Jonathan Dillon is a film director from Kansas City, Kansas. Only two years out of USC film school, his first feature film Rigged, is already screening on the festival circuit.
I came from a suburb in Kansas City. Grew up there watching movies my entire life. Every Friday me and my grandpa would rent a couple of movies, and that's what I did for 12-13 years of my life. And I had a huge passion for storytelling, and filmmaking. I was always inspired about the films I saw, and I would actually change my [desired] career depending on what movie I would see. I would watch Top Gun and want to be an air force pilot, and then I'd watch Backdraft and want to be a firefighter. So, I realized how much influence films can be, and how you can go to a film and it can change your whole perspective on things and just change your day. I thought that would be the most amazing job ever, to be able to touch people
Before you starting studying at USC, you were attending a community college back home, right? And you created a local film festival while you were there. Tell me about that.
I went to a community college called Johnson County Community College. The Cavalier was the mascot, so the festival is called “The Cavalier Film Festival.” I just went to the advisors and was like hey, listen up, there's no film programs here. There's a TV program, but all its like is multi-camera television, like a news broadcast or something like that. It was really lame. I go 'I really want to make narrative pieces, and I want to encourage people to come here, and I want to do that because there is a lot of people interested in filmmaking. And I go, listen, I'll put everything together, I'll set it all up, I just need your help as administrators to make sure we have the locations and make sure I can put up the fliers around school and whatever. And they got really behind it.
In the first year, I think we had like 15 or 16 entries. It was really small. And then the second year we had like 40, and the third year we had 60. So, it has been growing every year, which is really cool. It's just a way for people -especially kids, -I remember being in high school and not knowing if I can submit anything to a film festival, not even knowing there were film festivals out there. I just did it because I wanted to do it. But, it is real encouraging to find a whole lot of other filmmakers who are doing what you are doing too, and to see their work. Its real inspiring. So, I wanted to have a place where people can do that.
And it is still going on?
It's still going on. Yeah, we're in our fifth year.
Tell me about your feature film Rigged. What is the film about?
Rigged is an action/adventure movie. Basically, we call it Million Dollar Baby meets Fight Club in the sense that you have a female prizefighter who is going around these underground boxing circuit matches with her shady boxing promoter. And they're basically scheming people out of money because she can kick he shit out of anybody. She's sort of like Brad Pitt in Snatch. She can knock 'em out with a couple of punches and take care of business, so that's how they clean up because she fights men and she kicks the shit out of these guys. It's really a character story about this odd couple who's traveling across country to make a dollar to go their separate ways.
Rigged, the official movie trailer.
You shot this while you were still at USC, right?
Yeah. I took a semester off.
How did that come about, that you put together a feature film while still in film school at USC?
Well, I was interning at the time at New Regency in the script department. And I wasn't quite in film school yet. And so I was like “Whatever, I don't care, I'm just going to make a film.” Like, that's it. I'm just going to make a film. But I knew I didn't have any material that I wanted to make a film off of, so I started looking for scripts. I put postings on craigslist and any websites I could find. And Ian Shore, who is the writer of Rigged, he sent me a script. And I must have got a total of 15-16 scripts submitted to me from all different people. And most of them were really, really bad. But, that's what you get. It's like a needle in a haystack. When I found Rigged, I was just so excited about it. I was reading the pages and everything was so visual to me. Even though I didn't write it, I could still see everything play out. It was so visual and rich that I was like, we got to make this movie. I got to make this film. I don't care what it takes.
So, then I went home to Kansas and we shot a promotional trailer. I come back to USC. I go through my first semester, and I'm like, okay, I got to do this. I need to do this as soon as possible. So after the second semester that next summer I decided I was going to take a break from school. And my mom was real freaked out of course. She was like, 'you're never going to go back to school,' and I'm like ,I am too. I just got to make this film.
I left school behind, I was dating this girl I was head over heels in love with at the time and I left her behind and left everything to go make this film.
I didn't know a single thing about the business side of making films. It is SO business, and its so anti- the creative side. I really had to learn what I needed to do to form an LLC corporation. And to to start my own bank statements with all the right papers of what we're spending money on and where the money is going to so we can give investor reports every quarter. How do I pay taxes on this? What do I have to fill out? What about the contracts? All that shit.
Rigged made use of a lot of shady shooting locations. Jonathan shares a war story about the worst location scouting trip ever.
Where was this shot? Was this shot completely in Kansas City?
Most of it was in Kansas. We also shot in Lawrence and Overland Park... but we also shot two days out here in Los Angeles.
And you chose to shoot there because you had home base of support?
Support, and I knew the city. And I knew the film community because I've been doing short films and had put together a film festival and things like that. So I had all these resources that I could easily rely on and call up and figure out how I was going to get this done. In LA you can do it too, you just have to hire people and have the money. I didn't have the money. I couldn't hire anyone. So I had to just do it all myself.
What would you say the pros and cons would be to shoot in a place like Kansas City rather than just doing it all in Los Angeles?
Definitely the pros to shooting in a Midwestern city or somewhere that is not really film-centric is first off, since people in that kind of environment don't ever really get to see the flashy lights of the movie camera, they really respond well to it. They get excited about it. So, you're like 'Hey, can I shoot in your house?' and they're like 'Yeah, of course! Come. Please, make a movie in my house. That's so cool. I'll feed you dinner.' And so, it was a very, very receptive group of people. Location-wise, we didn't spend any money. Nothing cost us money, except when we had to close down the road, and it cost us like $50 because we had to blow up this car. And that was it.
We had over 52 locations. The script is huge, its this big action adventure script. We didn't have an action/adventure movie budget. It's very low, low budget. So, that was the best part. How receptive people were.
The downside to the whole thing is that people don't really know what they're doing. Also, there isn't whole lot of filmmakers there, so it's really tough, number one, to find experienced crew who know what they're doing and how to get it done. The other issue is there can also be a monopoly of people. Like, there's only two sound guys in all of Kansas City. So, they can charge whatever they want even if its outrageous. Even if you can find production sound mixers that are way better in LA, who are only going to charge you a fraction of what these guys are going to charge you, you're sort of stuck unless you're going to pay them to fly out, put 'em in a hotel room, yada yada yada. Since you don't have a lot of people doing these kind of positions, you really don't have a lot of options of the people you want to crew up. But still, you have to be very logical about it and go, okay is this guy going to get the job done, are they going to work well with this crew, and are we going to get along together because we are going to be together for X amount to weeks. That, and also casting is very difficult because the talent pool is very small.
You had to delay the end of principal photography for an entire year because of an accident, am I right?
Rebeca, our lead actress, got injured during one of the fight sequences. She tore a ligament in her neck. That happened one week before we were supposed to be completely finished. There was no way she could fight. She couldn't even turn her head at all. And actually, there's certain scenes were, like, she's dancing at this bar and instead of turning to see Dublin, she'll do like a zombie turn. And then another time she's in this bus and they're having a conversation, and she can never look at him this way, she's always looking at him [sideways] like this. And it really sucked. She's better now but at the time we were like really worried like oh, crap is Rebeca okay and how are we going to finish this movie? So we took time off and she did physical rehab while I was going to school and then we shot the final fight scene the next summer.
Any final thoughts you would like to share before we wrap this up?
I guess I got to say it's a long, hard road making films, as I think many, many, many filmmakers know. Not that this is anything that everybody hasn't already heard, but you got to just keep doing it. Just keep going at it. Keep trying to make films, keep trying to tell your story. I think you lose a lot of vision of that when you start getting concerned about rent and paying bills. I mean, I do freelance stuff to make ends meet, but you're only as good as your next project, really. And just because you make one film or write one script, it doesn't mean you are going to make it out there, especially in this city. I got to say, just through all of my hard work, and through getting rejected from USC so many times, and just keeping at it, and from not having a cent in my pocket to making a feature film thats half a million dollars, it all comes down to desire and wanting it and going after it every day focusing every day. Its just like training for a sport. You got to put in at least two hours a day focusing on it and if you don't then you're going to start losing it.
Rigged will be screening at the Dance With Films film festival in Los Angeles during the last week of July , the Action on Film International Film Festival in Long Beach, California during the same week , and the Young Cuts Film Festival in Ontario, Canada will screen th first ten minutes in mid-August.