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The Independent Critic

 An Interview with "35 and Ticking" Writer/Director Russ Parr 
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The word humility isn't exactly the first word you expect to come to mind when you're thinking about one of the nation's top syndicated radio announcers, one of only a few individuals to practically define urban radio over the past 10 years or so. Humility seems like the perfect word to define this man who has quietly built an entertainment network and made a name for himself in stand-up comedy, broadcasting, television, writing and now film. Russ Parr can be outrageous and outspoken, but after The Independent Critic had the opportunity spend some time with him recently discussing his new film 35 & Ticking, I'm completely convinced Parr also has one of the most passionate, compassionate and relevant voices in the entertainment industry today. In addition to his top rated radio show that is currently syndicated in 24 cities nationwide, Parr has been a successful stand-up comic, musician and is the author of the recently released The Game Behind The Game: Mastering the Art of Bullshit. After directing three straight-to-DVD feature films, Parr's latest film, 35 & Ticking, is in limited theatrical release and just opened this weekend in Indianapolis.

The Independent Critic

Tell me about 35 & Ticking

Russ Parr

35 & Ticking is a movie about four friends who hit that age of 35, or about there. I hate the term chick flick, because that's not what this is. There's a lot of people who hit that age who start thinking "I don't have a kid. I don't have a job that I want. I'm just not doing well." 35 is the red flag number that lets you know "I've got to get this stuff done before I'm 40." That's why I've got this biological clock ticking thing going on, why it's called 35 & Ticking. I've got these four friends who all have different issues going on in their lives that they're trying to get resolved in a very funny and a dramatic way. 

The Independent Critic

I am almost embarrassed to admit that I did not realize that you are a filmmaker. I've known you, your radio show which is carried here in my hometown of Indy.

Russ Parr

Oh, it's okay. This is my fourth feature. All my features have gone straight to DVD. Some have been really goofy and some have made some statements.

The Independent Critic

Have you learned anything about yourself as a filmmaker as you've gone along?

Russ Parr

Yeah, I have. One thing I've learned...I'm not trying to bragging or trying to pat myself on the back. I didn't realize it took other people so long to write a script and make a movie. I wrote 35 & Ticking in six days. It took us 15 days to shoot it. The reason why we had to shoot in such a short amount of time is that I didn't have the budget to take 45-60 days to make a movie. We go in very prepared. I learned that I can write quickly. I do a little re-writing, but I go with my first gut. It's nothing for me to churn out 15 pages a day. I don't write an outline and I don't know who all the characters are going to be before I start writing. I know basically what I want the story to be about. I don't know how it's going to end. When I'm writing, it's like I'm watching the movie for the very first time.

The Independent Critic

You really managed to assemble a great cast for this film.

Russ Parr

A couple people were friends, Kym Whitley and Mike Epps, a hometown guy. I knew if I got them, they know people. Most of these people that I got involved probably would not have even looked at the script. I got the script to Nicole Ari Parker, and she was like "This is funny on paper." That's just what a writer wants to hear, because if it's funny on paper then an actor's going to be interested. The same thing with Meagan Good...they all just fell in love with the script. So, it all just fell into place.

The Independent Critic

That's great. I have to admit that as soon as I saw Mike Epps was in it, I was like "I have to see it."

Russ Parr

Have you seen the film yet?

The Independent Critic

I'm seeing it tonight, actually. I usually do see a film before an interview, but I actually only found out about the film on Tuesday. As soon as I read about it, I was immediately interested.

Russ Parr

Well, you know. the film has an all black cast, but I could have easily made it an all white cast because we all go through these things. You may watch the movie and not like it, but bottom line this is what a lot of people that I know went through. I tried to make it as real as possible, nothing over the top. I'm not trying to wrap everything up with a "You're uncle's your daddy" and all that. I'm trying to do something that's real and happens to people and that I've seen happen to people. I try to do it with integrity. I've had people come up to me...I've shown this film all over the country at film festivals. I've had guys come up to me and be like "I'm going to go home and divorce my wife." I'd be like "Go ahead with that," and this one guy was like "No, really. I'm going to go home and divorce my wife." He was like "Yeah, that was me up there." What I have done is that I have flipped the stereotypes that have put upon some black men that they don't take care of their children and all that. That's a small group of black men. There's a larger group that will take care of their children and do take on that responsibility and you'll see that in this movie.
 

The Independent Critic

It's kind of interesting. When you get a lot of these films that are primarily an African American cast, you get a lot of these same people that you've cast in 35 & Ticking...Mike Epps, Nicole Ari Parker, Meagan Good, Tamala Jones.

Russ Parr

I think part of what it is is that Wal-Mart and all these big retailers, they want to see these known names. I was able to get some known names who are also great actors. I will tell you that in some of my other films, I cast people who weren't those known names because I am going to live and die by the performance. You can go home and watch The Last Stand, which is basically an autobiography. I went out there and got people that I thought could just kill the roles. I'm getting ready to do another one, The Under Shepherd. I got a few names, but I went out and got actors I knew that would do my script justice.

The Independent Critic

I'm wondering. I was watching an interview you did, I believe it was with The Washington Post. You talked about the need to diversify yourself. You've really done that...I mean you've done stand-up, you've done television, you've got a book that's out. I knew you from radio obviously, because we get your show here in Indy. You're doing film. That's pretty amazing.

Russ Parr

Yeah, I guess  I keep it all quiet...

The Independent Critic

Too quiet! I'm going to make it louder now.

Russ Parr

I appreciate it. I guess I was brought up that talking about your accomplishment it's like you're bragging. I've realized that if I'm going to be successful in this business, in making movies, that I'm going to have to sell myself. Tyler Perry, and I mean no disrespect, could make a movie about a postage stamp and people would go see it because he's branded. I have not done that. I was all like "Let your work speak for yourself." In this business, you've really got to promote yourself. For the first time in my career, I hired a publicist. I've never done it. I should have done it ten years ago.

The Independent Critic

I'm anxious now to go back and check out your other films.

Russ Parr

I did a powerful drama, that was The Last Stand. My first feature, Love for Sale, was a feature I was handed and asked to direct. I re-wrote the script in like five days. There was Something Like a Business, which was a spoof movie. I was like, "I'm known for comedy. I'll do that." What's sad is that Something Like a Business has outsold them all. It's sold like 120,000 units in eight months. It's one of those cult movies, sophomoric humor.

The Independent Critic

You've also got a book out, The Game Behind The Game: Mastering the Art of Bullshit, that came out in April. Is there any tie in?

Russ Parr

You know, I've spoken to hundreds of thousands of students from radio and speaking to schools. I've just seen this pattern where you can be the smartest person, but if you don't have the skills to play the game then all your education is fruitless. I know guys with masters degrees who can't get a job at The Gap because they don't know how to play the game. I just wrote a book chronicling my life in the entertainment business and how I got to where I am. You know, I'm not completely happy where I am. I'm still striving to get to the point where someone will say "You know, Russ Parr's got a new movie. We've got to go see it." That's where I'm heading. That's where I'm trying to go and it's been rough because I can't find any majors (studios) who want to mess with me. 35 and Ticking was really close. What they do with a lot of black films is that they put us all into the same box. If Tyler Perry comes out with a movie that doesn't do very well, you're not going to see a black film for awhile. If he has a film that does well financially, you'll see one that will come out. I'm trying to get us to get away from that. There are more stories. There are a lot of good directors out there making meaningful movies that can't see the light of day. No one wants to invest in seeing real relationships. I'm not saying it's racist, that's the last thing I would say. I think it has more to do with finances. Audiences, especially an urban audience, they don't want to go see a movie that's about love and romance. They will go see a spoof movie, or everybody's a clown.

The Independent Critic

Trust me, as a film critic, it drives me absolutely crazy.

Russ Parr

But, Richard, it sells. It sells. I've had my movies that were reflective and had meaning. They were outsold by a goofy spoof movie.

The Independent Critic

You've emphasized the need to diversify yourself. What made yourself say "Film is something that I can do?"

Russ Parr

The first script that I wrote, which was The Last Stand, sat in my closet for 10 years. I had a friend who read the script. I actually was getting ready to toss it out. She took it to read it and called me an hour and a half later and said "You need to do this...You need to find someone to help you do this." I did it and I get so much satisfaction out of film making in seeing someone take my words and make them come to life. I do have a degree in radio/television from Cal State-Northridge, but a degree is worthless if you don't do something with it. I do believe in versatility. I preach it in my book, The Game Behind The Game - Master the Art of Bullshit. You can't go around burning bridges. What I'm trying to teach people...I get it. I kissed ass. People be like "Aww. He's just an ass kisser." I'm like "Yes!" I don't want people to walk away from me with a negative impression...you don't know when you're going to run into that person again, need that person, when that person's going to have a ratings book at home. I taught my kids that...You want people to think that you're that person then be that person. I want people to know that I'm really touchable. What it comes down to is that getting into film has opened up a whole new line of creativity for me. I have a million stories in my head. I got eight scripts sitting on my computer at home ready to be shot. I wrote one a couple weeks ago called "Definitely Divorcing" that was spurred on by the fact that we have a huge divorce rate going on here in the United States. I'm like "There's some funny in there." I made divorcing fun if there's such a thing. The bottom line is that I'm not content doing one thing.

The Independent Critic

So, are you switching over to film?

Russ Parr

I'll do radio until they fire me. Radio spurs on ideas.

The Independent Critic

Your radio show is unplanned, unscripted. As a director, do you allow for that kind of improvisational approach on your films?

Russ Parr

You have to allow that. I encourage actors to do that. What I do is I shoot it both ways. We'll shoot with my dialogue, then we'll shoot one where they can add to it and whichever is best winds up in the movie. Actors who don't have the improv ability, you know who they are. You don't let them do it. You let them think they're doing it. A guy like Kevin Hart, you've got to let him throw his little nuances in. I've found on this movie that 85-90% of the movie they followed the script. The script is funny. I didn't know it was funny until other people started coming on board saying "This is a hilarious script." Even in dramatic movies, you let what the actor is feeling come out. If it's close to what I wrote, then I let it ride. My ego isn't such that "You guys have got to say the words the way that I wrote them." The only rule that I have on my sets is that nobody is allowed to yell at anybody.

The Independent Critic

Really?

Russ Parr

No one. Because when you're shooting in 15 or 18 days, you can't afford to have people arguing and yelling. When directing, I don't chastise an actor. I don't believe in doing that. I'll pull an actor off to the side and maybe say "Let's try it this way." Then, after awhile the actor's thinking "Oh, here comes Russ. He's going to criticize me." What I do is I flip it up and pull them off to the side and go "That performance was incredible. Take the rest of the day off." They never know what they're going to get. It works. I had an actress, I won't tell you which one. She just started to cry "I thought you were coming out here to yell"...actors are very sensitive. They want to know how they're doing, when they're doing. The bottom line is I've got to be able to have that person for the entire shoot. If you tick them off on day two, you're not going to get a good performance. You can tell on the screen when it happens. I've seen performances where you just know the actor wishes they were in the editing room so they could say "Don't put that in." You can see the strife in the performance and I think when you look at my film you won't see any of that.

The Independent Critic

This question comes out of just really having learned that you're a filmmaker. Would you classify yourself as an independent filmmaker?

Russ Parr

That's exactly what I am. I financed 35 & Ticking myself. I put up all the money for it. If you can't back yourself, who will? All these big stars were so cool, though. They respected me. They respected what I'm doing. They respected that I put a lot of people to work. There's a lot of people not working. Reality TV has really hurt a lot of people. I hope to put a lot of people back to work with my business model.

The Independent Critic

It's got to be exciting then to see yourself go from "straight-to-DVD" to a theatrical release.

Russ Parr

Let me clarify a couple things. First, my theatrical release was limited. I opened on six screens in Washington, D.C., Baltimore and Atlanta. We weren't doing numbers like we'd hoped because we don't have the money to really market the films. We're kind of changing how we put the film out there. I'm willing to roll the film out there like a play. It's opening in Indianapolis this weekend. Indianapolis is our test market and if it plays well in Indianapolis, then that'll lead to other markets opening up and other markets are already asking about it in Raleigh, Richmond, Louisiana. I'm going to go around to these places and see if we can put people in the seats. Now, straight-to-DVD is not a bad thing. That's where all these films make their money. People are like "Pirates of the Caribbean, man, it made $135 million." Well, it costs $175 million to make and that $125 million gets split with the theaters. It may look good on paper, but after you crunch the numbers you're f***ed.

The Independent Critic

So, you're really comfortable with this kind of a business model. It's just a matter of figuring out how to make it work?

Russ Parr

Absolutely. If I just break even in Indianapolis, then it's a success. But, with my business model if it's not working in a market I can just pull out. Why spend extra if it's not working?

The Independent Critic

You've obviously lined yourself up with a good theater in Indy (AMC Washington Square). They're out contacting the press, doing the word-of-mouth thing, too.

Russ Parr

These guys at the AMC have been really good. We got into the AMC Independent program, which was really great. But, we needed to do a certain amount of numbers in the first markets that we were in. We ended up after our six-screen stint averaging $10,000 a screen which is really, really good. It took us longer to get there. That was money we weren't planning on. We left out of D.C. with $60,000. We still think that when the word starts getting out that people will come see the film. We just don't have the money. Advertising's expensive. I can't spend $5 million on advertising. I'm just going to go around and do as many theaters as I can.

The Independent Critic

Are you doing much with social networking?

Russ Parr

Absolutely. We're using Twitter, Facebook. We're really doing a grassroots campaign. We just got accepted to go to L.A. The problem is I'm not on the air in L.A., so we're really doing a grassroots campaign. We just got some preliminary numbers from last night in Naptown, and we're doing real well up against Super 8. I think we're going to beat them, and if we beat them it's going to be a story. When you watch it, I really want you to give me some honest feedback...I want the good with the bad.

The Independent Critic

Absolutely. I'll definitely be running a review with the interview. One of the things I noticed and that I really respect is that you put up all the reviews on the film's website. When I noticed that you had up a 2.5 star review, certainly not a negative review but far from a glowing one, I really respected that.

Russ Parr

I think it's important to have it all up there. The only time I get frustrated is when it's obvious someone hasn't even seen the film, like one writer who started talking about the religious stuff in the film. There's no religious stuff in the film...or when someone criticizes the story because it hasn't happened to them.

The Independent Critic

Well, I really look forward to seeing your film and I'll see you later on tonight. Thank you for your time!

Russ Parr

I look forward to meeting you. Thank you.


Russ Parr's "35 & Ticking" is currently playing at AMC Washington Square in Indianapolis with daily matinee and evening showings. Parr came into town for the film's opening night and served up a delightful and informative Q&A in addition to his time spent with yours truly, The Independent Critic. For more information, visit the "35 & Ticking" website and be sure to "like" the film on its Facebook page.


© Interview by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic , 2011


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