Keva and Karen Keyes are some of the most delightful gals you’ll ever meet. I was first introduced to them on the set of Walker Payne, a movie I designed in South Carolina in 2005. They were local costumers then; they are director and producer now. Their short film, Letters From Home, screens at the 18th Pan-African Film Festival in Culver City this weekend. I am excited to share their story with you. These ladies had the guts and the tenacity to transition into the directors’ chairs, and I interviewed them about all of it today.
In my book Going Hollywood, I talk about the need for chutzpah in this business. I went so far as to call it a need for BALLS. What the Keyes sisters have done, getting their film together – this is what I am talking about. With twenty-plus years of on-set costuming experience between them, they decided that they wanted to reach for the brass ring. They gathered their colleagues and friends in Charleston, South Carolina, and they made their movie. I applaud their tenacity and “git ‘er done” attitude. Listen to what they have to say about it all:
KB: I’m just so proud of you guys. I can’t even stand it, by the way. It takes a lot to get something like this off the ground, so it’s really a pleasure for me to be able to share your story. I think it’s going to be inspirational for a lot of people who maybe want to do something a little bit more with their careers. So how are you doing this while working on Army Wives?
Keva: Right now, I’m working as a key costumer on Army Wives, and Karen is day-checking as a set costumer on Army Wives. That amounts to 1 – 3 days per episode for Karen, and it takes us about 7 days to shoot an episode. They know that we are taking this film to festivals, and they let us off work when we travel – most of these festivals are on the weekend.
KB: Whose idea was this? I am asking this of sisters, so it gets a little tricky! Let me put it this way: what inspired you to do this film?
Keva: For myself, I’ve always wanted to be a director, and I’ve always said I was a director, but I had not directed anything. I shared my desire to write with an executive producer on Army Wives, and she asked me if I had a reel. I said, “No,” but I followed up with, “But I can get one!” She asked me if I could pull a reel together and show it to her, and I told her I could. So literally within two months after that, we were rolling camera.
KB: So basically, you wrote a check that your butt could not exactly cash…
Keva: EXACTLY! I really relied on a lot of friends to help me cash that check! (laughs) It was literally me going to people saying, “Hey, can you work for free?” That’s what it was. The tremendous support that we had from people we’d met since we’ve been in the business – everyone literally came together on that day. It was an amazing day. It was just like any other day on any other set. You couldn’t tell the difference. It flowed like clockwork; it really did.
KB: You shot this entire film in one day?
Keva: It was about a day and a half. It was like 18 hours, and then a couple of hours the following day. You know, the sun went down!
KB: Did you share your desires (to write and direct) with Karen in terms of like, “I want your help?” Tell me about how that happened.
Keva: Well, we’ve always agreed that Karen’s the producer. (they laugh)
KB: She’s better with money?
Keva: To a certain degree it is like, I write, and then I pass it off to Karen. To me she’s just amazing as far as story goes, as far as knowing what works and what doesn’t. She can say, “I’m not feeling this,” and she points me in the right direction. I go and I shut my door again, and I write, and I come back out and I give it to her. That’s our collaborative effort, as far as the writing process goes.
KB (to Karen): When Keva presents you with something, do you tend to be nice, or are you brutally honest with her?
Karen: Oh, I’m honest. It’s usually a feeling-thing, and sometimes I don’t know exactly what it is. I would rather address it if I honestly am not connecting with something, than to let somebody else read it and give her notes. Then I’d be like, “Oh, I thought that, too!” We’ve even gone back and forth about that on some things because she will give me writing knowing that it has problems. I sometimes agonize over things before I give her notes. I am trying to figure out if it’s something missing with my understanding, or something missing with the piece itself.
KB: In terms of the creative process, it sounds like you are quite collaborative, a team – you would consider yourself a team?
Karen and Keva: Yes.
Keva: And on a project like this, I say to her, “This is what I want.” She will crunch the numbers and come up with ideas about where we can pull favors, people we can get to work on it, and in that respect, she truly wears the producer’s hat. She tries to give me everything that I want and need so that we can actually pull the production off.
KB: After 15 years in the costume department, was there a moment that was daunting, psychologically, in making this transition?
Keva: I wouldn’t say it was daunting, in the sense that it was a desire I’d always had. I felt like the day finally came that I got to do what my gut was always telling me. I wouldn’t say “daunting”, at all.
Karen: It was liberating, honestly.
Keva: I even told one of the producers on Army Wives, “I felt more comfortable directing than I did even some days costuming.” I felt like I was really where I was meant to be.
KB: You guys are coming from a small filmmaking community. Did you ever get the sense that people might not support you as much because they were jealous of your ambition or didn’t have the guts; do you know what I mean? Did you have any kind of feeling like that, or was it all supportive?
Keva: I would say beyond supportive. People reached out to us, people we’ve never even met before. People in our community put in phone calls and said, “Hey, can you help these girls out?” And people that we haven’t even met to this day, just a voice over the phone, said, “Yeah!” and they came on board without ever even having met us. I would say we had support beyond our imagination.
Karen: Our friend Cammie, also a costumer, said, “I just want to see someone make it out”. In South Carolina, we have a small film community, and there are people who have gone on to do greater things. But I guess when people have known us for a long time – from being extras, to becoming costumers, they say, “I want to see this dream happen, I want to see someone make it.” It touches my heart because I realize that we’re not just doing this for us, we’re doing it for all of those people who have a dream.
The great thing about our short is that so many people got to step up. Our production designer had been working as a set designer, and he said, “I want to become a production designer!” We’re the first production design credit on his resume now! We wanted to give people the opportunity to promote their own careers through this, so there are a lot of people rooting for us.
KB: With all of this costume experience, 20-plus years between the two of you, how did that inform your understanding of the different departments on the set? I mean, you come from the crew, so being a director and producer now, tell me about how your background helped you in this process –
Keva: I would say that it’s truly, truly a collaboration. Since we’d already had a working relationship with our department heads, I didn’t question anything. I knew what I wanted, and in talking with them, in terms of explaining ideas, I felt confident that I could just let it alone. I could tell them, “This is what I want the tent to look like,” and I felt confident that the production designer (Eric) would deliver. I’ve seen him work for the last two years.
As far as the collaboration goes, just knowing that everyone was actually going to pull through, that everyone was there because that’s what their heart wanted, that was important.
KB: How big was your budget?
KB: How did you come up with the money?
Karen: Keva financed it personally, on the cash end of it. It certainly would have cost us more than $10,000, but our co-executive producer Todd Hergott owns things like the Hum-Vees and the Battle Rattle and the guns. We were able to get grip and electric equipment owned by (Army Wives) crew members, and they let us use it. If we honestly had to sit down and figure out what the overall, true budget was, I would imagine it would be over six figures.
Keva: If we had to rent everything and actually pay for all the favors we got, yes. All I can say is that (the generosity) was truly a blessing. To pay $10,000 versus six-figures for this short?
KB: So did people work for free?
Karen: Yes. The only person who was paid was the security guard because he had to sleep in the tent the night before shooting. Art department dressed the set so that we could walk into it in the morning, and we couldn’t just leave the set unattended, so our security guard, Darnell, slept in the tent. We paid for his night of slumber.
Keva: I think we left him with half a pizza. (they laugh)
KB: Poor Darnell! How long did it take you to save for this?
Keva: Even though we’ve gone through a dry spell within the industry, these past two years have been the two busiest years I’ve had since I’ve been in the business. It’s South Carolina! In addition to episodic TV, we were always fortunate enough to have a feature roll in during our down time. We had Dear John come after one season (of Army Wives), and then we had Angel Camouflaged come after another season. I think I had two weeks off, and that was Christmas. I consider that a blessing, with respect to the industry as a whole. Being able to work that much provided enough money to undertake this adventure.
Karen: Considering the short time period between Keva being asked for her reel, to us rolling camera (which was only about two months), we didn’t have a lot of time to prepare much in advance. Keva got a second credit card so I was able to start spending, and we were just charging a lot of stuff. We had to buy film, we had to buy insurance. There was a point where I wouldn’t be a good accountant. I told Keva, “I’m not going to add up the receipts.” I just put them in a Ziploc bag because there wasn’t anything in there that wasn’t necessary. We had to just put our head down and do it. I couldn’t think about the numbers – we just had to get what we needed.
KB: What was the biggest thing you learned while you were in production?
Keva: I would say the biggest thing I learned is that there is a post-production world. In our end of the business, we deal with pre-production and shooting. The post-production world – color timing, working with a composer, editing – that literally did not exist to us before this film; we were never a part of that world. It was kind of a crash-course in filmmaking.
KB: Being that you work in the costume department, you work with actors as closely sometimes as the director does. How did that experience help you on this project, directing and producing?
Keva: As a costumer, you’re there for rehearsals, and since I’ve known that this is something I wanted to do, I watch rehearsals not just from a costumer’s perspective, but also from a director’s perspective. How does the director talk with the actors? How does he motivate the actors in rehearsals? How does he communicate with them?
Karen (sternly): He or SHE!
Keva: Right! He or SHE! So working on set, I take advantage of watching the communication between directors and actors. The production designer on my film, he told me that it was unusual that when I talked to the actors, I touched them. He thought that it must have come from my costume background. He said that you don’t see a lot of other directors, when they talk to an actor, touch them that way. As a costumer, you are…
KB: There is a comfort level.
Keva: Yes, it’s a comfort level with them, and he said that was one major difference he noticed between myself and other directors, and that the actors were also receptive to it. It’s just something that I’ve done for years.
KB: Maybe it’s just a little more sensitivity to their headspace, I think.
KB: And being accustomed to watching the monitor for costumes, this must prepare you for watching the monitor for the big picture as well, yes?
Keva: As a costumer, every single take, you are behind the monitor. This provides us the opportunity to see how the director relates to the action on camera, the shot, and how the director relates to the script supervisor or the ADs. As a costumer, your eye is trained to watch for particular details. It’s good to be there, to watch the director and to get the answers to questions like “Why would the director ask for another take?”
Karen: I feel like I’ve spent the last fifteen years in film school, without having to pay tuition.
Keva: We’ve been paid to be there and to observe. You see some directors, and you say, “Man, I really love his style,” and then you see other directors, and it’s kind of like, “eeeeeee” (sound of a bomb dropping). It’s like, “If I ever do that… !!”
KB: So where did the costumes come from?
Karen: Some from Todd (the Executive Producer). All of the ACUs that our actors wore were owned by Todd, and then the boots came from Army Wives. (they laugh)
KB: So that worked out all right! So, who dealt with the scheduling and the logistics? Did you have an AD?
Karen: We did have an AD, but he was working at the time, so I became the “pseudo-AD”. It was great because I did a one-line schedule and I did a shooting schedule. I did it just using a regular program. When he saw it, he thought I had a professional program; I said that I had just copied the format I’d seen over the years! Since he was working for free, I didn’t want to have him do his job during the week and then have to do our stuff at the same time.
Keva: We did also have a table read and a blocking rehearsal for the two main scenes. I think I was more nervous for the table read and the blocking rehearsal than I was for the actual shoot day! I think on that day I just showed up and it was just like boom-boom-boom, knowing that we had to actually get it done.
KB: What are the biggest lessons you’ve learned in this festival process? What have you learned about filmmaking from all of the screenings?
Karen: That it’s a business! (they laugh)
Keva: It is! The first film festival we were in, which was the San Diego Black Film Festival, there was one gentleman who spoke, and he kept saying, “It’s a business. It’s a business.” And then Spike Lee got up and said, “Know your craft, study your craft, learn your craft. Just because you pick up a camera on the weekend, doesn’t make you a director.” Those are the two things we walked away with.
Karen: To me, this part of it is harder than making the actual film. We were lucky – we shot ours in basically a day, but this part is much more daunting. From having to find the poster, to getting the cards made, making the reservations to be there, applying to all of the festivals – which we probably are going to go broke from just the applying – it’s daunting.
KB: How did you find out about all these festivals?
Karen: Most of them we learned about through Without a Box, which is a website that lists a ton of festivals. I studied the festivals and read all about them. When we wanted to be specific, we would Google (let’s say) “African American Film Festivals”, “Southern Film Festivals”, just trying to get our niche a little smaller. We realized when we got our first results back from places like Sundance and Slamdance, we might need to change strategy, because so many people apply to those big festivals. We thought, “Let’s get smaller and figure out how we can appeal to a smaller demographic.” Even trying to figure out that part of it is tough.
Once you get into the festival, then they need screeners from you, posters from you, we need digi-beta, DVcam, etc. Just trying to figure out how each individual festival works is crazy. When we went to our first festival, we didn’t even take fliers! We arrived, and the first person we spoke to asked us for our flier, and we were like, “Um, we don’t have any!” (they laugh) So for sure, for the next festival, we had them!
KB: The Executive Producer on Army Wives, does she know what kind of a fire she lit in you guys?
Keva: She does, and Karen and I, we love her. After we sent her an email and let her know what we were doing, and the festivals we were in, she was like, “Great, ladies!!” And her next line was: “What’s next?” It’s a little bit overwhelming, the pressure implied by that.
We’re hoping that by the end of the year next year we can get something going. It’s just about building the reel right now and getting more experience. Hopefully some day I’ll be able to submit my reel to Army Wives!
KB: You said that making this movie was not daunting because it was something you always wanted to do. So what’s the difference between wanting to do something like that, and doing it?
Keva: First of all, I had the support behind me. That made it easier for me to take the first step. I’d never had anyone say to me before, “Do you have a reel?” And like I said, I said, “No, but I can get one!” I think it’s opportunity and timing. Everything came together. I knew that my friends would be able to work on it, since we weren’t yet on hiatus. Had I waited, they would have gone home, and I would not have had the access to the filmmaking community like I did.
We tried to include as many people as possible. We reached out to the local technical college (which has a film school), and we told them we had professional crew, and would they allow their students to come out and do like a mentorship underneath the professionals? This allowed us to have access to their 35mm Arriflex camera. We brought the students on board as a mentorship program, which allowed us to have access to the school’s facilities.
KB: But those interns, they double the body count! How do you feed those people?
Karen: We fed them very well!!
Keva: After working in this business as long as we have, especially having worked on low budget things, we know that the one way to keep your crew happy is to feed them! We had a little bit of everything that day; we had people taking to-go boxes home! We knew if there was something we were going to be spending money on, it was feeding the crew, since everyone was working for free.
Karen: We fed them well. And, going back to talking about the number of people on the set, every body on that set was necessary. We didn’t have people standing around doing absolutely nothing. The students who worked on it had a very good experience and the professionals were very complimentary to the students. Two of them even said they would hire their students in a professional setting. Everybody wins. And now, for those students, it’s up to them. They’ve made the contact, now stay in touch with that person whom you worked under, because that person works! There may be another opportunity in the future where he might need somebody to help out on set or to hold cables or something where he would be able to open a door for someone.
Keva: As far as people wanting to get into the business, I would just have to say, “Just do it.” We had nothing to lose and I would say we had everything to gain. So for your Frocktalk readers, I would say, “Just do it.” Networking is very important, so if there are film festivals in your town, take advantage of things like that. See if your film commission offers free classes like ours in Charleston does. They have speakers come in to talk about screenwriting and distribution, on producing. If your town offers anything like that, go to those seminars – that’s when you meet other people who are in the business. Make friends with people there, build your network, and stay in touch with them. Let them know your interests, also, to make yourself available.
KB: I think that “putting it out there” is the most important thing. If you hadn’t “put it out there” to that Executive Producer you would not be sitting here today.
Karen: I love that she took Keva seriously about what she wanted to do. The simple act of requesting her reel started this whole thing. And then we felt a little obligated to fulfill that commitment to creating a reel, doing what we’d said we would do. As you get other people involved, their enthusiasm helps motivate you! There came a point after I booked our hotel room for our casting call, when I said, “Okay, we’ve got a room, I guess we’re doing a casting call!” And then people were showing up on the day (I thought), “I guess we’re making a movie!!” As we committed to each thing, we realized we were getting closer to actually fulfilling it. Even on the day when I drove up to set, and I realized that the people who said they would come to work for free actually showed up? (they laugh) That was like, “We’re doing this!!!”
I saw the grip/electric truck was open, the sound people were rolling their cart out, I was like, “Oh my gosh! We’re really making a movie!!” Not until it was almost done did I believe that it was really coming together. So, for all the people who read your website, understand that getting people involved in your dream, at whatever level, helps you. Because when you can’t believe it’s going to happen, somebody else might be like, “But hey, didn’t you say we were going to do this?” And they might help keep you motivated when you are ready to throw in the towel. Making a promise that you’re going to do something and sticking to it, even when you don’t believe that you’ve got everything you need – move forward, and sometimes it turns out better than you’d have thought. Just do it. Stay committed.
KB: So how is the film being received? What are people saying?
Karen: Everybody comments on the production value. They can’t believe that it’s an independent, and that we made it for so little money. People are also intrigued by the story of the film; they don’t want it to end. They’re like “What’s next?!”
KB: And that’s my question to you guys: What’s Next?
Keva: Well, I’ve written a feature-length screenplay called Elliott, and that, along with a short I’ve written, called The Hunt For the Golden Cobra, are both in the International Family Film Festival as screenplays. We will be back in LA on March 13 and 14. Both of them advanced to the semi-finals, and scenes from The Hunt For the Golden Cobra were selected to be read by actors for an audience at the Charlie Chaplin Theater at Raleigh Studios.
So that’s what’s next and right now we’re just hoping to get the financing to be able to shoot The Hunt For the Golden Cobra at the end of this year in Charleston.
Karen: We’re really excited about Elliott as well. We’re really happy about the International Family Film Festival recognizing it. It’s kind of the one (script) that started this whole process. Keva’s been working on it for several years. I feel like the shorts we are doing right now are our running start for Elliott. That will be a feature-length, 1976 period piece.
KB: Do you need a costume designer?
Keva: There is just something about that period, that era. It’s just so pure and honest. Elliott is the feature film that I want to be my directorial debut, as far as features are concerned.
KB: So in the meantime, are you going to be on the costume truck at Army Wives?
Keva: Oh yeah, gotta pay for the plane tickets to all the festivals.
If you live in Los Angeles, I hope that you can make some time to see LETTERS FROM HOME at the 18th Pan-African Film and Arts Festival! It screens tomorrow (Sunday 2-14-10) at 5:45 at the Culver Plaza Theaters: 9919 Washington Boulevard in Culver City. It screens again on Tuesday 2-16-10 at 6:45 PM. Tickets are available at the box office.
Other times/venues to see the film:
Beaufort International Film Festival (Beaufort, SC)
February 18-21, 2010
(screen time, Friday 19th @ 2:00 PM)
Macon Film Festival (Macon, GA)
February 18-22, 2010
(screen times, Thursday 18th @ 4:45 PM & Saturday 20th @ 3:00 PM)
Charleston Film Festival (Charleston, SC)
March 11-14, 2010
(screen time, Opening Night – Thursday 11th @ 7:15 PM)
Thank you to Karen and Keva for your time and your inspiration!!! Good luck with all of your upcoming screenings and festivals!! Please keep us posted on your future projects!!