Frank Rich thinks he's found the keys to successful filmmaking: abstinence from women and dope. "Our motto was 'Keep your hands off the ass and your brain off the grass,'" says Rich. "No masturbation, no sucking on the bong. A clear head and pent-up sexual energy are very valuable tools."
Rich and his ragtag crew needed every bit of that focus to finish his first feature, Nixing the Twist, a film about two mob hitmen whose loyalty comes into question when their boss starts having them rub out questionable targets, such as a country-Western band.
Rich, 35, is best known around Denver for his irregularly published magazine Modern Drunkard; that sodden notoriety and four dimestore action-adventure novels Rich wrote before coming to Denver helped him secure the film's $13,000 budget. Local bars he had profiled in the magazine let him use their locations for free, and drinkers/actors signed on gratis. But that created its own set of problems.
"Our biggest obstacle was dealing with hangovers," says actor David Gayman, who plays gun-for-hire Happy Jackson.
Despite the barroom bravado, Rich and his crew aren't just a bunch of drunks with a camera. Both Gayman and Luke Schmaltz, who plays hitman Jimmy Johanssen, went to film school, and Rich cut his directorial teeth making commercials for Rocky's Autos. But the trio abandoned conventional techniques for a no-film-permit guerrilla approach.
"I dropped out of film school after working on a movie crew in San Diego," says Schmaltz, whose other entertainment ventures include fronting the local punk band King Rat. "There was so much ego--so many dramatic interludes to discuss weighty topics such as lighting and sound--that it left a bad taste in my mouth."
Gayman is more succinct. "It was bullshit," he says. "Film school is for sucks. It's better just to jump in and see what works for you instead of depending on theory taught to you by instructors who are all failed filmmakers themselves."
Appropriately, the biggest influences on Nixing the Twist were shoestring-budget films like Robert Rodriguez's El Mariachi. Rich poured everything he had into the film. "I was living on Luke's floor most of the shoot," Rich says. "If he hadn't shot a deer and an elk that summer, I would have starved. I figured I could spend my money on rent or on film, which costs $74 a roll and $80 to process. It was an easy decision. I lived on sofas, celibacy and red meat."
But that wasn't enough, and Rich was forced to find outside financial backing by selling executive-producer "points" to investors. "We spent more time in meetings with people supposed to invest than those who actually put up money," says Gayman. "We'd get together with these guys, buy them several rounds of drinks and try to convince them to throw down $300 for a point. But it seemed like most of them were just in it for the free drinks."
Rich ended up selling seven points to a Grand Junction doctor and his brother who were fans of Rich's novels. Schmaltz put in $3,000, and the owner of the Lion's Lair bar on Colfax also bought a point. It was enough to complete the film.
But there were unforeseen personal costs as well. Gayman says the strange hours put a strain on his relationship with his fiancee, especially when a stunt using her car went awry. "Frank was showing us how to do this stunt where a guy was supposed to roll off the hood of my girlfriend's car," Gayman says. "So he rolls onto the hood and smashes right through the windshield. That was the end of shooting that day, because I had to go do $300 worth of serious ass-kissing. After that, my fiancee bought me a cell phone so she could keep track of me, because she didn't really believe I was making a movie. I can see her point. I mean, what kind of shoot is it when you come home every night drunk off your ass?"
While Gayman's home life suffered, Schmaltz netted himself a temporary girlfriend in fellow cast member Karen Exley, who plays Medina, the film's femme fatale. "We hit almost every club in town looking for an actress to play Medina," Rich explains. "And even though Luke was all fired up to do the love scene with her because he'd been trying to get on this chick for years, it was pretty awkward. The first few takes weren't very good, because there was a lot of blushing and such. But when I had to stop shooting to change the film, I noticed that they continued to make out. That was it--they were an item from that point on. We started to call Luke the Method Man."
Schmaltz got himself into another compromising position after wrapping a scene at the no-star Royal Host motel on Colfax. He and Exley were walking out of the motel when some cops drove by.
"I knew they were going to hassle us, because Karen was dressed up like a ho, and I pretty much looked like a pimp and was carrying a prop gun," Schmaltz says. "I pass the gun off to Frank right before they pull over, and they start asking questions and running my name through the computer. I'm trying to explain that I'm shooting a movie, and the cops are like, 'Yeah, right. What kind of movie would that be?'" Unfortunately, Schmaltz had a warrant for his arrest, so the cops cuffed him and took him downtown. "Of course, they make sure to tell all the hoods in the tank that I'm a 'movie star,'" he says. "It was pretty ridiculous."
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But for Rich, Gayman and Schmaltz, thoughts of success aren't ridiculous. Rich is shopping a twelve-minute trailer to distributors and film festivals across the country and says feedback has been encouraging. First, however, he needs to finish editing the final product for its premiere January 24 at the Bluebird Theater.
"This is my calling card to the industry," says Rich. "But I don't think I'll ever be completely satisfied with the film. You can polish a piece of marble until it's a pebble, but eventually you've got to throw it at someone."
Nixing the Twist, January 24, 7:30 and 10 p.m., Bluebird Theater, 3317 East Colfax Avenue, 303-830-6700, $5.