Faded Buddhist peace flags swing in the late-afternoon breeze as Lucas Elliott sits barefoot on the sofa in his one-bedroom apartment at the Oakwood Toluca Hills complex, the one near Universal Studios. Like many young actors, Elliott, a Colorado native who appears this month in Clint Eastwood’s Letters From Iwo Jima, moved to Los Angeles and the Oakwood seven years ago, for pilot season, when he was just 13. Unlike most who pass through the Oakwood, he’s stayed on like some kind of Eloise — or Lindsay Lohan at the Chateau Marmont — long enough to book numerous acting jobs, started 22 unfinished scripts, attended several Hollywood premieres and received his California driver’s license. He’s also just directed, produced and is nearly done editing his first feature film, based on one script he did finish, Choose Connor.
Have you heard of other 20-year-olds who direct films?
“J. Paul Zimmerman [former child actor Joey Zimmerman, from Halloweentown] directed a film last year. I think it was a lot more low-budget than this, but he did an adaptation of Dogg’s Hamlet, Cahoot’s Macbeth by Tom Stoppard, which is really ambitious. I haven’t seen it, but I hear it’s good.”
Elliott, who knows Zimmerman, appears to be part of a network of young actors turned filmmakers. His producing partners on Choose Connor include Aaron Himelstein, who played a young Austin Powers in Austin Powers in Goldmember, and Andrew McFarlane, who has appeared in numerous episodic TV shows, including The West Wing.
Unlike most of young Hollywood, Elliott, who changed his name professionally a year ago from Luke Eberl, seems unimpressed by the trappings of the club scene. He prefers spending his nights at the New Beverly Theater, where he can watch classic films on the big screen by some of his favorite directors, including François Truffaut, John Cassavetes and Woody Allen. He also meditates, reads (Ram Das, Castaneda) and enjoys “urban treks,” a term he uses for long walks through the local geography. Last week, he took a 22-hour journey that left his feet cut up after he walked from the Hollywood-and-Highland subway station to Long Beach, then Santa Monica, and eventually back to his starting point. His companion on that trek was Escher Holloway, one of the young leads in Choose Connor. The other stars are Steven Weber (Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip) and Alex D. Linz, the former child star from Home Alone 3 and Max Keeble’s Big Move.
Initially written in longhand by Elliott, who carries a Moleskin pad wherever he goes, Choose Connor is set during a political campaign. It follows an idealistic, politically minded 15-year-old (Linz) who is asked to come aboard a senator’s (Weber) campaign as a youth spokesperson. He soon develops a friendship with the senator’s artistic nephew (Holloway), an odd, physically beautiful outcast who doesn’t attend school, makes elaborate puppets and has a difficult relationship with his uncle. Linz soon learns about the politician’s dangerous tendencies and finds himself engaged in the darker side of politics as the film explores some moral and social taboos.
“The film has gotten really strong reactions, positively and negatively,” says Elliott, who made a short a few years back called Incest and a documentary at age 11 about burning books. “It’s so intense how much people dislike it. I’ve talked to some people who hate it passionately and think it’s amoral and will do damage if I put it out there. My goal is to elicit an emotional or intellectual reaction. If I can put something into the world that causes people to think about their own lives, or the lives of people they know, or present ideas, that is when I’ve done my job.”
The son of two Zen Buddhists, Elliott says his film poses questions he does not have answers to. He attributes the reactions the film is getting less to the themes of the film and more to the fact that he doesn’t give people the pat answers that they desire.
“I don’t think it’s right to say a film’s protagonist has to do the right thing,” says Elliott, who has a hyperverbal cadence, not unlike Woody Allen’s. “I think it’s more effective to not totally satisfy in certain cases, especially in the case of a political film when there is so much that is wrong with our government and the way it operates. Because of that, I don’t want to tell people how to live.”
Though he is reluctant to say how much it cost, Elliott says most of the financing for Choose Connor came through friends and friends of friends. Elliott soon expects to have a version he’s happy with; after that, he will hire a professional editor for polishing, and a composer. Then he’ll take the movie on to festivals and more rounds of financing.
Elliott made a decision to not act this time around, but some of his friends do appear in his cast. In the case of Steven Weber, the script was passed along through the proper channels, i.e., Weber’s agent.
Did Steven Weber know how old you were when he accepted the role?
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“I think he didn’t know how old I was. He came to the rehearsal and it was just me, Alex and him. He said later he was a little bit taken aback, like, ‘Oh my God, what I have gotten myself into here?’ He had no idea. But [our] age was never an issue, which is really a credit to him. He was just trying to do the best work he could. He never, ever treated me in any way that was condescending or insensitive, just a total professional. He just blew me away.” Elliott shakes his head, recalling the experience.
“He brought so many levels and minutiae to this character. Sometimes you will work with an actor and it’s like pushing a boulder up a hill to get it to where it needs to be. In the case of Steven, we just played.”
Do you feel different now that you have directed a feature film?
“I guess I thought I would feel so accomplished, so much more confident, and that is not the case at all. You know, the whole thing has been very hard. Most of the time, it’s administrative work. [It is] way, way, way harder to raise money than it is to actually write or direct. I want to do it ’cause it feels like an inner calling and it really fulfills me. I feel very lucky to be in this position. It has been a great learning experience. I still have a lot to learn.”