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Q&A: Brian Lawrence on Being Independent

First came the blockbusters. Now, the indy crowd is showing up to film in and around Detroit.

Local Brian Lawrence is ready for it. The director has an independent film studio here called Planet Four Films. He also has an acting school (The Actor's Workshop) in Royal Oak. He now is filming “Rabid” in the rural areas around Macomb County. He lives in Sterling Heights and attended Michigan State University. (More on See TIME's special report "The Committee To Save Detroit")

“Rabid” will be Lawrence's fifth full-length feature film, after writing and directing “Corrupted Minds” (soon to be re-released internationally as “Panic in Detroit”), “She Kills,” and the early 2011 releases of  “The Politics of Street Crime” and the documentary “Dreams – The Movie.”

“Rabid” revolves around a range of characters from a small town grappling with the stresses of family struggles and a difficult economy, showing the tragic cost of acting out rage and revenge.

“The characters in ‘Rabid' live on the edge of the gun rights, tea party and militia movement,” said Lawrence.  “It will be a very timely film and we have gathered together an international team, on both sides of the camera.” (More on See pictures of Detroit's beautiful, horrible decline)

Q: What do you think about filming in Detroit and Michigan as a whole?

A: The film industry is almost shocking. It shows what tax incentive can do. Giving tax rebates/incentives has worked like a miracle. The industry was almost dead. Then, with the incentive, our student levels have finally started rising again. We've been teaching for 26 years, and, last year, we had to turn away people. We're actually having trouble with our students' attendance because they're working so much. … In LA, there's no big story if you're making a film. It's exciting here; and that's good for your morale.

Q: What do you think of other productions going on here in Detroit, especially shows like “Detroit 1-8-7” that have a lot of local landmarks in them?

A:  In our first feature, “Panic In Detroit,” the city itself was the star. “Detroit 1-8-7” also stars Detroit -- without our city as the backdrop, the show wouldn't have the same energy, authenticity.  From what we hear from those who've come to Detroit from LA to work on production, they've been energized by shooting in what to them is such a unique, vibrant setting.  This same notion is echoed by other Hollywood production teams who are thrilled to be shooting in our city. … We all want to watch it. Even if we don't like the show, we've got an investment here. (More on See 10 things to do in Detroit)

Q: Can Detroit serve as a co-star in these movies, television shows and the like?

A:  Detroit can and is serving as a co-star in a number of movies and TV shows.  Many of us who live in the area may take the diversity of its physical possibilities for granted, but location scouts from LA are like kids in a candy store when they tour the city and outlying areas.

Q: Why is Detroit is “a spectacular place to shoot,” as you have said before?

A: To be honest, Detroit looks good. The population at 900,000 feels right for the city – that should be the population, not 1.8 million. People don't like that there's so many vacant areas. But what's wrong with that returning to nature? With our latest film, we wanted a certain look, so we found locations up in Romeo, and New Baltimore. But we found out in those areas you have more trouble finding country lots than in Detroit itself. This is a city, yet you can find open fields. You can see timing passing; there's some sadness in it. In the 1950s, more films were shot in Detroit – commercials, industrial films – than in other areas. Then, everyone went to LA. There were the remnants of infrastructure. Now, we're rebuilding. It's something of a renaissance for the film industry. We don't have enough infrastructure, not enough technicians. I have a friend who owns huge equipment rental place, and he cannot stock stuff enough. That's exciting to see. (More on Read a postcard of how philanthropy is remaking Detroit)

Q: Do you think you can really make a go of it here for the long term?

A: Before, you hated to give your heart to Detroit. People were tired of Detroit somehow being so unlucky. ‘How can it always happen here?' we wondered. I would do post-production in LA, but then we would need to teach the (acting) classes, so we had to come back. Still, I was like a homing pigeon. Like my friend with equipment rental, at one point I thought might as well as make complete move to LA. But with the resurgence, I don't even think of moving. … For people like George Lucas, things can go regional now because of technology – there are pockets (of production) everywhere.

Q: What tips do you have for someone who wants to be an actor or even an extra?

A:  Commit to training to be the best actor possible and learn how the business works. Be professional -- punctual, precise and pleasant. Anyone who wants to pursue the profession seriously must study and work hard at it.  The only way to ensure steady work is to be among the best. Background or extra work, while less demanding, is still an important part of movie making and anyone working as an extra also needs to be professional and reliable.

See more from TIME's yearlong look at Detroit

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  • 1

    Great to hear about the filmmaking community in Detroit! Detroit has been known for world-famous music, up-and-coming visual artists and now as a filmmaking center. Let's keep this going!

  • 2

    Detroit must diversify it's economy and stop putting all our eggs in the auto industry basket. How many times have we heard that?

    Well now the chance to diversify our economy is here. The film industry will bring jobs - creative jobs that will keep our young, educated people here in Michigan and not send them to Chicago, NY or LA. It brings the promise to restore our image from rust belt decay to shining success.

    You would think with that potential, all of us would do everything in our power to grow the film industry here in Michigan. But not State Senator Nancy Cassis of Novi. She is bound and determined not to let it happen - to kill it before it ever has a chance. The only thing she sees is the cost to the the State Of Michigan of $85 million in film incentives (2009-2010).

    Well here are some other things to consider.

    In 2009-2010, $260 million was spent in Michigan by the film industry on wages, goods and services.

    That's $260 million paid directly to the carpenters and electricians, the bus and truck drivers, the waitresses and caterers, the lumber yards and hotels and dozens of other businesses in Michigan.

    That's $260 million this state would never have seen if it were not for the film incentives.

    Next year it is projected to be $325 million.

    According to Sen. Cassis, roughly half of $85 million in film incentives went to firms and individuals outside of Michigan. Regrettable, but a cost of doing business.

    But if half of $85 million went out of Michigan, then half of $85 million stayed in Michigan. That's an additional $42.5 million paid directly to Michigan's firms and citizens.

    For an investment by the State of Michigan of $42.5 million, Michigan's businesses and citizens get a direct return of $302.5 million ($260 million + $42.5 million).

    Or would you rather see that $85 million in the hands of politicians and bureaucrats such as Senator Nancy Cassis?

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