Scene and Heard: A Small Company Doing Giant Things

Who ya’ gonna call when you need a solid, reliable, knowledgeable and likable  filmmaker who never disappoints? Raz Cunningham, that’s who. And you can pretty much bet on the fact that he’ll have his trusty sidekick in tow, Mel Hardy.

Just what the heck kind of name is Raz anyhow?  Turns out he earned that moniker in his younger days from his college roomates. They turned his very proper name of Robert Angelo to Raz. I rather like their idea – it’s much easier to say for one thing. And, he’s making a name for himself these days, so it just sounds … well unique. And definitely cool.

Many folks got their first exposure to Raz, Mel and smallGIANTmedia about seven months ago, when they won Best Regional Feature at the SENE Festival for their film called Wander My Friends. This is a wacky comedy  about a group of comic book writers who are faced with the takeover of the company they work for, and subsequently venture out to start their own business. Near the end of the film, the disc stopped playing, and the audience sat there for some time, waiting patiently for the film to resume. Every joke had landed, and we all waited patiently to see the end of this flick. When the disc finally resumed playing, people in the audience clapped – for awhile – and hung around to ask questions about it.  I knew going in, however,  that I’d like this movie, since I’ve had a chance to work with Raz already on one of his projects.

I sat down with Raz and frequent right hand woman, producer/production designer Mel Hardy. I met Raz after he contacted me about a chance to play the role of Felicia Belle in his mockumentary called SPECIAL FEATURE, a film/series that is being developed for HBO and Showtime. It’s a hilarious look at the making of an indie film (and a peek into the mind of Mr. Cunningham) and what can go wrong when making a film. For instance, this story centers on Jay, a producer, and Felicia, an actor who are making their own film called Carver’s Nuts – about George Washington Carver. Carver is a white guy in their film – yep, the peanut farmer is now white – something the producers thought would be a unique spin on this modern day telling of the historical figure. As you might guess, this fact infuriates the public, especially in a very funny scene with Ricky Ramm, the douchebag DJ who interviews Jay and Felicia on his radio show. Tommy DeNucci, director/actor of Woodhaven Films, plays Ramm, and is superb as the obnoxious radio personality. The ensuing result is chaos, and a lot of fun. Raz works in an interesting way on this film, which as an actor, I had not yet experienced. He’ll give each of the characters their “situations” in which they personally are dealing with, well in advance of the shoot day,  but may or may not  tell the other actors they appear with about it. Everyone has their own agenda, and the result is an off-beat wackiness that just works. Most of the film is improv – with very few scripted scenes. It’s challenging work and loads of fun.

With no fewer than seven features in development and more coming, this is a busy guy. Currently he is working on his own Sci –FI drama, ARTIFACT,  set in remote research facility, as director and Mel is producing. It will be shot in R.I. and Mass. Then you ‘ve got all his comedies:  SANDWICHED, with Raz producing,  written and produced by Sharon Contillo, Mel as the production designer, and starring Cloris Leachman, Edward James Olmos, Spencer Locke, directed by Harvey Lowry. Add to that THE FLAMING JERK with Steve Carell Executive Producing, Raz producing with Julie Snyder.

Then, we’ve got HOW TO GET INTO HARVARD, written and directed by Brad Hall, produced by Raz Cunningham, Julie Snyder, Brad Hall and Julia Louis-Dreyfus. POOR PAUL, another feature to be shot in RI, has Raz as line producer, Mel as production designer, and this one was written by RI’s own Adam Carbone and Sean Beyer.  This film will be directed by Sean Beyer, and stars Adam, Malcolm McDowell, Robert Davi, and Michael Learned. Raz also stepped in to assist Laura Pepper as associate producer, on her comedy feature Fairfield Follies, due out  in 2015.

I asked both Raz and Mel about any difficulties they have experienced as full-time filmmakers based in RI. Let’s face it, folks, RI is not a movie mecca, but is decidedly home to many big productions. They both have experience working in NY and Chicago, but Mel states, “Many times I’ve been passed over for the department head job on a film simply because I have a 401 area code number. The producers thought that they needed an NY,LA or Chicago crew member, and then I end up working under someone with no experience. Some productions even hire PAs from NY or LA. This is somewhat wasteful and an ignorance of the talent that is here in RI, or New England for that matter.”

They both state that filmmakers can be grossly misinformed about each other. “Sets have this tendency to turn into middle school, primarily because of working long hours, sometimes staying in the same house, working on small intimate sets – these things can all cause problems,” says Mel. They feel that miscommunication is an important issue and is counterproductive to the goal at hand. “If you start talking shit about someone, there’s a highly chance that you will be working with that same person six months from now,” she adds. I’m inclined to agree, having produced my own short recently, called Dark Light of Day, which Raz and Mel also produced and directed.

Here’s the best part  – to all the people who are interested in film and/or learning about film – contact Raz and Mel, and tell them. They are interested in educating and helping people get ahead in the industry. There’s no snubbing going on here, big name films or not – they are completely open to helping young (or old) filmmakers learn the craft of producing a film properly. They would love to see filmmakers go to each other’s premieres and show support. Mel also would like to see female filmmakers get the recognition and support they deserve. Their goal is to create an environment where shorts can be made effectively, which can in turn be made into features. Both feel that the more individual successes we have here, the more our local RI community will be revered in the industry, and our local talent will be hired, behind and in front of the camera.

Bottom line: we’re lucky to have Raz and his team in our backyard. He’s a very important player in helping our little state do BIG things in the movie biz.

You can follow Raz  on Facebook here: or Twitter @RazCunningham

And Mel here:  or Twitter @MelanieFHardy

Remember folks, film is rolling. Especially in RI.

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