By JOHN WOOLEY, World Entertainment Writer, 05/17/2003
Indie filmmaker's peers, cafe characters stuck in purgatory, but he goes his own way
Portland, Ore.-based Kelley Baker calls himself the Angry Filmmaker, but don't look for a lot of anger in his latest feature.
In fact, "The GAS CAFE," a five-character fantasy-drama-comedy set in a roadside tavern, has as many moments of sweetness as it has moments of weirdness -- and it's got plenty of both.
The anger, instead, comes out of Baker's frustration with the vanishing opportunities for independent filmmakers to get their pictures into theaters via regular distribution routes, and the unwillingness of distributors -- even the ones considered to be the chance-takers -- to commit to movies that don't fit rigid guidelines.
" That's absolutely it," Baker said recently. "I wrote a rant on the Web site (www.angryfilmmaker.com) basically saying that independent filmmaking is dead. To be an independent filmmaker now, you have to have a star in your movie. And you have to have a great opening weekend or they'll pull you.
" I think this has happened in the past two or three years," he added. "I think a lot of it is because the distributors have gotten lazy. They figure all they have to do is push a star's name, and it'll get people into the theater. So to get a buzz on your film, you either have to have a star, or you have to be a kid in your twenties who shot it on credit cards -- every two years or so, it seems like one of those comes out of Sundance."
Baker's films don't have any bankable stars, and he passed his twenties several years back. He's got significant experience in the major-motion-picture arena, however, working often with director Gus Van Sant as a sound designer on such high-profile pictures as "Finding Forrester," "My Own Private Idaho" and "Good Will Hunting."
Undoubtedly, those credits opened some Hollywood doors for him when it came to making his own films, but they weren't quite enough.
" I spent all my money from 'Good Will Hunting' making my first movie, 'Birddog,' " he noted. "We screened it New York, L.A., and all the distributors liked it, but they hit me with that 'no big stars -- how can we sell it?' They told me I had to do this and this and this next time, and I spent a year and a half trying to put a deal together. Then, I finally realized something: I'm a filmmaker, not a dealmaker, and since everybody was telling me to do this and this and this, I thought, 'Why not just say the heck with them and go 180 degrees and do what I want to do?' "
That's exactly what he did, and that's where "The Gas Cafe" comes in.
" We did it in nine days for $4,000," he said. "My unemployment checks ran out the day before shooting started, so I turned off the ringer on my phone and didn't pick any messages for all those nine days. I didn't want to pick it up and hear the people from Mastercard and VISA yelling at me, which they'll do."
" The GAS CAFE" takes place in one night, as a man and woman seek shelter from a storm in a restaurant-bar run by a young man and his grandfather and inhabited by a cryptic lonely soul drinking coffee and smoking cigarettes. As the story unfolds, the audience finds that one of the characters is dead, and most of the rest of them are concealing a dark secret or two. It's a well-told and compelling story, with good acting and sharp dialogue that often wavers between very funny and very sad.
" One of my favorite books is (Gabriel Garcia Marquez's) 'One Hundred Years of Solitude,' and I wanted to try and do something like that in the space of one night," Baker said. "No matter how odd or outrageous things get, it's all done in that one space.
" I think I'm dealing with stuff in it that has always bothered me, things about religion and sex and philosophy. I think it was just something that had been stirring around in my head for a long time. And it came out -- for better or worse," he added with a laugh.
Although a major distribution deal has eluded him thus far, Baker has found a way to get his movies to their potential audiences. He takes them around the country himself, hitting college campuses, small theaters, and other venues. The results, he said, have been gratifying.
" We've played a bunch of places, and wherever we play, the audience really gets into it," he said. "That lets me know that there are people out there who want to see something different."
" The GAS CAFE" is unrated but contains enough partial nudity, sexual content and language to probably earn it an R rating.
Movie Screening: "The GAS CAFE," featuring an appearance by producer-director-writer Kelley Baker
When: 8 p.m. Saturday
Where: Nightingale Theater, 1416 E. Fourth St.