After seven years in production, Lotawana finally hits screens
“How long does it take to make a movie?”
Trevor Hawkins says he was 28 years old when he asked his wife, Cori Jo, that fateful question.
“When I was in my 20s, I decided I wanted to be in production on my first feature by 30,” he explains. Hawkins had been working in video production for a few years in the Kansas City area and decided the time was right to get started on his own project. All he needed was a script. And a cast. And a production team. And everything else.
So, how long does it take to make a movie? In the case of Hawkins’ debut feature, Lotawana, the answer is seven years. Seven years, three lead actresses, a shoestring budget funded by the Hawkins’ second mortgage, and a bare-bones group of dedicated filmmakers.
That group includes Hawkins’ filmmaking partner, Nathan Kincaid, who has an assistant director credit on the movie, as well as Cori Jo as a co-producer.
“He pitched me the idea first of all,” Kincaid recalls. “It was on the upper level of City Market Coffeehouse. He had this idea of showing the roller coaster ride of a new romantic relationship. He wanted to track the ebbs and flows, and put it in a lake setting.”
Kincaid’s first piece of advice was to write a script.
“He told me, ‘Okay genius, if you want to make a movie, the first thing you need is a script,’” Hawkins remembers. “I Googled ‘how to write a script,’ presented it to Nathan and said, ‘All right, here we go.’ Then we were off to the races.”
Shot primarily on Lake Lotawana and Lake Jacomo, Lotawana tells the story of Forrest (Todd Blubaugh), an idealistic Thoreau-type who lives on his boat year-round in an effort to disconnect from the rat race.
Eventually, Forrest meets the free-spirited Everly (Nicola Collie), and the two fall in love. Everly joins Forrest on the boat, but the pressures of the real world gradually threaten the idyllic life they’ve created.
Hawkins says one of his goals was to showcase a side of the state that most studio-produced TV shows and films don’t capture.
“Missouri, in movies, is often portrayed as an armpit of the United States, where it’s got a rural, scuzzy vibe,” Hawkins says. “I know that’s not true for most of us who live here. It honestly felt like a privilege to be able to show Missouri in a beautiful, natural light that exists here for us all the time.”
Another inspiration, immediately noticeable from Lotawana’s gorgeous, naturally-lit cinematography, is Terrence Malick—the director behind Days of Heaven and The Tree of Life.
“You could say Lotawana is, stylistically, either a love letter to Malick or a straight ripoff of Malick,” Hawkins says.
Like Malick, Hawkins prioritized shooting the film with as little artificial light as possible—partly to capture the beauty of the setting and partly, he says, to save money.
“There were maybe two or three scenes where we shot at night, and we used a little extra light to give us some pop in the dark,” he says.
That move was the right one to create Lotawana’s dreamy atmosphere, but it also took a lot of planning and time to execute. Kincaid says that to schedule scenes around the light he and Hawkins created a color-coded board, where each scene was designated by the necessary sunlight and time of year.
“There wasn’t a single day of shooting where we didn’t shoot at sunset,” Kincaid says. “If the weather was giving us a different kind of day, we’d shuffle stuff around to better capture what nature was providing.”
Another issue the scattered shooting schedule created was actor availability. Hawkins, Kincaid, and their crew went through two different lead actresses before lead actor Blubaugh suggested Collie, who he’d interacted with online.
“I’d say she took a chance on us more than we took a chance on her,” Kincaid says. “She was legitimately the best that auditioned, but she had to take a risk by coming here from New York and not knowing any of us.”
Neither Collie nor Blubaugh had much acting experience prior to making Lotawana, but their performances feel natural and lived-in.
It helps that the pair had actual chemistry. They’d never met before but fell in love while making the film and later married.
“That’s why it works—because they were really into each other,” Hawkins says, laughing. “As you watch them fall in love onscreen, you’re seeing them fall in love in real-time.”
Kincaid says the leads’ offscreen romance wasn’t the only hidden blessing in Lotawana’s long production. Between the start of filming and the movie’s eventual release, shifting distribution models meant the finished product could more easily be shared with audiences.
“When we started, streaming wasn’t a viable option. Now we’re seeing a distribution revolution,” Kincaid says.
Currently, Lotawana is available to stream on Amazon, Google Play, Apple TV, and Vudu. Kincaid notes, however, that some of their audiences are still hitting up theaters to watch the film.
“We had someone with a sailing club call up Screenland Armour and ask if they could rent out the theater to watch Lotawana,” he says.
Hawkins describes the whole experience as “essentially my film school,” from learning how to write a script, to planning scenes, to the editing and post-production process.
“I’d never made a movie this long before,” he says. “I had no idea how to pace out a story that wouldn’t be incredibly boring.”
The initial cut of Lotawana was four hours, and Hawkins says he spent an agonizing amount of time whittling the movie down to its current 97-minute runtime.
“I think this is the most efficient version of the movie there’s been yet. It took me years to learn all that,” Hawkins says. “What I thought was interesting wasn’t always interesting. I had all these scenes about lake life that didn’t really progress the story at all. I had to learn to kill some darlings.”
Wherever their careers take them next, Hawkins and Kincaid say they both plan to keep working locally, with the support of the Kansas City audiences and the film community.
“We’re committing our lives to being Missouri filmmakers,” Kincaid says. “Based on how Lotawana performs, it’ll help us make the next movie. We want as many people as possible to see it, and have people in Kansas City know that this is something they can get behind.”
Hawkins and Kincaid are already in development on their next film, currently named Lunker, which they say is a significant departure from Lotawana’s natural lyricism.
“It’s a dark comedy horror film set within the competitive largemouth bass fishing culture of the 1970s,” Hawkins explains. “It’s gonna be like a 90-minute ‘70s beer commercial,” Kincaid adds.
It’s been a long road to realize the dream of Lotawana, but Kincaid says he’s proud of what he, Hawkins, and their collaborators have created.
“In the movie, Forrest talks about having a life worth living that you struggle for, and that’s us,” Kincaid says. “We all made personal and career sacrifices to make this movie. I loved being able to step back and realize that we communicated some of ourselves through the movie.”