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Justin Lerner: The Replacement Child

We chat with emerging filmmaker Justin Lerner about the primary importance of good communication in film and saying "no" to yes men.

Justin Lerner is a writer and director based in Los Angeles, California. After graduating from UCLA with a Master’s degree in directing, his critically acclaimed thesis film, The Replacement Child has made rounds to multiple film festivals, including making its world premiere at the Telluride Film Festival. For a recent graduate, his momentum is focused in one direction: upwards. Behance took some time with Lerner to discuss balancing a creative mind with a productive schedule, harnessing critical energy and making the most of creative differences.

erner doesn’t let one ounce of creative energy escape. Instead, he makes note and chooses from a large pool of ideas later on. “A lot of novel ideas tend to go away quickly if not pursued quickly and efficiently. It’s hard in a modern world full of streaming internet videos, Blackberries, short attention spans to carve into the day an hour or so to sit and think.  This is why lists and places to jot things down are so great. During a day of walking around, being stuck in LA traffic, going on a run, things start accumulating.  The trick for me is not letting any one of these little thoughts escape, no matter how ridiculous.  There’s no harm in writing it down. Sometimes when I’m going for a run, a part of a script that had been up until that point unsolvable suddenly emerges.  80% of the time, I don’t use the ideas, but anyone who thinks that everything they put down on paper is genius clearly hasn’t been creative all that long.  In my experience, the best ideas I have are ones that start out very amorphous, and slowly, as they continue to sit in my head and solidify, they evolve into something that is often very different from how it began.”

Directing a film is all about communication with others.

Understanding that there are always constant frustration points — especially with funds and scheduling — allows perspective when it comes to recognizing and overcoming other challenges. “[Money and time issues] never go away, so complaining about them in this type of forum isn’t useful.  Sometimes the biggest frustration is an inability to make the people you are working with get inside your head and see the things you’re seeing. Directing a film is all about communication with others — it’s not like other art forms like painting, for example, which you can do alone.  You are dependent on a cinematographer to grasp and understand a visual design you want, on a producer who understands your working habits and personality so that he/she can help give you your creative space, on a composer who can write music that fits the atmosphere of the film-world you are building, actors who can live and act in ways consistent with the rhythms of your story.”

Taking a reverse-engineering approach to writing the script for The Replacement Child ensured that Lerner wouldn’t have to compromise his vision at all. “I took a different and somewhat novel approach to finding locations for my UCLA thesis film, The Replacement Child.  Once I had the basic idea for the story (the character, his ethnic and biographical background, and the main conflict of the story) my idea was to travel and scout locations before writing the actual script.  What I found that started to happen was that the landscapes in and around my west-Boston suburb home of Wayland, Massachusetts, began to give me a great, and specific sense of place for this small, rural town I was hoping to create in my script.  Now with exact places in mind that I could physically smell and feel, I started to write the actual script. What I was doing, I realized, was using places I knew I could film in to write the perfect location into my story, rather than the opposite, writing something and then searching (sometimes without success) for that perfect location. Discovery of new ideas also occurs when you scout and photograph locations before writing. For example, the broken down truck that my main character runs past at the start and end of my film was just something we found while driving around — not only is the barren field with the truck featured prominently on the film’s poster, but it gives a very specific idea to the view of the part of the country in which the film takes place.”

If you surround yourself with “yes-men” during a production who agree with everything you say, you are never challenged to get better.

Utilizing his strong organizational skills allows Lerner to execute his creative endeavors in a way that surprises some of his peers. “It is a myth that one cannot be creative if one is also organized, and methodically systematic about their ideas and work habits. Often I encounter fellow artists, writers, etc. who look at all my lists, organized desk, address books, labeled files and folders and they laugh about how type-A I am.  I understand that everyone is different in their ability to be creative, but I have found that being so systematic and fastidiously organized has allowed me, counter-intuitively, to be at my most creative.  Writing and maintaining all my lists and tasks allows the psychological comfort for me, before delving into writing a story or making a film, to venture off into dark, disorganized, and often confusing mental places, happily knowing that when I come back I will have all of my to-do lists and emails and tasks waiting for me.  Simply, I go overboard with my left brain so that I can, periodically, afford enough time away with my right brain.”

Lerner believes that embracing this discord often found on film sets pushes projects towards incredible outcomes. “I’ve found that sometimes conflict is a necessary element in being creative. Some of the most happy-go-lucky film sets I’ve been on have yielded some terrible films. I’m not saying this is always the case, and it does not always mean pain and suffering yields great results. But I have found that often disagreement, differences of opinions about important creative decisions with collaborators, has often led to even better work as a result of a synthesis of ideas.  Sometimes, conflict has forced me to further and better articulate my own creative choices to people who were before that point less clear about my vision.  If you surround yourself with “yes-men” during a production who agree with everything you say, you are never challenged to get better.  There’s some quote that a professor of min always used to recite to me, “the artist lives in a constant state of sublime dissatisfaction.”  I suppose if you’re always happy with yourself while being creative, if you remain categorically non-critical of yourself, if you’re in love with every shot, every line of dialogue, every performance, there’s no chance you can ever get better.”

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