Play It As It Lays

It’s hard to tell what constitutes true independent film today. Is it the budget alone? Does it mean using no-name actors? Or using only off-the-cuff material for the story? Cinematographer Benjamin Kasulke believes that the only real defining characteristic of an indie film in the current climate is that it’s made outside the studio.

"The overall arching idea of what made an indie film back in the ’90s," reminisces Kasulke, "was that you made a film, it was in the realm of 90 minutes, it went to Sundance, it had a festival life, and hopefully it would sell and people would see it."

After having gone that route with five films to date, Kasulke truly believes that now what makes an indie different than a studio production is the studio alone; all the typical aspects of what made an indie film now can be found in bigger-budget films and micro-budget films alike.

On his latest project, The Lie, Kasulke partnered with actor/director Joshua Leonard to produce an honest portrayal of what it means to get lost (in the proverbial sense of the meaning), and to try and find your way back. The Lie follows a young Los Angeles couple, Clover (Jess Weixler) and Lonnie (Leonard), through their realization that all the idealist plans and meaningful ventures they meant to take on just out of college have fallen to more practical—and, essentially, futile—tasks, like going to jobs they loathe. When Lonnie tells his boss a lie to get out of going to said job one day, he begins a quick descent into an existential crisis and an eventual reemergence into his new ideas about adulthood.

Kasulke’s visual approach to The Lie‘s storyline found it-self in the American, early-1970s, new-Hollywood (but not "Hollywood") era sort of feel. Leonard says he really wanted it to reflect the story and to knock down a bit of the edge, especially the potential for glam that comes with filming on HD.

"I had really pretentious visual references," he laughs. "I wanted the audience to see L.A., how it’s evoked in a Joan Didion novel—that celebration of the more sunburnt, yet mundane aspects of L.A."

Working with that palette, Kasulke tried to keep some scenes darker than usual. "In keeping things dark, I was trying to go for that ’70s existential crisis that visually could come through with not having to see every last detail," he explains. "It’s a great aspect of doing indie pictures, being able to keep things darker. There isn’t a studio that invests a huge chunk of money and a star in order to get people in the theater to see it. And I feel like there’s this pressure on [cinematographers] on films like that to make sure that the audience is seeing the star’s face in every single frame. You can get away with not having that mind-set in indie film. You can get away with something that just works visually for the scene."

Connecting The Dots

Leonard had read the original short story of the same name by T. Coraghessan Boyle in The New Yorker in 2008. He describes it as just one of those lucky incidents: "I read it, loved it, laughed out loud and immediately saw potential for a script. I’m not a father, nor a husband, but the story resonated with me and my peers in terms of that search of the mid-30-something trying to find out what adulthood really entails."

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