Tom Sizemore as Leroy Lowe in CELLMATES, a film by Jesse Baget. Picture courtesy White Knight Films. All rights reserved.
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Opened: 06/01/2012 Limited
|Quad Cinema/NYC||06/01/2012 - 06/07/2012||7 days|
|NoHo 7/LA||06/01/2012 - 06/07/2012||7 days|
Trailer: Click for trailer
Set in 1970s Texas, CELLMATES tells the story of hardened Ku Klux Klansman, Leroy Lowe (Tom Sizemore), who has risen through the ranks to be crowned 'Grand Dragon' of the local Klan chapter. Unfortunately for him, the government has started cracking down on the organization's activities and it isn't long before Leroy is sent to the Low Lee Tuna Prison Work Farm to serve time...harvesting potatoes. Worlds quickly collide when farm owner Warden Merville (Stacy Keach) forces Leroy to share a prison cell with eccentric Mexican field laborer Emilio (Hector Jimenez) as part of his penitence. None too happy with the arrangement, Leroy sets out to make things very difficult for Emilio in the cramped quarters, but Emilio's chatty disposition slowly chips away at Leroy's gruff exterior. When an unlikely friendship develops, Leroy comes to realize how his ignorant past has distorted his view of the world, and what he must now do to make things right.
An offbeat comedy with heart, CELLMATES is co-written, directed and produced by Jesse Baget. The film stars veteran actors Tom Sizemore and Stacy Keach; Mexican actors Hector Jimenez and Olga Segura; and a guest appearance by comedic actor Kevin Farley.
Not many films tackle the subject of racism with humor. And, that was my main objective with the film Cellmates. I also wanted to be unforgiving in presenting Klansman Leroy Lowe's convictions and not create a world of black and white as is often seen in films. Sure, Leroy is a flawed character and you might loathe his point of view, but hopefully you grow to appreciate his desire to change in the end. And that was another challenge I wanted to give myself--to create an unlikable character that you end up rooting for.
Of course, when you pitch a comedy about the Klan around Hollywood you tend to get a lot of rejections. But I really believed in the message of the film and was dead set on making it. I realized quickly that if I wanted to get Cellmates made, I would have to produce it myself.
The first thing my writing partner and I set out to do, was write a small enough script that would allow me to raise the funds to make the project a reality. That is why we decided to write a script with only five actors and a handful of locations.
The difficulty of writing something that "small" is that you don't have big scenes, explosions or car crashes to fall back on. You are forced to create layered characters, interesting dialogue and a unique story to keep the audience interested. In a world of special effects and super heroes, it's by no means an easy feat.
When it was all said and done, the script for Cellmates ended up being 114 pages of mostly dialogue. We only had a 13 day shoot and I knew it was going to be a hell of a challenge. Incredibly, and thanks to veteran actors like Tom Sizemore and Stacy Keach, we were able to knock out close to 10 pages a day.
In the end, putting the film together was an arduous process, only made possible by close friends who put everything on hold to lend a hand, and an amazing cast who truly believed in the message of the film and rallied behind the project from day one.
-- Jesse Baget, Writer/Director
Origins of the Project
Writer/director Jesse Baget and his co-writer set out to tackle the very sensitive topic of racism through the humor of a buddy comedy. The idea of CELLMATES spawned from a challenge. "I wanted to start the film with a character you couldn't possibly sympathize with and, hopefully, by the end of the story you would grow to root for," Baget says. He knew it would be a very difficult task. "You see films humanizing serial killers and assassins but racism is usually shied away from," said Baget. "While I understand it is a very difficult topic to deal with, I feel the more people are afraid to confront, discuss and expose this aspect of our culture, the more racism can drive us apart." Baget felt it would be easier to create a venue for conversation by exploring the story through a comedic lens. Another reason Jesse Baget wanted to tackle the subject matter was because growing up in Arizona, he was aware of the prejudice and controversy concerning immigrants.
The idea of confining two opposite personalities in a small space laid the ground for Baget to showcase his flair for the quirky dark comedy. At one point in the movie Leroy Lowe, played with passion and great comedic timing by Tom Sizemore, draws a line down the middle of the prison cell and proclaims, "This side is the United States of America and that side is Mexico. Me, the Gringo, I don't go to Mexico, and you, don't come to America." Unfortunately, as Emilio Ortiz, played by the always funny Hector Jimenez, points out, "America has the toilet."
To further develop the comedy aspect of the story, the writers sentenced their characters to a working prison farm run by an eccentric warden obsessed with growing prize-winning potatoes. Warden Merville, played by veteran actor Stacy Keach, spends his time enumerating various types of potatoes and all the delectable recipes one can concoct with the tuber. In fact, the warden admonishes, "Cultivating potatoes teaches a man all he needs to know about living a moral life!"
The writers also wanted for Leroy Lowe to find a love interest in the confined enclosure of a prison work farm. Somebody who could break through his harsh exterior and reveal the emotions buried underneath. Enter a beautiful Mexican maid who is hired to clean the warden's office. Leroy's weekly meetings with the warden take on a different meaning when, with the help of Emilio, an unconventional love story develops between Leroy and Madalena--opening the hardened racist's eyes to the possibility of a different life.
Co-writer Stefania Moscato, fluent in several languages, has lived in Texas for many years and developed a love for the swaggering Southern drawl. Her love for the state drew them to set the film there, in the fictitious Texas town of Tuna.
Cast of Colorful Characters
Casting the film was one of the easiest parts of the project. "I was fortunate enough to work with the exact people we envisioned while writing the script," says Baget. He wanted an established dramatic actor to play the part of Leroy Lowe, as opposed to the more obvious choice of a comedian. Baget believed the script to be inherently funny, so to lend credibility to the character of Leroy, Baget wrote the role specifically for Tom Sizemore. "Sizemore embodies the perfect combination of tough yet vulnerable qualities I was looking for," said Baget. The immediate on-set chemistry between Sizemore and Jimenez was also one of the most delightful surprises of the film.
Sizemore's touching portrayal of a conflicted racist faced with a chance at redemption was among the actor's most challenging performances of his long career. "It was hard to find the balance between humor and drama when dealing with such sensitive subject matter," says Sizemore. He blended the two brilliantly to create a riveting character that is sure to garner attention from both audience and critics alike.
Hector Jimenez, a personal acquaintance of Baget, was strongly committed to the film from the beginning. "Hector played an active role in the development of the character of Emilio Ortiz, including the character's comical obsession with his hair," Baget recounts. "My character has a real problem with his hair," says Jimenez. "It's unruly hair, and this guy really wants to have hair like an American! For some reason my character got it in his head that Americans have great hair. We used my real hair in the film. We brushed it and teased it so much that it hurt! I had to cut it off after filming!" Also, being a native of Mexico, Jimenez found the underlying theme of the film about overcoming prejudice and finding common ground a cause worth championing.
"While we had Stacy Keach in mind for the warden, I had no idea if we could get him," Baget recalls. Luckily for the project, Keach immediately responded to the material and agreed to do the film. As a seasoned actor of television, film and theater, Keach brought an extra layer of validity to the film. Stacy Keach has played the role of a warden on film and TV before, but Warden Merville was one of his favorites. "I've played a lot of wardens in my day, but this character is fabulous, he loves potatoes and has an agenda whereby he uses everybody in his prison to make sure that his potato fields produce the finest potatoes in the south," Keach laughs.
Baget, a big fan of Kevin Farley, approached the actor and comedian with the role of Bubba McCarthy, Leroy Lowe's best buddy and fellow Klansman. Farley imbued the role of the slow-witted Klansman with such heart and charm, he is almost impossible to dislike. "Bubba is not a real leader," Farley says of his character. "I think he was born into the Ku Klux Klan and I don't think he really knows anything other than that."
When Hector Jimenez read the script he immediately suggested Baget meet Olga Segura for the role of Madalena. Because Madalena's character has no dialogue in the film, Baget wanted an actress with a great expressive face who could be extremely funny without speaking a single word. He found those qualities in Segura. He felt that Madalena could say more with a glance or a smile than with any amount of dialogue. Without words getting in the way, Madalena can clearly see past the gruff exterior of a lifelong racist and into his redeemable soul.