THE INDEPENDENT

by Chuck Myer, Sacramento Bee / Neighbors, 26 March 2000

There's a bit of irony in the flurry of activity (including fake snow flurries) surrounding the filming of John Travolta's new film, "Numbers" in Sacramento this month. My very first column for Neighbors in 1996 concerned the filming of Travolta's great performance in "Phenomenon," shot in and around Auburn. But I've also been following the strange saga of the as-yet-unreleased movie called "The Independent," for which the climactic scenes were filmed in Placer County in June 1998.

The reason for the huge contrast in schedules is hinted at by the film titles: "Numbers" vs. "The Independent". Travolta, a box office "Phenomenon" himself, controls all the "Numbers," and has a major studio, Paramount, bankrolling the project. That film, which co-stars Lisa Kudrow, is scheduled for release on July 14, just 16 weeks from now. Meanwhile, for "Independent" filmmakers with much smaller budgets, the question is not what weekend will their movie be released, it's what year. They toil in the trenches without knowing if and when their projects will ever see the light of day.

And the trenches where they've been working on "The Independent" are deep indeed.

Take Chaparral, Nevada, the film's setting, for example. According to the film's website, Chaparral is where a lost wagon train broke down in the 1840s "amongst the sage and buttes. Hungry and confused, the pioneers had to eat the members of their party who had died. But those that survived fell in love with their new surroundings, and chose this place to build and grow. All that's left of this first group are some of their old tracks at Wagon Rut State Park."

The website goes on in detail to explain how Chaparral became the site of a nuclear testing facility, with its other big industry being prostitution (town motto: "We'll leave the red light on for you"). The most famous whorehouse in Chaparral is the celebrated Pigeon Ranch, whose owner, Kitty Storm, is Chaparral's two-term mayor. "The Ranch is known the world over," explains the website, "and "Ranch Dressing" is served in restaurants everywhere."

The point here is when "Chaparral, Nevada" finally appears on the screen, it's going to look a lot like Colfax, California. Colfax hosted the film crew on its Main Street almost two years ago, and Jerry Stiller and other actors were filmed inside and outside Colfax's renowned movie theater, site of the fictional "High Desert Film Festival". Most of the locals who appeared as extras didn't realize it was 1980s porn sensation Ginger Lynn Allen who was flown in from Ohio to play the part of their mayor.

Now the town fathers and mothers of Colfax are divided on the issue of whether this film will bolster the town's image or tarnish it further. Some may actually be hoping the project is dead, and the two-year hiatus would seem to bear that out.

But wait. "The Independent" is alive and kicking. It was screened last week in Austin, Texas. As life imitates art, it was shown at the "South by Southwest Film Festival", an event much like the one staged in the film. Ginger Lynn, writer/director Stephen Kessler and stars Janeane Garofalo, Stiller and Max Perlich were all at the screening. It also appeared at HBO's Aspen Comedy Festival in February.

Reviews have been good. Several viewers have called it "this year's 'There's Something About Mary'." Alison Macor of the Austin American-Statesman wrote, "In this very funny film by Stephen Kessler, independent producer-director Morty Fineman (Stiller) enlists his reluctant and very tan daughter Paloma (Garofalo) to resurrect and organize his shambles of a production company. Stiller and Garofalo are hilarious, and cameos by industry veterans like Roger Corman, Peter Bogdanovich and Ron Howard are equally entertaining, as is a surprise appearance by Stiller's son, Ben. With titles such as "Pants Full of Ambition," Fineman is a filmmaker in a class by himself. Half the fun of "The Independent" is watching clips from Fineman's fictional oeuvre and perusing the titles in the closing credits."

In fact, Fineman's 427 films (like "Nanny Hooter's Hootenanny," "The Eco-Angels," and "Christ For The Defense") are also listed on the film's promotional website, www.finemanfilms.com, which features "Shield Girl" Julie Strain ("6'-1" and Worth the Climb"). They'll even send you souvenir postcards for "LSD-Day", "Diaper Service" and some other fake films I can't name in the newspaper.

Despite the good reviews, the producers haven't yet shown the 95-minute film to distributors, and are presumably still looking for financial backing. This tells me it may be 2001 before the film reaches theatres. (Aging extra George Lay of Meadow Vista wants to see it in his lifetime, especially after learning that the actor who plays Walter Jeffries in the film, Richard Paul, died in 1998.)

Still, the promotional website and materials would tend to indicate the film is here to stay. The original budget was a mere $2 million — pocket change by Hollywood standards. It was edited in bits and pieces using free studio time late at night, which explains a lot of the delay. Producer and co-writer Mike Wilkins told me that some of the jokes weren't working, and had to be re-shot. Wilkins also clarified one Stephen Kessler mystery: There are two different guys named Stephen Kessler struggling for fame as Hollywood writers. This film's co-writer is not the same Stephen Kessler that sued Stephen Spielberg and Michael Crichton over a 1998 script dispute.

Wilkins is anticipating the film's distribution and also thinks it will compare favorably to "There's Something About Mary." Wilkins, who is the author of the book "Roadside America", adds, "uncharacteristic restraint was exercised in keeping roadside attractions from stealing the show, but watch for the rocket-shaped grave of Atlas missile inventor Carl Morgan Bigsby at Hollywood Forever cemetery."

And also watch for that other little roadside attraction known as Colfax, California.

©2000 Sacramento Bee



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