The LES Film Festival was started in 2011 by creators Damon Cardasis and Shannon Walker as well as by fellow festival directors and creative team Tony Castle and Roxy Hunt. They are entering their second year which will be March 6th-18th, 2012.
So, who the F* Are We?
We met at NYU in 2002 at the Atlantic Theatre Acting School. Damon took Shannon’s chair and she intensely confronted him with a stone cold, “you took my chair.”
Thus began a fast forming friendship that developed into us consistently coming up with different ideas and characters, making jokes, mostly to the dismay of our teachers, and resulted in us being separated for the rest of our time together in acting school. It was in our third year that we realized that our sometimes disruptive behaviour could be turned into something positive and began to write sketch comedy together.
After graduation, Damon moved to Los Angeles where he began working at ICM, a talent agency, and Shannon worked at a boxing gym and continued acting in various Off-Broadway productions and in small independent films while writing plays and short stories. In 2007, Damon got a job working for producer Scott Rudin which brought him back to NY and from there worked with Rebecca Miller on her film THE PRIVATE LIVES OF PIPPA LEE.
After working with Rebecca, Damon was inspired to start writing and creating his own work again, and the pairing up with Shannon was only natural. We missed each other. We also knew what this would entail; working day jobs in order to “create” (as obnoxious as that sounds).
Flash forward to spring 2008. We were sitting around with a couple friends talking about making a film, and we just started delegating roles. Shannon would write the script, Damon would direct, and we would all take a hand in producing (big shout out to Tyson Kaup). We raised some money, formed an LLC, Shannon wrote a feature film from scratch, cast the actors, and shot in seven eight-hour days (thank you SAG ultra-low budget rules). From concept to final day of shooting took six months. We had wrapped our first feature film, MARCH! (a mockumentary about an overzealous tenant battling her landlord) for under 10K, and it ended up being a huge learning experience for all of us.
In the meantime, while we were in post-production, we began to plan an improvised dinner party, Vicky and Lysander, in the Lower East Side at the space Grand Opening (an interactive store front that had previously been a pop up Wedding Chapel, a Drive-In Movie theatre, etc). The idea for the dinner party came from a sketch we had performed in college where Damon played the role of Lysander, a flamboyant bon-vivant, while Shannon played the role of socialite Vicky, the “It Girl of Manhattan.”
This married couple represented the worst of NY; social climbing name dropping assholes who are completely diluted in their own prestige. After 80 performances that involved dancing on tables, and scraping dried mac and cheese off of plates, we were exhausted from doing the show in the evening while still holding jobs during the day. The show had originally been planned to run for a month but thankfully positive press, strong audience support, and word of mouth extended it to three months.
MARCH! was now completed. We submitted it to festivals and were looking for a venue in NY to do a run of the film that we had worked so hard on. We discovered there weren’t a lot of doors that were willing to open for us, so we thought, “Alright. We can do this. We’ll build the damn door and then open it for ourselves.” We think highly of our movie and know that other filmmakers feel the same about their work but get frustrated when competing with higher budget films for a spot in the big festivals. We wanted to see what filmmakers who were working with similar low budgets were making and support their work as we were still trying to figure out how to support ours.
Enter Grand Opening. Again.
Having been so warmly welcomed in the space for Vicky and Lysander, we now wanted to turn this pop-up space into a theater, show low-budget films exclusively, eat popcorn, drink booze, and have some conversation afterwards. Informal and fun. This was the plan and hopefully we would have an audience that would be willing to embrace it.
We teamed up with fellow filmmakers and friends, Tony Castle and Roxy Hunt, of BFD Productions (more on them in our second blog), who have amazing design and technical skills. We were all on the same page with concept and programming and soon realized that we needed more help. Tony and Roxy shared the same language and aesthetic and came on board as our creative team and fellow film festival directors.
We pounded the pavement putting up flyers and contacting everyone we knew to help spread the word. We narrowed the submissions to 50 films. Features, shorts, animation, experimental, etc. etc. It was so exciting to see just how smart and creative people could be without the luxury of a huge budget.
Hopefully people would show up.
Well they did. We sold out all the screenings, got a lot of wonderful press (thank you press!), were placed on the “Highbrow and Brilliant” quadrant of New York Magazine’s Approval Matrix and made some new friends, all while having a blast. We were like proud parents at our kids Christmas Pageant standing in the back every night watching all these amazing films that had been made on the cheap. After we closed up Grand Opening on the final night, we all sat around at a bar and started talking, “Ok. Now how do we make this better next year?”
So that’s where we’re at. This year we have more films submitted from all around the world, bigger venues including; Sunshine Cinemas, Crosby St. Hotel and Grand Opening, and a panel of great and eclectic judges including Academy Award Winning Actress Susan Sarandon, performance artist legend Justin Bond, GQ Senior Editor Logan Hill and photographer and filmmaker Harvey Wang.
In this blog we hope you learn a little bit more about us and what it takes to put together a film festival. We also hope to show you our lives as “struggling artists” in NY (no, not trust fund babies who do their art from their parent’s pied a terre in SoHo) but what a modern day struggling artist may look like. The artist that uses whatever free time they have to write and put together various ideas and projects simply by placing one foot in front of the other.
So that’s that. For now. We’ll be blogging at least once a month. Thank you kindly. We’ll see you soon!
Damon Cardasis and Shannon Walker