It's 2pm on a luminous, mildly chilly early-December Tuesday. The back parking lot of Brookside's nightclub, Jewel, has been converted into a resting place for grip trucks, catering tents and talent trailers. A flurry of people are exiting the club's back entrance just as I arrive; lunch has been called and a Mexican feast awaits in the craft services tent set up just behind the old Delta Café on Peoria.
I'm escorted by a friendly and very caffeinated publicist named Ray Seggern who's flown up from his home in Austin to check on the film's progress. Before we're even through the door, he's asking a crew member to locate the main actor for an interview.
"Can we get him with Jack during lunch?" Seggern says. "I want him talking to Jack or Justin right now."
Justin, the film's director, appears. Seggern introduces me and asks the director if he has time to chat. He politely says no, not right now, and runs off. With an interview yet to be confirmed, Caffeinated Ray leads me inside Jewel for a brief tour of what has been converted into a fully functioning movie set.
As we enter, I notice that a lounge area to my left has been converted into wardrobe and make-up. Ahead, I see that the center of the club in front of the stage is covered in equipment- cables, cords, c-stands and more. Lights are shuffled about the main stage as someone runs around with a digital camera, presumably filming behind-the-scenes material for the DVD. A few extras wonder aimlessly, stretching before they're trapped back in their seats for several more hours of filming. They stand by a cluster of bar tables, which is parted by dolly tracks running up to the stage. On the dolly is the Red One, an $18,000 digital camera that's been championed by Peter Jackson and Steven Soderbergh as a major breakthrough for digital filmmaking. According to Seggern, this is the first unionized film in Oklahoma to utilize the Red One. As I admire the camera, he points across the room. Another of the same model rests on a tripod.
"We have two of them," he says beaming.
I tell him that I'm excited to see the yielded footage. He asks if I want to see the sizzler, and before I can ask him what a "sizzler" is, he's led me to an elevated corner where a lanky young guy is running sound.
"This is Ryan," Seggern said.
Ryan is the editor of the film as well as one of the producers. Seggern eagerly tells Ryan that I want to see the sizzler. Ryan, anticipating my ignorance, explained to me that a sizzler (or sizzlecut) is an extended trailer of completed footage cut together specifically for the film's investors. Yes, I tell him, I'd definitely like to see the sizzler. He rolls it.
What unfolds before me is a tease of The Rock 'N' Roll Dreams of Duncan Christopher, a film that could potentially turn out to be Tulsa's most successful cinematic showcase since Coppola's S.E. Hinton adaptations. To the tune of "Mama Told Me Not to Come," a highlight reel showcases the rhythms of what appears to be a quirky indie comedy, though dialogue and sound are unfinished and therefore all but completely absent.
From the look of it, the film seems to approach its story with the kind of regional idiosyncrasy and dry wit that made Napoleon Dynamite a success, though the similarities end there. Duncan Christopher is more cinematic, some of the shots are highly stylized and all of it is very pretty. As a Tulsa film, its chances at breakout success seem comparable to the work of Sterlin Harjo (Four Sheets to the Wind, Barking Water) and Todd Edwards (Chillicothe, Hoodwinked!). Meaning, Duncan Christopher looks like it may be a real movie- something that could be successfully theatrically distributed to a larger viewing audience. If the final product is as funny and warm as its makers believe it will be, it won't be hard to find that large audience.
Working from Home
Filmmakers in this city sometimes seem insulated from reality; that is to say, standards of quality may be a bit lower because the relatively recent democratization of the process has inundated our city with aspiring but inexperienced would-be directors and screenwriters who have yet to grow into themselves. Many seem too enamored with the mere fact that they even have the resources to make a movie; there's still a "Look Ma, I'm editing!" mentality of giddiness that clouds creative judgment.
In the blue-collar digital filmmaking world (not limited to Tulsa- there's a proliferation of amateur work across the country that's clogging festivals and dragging independent film into the gutter), there's an empty preoccupation with technical proficiency/aesthetic beauty that obfuscates fundamentals like character development, a tight script, competent performance, pacing, etc.
The usual self-consciousness of Tulsa, as well as its artistic adolescence, is never more apparent than when viewing the output of our local filmmakers. That's not to criticize our artists; anyone willing to put themselves out there, to shed the blood, sweat and tears necessary to make even a short film, should be commended. Moviemaking is an exhausting, frustrating experience that requires enormous strength and resolve.
But a local film community feeds off itself, and when the most talented and matured of the bunch inevitably leave for L.A. or Austin or Dallas or New York, there's a constant void, an invisible ceiling that's hit every time a filmmaker comes into his own and then immediately packs his bags. Of all the places to try to build a film career, Tulsa is not the first city that comes to mind. Which is where Duncan Christopher and its makers come into the picture.
Enter: The Dream
The creative team behind the film is born out of two companies- Tandem Arts and Hearth Creative. The collaboration is a synthesis of two Los Angeles-based production companies run by Tulsa expatriates who've returned to their hometown to make a movie that will hopefully make Tulsa a more visible mark on the national cinema landscape.
It's a family affair on a massive scale; the $500,000 feature is produced by two husband-and-wife teams- Jack and Heather Roberts (of Hearth Creative, which recently relocated from L.A. to Tulsa), and Ryan and Gillian Fritzsche (from Tandem Arts). Jack Roberts is also the screenwriter and lead actor, and Ryan Fritzsche is the aforementioned editor. The film's director, Justin Monroe, is also a founding member of Tandem, a producer on the film and supporting actor. Additionally, the Tulsa Film Funding Group is executive producing via its founder, Tulsa stalwart and artist facilitator Jim Edwards.
Most of the aforementioned players grew up in Tulsa, as well as supporting actors Marshall Bell (a veteran actor whose long list of credits include Stand By Me, Total Recall and Capote) and Peter Bedgood (Chillicothe) and female lead Lizz Carter (Bad News Bears). Several of them attended school at Oral Roberts University, and Monroe was the lead singer of the '90s local act Jify Trip.
The Tulsa roots run deep. Curiously, they all ended up in L.A., mostly independently of each other. And serendipitously, they all came together to make a movie in Tulsa.
The film tells the story of Duncan Christopher (Roberts), a socially handicapped 30-year-old would-be rock star from Collinsville, Okla. Duncan futilely pursues fame as a musician with a lack of self-awareness and the child-like determination of a young boy. His social awkwardness stems from a life of home-schooling, and his stubborn dream of celebrity is tangential to his deceased father (Monroe), a washed-up rocker who committed suicide when Duncan was 10 years old. The story follows the exploits of Duncan and his cousin Charlie as they travel to the big city of Tulsa in hopes of landing gigs outside of their regular Collinsville roller-skating rink performances. Duncan ends up in a citywide karaoke competition, the best he can do with such little talent.
"I'm a big fan of awkwardness," Roberts explained when I finally caught up with him. "Awkward comedy is very funny- I'm a big fan of the British Office." Roberts said the story came to him in a weekend, when he was managing a coffee shop across the street from the Viper Room in Los Angeles. "There were all these rock 'n' roll wannabes that kept coming in all the time, and one of them applied for a job. All he could talk about were the hot chicks at the Viper Room and how he was going to be this huge rock star, and that was sort of when the character popped into my head."
He wrote the first draft during the course of a few short days, and spent the next year rewriting, finally arriving at a final script after a few dozen rough drafts.
"I was originally going to produce and direct," he said. "I moved here last October ('07) to produce this. I thought I had funding, but (when I arrived) the funding wasn't there. I kept trying to meet with people, but nothing was happening. There was just this missing element."
At the same time, Monroe, who was coming back to Tulsa for the holidays, had been thinking about Roberts and was trying to get in touch with him.
"Everything just felt like it was at a standstill," Roberts continued. "My wife, who's incredibly wise, sat down with me and said 'Okay, we're going to play a free association word game.'"
Heather Roberts told her husband to answer each question she asked him immediately with the first answer that popped into his head. His stream-of-conscious answers were surprising.
"She said, 'Who's going to direct?' I immediately said 'Justin.'"
He immediately called Monroe, met up with him, and boldly explained that Monroe would be directing and co-producing his film. Monroe agreed, and they began the search for funding. They were introduced to Jim Edwards, who assured them that he could procure the necessary dollars. After an extended period of stalling, the film was suddenly on track for production.
Ready the Set and Go
Just more than a year after Monroe first agreed to direct, I'm standing on the sidelines observing the last week of shooting. On the Jewel stage, Carter, a pretty, 20-something brunette sporting angular, cropped hair and a cream-colored evening dress, valiantly sings the same sappy '80s love song for the fifth time. Her character, Geneveve, is the love interest and main karaoke competitor of Duncan, and the scene requires her to flub her lines and melt down mid-song. The actress very professionally hits all the same emotional beats over and over as Monroe runs through multiple takes. Finally he calls cut and announces an angle change. It's time to film the audience's reaction.
Monroe and crew quickly round up the few wandering extras who aren't already in place, but the tables still seem a bit under-populated.
Seggern suggests that I jump in. I'm nursing a cold and sneezing frequently, so I politely decline on grounds of not wanting to ruin continuity (if I sneeze once during a take, I'll have to sneeze at the same point for every angle change). I don't tell him that I'm mildly agoraphobic and terrified of cameras, and soon I'm coaxed by him and Monroe to take a seat next to another extra.
"Lauren, this is Josh. He's going to be your date for the night," introduced Monroe.
Lauren and I make small talk and play tic-tac-toe on our Styrofoam water cups until "Quiet on the set!" is announced. For the next hour and a half, we pantomime enjoyment followed by disgust and embarrassment. Geneveve sings, we like it. She forgets her lines, we're sad for her. She breaks down on stage, we're annoyed and embarrassed. I sneeze. Wash, rinse, repeat. The tedium and workmanlike process of filmmaking is on full display; everyone has a job to do. When someone screws up, things come to a standstill. Fortunately, screw-ups on this set seem to be kept to a minimum. And when the occasional mistake is made, Monroe is extraordinarily patient and forgiving.
The pressure and time constraints that accompany coordinating a project of this size can sometimes result in a psychotic director, someone who screams and throws chairs when a blunder is made. Monroe is just the opposite; he and Roberts share a perpetual optimism that seems to have infected the rest of the crew- the harmonious nature of the set is almost alarming. With each direction, Monroe speaks with the earnestness and excitement of someone who hasn't been working grueling 12 to 15 hour days for the last month.
"I left Tulsa thinking 'I'm out of here man, I am done with this place'," Monroe explained.
After Jify Trip broke up in the late '90s, Monroe decided to go back to school to learn how to make movies. He ended up in L.A., where he and Fritzsche started Tandem Arts.
"We started doing music videos, small commercial things and corporate videos," he said. "We also started shooting short films."
Every weekend, Monroe and his peers would make a short, with each person taking up a new crew position.
"Each week somebody would direct, somebody else would gaff, somebody would DP, somebody else would script, somebody else would produce," he said. "We would just rotate; we shot a ton of them with the hope of just getting better and better, making our mistakes, finding our voice."
This process eventually produced a short film entitled Slumlord, which cost $5,000 and took just two weeks to shoot and edit. With the short, which played at festivals across the country, Tandem Arts was able to attract investors who were interested in funding a feature-length version of the film. Then Roberts called.
"I came home for Christmas and Jack just threw this project at me," Monroe said. "I was like, 'Oh weird, I've been knowing that I needed to talk to you, but I wasn't sure why.'"
After consideration, Monroe decided to put Slumlord on hold and commit fully to producing and directing. That required moving back to Tulsa, something he approached with some trepidation.
"I had to heal a lot of old wounds," he said. "I had to re-engage with this community. But then I started to realize how gorgeous (Tulsa) was. I started to realize how great the people were."
Another thing Monroe noticed was the music scene. When Jify Trip played in the '90s, Monroe said that besides Cain's and the Brady (which were rare occasions for local artists), there were only two venues for bands to play original music.
"If you wanted to play here and make money, you had to do cover songs," he explained. "Now, I can't believe all the places around here that are into original music."
Monroe sees this as a larger sign of things to come for Tulsa.
"People are starting to own their city. It's crazy," he continued. "The creators, the musicians, the filmmakers, the painters and the photographers have started owning it- they're buying up space downtown and taking control."
He gives the Mayor and the local film commission credit for facilitating a very artist-friendly city, financially speaking.
"(They're) starting to grow it from the inside out. Instead of trying to bring the next Tom Cruise movie in, they're saying, 'Hey, let's invest in the people making the movies here.'"
The positive experience with local investors and the city itself led to Monroe and Roberts agreeing to film two more movies here once Duncan Christopher is completed.
For now, their plan is to finish this picture, which, according to Monroe, will involve five to six months of intense post-production back in Los Angeles. "We have a lot of green screen work," he said. "We just have a lot going on in this movie and it's going to take some finessing. It's gotta be right."
Once completed, they plan to show the film to distribution contacts they have in L.A. and New York. According to Roberts, they're in direct contact with distribution acquisition executives at several major indie studios, including Fox Searchlight and Focus Features, and they hope to screen Duncan Christopher for them first. Depending on how that goes, they'll head straight to festival circuit and begin to market the film through exhibition.
Monroe and Roberts are crossing their fingers. They've purposely included as many regional and city quirks as possible, and if the film blows up, Tulsa will be reaping the benefits.
"If it gets big, it'll definitely help bolster tourism," Roberts predicted. "There's a lot of regionalisms, we're showcasing a lot of local businesses and calling them what they are. Jewel's probably going to have to have karaoke now because of the movie."
In addition to Jewel, some of the city's eccentricities featured in the film are Dwelling Spaces, Marshall Beer, the Gypsy Coffeehouse and the clothing of Louis & Cluck.
"We're trying to create a self-fulfilling prophecy, ya know?" Roberts continued. "All it really takes is one (successful film) to hit it and get the ball rolling. In Utah, where they shot Napoleon Dynamite, they're shooting like 50 films a year now. Same thing happened in Austin, Shreveport and Albuquerque."
There's no question that Roberts and Monroe are dreaming big. The possibility of failure doesn't seem to bother either of them, or even register.
"I'm not talking about money," Monroe said. "But I absolutely guarantee you that this is a successful film."
Meaning that, for Roberts and Monroe, it's been a process of growth and creation that's brought about only good things for the two of them. As a catalyst for a homecoming, The Rock 'N' Roll Dreams of Duncan Christopher definitely seems like a hit. But disregarding emotional and spiritual success, what happens if the film doesn't catch on or get picked up?
"Hopefully the doors will open," Monroe said. "If not, we'll just force them open. And then we'll jump right into our next project."
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