Friday, February 28

Graduate student presents nature, drama in new prison escape film

Alumnus Daniel Lafrentz based his film "Noble Creatures" off of a real life prison escape in New York. However, Lafrentz set his film in Louisiana in order to create tension using its natural landscape in places such as Lafayette and Maurice, and also featured Louisiana-native actors. (Daniel Leibowitz/Daily Bruin)

A real-world prison escape inspired writer and director Daniel Lafrentz’s film “Noble Creatures.”

Lafrentz, a graduate student in film, based his film off an article he read in 2015 about two prisoners who escaped a maximum security prison in New York. He even included some details from the article as scenes, including the prisoners’ collaborative car theft in the film’s opening.

But for Lafrentz, the most intriguing aspect of the prison escape was the dynamic between the escapees, which he built his film upon, he said.

“There was something about the idea of these two guys who were at each other’s throats,” Lafrentz said. “I just took that and wanted them to be at odds, philosophically, one of them being willing to do whatever it takes to stay free and the other one still having his moral compass intact.”

“Noble Creatures,” which will screen at the Fayetteville Film Fest starting Sept. 12, follows the escape of two convicts in rural Louisiana as they struggle to evade a determined yet troubled corrections officer.

Set in southern Louisiana, Lafrentz said the film aims to capture the Louisiana atmosphere and portray complex characters. Lafrentz lived in the area for nearly two years after completing his undergraduate degree at UCLA and said he wanted to set the film there to harness the power of the region’s natural landscape.

“There’s this really cool phenomenon of just being at the mercy of nature,” Lafrentz said. “I liked being able to use the environment and make that kind of imposing. The intimidation of being out in the woods or by the water was something I could use to build tension in the movie.”

Lafrentz first began working on the film in July 2015, but presented the script and prepared for the filming in his fall 2015 production class. Through the workshop process, he received guidance from Becky Smith, professor and vice chair of production at UCLA’s School of Theater, Film and Television and a faculty advisor for “Noble Creatures.”

Smith said she was impressed with Lafrentz’s ability to challenge himself, particularly in making a regional film with a nuanced portrayal of Southern culture.

“The characters in his film – instead of being cliche Southerner (characters) – are complex and interesting people,” Smith said. “He’s not a Southerner by birth or culturally, but I think because he worked with regional actors, he got an authenticity that he wouldn’t have otherwise gotten.”

While writing, Lafrentz set the film in places he visited while living in the area, such as Lafayette and Maurice. Lafrentz and his cinematographer Teodora Totoiu visited the locations in Louisiana several months before filming, which Totoiu said allowed her to familiarize herself with the people and landscape and helped her translate the region onto film.

“Everything just kind of starts coming alive, everything is a burst of inspiration,” Totoiu said. “That was a fun challenge, to put myself in the world of these characters who are from this space and try to imagine how to visually represent their world in an accurate way.”

Lead actress Nicole Barré, a Louisiana native who plays Put-Down, the troubled corrections officer, also said the cultural authenticity of the project attracted her to it.

“I feel like (Put-Down) could have been in any city to be honest, but there’s a certain haunting, mysterious, hot, humid edginess about southern Louisiana,” Barré said. “I think that added to the mystery and the edge of the look of the film because of just where we shot it.”

Lafrentz said he wanted to film the actors in a way that would shape their characters naturally, so he offered direction while giving them space to make their own choices. He told the actor playing one escapee that his character had killed two men because they were hurting someone the character loved. The character’s backstory wasn’t part of the narrative, but Lafrentz said it helped motivate and inform the actor’s emotional choices.

“What were the circumstances of that action, what led to that moment, who was the person, what was your relationship?” Lafrentz said. “If I had just given him that, he would have done it and he would have done the best he could with it, but there’s no substitute for an actor making a personal connection to the character that’s from something that’s inside of them.”

Lafrentz shot the film in March 2016 and completed post-production in May 2017 before submitting the film to festivals. Since its submission, “Noble Creatures” has been accepted into several film festivals, including the New Orleans Film Festival and the DTLA Film Festival. Lafrentz said the process has been rewarding, particularly because audiences will get to see his cast and crew’s hard work.

“We kind of take for granted the stuff we watch, doing all these things to make us feel a certain way, but it’s actually kind of hard to marshal all those tools to work in a way that you want them to,” Lafrentz said. “I want (the audience) at the end to just be like, ‘My God, we went on this real journey with the characters.’”

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