Super 8-ball

Two would-be Roger Cormans team up to make a dark, funny film titled Nwär

No, that’s not director Jonathan Morken growing out of co-director Erik Beckett’s knit cap. Morken, top, gets the shot on his super-8 camera, while Beckett stares blankly at what he’s shooting.

No, that’s not director Jonathan Morken growing out of co-director Erik Beckett’s knit cap. Morken, top, gets the shot on his super-8 camera, while Beckett stares blankly at what he’s shooting.

Jonathan Morken enrolled in work experience in high school and ended up working at a local television station. While other students learned how to run cameras for news programs and dreamed of going on location, Morken had other ideas. The moment a camera was placed in his hands, he asked to be set free to create something original with it. Thus, A Stark Reality, Morken’s first short film, came about. He has not looked back since.

Arranging to borrow cameras from cable-access stations and turning his friends and family members into actors, boom operators and financiers, Morken honed his filmmaking skills. Working first in video and then in digital video, and after many efforts to make these mediums resemble film, he inevitably ended up purchasing an 8 mm camera and shooting in the medium he’d dreamed of using for so long.

In true do-it-yourself fashion, Morken would not let the expense of film or film processing stop him. He went as far as standing outside of Kmart all day, holding a sign reading “Support local filmmaking”—panhandling to raise money for his projects. The suburban shoppers were not alerted to the kind of films they were sponsoring.

From that first film, made at the expense of an unknowing network affiliate, Morken has aimed to shock. By the time he’d reached his teens, shock cinema had become an established part of our culture; Dawn of the Dead, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and the early films of Peter Jackson and John Waters were being discussed at school and screened at parties. Originally, Morken was attracted to these films as a fan, but it became quickly apparent to him that being more shocking than the competition was a surefire way to stand out and was a must for the beginning filmmaker.

Morken also admired the promotional techniques of the underground filmmakers, seeing the promotion and hyping of the films as a form of art itself. Morken began working under the title Apprehensive Films. He arranged screenings at local art galleries. Short films were played in the lobbies of theaters playing midnight movies and at the gigs of the punk bands that often were featured on his soundtracks.

Not wanting to rely on shock alone, Morken enrolled in community-college classes, aiming to become the best filmmaker he could. It was there, in a screenplay-writing class, that Morken first met Erik Beckett.

Beckett is not a big horror-film fan, at least not to the obsessive degree that Morken is, but he admires shock value and is a believer in independent, renegade filmmaking. Beckett is passionate about crime films and spy films, especially the hard, gritty noir genre. Beckett and Morken found common ground and became fast friends. They both agreed to take their filmmaking course a second time, in order to workshop their screenplays. They ended up taking the class six times, despite only receiving credits for the first two. They began working together on a script for a short noir film titled Nwär.

The script was finished, and a budget was put together. “We made a list of our expenses right down to the last detail,” Beckett explained. “If we needed to buy a marker, we wrote it into the budget.” An 8 mm Beaulieu 5008 camera was found on eBay; auditions were held at the Crest Theatre. Close to a hundred local actors showed up, eager for the chance to work for free. Well, mostly eager.

One potential actress wanted to audition and asked them for a script. “We sent it to her, and she started mass e-mailing everyone she could, asking them not to audition, saying we were making a porno film,” a delighted Morken related. It was true the film would involve simulated sex and nudity, as well as some good old-fashioned violence and gore (which somehow never seems to offend anyone), but this apparently was not much of a deterrent.

Filming began, using the Crest’s basement, Gallery Horse Cow, Sacramento’s riverfront and friends’ homes as sets.

Knock, knock: “Candygram for Mongo!” Two gunsels, played by Dai Eby and Mickey Rat, pay a visit to Room 19.

With no video feed from their super-8 camera, there were no dailies. Not until the film returned from the lab could one be sure that anything usable was captured. The camera also lacked any method of synchronizing an audio track, other than an old-fashioned clapper. Fortunately, the final cut is quickly paced, with many edits, so the audio track doesn’t have much time to fall out of sync before a cut.

It’s Morken’s love of frantic, sometimes confusing edits that earned him the nickname “DJ Jump Cut.” The film’s two writers filled any roles not filled by volunteers. Morken served as director and director of photography, and, of course, he fetched his own Jolt colas. Beckett co-directed and even contributed some fine bluesy guitar playing to the soundtrack.

The volunteers making up the cast and crew are an interesting bunch. Morken’s energy is contagious. Nick Garrett, a co-worker of Morken’s at Hollywood Video (one of many jobs discarded in the name of filmmaking) was recruited to be a special- effects expert, despite having no experience. After several short films’ worth of on-the-job self-training, Garrett has become efficient at giving up the gore for as few pennies as possible.

Morken and Beckett’s enthusiasm also convinced several experienced actors to donate their talents, including the film’s lead, Rob Anthony. He had appeared in films like John Jimenez’s End of the Law; he’d also worked with Morken’s mentor, local success story Joe Carnahan—although he ended up on Carnahan’s cutting-room floor.

Anthony was impressed by Morken’s decisiveness on the set. “Jonathan’s a precise and direct kind of guy,” Anthony said. “He knows what he wants: Let’s shoot it. Let’s get it. Let’s go.”

Although the actor found this mostly refreshing, there was a downside. “You don’t have a lot of time to experiment,” he explained, noting several scenes he’d wished he’d had a second go at.

Anthony had it easy, compared with boom operator Cory O’Dell, who, in the line of duty, had to contend with being attacked by a drunken, lust-filled drag queen (Britney Spares) and also had to operate a special effect designed to simulate ejaculation, which meant crouching down next to a toilet in its stall. As if that didn’t lack glamour already, Zach Boyd, the actor in the scene, neglected to wear underwear during the pants-around-the-knees shoot, giving the long-suffering O’Dell quite an eyeful.

A few potential catastrophes—a drunken actress dismantling a stovepipe chimney to which she was tied, and the aforementioned drag-queen attack—didn’t push the film over budget. Neither did the small amount of re-shoots that were absolutely necessary. The film came in at $1,300 and is the most professional effort Morken has been involved with to date. The acting and the photography are far better than one would expect from a no-budget exploitation flick.

Nwär opens with a classic scene: Two hoods and a dame are driving out to the river to dump a body from their trunk. From there, the circumstances that led up to this event are presented. The viewer meets various prostitutes and johns, and Boyd’s hilarious masturbating motel-clerk character provides constant comic relief. Beckett and Morken gave the masturbation scenes a plot, which mirrors the film’s main story line: the beginning of the action, the dilemma (out of lube), the solution (found some more lube), the climax (self-explanatory) and, of course, the cleanup. There are no good guys, although some of the toughs elicit more empathy than others. There is some gratuitous sex and gratuitous violence, and there’s plenty of smoking.

The film’s more amateur (or, some would say, more stylized) qualities may be its most endearing. The film uses quick cuts to imagery that illustrates the dialogue—for example, a cut to a storefront pony ride and the quarter it requires to operate flashes as a prostitute informs a potential john that “no one rides for free.” This technique is disconcerting at first, but it’s consistent and rhythmic and grows on the viewer as the film progresses. The story is vague and told out of sequence—which also is confusing at first, but it adds to the intrigue in the end.

Nwär is beautiful to look at. The gritty, high-contrast, harshly lit black-and-white film looks great. Filming outdoors at night was a brave choice for filmmakers with limited lighting, but, for the most part, they pull it off. And at times, the effect is stunning.

The usual hype is in place. Nwär will have a grand premiere at the Crest Theatre, with Th’ Losin Streaks, who contributed to the soundtrack, warming the crowd up. The fliers advertising the premiere beg for controversy as they flaunt disregard for would-be censors, warning that “No one under 17 should view this film! But we won’t stop you.”

As Beckett and Morken discussed the film during a recent press screening, it was clear that they have discovered in each other a working partnership. They finished each other’s sentences and backed up each other’s thoughts like an old married couple. Perhaps this is why Morken has postponed producing his feature-length script Super Stars, about an environmentalist group that murders babies to discourage runaway breeding, in order to work on another project with Beckett, who has little interest in working on a film like Super Stars. They are discussing several options, including a feature-length propaganda film working on the premise that the “don’t smoke, don’t drink, don’t curse, or you’ll become a burned-out derelict” films we all enjoyed in school are based in reality. They immediately and excitedly describe how they’d shoot it, changing from film to video to digital video to represent different decades. It seems likely they will be working out another budget, even before Nwär has made its premiere.