Stunt professional Lee Whittaker is approaching nearly thirty years into his successful career, having climbed the ladder and worked on some of entertainment’s biggest and most beloved projects in TV and film, including martial arts saga WMAC Masters, Sammo Hung vehicle Martial Law, and Universal’s Fast Five to name a few.
This especially goes for the opportunities he’s earned working in India, and to a much larger point, it’s still a career that’s had its hurdles, and prerequisites for discretion in one area: directing. There’s a reason for it too, and Whittaker goes into all of this and much more as we now grow closer to ramping up the campaign for Whittaker’s completed feature directing debut, Aimee.
Written by Whittaker and co-writer Kara Myers, the film stars German-American actress Jet Jandreau in her latest role here as a U.S. Marine vet suffering from PTSD. Upon arriving from Afghanistan, she comes to find herself locked into a new war at home when she learns that her sister, titularly played by actress Jamie M. Timmons, has been kidnapped and thrust into America’s criminal underbelly of child sex trafficking.
It’s been close to about five years since Whittaker’s hopes began with an award-winning action thriller short film proof of concept, one which I had a rare opportunity to check out. I definitely enjoyed it at the time, which only made the knowledge of it as a proof of concept for a larger feature foray all the more exciting.
Alas, Aimee has since completed post production and recently ran a new trailer a few months back, and now we wait and see what happens next in terms of acquisitions and sales going forward, so I suspect a 2023 release at best at this juncture. In the meantime, the film industry can be a fickle beast – one with enough red tape and bureaucracy to possibly discourage even the most driven and dauntless artists at times.
It certainly tested Whittaker’s own mettle during the process, and all for a film with a message he strongly intented to hit home with for audiences. Read on for his story in our one-on-one below, and stay tuned for my review of Aimee in the months to come.
Hey Lee, thanks for taking the time to share this interview with us. How has 2022 been for you thusfar?
No worries, and thanks for having me. 2022 has been a rollercoaster of a season already. Had a good start with a couple of productions, then got Covid, then the war in Ukraine happened and wiped out a big film for me this summer in Poland. However in June, I was able to finish my film AIMEE’s post production and wrap it all up. Now, we head into the Fall festival circuit, so we’re hoping to get into some good fests.
Tell us about your career in stunts and what led you to directing with your multi-award winning short, Catching Fireflies.
I’ve been very fortunate in my early stunt career to work with some of the best technicians and filmmakers in the business. I was always pretty silent on sets when it came to watching and learning from the best and how they managed their craft and communications with departments. This led me to grow and expand within my department of stunts with a silent eye always on the storytelling or director. When I was in India for the first time on Vishwaaropam, I witnessed a homeless encounter at 6:30am on the side of the street. A little girl was tapping on my car window and she was completely naked and covered in filth except for where she was crying. The driver took off and it haunted me until I got back to the States. I then had to go downtown for a meeting, got lost, ended up in “Tent City ” and saw nearly the same thing but with a homeless little boy. At that point, I realized I needed to tell this story and continue to pursue telling stories that would provoke thought and awareness. That story became “CATCHING FIREFLIES.” Honestly, this whimsical little film has a deep connection for me, and I truly cannot wait to have the opportunity to get the feature into production.
I wanna talk a bit more about your work in stunts, and you’ve worked in Hollywood as well as India for a number of titles to this day with titles like the Vishwaroopam and Bahubali movies as well as Thugs Of Hindostan. How different is the experience in India compared to Hollywood in this field?
I would say the difference in working in the States to India is drastically different in almost every way. From the beginning of screenwriting to pre-production and production. They do things quite differently, but I guess for them it works. For instance, in the States, we prep a film all at once, go into production all at once. They tend to do some pre-production, then shoot a sequence, then break, back to pre-production, rinse and repeat. States will also have the budget for more pre-production which allows for properly crafting action sequences to make sure they’re safe. I rarely get much prep time in India, so it forces you to be on-point with everything, which in turn also makes me a better filmmaker. The conditions can be a challenge as well, which makes working in the States very posh. Crews and stunt people in the States do not realize how good they’ve got it and how well they’re paid.
Did you know for sure that you wanted to direct when you first got into the industry?
Yes is the short answer. However, I had to always be quiet about it. When I came up in stunts, you did stunts ONLY. It was shunned to be able to act, write, direct, et cetera. Other stunt people were like, “who the hell do you think you are?” So you kept quiet about it. I secretly wrote music and scripts, and took acting lessons to better understand the process as well. I was always a sponge on set and loved to learn as much about everything as I could. I got a lot of flack for my maverick personality, but I honestly didn’t care and chose to do it my way even if it ostracized me from certain groups and cliques. So, I kept my head down and forged my own path.
Your debut feature, Aimee, began with a proof of concept several years ago prior to feature production. For you and your partner, Kara Myers, what clicked for you guys in the moment you said “…This movie needs to be made, and so we’re gonna make it, and I’m gonna direct it.”?
Actually, Kara Myers is actually only my writing partner on the film. My TRUE partner, producer, is Mary Whittaker. She’s the strength behind the film, and it was her who said we have to do this and now. That was at the apex of the “Epstein saga.” We took it to Hollywood and tried for some A-list talent and financiers. Everyone said “No.” and we were like “…How come everyone hates hearing about the topic of child sex trafficking but no one wants to do anything about it?” Much like homelessness. I asked Mary what should we do? She said, “Put all of our life savings together and just do it ourselves.” This is obviously taboo as you’re never supposed to put your own money in your film. But we did. All of it. Then just after the filming process, COVID hit. None of us saw this coming and as we put our own money up, we were crushed because now how are we going to survive. It literally drove us out of Los Angeles to Albuquerque, New Mexico where Mary is from, and we’ve had to slowly come up for air and get back on our feet again. Slowly work came back and I was able to finish the film in post-production but it’s been a long, long, eye-opening journey to say the least.
How important is it for directors to consider conceptual proofs as a means toward making a film nowadays?
I think the days of writing a paragraph on a napkin, pitching it and it becoming a movie is over. Honestly even having a script doesn’t mean you’re going to get that movie made and it’s such a journey for any script to get made that many don’t realize how many years go into making a film. So, having a POC (proof of concept) can be crucial to getting traction in any aspect. Talent and producers can see the vision and see if the content is within their wheelhouse. It doesn’t always mean it’s going to work though, like in my case. We had the POC and it won a few festivals, but still, no one wanted to touch the topic.
Tell us about the audition and casting process for the role of “Jessica”, and ultimately casting Jet Jandreau for the part.
We went to an A-lister for this role and got the door slammed in our face by a gatekeeper. My good friend and not a small-time producer made the call for me and they were so incredibly rude to him. I couldn’t even believe it. So I said “Well, I’ll just do it my way and hope and pray when we’re all finished that we can sell it.” Not having any A-list names can literally be the
deciding factor if your film gets sold or not.
I called up my casting director from CATCHING FIREFLIES, Lisa Pantone, and said I need your help. Without a breath, she was in and within hours already had casting ideas. She brought me Jet, who was at the time in Austria filming, and said “If you’re okay with a Skype reading, I’ll set it up.” Mind you, this is pre-Covid and virtual casting wasn’t a thing yet. We connected on Skype and she nailed the character almost immediately. It was like a weight lifting off my shoulders to know I had my lead.
You also worked with Jamie M. Timmons who helped bring your proof of concept to life in the title role. Talk about preparing her for the role and what she brought to the table.
Jamie was like Gianna Gomez who was my little girl in Catching Fireflies. She came with an open heart and eager to dive in and make this impactful as her mother told her what the topic was about and she was driven to be the voice of the children truly going through this horrific epidemic. When we did the POC, I remember having to make her cry on set. This is never fun for a director, and I’ve had to do it on two of my films now. The whole crew was distraught, and I had to leave set and have a breakdown moment as it’s all just so real when dealing with children and sex trafficking. I later spoke with one of our now affiliates ARC (Association of the Recovery of Children) and I remember her saying, “You have no time to feel this as you are a voice, a light and beacon to spread awareness to stop this. Have your moment, put on your big boy pants and do your job.” She gave me strength to be a stronger leader, director, and man about the topic. These kids need real heroes, not for people to feel sorry for them.
Your co-star, Eric Pierce brings a more lighter tone to the film as Jessica’s partner, Dan. Talk about casting for this role and what he brought to Aimee during production.
Dan. One of my favorite characters. His character is the voice of reason in the film as well as support for Jessica. When Eric came in the door to read for the part he was full Chuck Norris with an amazing man beard. He nailed the sensitivity and strength of the character. As a fellow man beard wearing person myself I was concerned that he might not trim it down because I needed Dan disheveled. Without hesitation he had no issues and delivered exactly the character at each turn. He was really good at treading the fine line with romance between the two characters. I didn’t want to be cliché with Jessica and Dan as far as getting romantically involved but the subtext is there very strong.
Tell us about training Jet and rehearsing her for the stunts and action sequences. Were there any particular limits on what she could or couldn’t do?
I felt sorry for Jet that we didn’t have more time with her. She was coming off a show in Austria and it was lining up right against our schedule so she didn’t get much time to train, but the time she did get she was all in.
I told her however when it comes down to it and I’m running low on time I will throw your stunt double in there just because we had serious time restrictions. For the most part it’s her, and only one time did I have to throw in her double. By the way, her double is amazing in her own right. Olivia Brown. What a gem of a human and very talented fighter and aerialist. Made my job fast, smooth and effortless.
I notice that some characters get full-on chucked through walls, which is wild! Talk a bit about those sequences for us and what it takes to shoot stunts like that between takes.
I’ve alway been a fan of destruction and the more, the better. We had obvious financial restraints, so I needed to be smart on crafting the action within those boundaries. I thought crashing through walls and destroying rooms was a fun option that had a good impact visually. Brent Mason, my production designer, was amazing at finding materials that allowed us to break walls into more pieces so it reads better on camera. Brent is such a master mind at his job that I’m amazed he’s not been scooped up by a studio. As far as in between takes, you want to have that take two lined-up and ready to be put into place. To save on time while that was being set up I would switch to a different shot in another room, then come back once it’s ready. We had multiple sets on a soundstage that allowed us to maximize locations and being time management guros.
What would you say the biggest challenge was with this particular production?
This is a loaded question, especially when you’re doing a film all by yourself with your money on the line. Besides the obvious pink elephant in the room being covid, I would say, casting, rain and time. This was a 17-day shoot, and I had no luxury of time. I knew what I wanted though, so when the performance was in the camera, I moved on quickly. The crew and talent were great and prepared, which made the process fairly quick. We actually had a great time on set as after the POC, I wanted to make sure the energy on set was light. So lots of laughing and goofing off was had especially with the little girls. This helped when we had to roll camera and go dark, making each day so that cast and crew didn’t have to bare the weight of the actual reality we were making.
What do you hope moviegoers will take away from watching Aimee?
I would like for people to open their eyes a bit to what is happening in almost every city and backyard around the United States of America. It’s closer to each of us than you realize. So, “If you see something, say something.”
Drafting this story was a challenge because I didn’t want to make “Taken”, a film that only brushes shoulders with child sex trafficking, I also didn’t want to make “Eden” or “The Whistleblower”, some really dark films on the topic. The greatest challenge with the script is how do you make a film about the topic without getting too dark, turning off the audience as I don’t know many people who say, “Hey, wanna go to the movies Friday night and watch a film about child sex trafficking?” But if I craft it in enough action, have a hopeful message and not get to explicit, then maybe this film will be seen by more eyes which in turn can change the awareness and plight.
Are there more plans to direct again in the near future? If so, are there any details you can share or possibly hint for us?
Yes, absolutely. I have a catalog of films I’m eager to get into production. Whenever I’m not working, I’m writing. Hopefully, I can get my romantic drama, “So I Paint,” off the ground. It’s truly a charming love story overcoming all types of life challenges. The script won in a few festivals last year, and I’m eager to dive into this poetic world. And yes, I still have action films on the ready to direct as well. I think for me it’s about balance and as much as I love action and it comes naturally, I love so many other stories and voices and I’m eager to hopefully continue my journey as a director.
You’re also working as an action director on the upcoming Tamil thriller, Vendhu Thanindhathu Kaadu. Is there anything specific you could tease for fans of Kollywood and Tollywood or for anyone just new to the wave of Indian fandom following the success of RRR from your Bahubali 2 director?
Yes, I’m actually heading back to India next week to finish up one more sequence for the film. The director, Gautham Menon, and I really connected artistically and worked out the action sequences hand in hand to provide something different in each one. The first sequence I did for the film was a “ONER.” Now, a lot of my colleagues are all about the “Oner” however most cheat with camera doing obvious wipes, etc. I wanted to do a sequence with the actor that was a true oner and no camera tricks. There were around 68-72 fight beats with fire, glass shattering walls, guns, weapons, fights and water and it traveled throughout a building two levels. I ran camera and by the time we cut on take two, I and the actor Shimbu were absolutely exhausted. My arms felt like jello and it was an amazing collaborative effort by the local stunt team, crew, and the lead actor doing all the fight. I’m very proud of that sequence and amazed how well Simbu nailed it. The Indian actors can be really handy when it comes to fights. When I did Bahubali, Prahbas did nearly all his own stuff, including wire work where he was better than most stunt performers. Mind you he’s a very large muscular man. He blew my mind daily on his physical abilities and eagerness to do the stunts.
Overall I had the best time of my career making my own film. I feel so blessed to have had a crew that was fast and eager, talent that showed up prepared and delivered and I only hope that the Gods will allow me to be able to continue with directing again in the near future. I still have so many passionate stories to tell.
If you could pluck one or two favorite moments or memories from your stunt career so far, India, or other projects, what would it be?
Man I’ve had so many in my career that it’s always hard to pick one. Fast Five was an overall great experience with amazing and talented stunt people. From the top to the bottom. I also learned a lot on combining the right mixture of live action stunts and vfx because we did mostly practical stunts and wrecked a lot of shit. Honestly though I’ve had an amazing run with so many good people doing wild stuff.
What are some of the most important lessons you’ve taken with you after directing your first feature film?
I think when you do it all yourself, you have a more profound understanding of all departments of making a film. I’ve had to learn so much because you have to do it yourself. I do want to throw out a massive THANK YOU to YOUTUBE!!! Because during this process of editing your own film and all those computer questions, sound design, and some effects, YouTube has been the best source for answers when you’re about to snap the top off your laptop.
Are there any final thoughts you would like to share with readers as we make our exit?
I think when you are so close to a film for so long, you lose sight of everything until it gets in front of people. So I just hope I’ve made a film that resonates with people, shines light on the topic, and hopefully saves some kids in the process.
For me, directing has been a way to use my skills in the entertainment medium to tell stories that hopefully make a difference along with being entertaining.
Thank you so much for sharing your story and your voice with us, Lee!
Thank you for allowing my voice to be heard on your platform, I appreciate you!
Native New Yorker. Lover of all things pizza, chocolate, pets, and good friends. Karaoke hero. Left of center. Survivor. Fond supporter of cult, obscure and independent cinema - especially fond of Asian movies and global action cinema. Author of the bi-weekly Hit List. Founder and editor of Film Combat Syndicate. Still, very much, only human.