I went to art school. This is just information. A simple fact that rarely has weight or relevance, like most folk’s college careers. After graduation I moved to Los Angeles (Hollywood!) to use my BFA in film to take on some unpaid intern work, read and deliver scripts around town and I did a few rounds of hauling gear for infomercial shoots.
While I was doing that other graduates were buying gear and starting their own production companies, working at small local shops in San Francisco, and some brave souls immediately tackled shooting feature films away from the free gear and resources of the university.
One such graduate was Eric Lehning. A Nashville native, Eric moved back to Tennessee to shoot his high school horror film ‘Make Out Violence‘ with a group of close friends. The film spawned an Eric fronted band called The Non-Commissioned Officers, who wrote and recorded the soundtrack and still perform beyond the world of the film.
When I was in LA and Eric went off to make his film in Nashville I was jealous. Envy could be the right word, but not exactly — it was pride and admiration for my friend just going for it. Those that take action deserve admiration, a high five — a pat on the back.
My post-collegiate life was spent trying to secure work. Money. I moved to LA, yes. But I was too afraid to risk really going for it. Eric did, and his output as a filmmaker and musician is slathered in rich and strange textures.
Eric is still in Nashville, still writing and performing with The Non-Commissioned Officers. Here is Eric Lehning, a dialogue from his Nashville, TN bungalow.
ET: You left San Francisco and went off to Nashville to make a film with a group of your childhood friends. That’s something I wish I had the guts to do, but you did it. Why choose to do that over, say, trying your hand moving to Los Angeles and giving Hollywood a shot?
EL: The choice to go back home to shoot was for me a matter of ego. I always assumed (or presumed according to how well or unwell I know the people who made our movie) that everyone else on the picture was likewise motivated by freewheeling ego trips. We wanted to be cool, and in LA a bunch of dorks making a movie was common place. In Nashville, movie people were at least token enough to act like artists and piss on everybody and get away with it once in a while.
Back then Los Angeles felt like a long line at a small door. But that was just my perspective at the time. I haven’t been to LA in a while, but I’d bet it’s just as post apocalyptic and roiling with inspiration as anywhere else these days.
You co-wrote, co-directed, and co-starred in the film ‘Make Out With Violence.’ When you moved to Nashville how much of the production was set? Did you have a script locked in place or funding?
When I moved back to Nashville we had the script and we had a lot of deeply generous people donating their time, homes, services, and financial support. Andy Duensing produced the hell out of it with great expedience, and myself and Chris Doyle did our best to keep up with him.
Why set the production in Nashville? Compared to the Bay Area, did you have more or less resources for the film?
We felt at ease with the surroundings. I think we had places from our home lives in mind while writing the script and it simply wasn’t filmable elsewhere. Everything we needed was already in Nashville. Except for David Bousquet who flew out from San Francisco to work on the movie.
Even with digital, the cost of filmmaking can still be amazingly high, especially for first time filmmakers. How did you guys go about raising funding for the film?
Andy asked for it from all kinds of people. Firm but with charm, a little “attaboy”-ish grin, and I hope he didn’t have to blow anybody. We also got money from parents and family.
‘Make Out With Violence’ took a few years to finish, but you did it. What was the evolution of the film? How much of the first shooting script ended up on the screen? Was there re-writing on set? At what point did the script get locked?
The evolution of the film is as follows: The primordial ooze was a horror movie. The amoeba was a John Hughes horror movie. The fish was an autobiographical catharsis. The frog was a domestic psychological debacle. The monkey was on our backs the whole time. And before we were walking upright the whole thing was done and we really didn’t know what to do with ourselves.
There was a lot in the first shooting script that’s not in the movie. We did some rewriting only when absolutely necessary, and it was very productive. I prefer the rewrites. Otherwise, we had a script that we all agreed on and the means set out to shoot that script.
Your portrayal of the lead Patrick was a strong performance for your first feature. It couldn’t be easy writing and directing yourself (or co-writing and co-directing yourself). I had seen some of your performances in college and I was not surprised to see you take, and own, the lead role. Is acting something you plan on continuing or did you get your fill? I don’t imagine there’s a lot of demand for actors in Nashville.
Watching myself in the role makes my skin crawl. I somehow didn’t see Patrick as myself while working on post, but now that it’s been a while I just think I suck in it. I’m a much better actor now. I’d be great as Al Bundy in a Married with Children reboot.
You formed the band The Non-Commissioned Officers with your brother to do the soundtrack for the film. The band is still going and released the album ‘Money Looking for Thieves’ awhile back. What was the path from writer/actor to singer/songwriter? Do you ever miss the filmmaker part of your life?
After we finished the soundtrack we wanted to keep playing it, so now we’ve got this band that keeps yielding music. I do miss the making. Writing is good, but making the movie is best.
Yeah, that’s the hard part about screenwriting. It’s fun, sure, but it’s not much of anything unless you make the movie.
I’m always weary of music from my friends. I can never get passed the image of them making the music. The reality of it kills the magic, and for me at least, music relies on magic. When I got ‘Money Looking for Thieves’, even though I could hear you in the music, you disappeared and the band became it’s own thing – the music took an interesting turn and had it’s own voice outside of, or because of, yours. The band created a sound unto itself. It’s Brian Eno, Zappa, Mr. Bungle, Beach Boys and also its own thing.
Do you think you found something in music that film and writing was never able to give you? Do you see a distinct difference between the two – or a distinct connection?
I’m relieved you didn’t imagine me singing and immediately recoil. That is a big first hurdle to get over. I hope to inspire neither pity nor disgust.
Recording songs is more immediate than making movies. Both are a lot easier for me to address with a story. They’re both food. When you don’t like what’s at the diner or in the supermarket you grow your own.
How do you spend your days? Do you have a career outside of music?
I write most days. Outside of music I’m a mercenary of many hats.
What sort of tasks does a mercenary of many hats perform?
I do some art handling for museums… I write for the local magazine… I play events with my cover band “Chubby & the Dots” etc etc.
Are there any tours in the works for the NCO?
Yes, we’re scheduling a regional dates for June, July, & August to promote our new album. Title to come.
Being based in Nashville, how do the Non-Commissioned Officers do in a city with so much country music in its blood? Is there pressure to just try your hand at being in a country band?
Never. It’s really not all country out here. It’s a tremendous and fearlessly creative music scene. They’re all doing all the sounds: rock, soul, synth-pop, hip hop.
It’s good to know the portrayal of Nashville as only a country music town is just an old stereotype.
There’s an EP from the soundtrack of ‘Make Out With Violence’ from Make Mine Music. How did that come about? Who puts out your recordings these days?
Make Mine heard about us through a manager named David Newgarden, and released the EP. Currently we self release through iTunes, and our website.
‘Make Out With Violence’ is available of Netflix. How difficult was it to make that happen? Is it worthwhile to pursue digital streaming services like that for filmmakers?
It actually just came off Netflix after a couple years I think… It’s available now on iTunes and through Amazon. Our distributor, Cinetic, helped us get on Netflix.
If a filmmaker isn’t pursuing digital streaming I’d be interested to know why.
How much did film festivals have to do with getting the film’s name out there?
Festivals were critical. It’s where all the movies are. Not like script conventions, or master classes. The festivals are the thing.
When you and the other filmmakers set out to make ‘Make Out With Violence’, how much of a priority was it to make your money back? How do you balance making the film you set to make with trying to make a movie that will make money?
We always want to make a profit for investors. Whether you care about money or not, you need more of it to make more stuff. If you want to self finance and you’re going to take out a long line of credit or something, just get at least one complete stranger who seems moderately alert to read your script and give you some positive feedback first.
Thanks to Eric Lehning for poking his head out of work long enough to discuss the process of movie making. Give Netflix, iTunes, and Amazon a search and do yourself a favor and check out ‘Make Out With Violence,’ a film made with love and incredible dedication.