Over the years, Carrie LeZotte has wondered what might have been had she moved to Los Angeles or New York City to start her film career. The fact that she wasn't accepted to film school after graduating from Michigan State University in 1993 could have been a sign to stay put, but it was a meeting with a Hollywood producer that sealed her fate. She was 22 and fresh out of college when one of her professors took her to Los Angeles to meet with Robert Tapert, famed producer for filmmaker and Detroit native Sam Raimi. "Go back to Michigan and make movies," he told her, "not get coffee for people here."
LeZotte headed home and got to work.
The advice has served her well. Flash forward a decade and a half, and LeZotte now has a studio in a loft in Lafayette Park in Detroit. She's a filmmaker, entrepreneur and runs a nonprofit film group, One of Us Films
. And, now that film is the buzz biz in Michigan, in her Detroit roost she's surrounded by all kinds of possibilities. And nope, she's not getting coffee for anyone else.She'll pass on the 'Pie'
After her L.A. enlightenment, LeZotte earned a second bachelor's degree at MSU in women's studies, and while there she co-founded One of Us Films. She also wrote and directed "One of Us," a short drama about date rape that became an educational tool for rape-awareness education at MSU, and is now distributed by Discovery Education.
"I was tired of 'American Pie,'" she says. She wanted to see more smart stories about women.
The script captured the attention of seasoned cinematographer Lon Stratton, who became her director of photography on the film. "It was a really, really ambitious project for someone at her level," says Stratton, who says LeZotte insisted it be shot on 35 mm film versus less expensive video. "She was smart. She hired people who knew what they were doing."
LeZotte, 38, has been playing it smart ever since.
With a big goal of directing feature films -- her role model is "Thelma and Louise" and "Alien" director Ridley Scott, in part for his portrayal of strong women -- she's willing to do whatever it takes to have a film career in her own backyard.
Like taking a day job that gave her a chance to hone her skills. As manager of video communications for Comerica Bank in Detroit for about 10 years (she was downsized last year), she created internal training videos that were anything but boring. Stratton recalls working with her on a video about what to do if the power goes out: "We copied the TV show '24.' It was really cool. People in the office were like, 'When is your next video?'"Still One of Us
Meanwhile, LeZotte continues to wear the cap of executive producer for One of Us Films, where she's created everything from television programming to documentary, fiction and industrial films. Most projects have a focus on social issues and local nonprofits, including an animated film for HAVEN of Oakland County to help children understand personal safety. LeZotte is also a regular host of Lunafest
, a national film festival that showcases films by and about women and donates part of its proceeds to support breast cancer research.
LeZotte says it's important to support women in film. "I make an effort to mentor young female filmmakers because [the business] is so male dominated."
She also knows the value of supporting Detroit filmmakers, too. She recently served as assistant director on a local short film. "Everybody's working to help each other out," says Le Zotte. "They're really talented people."
She's also got projects of her own, including "Regional Roots," a documentary for Wayne State University's Detroit Orientation Institute,
which she produced, directed and recently debuted. The film shares stories of Detroit's immigrants and their impact on shaping Detroit.
Ann Slawnik, director of the DOI, knew she'd picked the right person when she hired LeZotte. "She really wanted to work on a project about Detroit. She wanted to tell a story," says Slawnik, adding that LeZotte was also willing to help raise money to fund it, including securing a $15,000 Michigan Humanities Council
What most impressed Slawnik? "Her enthusiasm and willingness to stick with it." The project took almost three years to complete. "We had struggles with things that stopped us up or had differences of opinion. But she kept up her enthusiasm and said: 'We're going to make a great movie.'"
Now she's working on a new long-term business, one she hopes will make money to fund feature film projects, a web site called OIC Movies
(as in, "oh, I see"), that goes live this week. But it's more than just a money-making vehicle, says LeZotte. It features high definition videos of deaf reporters communicating in American Sign Language. Topics have a national focus and include money, technology, health, entertainment, how-to and opinion pieces. They'll post new videos five days a week.
She says it's the project of which she's most proud. "It's an amazing evolution of my talent and my community. And it's a challenge."
She is confident the web site will be a success. "This does not exist anywhere," she says. "This is a minority group that crosses all lines and they are still discriminated against today. It's an additional reason I keep coming back to it."
She knew they had something big in March 2008 after posting an ASL video on You Tube about the digital TV conversion. They got about 13,000 hits, making them one of the most viewed videos that week in the Education category. So there is demand out there for OIC's films. "We want to be the go-to site for ASL content," says LeZotte.How green is the grass?
Filming a feature is still a dream, however.
Her eyes light up when she talks about making feature films. While she says her dream is to be the first female director to win an Oscar, more immediately she hopes to direct a screenplay written by a co-worker that she recently submitted to a Netflix contest. The film, about a cold war spy in Battle Creek, will require a couple million dollars, she says. "You need that money to get the talent."
If anyone can inspire the confidence to make that happen, it’s LeZotte.
Her office, technically a residential space in the Leland Lofts
in Lafayette Park, is positively inviting. The space -- with wood floors and exposed ceilings, a cozy bedroom-turned-studio, Mission style cabinetry, granite counters and stainless steel appliances -- is permeated by the aroma of brownies baking. On one wall, a bank of cabinets with glass doors houses LeZotte's fine china and part of her collection of roughly 60 female action hero dolls, "the girls," she calls them.
Now as she contemplates her future, she says, "I'd like to buy the ice cream factory behind my building, and have a big studio there."
Yes, right here in Detroit. "Every time I travel to New York or LA, every time I say 'the grass is greener' I do recognize the grass is greener right here," she says. "I've been doing a lot of great work -- right here."
Ellen Piligian is a local freelance writer. Send feedback here
Carrie LeZotte on the roof top of her studio at the Leland Lofts
Carrie LeZotte on set with film crewAll photographs by Detroit Photographer Marvin Shaouni Marvin Shaouni is the Managing Photographer for Metromode & Model D.