In celebration of the NewFilmmakers Los Angeles screenings at the AT&T center in Downtown L.A. this month, we’re conducting a series of Q&A Features and this week we’re bringing you our featured Filmmaker Spotlight with writer and director Conrad Lihilihi of The Device.
Tell us a little bit about your project and how long you’ve been working on it.
The Device is a sci-fi thriller about two robbers who are hired to steal a device that sends them into a horrific and unexplainable journey. The concept was something I’ve always wanted to do but struggled with how to execute it. When I finally got the idea, I wrote it over some beers and originally I had cast myself as the second robber. My cameraman, however, got sick on the first day of shooting and so I ended up staying behind the camera. Luckily, we had Anthony Washington (Robber #2) helping out on set so he gladly stepped up for the role. Overall, I wrote the script in about an hour, we shot for two and a half days, and I edited for about a week.
Is there anyone you’d like to thank for helping out with this film?
Our crew was incredibly small and everyone was so important to make this happen. I’d like to thank Jacqui for letting us shoot at her amazingly versatile house. Victoria for the pizzas and crafty. Anton for doing sound, John for taking care of the lighting, and Josh for assisting wherever we needed help. Those five people were literally our WHOLE crew and they’re the personification of quality over quantity. This project could not have happened without each and every one of them.
How does it feel to have your film part of the NewFilmmakers Screening at the AT&T Center?
I’m extremely honored. This is the very first festival that I’ll be attending with a project of my own and I’m very excited. I’ve had some friends in the past screen their projects here and they told me how backlogged the festival could get because of the many submissions received and it being a monthly festival. So hearing from NewFilmmakers less than a month after submitting and getting accepted was pleasantly surprising.
What inspires you?
My family inspires me to succeed and in terms of creatively, I know it sounds cliche, but my curiosity and love of life inspires me. I’m curious about other people’s perspectives and stories. Everyone, no matter how boring or monotonous their life may seem, has a story. You can show two people the same thing and they’ll both describe it differently based on their life’s experiences and that interests and inspires me. There’s a reason why the guy at the corner has no home and is yelling, a reason why a girl wouldn’t trust anyone, and a reason why a guy is afraid of love and those stories interest and inspire me. I’m constantly writing things down in my phone whether it be a random idea that pops into my head, maybe I’m out and about and I’ll see something funny or interesting, or a lot of the time I’ll wake up and write down my dreams. But in any case, I try to allow myself to be open minded enough to be inspired by anything and everyone.
Who are your influences and who do you admire?
I feel like this is the question where everyone takes the obvious answer and name the greats like Orsen Wells, Spielberg, Scorcese, etc. Those guys are great and I’m a huge fan but I’m a fan of many types of movies and genres and so my influence seems to change depending on the project. With this project, I was definitely influenced by Hitchcock and you could even see that influence down to our movie poster. I have a web series that I wrote that’s influenced by the harsh truths in relationships depicted in Sex and the City and Entourage. I have a couple comedies influenced by Wes Anderson. I’ve got some quick talking, Guy Ritchie influenced stuff. I’ve written a couple of features and shorts that are influenced by stories in South Pacific history. It definitely is a pretty broad range in terms of people and things that influence me and at the same time, of course, you want to find your own voice and not have your stuff look like anyone else, but I’d be lying to you if I told you that I’m influenced by Spielberg in directing this sci-fi/thriller and Scorsese when I’m directing a comedy. So yes, it definitely changes per project.
In terms of whom I admire, I take a lot of flack for this because it’s definitely not your normal answer but I really admire Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson. With me being a Polynesian filmmaker/actor, there’s really not many, if any, other Polynesians in this business. Try and name five. Go ahead, I’ll wait. I’ll even give you “The Rock” as a freebie. Chances are you can’t. Dwayne Johnson, Cliff Curtis, Tamuera Morrison, Jason Momoa, and Lee Tamahori. Those are literally the only five working Polynesians in this business and only two of them are American (and I gaurantee you’re probably wondering who the other four guys are and you’re going to have to look them up). It’s 2013, and if you’re a white filmmaker/actor and there was only FIVE white filmmakers or actors in the WHOLE BUSINESS at this point in time (actors, directors, producers, etc), you’d KNOW who they are and they would inspire you; same goes if you’re African-American, if there were only five, you’d KNOW who they are. It’s 2013, and there are only five Polynesians. So I admire someone like Dwayne Johnson who, not only is he Polynesian, but he has attained such worldly success that he transcends race all the while showing that you could achieve great success in this business and still be a good person. I understand the added challenges I’m facing in being one of the very few people in my community in attempting this career and I could only HOPE that one day I could be half the pioneer that Dwayne Johnson is, achieve a level of success that transcends race like him, and do it with half as much grace and humility.
What lessons have you learned from the industry so far?
I’ve learned that this industry has its own way of filtering out those who belong/ those who really want to succeed here and those who are just infatuated by the partying, “glitz and glamor of Hollywood”. So many people say they want to succeed but so few people are willing to make the sacrifices and put in the work. So many people are afraid of what it really takes. Yes, you can work “smart” and you could have the connections but nothing truly takes the place of hard work because at the end of the day, WHO you know will get you in the door, but WHAT you know will determine how long you stay once you get there.
If you could collaborate with anybody, who would it be?
What is the toughest experience you’ve ever had to overcome?
In 2006, I graduated from the University of Washington with a degree in Ethnic Identities in Film and fortunately, my first job out of college was at Microsoft in Redmond, WA. I had a nice car, a nice condo, and was living pretty good for a recent graduate. After a year at Microsoft, I realized that despite the good job, I wasn’t truly happy. I decided I wanted to pursue a career in this industry. A week after making that decision, I dropped everything and moved to Los Angeles in August of 2008. I moved on impulse and barely had $1000 to my name. I used that money to buy an old beater of a car. In my first year and a half in LA, with student loans piling up exponentially, I lived in 8 different places which included sleeping on strangers’ couches, sleeping on the floor in someone’s breakfast nook, sharing a bunkbed with an ex-con in a three bedroom halfway house crammed with 32 people and at one point, for about a month, I was homeless, living in my car, and showering at 24hr Fitness. I had negative $150 in my bank account and no job during the peak of the recession in 2009. I ate nothing but slices of bread and drank lots of water because I had no money. At the time, I knew no one in LA so I was completely alone. I worked my ass off, dug myself out of that hole and now my day job is doing post-production at SpikeTV. Not only that, but now I’m in a position comfortable enough to concentrate on what I actually moved down here for. And of course, the icing on the cake is that I get to screen my first short to all you wonderful people at NewFilmmakers LA. I know my project doesn’t have as much financial backing as many of the projects that come through the festival; and I know there are much more experienced filmmakers in this funky town than me, but I guarantee that chances of you outworking me is slim to none.
What is the best piece of advice someone has given to you?
Concentrate on being the best person you could be and everything else will fall into place.
What advice would you give to new filmmakers starting out in the industry?
If you want to direct, direct. If you want to write, write. If you want to act, act. This is an incredibly unique industry in that, unlike corporate America, “putting in your time” and “paying your dues” doesn’t necessarily mean that you have to start from the bottom of the totem pole. You don’t need anyone’s permission so just go out, do it, and don’t ever let fear hold you back. Know that it’s a lonely journey so be persistent and try to find a solid group of people with similar goals as you. Finding that core group of people is going to be harder than you think because so many people talk about what they want to do but so few people actually follow through. Even in you just finishing your script, you’re ahead of a lot of people out here. And make sure you get into this industry for the right reasons. If you’re getting into it solely seeking money and fame then don’t be surprised when you go for years without money and fame. Work your ass off and know that the chances of you being the next Scorsese, Spielberg, or Denzel is slim to none. Work on being the greatest version of YOU instead of a good version of someone else. There are so many people in this town trying to vaguely “make it” and the odds of you “making it” are very very low, so ultimately, if you could do ANYTHING OTHER than work in this crazy industry, then you should go and do that instead…..but if that statement can deter you, then you probably shouldn’t be doing this anyway.
Where can we expect to see you next?
Hopefully this will be the first of a number of festivals that The Device will screen at. In terms of actually seeing me next, I have a youtube channel where I release comedy sketches every week. Tuntadun Films: Bringing the ‘aloha’ to your Aloha Fridays.
Let our readers know where they can find more information about you and your projects.
You can add me on Facebook, I’m the only Conrad Lihilihi in the world so that should be an easy search. I also have a blog (clihi.blogspot.com) where you can read about the time I was homeless in LA in more detail, among other weird Hollywood adventures. My actual website (www.conradlihilihi.com) will be up by the end of the month so be sure to look out for that.
Anything else you’d like to add?
Formerly an editor at Demand Media, writer at Citysearch, The Examiner and proofreader at The Los Angeles Daily News, Christy Buena decided to start Disarray Magazine because she missed writing what she wanted. From hiring writers, to contacting publicists and making assignments, Christy is responsible for the editorial strategy of Disarray Magazine. Get to know the team of talented contributors.