In many ways, William Lappe has enjoyed the two remarkable careers: as a celebrated member of the New York Police Department and as an indie filmmaker with a growing reputation for creating gritty urban dramas. Really, how many artists can claim to be both a 2nd Grade Detective in the NYPD and an honors graduate from the New York School of Visual Arts?
Lappe has already made a splash on the festival circuit with his emotionally raw 2007 short “Even Steven,” which follows the disastrous attempt by a cop to collar a pedophile. His latest work is the feature “Bronx Paradise,” a visceral gut-punch of a drama inspired by the outrageous youthful criminal career of actor-writer Wayne Gurman.
I caught up with Lappe at his Bronx, New York, studio to discuss his unique career and his cinematic output.
The transition from law enforcement to filmmaking is uncommon. When and why did you decide that you wanted to switch from the NYPD to indie filmmaking?
I actually had to decide to switch from artist to cop to artist again. Growing up I was always involved in drawing, painting or doing something artistically. Inspired by King Kong and Godzilla, I dreamed of one day making those types of movies. I especially enjoyed doing special effects and had hopes of becoming a miniature model maker.
My dad was a city worker and a film historian. I can credit him for my love of movies. I was close to 20 years old and needed a job. The Bronx wasn’t looking for artists or filmmakers, but they were looking for people to step up and fight crime. The city was in real bad shape – the “Watchmen” era, you might say. It was only after witnessing the horrors of police work in the South Bronx up close and personal that re-kindled my interest in artistic expression.
Telling stories was the next logical step. Cops are great storytellers by nature, and I was surrounded by some of the best of them. So filmmaking seemed like the best way for me to combine all my talents or passions under one umbrella. I was a cop by day and in film school all night.
Then I was hired to make training films for the NYPD, so I was in heaven and getting paid for it. I was really able to hone my craft and get in the trenches of indie filmmaking. Sometimes it was me and a crew of five to 10 filmmaker cops who were able to shut down traffic in midtown Manhattan or even command a fleet of harbor boats and helicopters up the Hudson River to film a training session or hero tribute. At times I felt like Francis Ford Coppola and other times I felt like a combat photographer or videographer. The boss of the unit allowed me to express my artist intentions and enabled me to get stories out to the men and women of the department with my thumbprint on it.
This may sound trite, but are there any shared professional attributes that one can find in police work and filmmaking?
Yes. Believe it or not the ability to withstand sever pressure and to be able to be an immediate problem solver. These attributes helped me tremendously in making the crossover. The ability to communicate to people, groups of people and get them to respond in a positive manner, even at times of crisis. In police work, you sometimes need to make split-second decisions with dire consequences if you make a mistake.
The same can be said when it comes to filmmaking. These decisions are ones that could make or break your career in both professions. If you’re a filmmaker or a cop, you know what I’m talking about. The desire to get to the truth also carried over into my filmmaking career. As a filmmaker or artist in general I try to get to the truth as well, so do many artists. The greatest attribute would be the ability to be a self-thinker and get things done.
Your short film “Even Steven” was a powerful production. What was the story behind its creation?
It was Halloween 1996 and I was watching the news and a story came on about a judge who had overruled a jury and thrown out the conviction of a man who was charged with raping a six-year-old. The man had a long history of sexual abuse and convictions to members of his family with victims as young as three years old. I thought to myself what a monster this guy is and now he is free to roam the streets again, on Halloween, no less.
Earlier that month, a police officer was acquitted of accidently killing a man while performing his duty and the federal government elected to step in and prosecute the officer for civil rights violations. This also coincided with a National Day of Protest to Stop Police Brutality and somehow I felt how ironic this all was that a convicted criminal was going free and an acquitted cop was probably going to jail. Somehow I felt a story or statement should be told.
I’m a fan of Fritz Lang’s, and his movie “M” served as inspiration. I pay homage to him thoughout the movie. I changed the assailant to a child molester instead of murderer because you may be able to forgive a murderer but not a pedophile. I gave it to my college professor and he talked me out of making it. [He cited] some political correct nonsense, so I shelved it, not thinking it worthy. After graduating film school I was nearly killed under the North Tower on 911 and my film career was put on hold until I retired in 2005. So I decided to look over some old material and found “Even Steven.” I chose to make it my tune up film.
I got together with some childhood friends and Bronx filmmakers and made “Even Steven” in the fall of 2006 on a budget of four grand. It served a dual purpose. One was to showcase my talent and hopefully get hired to direct a feature length movie. The other was to make a political or social view on a particular subject that was close to me while I was a cop and now as a parent.
Where has “Even Steven” been shown? And what kind of a reaction did it receive?
It was shown in New York City to a packed house. As a matter of fact, so many people showed up to the screening, over 500 as a matter of fact, that we had to open a second screening room and run the backup-reel concurrently.
I also showed it to several Bronx audiences, community colleges and high schools. The response has varied from rounds of ovation to complete silence. I think at times the movie shocks people and leaves them speechless. It’s a very difficult and emotional subject to reveal. I sometimes wonder how many of my audience members may have been victims or in fact predators of such crimes. If you have children, then it can be extremely difficult to watch.
Your new film is “Bronx Paradise.” What is the story behind its creation?
I was retired when I ran into Wayne Gurman, literally ran into him. I was on my way home and spotted Wayne as he was filming his short “Bottom Feeder” around the corner from my house. As I approached him, he immediately made me for a cop and excused himself for not having a permit. I laughed and told him I was not a cop, at least not anymore, and that I was a filmmaker. We exchanged info and agreed to stay in touch. Then both our shorts won awards in a festival and we agreed to join forces on the feature length story of Wayne’s autobiography, “Bronx Paradise.”
“Bronx Paradise” was intended to be an over-the-top, loud, in-your-face, realistic and satirical look into one man’s life. A point of view that can only be fully understood by those who lived it on the streets of the Bronx during the mid 80’s to 90’s. We also thought it was interesting to tell the story from the writer and protagonist Wayne, who was in fact a convicted criminal from that time period, and myself, who was a cop in the same borough at the same time. We knew many of the same characters but for different reasons. Wayne wanted to entertain people and tell his life story, while I wanted to portray a raw, in-your-face reality. I wanted to shock people and show them what it is like to be involved in that sort of lifestyle. It is not glamorous like the movies or television often portrays it.
How has the reaction been to “Bronx Paradise”? And what is your distribution strategy?
The movie seems to have a “cult” quality about it. It has been accepted in nearly 20 festivals and played in several cities where it has won several awards for “Best Picture.” But the reaction has been varied and has stirred some debate. Some people love it, including many women and minorities who come up to us after a screening and extend compliments. Others disliked it and were offended by it, seeing it as being too over-the-top, too in-your-face, too violent. To me that means the film works. It is moving people in one direction or another. You realize that what entertains some may often offend others.
Wayne has been approached and advised by some distributors. He’s decided to ride the festivals out to see how the movie will be received across the country. It’s his life story, so self distribution would not be out of the question either.
What are your future projects?
I’m in negations with a company right now looking for me to return to my roots, and to make a horror film, a noir-horror with roots in German expressionism and film noir. I hope to be in production on that soon. In the mean time, I’m working on a noir web-based series with Jim Donohue and Dave Lendzian. I am also in the middle of two documentaries. One is about an old Bronx movie theater and the other is about the immigrants of East Harlem. A pilot episode that I shot and directed for a new show entitled “American Airgunner” was accepted by a cable network last month. I’m always looking for ways to put more on my plate. A book may be next.