Interview by Bob Ignizio
Lance Kinsey was born in Arlington, VA in 1959, but he grew up in Chagrin Falls, Ohio. His parents were involved with the Chagrin Valley Little Theatre, and Lance got his first taste of acting at the age of 9 playing the role of Miles in a stage production of “The Innocents”. After graduating from Vanderbilt University in Nashville, TN, Kinsey eventually made his way to Chicago where he joined the Second City comedy troupe. Lance eventually got into film and television acting, and is probably most famous for playing the role of Proctor in POLICE ACADEMY 2 through 6.
Now Lance has directed his first feature film, the mockumentary ALL-STARS which he also wrote, produced, and stars in. It's a very funny spot-on look at a girls' softball team, parents who are sometimes more intent on winning than the kids, and the coaches and officials who have to deal with it all while trying to make sure everyone has a good time. The film plays at the 39th Cleveland International Film Festival, first with a special “neighborhood screening” at Chagrin Cinemas on Thursday March 19th at 7:00 pm, followed by two showings at the Film Festival proper in Tower City Cinemas on Friday March 20th at 5:00 pm and Saturday March 21st at 2:45 pm.
I contacted Lance ahead of the film's screening, and he graciously agreed to answer my questions about both his past work and the new film.
Cleveland Movie Blog: You grew up in Chagrin Falls, which couldn't be a more different town than Hollywood. How did you get bit by the movie bug, and what drove you to actually head west and try to break into a business that is notoriously hard to break into?
Lance Kinsey: When I was young, my parents were involved with Chagrin Valley Little Theatre in Chagrin Falls. My mom acted in plays and my father directed occasionally. I started going to the theatre when I was seven or eight, and then when I was about nine, I think, the theatre was auditioning for a production of “The Innocence,” based on Henry James’ “The Turn of the Screw.” There were two children’s roles in the play and I got the role of Miles. That was the beginning of my love of acting. I did other community theatre productions, and of course school plays through high school, then decided when I went to college that if I really wanted to be an actor I’d better study it and get serious. I had a fantastic professor who taught acting at Vanderbilt University, Dr. Cecil Jones, who was a great role model, mentor, and inspiration.
When I got out of college, I apprenticed at Actors Theatre of Louisville, moved to New York for a while and eventually ended up in Chicago at Second City. After five years at Second City, it was time to head west and try my hand at television and film. I had done a bunch of commercials, a little TV, and a couple of movies in Chicago, but I felt I had to move to Los Angeles if I was going to have a career in TV and film.
CMB: Was it by chance or by choice that you wound up sort of specializing in comedy?
LK: A little of each. I had a strong background in comedy having come out of Second City and casting people kind of think of you a certain way. When I got to L.A., I got cast in the POLICE ACADEMY film series so I guess that added to the perception of being a comedy person. I love comedy, and love writing comedy. I have done serious stuff too, but I’d say I’m naturally drawn to comedy.
CMB: How did you wind up in the POLICE ACADEMY series, and how do you feel about those films looking back? A lot of people malign them, but for a lot of people at the time, particularly adolescent kids in the eighties (of which I was one), those movies were a lot of fun.
LK: I love them. They were my introduction to film in L.A. and I had a great time doing them.
Right after I got to L.A., I auditioned for a role in the first POLICE ACADEMY. I didn’t get it, but it wasn’t long until they were casting for POLICE ACADEMY 2 and they brought me back in and cast me as Proctor. We did one POLICE ACADEMY a year for six years and each year they opened during spring break and always opened at number one. It turned into the most successful comedy film series of all time and they were a blast to do. We knew we weren’t doing Shakespeare, but they were a lot of fun and I have a very warm feeling for them when I look back. It was almost like going to camp every year. We’d all get back together and it was like seeing the same campers and counselors that were there last year along with a few new faces. I made some great friends doing them and keep in touch with many of them today.
CMB: Just one more question about the past. I notice there's a sizable gap in your filmography from 2004 until 2012. What happened?
LK: Nothing happened, really. I continued working on projects, but not everything goes on IMDB. I worked on a few reality shows, spent several seasons as a creative consultant on “Whose Line Is It Anyway?”, wrote several pilots, wrote film scripts that weren’t produced, and did theatre.
CMB: So after more than 30 years as an actor, you've directed (and written and produced) a film for the first time. What made this the right time to try your hand at that side of things?
LK: I had written and produced a lot of stuff before, but when I was writing ALL-STARS I always planned on directing it. There’s a big advantage to directing something you write, because as you write it you’re planning how you want to shoot it. I knew I’d have a very tight budget and schedule, so it was important to have things as planned out as possible. I had to shoot very quickly not only because of the schedule, but also because there were so many kids in it, and they can only work a limited amount of hours each day. Also so much of the film was shot on a softball field during practices and games that I wanted to be able to shoot with multiple cameras. I knew that world I wanted to create so well that it gave me an advantage to be able to plan and shoot it quickly and economically.
CMB: You got the idea for ALL-STARS from your own experiences coaching your daughter's softball team, and it certainly rings true for anyone who has been around a Little League game or any kind of youth sporting meet. Are most of the parents and incidents based directly on things that happened and parents you had to deal with, or is there a fair amount of exaggeration?
LK: Anybody who has ever had anything to do with youth sports, or any youth activities for that matter will recognize the characters in ALL-STARS. I have known every character in the film through my coaching years. People frequently say that comedy takes reality and then exaggerates it, but there is honestly very little exaggeration when it comes to these characters. Some are a combination of a couple of people I’ve known, but each trait has been lifted directly from real characters that I’ve witnessed over the years. And the events have also been lifted right out of my experiences. That was really the fun of writing it, using the ridiculous things that happened in real life.
CMB: Kind of along the same lines, with the mockumentary format improvisation seems only natural. How much of ALL-STARS was scripted, and how much was the result of this great cast you've assembled coming up with stuff on the spot?
LK: Everything was scripted but I also relied heavily on improvisation. The idea was to shoot it as much like a reality show or documentary as possible. I wanted the girls to forget about the cameras and just be at practice or be playing a softball game and react as they would in that situation. None of the kids were actors. All the little girls were actually from the Santa Monica fastpitch softball league and real softball players, not actresses. I didn’t have time to teach actresses to play softball, so I wanted them to already know the sport and then just forget about the movie and act naturally. The adult actors I cast had a particular skill set, that being one of improvisation, and when they were on set they interacted with the kids as if they were their parents while the cameras rolled. With such a tight schedule, I didn’t have the luxury of time to be able to improvise endlessly, so I needed the safety net of having things scripted so we could always go back to that if we were running out of time. The actors would frequently start with what they knew needed to happen in a scene and then improvise and I’d decide what to use in the editing room. With an actor like Fred Willard, you give him a suggestion of what you need in a scene, and then get out of the way. There’s nobody funnier on the planet than Fred and you know that there will be an embarrassment of riches to choose from when you get into the editing room. And that was really the case with all the actors.
CMB: How did you do the casting for the film? Had you worked with most of these actors before, or did you just go for people whose work you admired and thought would be a good fit?
CMB: I knew a lot of them and wrote the script with several of them in mind. I knew Fred Willard, Miriam Flynn, Richard Kind, and Mike Hagerty from Second City in Chicago. Mike and I started out in the touring company together and he’s one of my best friends. Richard replaced me in the resident company when I left Second City. Aside from Second City, Fred, Miriam and I were all from Cleveland, which was an added bonus. I knew of some of the people who had come through Second City after me and brought them in. I had seen Molly Erdman in a Second City review and met her at the 50th anniversary a few years back. I brought in Josh Funk and he referred me to Sam Richardson who I didn’t know but was also a Second City alum. Then there were others who I didn’t know, but I was interested in meeting because they had that same skill set, whether it be from The Groundlings or something else. Angela Kinsey had done the entire run of “The Office,” so she could do the mockumentary format in her sleep. Nicole Sullivan had done Mad TV. Seth Morris was a fantastic improviser with a ridiculous comedy resume, and Kyle Howard is a consummate professional and came in and took over the role of Brad. I knew Mary Lynn Rajskub from “24” but had never met her. I didn’t realize that she did stand-up until after I cast her and she just killed the role of Tina, the umpire. I didn’t know Illeana Douglas except through her work. She was another one who could not be denied when I interviewed her for the part. And John Goodman and I had done dinner theatre together when we were both starting out. It’s kind of nice when one of the greatest film actors alive agrees to be in your movie. You don’t forget something like that. It’s such a great cast, but again it all came together so well because every cast member brought in the same spirit and willingness to play together.
CMB: When you do a mockumentary, you're kind of bound by certain “rules” of the genre. Does that make things harder, or do you find having limitations like that stimulates creativity?
LK: The main limitations we had were time and money, which is the challenge that all independent films face. I had worked in reality television and used techniques I learned there to shoot ALL-STARS. I shot with multiple cameras virtually all the time. I ran practices and games as if they were real and shot them in real time. Then I’d do pick up shots for things I needed if there was a scripted line or event that we hadn’t gotten. We planned meticulously so that we could best take advantage of time and location. We had incredibly full days and more than one person thought we were crazy to attempt such a schedule. I had many conversations with my producing partner, James Portolese, where I’d say, “Can we really get all this in the time we have?” It was almost a rhetorical question because we really didn’t have a choice. But James always came back with, “I think we can do it,” and we did. We made our day every time. In some ways it’s a benefit not having all the money in the world. It forces you to think creatively and come up with creative solutions to problems that you can’t just throw money at. It can be really exciting and satisfying when things work out.
CMB: In addition to writing, directing, and producing, you also have one of the main roles in the film. Was that always the plan, or was it out of necessity, and how hard is it to juggle so many jobs on set?
LK: Every character in the film is based on a real person or is a compilation of real people. I had known them all through the course of coaching and then being a dad in the stands when my daughter played softball. When I wrote ALL-STARS I based the character I play on me and my experiences. I had planned to play the character while writing it, but there were moments that I seriously considered casting someone else. I thought it might be easier to just direct. But in the end I made the decision to cast me for the same reason I used girls who could really play softball. I knew the game, I knew coaching, and I thought it would take too much time for an actor who didn’t have that background to get up to speed. I really thought I’d save a lot of time that I didn’t have not having to explain things to somebody who didn’t have the softball experience. I think James felt the same way.
But it is difficult to wear so many hats, and I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that I looked forward to the couple of days when I wasn’t in any of the scenes and could just concentrate on directing. It was a relief. I think I’ll try that next time.
CMB: When you were doing the POLICE ACADEMY movies, low to mid budget films could still get on a decent number of theater screens and at least have a chance at finding a wide audience. Now, even with digital making it easier and cheaper to distribute a film, it's harder than ever for an indie film to get on actual theater screens. Are you still hoping to get theatrical distribution for ALL-STARS, or do you expect it to go to home video and streaming once it's played the festival circuit?
LK: Distribution has been an incredible learning curve. You’re exactly right, it’s incredibly difficult to secure a theatrical release in movie theatres. But that’s my goal and I’m pleased to say that we’re working on a deal right now to make that happen. The challenge is finding the right distribution partner, someone who shares your vision for getting the film in front of people. A lot of times a distribution company just wants to grab the film, bundle it together with something else, or take it straight to video and see what happens. In the world we live in now, sometimes you have to get creative and do things a little differently. I’m hoping to open in several markets and then increase the number of theatres from there. We’re exploring the possibility of Cleveland being one of the first cities we open in. That would be a dream come true for me. The thing about ALL-STARS is the universality. Anybody who has ever been involved in any youth sport, whether they be parents, coaches, umpires, referees, volunteers, board members, or just played on a team, will be able to identify with the movie. They will recognize the characters in the film, and if they don’t, chances are they are the characters in the film.
CMB: What's next for you? Now that you've had a taste of directorial power, do you see yourself directing more films, or will you just go back to acting?
LK: Not sure what’s next, but we’re working on a number of things. I’m working on several projects with James Portolese, my producing partner, and yes, I plan on continuing to direct. I wrote a script that is set in L.A. and Cleveland that I’d love to come back and shoot here. I’d direct that one. It would be fantastic to come back and scout locations here in Cleveland. But of course first, there’s the finding the financing… then the pre-production and scouting… then the editing… and then the question of distribution… Hang on, I’ve got to lie down.