Filmmaker JT GURZI talks about making his first feature “HEAVEN STREWN”

It’s not very often a first feature comes along that shows an impressive mastery of the craft. Last week, I attended the premiere of JT Gurzi’s film, “Heaven Strewn” at NEW FILMMAKERS held at Sunset-Gower Studios in Hollywood, and I could tell this director was going places.  I met JT while working as an Account Manager for Kodak when he called to pitch his project and discuss a deal on raw stock.  His business plan, passion for filmmaking and extremely personable, down to earth nature won me over.  It was awesome to see his project come to life with an audience of film lovers, and great to see the hard working director soak up the spotlight.  I recently had lunch with JT at the Larchmont Bungalow, where, in between bites of a chicken pesto panini, we talked about making personal films and working in the industry.

“I had always written and directed my own stuff and collaborated with other individuals on projects.  Having worked in the business and writing this script for the last 7-9 years, I definitely felt, if I was never going to have another opportunity to make a feature film, I wanted this project to be something that I would be content with the rest of my life.  I really wanted to be able to stand behind the work I made.”  Gurzi can definitely be proud to stand behind his film.  A buddy movie, “Heaven Strewn” follows two guys on a road trip out into the desert who find themselves in imminent danger that threatens both their lives and friendship. It’s a story that deals with addiction and the complications of a friendship between addicts.

“I realized having grown up in Nevada — in a state with 24 hour accessibility to casinos, gambling, prostitution, alcohol, drugs, you name it — I’m surrounded by potential addicts.  I thought about all the individuals in my life that had an addiction.  It’s a very strong element in my family, and some of my best friends in the world are addicts, but I don’t see that ugly aspect of their lives. I wanted to be able to show that we all have our own shit that we’re dealing with, but beyond the shit sometimes there are really beautiful, amazing people that are just making poor decisions for themselves.”

There is a lot of attention given to the visual story with several one-take scenes where the camera, placed very carefully, lets the story unfold.  Showcasing great performances within very thoughtful compositions, Gurzi is a filmmaker not afraid to take risks to put his personal stamp on this film. “It was really important for me to tell a very truthful, very emotional, very accurate story. After I completed the screenwriting process, I spent 6 months working with the actors leading up to the shoot, 3-4 days a week.  I wanted the essence of the script to be translated, and what I saw transpire, was beyond what I was anticipating.  I was leaning on everyone cast to take ownership of these roles, and so when it came time to shoot, the dialog was there as a base for us to work from but if the actors deviated, it was totally fine because everything felt organic and natural for the characters.”

I can tell you firsthand, his intense rehearsal process helped keep the budget down, as it’s unheard of to shoot an entire feature with only 24,000’ of film. “The format was always the first thing I thought about, and once we started scouting locations, it was all so cinematic that I felt like it really dictated the aesthetic of film.  I’ve shot a lot of digital, and although it’s democratized filmmaking and allowed people without the resources to tell their stories, and as much as I do think it’s an amazing medium — I also thought that with the glut of digital technology, I needed to differentiate my work as much as possible.  Creatively, cinematography is such a unique art form. There is a French term that translates to ‘Camera as Pen,’ and I think that’s so true.  In terms of how you photograph a story, the lenses, how the camera’s held, the lamps, the colors you use, the mood you set, it’s all such an important part of the process, and when it came to digital and film, for me it was a no-brainer.”

JT is deeply appreciative to all those who pitched in, “If it wasn’t for Kodak, Panavision, Technicolor, and Cinelease, I would not have made this film with the money we had.  The grants alone exceeded $650,000.”  To keep the budget down, JT received dailies only for the first 3-4 days of the shoot and transferred the film to HDCAMSR, instead of doing a 2K scan.  Because there were several AFI grads on the project, he was able to online and do some post work at the school.

JT moved to Hollywood to make films.  He’s had a successful career doing lighting and camera work to support his filmmaking passion, and he’s been working professionally over the years on several HBO series, most recently “Entourage” as a lighting technician.  But it’s not easy making and self-financing a film on your own.  He used his personal savings and five credit cards to get it in the can, and has been working non-stop to pay it off.  He’s currently in talks with a handful of distributors and has just signed on with CIRCUS ROAD FILMS to market the film.

“I made it very clear to my producer’s rep that my primary goal was, having self-financed the film, that it wasn’t about the money but to be able to distribute the film and be associated with a company that was reputable both creatively and artistically.  I wanted to land with a distributor that was a good fit for the film, and with a company that would generate exposure to enhance my ability to raise the capital for my next film. Circus Road came in very confident about being able to recoup the money and were realistic, so I went ahead and signed with them.”

Completed on April 1, “Heaven Strewn” had its world premiere at the Ashland Film Festival, where it was nominated for best acting ensemble and best feature. Sure to play several upcoming festivals, the film is scheduled to screen next at the Nevada Museum of Art.  Moving forward, JT is looking for opportunities to direct in the commercial and music video world, while developing his own projects.  “The dream is to continue to write and direct narrative length features and to collaborate with like-minded individuals who are genuine and heartfelt for the craft, who are making all kinds of work, but the passion and fire is there.”