When the Denver-based Modern Drunkard magazine ceased publication in 1998 -- after a two-and-a-half-year run that yielded eleven issues focusing on alcohol and local music -- it might have been safe to assume that editor Frank Rich had simply tired of hanging out in the dark, dusty taverns where he and his staff did most of their research. "We were essentially based out of the Lion's Lair," he says. "We felt that if we were going to write about getting loaded, we would have to lead by example."
In reality, Rich didn't stop frequenting local haunts. He just started bringing a 16mm camera, actors and lights with him. Two years ago, Rich -- a four-year Denver citizen by way of Grand Junction, Austin, London and Los Angeles who has written four action-adventure novels -- assembled a crew, revised a script, and began shooting Nixing the Twist, a feature-length crime noir film in and around Denver. The film, which screens twice this Saturday, is what might have happened had French new-wave director Jean-Luc Godard drawn inspiration from punk rock rather than jazz: It's a violent, scrappy, black-and-white romp through a world of purposeful shadows, good and bad guys, and beautiful women who drink hard and are always at the ready with a great line you wish you'd thought of.
The thrill of seeing familiar locales like the Cricket on the Hill and Gabor's Lounge on celluloid is heightened by the composition of the cast. Rather than casting a bunch of budding thespians pulled from the theater departments of area colleges, Rich dug into another well of local talent: the music scene. Led by King Rat vocalist Luke Schmaltz in the role of Jimmy Johnson -- a charismatic fellow who's a hit man and a hit with the ladies (including his real-life girlfriend, Hemi Cuda bassist Karen Exley, who plays the mysterious femme fatale Medina) -- members of local bands fill more than half the roles. Many of them are eventually "waxed" on screen by Jimmy and his mentor/partner Happy Jackson (played by David Gayman), including Paul Galaxy of the Galactics, Zeth Pedulla and Todd Dagle of King Rat, Heather Dalton of the Pin Downs, and even notorious noise-monger and Church of Satan spokesperson Boyd Rice. Rapper Mike V gets "a pretty good beating, but he actually doesn't die," Schmaltz says.
According to Rich, the decision to go with non-professional actors felt like a natural fit with the learn-as-you-go approach he took with his first filming effort. "What I discovered when we did do some casting sessions at schools and stuff is that a lot of actors cannot act. They overact," he says. "Musicians are natural hams. They are accustomed to putting on performances, and they love the attention. Plus, for many of them, this was a first-time experience, so the enthusiasm was unwaning and really incredible."
Rich credits the writings of another maverick director -- Robert Rodriguez, who produced El Mariachi for a seemingly impossible $7,000 -- with providing the inspiration he needed to persevere, even when resources were scarce and time dragged on. In a spirit that seems in step with the film's punk roots, Nixing was shot without any support from the Mayor's Office of Art, Culture and Film, an organization Rich feels is interested only in bringing Hollywood to Denver, not nurturing independent art. Scenes shot in bars, for example, were often shot after hours ("You cannot bring expensive film equipment around a bunch of drunks," he says) while the filmmaker figured out neato, cost-effective tricks, like putting a camera on a wheelchair or a skateboard to create a feeling of movement. Meanwhile, he slept on the floor at Schmaltz's house, tried to ignore that he was running out of film and supplies, and subsisted on "the wild game in Luke's fridge."
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With the project finally completed, you might expect Rich to take a well-deserved rest. But then you might underestimate this drunkard. In the coming weeks, Rich will submit his film to regional festivals like Slamdance and the Telluride Film Festival -- while beginning production of Modern Drunkard, the movie. That film, which will again employ a local, musical cast, aims to serve as a kind of fictional instructional piece for aspiring teetotalers. Nixing the Twist, meanwhile, screens at the Bluebird Theater on Saturday, November 4, at 7:30 and 10 p.m. An open-to-the-public party with the cast and crew begins at the Sugar Lounge (1700 Vine Street, adjacent to the Skydiner) after the conclusion of the first screening. Knowing this group, it should go well into the night.
Though Pin Downs guitarist Heather Dalton is killed in Nixing the Twist, she's apparently felt well enough in real life to organize a series of benefits for the Green Party and its presidential candidate, Ralph Nader. The final event, which is designed as a (last-ditch?) effort to raise money and awareness of good ol' Ralphie's campaign (and which may force Dalton to miss her on-screen death), will also take place Saturday, November 4, at 9 p.m. at the Mercury Cafe, and will feature speakers and performances from the Pin Downs, Wendy Woo and Space Team Electra. It's probably safe to say that Nader won't be moving into the White House anytime soon, but the speakers participating in the benefit will provide some compelling reasons why a vote in his direction is still worthwhile.
Also worthwhile is the Bruce Hornsby/ Ricky Lee Jones show at Macky Auditorium on Monday, November 6, as it celebrates the tenth anniversary of the Boulder-based public radio show, E-town. For a decade, the husband-and-wife team of Nick and Helen Forster -- who host and perform on the show -- have beamed good music and good vibrations across the land with their program. The wholly independent affair stands apart from commercial radio in its programming ingenuity, quality of performance and unwillingness to conform to the increasingly homogenous world of radio. Tickets for the show -- a benefit for E-town -- are available at the Boulder Theater, which normally serves as home to the weekly broadcasts. Congratulations, Forsters.