Greg Kuper & Jarrod Crooks on Jackie Chan, ‘Wishbone,’ and distribution in the world of YouTube

As part of a limited interview series in the coming weeks, will yak it up with a handful of Wisconsin filmmakers from Madison’s 2013 48 Hour Film Festival.

Greg Kuper and Jarrod Crooks didn’t start making films together, but the pair have found so much success in their collaborations, it’s difficult to imagine their co-productions any other way. When they’re not brainstorming together, Greg heads up his own production company, Public Image Media, while Jarrod stays busy making his own action films. In May, Jarrod posted the opening scene from his latest feature-length effort, Dispatchedonline.

At this year’s 48 Hour Film Festival, Kuper and Crooks teamed up once again in “For Better or For Worse,” a buddy comedy that sees the filmmaking duo exchange their trademark action choreography for old fashioned slapstick. Aided by Crooks’ rubbery features as an actor and an over-the-top performance from Dale Mitchell, “For Better or For Worse” is a fun but heartfelt story of a wedding on the brink of utter chaos. Their short was met with awards for writing, use of character, and the best use of this year’s required dialogue, “Forget everything I just said.”

LakeFrontRow: Let’s make this quick, guys. We don’t have time for your beef. The both of you have paired up on a number of projects together, most recently in your latest 48 Hour film. How did your partnership begin?

Greg Kuper: I produced a pilot a few years ago for a TV show called Casting Call. The show put together a lead actor, a writer and a director who were tasked to produce a short film on no budget. Jarrod was one of the directors, and he sent me “Thieves Like Us” as his qualifying work sample. I was immediately impressed, but even more so when he submitted his Casting Call film “Hostile Possession.” We began talking frequently and asking each other for input, advice and suggestions on each other’s projects, and our friendship grew from there. While we do still work independently, there is seldom a project I do without Jarrod’s involvement. I respect him, his talent and his work immensely.

Jarrod Crooks: When I first saw the posting for Casting Call, I thought it was a joke. You can never be too sure about things like that. I wanted to take a chance, and I’m glad I did because I made a good friend. Even though the show hasn’t gone anywhere yet, it was a great opportunity, and I’m glad Greg and I now work together.

But why pair up? Is filmmaking easier working together?

Greg: While I feel strongly in my abilities as a filmmaker, I like collaborating with Jarrod. Ultimately, my goal has always been to put out the best production possible, whether it’s a film or a promotional video. I think collaboration makes projects stronger. I might not think about something in particular, and having a person like Jarrod makes me more comfortable that my production will be that much better.

Jarrod: I always find it easier to use your friends rather than paying people. But seriously, working with other people is good because you don’t always know all the answers, and we’re both really good at getting the best out of each other.

What’s the collaborative process generally like in a Kuper/Crooks co-production?

Greg: Different projects warrant different processes and needs. In my projects, I usually write the script and send it to Jarrod for feedback or suggestions. I often utilize Jarrod for his acting and production skills, too. He saves me time. A Kuper/Crooks production is very collaborative. We respect each other and both realize we have different strengths, and focus on those strengths.

Does that process change when you’re doing a 48 Hour film?

Greg: For our 48 Hour films, I make final decisions and ensure we follow scriptwriting rules, but Jarrod frequently reads what I have and offers suggestions. In “For Better or For Worse,” [actress, co-writer, and co-producer] Katrina Simyab provided valuable input, but during production, everybody helps out. If an actor isn’t in a shot, they hold the boom mic. Sometimes Jarrod shoots, sometimes I do, and sometimes someone else does. Jarrod makes the decision on whether a shot is good enough to move on, mainly because he also edits the 48 Hour films. I don’t want to hear him complain that we missed something later. We direct together, though. I may be blocking a shot a certain way or help an actor with their delivery, but Jarrod might have a different way of doing those things. We do both usually if there’s time and decide in post which works better.

You work together now, but I imagine your interests in film didn’t coincide. How did you first get into filmmaking?

Greg: I’ve always been interested in producing. I worked in TV in college and when I first got out. I always loved it but decided to try writing children’s books. I tried very hard to improve my writing and get published, but it’s tough. It’s funny, when I had gotten out of TV production, I would always write stories thinking how cool a movie each would make. About four years ago, I answered a Craigslist ad from an independent filmmaker and started working with Stray Fellows Productions. I had to learn very quickly how to shoot, edit and write properly, so I went back to school. I also developed relationships with a lot of independent filmmakers and learned what I could by working with them. I love it and can’t see myself not being involved in production.

Jarrod: I got into filmmaking when I was 12 years old. I think a lot of it sprang from watching the PBS show Wishbone. This was before DVD and the added features where they show behind the scenes footage or whatever they show. At the end of every episode, they would show how things were done, and I loved that. Later when I saw my first Jackie Chan movie, it was a done deal. I was hooked and I knew right then and there, I wanted to make films.

Would you consider yourselves “action” movie fans? “Bad Rep,” another collaboration of yours, features a big showcase fight at its climax. At the same time, you often blend in comedy elements to your fights, especially slapstick. What has influenced your understanding of choreography and humor?

Greg: I love action movies. I grew up with Arnold Schwarzenegger. I always think of him sticking the knife in the guys head in Predator. The guy is stuck to the wall, and Arnold says, “Stick around.” I must confess, when it comes to our collaborations, I always leave the fight choreography to Jarrod.

Jarrod: Action movies are my favorite thing to watch, especially Jackie Chan movies. Of course growing up on Jackie Chan was a huge influence, but it’s always difficult to come up with fresh choreography because there’s only so many ways you can punch someone in the face. I’m really trying to work on my storytelling, because I feel it’s more important than a fight scene. If you have a character that nobody cares about, then they won’t care about the fighting either.

Greg, Public Image Media doesn’t limit itself to 48 Hour short films. What else is your studio involved with?

Greg: As much as I love making independent films, there isn’t any money in it. It’s a passion, and I look at it as practice to improve my skills. My company, Public Image Media, is actually a full service media company. We provide video productions for businesses needs, and we have done several audio book productions that can be found on Amazon. We also do animation and motion graphics as well as some graphic design. I’ve also been active in producing films for Project Imagination [sponsored by Cannon and run by Ron Howard] and have submitted other films I’ve produced to several film festivals. To date, Public Image Media has won nine awards including a Madison WAVE Merit Award and a Telly People’s Choice Award. I’m constantly researching how to get proper funding and distribution deals for feature-length scripts. I dream of having a budget for a film of more than a few hundred dollars.

Having talked with Greg previously, one of his biggest criticisms of the current state of independent filmmaking isn’t the production but the distribution of a film. How has putting your work out there affected your filmmaking?

Greg: To be honest, it scares me. Short films are inexpensive and relatively easy to produce. When you do a short, I look at it like I’m practicing for the day I get someone to invest in a feature. You know a short isn’t going anywhere except festivals and YouTube, which is fine. A feature is a different animal altogether, and until I get funded, I won’t probably do one.

Jarrod: In the world of YouTube, everyone thinks they’re a filmmaker. While it’s great that anyone can get out there, it makes it harder for someone to get noticed because there is so much. Equipment gets better, easier to use, and less expensive. Again, this opens the doors for a flood of films that 20 years ago would never have been made. Even getting your film into festivals becomes difficult because festivals charge you to even look at your film. It becomes very discouraging when you pay and don’t even get into their program. But I would never say make a movie because you’re hoping it gets distributed. Make a movie because you love making movies.

Have you had to adapt and rely on your own distribution methods?

Greg: At this stage in the game, the only way is to rely on yourself. You have to be creative.

Jarrod: For “Thieves Like Us” I rented, and for [the upcoming] Dispatched plan on renting, a theater for public screening. It’s worth the cost if you can get an interest, it’s what they call “a test market,” to see if your film is as good as you think it is. There’s Amazon and other channels, too, but the best course is to get picked up by a distribution company.

What’s more important right now: profit or exposure?

Greg: Profit comes from exposure in my opinion.

Jarrod: I agree, but I also think that you have to have a good product. Why would you want exposure for something that’s crap?

You include a lot of physical comedy into your action scenes, and while “For Better or For Worse” isn’t in the same vein as “Bad Rep’s” no holds barred climax, I’d argue it’s a lot funnier. When you drew “buddy film” as your genre this year, did you envision a comedic take from the get-go?

Greg: After “Bad Rep,” I realized that the last five years of Madison 48 Hour winners were comedic films. I feel people like to watch films that make them laugh, not make them sad. It’s a disadvantage to [48 Hour] filmmakers tasked with making thrillers, dramas or horror films. So unless we drew a genre that simply wouldn’t work as a comedy, I knew I wanted to have comedic elements in this year’s film.

Dale Mitchell’s slobby take on Sinclair Vandermint got big laughs out of the Sundance audience. Where’d that character come from?

Greg: When I was driving home after drawing “buddy film,” I knew I wanted to be comedic and the first thing that came to mind were The Hangover and Beerfest. Jarrod came over and the first thing he said was, “I was thinking a movie like Hangover.” We called Dale, knowing his strengths as an actor, and asked him what he thought about playing Sinclair, a character with elements of Zach Galifianakis, John Belushi in Animal House, and a combination of Kevin Heffernan and Jay Chandrasekhar’s characters from Beerfest. He happily accepted.

While certainly a buddy film among the groomsmen, “For Better” has an entire freaking wedding going on in the background. How in God’s name do you secure a church space and convincing costumes on such short notice?

Greg: We have Katrina Simyab to thank for the locations and costuming. She’s very resourceful and had already been securing locations.

Anything coming down the pike for Public Image Media?

Greg: I’ve been networking with other film people to establish a better commission than what is currently available for Wisconsin filmmakers, and I continue to pitch TV concepts for consideration. I’m actively developing scripts that are good enough to attract distribution and investment. Beyond that, lots of commercial video production.

What’s the news on Dispatched?

Jarrod: Dispatched is my latest feature film. It’s about a cop who kills a mob guy’s son during a chase. Along with being targeted by the grieving mobster, he loses his girlfriend and gets demoted by his loudmouth boss, who’s played by Greg. The cop he ends up watching over and spying on his boss’ daughter, who’s on her vacation. There’s betrayal, love triangles, comedy, action, suspense, and plain old intrigue. I started writing it in June of 2012, and we started shooting in August of that year. I always know that when I start a feature, my year is totally booked. I’m hoping to release it this fall, and I plan on screening it in Madison, Wausau and possibly other nearby cities. It’s been a big time commitment, but I can’t wait until it’s done and people see it. Reactions to my movies are what I find most rewarding. Especially if they’re positive.