I recently caught up with charming and personable director Greg Carter. Mr. Carter wrote and directed 2014’s Lap Dance, a film based on his own life that involves his fiancé taking a job as an exotic dancer.
I understand that ‘Lap Dance’ was inspired by actual events in your life.
Greg Carter: Yeah, it was, yeah. Crazy, crazy.
What made you decide to make a movie about it?
GC: You know, it was funny because the movie when it first started was really on the back of cocktail napkins. I was sitting in the club because of the fact that my job when we went to the clubs was to really make sure that anyone we knew that would come in, I would spot them first and then I would tell Junie Hoang, my girlfriend, my fiancée, the real Monica, I would say, “Hey, you’ve gotta go in the back because so-and-so just came through the door. Go back behind stage or the dressing room and just wait.” Because we were deathly afraid that someone would come in and recognize us, because you know, in Houston it’s a very small pool of actors and actresses. And so we didn’t want the word to get out that she was dancing, and we always had a fallback position. Our fallback positions were if someone did spot her and I missed them, I’d just say that she was researching a role or something, you know. So it was one of those things where I would spend great lengths of time going out of my mind and really it would just almost be like a really kind of numbing pain because that’s the woman that I love going through all this stuff, and I can’t really do anything about it. So what I would do when I wrote my notes, it was sometimes just raw, emotional feelings at the time, but I had a good friend of mine Bill Witness tell me something he did. He said, you know, years ago I had met him at a film festival in Austin and he told me that things like that create the impetus for something great. At the time, it was somewhat therapeutic to write on the back of these napkins, and then when I left, when we finally got to L.A., I gotta do something with this. And that was the genesis of that screenplay.
And so Robert Hoffman in the film is you, essentially.
GC: Robert Hoffman is me, right, and Ali Cobrin is Junie Hoang, and it’s funny because Junie has a little bit of celebrity in herself because she’s the girl who was taking on IMDB for posting her real age.
Speaking of casting, the cast is very strong for ‘Lap Dance.’ What was the process like for casting?
GC: Well, you know, it was really one of those things where, if you look at all the women in the movie, everyone is kind of a point on a continuum, on a scale, and the scale kind of goes like this. The longer you’re in the club, the more kind of dysfunctional and broken you can be. And then the newer you go, the more kind of different layers that have been stripped away. There’s a lot in the movie that when you, the longer you stay in the club-it didn’t make it into the cut, but the longer you stay in the club, it slowly chips away at your soul. What I found is when we met with girls who were in the club, the longer they were in the club, the worse off they were a lot of times, in different ways. Some were just a wreck. Some were just hollow, you know what I mean. We kind of knew early on that we were going to cast, it was either going to be Pamela Anderson or someone like Carmen to play Lexus, and those are very sexual kind of creatures. So we knew from that, we work our way backwards to the most freshest ingénue you could possibly find to play the role of Monica because it had to be someone that felt like they were just new to it so that they did feel like a fish out of water but then would take to water really quickly and learn and be a quick study. And so it made sense that we found Ali. It’s kind of funny because Ali is the youngest member of all the actors in the movie. She’s the youngest person. The only person younger than her is the little girl Cat Tebo who plays Aurelia. So I wanted someone that was new and fresh, and Ali of course did a wonderful job in the comedy ‘American Reunion’ and so it was a matter of finding all the other pieces in the puzzle. So if you look at Briana Evigan playing the role of Tasha, she had to be a little bit more experienced, a little bit more gamey than someone like Ali. And then when you go one step further than that, you get someone like Jade Lee, who is played by K.D. Aubert. So she had to be a little bit more experienced than Briana. Then you go to someone like Carmen as Lexus, but here’s the thing, the continuum keeps going further, so when you get into LisaRaye playing Sugar, she was one of the most experienced. And then on the far-est end of the continuum, if you think about it, is Lynn Whitfield playing Momma Pearl, and she was the one that went through the most. So all these women at different points in their career were, and some of them still are, playing the sexual kitten, and now as they grow older, how does that affect women and their ego, their psyche. But also part of that is, you know, in a pressure cooker like a club, how does that whole thing play out?
So I love the cast. They did a great job. And then we had such great supporting roles, Lew Temple in there, Obba Babatunde, they just did brilliant jobs. What was it like being surrounded by so many beautiful women?
GC: Oh my god, well, I didn’t get to go too far because Junie was on set with me every day. She’s like, “I’m not having that. You’re not going to get famous and leave me, negro!” And I was like, “Okay!” No, but it was really fun because, you know, the one thing about it is I try to keep all the girls, all the women really comfortable with me and their sexuality, just to be able to, you know, leave it all out there and not really feel like they had to hold back. It was funny because in most cases, like Carmen signed on because it was based on a true story, but she saw a lot of herself in the Lexus role. Carmen was a protégé of Prince, and at the time, if you can imagine, there were many, many beautiful women that could sing their butts off that were in the Prince camp. All these women that were, in pecking order, ahead of Carmen, you know, as far as getting the attention for Prince to kind of focus on her career. She really took it on the Lexus relationship in how her relationship was with Prince, and she would always have to try to do things that get him to pay attention. And it’s really funny because Carmen when it’s all said and done, she’s a survivor. She’s still got a career, very significant in what she’s doing as an artist, and that’s because she learned, like Lexus, how to be very smart in those situations and turn it around. It’s funny because, you know, when I was talking to people about the roles and the casting of the people, it was like, who is this real person? And I would let on that I was Kevin and Monica was Junie, but I would then say, after that, I would say the names and the places have been changed to protect the innocent and the guilty. So it was kind of interesting to have that dynamic.
So you would say that every actor in the film pretty much has elements and qualities of the character that they are portraying.
GC: Yeah, yeah, I do, because I spent a lot of time preparing for that world. The one thing that I, you know, being and playing an exotic dancer is kind of a rite of passage in Hollywood. Every actress, young actress coming up takes a stab at it at some point or another because I think that there is a sort of fascination with that life. But I think what happens when a lot of material that is out there is that it has several different perspectives that are not necessarily the perspective of the women, and I’m, even when I’m writing a script, even with subject matter that I know really well like this because me and Junie lived it, I always still take it, that I’m going to do research. I watch lots of movies like ‘Striptease,’ ‘Dancing at the Blue Iguana,’ any movie that had anything to do with exotic dancers and stripping, I watched all of those films. And ‘Showgirls,’ and one of the things that I needed to understand was that these scripts that were written, they were written by guys, and they were not necessarily come from a place of anything but maybe a spectator as opposed to being someone who is in the coliseum with the gladiators, actually fighting. So in that way, I think I had, I was able to bring a male perspective to it but a unique perspective because I wasn’t trying to glamorize the life, at all. I wanted to, this was really a love story that, I jokingly said this, it’s kind of like The Notebook in a gentleman’s club. I mean, it’s really a love story about two people being pushed and pulled by all these different things that are happening. In that way, I think that I’m very happy with getting people, that part of my life. The actual ring that Ali wore was me and Junie’s real ring.
GC: Yes, and in the club, and Rob is sitting there doing his notes and he talks to Jade Lee, those were the actual napkins I had from when we were dancing at Treasures in Houston. Like the name of the club is called Treasures in the movie. It’s named after a real club called Treasures, which is actually part of a chain. I think they have a Treasures in Vegas too. But it’s kind of like one of those things where you wanna try to figure out a way to connect to an audience so they can kind of feel like they could understand but before you can do that, you have to connect with the actors, the talent to make sure they understand. And so we were an open book of information to pull from.
Yeah, it was a very personal film for you and your fiancée, I’m sure.
GC: Yeah, yeah, sure.
And the actors, they know that, and they are giving it their best performance. It’s really great that you’re using elements of your life to bring a really great story to the screen. I think people are really going to connect with it because of the genuineness, the quality that feels so real.
GC: Yeah, well, at one point in time, there was a, I think, a dubious flirtation with the idea that we wouldn’t say it was based on a true story, but I think I always fought for it. I thought it added a bit of artistic integrity to everything. The movie initially was going to be called Monica, and then of course the marketing people went, “No, we’re going to call it Lap Dance!” And I was like, oh, okay! But that’s how they want to sell the movie, but I think when people sit down and watch, they will be surprised they’re getting – okay, a lap dance movie, and they get something different.
I think Monica is a much better title, personally.
GC: I wish you had been in the room when this all happened! It was called Monica initially. If you go on IMDB, it’s one of the alternate titles. You know, there were so many things that was done in selling it, and I took solace in that I made a good film. But we couldn’t go to Sundance because we submitted it to a smaller film festival beforehand, and then just little things that we were never able to get in front of eyeballs of the people who could really lift it up above the white noise of the independent film world. But then, as fortune would have it, the producers got a company called [inaudible] which took it to Cannes and then were discovered by Phase 4 and E1. I think E1 brought Phase 4, but anyways, then it came out and now it’s getting to come out and it’s all pretty exciting stuff.
So the biggest stars in the film would have to be Carmen, Mariel Hemingway, and James Remar. Their screen time was relatively brief. Was that a conscious decision or did it just come about naturally?
GC: Well, actually, you know, it was funny because there was, when we took the script out, a lot of people, a lot of guys who could have played the role of the father, you know, they just didn’t want to be a guy in a bed that was dying. And one of the things that we, when we, J.C. Cantu did a brilliant job of casting, but one of the things about it was that we had to play with the dynamic of increasing the story but then also trying to keep the rest of the story about the dynamic between Kevin and Monica. So it was actually even, I went back and I added the scene a couple days before we started shooting because in real life, what happened was Junie wasn’t there when her father died. But we wanted to have some kind of scene between her and her father, and in a way, what would have happened if she had been there, what would have happened. We gave that to Aunt Billie, the sister, so that they could have that moment. But when I wrote it, of course, I’m thinking, not just that, but I’m thinking two virtuoso-type actors here. You have to give them a moment in a scene. So it was always meant to be, there were so many different stories kind of happening, and in the editorial, things got condensed but then some things got bigger. Because there was a whole storyline with Chicago, but that was cut down. But then there were little things that I thought needed to be bigger once I began to put the whole cut of the movie together. So some things got bigger and some things got smaller depending on the storylines, but the core of the story, I always felt like it was Monica’s story.
GC: It was a love story, and we had to go with that always.
So I’m a big Briana Evigan fan. What led to the casting of her as Tasha?
GC: Well, you know, it was really exciting because initially when we were talking, like I said, there were several different people that could have been Monica, and Briana was one of those people. And what I begin to realize was I needed Briana because Briana has kind of a deeper voice, very raspy that’s kind of a sexual voice. And the character that Briana is based on, the person, there were a couple of friends that Junie knew that were trying to convince her not only to come dance at the club but they want to be her, like, girlfriend. Like, come and join the other team, and so there was always, the thing about Briana is that you got the impression that there was a lot of stuff when she’s, she’s such a talented actress, because a lot of things turning in that head of hers and that she knows all the things that she’s doing. And she can put on a mask, of course, to let you just see enough to think you’re going this way, but she actually has a different agenda. And so she’s very talented in that and the physicality of her being just a very beautiful woman and being able just to be disarming, you know. And so I think that was one of the reasons why, in the end, I said I need Briana as Tasha because it makes sense. Because I always felt like, when I really thought about it, if Briana was Monica, then you’d have to have, Tasha would almost have to be like a black girl. You step further to the deepness of the club, it would have to be somewhat, like Katie would have to be like Tasha, you know what I’m saying? And then you’d have to go with a harder version of Jade Lee and then an even harder version of Lexus.
So there’s different levels of sassiness, is what you’re saying.
Yeah, sassy and sexiness, and so for that, I really needed Briana. But she’s just a, when I first met her, she came in and talked about the role. She was ready to do it, I’m ready, let’s do it. Engaging, and she was familiar with, she just had such a strong dance background. It all made sense.
So the film you said is a love story. Now, it’s also equal parts sexy and equal parts tension. How would you really classify this film with one genre?
You know, I would still say I would call it a romance. I really would. You know, the funny thing is that people are going to look at that, when you write that, they’re going to say, “Lap Dance is a romance? Are you nuts?” But you know what, I almost have to counterbalance against the name. Not that I’m tripping on the name, I think the name is cool, but you almost have to go with the fact that it’s based on a true story, that it is a romance. Elsewise, you know, it seems that the movie itself was created just for fifteen year old kids that they can watch at home with the door locked, you know? It’s a much more deeper movie than that, and I think you almost have to really say, I’m probably overstating that it’s a romance, but if I don’t, it skews the other way.
Right. No, no, the romantic element is at the core, so definitely. So speaking of genres, is there any genre in the future that you might want to tackle?
You know, it’s so crazy because I don’t know what it is, but I’ve been really hit with a lot of people that want me to do biopics. I’ve had conversations with people, mainly because I did my own autobiography with me and Junie, but now, it’s kind of like, I seem to have ability to translate things that are really dense to narratives that can be entertaining and enlightening, I guess. So there’s been some talk about me doing a movie about Tupac, maybe me doing something about Paul Robeson, but there’s one story that I really, really like, that I wanted to follow up on. I wrote a script called Step Sister, and basically it’s a true story about the, there’s a real, if you’ve ever seen the movie Stomp the Yard, that is a real competition, a stepping off competition.
Kind of like Step Up?
Kind of like Step Up, yeah. What Stomp the Yard was about black Greek stepping, black fraternities stepping and the competition to be a national champion. But that is a real competition called the Sprite Step It Up Competition. They have it every year in Atlanta, and they take about, they have regionals and then if you win the regionals, you end up going to the national competition. And they have all the male fraternities from different chapters can compete for a championship, and all the sororities can compete. Well, normally it’s all black. You have your Deltas, AKAs, or whatever, and in this case, there was a plucky little story from University of Arkansas of a white sorority Zeta Tau Alpha that competed in the Sprite Step It Up Competition in 2010, and they won. They beat all the black sororities, and so it was kind of a controversy at the time, and I wrote a screenplay about that, so that’s what I’m hoping to do there.
That sounds awesome. I’d love to see that. Would that be your next immediate project?
That’s what I’m working to be my next immediate project. I’m also working on another project called My BFF, which is kind of a family film. It’s a different spin on, years ago, C. Thomas Howell did a movie called Soul Man where he pretended to be black to go to school. I wrote a screenplay about a little girl that’s white who pretends to go to this school, pretends to be black so she can get into this school, only later to find out she is black.
Wow. So she’s interracial?
Yeah, but she didn’t know it because her mother died when she was younger, and her father didn’t even know that her mom was mixed. But it turns out her mother was 1/4th black and she’s actually 1/8th, and so that comes out, and they’re getting ready to kick her out of school because she lied on her application, pretending to be black in order to go to this school, but it turns out she didn’t lie on the application. She was black. So that’s, I’m working on that one. That’s one of two I’ll be doing next.
What’s the title of the film with the girl?
That one is called My BFF. I like My BFF because you don’t know if it stands for “My Best Friend Forever” or “My Black Friend Forever.” I like to try to think I can make films that I kind of have a special commentary on things but also talk about what’s going on but also be fun and entertaining.
I just had a couple more questions. Are any of the actors in ‘Lap Dance,’ do you have any intention of putting them in future projects?
Yeah, K.D. Aubert. I plan on using in one of my projects and I’ve been talking to Briana again to play the lead in the one I mentioned, Step Sister. I’m taking her back to college, hopefully.
Nice, nice. A very talented girl. More on the personal side, do you prefer directing, writing, producing? Do you have a favorite and why?
You know, it’s gonna sound weird, but I really do like producing. But here’s the reason why, because you can do multiple projects at one time. When you’re a director, you’re kind of tied to a project from beginning to end, and when you’re doing independent films, you spend, you only get a certain amount of money because you spend a long period of time, you know, being engaged and working for a film project. It’s odd doing something like directing, but that being said, I love writing and directing. It provides me with a fulfillment that I just can’t get any other way in the creative process. Producing and directing, so you know, I love directing and having, you know, making good scripts better, telling stories, just the absolute best.
I feel you. For me, I’m more of a critic, you know, a writer in terms of journalism, but I actually do have some film ideas of my own, like a thriller involving killer plants attacking Manhattan. Really goofy stuff, like Independence Day type deal. I just thought I’d mention that because you’re an acclaimed director and filmmaker.
No, you are! You were inducted into the Houston Filmmakers Hall of Fame.
That is right, that is right.
That’s impressive! One final question, I read that you have worked and still work with underprivileged youths. I find that extremely admirable and respectable. How do you go about your work in that arena?
You know, I think there is no better fulfillment that you can get than helping people, particularly helping kids. My dad was a minister and my mom is a retired school principal, and what I try to do, you know, is when I give up myself, it helps you take, sometimes when you get so, we get so caught up because the focus is always thinking about yourself. What you’ve gotta do in the political machinations of movements and plans. I think it’s healthy to take the focus off yourself and give because it makes you a strong and better person. It makes you a better filmmaker to teach. It reinforces things that you learn when you take it to others. And you know, I always, I remember when I was first starting out. You know, like so many people, you go to film festivals. I go to SXSW or Austin Film Festival and I would talk to people and I would try ways to get my DVD or my script into people’s hands, and sometimes they were just too busy or they couldn’t take it. “I don’t take unsolicited materials” or whatever, and not that that can’t be something that happens for everyone, that you can help everyone, but I don’t want, I never wanted to be the person that blew someone off. I know that’s going to be hard to do as things gets crazier and busier, but I want to see if I can go help as many people as I can because I think that in itself was meant to be. My journey is not just about me, it’s about others.
A truly selfless individual, thank you, Greg, awesome. Do you plan to make a movie about underprivileged kids?
You know, actually, another movie I did a couple of years ago was me making that kind of outreach, but it was a different film. It was called Waters Rising. You can watch it on YouTube.
I checked on IMDB. You were in that as an actor, right?
Yeah, yeah. I wrote and directed the movie, also produced it, and it was one of those things where I was kind of at first, I’m just going to write the script and they said, “Well, you’ve gotta be in it.” Anyway, but it was an interesting project because I wanted to do something about Hurricane Katrina and basically kids, people, younger people who were pretty underprivileged and going through some stuff, and a lot of things that you didn’t understand, you could really begin to understand once you begin to hear their stories and why things happened the way they did. In fact, I put in at the beginning of the film, the fact that Hurricane Katrina took a lot of people out of New Orleans, yeah, it took a lot but it actually saved a lot of lives. It gave people a fresh start, which some of them needed. They went to Dallas or Atlanta and for some people, that was the first time they had been out of New Orleans, like ever, since the time they were born. And so New Orleans has one of the highest murders per capita before Katrina hit. So I think that if I do go back to it again, I probably would go to it from a standpoint of not necessarily urban kind of story like that one is, but maybe something that’s more like My BFF, sticking more on a global kind of sense, because I think that there are so many obstacles out there. And no one has a lock on having problems. Everybody does. I think that’s what you want to try to do, to try to expose people to the different things that can be fulfilling for their lives.