VALLEY OF THE SUN by US-based Singaporean producer Unsu Lee
Brief Synopsis of ‘Valley of the Sun’
Andy Taggert, played by Johnny Whitworth, set out for Hollywood to pursue acting, but years later finds himself as Vick Velour and working in adult films (as a porn star). Disillusioned and trapped, Andy walks off the set and lands himself in a mental hospital. His estranged parents pick him up and take him to their Arizona retirement community where Andy’s troubles seemingly all but disappear until his past unexpectedly comes back to haunt him.
Is it a rom-com or a dramedy?
If I was forced to choose between those two categories, I’d say it was more of a dramedy. At the core of the story is a troubled father / son relationship. But there is also a lot of comedy inherent in the fish-out-of-water situation that Andy Taggert finds himself in. The great thing about the film is that it will appeal to audiences that are interested in either drama or comedy.
How did this story come about and do you think the story is still relevant today?
One of the writers, Jon Langston, grew up in Sun City, Arizona, and he was inspired to make that the setting for the film. It’s such a quirky, colourful setting, filled with old people driving around in golf carts and cactus plants in front of every house. The main character, Andy Taggert, was first conceived as a retrenched dot-com guy who has to go back home to live with his parents. When Langston saw some VH1 special about pornstars one night, he decided to make the main character a pornstar, which made the original premise even funnier. That’s how Valley of the Sun was born. Stokes, the director, took the script and worked on it for a few more years after that. Stokes is really good with quirkiness, so he took up the quirk a notch.
The story is about non-conformity, which is always going to be a relevant theme. Every society needs its non-conformists. Equally, every society needs rules and values to live by. The film explores in a lighthearted way what happens when those two worlds collide. There’s a lot of social commentary on religion and the pernicious effects of judgment. I think people are at their worst when they judge or are being judged. I think everyone’s going to be able to identify with something in the film.
In your opinion, is this film considered an independent film?
You couldn’t get a more independent film. We had a great cast and crew, and everyone understood this to be a work of passion. Our financing was raised outside of the studio system. We also used some of the cash that we had accumulated through our commercial work. Even though we’ve got someone like cinematographer Jeffrey Kimball, who has worked on movies like Top Gun, True Romance and Mission Impossible 2, this is the smallest film he’s worked on for 30 years. The entire budget of our film was less than what they spend in one day on some of the studio movies he’s worked on.
There are many producers in the film, what are the different roles being played by the producers including yourself for Valley of The Sun?
This is probably the hardest question for me to answer. The roles change depending on what stage the film is in.
I helped to catalyse the film. I encouraged Stokes to do Valley of the Sun, at a time when he was weighing different projects. I loved the premise, and I knew that he would create something quirky from it. I helped with financing and script development. I was more of a ‘creative’ producer, keeping the focus on the story as much as possible.
Stokes was like Superman, doing everything that could humanly be done on a film. He wore both the producer and director hats, and that’s a challenging thing to do, as anyone who works in film would know. At some point, though, once production started, he just focused on telling the story, and left the producing to the rest of us.
Chris Hall and Aaron Tudisco did much of the heavy-lifting. Chris Hall had previously handled paperwork on Matrix Reloaded, and he’s worked as a production manager on countless shows, so we really counted on him to hire the crew, manage the budget, and make sure all our t’s were crossed and i’s dotted. Aaron Tudisco used to work in development with Jodie Foster’s Egg Pictures, and then at Industrial Light and Magic. He lives in LA and was our main point of contact with agents, sales reps, and distributors. From early on, he helped position the film within the industry.
The main lead Johnny Whitworth is also the main antagonist in the latest Marvel comic Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance. How is it like working with Johnny and other actors in Valley of The Sun?
Johnny was a difficult actor to work with, but he was perfect for the role. What made him difficult was how long it took him to get into his scenes. He’s a method actor, and he needed to talk through everything quite a bit. This ate up a lot of our time, which is critical for an independent film. Every hour we go overtime is an hour we can’t afford. So that was frustrating. To Stokes’ credit, however, he focused on Johnny’s strengths as an actor. He’s a good actor, which is why he’s gotten roles in movies like Ghost Rider and Limitless.
The older actors were all a joy to work with. You would think that veterans like Garrett Morris (Saturday Night Live) or Barry Corbin (Northern Exposure, Lonesome Dove) would feel entitled, but they were genuine pros. They were humble, and loved their craft. They just showed up for work and did their thing. We couldn’t afford big luxury honeywagons for them to rest in, so often they would just sit in a tiny air-conditioned cubicle the size of a toilet, hiding from the Arizona heat. The stories they told were amazing. Peter Jason (Deadwood) has worked with Orson Welles. He had vivid stories about working on his films. Pasha Lychnikoff (Deadwood, Star Trek) was a student at the Moscow Academy of Dramatic Arts. He spent the first year working on entrances and exits. No speaking parts. And the training shows. He can convey something with just a look. I learned something from just about every actor who worked on the film.
Valley of The Sun was selected as an official selection in Newport Beach Film Festival in 2011. It sounds like a great platform for independent and studio films. Any words of encouragement for our fellow film students or filmmakers here who wish to be a producer?
The only real question you have to ask yourself is, “What story do I want to tell?” Then tell it to the best of your ability. Don’t just make something that’s good enough for Singapore. Compete on a world stage. But keep in mind that there are different ways of telling a story. Maybe you can’t get the money to make a film. Well, graphic novels are a lot cheaper, and they are a powerful medium in their own right. Be flexible.
But, above all, be honest. Be honest with yourself, and be honest with others. The best producers have a sense of ethics. They have a sense of the bigger picture.
What is the next upcoming project for you that we can look forward to?
I’ve got several things going on. I’m writing a sci-fi graphic novel called Gush. I’m hoping to make that into a film one day. I’m also working on a script based on Gerrie Lim’s book, Invisible Trade, about high-end social escorts in Singapore. I’m also producing a film with my friend Pran Jintanapornphan. It’s a true story about a Thai kickboxer who lived around the 2nd World War. It will be directed by Wisit Sasanatieng, of Citizen Dog fame. I’m also considering doing another documentary about Burning Man. I did one 10 years ago, and I think it’s time to revisit this event, which continues to grow in popularity and socio-cultural influence.
Last words for our audience here in Singapore who are watching Valley of the Sun for the first time?
I’m grateful to Sinema for the opportunity to screen this film. There aren’t enough opportunities for indie films in Singapore.
If you like our film, tell everyone to go watch it. Support independent filmmaking!