Weekly Wire
Memphis Flyer Rolling on the River

By Susan Ellis

OCTOBER 6, 1997:  To hear Kaleo Quenzer tell it, he and his partners have got no business making a movie. "We've never done this before. It's completely arrogant that we're doing this. Completely arrogant."

But, apparently, Quenzer and crew aren't letting something like arrogance or lack of experience stand in the way. This past Saturday, Quenzer, 25, began filming his first full-length feature film, The Big Muddy, for which he serves as writer, director, and star.

The Big Muddy is being made by Fine Grind Films, a production company formed by Quenzer and his friends Michael Cruickshank, Rick Benable, Will O'Loughlen, Sallie Sabbatini, and Lisa Maniscalco. It's a romantic comedy about a guy named Alex who's just found a way out of Memphis to what he envisions as the cultural Promised Land of Seattle. Just before he leaves, however, his truck is repossessed, along with all of his belongings. Alex then spends the rest of the movie trying to make enough money to get his truck back. Says Quenzer, "The movie's about taking responsibility rather than blaming your situation on your surroundings."

Quenzer says that, though the events and the characters are such that they could happen in any small town, he will be taking advantage of Memphis' resources, namely the music and the river (note the title of the movie). According to Quenzer, because he has yet to make any solid deals with any local band, he's hesitant to go on record to name exactly who will play. The ones he mentions are very well-known, and he envisions using Memphis music in his film in the same way that Cameron Crowe used Seattle music in Singles.

As for the river, its part will be more peripheral. "The tag line for the film," says Quenzer, "is: when life keeps moving you downstream. The characteristics of the river are always changing, and it's important to the the development for Alex. It's somewhat spiritual."

Quenzer says that he and Cruickshank, whom he has known since their days at a performing-arts high school in Hawaii, have been throwing around the idea of making a movie together for years. Kevin Smith's 1994 film Clerks strengthened their resolve, as Quenzer explains, "The acting wasn't all that great [in Clerks], the story was contrived, but we were all there rooting for it. That really stands out as a turning point for us. I started writing."

At the time, Cruickshank was attending the University of Memphis communications program and Quenzer was in Florida working at Disney World as a street performer. "My character was basically the town nerd and my objective was to find the woman of my dreams," he says. And while Quenzer admits that he's joked about his time at Disney, he also allows that the gig was crucial to the development of the movie. First, due to the nature of the job -- six 20-minute sets per day -- he had five to six hours to work on the script, using the time to fill ringed notebooks with dialogue. Second, he says that doing improvisation helped him develop a sense of comic timing. "The key to comedy, the key to any successful art form," he says, "is listening -- listening to your audience, listening to yourself. Oftentimes, your instinct is what you go with. It was a very aggressive self-education for that."

Once Quenzer had his rough ideas for The Big Muddy on paper, he typed his script into a computer. He then polished it -- turning it from a slice-of-life into something with a focused storyline -- through the advice of his friends and by watching other independent movies. "My base is as an actor and most of my work has been onstage," he says. "The idea of actually making a movie, I mean, forget about it. I don't know step one. So I started reading books and watching films, films relative to our budget. I had to watch a lot of films to understand how you piece them together."

In addition, he and most of the members of Fine Grind had a sort of dry run by making a 10-minute gangster film titled Blown, which has been shown at the Brooks and, says Quenzer, proved to him that he and the others could work together. "It's hard, you know. That's why the interdependency of our company is very important. Rick [Benable] is the editor, so he'll know what's going to come together. With the projects we've done in the past, it's difficult to say where the directing stops and the cinematography starts. Who's in charge? Everyone assumes that the director is in charge. I'll take responsibility that, yeah, I wrote this and in some ways motivated people to be here. Ultimately, you have to trust other people; you have to rely on them."

This reliance, says Quenzer, actually extends beyond those working on the film. Fifteen thousand dollars has been budgeted to get The Big Muddy onto video, money that was borrowed through help from Cruickshank's mother. The camera is on loan from a friend of Quenzer's father. Other equipment is being rented, and locations for many of the scenes will be the apartments, homes, or workplaces of those in the film.

And while there's a certain string-and-spit quality to putting together this film, there is definitely what Quenzer calls a "grand scheme." For instance, the $15,000 is the amount they figured would cover rental fees and the price of just enough 16-millimeter film stock and processing to get the movie shot, which has everyone involved on something of a tight leash. "There's some pressure there," says Quenzer. "There are limitations that are impossible. We're using a three-week shooting schedule that means we're going to be working 12 to 18 hours a day. What's exciting is that if you look at it from a process standpoint, it's in many ways designed to fail completely. [But] if you have the room for things to go awry, generally you'll find a solution."

If all goes as planned, shooting will be done by October 18th, after which editing will begin. Quenzer is hoping to have a rough-cut of the movie onto video some time in mid to late November so that the audio and soundtrack can be added. Then, Quenzer says, at the beginning of next year he will take the video copy and submit it to whichever film festivals take that format while simultaneously using it to woo investors to provide money so that The Big Muddy can be finished on 16-millimeter.

Beyond this, well, Quenzer says he does harbor a few fantasies about being discovered and scoring a three-picture deal, a la Robert Rodriguez. But for now, Quenzer's dealing with the exhilaration and terror of making his first movie. "It's going to be fun," he says. "It's a dream. Without doing it, it would simply be a dream."

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