Creativity was everywhere; it was heavy in the air like condensation. Throughout the room, the entire building, creative people mixed, mingled, each tinged with the excitement of a dream fulfilled. It was premiere night at the Los Angeles Downtown Independent, a theater that is a haven for new and up-and-coming filmmakers, actors and crew.
The event was the closing night of a series of Independent shorts and films that the Downtown Independent had been running. So here, in this tucked away theatre just five blocks from skid row and less than a mile from Nokia Live and Staples, future home of the Oscars (perhaps), many see their dreams and hard work for the first time on the giant screen in the darkened theatre.
These are the people that are the seeds that will grow in to the film industry as we know it. It's in places like this the latest art house movie is found, the next quiet independent film that then hits, and moves audiences. This is where the spirit of the Independent Spirit Awards was born, before that show began recognizing "independent" films with budgets in the millions. And while it is true films like 50/50 boast about how they are made for $5 million or 10, these films have budgets of $500 or $5,000. That's right. The main feature of the night, Santiago, was made for $5,000. The entire thing.
Because the real, true spirit of film and art is alive in these halls this night. I can sense it, drawn to it, as an artist myself. And everyone in the room knows how hard it is to be an artist, a working artist. But not impossible, at least not this night.
The problem is artists like myself grow up in a world where anything is possible. We grow up in darkened theaters in front of live actors or film; in a living room in front of a window to the world; or tuned in on a favorite station, living each song.
When you grow up an artist you don't know why. It's as organic as being gay or breathing. I've never, ever wanted to truly be anything else. Stage, screen, TV, on record (singers are just actors with great voices that perform four minute movies), those places called to me, beckoned to me at 12, 15, 18, 20, 30, 45, 49 and I'm sure on in to the 50s.
Real, true artists are cursed. We can't really do anything else, are usually very bad at business and our profession is not seen as a legitimate one, even though entertainment is still the USA's number one export. They may not want our widgets, but they want our movies, songs, tv shows, plays, comics, authors... America's got talent and it still rakes in big bucks. Yet tell any parent, friend or lover you want to sing, dance, act, paint, shoot, whatever your calling, for real, as a life, and they will all try and talk you out of it. And rightfully so. It's a life of rejection, uncertainty and often poverty. Even for those that "make it" as reality TV will now attest. Fame is fleeting but artists last forever and that's part of the problem.
Because in our world the impossible is possible, it happens every day. Lightening strikes, and sometimes many times. True entertainers wait out in the rain, snow, blinding wind and sleet for it to strike again, knowing it can if you just hit it right. This is the industry that created fairy tales, literally. It was, after all, a writer and illustrator that gave us the "happy ending."
Not that there aren't any. There are plenty. Plenty find a way to express their art and earn a living. They have lives, families and 401(k)s. And then there's the rest of us.
Working so hard just to work. Coming together to celebrate the product of that work in places like the Los Angeles Independent all across the nation and the globe. These often forgotten about theatres become temples of worship of the real art of filmmaking and all those arts associated with it; acting, directing, producing, designing, scoring... so many talents that come together in one place: on the screen, big or small.
The evening started with two short films, the first a student project of sorts. Remember the old adage if you don't have something nice to say... well, let's just say it was a fine example that a short can be made in 48 hours and that all one has to do to complete a project is to actually get it going. Doesn't necessarily mean it will be great, but the effort deserves recognition.
Second was another short, The Terrain and while I really liked the cast and crew, including the director Brian Durkin and cast -- Todd Cattell, Marissa Petroro, Brian Burnett, Sarena Khan and Chris Stanley -- it was one of those times that I thought I had seen a different film. I thought I saw a short about two thugs working for a boss that wants them to go and collect debts for him and one goes terribly wrong and people are killed. After the Q&A I found out I was watching a film that explores what soldiers go through after coming home from wars like Iraq or Afghanistan, particularly if they are special ops. I didn't get that, but this was a feature first, cut down to a short (the script) so perhaps that idea was explored more in the longer script. It began like an extended intro to CSI or NCIS. But there's definitely talent in the cast and crew and The Terrain may make a great feature one day, or with the story fleshed out in another way.
However, one of the gentleman that worked crew for the film and had a small part summed it up best. He loves filmmaking, can't imagine doing anything else. He thanked everyone for letting him be a part, and his pure love of the process, his description of how life on a set or in a darkened theater just couldn't get any better broke or rich, well, it inspired the entire crowd. It was, after all, why each of us was there. We love film.
After a Q&A with each cast and crew it was on to the feature. I'd like to see major theatres take to playing shorts before the films again. American short filmmakers have no real venue for their craft and that's a shame.
Santiago is the first film from Executive Producer/Producer Daniel Woltosz and Director Felix Martiz. It stars Jesus Guevara, Weesam Keesh and Dan Lopecci in a unvarnished look at hispanic culture in L.A and what brings the immigrants here in the first place.
The film opens with Billy (Weesam Keesh) answering a Craigslist ad for a videographer. Miguel (Dan Lopecci) has hired Billy to follow him around for the day and record everything for research. It seems he is to play a street hustler, a pimp, a person who lives off of crime, a true playa, Santiago (Jesus Guevara). The film begins from BIlly's point of view, with the narrative basically being what Billy sees, his trepidations and the story is progressed through the answers to his questions. Is all what it seems? Is Miguel just an actor doing research or is there more to it?
There can be no doubt this is a buddy movie of sorts, in so much as two lead actors literally steal the film. First is Keesh. His is a find. He has a great sense of comedy, can handle the serious stuff without a problem and is the overwhelming presence in the movie. The funny part is, we only see him in possibly five shots, if that. He's heard throughout, but he's the camera, so just like the guy in "Cloverfield" we never really see much of him. For Keesh to make so much of an impact with so little actual face time on screen is remarkable. There will be more of him in films, no doubt, or at least should be. Hollywood here he comes.
And then there's Guevara. Let's start with the eyes. Those eyes will get him a whole lot of work. He's very handsome, which helps in a leading man, but also extremely talented. His character is embodied perfectly; someone gregarious, friendly, someone you'd want to hang out with and have a good time with; and then, in an instant, that same person could cut your throat and leave you to drown in your own blood, and do it with a smile.
Lopecci is overshadowed by the two, as are most in the film. Director Martiz also wrote the script and the story tries to show the different lives and different paths immigrants take once coming to America. Some work out, some go very, very bad.
There is no way anyone could tell this feature was made for $5,000. The cinematography looks great, the sound is clean and wonderful (Johnny Walker did it, no, not the Whiskey maker but an obvious one man sound wizard) and the performances show what happens when you take your time.
"We rehearsed for three months," said Martiz. "We knew we wouldn't have locations long, and we didn't. The police chased us out of some," he laughed. "But while we had them, we had to make the most of them. So the actors were totally prepared."
Santiago is making the rounds at film festivals, and should get picked up for wide distribution. It doesn't look like a student film or a first time out, it looks like any other feature, on par in look, sound and acting with any Hollywood release. They'll be lots more from all the people involved. And while many still have day jobs (as so many do) very soon their roster should be full with further promotion of Santiago and then future releases.
It was a stunning climax to an evening of dreams. Santiago is one dream fulfilled. In fact, Keesh had not seen the film on the big screen until this night and he summed it up best.
"I'm so proud to be here with these people, and all the filmmakers," he started. "To see this movie here, on the screen, with this audience, it's an honor that doesn't get any better. This is what acting and filmmaking is about."
He's right, of course. Good, bad, in the middle, each of the films at the Downtown Independent this or any other night are there out of love, sweat and tears with people who put their entire life and soul in to the production. In the sometime soulless landscape of Hollywood, it's nice to find its heart again.
To hear more from Karel tune in daily to "The Karel Show" in 10 markets, in an app, and online at thekarelshow.com. And check out his latest book "Shouting at Windmills: BS From Bush to Obama" at amazon.com and Kindle.