are really cool.”

How did your career as a Filmmaker begin?

My career as a filmmaker began with a project I made back in 2014 called GOD PARTICLES. I had no idea what I was doing and the whole thing took me about two years to really figure out the medium – but the process was so exhilarating and felt so right that it totally altered my trajectory. Before that I had mostly been interested in acting, but once I began to make movies, I quickly realized that that’s all I wanted to do.

Did you have formal training?

I do have formal training. In 2015 I started the MFA program at USC’s School of Cinematic Arts. I finished in 2018.

Did you have a support system when embarking on your creative journey?

Yeah! Very much so. My parents were incredibly supportive, although they didn’t fully understand what a director did or how one went about starting a career until very recently.

Who is someone you have looked up to in the industry that you would like to work with in the future?

There are a lot of actors who I really like who I thought would be great to work with. Dakota Johnson sort of comes to the top of my mind. Melissa Benoist is another. There’s a cinematographer named Deniese Davis who’s really exceptional that I’d love to do something with at some point. Deakins is another.

In addition to your film LIKE ANIMALS (Writer, Director, Producer), you are also the Writer/Directer of GOD PARTICLES (TV Series), CRUISERS (short) and BLACK CAT IN A DARK ROOM (short). What is your process like when writing a script? Do your stories stem from an idea – or something that exists more deeply in you?

That’s a good question and one that’s constantly evolving as I grow as a filmmaker. Originally I was really inspired by people. I’d start with the actors or group of actors I was interested in working with and craft a story with them specifically in mind. GOD PARTICLES very much started with an ensemble and I built the story around them. As I’ve gained experience,  however, I’ve found that I’ve begun to shift more to theme as a starting place and writing from there. Ultimately, thought each project is a little different and I don’t stick to rigid “process” when I’m in the ideation phase.

LIKE ANIMALS is a beautifully poignant short film about the family dynamics of three sisters and one brother – after the death of their mother. The brother is the Executor of the mother’s estate. Where did this story come from for you as the writer and why did you need to tell it?

There are a couple of subjects that I find myself coming back to over and over again. One is family. GOD PARTICLES, LIKE ANIMALS and BLACK CAT IN A DARK ROOM are all pieces about families (which in my mind means groups of people with deep emotional bonds) that are struggling to come together or stay together in the face of huge changes. The other is ensemble – which sort of goes hand in hand with family. All of my favorite filmmakers – Altman, PT Anderson, Scorsese – have used ensemble to define their worlds and explore the nature of humanity – and it’s perhaps because of them – that I’m so interested in large casts with multiple focuses. In terms of LIKE ANIMALS, I knew I wanted to write something that dealt with family and I knew that I wanted to write something with an ensemble focus. That said, the film was largely inspired by Chekhov’s Three Sisters which served as a jumping off point for the production.

The film is visually stunning – including how certain scenes are set up. How did you find your cinematographer, Eli Arenson, and how did you collaborate – both in preproduction and on set – for the look and feel of your film?

Eli Arenson was referred to me by a friend and came on board a few days before production after we lost our initial cinematographer. He was really instrumental in getting the movie made and deserves so much more than just a cinematographer’s credit. Our collaboration on LIKE ANIMALS was largely instinctive. I think we both really had similar ideas for the story and the tone and so were able to work from a common understanding of what we wanted the film to be.

The score in your film (Brian McOmber) creates the pulse of the film. Did you work closely with him in creating this?

I knew of Brian from a movie he did called KRISHA which was one of my favorite films of 2015. I had strong references for what I wanted the music to be like, but after an initial conversation, I trusted him enough to kind of go off on his own with those references and work on his own. We had a few back and forth notes sessions but the score is largely what he came back with originally.

The casting is spot on with the actors – they look – and feel like family. The acting in the film is beautiful to watch. How did you go about casting?

I mentioned earlier that I often start from a place of ensemble and build the cast around them. Zoë Chao, who plays Mary and who also helped produce the film, was always at the heart of the movie. We sort of knew she was going to play that part from the get go and so much of the cast process involved finding people who we felt could inhabit the same world as her. That said, for the most part, we reached out to folks who we knew. We had an initial staged reading about three months before the movie and at that presentation it became clear that we had our cast.

Do you like a rehearsal process before shooting?

I do like a rehearsal process before shooting. I also love shooting test footage. If possible, I like to do both at the same time. For this movie we did a lot of work before we ever started shooting. We had a staged reading in front of a live audience and then we shot a test scene in Los Angeles with the women who play the sisters. I think exercises like this not only give the cast an opportunity to start bonding early, but it gives me, as the director, an idea of how to best capture the characters and what moments might best help the story.

How do you work with actors on set? Do you give a lot of notes as a Director?

I tend to like to rehearse in the space with just the actors before we bring in any cameras or lighting. It’s a lot harder to be present once you start introducing the technical elements, so I like to figure out what the scene is about first before we start lighting and figuring out camera blocking. Once we’re shooting, I do give minor notes but I prefer to do the heavy lifting before cameras are rolling.

Do you scout your own locations?

I do. You know, as an indie filmmaker I’m often doing everything including setting up crafty. I also feel like it’s helpful to scout locations because it gives you more opportunities to make choices with the story.

The location for LIKE ANIMALS was haunting and beautiful. Where was the film shot?

The film was shot in a little town called Ridgecrest which is about three hours east of Los Angeles.

The message in the film is powerful – about people getting stuck and finding acceptance/happiness for what they can’t change. Does that come from somewhere personal for you?

It does. GOD PARTICLES has a similar message and I think both films really reflect my view point on life and the world at large. I think especially for artists it’s easy to feel stuck or feel like things aren’t moving forward. And the only thing you can do in those situations is greet that frustration with positivity and kindness because there really is no other option if you want to persevere.

How is being an Actor in one of your films different for you when Directing?

I find acting in my films when I’m directing is… challenging. It’s often the last thing I’m thinking about and the element that I’m the least excited to do. When I first started to transition out of acting and into directing, I thought it would be really freeing to perform in my own films, but I actually find that it makes the whole process a lot more stressful than when I’m just directing. In many ways acting and directing are sort of twin flames… but they also use very different parts of the brain and jumping from one to the other is really hard for me.

You have also been a Producer on your films. How do you like that role?

I have been a producer on most of my films. Much like acting and directing, I find that producing and directing use very different parts of the brain and it can be challenging to jump from one mindset to the other. That said, I do feel like producing – even when you’re dealing with non-creative logistical elements – gives you an opportunity to have more control over the story that you’re telling. I like that part.

Of all the films you Directed, which one has impacted you the most as an Artist?

I think the film that has impacted me the most as an artist is LIKE ANIMALS. It taught me the most about how to make a movie. It was also the biggest jump in terms of types of production. Everything I’d done before had tiny crews and locations that were donated or free. LIKE ANIMALS had a crew of about 45 and a massive cast and big, flashy locations and so just learning how to put something like that together was a huge learning lesson.

So many Indie Filmmakers BIGGEST hurdle in getting their film made is financing. How do you go about raising money to make your films?

I’ve raised money in a lot of different ways. I’ve run Kickstarter campaigns. I’ve also run more private campaigns where I’ve reached out to certain individuals and asked them to contribute. I’ve also self financed with my own money. I’ve applied for grants. Sometimes I’ve done a combination of everything. When you’re making indie films, you sort of just have to do whatever you can to get money.

What was your biggest obstacle in making LIKE ANIMALS?

I think the biggest obstacle was the scale of the movie. It was a much bigger production than I’d made prior and managing the logistics was a daunting and sort of overwhelming challenge. I had some great line producers though who were able to meet those challenges and solve any issue before it really became an issue.

Is there any one message you hope people walk away with after viewing one of your films that defines you as the filmmaker?

I think the theme that I keep coming back to in most of my work is that life is really hard, but it’s our responsibility to make the best of what we’re given.

What are you currently working on for your next project?

I’m working on a feature script that’s based on GOD PARTICLES and another that’s based on my short BLACK CAT IN A DARK ROOM.

Lastly, of all the hats you wear in your films – which one is your favorite?

Directing. I’m constantly awed by the fact that people trust me to execute a vision and bring it to life. It’s really incredible.

Related Links:

Take 2 Indie Review

LIKE ANIMALS