California Is a Place is the creative brain child of Zackary Canepari and Drea Cooper. They were both working PAs and met in 2004 on some forgettable commercial job. Zac showed Drea where to park and the rest is history. Their films offer a quick glimpse into the people and places of California. Their subtitle is Tales from the Golden State, though the narrative arcs are not always severe blue skies and sunny. Their most recent film is Aquaettes and just came out last week. You can follow them here and here.
Heidi: What is your role specifically and what is Drea’s?
Zack: It’s pretty simple. Drea and I both produce, direct and shoot. But Drea is our editing machine. And we outsource the music.
How did the project come about and what was your first film?
We had talked about working on a project together for a long time but were never in the same place long enough to get something going. In July 2009, A friend of mine mentioned the foreclosure skater story. On a whim, we hopped on it. We called Josh Peacock on a Wednesday and by Friday we were in Fresno shooting our first film, Cannonball.
About three weeks later, I sent Zack the first cut of the edit. We were both super excited and immediately started discussing what we were going to do next and how these films would connect and be presented. Seven months later, the site went live with our first four films.
Most of your films are about 10 min. Do you have plans to go longer?
Yes and no. Of course, we’d like to tell longer format stories but I’m not sure if they would be for California is a place. Maybe they would. It’s hard to say. We generally shoot until we have enough to tell the story we are trying to tell. At this point, those stories tend to be shorter than 10 minutes. I guess it comes down to intention. Our goal with this series is to make short personal stories about people in the Golden State.
Is the amount of shooting hours about the same in order to get 10 min, meaning is it relative?
Not at all. There probably is a minimum amount of shooting needed but there is certainly no maximum.
So far you have eight films out, which was the most ground breaking for your creatively and why?
It’s hard to say. When I watched the first rough cut of our first film, Cannonball, there was definitely an “a-ha” moment. I knew then and there that the work was good and that we needed to make more. For that reason, it was the most ground-breaking.
Which film taught you both the most about your weakness and abilities?
For me personally, coming from a background in documentary photography, the transition to motion wasn’t overnight. It’s such a more detailed and nuanced medium than photography. And tedious. I was lucky to have Drea for a partner. He’s been making and studying film making for almost a decade. Plus, he’s an editor. There was so much I didn’t know about producing a film that he was patient enough to show me. Without him, I’d be lost.
Aquaettes is your latest release, how did you know that was a good enough idea to move forward? What were your initial hesitations if any?
That’s a good question. We knew it was ready because we just knew but there are always doubts. There is always something missing. There is always something we could have gotten more of. But we have yet to put out a film that felt incomplete. At least not in our eyes. If anything, I think a few of them could be fleshed out a bit more. The Aquadettes are a perfect example. That film could easily be longer than it is. But for now, we are very happy with where it is…
How do you find, discover develop your ideas?
Any way we can. Local news, international news, friends, family, random conversations we’ve had, random relationships we’ve made and once in a while, from own intuition. Generally, we know what types of stories we are looking for and are interested in, so we often know where to look. For example, the Big Vinny film started with Drea and I just shooting empty used car lots in Alameda. We had no character and no story until someone told us about Big Vinny. From there, it’s all phone calls and reading and talking and research. Same with Borderlands. I went to photograph the funeral procession of an Border Agent murdered by drug smugglers. I met some minutemen there and they invited us down. But when we got there, it turned out that the story wasn’t the minutemen who’d go there once or twice a month. Instead it was the locals that lived at the border that we were interested in. You never know until you go…
How much pre production/research do you do before you decide the idea is worth it?
Some but we’ve found there is only so much planning you can do until you get out there and meet people and see the world. Sometimes all it takes is a phone call or an email to know. Other times, you’ve got to drive 3 hours at 5am to know if a story is any good or not. And more often than not, what we find is totally different than what we anticipated. It’s never easy to find good stories and good characters. In 2 years of working on this project, we’ve only found 9-12 stories that are worthy. It just shows how rare they are…
Uppercut for example, that is very underground, violent and esoteric… tell me how that one got developed.
That story came from a friend of Drea’s that was actually a local fighter. Drea knew him from high school and this guy had gone to a few of the Fight Club nights. He put us in touch with Gints, the man with the plan. From there, it was just finding the time to go and shoot…
After that came out, do you know if the subjects had any fall out or collateral damage? Is a fightclub legal?
Not yet. As far as they can tell, you can do what you like in your garage on a tuesday night as long as no one gets hurt. I think they were more fearful of losing their Silicon Valley Jobs than they were of being arrested.
Did filming that make you want to try a fight?
Yes! But fighting isn’t my thing so I passed. Although I completely related to what drove these guys to participate. Which is exactly what I like about making these films. Generally speaking, most “normal” people disapprove of underground clubs or being a minuteman on the border or sneaking into foreclosed homes to skateboard in a swimming pool or smoking weed but our characters have their reasons. And often those reasons are pretty solid and authentic.
How do these projects get funded?
They don’t. We self-fund. Hence the need for day jobs.
I know you have a photography career as well and an interesting organization to your portfolio section. Most if not all begin with a description narrative, are these all self assigned projects? Do you feel the text adds your ability to story tell and has that then translated and transcended into your motion work.
Most of the work on my website is self-assigned. Some was shot on assignment (eg. Pakistan) but the rest was just me wanting to shoot and tell stories. They have led to me getting plenty of paid work but paid work is often so unfulfilling. I always admire photographers that get great photos for their portfolio while on assignment. I’ve rarely been in that situation. Normally, someone pays me to shoot something fairly mundane and then I parlay that money in to a project I’m interested in. It’s a terrible business model but I’m happy to work that way…
What are your hopes with this project? What is the end goal besides a creative outlet?
Honestly, I’m not sure. The success of the project is already beyond my wildest dreams. I suppose I’d like to see it get sponsored so that we make films like these all the time. This American Life being the best model I can think of. But overall, I’m not even thinking about that too much. All I want to do is tell good stories and make nice images. I think that’s been my goal since I became a photographer. Shooting is my therapy and it’s something I’m going to do no matter the circumstances. Lucky for me, the circumstances right now, are pretty good.
Whats next after your latest release, are you already on to your next production?
We just keep it moving. We already have another film shot that just needs to be edited. We’re in the process of getting another story going. And then of course, there is the always exciting game of getting paid work. Unfortunately, California is a place doesn’t pay the bills.
Are you discussions with any studios?
To make films? Not at the moment. The obvious next step would be to make a feature documentary. But as I said, good stories aren’t all that common. Without a good story, you can’t make a good film.