Stop us if you’ve heard this one before: A luchador, a desperate hotelier, a white-collar criminal and a newly freed ex-con sporting a truly unfortunate face tattoo walk into a hotel room and end up snared in the machinations of a sex trafficking, organ harvesting gangster. It’s not much of a punchline, and you’ve probably seen bits and pieces of the set-up in other movies before, but you haven’t seen them assembled into the lean, brutal, surprisingly affecting package of Ryan Prows’ feature debut, Lowlife.
Prows’ film earned strong reviews on the festival circuit last year, and is now rolling out in select theaters in the U.S.
Prows built the film upon a handful of intersecting stories told from the perspectives of mostly disenfranchised characters: El Monstruo (Ricardo Adam Zarate), an overly serious man in a luchador mask; Crystal (Nicki Micheaux), the proprietor of a rundown motel; Keith (Shaye Ogbonna), an accountant siphoning money from his boss; and Randy (Jon Oswald), Keith’s best friend, fresh out of jail and branded with a swastika that belies his easygoing, tolerant persona. Randy likes everybody. Everybody hates Randy on sight. He’s got problems, but so does the rest of the cast. El Monstruo lives in the shadow of his father while working as hired muscle for crime boss Teddy “Bear” Haynes (Mark Burnham). Crystal is desperate enough to find a kidney donor for her husband that she makes a deal with Teddy to secure a kidney from her own daughter, Kaylee (Santana Dempsey), whom Teddy has adopted (and to whom El Monstruo is married). Keith’s client happens to be Teddy, but Keith is blissfully ignorant of Teddy’s reputation.
That’s a lot of crazy to pack into one synopsis, let alone a movie, but Prows makes it work by balancing out Lowlife‘s over-the-top qualities with an eye for contemporary social dilemmas and honest compassion for his characters’ ordeals.
Prows talked about his approach to finding that balance when Heat Vision caught up with him, while also touching on the thrill of being compared to Quentin Tarantino, the audience experience, and the fun of making a movie unlike any movie he’s seen before.
I don’t know if you’ve read the reviews of the movie or not, but the name I’ve seen mentioned in all of them is Quentin Tarantino. I guess when I think about a movie, a feature debut, and it’s being compared to a director of Tarantino’s stature, I always think: “Is that a compliment or is that just too much pressure for the filmmaker?”
I guess we’ll see! (Laughs.) I mean, I obviously like Tarantino, but it wasn’t an initial comparison or point of reference we talked about. But I’m not going to fight it. It’s pretty cool to get mentioned in the same breath, so it’s fine!
To me, it does feel like a certain kind of movie from the post-Tarantino ‘90s, but updated. What did you think about when you thought about making a movie with this kind of structure in 2018? How did you walk into this and think, “How can I make this mine?”
Yeah, definitely. I initially pitched it as a crime anthology. There are obviously so many more horror anthologies, that kind of stuff, in indie film, but as we were working on it — there were five writers, so there was a nice little group, we were all kind of throwing ideas back and forth on it — and as we were working on it, we started figuring out that it’d be actually cooler and kind of fun to overlap and have characters start affecting each other’s stories, that sort of thing. So it really started out as a place of necessity, of being like, “OK, we’re going to make a movie, we’ve got to figure out how to do this, if we have to we just shoot short films that we’ll kind of stitch together.” It was a by hook or by crook sort of deal.
As far as updating it, we started this in 2015, we shot it in 2016, but it definitely was always from a place of having marginalized characters, underrepresented characters, be at the forefront, and tackling social issues while we were still making a fun genre thing. So we’re not soapboxing but we’re talking about deeper stuff, and it’s just a fun surface romp sort of deal. That was pretty much the plan of attack.
On the subject of pressure, does that feel like pressure too? I feel like, in the abstract, it sounds easy to marry this bizarre, intense, intersecting, hyper-violent crime story that’s on the movie’s surface with these social issues, but in practice I can’t imagine that’s easy at all.
Definitely. It was cool, myself being a writer, and one of the actors is a writer, and then two of the producers are also writers, so as we were working, even on the day sort of stuff. I felt like my job was really managing those tones. So if something was too goofy or too funny, we would pull that back, or maybe we’d rewrite a scene on the fly if it was too dark and it messed us up, we’d pull it back the other way.
So it was really just walking that line. To me that was always the fun of it, and the challenge of it. Can you make a luchador living in a world with an ex-con with a swastika tattoo, and then there’s this really horrible storyline about sex trafficking and organ harvesting, and could you marry all that and still make it feel whole and not too whiplashy? That was the definitely the focus from the jump.
The movie starts out in an incredibly dark place, with a very dark sequence. It brightens up from there.
Yeah, immediately. And we really tried to lean into, again, that fractured structure, that fractured narrative. The movie starts in the worst place. You’re in Hell. It’s the worst place possible. The next sequence there’s immediately almost like a cartoon superhero sitting there in front of you. It’s like, “What is the reality of this world?” I always like, as an audience member, and I definitely wanted to bring this to the film for the audience, is putting it together as you’re watching it. You’re doing the math on it. That was really cool to me.
But yeah, the intention was like, “What is this film?” And hopefully you’re trusting it, and kind of settling into it as it’s going, but the point of it was definitely to keep you off-kilter and on the back foot so it can work itself on you, as opposed to it being something that’s just happening. I always love being a participant as an audience member as well.
This definitely feels like a good audience movie …
It’s funny, I’ve seen it a good amount with different audiences. There’s a moment early on, during the opening credits, when Teddy’s messing with the tape, he’s trying to get the tape open. If you get a laugh, or a chuckle or whatever there, you know everyone’s ready to laugh or get it a little bit more. Sometimes it’ll be pretty dry. People are like, “Oh, is it OK to laugh here or not?” And you know you’re in for a bit of a haul there.
I liked the movie, but sometimes it is hard to know not so much when to laugh — I think the movie communicates that in pretty clear language — but bringing yourself to laugh. You mentioned trust earlier. I think that’s an important component here. This is very modern in a lot of different ways, in terms of what it’s speaking to. I wonder if you’ve seen that in audience response, if people have had any difficulties bridging those two components of the movie.
Yeah, I mean, in a certain regard. But I feel like you don’t want to spoon feed them the other end. You’re hoping that people get it and are ready for it, and if they’re not, at least as a viewer and as a filmmaker, that’s the fun, the surprise. Part of it too is that initially we pitched it as a pure exploitation film, so on the surface it feels like, OK, you’ve got a guy with a swastika tattoo, all this stuff. The poster looks insane. But hopefully it’s a pleasant surprise that we actually dig into these characters, and treat the world and the characters as bit more grounded. I was always curious to see how they were going to do trailers. I could never pitch it. (Laughs.) This is a pretty hard film to pitch. For example, there was a conversation over whether we should put the swastika-faced guy on the cover, or in the trailer or whatever, as far as ruining that gag or not. To me what was always kind of cool was not that we have a guy in there that has that, but his journey is what’s the surprise that people seeing him on the poster don’t think it’s going to come to. That, to me, that sort of journey for the audience is really cool.
We’ve been getting a big response to that, like “That’s not the kind of movie we were expecting.” It’s kind of interesting. I don’t really know how to sell it other than as what it is. Part of the fun of it is that people think it’s some kind of goofy grindhouse sort of thing, but no, we’re trying to go for some really emotionally affecting scenes, and some real character work, and try to say something with it, which is cool.
Definitely. Obviously not to give anything away, but the scene where Crystal finds Dan, that bit, when we shot that, it was so jarring even in person that we changed the ending. You can’t go this low and not have a little bit more … we had a less happy ending. It was, again, managing tones and finding that bit of a balance. You want to have fun, goofy stuff. It was trying to seek — I mean, this sounds absurd — it was trying to actually find real-life stuff. There’s funny butted right up next to the most insane, tragic moments, and everything in between. It feels like an actual slice of life, as much as you can with a guy, a luchador who’s going around bashing people’s heads in. (Laughs.)
I always was pitching it, influence-wise, as if John Cassavetes made a Paul Verhoeven movie. If John Cassavetes made RoboCop or something.
I like that. If I may, I also felt like there’s a little bit of Takashi Miike in here. I don’t know if you’ve seen Ichi the Killer …
Yeah! To me, what’s so cool about his stuff is it makes sense but it doesn’t make sense, or maybe it’s just something you haven’t seen, but then it makes total sense in the world he’s creating. There were moments I was just terrified. We were shooting a small character drama kitchen sink scene between a luchador and his pregnant, heroin-addicted wife, and I was like, “We may be fucking up here.” (Laughs.) “I don’t know what this is, but, you know, trust the process, I guess.”
It was just always exciting. I have never seen anything like this, and I love movies, so if nothing else, it’ll be memorable.
I feel like for a filmmaker that may be the greatest aspiration or achievement ever, to make a movie that you’ve never seen before, you know what I mean? To create something you know is unique because it’s totally unfamiliar to you even though you’re the one making it.
And it literally is terrifying. It’s our first movie as well, but it was so cool because it was our first movie and no one really helped us do it, so we could just kind of do whatever we wanted. Make the movie for yourself. I’ll probably never get to make something like that again. We got to just make this wild little movie. It’s been really cool.