by Chuck Myer, Sacramento Bee / Neighbors, 21 June 1998

People really do drive from as far away as Sacramento to see a movie at the Colfax Theatre. It's spacious, it has a killer sound system and it even boasts a movie projector museum. Its small-town Main Street location, theater stage and curtain remind people of the way movie houses looked before we started carving them up.

But that doesn't explain why the place was packed ten days ago with people from all over the state, dressed to the teeth, just to watch a splotchy, black-and-white film that was about 10 seconds long. The marquee outside, which so far this year has trumpeted first runs like "Titanic," "Godzilla" and "The Horse Whisperer," now read, "Morty Fineman's The Simplex Complex". The posters carried images from other supposed films by Fineman, the "most prolific filmmaker of all time", with 300 films under his belt (including three in one weekend).

The answer? Fineman is the title character in a new feature film called "The Independent", shot in and around Wendell Jacob's Colfax Theatre last week. Oscar-nominated writer/director Stephen Kessler ("Vegas Vacation") chose Colfax as a "stunt double" for "Chaparral, Nevada," home of the movie's fictional "High Desert Film Festival".

"The Independent" is a spoof of the "churn-'em-out" B-movie industry, and Kessler's stars have accumulated about as many film credits as his fictional hero. Jerry Stiller (Fineman) was a veteran film/TV actor and comedian long before his recent glory days as George's father on "Seinfeld." Janeane Garofalo has been in an incredible number of films (12) just since 1997's "Romy and Michele's High School Reunion." The 6'-1" pin-up girl Julie Strain is known as the "Queen of the B-Movies" (with over 75). And perhaps the most prolific performer is Kessler's satirical choice to portray the mayor of Chaparral: former porn star Ginger Lynn Allen.

Allen claims to have made 69 films in a two year period (1984-85), with such memorable names as "Between the Cheeks", "Undressed Rehearsal", and "On Golden Blonde". Ginger Lynn (as she was then known) later dated Charlie Sheen, who evidently attempted to bring her over to "legitimate" films (like perhaps her 1992 film, "Bound and Gagged: A Love Story"?). The fact that her fan club's website is satirically titled "Ginger Lynn Allen, Master Thespian" tends to indicate she has a way to go before we'll see her on Oscar night. Her "mayoral" welcome of Stiller's character to Chaparral (though only for screening of a military training film) was reminiscent of Marilyn Monroe's birthday greeting to Jack Kennedy.

Those chosen as extras to portray the film festival audience may not have been aware of Allen's film notoriety, but no matter. Extra-wannabes came from miles around with appropriate attire and catchy props they hoped would distinguish them for a featured moment on film. The evening theater scene attracted tuxedoes, furs and walking sticks, and the next day's outdoor shooting brought out all types of Southwestern tourist getups, as well as equestrian, classic convertible, and biker units in full regalia. Colfax's Main Street was alive with signs, booths and tables, where extras (known in the film biz as "atmosphere") were set to work serving pancakes in film canisters and hawking film festival T-shirts and skin care products.

Since the outdoor set wasn't closed, any street pedestrian could walk through the filming area. Posted signs read "Filming in Progress — By entering this area you implicitly grant permission to be filmed and recorded, and irrevocably grant permission to use your image in any and all media now known or hereafter devised forever and throughout the universe." (I wonder how many lawyers it took to write that one?)

Unfortunately, this allowed some brazen passersby to stand in front of costumed extras who had been waiting for hours for the film to roll. Several of Colfax's most colorful characters and juvenile delinquents appeared out of the woodwork, and will undoubtedly make the final cut. The beleaguered assistant directors may not have recognized these as "new" faces, or they may have actually wanted to include local color in the frame. Grizzled Colfax Hotel caretaker Ira Brown definitely got his 15 minutes of fame, kidding actor Billy Burke about his "bloopers". Fourth-grader Jimmy Bangert got a plum role, despite earlier indications that children weren't eligible. Filming occurred outside the Railhead Saloon, and some of that esteemed business's patrons succeeded in stumbling out of the dark and onto the celluloid.

Close analysis reveals that, like the fictional Fineman, Kessler's United Lotus Group was working on a shoestring B-movie budget. The set was left open to reduce financial impact on, and obligation to, local businesses. The extras, who were paid only with movie passes, were rounded up not by central casting but by Weimar resident Karen-Grace White. White, though a budding comedienne herself, got the job not from her showbiz connections but because she happened to be waiting on Kessler's table at Madonna's Classic Kitchen during his scoping visit. (Whether businesses besides Madonna's and the Colfax Theatre will be adequately compensated remains to be seen.)

But the lack of union scale paychecks didn't discourage hundreds of healthy-ego locals in their attempts to win a prominent position in the "atmosphere." Even after two days' work is reduced to two minutes of film, Colfax's facades and marquees are guaranteed to make the final cut. And there was plenty of fun and goodwill on the set, even if extras and businessfolk weren't royally compensated. (The company did make a donation to Colfax's ambitious new "Lot of Arts" program.)

Still, the locals in the coffee shops will undoubtedly argue ad infinitum over whether or not it was a positive experience for Colfax's struggling business climate, over what the film should be rated, and over who's visible in the final cut and who isn't. Oh, and by the way, when the film does comes out, watch closely for the guy with the beard and glasses.

©1998 Sacramento Bee

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