An Interview with Peter O’Keefe – By Brian Morton

When you think of low budget and independent movies, you usually don’t think of someone moving from what could be referred to as ‘the big leagues’ back into the low budget world, but that’s exactly what Peter O’Keefe did. Peter has such a passion for telling stories (and telling them his way) that he moved away from Los Angeles back to Indiana to make movies. And, if that’s not enough to get you on his side, his movies are great! In last month’s RC, you might have read the review of Peter’s movie Infidel The Movie and his short, Race Memory (and if you didn’t, where have you been!?!), these were both such good movies that I couldn’t help myself. I got on the phone, called Peter and picked his brain about his movie, the industry in general and what’s up the road for this talented film maker.

* * *

 BM – Hello, thanks for taking the time.

PO – The reviews were nice, thanks.

BM – Well, I really enjoyed the movie, it was very good.

PO – Thanks.

BM – How did you get started in the movie business?

PO – (sighs) It’s a long sad, convoluted tale of woe. (laughs) I originally got my degree in fine arts at Wayne State University in Detroit. I moved to New York City to basically be a painter and a playwright. I ended up working on some short films with a friend of mine, actually who was in Texas at the time. I did a lot, I had been very frustrated with painting, because, basically I always wanted to tell stories and painting’s not a very good medium for telling stories. So, that kind of got me interested in film, it’s visual and you can tell stories. So, I wrote a screenplay and submitted it to the Writer’s Guild who, at the time, had a fellowship program, which, as far as I know, doesn’t exist any more, but you could apply every two years, I think, at that point, I applied and was awarded a fellowship. They gave about 12 or 15 fellowships every two years and one of those fellowships was awarded the The Paddy Cheyefsky Award for Socially Conscious Screenwriting and I won that for the script that I submitted and that basically got me an agent and then I pitched a bunch of stuff to Tales From The Darkside and I ended up writing for them for a while.

BM – Which episodes did you write for Tales From The Darkside?

PO – Oh, this one called My Ghostwriter, The Vampire is the one that sticks with me. Then there was one that was the most horrible thing that I’ve ever written in my life, called Basher Malone. That was one of those things where I went in and pitched dozens and dozens and dozens of stories and they didn’t like any of them so then I just out of exasperation said, well what about…and just threw some weird idea out there and they said Yeah and then I just thought, Oh God now I have to go write this thing! It was pretty bad.

BM – Well, since you’ve worked within the "system", which do you prefer working within a production company or doing it yourself?

PO – I definitely prefer doing it myself, there’s no contest. I had a real feast or famine career in Los Angeles. There were some years I made a lot of money doing rewrites and optioning stuff and there were years where I basically starved or did temp word processing. It was never all that much fun doing that and it was frustrating. I had a number of scripts, including the one that won me the fellowship and the one I wrote following that, which was a horror script called Absolution, basically when I went to L.A. and just had meetings about that script and everyone kept telling me that if I wanted a career as a screenwriter I had to move to L.A., so that’s when I moved out there and had meetings everywhere and…Nothing! Everybody loved the script but nobody bought it. It eventually got optioned and over the past 15 years it’s been optioned about 12 times. I just started to find it really frustrating, you’d do rewrite stuff which is okay and I enjoyed doing it but the stuff would end up not getting made and it was not your own project, your own concept and the stuff that was my own concept you basically hand it off to someone else.

BM – Who interprets the story their way.

PO – If it even gets to that point, the problem was I never even got the chance to prostitute myself because they would never get made, they would get optioned and then they would spend years putting together these packages with actors and this pot of money from video sales and this pot of money from foreign sales and then one of them would pull out and it would all fall apart after three years of work and that just got to be very frustrating.

BM – Is that ultimately the reason you left Los Angeles and moved back to Indiana?

PO – Basically, my wife, or my girlfriend at the time, took a job at IU South Bend teaching and I was ready for a change myself and since I’m originally from the Midwest, I’m from Detroit.

BM – I was wondering about your connection to Detroit, since Race Memory is set in Detroit and, being from there, it seems to have a resonance that only someone who’s familiar with Detroit would understand.

PO – Yeah, basically all my screenplays start out being set in Detroit, then over time the end up being set in other places. The one that won me the fellowship, which was called Bad Advice at the time, ended up being set in Long Beach and then Texas and I forget how many other places. Every time someone would option it they would say, it has to be set in Florida or it has to be set in Long Beach or it has to be set wherever but my screenplays always start off being set in Detroit.

BM – So, is Race Memory based on an experience you had in Detroit or is it just a reaction to the racial tension that seems to linger in Detroit?

PO – It’s based on the racial environment I grew up in Detroit and it’s based on stories that I heard. The story in Race Memory is kind of pieced together from a little bit of a story I heard from this person and a little bit of a story I heard from that person and then a little bit of embroidering on that. I can’t even remember which parts I heard from who. I had a roommate at Wayne State that was an ex-Detroit cop and I heard lots and lots of stories from him and other cops and I heard lots of stories from the other side, people who had been hassled by the cops, friends I grew up with and that sort of thing and then I had my own experiences.

BM – Was there any thought of making Race Memory a feature instead of a short?

PO – Actually I pulled the situation out of a feature script of mine called Blue Eyed Devil, which is and has to be set in Detroit. Blue Eyed Devil is too big a feature, requiring too big a budget for me to tackle myself any time in the near future. So, I’m always trying to find things that are of manageable size for me to make with no money, so I basically pulled a scene from Blue Eyed Devil and rewrote it. So Race Memory started off as a scene and became it’s own little capsule, it’s own little situation. Blue Eyed Devil is set in the weeks before Devil’s Night in Detroit back in the early to mid 80s and a former white police officer who was kicked off the force for abusing a black prisoner gets kind of sucked into this conspiracy when his former partner is murdered and he’s a pretty over the top racist character and he becomes convinced that it’s the now black power structure in the department and the local government that’s behind this conspiracy that got his partner murdered and he ends up through force of circumstances having to team up with a black detective who basically hates white people and who blames all the problems of the city on the white upper class and suburbanites so it becomes two guys who stand for completely polar opposite things and who basically hate each other having to work together.

BM – The scene that you pulled to make Race Memory is a very powerful piece. Have you shown it in the city?

PO – It was at Detroit In Focus about a month ago but I was unable to attend because of short notice.

BM – Well, anyone who has lived in Detroit would recognize the situation, it’s a really good short. You’ve worked with Full Moon Entertainment, what did you do for them?

PO – Oh man, a lot of things I didn’t put my name on.

BM – (laughs)

PO – That was actually a situation where an old friend of mine, who is also from Detroit, got hired to direct something for them, and they are a real schlock outfit and I don’t even know what they’re doing these days.

 BM – They’re still out there putting out direct to DVD movies.

PO – I don’t know how! They screw so many people over.

BM – Oh really?

PO – Well, my situation was, my friend got the job to direct one of their little features and he brought me in to write the screenplay, and I thought, well this is cool, I know Mark will do a nice job with this, he’s real hungry and he’s got a lot of good ideas. so I thought that even if they didn’t give him any money he’d make an interesting little film. Then, at some point, they pulled me off of that and put me onto a different project with a director who I will not name who was a complete hack. He did all of his work under an assumed name of a different gender. He told me how many pages he wanted and that he wanted a sex scene every ten pages.

BM – So you knew you were in trouble to start with.

PO – I knew I was in trouble. At first, he wanted all locations in Hollywood and then, after I wrote it, he brings me back and they had their own studio complex in those days where they shot their own stuff. And, believe it or not, they were trying to get this children’s division off the ground and he brought me in to this set that they had just used to complete a children’s movie and told me that I needed to adapt my script to this set, the one that I had written all around locations in Hollywood that was about a vampire escort agency. So, I went on set one day and it was like they were making a porno movie, you know, it was just really bad, really bad acting and they would just cut out huge chunks of the script so that they could do another sex scene. The kind of thing where it would be completely unmotivated, something like a woman sitting across from a man and he looks at her and sees a reflection in here glasses and that cuts away to some wild sex scene that has nothing to do with anything. They weren’t even good enough to be B movies, and I did five of those in a year for them and I think that was the only one that got made and it was just horrible.

BM – You did some work in Germany, is it very different working in Europe than it is working in the U.S.?

PO – It is and it isn’t. It was a friend of mine, a German producer who had spent some time in L.A. and he went back, this is in ’97 or ’98, and German TV movies were just all of a sudden exploding. They had made hardly any, they would mostly buy American product and dub it and all of a sudden they had seven or eight different networks in the country making 50 or 60 TV movies a year and they had no one who could write them. So, it was a good situation to go in and pitch something and write it in English and have it translated into German and it worked out really well. I think Germans, or Europeans in general, tend to have the same sensibilities as I do, for some bizarre reason, so it was a nice situation but it was also just a brief window of opportunity.

BM – So, you’re not planning anything else over there?

PO – Well, if I spoke German, I probably could have made a career out of it, but at the time I was doing it, film schools were sprouting up all over Germany and just churning out young film-makers, so as those people came on line, the need to bring people in from the outside kind of evaporated pretty quick. I mean, it’s just so much easier to write about your own culture and in your own language than to bring someone else in, who no matter how sympathetic they can be to your language and your culture is never going to be able to do what you could do.

BM – Let’s talk about Infidel. There are a lot of religious overtones in it, is that something that you tend to put into a lot of your work?

PO – Yeah, I guess I’m into race and religion. (laughs) It was kind of motivated by, I grew up in a Detroit urban, Roman Catholic environment and then moving to a place like Indiana, where there’s billboards about Jesus inviting the family to church on Sunday, it’s just a whole different world. And, also, I lived in New York and L.A., I lived between the two of them for fifteen years, and coming here to this Indiana environment, it was kind of interesting, seeing that whole religious world view that was so different than anything than I had experienced.

BM – So the hit man versus the street preacher are both you in a way?

PO – The hit man went to my elementary school in Detroit, actually, St. Christine’s. So, Infidel was kind of inserting someone from that world into this world and kind of seeing where it would go. It’s not a negative movie about faith at all, I felt that it was more of an exploring of faith because you have people who come knocking on your door here with Bibles who want to preach to you and I thought it would be interesting to explore that.

BM – That’s what it felt like, an exploration. The film never takes a side, you just presented these different characters and you, as the director never took sides and that’s what I liked about it. I also liked the final end, where the preacher finishes the hit man using the Bible as a weapon, I thought that was an interesting observation too.

PO – The Good Book will save you! Trust in the Bible. And Deborah Stanley was amazing, she did a great job. She’s basically a non-actor and I wrote the role with her in mind, because she was someone I knew and I knew she’d be perfect for it. I told her just be yourself, except your a religious fanatic, but everything else is your real life, your real personality except for that and she’d been around that world enough to fall right into it and then the two hit men were two actors that I cast from Chicago.

BM – And the cast is extraordinary, and that seems to be the thing that most low budget movies lack is quality acting.

PO – It is very difficult, very difficult. It’s getting a little bit easier for me as I get to know people and I can call people up and say, hey can you come in for a weekend and do this or do that. The toughest part for me is finding crew and people who would be interested in doing things like art direction and props and all that sort of thing, set design and sound.

BM – Everyone wants to be in front of the camera and not necessarily behind it.

PO – I don’t know if it’s so much that as it’s that there’s not a very deep group of people here, it’s not Detroit or Chicago. There’s a handful that are around and there’s other people, like me, who are doing stuff like I’m doing and that tends to suck up the talent pool. The people who are interested in doing this sort of thing tend to move off to the west coast or Chicago or something and the people who are here tend to be good at what they’re doing and make a lot of money and just aren’t available. It’s not like L.A. where you can’t throw a rock down the street without hitting a screenwriter or a sound recordist or an editor or something and here in Indiana it’s just tough finding people.

BM – Now, you’ve done some work for the stage too, which do you prefer stage or screen?

PO – I think I much prefer film and video. I really like writing
or the screen but I feel like you have to focus all your time and energy on that to be successful at it and I just had to make a choice and I figure that this is so much more visual than the stage, although the stage is a great place to be a writer because nobody changes your work without asking your permission which is always attractive if you’re a screenwriter, while in film everyone and their girlfriend and their secretary and their neighbor changes your work once you turn it into somebody. That’s another reason I wanted to direct myself, it’s part of the process, a director, when you turn a screenplay over to her or him they have to find a way to make it their own, if they’re going to make a good movie out of it, that’s just part of the process and by doing that it’s no longer your story, it’s their story and I just didn’t find that very satisfying. It’s like being a painter and starting a painting and turning it over to somebody else to finish it, what’s the point?

BM – Would you ever direct something that you didn’t write?

PO – Oh yeah, I sort of do that in my day job, making industrials and marketing videos and that sort of thing but for the right project, yeah. I don’t go looking for that, the whole point to me is telling my own stories, but if that would help me raise some money to tell my own stories, yeah I would do it.

BM – You’ve optioned several of your screenplays, which one that you’ve optioned would you most like to see made?

PO – That would have to be the horror film, Absolution, which is now called Counted With The Dead.

BM – And can you tell us what it’s about?

PO – Briefly, it’s the story of an Irish-American hit man in Jersey City, where I lived briefly, who works for the Italian mob, who has a change of heart one day and decides that he’s not going to kill anymore but the mob tells him he doesn’t have that choice and at the same time he discovers that some mad scientist living in an abandoned power plant has been secretly recovering the bodies of all his victims and building this Frankenstein monster out of all his victims who is given the brain of his final victim. Then the monster starts destroying everyone around him, his friends and family to get vengeance on him, at the same time the mob is after him for trying to get out, for being a turncoat. So he literally has to wrestle with his past in the form of this creature to find some sort of absolution for the all the sins he’s done in his life. It’s kind of a character driven horror film.

BM – It sounds interesting, who’s optioned it?

PO – It was briefly under option by a Canadian company until about six months ago and now it’s just sitting on my shelf again.

BM – That’s too bad, I hope it eventually gets made. What’s next for you?

PO – Right now, I’m just kind of recovering from making Infidel and making Race Memory which both ended up being completed at the same time. You know, I’ve got a whole book shelf full of feature scripts that I want to make and I’ve got three or four short films that I’ve generated recently that I want to make simply because, I think, they’re more manageable. But right now, I’m just building up my savings again and working and recovering and waiting for some piece to fall into place for one of those. To hook up with an actor who’s great for one of them or a DP who’s great for one of them, I need to find one piece to get me going on the next project, so at this point, it could be any of a half dozen different things.

 BM – Nothing specific that you’ve really got your mind on right now?

PO – No, unfortunately. I wish I did have something right now, to pitch and get out there but my problem is, I’ve got too many different things and I just need to focus and try to decide even if it’s going to be another short or a feature.

BM – Let’s talk about getting something going, how do you go about getting financed? Do you finance it all yourself or do you go looking for investors?

PO – For three of my four projects I’ve ended up getting small grants from the Indiana Arts Commission, but that’s like a thousand bucks. For Infidel, we ended up making it for five grand, and that was kind of the seed money, a thousand dollars from a grant and then we’d have fundraisers. We’d have house parties and raise money. We’d put together a sample reel and bring in Deborah Stanley and just did a pitch, here’s the movie, here’s the people involved and just pass the hat, we raised a couple of grand like that and the rest came out of our pockets basically!

BM – That seems to be the lot of the indie film maker.

PO – Yes and that’s another thing that I’m worried about. How will I find the resources for the next one, I wonder how many times you can go to the well in that form, so I’m really not sure about how to go about doing the next one.

PO – What would you tell someone who wanted to get started making movies?

BM – Well, first of all, I’d tell them to go to film school. I tell people around here alot, and it’s kind of a cross purposes to what I want to do but when I work with someone around here who’s up and coming and really talented, I tell them to get the hell out of South Bend! (laughs) There’s a lot of people who are young and have a lot of talent, I always tell them that you need to go to Chicago, or you need to go to L.A. or you need to go to New York and you need to test yourself against other people who are really good and learn from people like that. Being in a small market like this, there’s only so much you can do, and I think people have unrealistic expectations. I’ve have film makers come up to me all the time and say they won’t make this movie until they’ve raised a half million dollars or five million dollars or fifty million dollars and they have this star or that star attached to it and I tell them that you’re never going to make your movie because that’s never going to happen here in South Bend. So, I think you’ve got to have realistic expectations and you’ve got to work with whatever is at hand, you know, just go out and grab some friends and just start making stuff and it might not be very good in the beginning, but that’s how you learn. And I think that once you get proficient, you’ve got to get out of your comfort zone and go someplace where you’ve got to be a small fish in a big pond again, even, at least, for a short while because, I think that hones your realism, it keeps you realistic about the whole process. I’ve encountered people who think that they know everything and are so good and they do have a certain degree of talent but they have no clue about how much they don’t know because they’ve never worked with people who are really really good.

BM – Well, thanks for taking the time, I appreciate it and we here at Rogue Cinema can’t wait to see what’s next for you.

PO – Thanks, I have to say, Rogue Cinema is a nice site, there’s a lot of nice interviews on it. I hope that this interview generates some interest in Detroit, I’d love to make a movie in Detroit. I was there a few weeks ago for a Tigers game and trying to find of some of the places where I used to hang out and it was hard to find them because the city is rebuilding so much. But Detroit is an incredible location, about ten years ago, Blue Eyed Devil was optioned by this director producer named Lyndon Chubbick, who did things like The War Bride and he’s done tons and tons of television over the years. We were talking over the script that’s set in Detroit and he said maybe we could set it in Chicago or something. Then he had to go to Detroit for a wedding and he came back and he said Man, we have to make this movie in Detroit. He said he couldn’t believe it, he was driving through all these neighborhoods and he couldn’t believe the block after block after block of Victorian homes and apartment buildings and vacant lots and warehouses and he said, we have to make this movie in Detroit, and I agree, it would be an incredible location. When Infidel screened at the Planet Ant Film Festival back in May and I drove from Wayne State to Hamtramck just taking side streets, you notice that the city changes so much from block to block that it would be a fascinating place to make a movie.

BM – Well, I hope that you get the chance someday.

PO – Me too!

* * *

So, there you go, Peter O’Keefe is not just a nice guy, he’s a film maker with the experience and the know-how to get a movie made no matter what the conditions. If you’d like to see Infidel for yourself you can go over to Good Indie.com and get a copy for yourself and you can go to Underground Film.org to see Race Memory online. I recommend both and I can’t wait to see which script Peter will pull from his shelf to make next time.