This Alum Plans to Turn His Thesis Project into a Feature Film
Film alumnus Justin Scott Lawrence shopped his senior thesis project, Take Me to the Stars, to film festivals and now hopes to turn it into a feature for streaming networks. We interviewed Justin to find out his inspiration behind the film and the process of making his film come to life on the big screen.
About Justin Lawrence
Justin is originally from Georgia and as a child, he was heavily involved in performing arts. He acted in various theater productions, TV commercials, and sang in a regional boy band called Lucky, which was under the same producer as New Kids on the Block. As a champion competition clogger throughout his childhood, Justin’s love for dance and the entertainment industry eventually led him to Los Angeles. He pursued acting and filmmaking in L.A. for several years, which is what led him to enroll at The Los Angeles Film School. He graduated in 2019 with a Bachelor of Science in Film Production (Summa Cum Laude), with a concentration in screenwriting and directing.
Film Alumnus Interview: Justin Lawrence
What is the film about?
Take Me to the Stars is about a disabled and space obsessed kid named Carl, who struggles with the heartbreaking loss of his mother while being challenged by his depressed, alcoholic father.
When did the idea first arise for Take Me to The Stars?
The idea for Take Me to the Stars started around my last year at film school. In my first production class, I shot an experimental science-fiction short about a robot who couldn’t be programmed to love someone. This film, Bonnie, dealt with themes of love, loss, depression and alcoholism.
When it came time to start planning our thesis films, I really wanted to shoot another drama that contained elements of space, science fiction and family. I played around with the same themes as Bonnie, but wanted to incorporate a child dealing with loss. Take Me to the Stars came in part to my own personal experience of being a child and dealing with loss. Although I didn’t lose my mother to a car accident, like the character Carl does in Take Me to the Stars, I felt like I lost my dad when my parents went through their divorce. He moved out of the house, we saw him very rarely, and this was very hard for me and my siblings to deal with. I pulled in a lot of old feelings and memories of feeling hopeless when I wrote the script.
Take Me to the Stars isn’t just about the main character, Carl, it’s also about his father, and the depression, isolation, and guilt that he feels because of also coping with the loss of mom.
How long did it take you to write it?
The idea for Take Me to the Stars started in my last year at LAFS. After a holiday break, I had literally run into a little boy on a powered wheelchair while coming out of a Starbucks. This got me thinking that I wanted to write in a wheelchair into my film, and give it speaking lines to better enhance the imagination of the main character. I started writing the script in my Thesis Film Writing class, which was in April of 2018. We shot the film six months later in September of 2018. So, it took around six months and went through 23 drafts to get it to the final shooting script. I was still making small tweaks to the script up until the week we shot it. Of course, the small adjustments didn’t affect any of the locations, shots, or budgets. They were just things that made the interactions between the characters more organic and natural feeling as we were rehearsing the scenes before we shot them. Overall, this film took over a year to make, from conception to post-production. If you take into account where we are on the timeline right now, it would be about two years ago this coming month when I started writing the first draft.
A trick I ended up using was something I learned from the editing classes at LAFS, which is to occasionally use sound, or a sound effect, to carry the reader or transition into the next scene.
Do you have any tricks you used to stay organized?
Take Me to the Stars was a little difficult to organize because we constantly go from current day, to the past, scene to scene, throughout the entire script. A trick I ended up using was something I learned from the editing classes at LAFS, which is to occasionally use sound, or a sound effect, to carry the reader or transition into the next scene. Since budget and location were limited, a lot of the time the scenes take place in the same locations (like Carl’s bedroom, the porch, the kitchen), but a sound from his memory, like his mom’s voice, or the sound of Carl’s color pencils, help to transition into a memory Carl has, which is what then transitions into the past. Since most of Take Me to the Stars is of Carl in his current world, and then going to a memory of his old world when his mom was still alive, it was crucial to really understand those transition moments, write them into the script, and make sure my cinematographer, production designer, and assistant director all understood that when we made the shooting schedule.
To make things easier, we actually shot a lot of the past scenes first, when the house was more organized. Once we had wrapped on those scenes, it was easier to mess things up and make it more chaotic looking for the present-day scenes to better reflect what life actually looks like when there is only one parent around.
Of course, this all had to be storyboarded, and every shot was meticulously planned to make sure we stayed on time and budget. Since we only had the location for three days, we had no time to spare and it had to be organized. I kept my own shooting version of the script with my notes on it, just to make sure I knew where we were, either past or present, page to page, of a 16-page script.
You wrote and directed the film. Was it a challenge to move from being the writer, to literally calling the shots on set?
It wasn’t really a challenge to move from being the writer to calling the shots because Take Me to the Stars was so well organized in pre-production. I wasn’t stressed, the crew wasn’t stressed, and the actors knew exactly what they were going to do, and where they were in each scene. This was the beauty of having two full months of pre-production courses at the school. This gave me, the cinematographer, the production designer, and the AD lots of time to go to the location, talk and walk out each scene, and talk about any moments that might cause a bump in production.
What was a challenge that you faced during production, and what was the solution?
Since my main character was an actual 10-year-old little boy who had a school schedule, and my adult actors playing mom and dad worked full-time jobs, we actually couldn’t get together to do a rehearsal. This was definitely a challenge and made me very nervous when it came to the actual shoot days. But because everyone on my crew was aware of this, we wrote it into the scheduling that while the crew was setting up each scene, and each scene took 30 minutes to an hour to set up because of lighting, production design, etc., on set this would give me 30 minutes to an hour before each scene to rehearse with my actors and have them try a few things before we started shooting. Paul, who played Carl, had never really acted with scripted lines before, so most of his lines were shortened and a lot became more reaction moments from the adult actors who had professional training. I had many great phone calls, and discussions with Mel and Vip, who played mom and dad, about these hurdles we might face, and they were both such great professionals and easy to work with on set. Working with trained, professional actors helped me be only in director mode on set. This put me at ease and helped me just focus on the performances from everyone. We rarely went over two takes on most shots which really kept my actors motivated and excited to move on to the next shot. This was especially important not to tire down a young kid since he was the main character.
View this post on Instagram
Going to post some good moments from March☺️. Promoting @takemetothestarsfilm at two film festivals in two weeks was an amazing experience that was both exhausting and rewarding. I am so thankful for my family and friends for being there for me, every step along the way 💙 #director #producer #film #filmfestival #award #teamwork #scifi #drama #lifeatlafs
Tell us a little about the accolades Take me to the Stars has accumulated!
Take Me to the Stars is in its last year of running in festivals. It just secured distribution rights with the Vidi Space platform, so the film will be able to be streamed on Amazon, Apple, Roku, etc. around April 10, 2020! To date, the film has been an official selection in 12 film festivals, of which it has been nominated for “Best Picture,” won “Honorable Mention: Best Student Film” at The Los Angeles Film Awards 2019, won “Best Student Film” at the Columbia Film Festival 2019, won “Best Performance by a Child Actor” at the VIDI Space Film Festival 2020, won “Audience Choice,” and placed as “Semi-Finalist.”
Most recently, the Vidi Space Film Festival was a film festival that took place in Reston, VA (just outside of DC), on Saturday, February 22nd, 2020. At Vidi, Take Me to the Stars won “Best Performance by a Child Actor” and was screened live in front of an audience.
Just two weeks later, Take Me to the Stars was an official selection in the “Feel Good Films” category of the Ocean City Film Festival, in Ocean City, Maryland. The film was shown twice to a live audience, and I was a finalist for “Best Feel Good Film.” I was also on a panel where I was asked many questions about the filmmaking process, budget, pre-production, and casting questions.
What does the future look like for the film?
Take Me to the Stars has two more live screenings coming up, one of which is the Fort Myers Beach International Film Festival. Now that it is coming to the end of its festival run and secured distribution rights, my next plan would be to develop it into a feature film. I’m hoping that through the amazing opportunity to have it on the Vidi Space Platform and others, that it will gain a bit more recognition. Although the audiences at film festivals have been great exposure, too. Opening up the film to anyone on streaming platforms would really help get the story out there, and maybe even help me get it in front of the right person to help me achieve my dream.
Any words of advice you would give to people looking to follow in your footsteps?
I’m hoping that through the success of Take Me to the Stars, this will help show other students or aspiring filmmakers, that submitting your short film to a few film festivals, even a thesis film that you made to graduate film school, could do more good than you may know. You never know who will see it, who you will impress or meet, who may promote it, or what may come of it. Even if this film never makes it any further than a distribution platform, it will serve as a reminder to me, my fellow alumni and crew, and wonderful cast and sponsors, that we all worked hard together to make something that a larger audience can one day enjoy. I never would have guessed that this short film could open so many doors. So, after you’ve edited your final edit together for your film, get on Film Freeway and start submitting it.
Where can we see “Take Me to the Stars” and follow its success and journey?
Most of the information, including showings, trailers, and other important news about the film is shared on its Facebook page, @takemetothestarsfilm.
Take Me to the Stars premiered on the Vidi Space Platform on April 10, 2020. It is also available on Amazon Prime.