The air is thick, sweet and still at Reba & Roses, a plant nursery in Hillsborough, the day’s location for the independent feature film Dog Nights, which has been in production around the Triangle the entire month of June. In the nursery, two actors square off, waist deep in a patio full of roses, broiling under a merciless afternoon sun. The film’s star, lanky blond actor Troy Kromholtz, has put away the battery-powered fan that has been keeping his face dry between takes.
“Rolling,” assistant director Robb Thomas shouts, and out on the periphery the production assistants relay the cry, which sounds more like a plea, to the world beyond: “Quiet please!” Away from the action, the film’s director, Damon Yarnell, sits placidly in the shade under a portable canopy, watching the video feed on a monitor and listening with headphones. While he waits for the ambient noise to die down, assistant director Thomas flips his walkie-talkie in the air coolly, like George Raft tossing a coin in Scarface. Finally he shouts, “Action!” Kromholtz and his acting partner in this scene, Zach Hanner, hit their marks. Kromholtz is playing a nervous, shy newcomer to the South who has aroused the ire of Hanner’s redneck horticulturist cum philosopher. The take is a long one, with complicated blocking, providing ample time for some noise-making object in the vicinity to belch its way into the take, ruining it. As the scene progresses, the crew watches tensely. Three quarters of the way into the scene, a diesel truck rumbles by on a nearby road. All around the edge of the set, a dozen crew members wince and scowl in the direction of the profaning truck. Kromholtz and Hanner soldier on to the end of the scene.
“Cut!” Yarnell, tall with close-cropped hair under his baseball cap, rises from his chair. “That was great, but where was that noise?” he asks. “Can we cover it with a closeup?” It would be preferable to shoot another take, but they’ve shot four, and there simply isn’t time to do it again. A brief discussion ensues, then the decision is made to shoot a closeup of the actors, repeating only the obscured lines. It’s an acceptable compromise, and the crew gets to work moving props and equipment.
And so it goes, on Day 22 of the 24 shooting days scheduled for Dog Nights, the first feature film for Carrboro-based Banzai Entertainment, and its two principals, 35-year-old producer Donald Whittier and 31-year-old writer/director Damon Yarnell.
Chapel Hill businessman Donald Whittier is an informal but serious man who, particularly with the crew cut he sports, bears a fair resemblance to Tony Randall. On this film shoot, he’s employing a businessman’s pragmatism to achieve a difficult economic proposition: to make a profitable independent film.
Whittier is the first to acknowledge the iffy prospects for success. “There’s 2,000 to 3,000 independent films made every year and only about 40 or 50 get picked up,” Whittier says. Those are long odds, but Whittier and his team have found creative ways to keep costs down and still produce a quality film. “We’re making a $2 million movie for $100,000,” Whittier says with a laugh.
Indeed, the effort is impressive. Through relentless scouring for talent, hard-nosed bargain hunting and rigorous preparation, Whittier has managed to assemble a full crew, professional cast and enough 35mm film stock to make a sharp-looking feature. Through the Internet and other more traditional venues, Whittier recruited the key crew members from Los Angeles, Wilmington and elsewhere. He and Yarnell selected Los Angeles-based cinematographer Ken Stipe after perusing more than 50 demo reels. Stipe in turn used his connections to secure a 35mm camera package on excellent terms. In another deft stroke, Whittier negotiated with a Los Angeles film stock dealer to procure “short ends” (unused film stock salvaged from other productions) at a deep discount. A Wilmington sound man came on board as well, helping to secure sound equipment on generous terms. In yet another thrifty move, caterer Donna Duncan persuaded several area restaurants to donate hot meals for the cast and crew. At the Reba & Roses set in Hillsborough, however, Duncan cooked for everyone: chicken kebabs, quesadillas, salsa and guacamole. And for dessert: “Popsicles!”
The key, according to Whittier, is to find people who believe in your project and who are willing to sacrifice some of their normal asking price for the opportunity to work on it. Everyone on the film was working below scale, he says. The key crew members are being paid something more than a nominal sum, whereas the actors are working for small daily stipends, with the rest of their salaries deferred in the hopes that the film will find a distributor. Crew members farther down the totem pole are working for a line on their resumes. Everyone gets fed, however.
Whittier says that initially, the production was a challenge because “we had a pretty green crew.” But the inexperienced members got up to speed quickly, and at this late stage in the shooting, on this June day, they are remarkably well-coordinated. Only on a couple of occasions at Reba & Roses does assistant director Thomas bark reprimands at newbies, in his role as the set’s traffic cop and enforcer.
Whittier and others acknowledge that certain positions have been difficult to fill with local volunteers. On Wednesday, at a set on Chapel Hill’s Franklin Street, the production is on its third boom operator. Two days later in Hillsborough, the production is on to its fourth: Banzai Entertainment’s marketing director, Erik Martin. But cinematographer Stipe has no complaints. “These conditions are absolutely typical,” he says. Stipe has been impressed by the enthusiasm of the volunteers, and notes that in any film that requires unpaid crew, “there is a weeding out process. At the beginning, you get people in who say ‘this isn’t what I was expecting!’ But by the end of the shoot, the people who are left are great–they’re the ones who’ve stuck it out.”
Perhaps the crew member with the most impressive credentials is production designer Shambhavi Kaul. Kaul, a striking 28-year-old native of India, worked most recently as production designer on Indian director Murali Nair’s A Dog’s Day, which premiered in May as part of the Un Certain Regard program of the Cannes Film Festival. Kaul, who lives in Durham, says that her work on A Dog’s Day required the same creativity with limited resources and inexperienced crew that she employs with Dog Nights. The producers of the Indian film, taking their cue from neo-Realist methods, cast non-professional actors from an island village for all of the roles. Kaul recruited her staff from the same labor force. Her difficulties included language barriers (the villagers spoke Malayalam, an Indian language that Kaul doesn’t know) and transportation restrictions (boats were the only conveyances).
On the similarly named but less exotic Dog Nights, Kaul’s main challenges have been to make do with a limited art budget, and a crew of varied levels of experience. One young set dresser on her staff, Stephanie Raines, is working on her first feature film. She says she started as a set dresser, but after some attrition during the course of the shoot, she’s taken on the additional duties of propsmaster and wardrobe assistant. While taking a well-deserved break from the Hillsborough filming, the Piedmont Community College student relates with pleasure the spooky atmosphere she and rest of the art department created on the cheap at a warehouse set. “We dragged sheets of muslin in dirt, them hung them up on two by fours to create the bad guys’ lair. It was our biggest success,” she recalls.
At times, the production’s reliance on callow volunteers is startling–and inspiring. On the Hillsborough set is Katie Boyer, an intelligent-looking local high school student wearing a Reed College T-shirt (“Atheism, Communism, Love,” the mock seal proclaims). Boyer claims that she has no particular interest in film. “I just needed something to do,” she shrugs. Despite her professed lack of cinematic ambition, Boyer has been given the very important job of film loader. While she talks, her thin arms are busy inside a light-proof changing bag. She’s only been doing this since Day 10, when she replaced a dropout, but already she’s quite comfortable loading the precious film stock onto a “mag,” the removeable component of the camera that holds the film, without benefit of visual cues.
Whittier, the principal financial backer for the film, has deep roots in Chapel Hill. Originally from California, he’s lived in Chapel Hill since 1972, and he graduated from UNC-Chapel Hill in 1990 with a degree in interdisciplianary studies, with a focus on environmental science. While a student, he formed the Student Environmental Action Coalition (SEAC), a group that burgeoned into a nationwide confederation. These days, he and a partner own Essential Builders, a contracting and real estate firm, and he also runs a Carrboro tae kwan do studio. Whittier holds a fourth degree black belt in tae kwan do (he was a silver medalist at the 1993 U.S. Olympic Festival), and it was in his capacity as martial arts instructor that he met Yarnell a decade ago. They discovered a shared enthusiasm for the movies, and developed a friendship that they maintained even after Yarnell left Chapel Hill to pursue a master’s degree in comparative literature.
Now, their relationship has culminated in the production of Dog Nights. Whittier and Yarnell are new to film production, but they have been nurturing this project for several years. First, Whittier formed his production company in 1997, and began soliciting scripts. Later, Yarnell joined him on the venture, and the pair began making trips to the Sundance and South by Southwest film festivals in 1998, seeing films, meeting producers and attending seminars. Along the way, they got an education in indie film production.
Back in North Carolina, the duo continued to read scripts, and eventually reviewed more than 200, aided by a team of interns from UNC-Chapel Hill. “We had them rate the scripts on a one to 10 scale, according to several criteria, including the budget, number of characters and whether the story was interesting,” Whittier recalls. Those that scored between six and 10 got a second reading. If the initial rating held up, the script would be sent to Yarnell. Whittier and Yarnell eventually found two scripts that moved them enough to open negotiations with the authors. But when they were unable to close a deal, they began to consider writing their own film.
Whittier says that he based the premise for Dog Nights on his long-standing interest in Arthurian legend, as well as films soaked in Southern atmosphere. But it was Yarnell who assumed the screenwriting duties, and he began sending Whittier eight to 10 pages of text at a time, from his home in Pennsylvania.
Once a draft of the script was ready, about a year and a half ago, the two partners turned to the Carrboro-based Transactors Improv Company for help in workshopping the script. Over the course of several readings, the improv actors helped sharpen the dialogue, characters and situations. Several of the Transactors wound up with roles in the film, including Zach Hanner, Steve Scott, Nancy Pekar, Mike Beard and the group’s director, Greg Hohn, who plays Sugar, a Skittle-popping heavy who lurks in scenes that were filmed in and around Durham’s Liberty Warehouse. As for the plot itself, the filmmakers are reluctant to divulge details, but Whittier and others allow that it’s a comedy, that it derives some inspiration from Arthurian legend, and that it involves a shy newcomer to a community (Kromholtz) and his quest for his missing dog. One member of the production team, Erik Martin, suggests that Welcome to the Dollhouse would be a good point of comparison, referring to the corrosive anti-coming of age tale that established director Todd Solondz’s reputation upon its appearance in 1996.
Martin, barely a year out of college, seems to be fully enjoying a most interesting job as the production’s marketing director. One of his many duties is to look for product placement deals. This practice, fairly common in Hollywood films and TV shows, is frowned upon by film purists as needless commercialism, but on a low-budget production where every cent counts, it’s a tactic that could pay off later on, when the producers of Dog Nights are looking for additional funds for promotion and distribution. Although no company has become a primary investor in the film thus far, Martin has made provisional investment arrangements with Adam & Eve, Eurosport, Red Hat and Krispy Kreme. Especially Krispy Kreme. Apparently, doughnuts and other non-nutritious foods figure prominently in the film’s plot, and on the set itself, Krispy Kreme doughnuts seem to be the bulwark of the snack menu.
As Martin talks about his job from the Franklin Street set, a dark-haired woman approaches him: Traci Dinwiddie, a Wilmington actress who has the female lead of Lady Ragnelle. Dinwiddie, whose plush eyebrows range above an ingenue’s smile, is dressed in ’70s chic: hip-hugging jeans, a loose pullover blouse and an Annie Hall hat–a retro getup that makes her resemble Ali MacGraw. Dinwiddie’s lengthy resume lists television and film roles, large and small, with a couple of appearances on Dawson’s Creek thrown in for good measure. She was cast in Dog Nights in mid-May, just before filming began, and also just before she was forced to undergo an operation to repair a disk that ruptured while dancing under Paula Abdul’s choreography on a recent Twentieth Century Fox production.
Still convalescing, Dinwiddie nonetheless trooped up to Carrboro for the 24-day shoot. Whittier made her job easier by providing her with an on-set massage therapist. With some pride, Dinwiddie lifts her chin and displays the crescent-shaped scar on her neck from her surgery.
Later, Whittier suggests that Dinwiddie’s character, Ragnelle, is an example of how Dog Nights is modifying and updating its Arthurian blueprint. In the original, Lady Ragnelle is a hideous crone who has the power to transform herself into a woman who looks something like Traci Dinwiddie–but with a catch. King Arthur’s dilemma is whether he wants her to be beautiful in his bedchamber and ugly in the public view of his subjects, or vice versa. He must choose one or the other–she can’t be beautiful all the time.
Whittier sees in this story an expression of the limited roles women have been forced to choose from in the theater of male supremacy. In Yarnell’s retelling of the Arthurian legend, he eschews the supernatural elements of the original, but nonetheless finds an interesting way to portray this ancient duality that has been with us since the Fall: In his version, “Ragnelle” works by day as a male fantasy object, a purveyor of sex toys and lingerie, with an outfit to match. (This setting is, apparently, where the Adam & Eve products fit in.) After 5 p.m., though, Ragnelle turns crunchy, just another girl in Birkenstocks buying organic vegetables on her way home from work.
As this story goes to press, the work of Dinwiddie and the rest of the Dog Nights cast is going under the knife. The film’s shoot wrapped on Monday, July 2, and the editing is already underway. Whittier and Martin hope to complete the film by the September deadline for Sundance entries. Film festivals, however, are only one part of their three-pronged plan for distribution. The second option is to interest film distributors directly: “If they offer us enough, we’ll take it,” Whittier says.
The last option is self-distribution, whereby the filmmakers would negotiate directly with independent exhibitors, such as the Rialto in Raleigh, the Carolina in Durham, Film Forum in New York or the Brattle in Boston. “We can get this film into 40 theaters,” Martin says confidently, facing down the other 2,999 indie films that will seek distribution this year. While it might sound naively optimistic, given what he and Whittier have accomplished so far, it wouldn’t be wise to bet against him.