From 'The Usual Suspects' to 'Blood Moon' - My Filmmaking Journey
From 'The Usual Suspects' to 'Blood Moon' - My Filmmaking Journey
“We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard.”
― John F. Kennedy, Address at Rice University, September 12, 1962
Filmmaking is never easy and it’s rarely fun, but I love it anyway. I have been making films since I was a child and growing up in LA. My high-school, of course, had a film program with a wind-up 16mm Bolex. My 11th-grade film teacher actually wrote on my report card that I was a “cinematic genius”. At USC School of Cinematic Arts, I wanted to be a DP, but at some point I fell in love with story and the entire filmmaking process.
When I graduated I was able to get a job in post-production as and assistant editor at Amblin. So knowing a bit of everything and not a master at anything, when Bryan Singer asked me what I wanted to do with my career, I said, “I want to be a producer”. He said, “Great! I have $250,000 to make a feature.” So we made Public Access and it won the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance. For the next twenty years, I produced more and more films including The Usual Suspects which won 2 Oscars - best screenplay (Chris McQuarrie) and best actor in a supporting role (Kevin Spacey) - I was also the 2nd Unit Director on the film and I loved it. I also produced The Way of the Gun, starring Benecio Del Toro, Juliette Lewis & Ryan Phillipe, the award-winning TOM'S shoes documentary: For Tomorrow, The First Step of the Revolution, and Mortdecai, starring Johnny Depp & Gwynethh Paltrow. I was fortunate to work with many first time directors and Oscar winners. I even produced another film, in Jordan, Captain Abu Raed, that won Sundance for my second time.
Look ma! We got an Oscar!
Eventually, as with most creatives, producing wasn’t enough. I felt it became time for me to direct. I first found an action comedy called COD. I was able to start casting and we auditioned talent like Amy Adams and Sofia Vergara (before they were super famous), but the financing fell apart before shooting. We all know that feeling, right? But, auditioning Amy and Sofia made it not a total loss. I was so close, but I didn't give up. Next, I set up a real-life mob film based on a New York Times Bestseller that I also adapted with the author – he actually worked for Whitey Bulger and served 12 years for a first offense. He found an investor and executive producer who started funding pre-production and even b-roll for that film. I felt like it was my time to finally direct. Ironically, this executive producer ended up going to prison for three years. It’s crazy that my misadventures in filmmaking were as compelling as the actual scripts I was trying to produce. Both of these films were set to go with budgets for over $7 million dollars each. Still, I didn’t give up the dream of directing.
2 films that almost went through - one where I auditioned Amy Adams & Sofia Vergara, a 2nd based on the life of Whitey Bulger
Several years ago I saw a scene from the play Blood Moon, in Larry Moss’ acting class, by Nicholas Kazan. I thought the writing, drama, and the tension were extraordinary. The play was first put up at the Odyssey Theater in West Los Angeles with a teenage Dana Delaney in the lead role of Manya back in 1985 and then went on to New York. Since that time, it continues to be performed, most recently at a theater company in Sydney Australia. Scenes are consistently used in acting classes around the world.
After first seeing a scene performed, I rushed to Samuel French, an actor’s bookstore that sells plays on Sunset Boulevard and bought it. It read like a pressure-cooker as the story progressed towards the shocking and chilling ending. Blood Moon is based on very challenging material and particularly timely with the sexual assault themes of the 2016 election.
A few years later, I convinced Nicholas to let me direct Blood Moon as my first feature film if I could raise the money. I was somewhat intimidated by his legacy and his filmography that includes an Oscar nomination for Reversal of Fortune, and one of one of my favorite films At Close Range, but I went for it. He agreed to allow me to shop it for a year. This proves that the only thing that guarantees you nothing is never asking.
It was over three years later before we started shooting. Nicholas agreed to adapt the play for the screen and after a few drafts, we had a script that could be shot with the tight budget and schedule. Tim Williams, a seasoned producer with a long list of credits came on board to produce the film. Tim and I worked to figure out the best ways to work with limit the days for maximum efficiency. He was a blessing and able to guide the production smoothly through what would seem an impossible budget for most Hollywood producers. Tim's first job was on Sidney Lumet’s Running on Empty and worked with other legendary film directors like Robert Altman, Penny Marshall,and Susan Seidelman. It's a challenge to find people to work so hard for so little money so we relied mostly on friends and were able to bring on incredibly talented key personnel willing to go the extra mile. We were able to commit our Director of Photography, Charlie Wupperman, Costume Designer, Melis Kuris, Production Designer, Felicity Nove, Line Producer, Cory Myler and the Editors, Melissa Remenarich-Aperlo and Erik C. Andersen all based on how much they believed in the project.
After the “green light" on the final script was given, the casting process was started with the casting director, Yesi Ramirez. James Callis, famous from the Bridget Jones movies and playing Battlestar Gallactica's Dr. Gaius Baltar signed on to play the lead role of Alan. Everything was rolling and the momentum was building. We decided on our lead actress to play Manya and with less than four weeks before shooting, she broke her negotiated agreement, refused to sign it, and took a different film. The deposit for the location was already paid, and on a film like this it was not a loss the production could handle. This was about to be the crushing blow to years of work. You have to think on your feet in these situations. Tim Williams came up with the idea to cast Nicholas Kazan’s youngest daughter Maya Kazan. She had studied theater at Yale, Wesleyan and at the William Esper Studio but had yet to do a major role in a feature length film. I met her over Skype, since she was in NYC and talked about the character, the story and what it would be like working on such a dark piece of material her father wrote before she was born. She had never read the complete play until the role was offered. She was interested, but there was one catch, Maya was committed to a play her friend wrote that was going to go up in New York the same time that Blood Moon's location had been booked. Through a series of negotiations and favors, Tim was able to help them move the date of that play so Maya could start to rehearse Blood Moon in Los Angeles a week later. I rounded out the cast with Frank Medrano who I met at my very first Sundance and I worked with on The Usual Suspects.
(What have you learned here so far? When putting together the film, relationships, hard work, thinking on your feet and finding your tribe will always get you through to the finish line!)
The shoot was 11 days in a Los Angeles Arts District downtown loft where the owner ran a fashion business and restored Porsches. The crew was tight and resourceful. They worked with small amounts of money to give the film and a bigger budget feel. The cameras were two Arri Alexas, the same type of cameras that were used on 007, Skyfall. I shot the film for the most part in sequence to keep true to the play and used long takes to keep the actors in the moment without giving them a chance to break the reality.
For post, in addition to my incredilbe team I already mentioned, I also was able to get Blood Moon's composer, Joe Kraemer. Joe is a graduate of the Berklee College of Music in Boston and has been working in sound and composing scores since he arrived in LA back in 1992 when Bryan Singer and I picked him up from LAX International Airport. Bryan and Joe were friends from their teens. Joe did me a favor since he was just coming off mega-budget Tom Cruise film 007, Skyfall, directed by our friend Christopher McQuarrie. (Relationships again, so important!) The final product is one that I'm happy with - an erie sense of beauty that lends credit to where it all started - from Nicholas Kazan's play.
A few months ago Theo Dumont, the co-founder of the HollyShorts Film Festival with Daniel Sol, asked me to have Blood Moon be the opening film of this year’s festival I was beyond thrilled. This honor means so much to me because back in 2007 a little known HollyShorts Film Festival invited me to screen a thirty-minute documentary I directed, shot, and produced called For Tomorrow, The TOMS Shoes Story - a film about an unknown tiny socially responsible start-up. It was serendipitous that my first feature directorial debut would be screened at this festival.
It was a very long road to complete Blood Moon. I even lost funding in the middle of post-production (it's never a smooth road) but thanks to Frank Medrano we found investors to finish it. It was close to ten years from when I first saw that scene performed in Larry Moss’ class until Vega Baby and New Morning Films distributed it. In the USA we are already on Amazon, iTunes, VUDU and many others and we are going to be available on VOD in the UK soon. The online reviews have been great except that Australian horror film with the same title, Blood Moon, got some horrible reviews they ended up on our Amazon page and they are slow to remove them. (So, keep that in mind for your own films if you are on Amazon.)
So, what have I learned through it all?
I feel like every production is an adventure. It is always bumpy and fortunately this trip has been rewarded. Your team is everything. Relationships matter. Resourcefulness matters. It makes the bumps easier to get through. At HollyShorts the audience had nothing but praise and excitement about the film. It is all so rewarding and it makes the adventure, no matter how hard it is, worth it.
After all of this journey I wonder if it will ever be any easier... and I often think if is was easy would it be this rewarding?
Thanks for reading, fellow Stage 32ers.
You've taken the journey with Ken, now you can finally watch the culmination of his years of work: Download BLOOD MOON here.
About Ken Kokin
Kenneth Kokin has over two decades of experience in the motion picture and technology industry.
The feature films he has produced have been recognized with over 50 awards from international and domestic festivals. His produced works include THE USUAL SUSPECTS (also Second Unit director), which won two Academy Awards. He has produced studio features, independent features, digital features, documentaries, reality TV and international features (i.e., Chinese & Jordanian). As a producer, Kokin oversees and/or negotiates development, funding, budgets, rights deals, talent deals, production, post production, distribution and marketing. He has packaged and secured funding for features in every scenario, including negative pickups, studio (cash-flow) and independently funded. Kokin has proven himself as the man who can take mere hints of ideas and propel them into scripts and/or feature films, often by working with such A-list writers as Peter Buchman and Eric Aronson. Kokin is always tracking new digital technologies in motion photography and distribution. He is often lecturing and teaching at universities.
As a Los Angeles native and a two time Sundance winner, it seems that Kokin knows everyone in the LA entertainment community: publicists, casting directors, managers, agents, writers, top stars, directors, and producers - and if he doesn’t know someone, he’s usually just one person removed. Kokin’s notable taste is varied, as evidenced by his producer credits; his productions range from comedy, such as MORDECAI (Johnny Depp), to action, such as THE WAY OF THE GUN (Benicio Del Toro, Ryan Phillippe, James Caan, Juliette Lewis), directed by Academy Award winner Christopher McQuarrie (Dir. JACK REACHER and MISSION IMPOSSIBLE 5). His achievements were recognized by Fade In magazine, which listed him as one of “The Top 100 People in Hollywood.”
Kokin, recently made his directorial debut with BLOOD MOON - a chilling, contemporary tragedy that tells a tale of innocence lost and of the lengths one will go for revenge. BLOOD MOON was written by Oscar nominated Nicholas Kazan and stars his daughter, Maya Kazan, Frank Medrano (THE SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION) and James Callis (BATTLESTAR GALACTICA, BRIDGET JONES'S DIARY). BLOOD MOON has been met with an overwhelmingly enthusiastic response within the industry and is currently set for distribution in July 2016.
Presently, Kokin is working with Studio 8 on feature films as well as writing his next original screenplay and developing television content. To see BLOOD MOON, click here.
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About the Author
I was born with a Super 8mm in my face. Now you can shoot better quality with a cellphone and everyone has one.... And I helped name Keyser Soze.