Filmmaking Starts at Home

Indie icon Alexandre Rockwell on making movies with his family, on his 2013 film Little Feet and his latest feature, Sweet Thing.

I hit a wall a few years back. I was living in Los Angeles and had spent too many years trying to get films, going to meetings that amounted to little more than polite smiles and then rushing to get back home, where I could be myself again. I had a young family and was running out of time, because I didn’t know how to feed my kids. It seemed like the worst possible time to make a film and I was forced to look at myself in the mirror and ask the inevitable question: Was I a filmmaker, or someone who was trying to make films?

Lana Rockwell and Nico Rockwell in Little Feet.

It was a do-or-die moment for me and I had to face my worst critic in myself. Ultimately, I believe we make films because we must; it’s a far too difficult task to make personal independent films if you have a choice. When I came to this realization, it was liberating because I had little choice but to be pragmatic and apply my creativity within the limited resources I had available. I had an old Bolex 16 mm camera which I bought when I was 16 years old and a few cans of expired 16 mm film which had been sitting in the refrigerator for years. I had been fascinated with my children, who were three and six years old at the time, and spent hours watching them invent games and amuse themselves. I decided to make a film with them and sat down to write a script about a journey they would take to the ocean.

When you set things in motion, it creates energy. John Cassavetes taught me that years ago. He would just decide to make a film and people would show up. People couldn’t resist his energy and charisma, and they got pulled into his projects. John made films with his family, and the actors and crew that worked with him became an extended family. He set the example for me.

Lana Rockwell and Alexandre Rockwell on the set of Sweet Thing.

So, that’s how I started making films with my children: out of absolute necessity. Working with my kids was incredibly rewarding, although it did at times present challenges. The beauty of collaborating with family members is that you know them so well, you can move past the polite pleasantries of dealing with strangers and go right to the source of how to provoke and/or encourage a performance out of them. It’s like sitting at a dinner table and instead of asking, “Can I please have the potatoes?” just saying, “Give me a potato.” It’s not impolite or rude, it’s just direct.

I also knew the things I didn’t have to say to my kids and that I could nudge and encourage and observe them in ways that are a luxury for a film director. I would often listen to them whispering to each other and take out a notepad to write down what they said. “I love you in my brains and in my heart,” Nico would tell Lana. I also knew Nico loved whipped cream, so in order to get a reaction out of him, I would put shaving cream on his face and tell him it tasted like whipped cream. Sometimes the line between being a dad and being a film director got blurred, and the kind of greedy quality I have as a film director often made me push my children harder than the father in me would. It was mostly a rewarding experience for my kids, but there were times they resisted which definitely put a strain on our relationship.

Lana Rockwell as Billie in Sweet Thing.

Because my children have watched movies with me ever since they were born, they quickly developed an ability to speak in a filmic language. They understood that when you make a film as an actor, you don’t project in emotion and that nothing could be more irritating than a child being precocious. They simply did what they believed and together we worked on how to engage them with actions they could accomplish without much thought.

Once I finished Little Feet, my film starring Nico and Lana, it was an hourlong feature that I’d made with people I met in restaurants and neighborhood parks. I had no ambition for it whatsoever, but strangely enough despite it being black-and-white and an awkward length, it was my most critically acclaimed film since In the Soup. I had given up on trying to impress anybody and just wanted to make a movie with the people I loved for an audience that was unknown to me at the time. I knew somehow I was on the right track, though. I had not felt so inspired since I made In the Soup, back in the early ’90s, and all of the lackluster meetings faded from my memory. I made a promise to myself that from now on I would only do what I had to do to survive, even if it meant making films for pennies with my family.

Nico Rockwell in Sweet Thing.

The result of that promise is my new film, Sweet Thing, in which Nico and Lana again play the leads. It seemed logical to me to make another film with my children, but it was also a big risk. When I made Little Feet, they were so young, and making a film was such a playful and carefree activity for them. Because of that, I knew that if the film had gone nowhere or not been well-received, it wouldn’t matter to them. But Sweet Thing was something quite different. I wasn’t worried about Nico, who is like Marlon Brando: you just give him his lines, he says them right on the first take, and then moves on. But I was concerned about Lana, who is now a teenager, and asking her to carry a film was a scary proposition. She’s had no formal training, but has a very strong compass and can smell bullshit a mile away. Neither my wife, Karyn Parsons, or I wanted her to do the film if it was too much for her to take on.

The hard part about being both Lana’s director and her father is I wanted to protect her, but I also had to be as demanding of her as possible, because I knew anything short of excellence would be letting her down. Lana is a sensitive soul and her understanding and sensibilities are the foundation of the film. She set the tone and held everything together. I am amazed at what she was able to do. The risk paid off. I’m deeply proud of her and amazed at her ability to internalize the character of Billie and carry the narrative in the soul of the film to the end.

Karyn Parsons in Sweet Thing.

My wife Karyn also amazes me – the role she plays in Sweet Thing is such a stark departure from her most famous character, Hilary from The Fresh Prince of Bel Air, that she’s almost unrecognizable. Oddly enough, she seems like a distant relative of Hilary who took a wrong turn in life but eventually finds her way, through the tangled mess of alcohol and abuse, to become herself again. Karyn has such a strong love for her children and the film itself that she fits the character of Eve like a glove.

Alexandre Rockwell with Will Patton on the set of Sweet Thing.

Making Sweet Thing, there were wonderful moments when we would be sitting around the dinner table, filming a scene, and we would throw oatmeal in Karyn’s face during a very serious moment and all of us would begin laughing and teasing each other, as only a family could. Because so many of my graduate students worked on that film, the whole crew felt like a family; everyone just fit together. I could completely be myself while directing it, with all my emotions, my joy, my stress. It’s the only way I want to work now.

Featured image shows Lana Rockwell, Nico Rockwell and Jabari Watkins during the making of Sweet Thing.

Iconic independent film director Alexandre Rockwell rose to prominence with his 1992 film In the Soup, which won the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival. He is one of the original auteurs of the independent film movement. His other films include Somebody to Love, 13 Moons and Four Rooms, also directed by Quentin Tarantino, Allison Anders and Robert Rodriguez, and Little Feet. His newest film, Sweet Thing, a poetic, uplifting celebration of childhood starring his children Lana and Nico, is out now through Film Movement at IFC Center and other virtual cinemas.