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Daniel Lafrentz: “Make sure you love the work”

One of my current projects about a man recently released from long-term solitary is dear to my heart because I’m passionate about criminal justice reform. When I was young, I had a brief stay in the county jail. The experience of having my freedom taken away left a permanent impression on me and I’ve come […]

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One of my current projects about a man recently released from long-term solitary is dear to my heart because I’m passionate about criminal justice reform. When I was young, I had a brief stay in the county jail. The experience of having my freedom taken away left a permanent impression on me and I’ve come to be a firm believer in the adage that you can only truly judge a country by the way it treats the people in its prisons.


As a part of our series about “Filmmakers Making A Social Impact” I had the pleasure of interviewing Daniel Lafrentz. He has worked in the entertainment industry for over ten years in sales, development, and physical production. A graduate of the UCLA School of Film and Television (BA ’08, MFA ’18), his feature film debut The Long Shadow won the Jury Prize for Best Louisiana Feature at the New Orleans Film Festival 2019 and was released by Gravitas Ventures in 2020. When he’s not working on feature films or commercials, he can be found shooting 35mm still photos in odd places or at the park with his wife, Kathryn, and their dog, June.


Thank you so much for doing this interview with us! Before we dive in, our readers would love to get to know you a bit. Can you share your “backstory” that brought you to this career?

I’ve been a storyteller ever since I was child. At eight years old I would write elaborate science-fiction short stories, and at 16 I was given a camcorder for Christmas. After that, it was all over for me. In high school, I recruited all my friends to help make my first short film, starring me, about a guy who has to rescue his girlfriend so he can ask her to prom. Although our romance didn’t last long, my love affair with getting a group of passionate people together to tell a fun story has never faded.

Can you share the funniest or most interesting story that occurred to you in the course of your filmmaking career?

At the top of our second week of production on The Long Shadow we were hit with a once-in-a-decade Louisiana snowstorm. After almost two years of preparing for every possible contingency we were hit with one curveball that we never could have seen coming. It shut us down for three days, taking an already tight 16-day schedule down to 13 days. My Co-writer and I took part of a day and rewrote everything still remaining to shoot (nearly half the movie) to fit the time and locations we had left. It was a great lesson in embracing adversity, getting down to the essentials, and being ruthlessly efficient. Because what’s the alternative? Not finishing the movie. Not a chance.

Who are some of the most interesting people you have interacted with? What was that like? Do you have any stories?

The experience that particularly stands out is when I was the Key Set PA on the first installment of The Purge, starring Ethan Hawke, in 2012. There was supposed to be a big emotional moment for one of the young actors in the climax, but who was blocked by something or just couldn’t get out of his own head and allow himself to connect with the feelings he needed for the scene. Ethan stopped everything in between one of the takes, took the actor aside, and coached him through it. His ability to be that patient and focused, under such intense pressure, and get this young actor to shut out all the distractions, doubt, and self-watching was one of the most incredible pieces of directing I’ve ever witnessed. I’ve admired him for that ever since and have tried to develop those skills myself for when I work with actors on my own projects.

What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now?

Currently, I’m working on several projects that I’m very excited about. One is a feature film about a Louisiana man recently released from long term solitary confinement. He has to adapt to life in a halfway house while also meeting the conditions of his release imposed on him by the state, which all but guarantee his return to prison. Another is a TV pilot about a New Orleans Private Detective and single dad who juggles trying to raise a good son and cracking cases in the seedy underbelly of the Crescent City.

Which people in history inspire you the most? Why?

If I hadn’t pursued film I very likely would have been a historian. I’ve always admired is Abraham Lincoln for the way he valued diversity of opinion, but also knew that the decision-making responsibility ultimately rested with him. In that sense there’s a lot of overlap with being a director. Regardless of what other factors are at play, whose opinions you hear, the end result of what ends up on screen is your responsibility alone.

Let’s now shift to the main focus of our interview, how are you using your success to bring goodness to the world? Can you share with us the meaningful or exciting social impact causes you are working on right now?

I’ve always had an awareness of the power of stories generally, and movies in particular, to shape people’s understanding of issues and events. As a straight, white, male filmmaker I try to use to my abilities and platform to elevate and positively represent underrepresented groups without crossing the line into appropriation of their stories. I’m not always successful, but the more I practice, the better I get (I hope).

The Long Shadow took the archetype of the hard-boiled detective (almost always exclusive a straight, white, man), and made them a Black, lesbian woman instead. It was a challenge of my own ability to empathize and put myself in her shoes so I could try to portray an experience so different from my own. One of the most gratifying experiences I had in that process was, after a festival screening, being told by some Black, gay women that they felt seen and that the film had represented their experiences honestly and authentically.

One of my current projects about a man recently released from long-term solitary is dear to my heart because I’m passionate about criminal justice reform. When I was young, I had a brief stay in the county jail. The experience of having my freedom taken away left a permanent impression on me and I’ve come to be a firm believer in the adage that you can only truly judge a country by the way it treats the people in its prisons.

Many of us have ideas, dreams, and passions, but never manifest it. But you did. Was there an “Aha Moment” that made you decide that you were actually going to step up and take action for this cause? What was that final trigger?

There was no single ‘aha moment’, but a series of encounters over the years. Aside from my own trip through the county jail, I interviewed an incarcerated man for a story I was writing several years ago who described in detail the abuse he and the other inmates faced at the hands of the guards and how there was no, even token, attempt at rehabilitation for inmates. Prison is, in his words, just human storage.

My wife and many of her friends are also public interest attorneys. In a previous job, she used to investigate allegations of abuse and neglect in halfway houses, group homes, and the Louisiana State Mental Hospital. One of our other close friends is leading a class action lawsuit against a North Louisiana prison on behalf of the inmates there who were only able to alert the outside world to the torture and abuse they faced by smuggling a letter out.

After my own experiences, and seeing people close to me dedicate themselves to righting them, apathy was simply no longer an option. I’m not an attorney, but I’m a writer, and so I use the tools I have to aid the cause I believe in.

Can you tell us a story about a particular individual who was impacted or helped by your cause?

I’m a big believer in ‘paying it forward’. While I can’t speak to the direct impact my work has made on an individual, I’ve always tried to try to share the hard-won knowledge I’ve acquired in my career to help those who are just starting out. I would be nowhere without people who had mentored, guided, and shared knowledge with me. I’m also still relatively early in my career, but if I can save someone coming up behind me a few bruises, I’d like to.

Are there three things that individuals, society or the government can do to support you in this effort?

One thing that would go a long way towards advancing underrepresented stories and points of view is government funding for the arts. Independent film relies almost exclusively on rich benefactors. But if you don’t know or have access to those people, what do you do? Having a source of financing that is not contingent on ROI would be huge boon for filmmakers with important stories to tell, but perhaps with a limited audience or access. A film’s value to society can’t only be thought of monetarily. There’s a cultural benefit to their existence too. If we deny those stories a chance to exist because they won’t yield a net-profit, we’re denying ourselves something of great value.

What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.

-“Have a day job” — Making a steady living as an indie filmmaker is notoriously difficult under the best of circumstances. Developing a second skillset, editing, producing, SOMETHING that will allow you to support yourself, while also keeping you flexible enough to keep writing and moving your own projects forward. As a filmmaker, your time is one of your most valuable assets. If you can find a job that helps you as a director (being an editor is a huge asset to a young director) that’s ideal. It’s not always possible, but it’s a good goal to aim for. I Assistant Direct, Coordinate, Produce/Direct corporate/commercial/industrial content and do voice over, among other things. Diversify so you can keep making new stuff!

-“Make sure you love the work” — Being a director is a lot like being in a successful band. Lots of people fall in love with the IDEA of those jobs, when the reality is that the exciting moments they’re envisioning really only make up a tiny fraction of what the job actually is. When you’re in a band, 95% of your time is rehearsals, booking shows, marketing, going on tour, and maybe 5% playing shows for a small but enthusiastic crowd. Being a director is the same way. When you’re a director, 95% of your time is spent writing, pitching, fundraising, building schedules, doing your scene prep, and generally convincing others that your film deserves to exist. 5%, if that, is spent on set making creative magic and screening your film for small but devoted festival audiences. Make sure you love that 5% enough to embrace the other 95.

-“Don’t forget to live” — Being a director means being a student of humanity, having experiences, and learning about life, relationships, and behavior by participating actively in them. Don’t get so hung up on ‘making it’ that you neglect relationships or miss out on the things, big or small, that make life worth living. Inspiration can come from an incredible meal, a show at a bar, or a walk in the park with a friend just as easily as it can from a trek around the globe.

-“Have hobbies” — It’s important to keep different parts of your brain engaged. This can help you find inspiration in unlikely places and also help avoid burnout. Personally, I cook and I take photos with a 35mm still camera. Both of these take my whole attention when I’m doing them which allows my writing or directing work to recede into the background of my brain temporarily. This is a great way to decompress and overcome creative blockage by letting ideas synthesize and allow solutions to form in your subconscious. Writing and directing can easily become all-consuming. Make sure you have some other outlets to keep yourself in balance.

-“A strong work ethic will take you most of the way” — I’ll be the first to admit that I’m not the most visual director, the best writer, or anything remotely resembling a creative genius. But I know how to work hard and focus intensely when called upon. If can make yourself put your butt in the seat to write those pages, analyze those scenes, make those phone calls, you too can consistently turn out quality work. Consistency and quality go a long way towards keeping you employed. All of us are trying to get in “the room where it happens”. Having raw talent or a great project can get you in the room, but being able to deliver consistently will keep you there.

If you could tell other young people one thing about why they should consider making a positive impact on our environment or society, like you, what would you tell them?

– Telling stories is a privilege. Movies are a medium intended for mass consumption which makes them a powerful platform from which to speak to audiences. My feeling is that the bigger the platform, the greater the responsibility to use it well. This is not to say that there’s no place for stories meant purely for entertainment. We all want to be transported out of our own lives occasionally. At their best, movies have the power to change our understanding of people, events, and our own feelings. If given the choice between spending your blood, sweat, and tears creating two-hours of pure escapism or a story that will give an audience a lifetime of empathy for someone they previously misunderstood, which would you rather commit the bulk of your life to?

We are very blessed that many other Social Impact Heroes read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US, whom you would like to collaborate with, and why? He or she might see this. 🙂

I met Effie Brown at a Film Independent event a few years ago when I was still contemplating making The Long Shadow or doing another expensive short film. She told me that if you do a feature and take it all the way to the end it says a lot about you as a filmmaker and a person. It’s sort of like your professional, trial-by-fire, Bachelor’s degree because it says to the industry that you can see something all the way through from concept to completion. Ever since then I thought she would be an incredible collaborator and mentor.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

“Talk is cheap.” Filmmaking requires a lot of trust in the people around you. Experience has taught me to trust, but verify. I try (not always successfully) to start new relationships and collaborations from a place of trust and hope that my choice will be validated by the person’s actions. A lot of times it hasn’t been and it’s left me frustrated and disappointed. Conversely, I’ve made a conscious effort to always be true to my word, follow through, and be a person that can be trusted and relied on. If you surround yourself with people who feel the same way, you’ll feel a lot more secure taking professional and creative risks. This is an industry that is based heavily on reputation and relationships. The kinds you cultivate for yourself can have a huge impact on your career.

How can our readers follow you online?

People can check out my website: www.daniel-lafrentz.com or follow me on Facebook: www.facebook.com/daniel.lafrentz.

This was great, thank you so much for sharing your story and doing this with us. We wish you continued success!


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