From El Dorado to Rodeo Drive... and Back:
An Interview with Alex Graves
by Dan Lybarger
December 17, 1996
Writer-director Alex Graves may have lived in Los Angeles for the last 12 years, but he says he owes a lot to his hometown in Kansas. Speaking by phone from his home in LA, Graves says, "The best thing about El Dorado is that I grew up there before I came to Los Angeles. It really grounded me. It gave me a little perspective. Los Angeles is its own country."
His desire to make movies began early and somewhat typically. Graves says, "Itís pretty basic, and itís an old boring story a lot of people tell. When I was eleven I saw Star Wars, and about three months later I asked for my first Super-8 camera for Christmas and started filming that day, and within a few weeks we were building sets in my garage. My neighbors used to call our garage ĎThe Soundstage.í"
If Gravesí origins and his decision to attend the University of Southern California film school (Star Wars creator George Lucasí alma mater) seem common, the way he started making features wasnít. Graves went back to El Dorado to shoot the moody Crude Oasis. While shooting at home saved him money, Graves said the return had additional benefits, "The idea of producing and directing my first feature film on my own was so terrifying. I wanted to have my family around and try to make (the process) more intimate and to take the edge off of what I was trying to do, which was make a movie for $25,000 in 14 days with my friends that I would try to sell as a real movie later."
Graves had little trouble establishing his effort as a "real movie." Crude Oasis received a rave review in Variety and national distribution from Miramax, the company that helped launch the careers of other independent filmmakers like Quentin Tarantino and Steven Soderbergh (sex, lies and videotape). While the film received a lot of positive buzz, it didnít reach a wide audience. Graves doesnít sound all that disappointed when he says, "I wasnít surprised by the commercial reaction because it came out between Apollo 13 and Waterworld. It opened against five major studio films and about five independent films. It just got lost."
Fortunately for Graves, enough of the right people in the industry saw Crude Oasis and after a long series of meetings and near misses he was able to make his new film which is currently titled Casualties. "I really wanted to make a movie that was different from Crude Oasis stylistically and yet had enough similarities so that people would let me direct it," he says. "Itís about a housewife (Caroline Goodall from Schindlerís List) who has a terrible marriage and who meets a killer in her cooking class and without realizing it sets into motion his doing in her husband."
While the $1.1 million dollar budget is microscopic by Hollywood standards (Mars Attacks!, for example, had an $80 million budget.), making Casualties in Los Angeles was a step up. Nonetheless, shooting in El Dorado and LA proved remarkably similar. He says, "It was a real adventure and an education for me because I had always thought about what would happen when I made a movie for a company with a bigger budget with real actors. It was really the same thing. It was easier. I had a bigger crew and more time."
One of the more seasoned actors Graves directed this time was St. Elsewhere veteran Mark Harmon, who plays the killer. At the suggestion of the same casting agent who handles Francis Ford Coppola, Graves sent Harmon the script and a tape of Crude Oasis. "I had never thought of Mark at all for the part, and he came in and just floored me in that he had this surprise understanding of what I wanted for the character and what a great idea it would be for this very nice man to play a very dangerous person. Mark plays this very nice All-American assassin."
While Harmon does add some marquee value, Casualties is scheduled to play in Europe and Australia, but isnít scheduled to play here any time soon. He explains, "Thatís pretty common for financing films here in that all the independent companies have deals wherever they have connections, and this company had a lot of connections in Germany. Germany has a huge market and is always looking for American films. So they actually take part in financing certain American films that they know will sell in Germany."
Thanks to pre-sales and similar arrangements, Graves states that Casualties is already making a profit despite the fact that it canít be seen here. "Itís much easier to sell a movie in Europe because here youíre up against Independence Day and Space Jam, all the huge films the studios in Los Angeles mean to make hits," he says. Eventually, Casualties may see the light of the screen in limited release or on cable or straight-to-video.
Graves may return to his roots once again to shoot his next effort, Love Rescue Me, a romantic comedy he would like to shoot in Kansas City. "Itís a great setting for a romantic comedy. Kansas City is a beautiful romantic place with its own history. I lived there till I was seven, and I have a very idealized view of it."
This page was last updated on 10/29/97.