Depp Charge

Denver filmmakers take to the road and Do It for Johnny.

The torrential downpour has slowed to a wet murmur, but Haylar Garcia doesn't trust that the storm's really over. He's calling from inside a 1983 Toyota RV, which he and his crew -- Damon Scott and Jeff Deel -- have nicknamed "The Turtle." At the moment, the reptilian vehicle is pulled over by the side of a road in Los Angeles and covered with blue plastic tarps strapped down by bungee cords, to keep out the rain.

"We're in the middle of Hollywood, and we look like the fucking Beverly Hillbillies," Garcia says. Despite their best efforts, a few drops still leak into the aging beast that has served as an on-again, off-again home for Garcia, Scott and Deel for the past six months, forcing them to cover their camera equipment and computers. "It looks like the rain might be letting up," Garcia forecasts. "For now."

Since leaving Denver more than a week ago and traveling to Tinseltown in time to catch the Academy Awards, Garcia and crew have encountered one storm after another. From witnessing near-fatal car accidents to having doors actually slammed in their faces, nothing has gone according to plan. Not that you can really plan when you're trying to get a screenplay directly into the hands of Johnny Depp.

Garcia's screenplay, Narcophonic: The Ballad of Bad Bax, tells the true story of master guitar-maker Scott Baxendale. A seasoned luthier who worked for Stuart Mossman, then Gruhn Guitars, before purchasing Mossman Guitars in 1985 and moving the company to Texas, Baxendale made guitars for everyone from Carl Perkins to Willie Nelson to John Mellencamp. His skills even led to a stint as curator at Dallas's Hard Rock Cafe, where he refurbished classic guitars played by the likes of Jimi Hendrix, Elvis Presley and John Lennon, and bumped elbows with industry insiders, fueling his own dreams of rock stardom. Baxendale's life was all about guitars -- until his life became all about drugs.

In the late 1980s, weed led to coke led to crack led to bankruptcy led to divorce led to homelessness for Baxendale. And then things really got bad: In 1991, he met a man named Dean Roundy in a homeless shelter in Arlington, Texas, and the two embarked on a two-year orgy of drugs and guns, rolling into a town, brazenly robbing crack dealers at gunpoint, then moving on to the next town. By the time authorities caught up with the outlaws and a third accomplice in Denver, each man was facing a sentence of ninety years for his amassed crimes. But then a judge, impressed by Baxendale's past and his cooperation during the criminal investigation, sentenced him to just two years in rehab and eight years' probation (see Alan Prendergast's "Bad Company," July 9, 1998). After finishing rehab, Baxendale opened the Colfax Guitar Shop near the Bluebird Theater, where he makes guitars, plays music and remains sober to this day.

Haylar Garcia met Baxendale in the late '90s, when the two played in Bad Bax -- Baxendale on guitar, Garcia as lead singer. The band broke up when the rhythm section left town, though, and Garcia moved out to Los Angeles to pursue a career as a screenwriter. On a trip back to Denver, he met up again with Baxendale, who told him that a TV writer had penned a script about his life. "Scott didn't like what he had come up with," Garcia remembers. "He wanted to know if I had any interest."

Garcia spent the next two months with Baxendale in his guitar shop, learning about his life.

"I was amazed," Garcia says. "I had known him for years as a local guitarist and guitar builder, but I had no idea of the extent of his career. I was even more stunned to find out how he'd come to reside here in Colorado. His life story sounded like a movie from the first sentence. I really liked that it was a rock-and-roll story, but from a workingman's perspective, something you can relate to more than, say, The Doors."

As Garcia batted out multiple versions of the script, he and Baxendale began to imagine who could play the lead role. They wanted someone who was not only an actor, but an accomplished musician (there's nothing musicians despise more than watching an actor fake the guitar). When a friend pointed out that Johnny Depp had done all his own guitar work in Chocolat, they realized they had the perfect man for the part. But how to get the script to Depp, a notoriously aloof mega-star fresh off a career-catapulting role in Pirates of the Caribbean? Baxendale did the only thing he could think of: He built a guitar.

The result of over 140 hours of labor, the Johnny Depp guitar is nothing short of a masterpiece. Made of aged solid swamp ash and capped with a curly maple top, it combines elements of the Fender Stratocaster, Telecaster and Dan Electro guitars. The headstock is inlaid with a design by Garcia, and in the back is a specially constructed chamber that displays the Narcophonic script.

But building the guitar was only the beginning. "As we were building this amazing guitar, we realized we can't just put this thing in the mail and send it to some publicist," Garcia remembers. "This is a $4,000-to-$5,000 guitar here; we realized we had to actually put this thing in Johnny Depp's hands."

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