Making Movies in Motown
A group of independent filmmakers is gearing up to add movies to the
list of Detroit’s cultural legacies — a list that includes cars, Motown
and rock ‘n’ roll.
Most of these dedicated filmmakers, many of whom could easily do their
thing somewhere else, have done their work on a small, independent
basis. But their work and profile are growing.
“I have no interest in Hollywood or New York,” says Detroit filmmaker
Jeff Carlson, whose music video was named Best of Show at
last year’s Moving Media Film Festival, sponsored by Wayne State's
Department of Communications. “They just seem like a place where too
many people try to
go and make it, but most of them get lost in shuffle.”
Ready for take off
“Detroit has always been primed for large-scale production with the
skilled work force that was used in automotive commercials,” says
Robert Andersen, one of the founders of the Detroit Film Center. The
DFC is in its 12th year as a nonprofit media arts center in downtown
Detroit, featuring filmmaking classes, film exhibitions and equipment
short films have been exhibited throughout the Midwest and Canada as
well as in Prague and Zurich.
Transforming that workforce from making commercials to making
independent films, Andersen points out, only would require the addition of
enough working capital to finance those films.
One other thing that would help move motion picture production forward
is the prospect of Michigan joining the ranks of states that offer tax
incentives to make movies there. State Rep. Bill Huizenga, R-Zeeland,
introduced a package of incentive legislation last year. It has passed
in the House and is pending before the Senate.
Huizenga’s legislation is modeled after a package that was first used
in Louisiana. Film production was almost nonexistent there before the
incentive package when into effect and gave production crews an
exemption on sales taxes and reduced corporate taxes if they met
certain criteria. In 2004, film production was a $320 million industry
for the Pelican State.
Motown in video
Detroit’s long track record of great music also has meant opportunities
for filmmakers to create music videos. Detroit’s own Anthony Garth
created the video for the White Stripes’ “Hotel Yorba.” It was the
first music video ever shot for the Stripes, and it continues to draw
fans to Southwest Detroit from around the world so they can snap a
photo of themselves outside of the Hotel Yorba on Lafayette.
Garth went on to direct the White Stripes’ “Friends” video, as well as
other videos for the Detroit Cobras, The Sights and Lo Pro. He also did
a series of commercials for Chevy and filmed a documentary about
Eminem’s first European tour.
His young protégé, Zaakim Kareem, is a Flint native who now works
predominately in Detroit on music videos and commercials. He also
founded his own production company, Dark Chapter Films, and has worked
on a total of 24 different projects. Most of his work has been music
videos for hip-hop artists, but he also worked an educational video for
the Detroit Science Center, a pair of short films and a documentary
entitled “Life After Eight Mile.”
“Detroit is a great learning tool,” Kareem says
Grounds for creativity
The streets of Detroit could be looked at as the world’s largest art incubator.
“Detroit is fertile ground for personal expression,” says experimental
filmmaker Brandon Walley. “Whether it’s music, fine arts or film –
something about this city fosters tremendous creativity.”
Walley’s films have been shown throughout the United States and Canada.
Commercial production studios in New York, Chicago and Minnesota have
expressed interest in his work. For the time being, though, he is
staying here to enjoy Detroit’s fertile ground for creativity.
He isn’t the only filmmaker to take advantage of the synergy of
filmmaking and other artistic media in Detroit. Last year’s “The Passenger" a feature-length film that was directed by Jamie Sonderman,
was not only shot in Detroit – Motor City-based musicians provided its
soundtrack, while painters and sculptors from Detroit found their work
into the background of Sonderman’s set. Some of Detroit’s coolest
restaurants, like Agave and
Vicente's, as well as venues like the Hastings Street Ballroom and John King Books, served
as shooting locations.
One scene from “The Passenger,” which Sonderman co-wrote with Michael Zawacki,
seems to describe filmmaking in Detroit perfectly, shedding light on
why Detroit is the location of choice for cutting-edge filmmakers. It
featured an exchange between the film’s protagonist John and a
fictional artist named Holiday Martin.
Holiday: Let me tell you something. I could live in Amsterdam or Paris
or New York or London or a dozen other cities but I live right here (in
John: Why is that?
Holiday: Because those cities are done. Their histories are written.
They produce some good art, and the sushi is good, but it’s someone
else’s scene. Anything you do is part of that scene.
John: What do you mean?
Holiday: Did Rembrandt paint on DaVinci’s canvases?
John: Uh … no.
Holiday: No. Rembrandt painted on his very own canvas. And that’s what
Detroit is. My very own empty canvas. And your very own canvas. It’s
anyone’s canvas if they have the brass to use it. And that’s why it’s
like no place else right now. People say Detroit is a has-been city. I
say it’s a city between breaths. I say it’s waiting. And what is going
to be is more amazing than you or I can imagine.
Detroit – a city between breaths. A city that is waiting. A city on the
verge of becoming more amazing that most folks would care to imagine.
And it will all be captured on film.
Detroit has already seen its share of major motion pictures. "8
Mile” and “The Island” were filmed here in recent years. Low-budgets
films like Crossover also came to Detroit to take advantage of it as a
shooting location. There’s no reason why Toronto should
have to stand in for the Motor City in movies like “Four Brothers” and
“Assault on Precinct 13.”
With the continued efforts of indie filmmakers, music makers and a
little bit of help from the state Legislature, Detroit won’t have to
wait between breaths much longer.
Want to check out some great mitten-made movies? Detroit filmmakers are
regularly featured at Michigan Movie Night. The event held the first
Tuesday of each month. This month it's at the Emagine Novi theater, but
starting in April it wil be at the Landmark Main Art Theatre on Main
Street in Royal Oak.
Also, Hamtramck's Planet Ant Theatre holds an annual film fest. This year's is June 14-17, and they're looking for entries. Click here
for more info.
Frank Nemecek is a novelist,
independent filmmaker and native Detroiter. His documentary, “Checking
In: The Story of the Book-Cadillac Hotel,” was nominated for two
Excerpt from "The Passenger" courtesy of Elitist Publications.
All Photographs Copyright Dave Krieger