Writer & director Chris Baxter talks to us about his independent film Unlawful Justice. Learn more about the crime drama, who was involved with making it, and how it all came together.
The entire film had such a wonderful family feel. Our DP and producer were two of my roommates. Our editor/DIT and BTS photographer both crashed on our couch often and our lead actor was an acting friend from college. From there, everybody we had knew one or two people that were grips/gaffers/Ads, etc. We rounded off our crew with a couple of Facebook posts for some key positions. We held auditions at Cazt Studio in LA because it was free and it looked professional, but we all worked for far below minimum wage. It was a mix of finding people we have access to, feel comfortable working with, but also know what they’re doing.
Indie Rights released our film. About a year before that, we applied for the Sundance Creative Distribution Fellowship- which was way out of our league. We had a 35k budget for our film, yet the Fellowship’s winning films felt like they were twenty times that in budget. It was probably the equivalent of being one of the better basketball players at the local YMCA and saying one day “You know what, let me go try out for the Lakers.” We didn’t get it obviously. But, I stayed in touch with the director of the program and ended up joining her indie directors meet up. After a few months she connected me with Indie Rights who really enjoyed our film.
The story is about a LAPD officer who is financially struggling to support his family. Mainly his daughter whose medical expenses are piling up. When he asks his boss for a raise, he’s given the opportunity to meet an unspoken arrest quota, and if he does, he’ll get a bump in his salary. However, this goes against everything he stands for as a police officer and why he joined the force in the first place; to protect and serve the community.
Meanwhile, there’s a seventeen year old kid from inner city LA who has just been accepted to a prestigious college. However, he doesn’t have the financial means to attend. With the help of his friend, who is a local hustler, he starts selling dime bags of cocaine to raise enough money to make the tuition down payment. Despite never having even jaywalked, he makes significant progress but it’s not enough to cover the tuition expenses. He gets in way over his head and tries to make one final score that will pay for his full tuition. At the same time the Officer is looking for one huge bust that can get him his promotion. The two eventually collide, and only one comes out alive.
We filmed all throughout Los Angeles. Parks, back alleys, and random neighborhoods. We didn’t have much of a budget so we cheated a lot of locations. The morgue, jail, trap house, and two different apartments, were all just at our house. Our PD was incredible and was constantly reconfiguring everything in our living room to make it look like a whole new location. The best compliment I got were various people who said they had no idea that it was all shot at one house and it looked like the production budget was ten times higher than it actually was.
We filmed a lot around LA without a permit. We drove around in a rented fake cop car. For once scene, the driver, who was one of our main actors (she was an incredible actor and so nice), but not the best driver- hah. To her credit, it’s probably insanely difficult to act and drive at the same time in actual LA traffic with roads you’re not familiar with. The DP and myself were squeezed into the backseat, no seat belt because it was a cop car, on hard plastic. Somehow we didn’t crash. It was the very first scene in the shooting schedule. I definitely said a few extra prayers that night and had a few ice packs on my back.
We also got kicked out of a few locations. Some we didn’t have permission to shoot at, some we did, some we talked our way back into. When making a movie on a limited budget like that you have to take what you can get and make the most of it. There’s constantly this balance between getting the best shots, but making sure you’re not endangering anybody… beside yourself, which you’ve already done because you choose the film industry as a career.
We shot the movie in late 2016. The editing process took about 6 months. Our editor was living on our couch and we were both working full time just to survive and we worked on the film in any free time we had. His computer kept crashing so half the time we spent just redoing what we had already edited but neither one of us had access to a better computer or even $20 to get one. From there, the coloring and audio process took about another 6 months. We had some heavy audio issues and we couldn’t seem to get the coloring down, but after about a year we decided to call it. They say a film is never done, you just decide to stop working on it. I had worked on the film for nearly two years for probably an average of 10 hours a day for over 500 days straight. I was just so burnt out and decided I was happy enough with what we had.
We had been submitting to festivals and got in nowhere. We were submitting with basically an assembly cut, which I thought would work because during the one film business class I took in college (it was the only one the school offered) the teacher explained how he got a movie into SXSW without a finished cut. However he forgot to mention that the director was a Sundance alum, the film had a major star in it, a budget that was 20x what ours was, and that an unfinished cut meant temp music and a small bit of coloring and audio polish needed to be done… not an assembly cut of a 35k film from a total nobody director.
I took a couple months off from the film because I was so exhausted, disappointed, and not happy with the final cut. I saved up all my money in that few months from working, then I went back with a new editor and came out with a cut I was really happy with and proud of. We applied to basically one festival, got in, won best picture, and then I said lets just go into distribution. The film was released in the spring of 2019. Right when Amazon slashed their pay rates to indie filmmakers. Another bump on our rollercoaster ride, but we’ve made the most of it and gotten a ton of positive reviews.
I have this fundamental belief that almost everybody is a good person, but we do bad things because society forces us to make difficult decisions. I don’t think anybody is evil but we all do evil things, although usually we do them for a good reason. In Unlawful Justice, the police officer steps outside the boundaries of what he can legally do, but he thinks he’s doing it to protect the community and also so that he can get a raise to take care of his sick infant daughter. One of the main characters is a drug dealer, but he’s doing it because the school system failed him and he has no other options to support his family. Society has failed us. Our systems of policing, education, economics, and government have all failed us and it forces everyday people to constantly have to consider making immoral or unlawful decisions just to survive.
At the time, and still today, there were many stories of police brutality. There didn’t seem to be any answers and it seemed that people kept dying. There was this one unique case in the news where it felt that nobody did anything egregiously wrong, but it still led to this conflict between a police officer and a black individual. Thankfully nobody was killed, but it was still very problematic. It seemed that every news outlet was trying to paint one side as the victim and one as the criminal, and every news station was different. However, it seemed like it wasn’t either’s fault- it was just a horrible situation that was exacerbated by these systems we have, especially our system of policing.
So I thought about trying something extreme. Could we create a story where a black man kills a cop, but is in the right? Could we, in the same story, with that same cop, show him assault a black man, but the cop is also in the right? A story where everybody is breaking the law, but we not only fully understand why they are, we conclude that we would do the same thing if we were in their shoes. I hoped to accomplish in the movie that people would think about who their enemy really is a bit differently after they watched it. People aren’t our enemy. Our brother isn’t our enemy. The systems that plague us are. The system of policing. The system of systematic and institutionalized racism. The system of education that has failed us. Our political system which has led us astray. Our financial systems that have created poverty and marginalized communities. We’ve been pitted against each other, to keep our eyes off the real enemy.
We’re on TubiTV, Amazon Prime and IMDBTV, Apple TV, and Goggle Play. Thanks for checking out the film!
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