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A few weeks ago, about three hundred Denverites lined up to attend the world premiere of a new movie at the refurbished Oriental Theatre in northwest Denver. It was a gala event for the 650-seat theater: Limousines pulled up and unloaded gents in tuxedos and ladies in gowns.
"I've been in a lot of plays," said one of the film's actors, Joanne Dionese, "but I've never gotten to get out of a limo to a crowd of clapping people while flashbulbs were going off. It was quite a shindig. It made all the actors feel really appreciated."
After the film--which was well-received by the festive, mostly thirtysomething crowd--the fun continued at a post-premiere party at the Wynkoop Brewing Company in LoDo. All in all, it seems the film got off to a great start.
The only thing is, George Stanley...Ghost Hunter won't be coming soon to any other theater near you. Such is the nature of truly independent film, and this one is about as independent as it gets.
The movie, according to creators Leslie Cyril and Artemus Fred, is "a feel-good Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, or Masterpiece Theatre meets Abbott and Costello." Actually, it's more like PBS's Mystery meets Monty Python.
George Stanley is an elderly mental patient who, during nightly drug treatments, enters a mind-altered state in which he becomes a ghost hunter accompanied by an East Indian sidekick, Shambola. The pair investigates the unusual death of an aunt of one of Stanley's college chums and find themselves in a mystery involving the dead aunt's spirit as well as another, more demonic spirit in the form of a sixteenth-century opera diva.
As Fred describes it, it's "Walter Mitty on drugs."
And stranger still, the surreal and irreverent murder mystery was shot entirely in Denver on a $2,000 budget. The finished product doesn't look like Scorsese or even Van Sant, but there's conviction behind the craziness.
"We didn't go out to be anti-establishment," Fred says. "We're not radicals. We're just a couple of geezers who thought, 'Let's make a movie.'"
They're not really geezers, either; they make their living as masons. And in putting their black comedy together, they had to work from the ground up. They built the sets themselves. The cast and crew worked for free, when they could work at all. The filmmakers made the two-hour feature with one broadcast-quality video camera and some editing software.
The rest...well, the rest they just made up. Like the vegetable steamer that was used as a lighting aperture, or the homemade amber-and-blue filters.
They've made no money, have no distributor and have no immediate plans to screen the film again. They're sending it to film festivals worldwide in the hopes of getting lucky, but right now the future of George Stanley the movie is as nebulous as the future of George Stanley the movie character.
"I'd like to think someone in London or San Francisco or Manhattan is out there doing the very same," Fred says. "It's just beyond us why anybody else hasn't done this. Why aren't there more movies made entirely out of someone's bedroom, like the garage bands of the Seventies?"
Fred and Cyril are talking about showing their film on the Internet or, more likely, taking it on the road to other cities and trying to line up screenings. "If we could just pay for the gas and something to eat and somewhere to stay, we'd be more than happy to do it," Fred says.
For Fred, now 39, traveling has come naturally. "I'm in Denver primarily due to Margaret Thatcher," he says, sipping a cup of Indian black tea inside the pair's worn but livable home in the Highland neighborhood. "She ruined my career and destroyed my homeland."
That homeland was Wales, and at eighteen, the onetime political science student left for Europe, the South Pacific, Australia and finally San Francisco, where he arrived in the mid-Eighties. His journeys, he says, were a "theater of life, which is probably much like the theatrical theater in a way. That enabled me to write. I never went out and thought I wanted to be a writer. That was something that dawned on me one day."
He wrote everything he could, mostly songs that were never bought. He worked as a bartender and waiter, and it didn't matter that he was an unknown; in San Francisco's "lively" arts community, the effort alone was respected.
So he says it was "a real culture shock" when a tight economy forced him to leave the West Coast for Denver in 1991. Here, he says, "nothing is accepted until you publish it." What's worse, he found a dislocated, disunified arts community.
"I was finding remnants of the inner-city coffeeshop, actually, which might have happened here in the Fifties with Kerouac, Ginsberg and Neal Cassady," says Fred. "But the few fuckers I was runnin' into--no one was really writing anything. They were writin' about bein' in a coffeeshop, that's what they were writin' about." Cyril and Fred laugh at this caustic observation, but Fred adds, "It drove me nuts."
While Fred's travels helped him discover writing, acting had always been in Cyril's blood. He's done everything from Shakespeare to summer stock to musicals. Cyril, now 29, grew up in Denver and graduated from what used to be Loretto Heights College. After a brief stint with Comedy Sports, he moved to Chicago in 1988 to join the famed Second City troupe. "That's where I got the best sense of not being afraid on stage," he says. "This is what really taught me the tricks of how you can get up and not know any lines and not be afraid that you have a right to be on stage."
Back in Denver in 1992, Cyril joined White Trash Theater, a four-person improv group. One night several years ago at a local club, Fred saw Cyril perform and figured he might be good for a one-man show Fred was writing about British writer Noel Coward.
"Leslie is the only person I know who can pull off a British accent," Fred says, as Cyril chirps in with a squirrelly "'Ey, guv, want a cab?" "He didn't sound like an extra from a Basil Rathbone movie." The Coward project didn't pan out, but the duo ended up shooting a video version of a play Fred wrote called The Shropshire Lads, a reference to the town in Wales where Fred grew up. He and Cyril play two Welsh immigrants who find themselves in Denver over Thanksgiving and spend the day driving around.
The film was shot a few years ago by a friend at Denver Community Television, the cable-access setup in Five Points, and that's where the two returned again when they decided that George Stanley--originally conceived as a play--would be too expensive to stage. But they didn't stay long.
"We started to film this at DCTV, but before long we realized it wasn't going to work," Fred says. "It was a unanimous decision--let's get the hell out of there and buy our own equipment."
They did just that, figuring that, Fred says, "this is not difficult; we don't need to go to bleedin' film school." So they unpacked their equipment "and started pressing buttons."
Inspired by Victorian-era ghost stories, Cyril wrote the script during "a six-month process at the end of my divorce. It seemed suitable to go into a more Gothic mode when you're in that mood."
Fred makes a sudden realization and adds, "I wrote Shropshire Lads at the end of my first divorce."
"Divorce and what it's doing for the arts scene," Cyril replies. "Thank you, Denver!"
Talking about divorce as a stimulus for art, Fred concludes that "it's like having a toothache. You don't really understand it until you go through it, like having your mother visit."
As for George Stanley, the quality of the film stock is somewhere between a very inexpensive art film and a show you'd see on public access. Characters make frequent asides to the camera, the film shifts self-consciously into parodies of Star Trek and game shows, and its British wit is as dry as sun-baked mortar. There's more than a trace of scatological humor--including a soliloquy from a character called the Dung Beetle--and much of the film's humor derives from the way it uses language. Stanley's prim British accent fades into a Deep South, white-trash drawl under stress, and Fred himself, in blackface, supplies the dialect for the nonsensical Indian sidekick. "Fuck 'em if they can't take a joke," Fred says.
George Stanley is the kind of film where you frankly don't really know what's going on--and you're compelled to watch it as much because of its fascinating absurdity as to test your stamina against the bizarre. But that suits the filmmakers' fancy: "We want to encourage people to come back and see it again," Cyril says.
After the lengthy shoot, the pair are recharging their batteries and thinking about a series of one-act films. But though they're optimistic, they understand the environment in which they've chosen to work.
"We made this film for Denver, with Denver, and everybody in it is associated with the city," Fred says. "Yet it's ignored as everything else is unless it's a movie about the early days of John Elway.