Built on a dream
For local filmmaker David Howe, Reno is a storyteller’s paradise
David Howe will tell you that all stories are made from the same elemental goo: that ageless storystuff that sets the Odyssean hero in motion and captures the wonderment we feel when we cross from the familiar into the strange and the new.
Suppose that you are 10 years old and seeing, for the first time, the junky desert cities and wild, dangerous, star-strewn space of Star Wars—a movie about heroes and villains and the excitement we feel when entering a new world. For many, that magic is enough.
Not for a young Howe, who first saw the George Lucas classic on the big screen and fell in love first with the fantasy, then with film production as a means of fantasy making. Howe’s conviction, rooted in the famous works of Joseph Campbell, that all great narratives share that one essential ingredient—the hero’s journey—began while watching Harrison Ford in a darkened theater long ago.
“Most of the kids wanted to be Hans Solo or Luke Skywalker,” Howe says. “I wanted to be John Dykstra, the director of visual effects. … The technology fascinated me as a kid, but it boiled down to—what story can you tell? Moviemaking is fascinating because you can tell an impossible story.”
Nor is watching movie magic unfold enough for a 35-year-old David Howe, now a filmmaker himself. He feels compelled to create stories, too.
“We all live the hero’s dream,” he says. “That’s why any good story resonates with anyone. We’re all intrigued by truths. … A good love story is about hope; an action story is about the little guy overcoming impossible odds.”
Howe sits in Deux Gros Nez coffeehouse on a balmy, thunder-struck, lightning-striped afternoon discussing his love of films. Raindrops pound the window behind him, an answer to prayer: A day earlier, on the phone, I’d promised him I’d pray—to mother earth or father sky—for stormy weather to foil his plans. If rain came, he said, the commercial film shoot he’d been booked for would be canceled, and he’d get to appear at the showing of his new film, Hear No Villa, Speak No Villa, at a Brüka Theater indie film event that same night.
Dressed in a white button-down shirt and slacks, Howe is clearly prepared to go ahead as planned with his commercial shoot. The attire seems slightly incongruous on Howe; given the transitional state of his blonde hair and beard—both appear to be growing back from a relatively recent shaving—and his small, round glasses, he looks like a graduate student getting ready to defend his art history thesis.
But the shirt and slacks are a testament to his versatility. Howe, who studied graphic design and now runs a multi-media production company called Fonetic Films, has two films under his belt and a third one in the works—a moving tale about three generations of women, one of whom is battling Alzheimer’s disease. This latest project, Come Fly With Me, is a marked departure from Howe’s other films, the sci-fi spoof Johnny to the Center of the Earth and Villa.
Howe belongs to a rare breed indeed: the Reno filmmaker. In a town where cinema masters are as scarce as surfing stars, Howe refuses to take his moviemaking to Hollywood or New York. He says that northern Nevada is—for low-budget visionaries like himself—a filmmaker’s dream.
“That’s what I love about Reno, northern Nevada—it’s location heaven,” he says. “The Winnemucca dry lake bed. … You can go downtown and shoot alleys, modern office buildings. [The impression of] multiple time periods and environments is available. It’s like having Hollywood back lots.”
He shot Villa—a delightful and funny short film about the legendary Pancho Villa’s fictional encounter with a deaf mute—just up the road in Virginia City. Howe grew up hearing his father tell this goofy Pancho Villa tale and, when he grew older, entertained his friends with the story at parties.
“I would have requests for it,” he says. “Friends said, ‘Just shoot the thing.’ I shot it on Super 8 home video film.”
Howe bought rights to shoot the film at a Virginia City train station for a song. He hired local folks (not necessarily professional actors) to fill the roles. Total film budget: about $1,000.
Howe will tell you that he did it all backwards. His first film, Johnny to the Center of the Earth, was a far costlier endeavor than Villa and an almost obscenely ambitious project for a first-time filmmaker to undertake.
“A filmmaker’s first film should be shot on video and be about five minutes long and involve friends,” Howe says, noting that Johnny, which was two years in the making, spans a whopping 35 minutes and was shot on 16-millimeter film. It involves more than just friends.
“I was stupid. I did it all wrong. It was a dream built entirely on enthusiasm.”
But what better material to build a dream with—especially for someone like Howe, who staunchly refuses to grow up and abandon fantasy worlds.
“I’m definitely a child trapped in a man’s body," Howe says. "Nobody has ever given me a reason why I shouldn’t be."