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Q&A with Richard Raymond

Malu Rocha reviews early Oscar short film contender, A Million Eyes, and interviews its director Richard Raymond

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Image Credit: NouChi Productions

A Million Eyes tells the story of Leroy (Elijah M. Cooper), a gifted young photographer, who sets out to capture something he loves. Leroy carries around a beat-up analogue camera through the small streets of suburban East Lake, Georgia, as he tries to come to grips with his mother’s alcoholism.

Director Richard Raymond reveals his inspirations behind the project and says, “when I read Curt Zacharias Jr’s script, I felt a deep and personal connection to the story of a child discovering their artistic voice — and the importance that mentors play in young people’s lives, especially during the fragility of their artistic journeys. I understand what it was like to have a yearning for creative expression and how that can sometimes be alienating. I think all artists do, and I felt that a story like A Million Eyes — the maturation of an artist — had never really been told before.”

A Million Eyes is 25 minutes long, but it has enough fuel to resemble a feature length film. Just shy of half an hour proves to be enough time for the characters to develop, which consequently makes for a well executed self-contained story. On this subject Richard adds: “I owe it all to producer Josh Reinhold who initially read the script and thought it was beautiful, and we actually started to develop it together as a feature film. But as the festival run for Souls of Totality came to an end, it became clear to me that successful short films actually receive a greater theatrical release over the course of their festival run than low budget indie feature films. I love that collective experience an audience shares when they watch a film on the big screen and suggested to Josh that we ask Curt to rework the screenplay into a short, which we could put into production relatively quickly.”

The driving force behind this story and what really makes it a statement piece is Elijah M. Cooper’s performance of the protagonist Leroy; a soft-spoken character with a big soul and an even bigger heart. Really outstanding performances shine through in the little things, and so it’s from the way he holds himself to the way he walks, that we see how Elijah was able to perfectly capture Leroy’s character.

Richard says: “the discovery of our lead actor, Elijah M. Cooper; 13 years old, his first film role and just a delight to work with. He really brought his own unique interpretation of the character to the film and stayed in character the entire time on set. To do that takes a lot of maturity and intention — Elijah’s so mature and observant for his age, I totally lucked out with him. I thank the universe that our brilliant casting director Chad Darnell put him on tape.”

I won’t give you any spoilers, but there is one scene in particular I would like to point out. One day Leroy’s mum calls him into the kitchen and presents him with a surprise gift. Even though most people could easily guess what the content inside the box was, the real pleasure in the scene comes from watching Leroy’s pure, innocent and grateful reaction that you can't help but fall in love with. I wanted to see Leroy’s expression as he opened the gift rather than see what the gift itself was. This, ladies and gentlemen, is how you successful create a character-driven story.

Richard explains that one of the reasons why he sees Curt Zacharias Jr. as a stirring collaborator is because of how he talks about his characters. He says that “Leroy sees the world in a way unlike anyone around him. How he longs to express himself and show the world what he sees. Beauty, revelations, stories, unearthing the profound from the mundane.” And although Leroy is great on his own, this is one of those films where the protagonist really comes alive by interacting with the secondary characters.

The relationship between Leroy and his wise old neighbour Fern (Joe Morton) is intricately portrayed as a powerful bond between mentor and student. Richard explains that capturing this relationship was essential because the film “speaks to the importance of mentors in young children’s lives, especially those discovering their own artistic voices. It shows the significance that arts and education can have on kids, especially in underfunded communities, and celebrates the often-overlooked voices.” Ricard recalls a time when he asked Joe Morton what the film means to him, to which Joe answered that he saw it as a film about “hope, growth, mentorship, and the legacy of artists (like Gordon Parks) who paved the way for today’s American artists of colour.”

This sense of importance really shines through in Joe’s character. Fern is the one that helps Leroy find his artistic voice, teaching him that being a photographer is so much more than just being someone who walks around with a camera taking photos. He teaches Leroy what it really means to be an artist; what it really means to use your craft as a way of expressing your view of the world to other people. When Leroy seems stuck on what to shoot next, Fern tells him to capture what he truly loves, sending Leroy on a quest to photograph a portrait of his mother, which is where the story really gets to you.

Leroy’s mother Amber (Katie Lowes) is a functional yet struggling alcoholic who clearly wants to help Leroy develop his passion but is held back by her addiction. The film’s portrayal of alcoholism is fresh and unlike most blockbusters these days; it doesn’t try to romanticise or exaggerate. It shows pain in a very subtle and emotional way without any ‘strong’ or ‘heavy’ scenes.

Richard explains that this was very intentional; “It was something both producer Josh Reinhold and actress Katie Lowes were passionate about ensuring we captured correctly. We’ve seen portrayals of alcoholism where the person in question is a total mess and falling over themselves — but the reality is heavy drinkers, especially the ones I know, are functioning individuals. We wanted to shine a light on that and not demonise or simplify her behaviour.”

This relationship is the ultimate driving force of the film. Combine it with Jarin Baschke’s cinematography, and you have a moving cinema piece. Richard explains that one of his intentions with A Million Eyes was to “make a film that was patient, poetic and soulful”, and the cinematography beautifully captures that. With long pans and steady long shots, the fluidity of the camera movements accurately resonate with the tone of the film. The naturalistic lighting also ties in well with what Fern tells Leroy; a photographer uses light in their craft the same way a painter uses a paintbrush.

Richard explains that A Million Eyes is his second film with Jarin Blaschke, so there is comfortability and trust between them. He says that they “see things in a similar way, and wanted A Million Eyes to be both precise and fluid. When it comes to lighting Jarin is a master and a poet. He is also very passionate when it comes to 35mm photography. Watching him in a darkroom is a joy to behold - and to harness that obsession on a film that’s about the medium of 35mm photography was such a gift.”

A Million Eyes is a beautiful film that touches on all the aspects that make a story inspiring. Richard concludes by saying: “I think the key element for me personally is that urge to just keep collaborating and creating, to tell important stories and engage an audience in a way they’re not expecting.”

A Million Eyes is showing next at the Raindance Film Festival in London. Keep up-to-date with future screenings on the film’s Facebook page @AMillionEyes or their Instagram @AMillionEyesfilm

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