When you see Brent Stewart's The Colonel's Bride next month at the Nashville Film Festival, you can thank an unusual benefactor for the movie's existence: the Smoke Monster.
If not for a heap of "short ends," the unused film stock at the end of a roll, from the TV series Lost — along with My Name Is Earl, Grey's Anatomy and the Clint Eastwood vehicle Gran Torino — Stewart would have never been able to shoot his no-budget, locally cast chamber drama in high-gloss 35mm.
"It's like that classic story of the Vietcong making bombs out of American trash," says James Clauer, Stewart's frequent collaborator, whose 2006 short "The Aluminum Fowl" was shown at both Sundance and Cannes.
If that sounds like the basis for a movement, in a modest way it just might be. Stewart and Clauer are part of a loose-knit collective of mostly native Nashville filmmakers who got sick of trying to scrape together funding and instead agreed to lean on each other's talents to get their movies made. So far, they've got two features shot and counting.
"We've had a lot of support from people in town — AC Inc., Ground Zero, Filmworkers Club," says Clauer. "I think they wanted to see that we weren't just emulating the latest thing coming out of Hollywood."
Along with Stewart and Clauer, the group includes friend and collaborator Michael Carter and producers Ryan Zacarias and Brooke Bernard. Their headquarters is J.J.'s Market, the Broadway coffeehouse that's become an informal meeting ground for local filmmakers. Stewart points out the exact heavy chair and long wooden table where he spent three open-to-close days writing The Colonel's Bride, going home each night with caffeine shakes.
The group's first feature, it's a character study of a boozing retired Army man and his Vietnamese mail-order bride. Instead of trying to lure financing with a big name in the lead, Stewart put all his chips on actor JD Parker, whom he'd met while working on friend Harmony Korine's commercials for Liberty Mutual. Zacarias and Bernard signed on as producers; Carter agreed to edit.
Meanwhile, Clauer was equally frustrated after shopping a feature script for two years. The group vowed to make that project their next priority — and within four months, they had it filmed.
That feature, currently titled When the World's on Fire, shows how quickly the group's ambitions are coming along. A bilingual comedy-drama about a Guatemalan immigrant, it features a cast of more than 70 and was shot on widescreen 35mm all over Nashville, including the makeshift shelters of Tent City.
Over a 17-day shoot, the primary location burned down (not because of the filmmakers), Clauer contracted a high fever, and police were called to bust up a scuffle. Plus, Zacarias says a climactic late-night fight scene — involving a Guatemalan drag queen at the Nolensville Road Salvation Army parking lot — was convincing enough that nearly a dozen police cars roared up. But the group's creative energy hasn't showed signs of flagging.
"We now have two feature films that are completely gorgeous," Bernard says, and Carter adds that their music scores are just as impressive — Stewart's by veteran Nashville sideman Lindsay Jamieson, Clauer's by Lambchop frontman Kurt Wagner.
The next step is distribution, and Clauer says he's obsessed with new models that circumvent the traditional megaplex logjam. All want to see what happens with Korine's Nashville-shot feature Trash Humpers — which Carter worked on as assistant director, and which is attempting a distribution pattern (overseen by revered indie label Drag City and Belcourt programmer Toby Leonard) that applies indie-rock strategy to indie-film booking.
"Walking into a festival and getting a deal — it's a pipe dream now," Clauer says. "There's a ton of resources here, with great crew people, and it would be difficult to make these films anywhere else." As proof, wait for Carter's film — inspired by Nashville's 2005 Westside Purse Snatcher. —JIM RIDLEY
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