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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 rentals. Andersen’s 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 Detroit).

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 different awards.

Excerpt from "The Passenger" courtesy of Elitist Publications.


Robert Andersen

Jeff Carlson

Brandon Walley

All Photographs Copyright Dave Krieger

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