Seattle-Native, LA-based Lance Tracy is a strong producer-writer-director with an incredible knack to mix commercial ideas with quality people and will be highlighted this month for his impressive achievements.
In September 2016 his narrative feature, "Relentless" won “Best Thriller” and “Best Director” at its Breckenridge Film Festival world premiere. Sundance deemed his last documentary “an accomplished film”.
With years of experience in high-end marketing and advertising, he has developed an international, commercial sensibility. Often called on by NBC/Universal and CBS Interactive, Tracy has helped to brand the Sochi and London Olympics as well as the CBS streaming service, "CBS All Access".
He started as an in-house dramatic films director, making short narrative films, distributed in 155 countries and 15 languages. Here he was sensitized to an international audience while earning 12 writing and directing awards. He has directed projects in Hong Kong, Tokyo, Cambodia, Guatemala, El Salvador, Mexico City, Belize, Honduras, Moscow, St. Petersburg and the U.S.
He is currently in development on “Special Interest Agent” a globetrotting topical thriller about ISIS, highlighting the Syrian refugee crisis, scheduled to lens 2018.
He lives in LA with his wife & 2 kids.
Tell us your backstory. How and why did you get into the filmmaking?
I lived in the suburbs of Seattle in the 80’s & 90’s during the grunge era -- Nirvana, Pearl Jam & Sound Garden to name a few. In high school I was in several bands. We did a music video for one of our songs. The director quit and I had to pick up the pieces and finish it. I liked it much more than music – and I discovered I was better at it than music. I did 3 years of college in Seattle then moved to Hollywood to finish film school. I caught a break in the late 90’s and directed a series of short films for about 5 years where I was able to learn a lot and become acquainted with an international audience. I then started my own production company, traveled making documentaries and directed commercials and music videos. I also worked as a Producer/Editor at various major TV Networks. That gave me a commercial sensibility and the eye to direct with the edit in mind. I then shot my first narrative feature, “Relentless”.
What are the specific qualities that, in your opinion, make a film great?
- Entertainment – that’s the number one purpose of a narrative film.
- Education –When we learn, see or experience something new and informative in a film.
- Sincerity – I can’t underestimate an audience’s intelligence or ability to sniff out insincerity. This was hard for me to learn—early on I was trying to copy the success of other filmmakers and/or their films. It took some time to realize that we all have unique perspectives and life experiences from which to draw—if we do that vulnerably, that is sincerity. I have to trust my instincts.
- Social Statement - I like to work on narrative projects that highlight some sort of real cause or human struggle. Films take years of human energy and a lot of money. We might as well better the world a little while we’re making one.
What films have been the most inspiring or influential to you and why?
- Citizen Kane – for all the usual reasons as a filmmaker, but “Rosebud” also struck a deep childhood wound in me that woke my desire to tell stories that move people.
- Rudy – I related to the struggle to do anything to accomplish one’s dreams.
- La Bamba – This true story literally inspired me to get into music, which eventually led to film.
- The Last of the Mohicans – showed me what genre I wanted to pursue – I was moved deeply by Madeline Stowe’s struggle, the scenery and the epic war. And I used just about every second of the score in my various college films.
- The Usual Suspects – I ran in some of the same circles as Bryan Singer just as he was finishing this film. His editor and composer, John Ottman composed my short film just after he did The Usual Suspects but before it came out. Singer’s complex story and execution inspired me to work harder.
- Gladiator – Larger than life hero, deep tragedy, and satisfying revenge. Perfectly executed by Ridley Scott and scored by Hans Zimmer. The screenplay’s structure is something to be studied.
What’s harder? Getting started or being able to keep going? And what drives you to continue making films?
Both. Getting started a lot of times depends on a green light from other people – at least when you’re using their money and distribution and/or talent. Being able to keep going mostly relies on you alone, but you have to battle the emotional highs and lows of rejection, risk and hard work to see a project to completion. You have to be the most passionate and hard working force on your project or no one else will follow.
I’ve had many points in life where I’ve had to reevaluate if I should stick with filmmaking – I think there are several things any of us can do professionally – and if we’re happy doing anything else then we should do it because it is easier. But I’m in love with telling stories – the grueling hands-on manufacture of the set, rewriting in the edit room – and seeing it on the big screen with an audience --- that’s when I know I’m doing the right thing.
How do you know when your story’s finished, when to walk away?
Coming from the commercial, network and client-driven world I’ve had to learn to let it go when the deadline arrives. Making Relentless was very different – What I didn’t have in money I made up for with time and post-production skills. I had the luxury to work on it as long as I needed because we didn’t have distribution yet. So I worked and worked and worked and fine-tuned and fixed technical issues and personally did some visual effects that we couldn’t afford to have the guys at ModeFX do.
I never intended to edit Relentless, but for financial reasons I had to. It isn’t ideal to edit something you direct because you need a fresh set of eyes with a new perspective. So I had to rely on several screenings with trusted colleagues and people I didn’t know to get their input. I have a rule, which applies to both writing and the film itself – If I hear a note I disagree with I’ll let it go. But if I hear that note from 3 or more people, I’ll address it because I’m apparently not seeing what they’re seeing. After a few test audience screenings and hard notes that were addressed, I gladly put Relentless to bed. It was important for me to just let it go after that.
How many films have you completed? What is your favorite project you have worked on and why?
One feature documentary and one feature narrative, and dozens of 30-minute shorts and commercials and docs. I’m most proud of my current film, Relentless. What we accomplished for that budget—shooting in 2 countries with a cast and crew of 200 for a budget quite below $500k is phenomenal. A lot of people, including myself, lost their minds making this film – it was my little “Hearts of Darkness” experience – but it paid off in production value.
From where do you get your inspiration?
My faith, current events and historical accounts.
What is your favorite aspect of film production?
I really enjoy the comradery of a well-oiled production machine – film crews are like the marines – they have a special skill that they do well and they’ll do anything to execute their job well. But I feel most comfortable in Post Production. Locking picture is very satisfying—seeing that your project is going to work. And once you bring in score – it brings everything together – that’s when I start to feel the intended emotion – that is very moving.
Why did you choose to submit to the Breckenridge Film Festival? What do you look for in a festival where you hope to show your film?
I saw that the Breckenridge Film Festival had over 30 years of history and that filmmakers raved about how they were taken care of and that the locals LOVED going to the festival.
What I look for in a festival are two things: 1) that it will successfully promote my project with the Press, the Industry and Distribution – that somehow it will help to get the next film going. 2) I look for a place to meet people and to have fun – to enjoy seeing the film on the big screen with a special audience in a special place. (And if they allow beer in the theater that helps.)
You are a collaborator. Did you make any connections at the Breckenridge Film Festival that have led to collaborations with other filmmakers?
I made new friends and met new colleagues at the Breckenridge Film Festival. The small mountain town experience was magical. The screenings were full, the parties were top rate and the filmmakers and audience were very down to earth. The filmmakers truly are treated as special guests. I can’t say the same for all other festivals.
Can you describe the business behind independent filmmaking and how you are trying to get your film seen?
With Relentless I decided I was going to make a movie no matter what. After much research and prep, we did a Kickstarter campaign – raised $40,000.00 – not nearly enough but it was a “kick start”. From there, I put in some money and found some investors to kick in the remainder. After we shot it – we came back to the U.S. (from shooting in El Salvador) and I edited a rough cut – we needed another $100k to do some re-shoots, additional photography in the U.S., VFX, Sound and mastering. I sent the rough cut around to a few distributors and it received good reviews – 2 of which wanted to presell it internationally to get the money for us. That ultimately never came together but it was a big motivation for me to get a locked picture quickly. I went back to one of my investors and they kicked in the remainder so we could finish the picture. At that point we started submitting for festivals.
3 weeks before AFM (when all the sales agents are looking for films) I was able to get a sales company to take it on and bring it to AFM. It sold to China, parts of the Middle East and South Africa first. But it didn’t have a domestic distributor yet. After a bit of time Gravitas Ventures saw it and decided to take it on. Part of the reason they did is that they appreciated the wave it was making in the Anti-Human Trafficking community. It has a built in special audience. They also liked that my company, HUMAN did a lot of its own marketing and had a strong audience through Kickstarter and other social media. It really is a partnership with your distributor. You are giving them a movie and they are giving you their reputation, relationships and marketing machine. Both sides have to work hard on good faith.
What are the hurdles you have had to overcome in order to recoup the costs of producing the film? (If you feel comfortable discussing exact financials, you are welcome to do so.)
Name talent is pretty much required to recoup your film unless it’s an absolute break-out at the festivals. For the 99% of the rest of the films it is easier to sell a bad film with name actors than a great film with no name actors – that’s just the truth. Everyone needs to know this going in when they invest. Sales agents and foreign buyers and domestic distributors were constantly reminding us of this axiom throughout the process. So for our film, we had to keep the budget low and really pander to what is selling right now.
What’s your next project?
I’m in development on “Special Interest Agent” (S.I.A.) a globetrotting topical female-driven thriller about ISIS, highlighting the Syrian refugee crisis. The script is complete and I’m starting to build the above-the-line team. We’re looking for financing in the realm of $10m and a co-production arrangement. We plan to shoot in Canada, Colombia and Morocco. We’ll be using the 40% incentive the Colombian government offers as well as the incentives Morocco and Canada offer. One of my producing partners and production designer, Carlos Osorio, was a production designer on “Homeland” and an Art Director on “24” – plus he has a Colombian production services company. He’ll be a great asset to the aesthetic and business of Special Interest Agent. We’re going after some interesting name talent for the lead character who plays a female war correspondent – inspired by real events. We plan to shoot later this year. If someone wants to get involved email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
If there were one or more things you think would make the film industry better, what would it be?
Stronger real-world mentorships. Young people can spend 20 years hitting and missing before they’ve acquired enough experience, knowledge and relationships to be effective. Successful people need to answer the phone on a regular basis and give those people a hand when they demonstrate they are ready to work for it – especially on the development and business side.
“Relentless” is written, produced and directed by Lance Tracy and is available in the U.S. and Canada February 6, 2018