Lee Whittaker is set to make the leap from acting and stunt work to the director's chair with his debut short film Catching Fireflies.

Lee Whittaker

Lee Whittaker

Catching Fireflies has already been a hit on the festival circuit and has picked up awards and plenty of attention this year. We caught up with the director to chat about the film, making the leap into the filmmaker, and what lies ahead.

- You are back with new short film Catching Fireflies, so can you tell me a bit about the film?

It's about a little Latina girl attempting to escape the rigors and misfortunes of living on Skid Row Los Angeles through the power of her mystical imagination; while simultaneously trying to protect the bond with her addict mother.

- You are in the director's chair and have penned the screenplay for the film, so where did this project start for you? And what sparked the idea for the story?

It truly started while I was in another country on my way to work, a tap on my window from a panhandler is the norm in this overcrowded city. Looking over expecting to see an adult with their hand out, I was astonished to see a young girl of maybe 8, completely naked and covered in filth. I've never seen a child so dirty. The only clean spot on her was just under her eyes where tears had carved through the grim of the cities despair. It was 630 am. Within seconds, the driver sped away and I was forever scarred with that visual memory. I finished my work there and returned to Los Angeles still unable to shake her eyes staring through my soul.

The next week I was downtown LA for a meeting. Making a wrong turn, I ended up in tent city-skid-row where I saw nearly the same thing. Except this time a young boy, however, he was clothed. This is 11 miles from Beverly Hills. I then realized this is in everyone's backyard and no city or country on the planet is immune from. Feeling lead by an awakening within I then knew I needed to use the skills acquired through filmmaking to do something about it. The process has changed me as a man forever.

- Can you talk a bit about your writing process - did you start with characters first and then the story? Or was the story your main starting point?

Writing the piece was very stressful actually. I have never written except for music and poetry which both are hobbies. I didn't start with the characters yet instead the story like you mentioned. I figured like music I needed structure and a beginning, middle and end.

So after doing extensive research on the subject and meeting many homeless downtown I sat down, mapped it out and didn't leave that computer for nearly 3 days until it was finished. I had originally intended for a different ending however as I landed on that scene it all suddenly changed. It became clear that the impact needed to be extremely poignant.

- Catching Fireflies marks you feature film directorial and writing debut, so how have you found the whole experience?

I have found the experience to be one of those "AH HAH," moments when you do something that you know to your core it's what you were meant to be doing. I'm grateful for the experience I've had working in the industry under extremely talented filmmakers.

- How have you found the transition from stunts and acting to writing and directing? And what made now the right time to make that move?

I would say that transition is in flux for sure though while making transitions you still have to make sure your lively hood is not ignored. As they say, there's no time like the present and I felt so compelled to get this message out that to wait would be unacceptable.

- Gianna Gomez is the heart and soul of this movie in the central role of Isabella, so what were you looking for when you were casting this pivotal role? What did you see in Gianna that you thought would be perfect?

I needed a young actress with an old soul who could portray life on the streets and as we began the audition process I knew pretty quickly that Gianna had what it took to carry a character with such conflict but at the same time bring the playfulness of a child. When Gianna first came in she carried such depth and history in her eyes, her voice was gritty with such great texture that would only add to the character.

- They always say that you should never work with children, so how did you find working with Gianna?

She's no stranger to being in front of the camera. I have heard that actually, and animals as well as underwater. There were great challenges working with a young person, however, it nothing to do with talent, only the rules of how long they can actually work on set. That was the struggle as my lead actress is only allowed on set for 6 hours. I had to be highly organized with my plan.

- Carlotta Elektra Bosch, Stephen Boss, and Eugenia Care are also on board - can you talk a bit about the casting process?

I hired a great casting director Lisa Pantone and her assistant Cambia Hankin to bring some amazing talent. However Carlotta heard of the project in the trades, tracked me down asking to read. After watching her reel and website, I responded, "Sorry, your actually to attractive." She was relentless and I finally agree to see her at the casting. I said on one condition, you must come in the character. Look and all. Wow did she! There was no comparison to the depth and despair she performed in that small office room. Eugenia had a charm that she wore on the sleeve of her character. I had a different type intended all together for her character but when she came in there was no question. I then changed the character name because of her.

Stephen was a delight to work with especially in rehearsals at RDC Dance studios in Montrose, CA. Mentioning to him the depth of his character that it wasn't just dance moves but yet an emotional character that spoke through his art. Also that he was secretly the Guardian angel of Isabella. That struck home with him, especially when designing the end sequence as it's a highly emotional climax and his magnum opus.

- The movie has been playing on the festival circuit and picking up awards in Tokyo, Manhattan, and Santa Monica. How have you personally been finding the response to the film? You must be thrilled with the way it has been received so far?

I am indeed thrilled and elated at the response it's acquiring. Especially in Foreign countries where English is not the primary language. You never know how a story will translate to an audience. So to even be accepted is an honour for me.

My goal has always been to get into as many festivals globally as possible and spread this message of homelessness. It's working as I have had many people go to the Facebook page or Twitter and tell me stories about how Catching Fireflies truly inspired them and how they treated homeless differently after watching.

- Catching Fireflies explores ideas of homelessness and the loneliness that the homeless feel so what do you hope people will take away from seeing this film?

They say we are 7 decisions from being homeless. All of us. That's a staggering fact. What I hope to accomplish the most with Catching Fireflies is the next time you see a homeless person say hello and ask how they are doing or how their day was. Make them feel connected to society as that's what they all miss the most.

Encourage them and just give them 3 minutes of your time. If people feel more inclined to do something they can visit our website and get connect with our non-profit orgs. They can also reach out into their own communities.

- Now that you have made the leap into the director's chair is this where you want to stay? What about a feature film?

Yes, I'd most assuredly want to stay in the director's chair. The feature film of Catching Fireflies was completely written before I actually finished post of the short. With the short film, the festival circuit has been a great way to affect people, gain a global audience and give a glimpse into the film's potential. Ultimately though, I have always known I could reach more people with its message through a feature having it in; theatres, VOD, planes and red boxes all over the world. Only then could I truly make a difference on a bigger scale.

I have a few other projects I am working on at the moment as well. One is definitely a socio- economic topic, the other, a cerebral sci-fi thriller that questions spirituality and origin. I do like to be diverse however I think for me every project I do will be thought provoking in some way. To make us search deeper, question further and stretch ourselves into something greater than what we currently have become.

- Finally, what's next for you both in front of and behind the camera?

I'm currently pushing to shoot Catching Fireflies Feature in 2016 as well as field other projects. You never know if and when I'll end up in front of the camera.

If the phone rings and I'm not busy I'll more than happy play a role in a project or design an action sequence and direct the action of it.

by for www.femalefirst.co.uk
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