Lee Chambers: “a big kid that never left the sandbox”
Lee Chambers is a multi award-winning director & writer from Ontario, Canada. Besides his passion to create as a storyteller, he always finds the time to teach and inspire other filmmakers at the Confederation College, where he holds a position as a film production professor.
In the following interview, Lee, a three time LAFA winner, reveals some of his techniques and tips from his 20+ years of experience in the industry. Lee shares some fascinating insights regarding the production of The Pineville Heist and his upcoming feature, The Sum of Random Chance.
The Pineville Heist
Let's talk about how things started for you. Clearly, you are a very creative and artistic person - your background is in graphic design. When did you become a storyteller, and where does this passion for creating films come from?
The passion comes from people watching around the world. It comes from seeing heartache or smiles on the faces of people in Europe or Asia or anywhere around the world. It opens your eyes to stories and they deep down… we are have common wants, needs and desires on this spinning little planet. I’ve always been a storyteller. I’m a big kid that never left the sandbox. I love cinema. To create something that brings a tear or makes someone laugh is amazing.
You recently won Best Narrative Feature & an Honorable Mention: Director for The Pineville Heist, which is your debut feature. Before that, you worked on numerous shorts, music videos and some television and feature work - in Canada, England and the US (Los Angeles). Did you feel prepared when you embarked on this journey? Did you have much confidence going in, or did you constantly doubt your directorial choices?
In my 20’s I won a pitch competition in the UK and managed to get a meeting with the head of BBC Films. I was hungry and eager but completely unprepared. I’ve learned since then that one must soak up as much knowledge from people you want to be like, in order to be prepared - for when luck strikes. Had I been offered a chance to direct a feature back then, I would have blown it. My instincts are much better now. I trust myself more now and accept my path. It’s a journey, not a destination. I’ve learned to enjoy the process.
The Pineville Heist movie is based on a best seller you wrote back in 2012. Or... was it the other way around? In other words, when you wrote the book, did you already envision it as a film?
Actually, I wrote the script treatment first and then collaborated with Todd Gordon on the screenplay itself. Eighteen days later we had a first draft. Then, we spent two more years… refining it. The novel version of ‘The Pineville Heist’ happened by accident actually. Because this was a story I was going to direct, I wrote up a few pages of the history of the fictitious little town of Pineville. I enjoyed the process of expanding from the strict rules of screenplay writing. The book version allowed me to add color and flavor before I even stepped onto the set. So I just dove into expanding out more scenes until I reached the last page of the screenplay. In the end, releasing the book and selling 42,000+ audiobooks, ebooks and paperbacks worldwide was the smartest move ever, as it attracted an audience and more importantly, investors. The basis of the story came from a real incident playing hide and seek when I was 12. Being from Northern Ontario, the development of the expanded story seemed to suit the small town as opposed to a big city. I’ve lived in big cities like London and LA but Pineville was always… small town. And even though I am British-trained as a director, living in Canada – I always saw it as an American tale.
Do you ever have writer's block (both as an author and a screenwriter)? If so, how do you deal with it?
Well, for starters. I can’t just sit and write for hours and hours and days and days. I’m not that kind of writer. I have too much energy to just to be confined to a word processor. When I create, I move a lot. I consider character movements and blocking and speak characters out loud. My script collaborations aren’t usually thrown into Final draft by me personally. I like to ‘talk’ story, character and dialogue. My problem is I have too many ideas and it’s hard to narrow down the ones I should focus on. I don’t think that answered your question at all… lol. How do I deal with writer’s block? I go and direct!
When you were writing the screenplay, did you have an actor in mind to perform Aaron's character? Did you already have in mind actors for other roles?
Kinda. Sorta. Not really. I mean… a look perhaps, but not a specific actor.
The Pineville Heist
How many drafts did you write before going into production?
I think we had about 24 versions of the draft. Some with minor revisions, some with major redrafting. But oddly, the core of the story never changed. The heart of it always stayed the same.
What were some of your visual references (movies, shows) that influenced the color palate of the film?
Panic Room was a big influence. It’s claustrophobic within small spaces too. It has an amazing cinematic look with muted production design devoid of colour that serves the film well. Also, the darkened scenes from Assault on Precinct 13 and the energy of Lakeview Terrace were on my mind.
The Pineville Heist
The Pineville Heist includes some complex scenes to direct. Many actors, much movement, and generally- actions- that's a challenging genre for a first feature... what was the most difficult/tricky scene to direct, and why? What, in your opinion, is the best scene in Pineville Heist, and why?
There is a major scene in the cafeteria with a confrontation between three characters. We blocked and rehearsed well in advanced and had the scene down nicely. When it came time to shoot… we had to race through it due to lack of time and everyone was stressed. We literally only got two angles on it and powered through multiple lens changes to capture the coverage. It was worrying for sure but our editor masterfully zipped it all together brilliantly. Once we graded and added Fabio Acri’s wicked score… it was awesome. I know for a fact, it would have been terrible had we not rehearsed the scene extensively.
You currently hold a position as a film production professor at Confederation College in Thunder Bay, Ontario. I read online some of your advice for directors, and I find it quite brilliant:
'Surround yourself with people more talented than you...', 'You have to direct to direct...', 'Instinct comes with experience...', 'Always have two of everything...'. These are all great tips! What would be your advice for a filmmaker who wants to join your team? In other words, as a director, what are your expectations from your cast and crew?
Filmmaking is such a collaborative venture. It’s a team sport. This doesn’t come without creative differences and personality challenges. Being humble is important and having integrity are key. I had 60+ students and grads from my film program working on the film and they all performed admirably. They had learned that showing up is more important that showing off. They worked hard and respected the hierarchy of the production. The entire cast and crew did and while funds were a challenge, the making of the film was an amazing collaboration. Kudos to all of them!
The Pineville Heist - Official Trailer
Aside from your directing work, you are also the founder of Make It Short Movie Project - Can you please tell us about that, and how did you get the executive producers on board?
I ran the charity workshop for about 7 years before I shifted my energies into feature film production. We introduced hundreds of people to the craft of filmmaking with opportunities in-front of and behind-the-camera, and raised thousands of dollars for numerous health and children’s charities. We gained support from Peter Farrelly, Paul Shaffer, David Cronenberg, Bryan Adams and three Academy Award winners (Paul Haggis, Denys Arcand and Roger Corman) over the years. Quite simply… I asked! The trick is to be humble.
At Cannes Film Festival
You have recently completed a screenplay with Kris Ketonen - The Sum of Random Chance, for which you won Best Screenplay-Feature here at The Los Angeles Film Awards. Can you share a bit about the story, where did the inspiration come from?
‘The Sum of Random Chance’ actually pre-dates The Pineville Heist, and is more personal in nature. Kris has worked for a small newspaper and that played heavily into driving the story and I was coming off a divorce and was very much looking to find myself in a way and the script was all about options and choices and forks in the road. We started working on it ten years ago and then I shifted towards The Pineville Heist to direct first. Now I’m hungry to direct the next feature and The Sum of Random Chance has so much potential. So we dusted it off and re-built the draft from scratch. It is a fantasy drama about an eager rookie reporter (Cole) who stumbles upon Sara mysteriously foiling a robbery at a grocery store. Desperate for success, Cole sets out to make his name on Sara's unique gift. From the homeless man on the street to the cafe owner where she works, Sara seems to positively affect all she meets and Cole becomes increasingly intrigued by her presence. Is Sara special in some way or are all the magical moments pure coincidence? Do the random choices we make in life lead us down a path of no return or will Cole gain a sense of self-worth before he sells her out?
I see you had Tom Craig, who has much studio experience at Universal Pictures, as your script consultant?
Tom has been great and has advised on a number of feature screenplays over the years. He has a keen sense of story and character. In all cases, he has drastically pushed me and my writing partners to improve the drafts.
Have you started pre-production yet? What do you need in order to bring The Sum of Random Chance to life? Are there more projects in the pipeline?
Pre-production…I wish. The Pineville Heist was privately funded and a challenge being the first feature. No one trusts you with money and you have to prove yourself. With that monkey off my back, it’s time to engage partners that can help push the game forward. That means – better funding to pay people properly and attract talent that will help drive sales. Pipeline… yeah! Lots of scripts in developments!
Thanks for the time Lee. Any last thoughts?
Be open to guidance and then decide for yourself if the advice works for you. Then go make it happen!
The Pineville Heist: