Local Films Breed and Interbreed

Posted by phultstrand // October 28, 2013 // in Features // 0 Comments


by Hal C F Astell

Peek beneath the slick surface of shiny Hollywood product shown at your local multiplex and you'll find a thriving local scene that's on the upswing.

Arizona filmmakers have been making their own movies for a long while, work that is often just as fun and usually much more interesting than the same old regurgitated stories the big studios throw us. Not costing tens of millions of dollars and not starring Nicolas Cage is a good thing, trust me. The last few months seem determined to underline that this local scene is growing, not just counting what's being uploaded to YouTube or Vimeo, but what's premiéring on the big screens of the valley.


At the end of July, no less than 22 short films premiéred at the Phoenix Art Museum as part of the IFP Phoenix 2013 Beat the Clock challenge.

IFP, the Independent Feature Project, is a collective of local non-profit organizations and the Phoenix chapter grew out of the Phoenix Film Project back in 2006. It provides support to local filmmakers, but to those of us who watch movies rather than make them, it's best known for its regular film challenges and Beat the Clock is the most popular.

The Beat the Clock challenge is a riot, perhaps why many teams come back year after year. Each competing team is tasked with making a short film, usually three to five minutes in length, entirely within 48 hours. That means writing, casting, shooting, editing and scoring a film in only two days. Sleep is not always an option. To make the challenge even harder and even more fun, teams are restricted in a number of other ways: they have to work within one of a small number of required genres, use a required line of dialogue and include a required prop. Prizes are given not only for the usual categories like Best Picture or Best Actor but for the best use of those lines and props.

This year saw 22 films screened on the evening of Friday, 26th July at the Phoenix Art Museum, to a packed audience of filmmaking teams and their families and members of the public. If 22 movies isn't enough of a draw, the event kicked off with live music and ended with cupcakes from Kiki's Cupcake Service, who really ought to cater every event in the valley.

The winner of the Best Picture award was Running Wild Films, a regular competitor and previous winner, with a hilarious comedy called Star Babies, directed by Travis Mills and featuring a lot of recognisable local actors. Running Wild are the most prolific production company in the valley, making enough films that I can open up every month at Apocalypse Later with a new review of a Running Wild film and never run out of choices.

Next up for IFP is the new Mystery Box challenge, a similar concept in which each team in competition conjures up its own prop and line of dialogue, all of which are then collated and divvied out at random. That means that each team will have to work to restrictions set by a competing team. Sounds like fun, huh? Well, we'll find out how fun when submitted films are screened on Thursday, 14th November at the Harkins Theater in Phoenix, just off the 101 and Scottsdale Road, where the Phoenix Film Festival is held every year.

IFP's web page is http://www.ifpphx.org and their filmmaker challenge page can be found here: http://www.ifpphx.org/create/filmmaker-challenges.


Congratulations are certainly due to Travis Mills and Running Wild Films for winning this year's Beat the Clock challenge. What's most amazing about their win, though, is that they managed it during the completion of an even more outrageous challenge of their own.

Running Wild are making no less than 52 films in the 52 weeks of 2013, all short films adapted from short stories in the public domain. As I write, they've just completed shooting film #37, so they're still on schedule. It's pretty astounding that a small production company with a small crew can churn out so many films in so short a time, but still keep quality up to the degree that it can win film challenges. Well, that crazy schedule doesn't stop them making features too.

Just under two years ago, in October 2011, I was at Pollack Tempe Cinemas as part of a huge crowd for the premiére of Running Wild's debut feature, The Big Something, a quirky and successful comedy with a wonderful soundtrack to rival Léolo or O Brother, Where Art Thou? I got round to reviewing it in July 2012, to tie in with the premiére of its follow up, a film noir called The Detective's Lover, which screened for three nights at FilmBar in Phoenix and co-starred The WOD columnist, Cara Nicole. Back at Pollack Tempe, they just premiéred feature number three on Friday, 30th August. That's The Men Who Robbed the Bank.

It's a crime drama that starts when the bank robbery of the title is over, the five men who did the job waiting at a safe house for their boss to show up and split the take. It's an interesting film that delights in confounding our expectations, allowing Mills to explore his more experimental side. Viewers new to Running Wild should probably start with short films like The Memory Ride, Star Babies or Itty Bitty Bang Bang; or with The Big Something.

The Men Who Robbed the Bank features a number of Running Wild regulars, like Rob Edwards and Jonathan Medina. Many also appeared in their Beat the Clock winning short, Star Babies, including Michael Hanelin, Colleen Hartnett, Stacie Stocker and Michael Coleman. Hanelin and Hartnett in particular often appear together in Running Wild films, where their screen relationship is developing in odd ways, from character to character.

Running Wild's short films are free to view online at Vimeo and YouTube and their features are available for paid download at mindplate.tv or their own website, http://www.runningwildfilms.com. Mills is even starting to post versions of his films with director or cast commentaries. He's a busy man.


The local community is a vibrant and busy one, but it's still small enough that the more prolific actors are as recognizable in local films as the big Hollywood stars are in summer blockbusters. They're also recognizable at these events, as many of them come out to support each other's films.

For instance, Rob Edwards and Stacie Stocker, two of the stars of The Men Who Robbed the Bank, were at FilmBar only a week later for the premiére of a film they weren't involved with, Biology 101 from Second Feature Productions. In fact, it screened as part of the monthly Arizona Filmmakers Showcase, which showed local films selected and hosted by Brett Walker, Christopher Coffel and Matthew Robinson, filmmakers themselves but also the hosts of the Dark of the Matinee podcast and website.

I really enjoyed Biology 101 at FilmBar, even though I'd seen it a couple of times before as a critic. It's a little more salacious than your usual local film, as we get to see the boobs of Noelle DuBois rather often. The story focuses on a community college science teacher who has become addicted to the porn site of Dani Darling. He's doing a good job of screwing up his life and that of his family, but then the girl behind Dani Darling shows up in his biology class and things get much more tense.

Christopher Smith and Liz Bradley promise to be big names in the local film community, not only with Biology 101 finally being seen, but with their second feature, We Three, a comedy about a threesome that turns into something more, having completed post production. I got to see them in action on their last day of shooting, when I played an extra in a bar scene, and I was thoroughly impressed with the professionalism of their cast and crew. Hopefully you'll be able to see both Biology 101 and We Three sometime next year.

Playing in support of Biology 101 in this month's Arizona Filmmakers Showcase were two local short films, The Lakeside Killer and Tough Love.

I'd seen The Lakeside Killer when it premiéred at FilmBar a year earlier and it was just as much fun second time around. It's a half hour found footage film that explores one man's search for the serial killer who murdered his girlfriend at Tempe Beach Park and presumably accounted for others in the neighboring area. Interestingly, director Bret Thomas found himself talking to the cops for real, after he fliered fake missing posters around Tempe to advertise his film and they took umbrage.

Tough Love, from Pat Giglio, is a drama about a teenager getting a life lesson about family. It had a notable performance from young Brandon Dorssom, who isn't just making a name for himself as an actor, he's drawing his father into acting too. That's Born of Fire drummer, Steve Dorssom, who made a documentary feature about his first band, Ripsaw, that played the Jerome Indie Film & Music Festival earlier this year. The music video for the Born of Fire song that played during Tough Love, was screened after it, with the recognizable face of Rob Edwards.

FilmBar is the best place to see movies downtown. Show times can be found on their website, http://www.thefilmbarphx.com. Dark of the Matinee host there once a month, but run their podcast from http://www.darkofthematinee.com. Second Feature Productions are at http://www.secondfeatureproductions.com and their films are on Facebook. The Lakeside Killer can be watched at http://darkframeproductions.com/the-lakeside-killer.

Next month's Arizona Filmmakers Showcase on Friday, 5th October showcases Pizza Shop: The Movie, an outrageously crude comedy that impressed at Jerome this year and which coincidentally features Chelsea Claire, one of the title characters in We Three. In support is the documentary short, Final Flight, about a World War II pilot returning to the skies at the age of 91.


Perhaps the most memorable recent premiére came in between these events. The day after the Beat the Clock challenge, the folk behind Blackout pulled out all the stops at Pollack Tempe Cinemas for a very old school event.

Blackout is a new feature but it doesn't look it. Doug Monce, the writer/director, is a huge fan of film noir and that's exactly what he made with Blackout. He shot over four years in black and white, in the old 4:3 aspect ratio and even with mono sound, all to replicate the feel of the classics that inspired him and make it feel like it had been made in 1953. The premiére screening was even kicked off with a cartoon, just to get the older members of the audience in a nostalgic mood.

To add to the effect, he literally rolled out the red carpet at Pollack Tempe for the cast and crew to walk up. They arrived in vintage automobiles and were met by the flashing cameras of paparazzi, dressed in period costume and led by my better half, who had an absolute blast. She also handled the set photography for We Three. Connections in local film start at home.

Local filmmakers were out in force, including that omnipresent Rob Edwards, along with Nathan Blackwell from Squishy Studios; Jump Ship Productions' J P Frydrych and Nicki Legge; the elegant Anne Gentry; filmmaker and professor Christopher Bradley; and Jon Ray, who was all over the Beat the Clock challenge this year like a rash. He played a small part in Running Wild's winning film, Star Babies, and a bigger one in the runner up, Eva's Light. He also found time to compose an excellent score for the latter film, all within that one busy weekend. He was even an extra in the same bar scene of We Three that I was. He certainly gets around.

Blackout has a strong local cast, led by Toby Ambrose and Katherine Stewart and with strong support from Tracy Timm, who ably channels Barbara Stanwyck. Many of the actors are stage trained and some plied their trade on the boards at Stewart's excellent Desert Rose Theatre.

Most of this cast and crew, starting with Ambrose and Stewart, are very familiar to fans of Mantecoza, formerly a stop/start web series and now the most anticipated steampunk feature film in the valley. They've finally completed filming and footage was showcased at a well populated panel at Phoenix ComiCon this year, highlighting solid effects work from two time Emmy winner David Stipes.

Stipes provided some effects work for Blackout too, but mostly it's a tough character driven piece, revolving around a private detective who wakes up one day in a motel room, without his memory but with people apparently trying to kill him. To stay alive, he has to figure out who he is and what he's managed to get himself into. From there, it unfolds in the manner you might expect if you've watched enough films noir. If you haven't, you should start now.

Blackout can be found on Facebook as BlackoutFilmNoir.


FilmBar is already a key location for local film, but Pollack Tempe is fast becoming one too. Also independent and locally owned, it boasts a stunning collection of memorabilia all around the lobby. Victor Moreno's Cult Classics fills a 500 seat theater there every month (his October screening is Army of Darkness, which has already been pimped by Bruce Campbell himself). Pollack Tempe is also racking up more and more local premiéres.

One that I couldn't make last month was Celestial Hunt, from New Eden Productions. It's the second installment in a religious drama/thriller trilogy begun by last year's Celestial Run, which is available at iTunes.

This one adds a recognizable local actor in Bill Wetherall, but to bring this article full circle, two of the leads, Cisco Saavedra and Kristi Lawrence, were also part of one of the Beat the Clock challenge entries this year, a short film called An Adventure in the Life of Barry Barksworth.

This is one of the joys of keeping up with the local film community: we see talent appear and grow from short films to features and, unfortunately, often on out of state. Traditionally, if you get big enough here, you drive down I-10 to LA and join the Hollywood hopefuls. Sometimes it seems like we lose decent actors every week here. As I write, Cavin Gray Schneider is literally on the road to whatever destiny he can conjure up in Hollywood.

If you want to watch them in their early years though, you should jump at the opportunity to see local film on the big screen, whether it's at an IFP challenge evening, a selection at the Phoenix Film Festival or a feature premiére. You surely can't say no to free selections like the upcoming FilmStock in the Park event on Saturday, 5th October at the Civic Space Park in downtown Phoenix. That'll include some FilmStock films and some IFP films. It'll be a great place for you to start.

Most of the films mentioned in this article have been reviewed at Apocalypse Later. Those that haven't yet, will be at some point.


Hal C F Astell writes reviews of films from the 1900s to the 2010s at Apocalypse Later, with a focus on what most critics don't cover. He is the author of two books, Huh? An A-Z of Why Classic American Bad Movies Were Made and Velvet Glove Cast in Iron: The Films of Tura Satana. Both are available at Amazon. http://www.apocalypselaterfilm.com/

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