Forrest Attaway had nobody but himself to blame.
By ROBERT TRUSSELL
The Kansas City Star
One day the actor found himself on a remote country road somewhere out in Kansas, where filmmakers Mitch Brian and Todd Norris were shooting him from various angles and distances to put together a 60-second trailer promoting the Metropolitan Ensemble Theatre production of The Rainmaker.
There was not a QuikTrip or anything within 30 miles of this place, Attaway said.
In the play Attaway plays a character named Starbuck, a confidence man who blows into a drought-stricken rural community selling his services as someone who can bring rain.
Originally my idea was Starbucks just standing out in the field and the camera pans in and moves in on one eye and you see a lightning bolt in his eye, Attaway said.
Brian and Norris didnt have the equipment to do it in one shot the way Attaway envisioned it. But they accomplished the same thing in a series of cuts that go from an extreme long shot of Attaway coming down a dirt road to an extreme close-up of his eye where, indeed, a lightning bolt flashes.
It wasnt a particularly hot day, but they were able to shoot Attaway from far enough away that heat waves can be seen rising from the dirt. And in the editing process they turned the lush greenery on the roadsides parched and brown.
They made it a better idea, Attaway said. I love those cats.
The slick trailer for The Rainmaker, shot in muted colors, is one of several Brian and Norris have made over the last year or two for local theater companies. Their first effort was a short promotional film for the Living Rooms 2012 production of Bucket of Blood, a play Brian wrote based on the 1959 Roger Corman cult film, in which interviews with artists involved were intercut with scenes from the public-domain film.
Since then theyve shot trailers for Burn This, Fool for Love and Sex, Drugs, Rock & Roll at the Living Room; The Rainmaker, their first for the MET; and The Mountaintop and Venus in Fur for the Unicorn. Their latest is a promo for Gruesome Playground Injuries, which opens at the Fishtank Peformance Studio this weekend.
Visit a theater companys website and you find videos, but often they fall into two categories: yakking talking heads and performance footage shot from a stationary camera. Brian and Norris are offering a third option: Deftly edited little movies meant to stimulate the viewers curiosity.
Weve all seen those bad local TV commercials with bad lighting, Brian said. And it never makes me want to see the play.
Norris put it this way: Whats more fun as a filmmaker? To shoot a rehearsal? Or make a minimovie?
Not so long ago, filmmakers in Kansas City did their thing, and theater folk did theirs. There wasnt much overlap between the two communities. But thats changing. When Attaway directed Fool for Love for the Living Room earlier this year, he cast one experienced stage actor Robert Elliott but for the other roles turned to performers who had mainly worked in film Amy Kelly, Jason Miller and Curtis Smith.
I like the more real, gritty kind of film acting, Attaway said. He added that the trailers Brian and Norris are shooting might be one way to achieve what every theater company wants: Finding a younger audience.
Anything we can do to bring that younger audience in has to have that familiar feel to it, he sad. We were all raised on television and movies.
Brian, who had supported himself as a screenwriter for years, had never considered writing a play until sitting through rehearsals and performances of the Coterie Theatres second production of Night of the Living Dead, in which his daughter played a zombie.
After watching Night of the Living Dead for 10 performances, I realized I knew how I could do this, he said.
Jeff Church, the Coteries artistic director, approached him about writing a Living Dead sequel. The result was a 2009 production of Maul of the Dead, a comedic gorefest directed by Ron Megee, which began with zombies chasing security officers into the lobby of the Off Center Theatre before the audience had been seated.
For me it was great, Brian said. I didnt want any blackouts. I wanted to write sustained action, which you dont get to do when youre writing a movie.
Subsequently, Brian wrote Sorority House of the Dead, an homage to 1980s slasher movies, which was staged by Megee at the Living Room. Then came Bucket of Blood, also performed at the Living Room. Now hes firmly in the Living Room orbit. All three plays have been published and have been produced elsewhere, including two productions in Australia.
The cross-pollination between art disciplines in Kansas City is at an all-time high, Brian said.
Theres a lot of creative synergy right now, he said. Theres a lot more crossover. Theres just a creative vibe going on in Kansas City.
Norris said shooting the trailers has introduced him to a community of artists he hadnt known.
Mitch is much more familiar with the theater scene than I am, Norris said. I am very new to this so one of the fun things for me doing these promos is meeting all these terrific actors. So for me its like networking.
Shooting the trailers has fundamentally changed the way Norris thinks about actors and playwrights.
It went from a zero to a thousand for me, Norris said. I was one of those guys who had never seen good theater. My perception of theater was: This is kind of lame, sort of stupid. But when I started seeing good theater at the Living Room and other places, I was like, Oh, now I get it. Im kind of a born-again theatergoer right now.
When Attaway approached Karen Paisley, the METs artistic director, and pitched the idea for shooting a Rainmaker trailer, she didnt hesitate.
I said, lets go for it, Paisley said. Its interesting when youre working with a modern audience. We cant make theater be a medium that it isnt, but helping people access something in their imagination in a mode of communication that is acceptable to them is not a bad idea. I love the whole look of it.
Cynthia Levin, the artistic director of the Unicorn, said she first saw some of Brian and Norris work at a fundraiser for the Living Room. She invited them to shoot a promo for The Mountaintop, the final show of the previous season, which resulted in a moody black-and-white piece showing actors Walter Coppage and Chioma Anyanwu performing short clips of dialogue.
Levin said she was pleased with their work and wanted them back.
The quality is fantastic, she said. Theyre filmmakers. They do really great work, and I just knew I wanted them to do something for Venus in Fur to open the season.
Brian and Norris first worked together when Brian directed Stay Clean, a short film based on a James Ellroy story. Norris was the director of photography. Theyve worked independently and in partnership with others, but the work they do together falls under the umbrella of their company, Jetpack Pictures.
Where can they be seen? Theres no central forum for that. Some of Brian and Norriss work can be seen on the Unicorn and Living Room websites. Videos cannot be embedded on the METs website at the moment. But the minimovies get shared widely on Facebook and Jetpack Pictures has its own Vimeo channel.
Brian said he and Norris hope to expand their client list and make trailers for other theater companies in town.
No one has been disappointed yet, he said. A lot of it is getting people to trust you. Weve both been making films since we were kids. So we have got a combined 70 years of filmmaking experience. It sounds awful but its true. We live and breathe this stuff.