Independents’ day

Indie filmmakers in Northern Nevada struggle to get their stories told

A still from Kaleb Temple’s short film <i>Absolved</i>.

A still from Kaleb Temple’s short film Absolved.

Photo by AMY BECK

As human beings, we are defined by our stories. Pushing through the years, the hope is that more stories end in triumph than in tragedy. However, the reality is, if we are lucky, they end up being just interesting enough to captivate an audience.

Have you ever related a personal tale to someone expecting a response, but instead were met with a facial expression denoting a disinterest that would make the average houseplant jealous?

Storytelling is a daunting task. The perennial question that confronts filmmakers: How do I communicate though picture, sound and human emotion the story that so clearly resonates in my head? The answer, of course, remains a mystery, but what is true is that for better or worse our environments shape how we narrate those stories.

Shoot ’em up

If you happen to be a filmmaker in Reno, or from Reno, chances are there’s a little bit of Wild West to your approach to filmmaking. Take, for instance, Dominic Lopez who, over glasses of stouts, relates a story that happened to him behind that camera. Shooting some years back for a project, The Pretend Gunman, his small crew trespassed on a private parking garage so that they could get a shot that Lopez desperately wanted.

Lopez instructed the actor to pretend to be shooting across the street, and through his camera Lopez noticed a police officer across the way with a rifle and scope pointing right at them. The crew put up their hands just as bike cops approached them and searched through their bags. They were let free, but did they call it a day? No, sir.

“We walked to the parking garage across the street, and we filmed the rest the movie there,” says Lopez, laughing. “That’s why I like shooting in Reno, you can do that. You can get a gun pulled on you on one side of the street, and have it OK on the other side of the street, and it’s fine.”

Some local filmmakers think this type of freedom makes filming in Reno appealing. Tim Gaer, who has worked in Los Angeles, found that independent filmmakers there often stopped a project before it had even started, because of a “studio-way” of thinking.

Up-and-coming filmmakers in Southern California would get too caught up on whether they had permits or insurance, but here, he says, “If you are doing it in a small community like this, it’s more along the lines of you can do it as long as you can find the people who are willing to work with you or work for you.”

Often those willing people are other filmmakers in the community. Because many local films are made on small budgets, the crews work voluntarily. Knowing that they may need assistance on their future projects, they help each other out, working in various roles of filmmaking.

Working on other filmmakers’ projects, however, is not just an opportunity to save some money, but also an opportunity to self-educate. Kaleb Temple, whose short film Absolved was selected for the Reno Film Festival, believes that having a technical understanding of all aspects of filmmaking makes it easier to direct.

“I am more sensitive to who needs my attention,” he says.

Elton de Leon, who worked with Temple on the short film Burgled, agrees. He sees every opportunity to work on a commercial or independent project as an opportunity to hone his craft. “Each project that we did was an exercise, a learning experience,” he says, which seems to be a commonly shared sentiment.

Ultimately, many of these filmmakers would like to attend film school. However, at the moment that might not be a feasible option financially or otherwise. In the meantime, getting hands-on experience in this community serves the same purpose.

“Doing films in town, right now, this is my film school,” says Temple.

The color of money

Still, others’ ambitions lie not simply in attending film school, but in using the projects that they’ve done to get a job in a bigger market. Cassaday O’Neal is currently working in town on a project called Huckster, but he has ambitions of moving to L.A. and getting a job in the industry. For him, making short films is a means of not only of sharing his artistic voice with an audience, but also building up a résumé.

“Short films are a dead end, in the sense that you can’t make any money off of them, they are purely for exposure,” he says.

Having made a short film, 9 Pound Trout, for the Holland Project’s three-minute short film competition, he decided to submit it to the Reno Film Festival where it won in the Nevada category. He was also took that same film to the Seattle International Film Festival, and though he didn’t win there, he hopes exposure like this will facilitate his finding a job in the industry. That’s something that de Leon was able to do with his film Burgled, which helped him acquire a job in San Diego with Legend 3D as a visual effects editor.

“With all the experience I got from with my own projects and friends’ projects, I had the proper footing to get the job,” he says.

Perhaps the biggest obstacle these local filmmakers face is financial backing. Many feel ready to film larger, more complex projects, but they understand they need funding.

“We have the talent to do it,” says Lopez. “We have too many ideas. We just don’t have the means to actually make them happen.”

One filmmaker who was able to do a big project in town is Pan Pantoja, who got financial backing for his film, Doin’ the 9th, through a chance run-in at Strega Bar. Picking up some of his artwork there one night, he ran into local attorney Bruce Lindsay. They threw around some ideas and before the end of the night, Pantoja had a check. The film centers on the production of a play, which was actually produced, but never shown in the movie. Pantoja was able pull off the movie with limited funds in part because it was all improvised, so there was no script, and also because he had a rehearsal space where it was primarily shot, a symptom of what can be described as the filming-within-your-means-quotient of Reno.

But for Valerie Bischoff, Reno native and Columbia film student, in order to fully realize the story that she had in mind for her thesis project, Derby Kings, she felt she could spare no expense. Part of what going to film school has taught her is that surrounding yourself with talented people who understand their role in filmmaking only motivates her to do better work.

“It is really important for the whole creative atmosphere on set that everyone is really excited to be there, and they are there because they’re passionate about it, and it is more than just a job,” she says.

She assembled a crew she felt could pull of an ambitious project set in the world of demolition derbies. She was able to raise funds using the website Kickstarter, enough to get a hold of three different vehicles for the film. Though she now lives in New York, she’s filming her thesis in Northern Nevada in part because, “There’re a lot of amazing opportunities to tell stories here, and I feel like a lot of people aren’t making films about the surround cultures and the amazing, interesting people here.”

Discussing the plot of the film, Bischoff’s producer, Mayuran Tiruchelvam, says they don’t have a definitive ending yet. “It’s more about the catharsis of getting to the derby.”

Which seems an appropriate metaphor to define the craft of filmmaking. We are all story-tellers, and though our stories may not be heard by wide audiences, the glory is that they were told in the first place. And, what these filmmakers all know is that if you don’t show up to the party your voice will never get heard.