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The Wild Bunch

North Bay filmmakers forge a new cinematic scene

By David Templeton

In the mid-1970s, when George Lucas and Francis Coppola appeared on the scene in Northern California, the two filmmakers seemed supernaturally energized by their recent cinematic successes, and their combined passion and excitement was as electrifying as an early morning walk down the third rail of a subway track. Armed with state-of-the-art equipment and brimming with sure-fire script ideas, the dynamic duo trumpeted their bold, beautiful vision of the Bay Area's future. The region, they predicted, would become--in fact, was already becoming--a bravely independent, artistically grounded filmmaking mecca, and would change the way films were made.

By the mid-1980s, Lucas and Coppola had been joined by a small revolutionary army of prominent film-world figures such as Philip Kaufman (Invasion of the Body Snatchers, The Wanderers, The Right Stuff, Henry and June); writer Joe Eszterhas (Flashdance, Jagged Edge, Basic Instinct); Barry Levinson (Diner, The Natural, Tin Men); and writer-director Christopher Columbus (Gremlins, Mrs. Doubtfire, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone). Others, like actors Peter Coyote, Robin Williams and the late Klaus Kinski, already had roots here, and the legendary independent producer Saul Zaentz (One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest, Amadeus, The English Patient) lent major additional filmmaking credibility to the whole area with his own postproduction facility in Berkeley. With Lucas quickly building Industrial Light and Magic into the San Rafael landscape, even more fuel was added to the idea that the Bay Area was becoming a superheated hotbed of cinematic creativity.

Now, nearly 30 years later, the notion of the North Bay as the non-Hollywood alternative to Tinseltown has faded. Though visiting filmmakers continue to drop in at Lucas' Skywalker Ranch to avail themselves of its awe-inspiring technical facilities (much of which is being relocated to Lucas' new compound at San Francisco's Presidio), and though Marin and Sonoma counties have also become home to John Lasseter and other heavy hitters from the mighty Pixar Studios (officially headquartered in the East Bay), many observers would suggest that, in the 21st century, the North Bay more closely resembles a vacation retreat or high-priced bedroom community for millionaire filmmakers than the magical breeding ground for brilliant cinema that it once seemed destined to become.

A closer look, however, reveals a number of promising, below-the-radar developments, as a whole generation of young filmmakers have literally grown up in the large and terrible shadow of those famous Hollywood expatriates.

As Coppola himself predicted when he quipped, in the documentary Hearts of Darkness, that the next great motion picture might be made by a teenage girl with a video camera, a new species of filmmaker, armed with low-cost video cameras, laptop and computer-editing tools, is beginning to make its own movies without permission or interference from Hollywood. Many live and work and make their films right under our noses. These visionary dreamers have been quietly developing their talents, taking advantage of the technical innovations that have made filmmaking cheaper and easier, patiently but aggressively honing their skills while hoping that someday, somebody out there would take notice.

Well, we've noticed.

Jesse Lindow, a San Francisco filmmaker and programmer of the eccentric Sonoma Valley Film Festival, calls them "the Wild Bunch," and the name fits. The majority of them are young, hungry, intense, talented and determined, and all of them are possessed of that certain cocky dash of maverick flash that makes a filmmaker seem artistically dangerous and maybe even a little bit crazy. A few have already made the move to Los Angeles but insist on maintaining artistic connections to the North Bay, others have been there and returned, and some are resisting pressure to leave the Bay Area.

A slice of the Wild Bunch includes Mitch Altieri, Scott Daigle, Phil Flores, Gene Hamm, John Harden, Daedalus Howell (see companion story), Abe Levy and Silver Tree. Ron Schilling's hilarious short film, Christ Throws a Party, just had its world premiere in Santa Rosa. Lance Sterling: Off the Case filmmaker Darwin Meiners is in production with Fairfield, Idaho, shooting guerrilla-style around Santa Rosa. Digital videographer Marc Azevedo and friends shot the collaborative Brunch of the Dead in Sonoma County, honoring the mastery of Troma Films in a flick not to be watched while eating.

Napa-based Anahid Nazarian, a longtime script editor and film librarian for Coppola, recently served as producer on Michael Goorjian's locally filmed drama Illusion, starring Kirk Douglas. Tim Wetzel, a recent North Bay arrival, has a new Vegas-based short film, Struck by Luck, which was made after a long career as a Hollywood propmaster on such films as Jurassic Park III.

It should be noted that many of these filmmakers take turns working on each other's films. Part of the Wild Bunch's undeniable charm is that they always seem eager and available to help one another achieve their cinematic dreams. If you've never heard their names before, hang in there; we predict that you will be talking about them a lot in the near future. The talk, in fact, has already begun.

Big Sweet Buzz

At last April's Sonoma Valley Film Festival, as patrons mingled with the likes of Joe Pantoliano, Saul Zaentz and Jon Favreau, and as the L.A.-based makers of the My Date with Drew doc were busy winning awards, there was a powerful undercurrent of big, sweet buzz busting out around such films as Altieri and Flores' Lurking in Suburbia, Harden's La Vie D'un Chien (The Life of a Dog), Nazarian's Illusion and Wetzel's Struck by Luck. All in all, there were 13 films screening at this year's SVFF that were made with the help of current Bay Area residents--that's an all-time high for the eight-year-old festival. According to festival programmer Lindow, he didn't intentionally set out to find films made by local talent.

"When I started going through the submissions and setting aside the ones I thought were especially deserving of being in the festival," he says, "I began to notice that a lot of the ones I liked just happened to have some North Bay Area connection. These are films that represent a really exciting, inventive, down-and-dirty type of filmmaking. These films are being made by people who are willing to break the rules of how films have always been made. And the films are good! I'd like to believe we're witnessing the emergence of a whole new evolution of local filmmakers."

Allow us, then, to introduce you to the next generation of North Bay filmmakers, the ones it was predicted would be coming.

John Harden

When Santa Rosa resident John Harden (a talented former Bohemian designer) made his feature-film debut a few years ago with a low-budget futuristic farce titled Breakfast with the Colonel, he had a hard time getting anyone to take notice. It played at a few film festivals, received some interesting buzz and was more or less forgotten. So when Harden was preparing to send his evocative science-fiction spoof La Vie D'un Chien out to festivals, he was prepared to suffer another round of indifference and deafening silence.

He was pleasantly surprised.

"Someone came up to me today and said, 'You made the best short film I've ever seen in my life!'" Harden remarked after the film was unveiled for local audiences at the Sonoma Valley Film Festival. By then, the film--about a French scientist who invents a serum that will turn unhappy Parisians into happy, humping, scampering, sniffing, garbage-eating dogs--had already become known at a number of festivals. Since the SVFF, the short has been screened at a dozen or so festivals, picking up awards at several of them.

Composed of a series of stills and narrated in French by a friend of Harden's, the subtitled La Vie D'un Chien is a testament to Harden's ingenuity and the power of the Internet, since Harden could hardly afford to fly to Paris for some crucial shots.

"I found photographers who lived in Paris and I e-mailed them, telling them what I needed, and they sent me the pictures, which I combined with my own shots," he explains. "The dogs were shot in Santa Rosa, the various vintage cars were shot at a car meeting in San Francisco, some of the street scenes were shot in Petaluma and others were shot in Santa Rosa--and we just collaged it all together in Photoshop.

"By we, of course," he adds, "I mean me."

Harden is currently writing a new feature screenplay while fielding offers from impressed producers and hand-selling the "dog movie" on his website (www.johnfilms.com), which is how most movies are marketed in the new indie film world. It's often easier to sell a DVD on the Internet than it is to convince a studio to distribute the product.

Harden holds fast to the dream that it is possible to be artistically and financially successful without having to relocate to Hollywood. "It's not that far away, Hollywood," he says. "If I need to, if I get the work I hope to get, I'll commute. I love the North Bay. This is where I learned to be a filmmaker, where I'm still learning. If I can help it, I'm not going anywhere."

Mitch Altieri and Phil Flores

Mitch Altieri wrote the relatively cheerful Lurking in Suburbia after spending three years making, editing and attempting to distribute Long Cut, a lusciously shot, low-budget drama about the unlikely friendship between a mute girl and the might-as-well-be-mute ex-convict who tends horses on her grandfather's Sonoma County ranch. Co-written and co-directed with Phil Flores, the manic-depressive Long Cut baffled distributors and festival programmers alike, and Altieri turned to producing television commercials while contemplating his next move.

As he was contemplating, he turned 30.

Since he is also a filmmaker, the Petaluma resident did what any other experienced filmmaker who'd just hit the big three-oh would do: he made a film about it. The result is Lurking in Suburbia, filmed in Pacifica with a cast and crew from around the Bay Area, a soundtrack by local favorite the Velvet Teen and beer amply provided by Lagunitas Brewing Co. The comedy-drama--written and filmed in quick order compared to Long Cut, and produced by Flores--went on to sell out every screening during its world premiere at the CineVegas Film Festival in 2004.

Having their film compared to the likes of Beautiful Girls and High Fidelity, and receiving enthusiastic thumbs-up from festivalgoing folks like Sarah Polley and Darren Aronofsky, put the filmmakers' names into Hollywood circulation and sparked off several months of negotiations with major distributors. Lion's Gate approached. Miramax called. The guys from Petaluma ended up receiving dozens of requests for screener tapes of the movie.

"Suddenly, we were playing the Hollywood game," Altieri says, "which was a bit of a challenge because, being from the Bay Area, we really didn't know that much about the Hollywood game."

After a year of meetings and negotiations and the occasional disappointment ("There was a lot of interest, but the offers weren't all that great," says Flores), Lurking has finally found a distributor in San Francisco's Zealot Pictures and will be given a wide, and potentially well-paying, release on DVD. They've since gone on to produce a third film, an eerie horror film called The Hamiltons. "Ideally," Altieri says, "I'd love to make a career out of telling Northern California tales the way Woody Allen tells New York tales. That's the big dream."

Scott Daigle

Scott Daigle is working hard to finish the editing and sound on his first feature film, and once word gets out about how he made the movie and what it's about, he has every chance of becoming a celebrated legend within the independent filmmaking world. Replica is a broad, surreal comedy about the poor human beings who, like Daigle in real life, work the graveyard shift at an internationally known 24-hour print shop. The film was shot, without management ever knowing, during the graveyard shift over nine nights in April of 2004 at the actual outlet where Daigle works.

During filming, the company's name was covered up by fake signs featuring the fictional store name Replica, and since the store was actually up and running as the movie was shot, there is the occasional moment of confusion when real customers wander in and find themselves in an alternate version of a late-night print shop.

"It was a really fun thing to do, a fun movie to make," says Daigle. "I will tell you, though, that the first night of shooting was absolutely the scariest night of my life. It's fun to sit around and say, 'Hey, maybe I should direct a movie!' But when you are actually standing there in front of a cast and crew, and they are all saying, 'OK, tell us what to do,' it's terrifying. I almost threw up the first night on the set."

Daigle hopes to have the film completed by September, after which he will attempt to distribute the film himself over his website, still to be built.

"With Replica, if we can somehow get the word out just to the Kinko's workers of the world, and if only a fraction of them find the website and order the movie, we'll do well," Daigle says. "My first and foremost reason for making the movie--and I'm serious--is to give something back to the copying industry. I wanted to make a movie we can all gather around and have a laugh about."

Daigle hopes his experiences making the film, and any legend that arises around how he made it, will inspire other untried filmmakers to give it a go.

"Today, in the place and time we live, this is the best time ever, ever, ever to be an independent filmmaker," he says. "There are no longer any excuses. You can't say, 'Oh, well, I would make a movie, but it's too expensive' or 'I just can't do it because I can't get access to the postproduction equipment.' The power to make movies is absolutely in anybody's hands right now. Anybody who wants to can do it."

Abe Levy and Silver Tree

Lifelong Sonoma County resident Abe Levy has proven himself a filmmaker to the degree that he actually has a second home in Hollywood, where he gets regular film- and television-related work. For years, he's written and directed his own films while working to support the projects of several other North Bay filmmakers. Along the way, he's figured out how to work the system, and is the frontrunner to becoming the first Wild Bunch member to hit fame and fortune in a big way.

His ambitious, new guerrilla-style feature film, The Aviary--co-written with Silver Tree, formerly of Petaluma--is about flight attendants, and it bears the distinction of having been filmed in eight different locations all over the world, on planes and in hotel rooms from Hawaii to New York to Paris, in spite of having been made on almost no budget.

"We pulled it off because we had a tiny crew," says Levy, "and because most of the time, the airlines and airports didn't know we were doing it. Of course, it helps that Silver Tree is an actual flight attendant, so I could send her to work with a camera to get establishing shots when she traveled."

Levy worked as director and cinematographer, and The Aviary, it so happens, features a bona fide Hollywood movie star: Josh Randall, Ed's best friend on the TV series Ed.

"We shot for a year," says Levy. "Half of the film was made in 10 days, but then it took us a year to shoot the rest, off and on."

After a recent weeklong theatrical run at the Lark Theater, The Aviary found a surprising amount of financial success once Levy and Tree began selling DVDs of the film on the Internet (www.theaviarymovie.com). Recognizing that the film would be of interest to folks in the airline industry as well as to other indie filmmakers who wish they'd figured out how to make a film all over the world for free, Levy and Tree have built word of mouth for the film by talking it up on industry chat rooms.

Next up for Levy and Tree is a film called One of Our Own, to which the intensely talented Jeremy Sisto (who played Billy, Brenda's crazy, incestuous brother on Six Feet Under) is attached.

Asked about Lucas and Coppola's famous prediction, Levy believes that if it comes to pass, it won't be something that just happens.

"You can't wait for someone to come along and offer you a movie deal," he says. "You have to go out and make it happen for yourself. You have to make your movies on your own. It's possible now. And you have to market and sell them yourself, which is also possible now. And if people from the Bay Area really want to see Bay Area films, they will have to go on the Internet and find them, because they are out there, though they might not be coming to a theater near you.

"Slowly," he says, "little by little, things will get better for all of us."

Not So Pretty Picture

An independent legend's dissenting opinion

While some celebrate the recent technologies that have made it possible for every man, woman and child to become a filmmaker, there are those who are not so sure that all of this free artistic expression is good for the cinematic art.

"Sure, anyone can grab a camera and make a movie," says producer Saul Zaentz, "but not everybody can make a picture." That secret, according to Zaentz, is in finding and telling a story that people will love, and then telling that story well.

"Too many of today's filmmakers start rolling film before they've figured that out," Zaentz says, "and the result is a lot of interesting but completely unwatchable films. They aren't beautiful to look at. They aren't going to transport anyone to another world. That's what a good picture should do."

"What's good about these film festivals," Zaentz remarked at a reception in his honor at last year's Sonoma Valley Film Festival, "is that many filmmakers can use them to find success and to kick off the beginnings of their career. That's good. At the same time, others will end up realizing, once they show the films they've been making in front of real audiences, that they aren't really filmmakers after all, that their minds just don't travel that way. That's good, too. You have to weed out the ones who don't have what it takes.

"I like the enthusiasm that all of these young filmmakers have," he continues. "Unfortunately, some of them have enthusiasm and not much else. They are stymied by what they know or think they know, and they haven't allowed themselves a chance to learn how to make a picture by working their way up in the industry or experiencing the business as an apprentice." Noting the increased number of Bay Area filmmakers with features and shorts in local film festivals, Zaentz remarks, "It's wonderful! It's great! I love it! I'm glad these films have been made!

"And fortunately," he laughs, "I don't have to watch them."


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From the August 24-30, 2005 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.

Copyright © 2005 Metro Publishing Inc. Maintained by Boulevards New Media.

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