From the field to the screen: The unlikely story of Jake Lawler

By Macy Meyer

It took one simple phrase overheard from a conversation between strangers to convince Jake Lawler that he needed to be a filmmaker.

He had just seen “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse,” and was shuffling out of the darkness of the theater with the rest of the audience. Jake couldn’t help but overhear a young, Black kid beside him speaking to his father.

Daddy, that was me.

Artists will say that inspiration hits at unexpected moments. It’s unpredictable, and it strikes like lightning. It’s visceral, and it overtakes the body with an overwhelming need to accomplish the inspired idea. “That’s really the first moment that I knew I needed to start writing and start being a storyteller in a visual medium,” Jake said.

As a starting defensive back on the football team at UNC-Chapel Hill, everyone who knew Jake thought that the NFL was his future. One simple phrase made him realize the impact he could have on children who looked like him if he pursued film. Since that fateful day in 2018, Jake made the jump to be a full-time filmmaker in Los Angeles and is working towards his goal of fixing the representation issues in the film industry. He’s already started this mission with his latest short film, “Good Samaritans,” that premiered in September 2020.

“That story serves as a microcosm for a much larger experience when it comes to the Black experience,” Jake said. “Not even just in America, but really across the world, representation is lacking for Black people, for people of color all around, and I think it’s important to be able to see yourself represented.”

Jake felt a weight in his heart. He found his calling.

Calculated Risks

Chapel Hill buzzed with the news that after three seasons of playing football at UNC-CH, Jake would be leaving the program in 2019 and moving to Los Angeles to pursue a career in film. It was a shock to many who saw the 6-foot-4, 245-pound man as destined for the NFL draft, but Jake always had more passions than just football.

By his final year at UNC-CH, Jake had already established his talent and love for films and most importantly, writing. He was building a resume that showcased his passions for being a creator: taking broadcast journalism classes, co-creating UNCUT, a platform highlighting stories of student-athletes that has expanded to universities across the country, and hosting a film podcast.

Jake first drew widespread attention to his capabilities as a writer when he published a blog on his website in early 2019 about his fight with depression and the two times he attempted suicide. News outlets from across the country called the Lawler family to ask about Jake’s article. For months, Jake took on the role of a mental health spokesperson for UNC and for college athletics in general.

But Jake is more than an athlete. Jake is more than his mental health struggles. He’s a creator, a screenwriter and a visionist who wants to inspire young boys and girls like the one in the movie theater seeing “Spider-Man.” He told head coach Mack Brown he wouldn’t be returning. It was a hard decision, but the entire UNC football program was behind Jake and his dreams.

“Their most important thing is for all of these guys to have careers forever in whatever they want to do, and they’ll help them in any way they can,” Michele Lawler, Jake’s mom, said. “Coach Brown has been phenomenal with everything, the mental health part of it, and the decision to quit football.”

The gravity of the situation was not lost on the Lawler parents who both have backgrounds in the arts. Andy, a talent agent, and Michele, an actress, are perfectly aware of the cut-throat industry in LA.

“We had no illusions about the challenges involved in this,” Andy said. “I don’t know many people who are in the arts, who when their kid tells them they want to be in the arts, they’re like, ‘Oh, that’s great,’ because it’s brutally hard, and it’s built around rejection.”

Andy and Michele couldn’t dissuade their determined son.

“He’s the person that says ‘yes’ to everything,” Michele said. “‘Hey, you want to start this podcast?’ ‘Yes’. ‘Do you want to start this show about athletes?’ ‘Yes.’ ‘Do you want to be the mental health spokesperson for Carolina football?’ ‘Yes.’ That’s who he is. So his personality was pretty well-suited to taking a big leap and moving literally 3,000 miles away to try this.”

But Jake wasn’t planning to arrive in LAX with just luggage and inspirations. He set up 11 meetings with industry workers before even stepping foot on a plane. In just a few short weeks, he turned those 11 meetings into 25 meetings.

“I think that life is a series of risks, and those who calculate their risk the most have the highest chance of success,” Jake said.

Jake went to every meeting, put his portfolio down, and showed his writing chops through scripts for television, short films and features.

“I learned to fall in love with the leap,” Jake said. “If I’m going to jump out and do something that I want to do, then I’m going to do it to the best of my ability. The last thing that I want is for me to look back on an experience and feel partially to blame for not putting my all in it.”

From Dreams to Reality

The white letters on the screen stood out in the darkness of the theater: written and produced by Jake Lawler. It was a sign that his dreams to be a filmmaker were coming true.

The 8-minute short film, “Good Samaritans,” co-written and co-produced with his brother, Conor, just premiered at Film Fest 919 in Chapel Hill. The film, which tackles debates around the homelessness crisis, received high praise from across the state and has since been submitted to multiple film festivals.

It had been a long time coming. The Lawler brothers were excited to finally produce their script, partially inspired by a scene from Tarantino’s “Reservoir Dogs,” in which a table of men debate whether or not to tip a waitress. Plans had been made: The Lawlers were going to film at Zack’s Hamburgers in Charlotte, North Carolina, and they brought on University of South Carolina senior and aspiring filmmaker, Nick Stathopoulos, to direct and produce. Filming was supposed to start in March 2020.

And then there was a pandemic.

Production was halted until July as the world reeled. When the production crew finally got on set to do a day of filming and a day of reshoots, everything was different and difficult. Fewer people on set meant everyone doubled up on responsibilities; the production was almost reported to the police when an innocent passerby saw the crew using real guns while filming a robbery scene; footage from one camera was unusable thanks to a thumb-sized smudge in the upper corner of the lens.

But through it all, the Lawler brothers and Stathopoulos, who have all dreamed of directing and writing scripts, finally got to see their names on the big screen.

“It was definitely a surreal moment,” Stathopoulos said. “Having all those memories of seeing hundreds of movies in theaters and it’s weird to finally see your own name up on that big screen.”

It’s a nerve-wracking experience unveiling art to an audience. After months of preparation, creative energy and hard work, the project becomes personal and sacred. It feels like standing bare and vulnerable in front of an audience ready for judgment. But the claps and the congratulations made the nerves worth it. Jake felt affirmation that his jump into the industry, his decision to quit football, his determination to live life every day, were the right calls. Every risk and every leap of faith is heading towards something big for the filmmaker.

“I know a lot of people say that life is too short, but I really disagree with that,” Jake said. “I think life is in fact much too long to not end up doing things and you’re gonna regret it for the rest of your life. I knew that if I half-assed this, or if I didn’t go full throttle then I would regret it.”

“I know that I’m going to work and I’m going to write, and then everything else is up for grabs,” he added. “And I think that’s beautiful.”

Edited by Kyle Mehlman