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."

Though Garcia had made a few high-powered contacts during his time as a screenwriter in Los Angeles, he wanted to avoid going through the typical film-industry channels. "I've always considered art a level playing field," he explains, "so I wanted to see if we could get around all the Hollywood red tape and actually get a true response from the artist. At the same time, we realized that getting to Depp is an incredibly arduous task. Being filmmakers, we decided it had to be documented. It's like three sugar ants trying to move a '67 Buick. You have to tape it just because they might."

Thus was born Do It for Johnny, a documentary about getting Narcophonic and its accompanying guitar into the hands of Captain Jack Sparrow.

Garcia recruited Scott, his old stage manager from his days as a musician, to serve as a logistics man; his friend Deel to act as a one-man camera-and-sound crew; and Darcy Grabowski, who'd suggested Depp for the Narcophonic role, as a co-producer. They sold executive-producer credits on eBay, collecting $5,000 for one from a Hollywood-producer friend of Garcia's, Giovanni Agnelli, who gave the credit to Farrah Fawcett as a gift; the filmmakers used the cash to buy the Turtle. And they set up a website, www.doitforjohnny.com, to both spread the word about their project -- Garcia keeps a running diary of the documentary's progress -- and collect information about Depp's whereabouts.

They contacted Sky Wilson, a journalist and indie filmmaker in the United Kingdom, who last September tracked Depp down to the Pinewood Studios outside of London, where he was filming Charlie and the Chocolate Factory -- but was unable to reach him. In October, the filmmakers traveled to DeppCon in Los Angeles, the first annual Johnny Depp convention, where it was rumored the star might make an appearance. No go. When they left Colorado last month, they drove first to Texas, to chase down legendary independent filmmaker Robert Rodriguez, in hopes that he might sympathize with their indie spirit; they didn't get as far as Rodriguez's publicist. They hoped to salvage their Texas sojourn by filming some footage at the Hard Rock Cafe where Baxendale once worked. Hard Rock reps readily agreed, allowed them to film for a day, then promptly told them they couldn't use any of the footage.

"It was pretty disheartening," Garcia says. "If you can't get to the most-rumored anti-Hollywood guy in existence with your indie project, can't even get to his publicist, it makes you wonder what the hell you're out here doing on the road."

With Texas a bust, the filmmakers pointed their RV west and headed to Hollywood, where this past Sunday they attempted to crash the Academy Awards. Arriving at 10 a.m., they encountered a mob scene unlike anything they'd seen to date, a swarming mass of people all trying to get to Depp and other stars, if for entirely different reasons. Originally, Garcia had planned to fly an enormous banner from the top of the Turtle that read "Depp, We Have Your Guitar" and listed his phone number, but the standing-room-only throng of tabloid media was not keen on the idea.

"We were carrying the banner, and this news guy who was also trying to film threatened us," Garcia reports. "He was worried we would mess up his shot. He said, ŒIf you don't get that banner out of my face, I will cut it in half and then stab you.' We didn't realize how crazed these people were."

The crew managed to film a few shots of Depp arriving at the ceremony, but didn't get anywhere near him. After the show, they decided to make one last stand at Depp's Los Angeles home, a spot they had visited on several occasions. They hung the banner from a tree just off Depp's property, positioned the guitar in the middle of the quiet, dead-end drive leading up to his house, illuminated it dramatically with a battery-powered lamp, and waited for four hours, hoping to capture the star's attention on his way home. But Depp never showed; he spent the night in a hotel with some friends.

Garcia's not about to give up now. More doors have opened than shut in Hollywood. His friend Agnelli has taken an increased interest in the documentary, outfitting the filmmakers with a fancy wireless mike, taking them to expensive dinners and lending them a more Beverly Hills-friendly Range Rover in place of the Turtle for use in California. They even managed to score an interview with an assistant to the Sultan of Brunei, who explained how the second-richest man in the world had trouble getting to Johnny Depp, too. It's all made for a glitzy, glamorous Hollywood portion of the documentary that juxtaposes nicely with the SpaghettiOs-in-the back-of-an-RV indie spirit of the rest of the footage.

But can the documentary be successful without Depp?

"Because Johnny Depp is this huge name, a lot of people think we're doing a documentary about him," Garcia says. "It's more about filmmaking and trying to get a story that you think is worthy to someone in Hollywood on the basis of art. We're fully prepared for other actors to play the role; we just want to get this guitar to Johnny. If he doesn't like the script, fine: Play the hell out of that guitar, and thanks for your time. I have an outcome that I want, but this is a documentary; you have to go with what happens. Maybe we wind up finding it's impossible to go artist-to-artist in this day and age, I don't know. I would love to have a quaint little meeting with Depp on some corner where I hand him the guitar, but in making this documentary, a lot more different roads and avenues have opened up to us. I feel like I owe it to the genre to pursue those."

But first the Turtle will return to Colorado, stopping in Aspen -- where Depp will be organizing the launch of Hunter S. Thompson's ashes out of a cannon. Garcia plans to handle the situation tastefully. He doesn't want to intrude on the mourning process, but he can't pass on trying to get to Depp when he's in his own back yard. So he'll take his camera up to Woody Creek, join the other news crews there and politely hope for that one chance encounter. Beyond that, he doesn't know what to expect. He just knows there'll be plenty more storms.

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