Biggest little movie
A couple of former Reno residents have written and produced a movie that features the city itself as a major character
“My partner Dan [Menahem] happened to come into a chunk of money, and he was gracious enough—or crazy enough—to say, ‘Let’s make this movie,’” says Nathan Cole, 38, producer and screenwriter of the independent film The Waterhole.
It’s hard to overestimate how crazy that really is.
Any artistic endeavor requires some degree of faith—often misguided faith—in one’s own vision. But what is really risked when someone decides to, say, start a band? Or paint a picture? There’s the cost for musical equipment or oil paints (a few hundred-or-so dollars), and the damage to one’s vanity that can result from an indifferent audience. (An openly hostile audience is unlikely, and even then fatalities are rare.)
But compare that to the mounting of an independent feature film production.
It can be confusing now that “independent” and “indie” have come to be both marketing terms and descriptions of an aesthetic. Every major film studio—impervious to irony—now has an “independent” division. But the term “independent” only accurately refers to an approach to film financing that is outside of the studio system.
To make The Waterhole, for instance—an entirely self-funded, and therefore genuinely independent, film—the plan was this: A first-time screenwriter would team up with a non-filmmaker to produce a feature film that said non-filmmaker would single-handedly pay to make. They would hire a cast and crew of professionals, whom they’d convince to drive to Reno, Nev., for an extremely brief film shoot.
It’s so crazy, it might just end in bankruptcy and murder.
Or it might work. It’s hard to tell.Mini-dramas
“I don’t know if this opportunity hadn’t come up and I hadn’t known Nate and read the script that I would have done it,” says Menahem, 34, a renewable energy company project developer and film producer. “But it presented itself, and it seemed like an exciting venture.”
It was possibly more exciting than he expected.
“There were a couple mini- dramas,” he admits. “One of them was that the lighting truck broke down on the way up to the production.”
To be specific, the axle broke.
“Another one is that on the camera itself, a very tiny screw fell off and was not able to be located, which shut down filming,” says Menahem.
That is, filming was shut down until a friend broke open his computer to pull out a replacement screw. Without this stroke of generosity/luck, filming, due to the tight shooting schedule, likely would have been shut down permanently.
Because of the extremely low budget, Cole and Menahem took on responsibilities that aren’t traditionally the roles of producers.
“Any job we couldn’t afford to hire someone to do, we ended up taking on ourselves,” says Cole.
Besides scouting for locations, making casting decisions, and selecting the director—all jobs within the conventional, though indistinct, role of a film producer—Menahem and Cole also catered.
Because the production was following Screen Actors Guild guidelines, they had to provide hot meals for the cast and crew.
“I had a pick-up truck with a … heating-table, and various restaurants and friends would prepare food for us, and I would run and pick it up and make sure it was there on time,” says Menahem, film producer and roach coach driver.
There was one expense, however, the producers refused to skip. Despite the extra cost and logistical complications, the film had to be shot on location in Reno.
“Dan and I, since we’re both from Reno, always viewed Reno as its own character in the film,” says Cole.
Wells Avenue bar Corrigan’s was one of the movie’s primary shooting locations, and the bar plays a fictionalized version of itself. The film centers on 20-something Miller (Patrick J. Adams) who is going to college part-time, working in a record store, and spending most of his free time getting drunk at his favorite bar with friends. “Drinking buddies” is a more accurate description for Jim (Jade Carter), who plans to enter into a probably ill-advised marriage; Murphy (Matt Stasi), who, by buying “Corrigan’s,” is literally making a career out of hanging out in a bar; and Cracker (Joey Klein), whose out-of-control alcoholism makes the heavy drinking of the others seem relatively harmless.
Then there’s the “character” of Reno, which, like Miller’s friends, is focused on alcohol, vaguely depressing, and likely preventing Miller from leading a productive and healthy life. Overall, what you might call a bad influence.
In the ’90s, Cole had found himself living a life in Reno very similar to Miller’s—working in Soundwave CDs record store and hanging out at the real Corrigan’s—when he had the opportunity to do something different.
“It was just one of those, ‘OK, you gotta do this now, or you’re never gonna do it type of things,’” Cole says of his chance to move to Los Angeles to take an internship at Warner Bros. Feature Animation.
After the internship, he “bummed around L.A. for a while, ran out of money, moved back up to Reno for a few months, and ended up moving to Seattle.”
Sometime during this period he decided to try to write a screenplay.
“Started it in ’95, ’96—just started writing just to see if I could do it,” says Cole. “And I basically wrote the first version of the movie, and it was nothing like the movie that exists now. It was really horrible. But I stuck to it.
“By the time I moved back to L.A. the second time, I’d kind of got it polished to where it is now, and there were a lot of people who were really liking it and really wanted to help make it. And it really just never went anywhere. … People talk a lot, and things don’t get done.”
That is, until Menahem stepped in, though his offer to fund the movie did come with a condition. Cole, who had never directed a film before, had always intended to direct his screenplay himself. In fact his insistence on directing had caused earlier funding deals to fall through.
“I’d been sort of obstinate about that,” he says.
But Menahem likewise stipulated that if he were going to fund the film, it would have to be directed by someone with experience. Cole consented, and luckily, at a party, they met Ely Mennin, a UCLA film school graduate with a background in theater and a reverence for John Cassavetes. Though he earns his living as a film editor, Mennin had directed a low-budget feature called Breathing Room.
“I looked at his first movie, and it was really good. Really low, ultra-low budget, but it had a nice aesthetic to it,” says Cole.
“I took an interview basically with Nate where we met at a bar, of course,” says Mennin. “He liked that I could work with minimal resources.”
This ability is borne out by the finished product. One of the film’s strengths is that it doesn’t look or sound low-budget. Other strengths are that the film has one of the most memorable break-ups ever put on film and a very good cast.
“We were lucky enough to get a really good casting director, who basically was able to facilitate us seeing a lot of actors we otherwise wouldn’t have had access to,” says Cole. “But at the same time, we were realistic that we wouldn’t be able to get a big star. And that was OK. We really wanted to find people that felt like they belonged in the roles.”
Cole was interested in having Adams read for the role after seeing him in an episode of Lost.
“I liked his charisma,” says Cole.
Klein is unsettling as the alcoholic who is always on the verge of losing control, and Adams manages to bring some of that charisma to a character that could have been rendered as an unlikable mass of self-pity and unearned self-regard.
“These are working actors, but they’re not household names,” says Cole. “They’re not going to draw an audience just based on their being in the movie.”
Viewers might recognize some of the faces. All seven actors who make up the core cast have been in major motion pictures. And, like virtually every screen actor, most have appeared in at least one episode of a network police procedural. There would be a lot of actors starving if not for the Law & Order and CSI franchises.See and be seen
When the film was completed, the producers submitted it to dozens of film festivals. After spending thousands of dollars in submission fees and accumulating a large collection of rejection letters, the filmmakers learned an important lesson in the art of networking. After Mennin made a call to a friend, the film was accepted at the Newport Film Festival.
“It’s very political,” Cole says of the film festival selection process. “We were very naïve. We really thought you just put the movie in the envelope, send it to, like, Sundance, and if it was good enough, it’d get in. Obviously the odds are against you, and you have to be a lot more realistic about what your chances are.”
So their scaled-back plans for distribution are to take the film to any film societies or other venues that are willing to play the film for a limited run. Cole and Menahem have started a production company, kr7 Productions, and they hope to find funding for another of Cole’s completed screenplays. And a deal they are working on to have a DVD release looks promising.
Independence is never easy. It’s been nearly 15 years since Cole started writing his screenplay, and it would seem, with the film now completed, the hard work would be behind him. It’s not.
“I always thought it was going to be hard to get a movie made,” he says. “And making the movie is certainly a lot of work, but the hardest part is getting it out so people can see it.”