Webster University student and filmmaker David Kirkman was 16 when his family received a box of his great-grandfather’s DVDs after he passed away. The family kept the DVDs in their garage and did not open them.
One day, Kirkman decided to put a few of those DVDs in the player. Not only was he fascinated by the films themselves, but also the behind-the-scenes extras.
“I hate saying this, but I wanted to make films by watching behind-the-scenes featurettes of Bad Boys II and Transformers,” Kirkman said. “Say what you will about Michael Bay, but he shows you everything.”
He started atttending Webster to pursue film production. His student film, Retribution, premiered Oct. 5 at Ronnie’s 20 Cine in Sappington, MO.
In Retribution, four friends live in an economically-deprived area, struggling to make ends meet. They commit a robbery and an innocent man is gunned down and killed. The film follows them as their lives spiral out of control and their relationships fall apart.
Retribution did not start off with the same story a year and a half ago, beginning as an homage to the film Inception.
“But the thing is, I was distant from the story,” Kirkman said.
He wanted to tell a story different from his first film The Rising, a film about a vigilante hero in a corrupt city dealing wtih his dark past. He wrote different drafts of the Retribution script and showed them to his cinematographer Michael Parks. Parks told Kirkman he was getting closer to what his vision should be.
The script was complete by mid-July 2014. The following August, Michael Brown was fatally shot by Officer Darren Wilson in Ferguson.
“When that happened, then the story became personal,” Kirkman said.
Kirkman wanted to show how the environment one lives in can affect that person’s choices. In this case, how an urban area affected the decisions of these four men.
“Those of us who grew up on the outskirts of the urban community and poverty-stricken areas, we kind of always say, ‘Well, they need to make better decisions,’” Kirkman said.
Kirkman said the biggest struggle was getting the money necessary to make the film. After casting auditions, Kirkman turned to Indiegogo, a crowdfunding site, to help with the expenses, looking to raise $1,500. There were only two donations made, including Kirkman himself, raising a little more than $100. He kept getting messages from people that donations were coming, but only one other person followed through.
However, this only pushed Kirkman and the film’s producer and co-screenwriter Duncan Wheeler even more. They financed the film themselves.
“We thought this was a story that needed to be told,” Wheeler said. “Even though we did not have the support from the audience that we would have liked, we were still able to pursue it.”
Kirkman said, besides monetary struggles, the rest of production was smooth sailing. The only hiccup was driving twenty minutes from the set to a house to get a prop that was forgotten.
“Other than that, everything was smooth,” Kirkman said.
The casting process
The film stars actors Maalik Shakoor, Mark Gullet, Christian Wallace and Paul Craig as the four friends and Marty K. Casey as the mother of Shakoor’s character.
“They all added their nuances,” Wheeler said. “We tell the actors they are not locked on to those words [in the script].”
Kirkman met Shakoor through different means. Kirkman had seen him before in a short film called Spitting Image. He ultimately couldn’t audition, as the time clashed with Webster’s new student orientation, which he had to attend. He e-mailed Kirkman a couple of weeks before auditions and let him know. They met at a St. Louis Bread Company to talk.
“He did not formally audition, but he was a really cool guy to talk to,” Kirkman said.
Mark Gullet, who played the film’s antagonist, was cast because he was known for playing good guys.
“[I thought] let’s try something different and make him stretch a little bit, and he did a fantastic job,” Kirkman said.
Wallace previously worked with Kirkman on The Rising. Craig previously starred in a film called Four Way Stop, which Webster students were a part of and which premiered at the St. Louis International Film Festival this past summer. Craig did not have to audition.
“I just saw the trailer for [Four Way Stop] and knew I wanted him [in my film],” Kirkman said.
Casey is a professional actress and director of stage plays. Kirkman said he remembered a conversation about her play competing with a play by filmmaker Tyler Perry. Her play eventually sold out and the theatre it was playing at canceled Perry’s play for hers.
“Once I contacted her about it, I had no idea that she had that level of prestige and experience behind her,” Kirkman said.
Kirkman showed Parks, his cinematographer, around 15 films to inspire the style of Retribution. The film was shot using color contrast and warm lighting to represent the dark tone and urban setting.
“Lighting and color has a lot to do with how films are to be interpreted by the audience,” Wheeler said.
Mattia Cupelli composed the music. Cupelli is known for producing fan music for franchise films such as Man of Steel and Transformers: Age of Extinction. His work can be found on iTunes.
Kirkman thought working with Cupelli was a long shot, as he lived in Rome, Italy. He took a chance and messaged him on Facebook. By the time Kirkman messaged Cupelli, an official trailer of the film was already out. Cupelli saw the trailer and agreed to score the film.
“We were so grateful that he would because that just added another level of gravitas to the entire film,” Kirkman said.
Kirkman served as the film’s editor. He has been editing videos since he was a sophomore in high school.
“We had about four to five rough edits of the film,” Kirkman said. “The first edit was much longer than the cut you see now, but it was not as cohesive. It left more questions than it gave answers.”
Kirkman said the editing of the film was fine-tuned through critique, which he said was hard to listen to sometimes.
“As artists in general, we get really sensitive about our artwork,” Kirkman said.
Kirkman said the only thing he will work on in 2016 will be making Retribution into a feature film.
“I will have all the resources here at Webster,” Kirkman said. “I will not have resources like that after I graduate for a really, really long time, so now is the time to make that move.”
By 2017, Kirkman plans to expand his audience and help build St. Louis into a mainstay in entertainment.
“My hope is to be one of the main players to help make St. Louis one of the biggest entertainment industries in the nation or on the globe,” Kirkman said.