Film industry pros don’t shy from Iowa’s offerings
Mas Gardner’s first memory goes back to 1977 – he was 4 years old, sitting in a Des Moines movie theater watching “Star Wars.”
“I think that’s what kind of sparked an interest in movie magic for me,” he said.
After graduating from Roosevelt High School, Gardner traveled the country, attending film school, working as a production manager for the band Sugar Ray, and assisting with films such as “National Treasure,” before returning to Des Moines to shoot his first feature-length film, “Boone Style.” One year and $100,000 later, the movie is completed and set to premiere later this month at the Fleur Cinema & Café.
“The goals for ‘Boone Style’ were to make a movie and pay our people back,” said Gardner, who co-founded Youngblood Studios last year. “If we do well in film festivals and we get noticed and sell this picture and find people who are willing to finance us at the next level for our next script, we’re going to keep attacking and find money for our next script.”
Film industry promoters within the state are encouraged by a growing number of industry professionals and independent filmmakers such as Gardner who have either chosen to stay in Iowa to work or have temporarily relocated to the state to shoot their film.
Some have attracted investors in order to make million-dollar productions, while others have put less than $100 into a film using their parents’ camcorder. Though they face hardships in finding financing and technical support, Iowa’s motion picture professionals have managed to form an intricate network of producers, scriptwriters, editors, actors, cinematographers and casting directors, all working to help each other succeed.
“I am encouraged by it, because the more people who participate, the richer it becomes,” said Tom Wheeler, manager of the Iowa Film Office.
“I guess if I could write the script of my life and career, something about doing it in my hometown sounded intriguing and it was something I wanted to do,” Gardner said.
Gardner and his partner, Jeremy Meyer, came to Des Moines about a year ago with Gardner’s script in hand, one loosely based on his life and his family members “with many apology letters preceding my premiere.”
He acknowledged that he was concerned about filming “Boone Style” in Iowa; he was accustomed to Los Angeles and the money and talent that came along with it. But he also knew that by filming in Des Moines and restricting himself to a single location, Youngblood Studios could reduce the movie’s budget and to under $100,000.
“I knew there would be some challenges, and we might not get as many people who had shot features,” Gardner said. “But at the same time, I knew I would get so many handouts and donations and support.”
One family turned over their house to be used as a set, and companies such as Boesen the Florist, Anderson Erickson Dairy, Hy-Vee Inc. and Grounds for Celebration pitched in to support the production. Local actors volunteered their time, and local crews worked at minimal rates.
Gardner referred to the process as “guerilla filmmaking,” similar to making a student film. He held an open casting call at his alma mater, hoping to find a few “diamonds in the rough.” The weekend before filming began, he was at a shopping mall buying wardrobes for the cast.
“Everyone’s response was ‘You’re a Des Moines boy, you’ve got a project, what can we do?’” he said. “There’s no way that would happen in L.A.”
Wheeler said more people are finding out what Gardner did in the making of “Boone Style”: that any movie you want to make in Los Angeles can be made in Iowa, likely for less money and with a crew of hard workers.
“We have everything necessary to actually produce the project, assuming you’ve got a script and you’ve got the money,” Wheeler said. “The first link and the last link – the money and the distribution – those are the areas that I’m beginning to approach now.”
Local theater owners such as Mike Coppola of Fleur Cinema & Café and Brian Fridley of Fridley Theatres Inc. have expressed their support for Iowa’s independent filmmakers. “Boone Style” is set to premiere at the Fleur April 28, and Fridley theaters throughout the state have shown locally made movies such as the documentary “Villisca: Living With a Mystery.”
AriesWorks Entertainment owners Kim Busbee and James Serpento founded the Vaudeville Mews and the Wild Rose Independent Film and Video Festival, which they hoped would serve as forums for independent filmmakers like themselves.
“It’s very expensive to release films, particularly on a wide basis,” Fridley said of their ventures. “It helps give them a track record as to how their film will perform so they can go to other owners or distributors and get their movie out.”
But filmmakers agree that finding the financing for a project is the first and biggest obstacle in the entire process. For years, filmmakers in other regions have been able to persuade individuals and investment groups to fork over the cash to make their movies happen. But Iowans aren’t as familiar with the monetary rewards a successful film can bring, and consequently less likely to invest in a project.
“The majority of investors in Iowa are working with real estate, farmland, things that are tangible,” Busbee said. “This is an intangible. The first couple of presentations we did years ago, (the investors) looked at us like we were from the moon.”
Wheeler is considering ways to educate Iowa investors about the benefits of investing in movies, which is a relatively standardized practice. He expects investment opportunities to increase throughout the state and become much more common.
“All it’s going to take is one clear example of what the process is, what investors and filmmakers can expect and what the success looks like,” he said.
Tony Wilson and television producer Steve Schott (“The Bonnie Hunt Show”) have tackled the financing issue on a much larger scale with the making of “The Final Season,” a movie based on the Norway High School baseball team, which will be filmed in Cedar Rapids, Marshalltown and Norway, Iowa, this summer.
Wilson from Applied Art & Technology in Urbandale bought the story rights from the team’s two coaches in the early 1990s and finally, four years ago, hired screenwriter Art D’Alessandro to create the script. The script attracted the attention of Iowa and out-of-state investors who chipped in $500,000, which was used to pay holding fees for director David Mickey Evans, who has directed such films as “The Sandlot,” and actors such as Sean Astin, who played Samwise Gamgee in the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy.
“It’s kind of a chicken-and-egg thing,” said Schott, who will serve as the film’s producer. “It’s hard to get the money without the stars, and it’s hard to get the stars without the money.”
Wilson said the film will be “great for the town of Norway,” and he and his partners plan to cast the extras and some speaking roles locally.
“My goal was not just to make a move, but a good one that’s going to make an impact, and that’s probably why it’s taken so long,” he said. “To our knowledge, this is the first time a major motion picture has been started by Iowans, about Iowans and filmed in Iowa.”
Loving the job
John Houghton, a freelance photographer and 20-year veteran of the film industry, doesn’t remember ever wanting to do anything other than make movies. But he was never bitten by the Hollywood bug, and instead decided to stay in Iowa to raise his family.
His career has taken him across the country and throughout Iowa, working on feature films, commercials, television shows, corporate videos, even the Slipknot music video that was shot in West Des Moines last year.
“There are commercials that I’ve done 10 or 12 years ago that are still on the air, and I always say that I wish I had a quarter every time I saw that spot,” said Houghton, who moved to freelance status three and a half years ago.
But finding the next job is always the challenge, and Houghton is always trying to make contacts that will lead him to potential projects. He is being considered for jobs as a cinematographer on two or three feature films this summer, which he said he would like to do more of as his teenage children get older.
Houghton served as director of photography for “Boone Style” when it was shot in Des Moines last year. The three weeks during filming were among the occasional stretches during the course of the year when he gets to sleep in his own bed. Other times, he’ll be out of town filming projects two or three days a week.
“In Iowa, you have to love it if you’re going to work in this business, because you’re not going to get rich,” he said.
After touring the country with a theater company, Busbee returned to Iowa to raise her family. But like other filmmakers, she only sees opportunities.
She decided to partner with Serpento to create AriesWorks Entertainment, a stage and screen production company, professional acting school and casting office housed at the Robert William Mickle Center in Des Moines. They have completed one feature film, three short films and one promotional trailer for their upcoming movie “Haunting Villisca,” which they will begin shooting this summer on location.
“I talk to people in L.A., and they can’t believe that we’re starting our sixth project in 10 years,” Busbee said.
In addition to her work with the Vaudeville Mews and the Wild Rose Film Festival, Busbee has chipped in on other projects, including serving as a casting director and makeup artist for “Boone Style.”
Through all of those projects, she’s seen the value of filmmaking in Iowa. During the filming of “The Yoofo Club,” which Busbee produced and Serpento directed, businesses chipped in supplies and empty buildings to be used as sets. Other residents helped find police uniforms and vehicles. The town of Villisca is bending over backward to make sure the production of “Haunting Villisca” goes smoothly.
“It’s so easy, whether you’re in acting or filmmaking, to be really talented and still just disappear into thin air in these huge markets,” Busbee said. “One of the things that’s gratifying back here is that people for the most part will help and support you in Iowa. They’re just naturally supportive of artistic ventures.”