Made In Michigan: Indie Film
The old warehouse is bare. The roar of traffic outside halts production at regular intervals. Actors run and jump in front of countless blue walls that make you feel as if you've been thrust inside a video game.
No, this isn't the latest Hollywood blockbuster being shot on the sprawling sound stages of a Hollywood studio. Veteran, award-winning special effects expert John Higbie's science fiction film "The Magic Mentah," aka "Amsteroid," was shot entirely inside an abandoned warehouse on Jackson Road in Ann Arbor.
Higbie opted for digital sets and locations, photographing talent on a blue-screen stage. This eliminates set construction, storage, prep and disposal. "Digital set-pieces created for one show can be re-used without warehousing costs," he says. "We're getting closer to the point where the variables are limited to the talent themselves."
The old model used to be you had to move to Hollywood in order to make films. However, new technology and a quality-of-life awareness have combined to bring about a shift in that old paradigm.
Higbie's credits include "Titanic," "I, Robot," "Journey to the Center of the Earth 3-D," "The Time Machine" and a long list of blockbuster films. This Michigan native returned home after working 18 years in LA in the visual effects business for quality of life reasons.
"I wanted my life to revolve around more than just my craft," says Higbie. "You reach a point where you ask yourself if your day-to-day life is what you want it
to be. Can you look out your window and see the color green?"
But moving away from an industry as geographically rooted as Hollywood is difficult. Even with the advances of technology and communications, maintaining a long distance career in the film industry is difficult.
"Projects come and go. You need resident production companies who are doing recognized work. Even one such company would make a major difference, like Will Vinton did for Portland and WETA for New Zealand," says Higbie.
You can also add to that list Austin native Robert Rodriguez, whose Troublemaker Studios has singularly transformed the Texas college town into a major film production hub. It's that kind of regional loyalty the Michigan film community is starving for. Native sons like Sam Raimi, Mike Binder, and David Goyer have all made highly successful names for themselves in Hollywood, but had to move away in order to do it. And they haven't returned.
So, a new generation of filmmakers needs to sow the soil in Michigan, pursuing their independent projects and hopefully sticking around once they find success.
"The basic problem for independent filmmakers usually occurs in pre-production; raising the money," says Janet Lockwood, Director of the Michigan Film Office. "I do wish our filming incentive threshold was lower than $200,000 so small budget filmmakers could take advantage. We're working on that."
Like Massachusetts and Texas, Michigan has enacted legislation to revitalize its film economy but some say it doesn't go far enough. Along with more tax incentives, assistance raising capital and greater access to technical support are vital to developing an industry. Unfortunately, government isn't well-suited for this kind of industry development. What Michigan needs is a "center of gravity" to attract all levels of the movie-making industry to move here permanently.
Until then, local filmmakers are left to their own devices.
"I love Michigan," says Detroit Public School teacher and independent filmmaker Marcus G. Davenport, "there are so many stories to tell."
Davenport spent nearly $40,000 and worked as a one-man film crew to produce his basketball documentary, "Flint Star:The Motion Picture." It was tough row to hoe but the fledgling filmmaker not only remains undaunted, he's already putting together his next project: A football documentary called "Life In The League," with current and former NFL stars going on the record to describe their lives as pro football players.
It's that same inspiration and do-it-yourself spirit that fuels partners Anthony Vallone and Sara Stepnicka. Producing the as-yet unreleased drama "Sometimes in Life" as well as "The Mongol King" and the upcoming sci-fi film "Road Kill," the duo soldier on even though they have experienced incredible set backs.
"A month before production our team split, leaving us to rewrite the script with $10,000 less than what we had to begin with," says Anthony Vallone. "Our camera broke three times and we ran out of money about a week before production ended. We scoured the entire state of Michigan only to find no-one had the camera we were using (Canon XL-H1). That was a tremendous wave to ride out but in the end it actually made the project better."
What saved Vallone and Stepnicka's production wasn't a large infusion of cash, but a determination to overcome obstacles and create new solutions to problems.
"One thing we have that doesn't cost anything is a belief in ourselves. When things don't go our way, we make a new way that will work," says Sara Stepnicka.
Resources are not as plentiful, but the Midwest work ethic and fascination with the motion-picture process makes filming in Michigan unique.
"Being an independent filmmaker in Michigan presents certain challenges," says Derek Justice. "There's a smaller resource pool, but it also generates more excitement. In LA everyone is doing a movie, so it's nothing special. Here, people are more interested in participating in independent productions."
Justice and his cousin, David DeLeon, together wrote, directed and produced the award-winning local independent film, "Broken," a stylish, character-driven drama about four people whose lives are placed on a collision course by a childhood tragedy.
Produced for $975, the film is a testament to creativity and inventiveness, neatly illustrating what can be accomplished in Michigan right now without any fundraising or schooling.
"With technology where it is today it's possible for two guys from the mid-west, with no money, to shoot a feature length film that could stand up, on every level, with the multi-million dollar features coming out of Hollywood," says David DeLeon.
Lee Runchey of Silver Media Group, the duo's publicist, adds, "We need to move resources here instead of constantly importing them for individual projects. More needs to be done to attract talent and technical craftspeople to live here by providing regular work for them in Michigan."
And "Broken" isn't the only micro-budget success to come out of Michigan. Local director Dan Casey, took home awards from Slamdance and the Silver Lake Film Festival for his less than $600 movie, "The Death of Michael Smith" and even found a seven-figure buyer.
Cultivating an industry
Veteran Higbie sees these stories as a sign that things are only going to get better for the independent filmmaker outside of the major studio centers.
"One of the things that's always held back an aspiring producer is the cost structure of production," he explains. "But efficiency gains like what's happened in vfx are now applied throughout the production pipeline. Operations like editing and animation can now be done by one person on a desktop."
Technological advances will continue to reduce the cost of making movies, but a mindset is at work here that must be challenged. Filmmaking students, or anyone with the itch, must believe they can have a filmmaking career without leaving the state. Otherwise the Sam Raimiís of the future will pack their bags and make their fortune out west.
"The key point is not just that things are cheaper, but that they're more predictable," says Higbie. Predictability is what makes it possible to set up an ongoing company. This is a trend that's here to stay, and I think it bodes well for Michigan."
Brian Walsh is a writer living in Jackson. This is his first article for metromode.
John Higbie in his home editing suite - Ann Arbor
Behind the scenes of the movie Amsteroid - photo courtesy Amsteroid production
Director Derek Justice at Scrummage University - A loft music venue in Detroit's Eastern Market.
Director Marcus Davenport - Ferndale
Director Antony Valone and Actress Sara Stepnika - shot at Just 4 Us - Ferndale
Publicist Lee Runchey of Silver Media Group - Scrummage University - A loft music venue in Detroit's Eastern Market.
Photographs by Marvin Shaouni