Commentary: Best way to start making movies is to start making movies

Drakes' first film satirizes corporate culture

"Visioneers" vision: Filmmakers bring a vision to their work that reflects their view of the world and their passion for telling stories visually. We may not always understand what they have in mind, but as long as it's interesting that doesn't really matter.

A case in point is "Visioneers," directed by Jared Drake and written by Brandon Drake, premiering June 12 at the Seattle Film Festival and screening June 15 in Las Vegas at Cinevegas. A satirical look at corporate culture at some unspecified time that's probably in the near future, "Visioneers" reflects a Drakes' brothers vision that's interesting without being completely understandable.

Having had an early look at "Visioneers," which is the Drakes' first film, I can tell you that it revolves around one George Washington Winsterhammerman, a descendant of the legendary general and president, who works as a "Level 3 TUNT" for the Jeffers Corp. Jeffers is described as "the largest and most profitable corporation in the history of mankind," conjuring up all sorts of Big Brother and "1984" type images. While there's no definition of a "Level 3 TUNT," it's clear that George is a mid-level manager plugged into a dreary job in a huge organization where co-workers don't even meet other than over the phone.

George has got a pleasant enough personal life, but an epidemic of exploding employees at Jeffers puts him at risk of suffering the same deadly fate. The explosions are literally people cracking under the stress of their daily lives and snapping in a sudden burst of pent-up energy. With more and more such explosions taking place after the victims have experienced dreams, George is terrified when he, himself, suddenly starts dreaming.

Not knowing entirely what to make of any of this, I was happy to have an opportunity to ask the Drakes about their film, which domestic distributors will be seeing for the first time at its Seattle and Las Vegas screenings. Produced by Jory Weitz, James Henney and Henry Capanna, it was executive produced by Kurt Dalton and Henry Lowenfels. Starring are Zach Galifianakis, Judy Greer, Mia Maestro, James Legros and Missi Pyle.

"It all really started with us saying we're going to go make a movie regardless of whether or not people are going to give us money to do it," Jared told me. "Brandon and I graduated from UCLA Film School in 2004 and we said, 'As a brother writer and director team we want to find a way to make our own movies.' And the best way we thought of doing that was just to start making our own movies. We had about $20,000 that we had saved up from friends and family that were supporting us and we decided to take that and go out and shoot a film.

"Because we could have that confidence and security that we were going to be making a film no matter what, the pressures of Hollywood and the different voices we had in our heads from film school about what you should be doing and what you shouldn't be doing weren't really there any more. We were kind of free to do whatever we wanted."

It was a liberating experience for them, Brandon explained: "With a lot of scripts you say, 'Well, I want to sell this' or 'I want to do something in the industry with it.' We just wanted to make a movie. The best advice we got was, 'Well, look, if you're really laying it all out there, make sure you tell something that you're really passionate about and you really love because it's going to be a lot of work.'

"The audience was really just me and my brother and what we both responded to. I would get on the phone with him and say, 'Hey, I'm thinking about doing this. Is this funny? Am I crazy?' And Jared would start laughing. There's a lot of unique things in 'Visioneers,' but at the heart of it all is the story about George who's trying to believe in his dreams and whether or not he can follow them. That really resonated with Jared and I because we were trying to buck the system a little bit to be artists and make a movie."

Although it appears that the film takes place in the near future, Jared pointed out, "We wanted to keep the time and the place kind of ambiguous. We really didn't want to define when and where it happens. The story's really about hope and we feel like it's such a universal story George experiences that setting it in the future would define it too much like a sci-fi weird '1984'-ish type film. We felt the story was universal enough that we could keep it in our world today and not have to exaggerate that part of the film. But at the same time we knew that the nature of the story meant we had to bend the world slightly to justify those things. So in the design and the execution of it we really tried to bend the world but not really set its time or place somewhere specific."

"It's a satire," Brandon observed, "and I was looking at the feeling I was having of, 'Gee, if I don't get this going as a writer I'm going to explode.' Everything (in the story), in my view, is an exaggeration of the things I was seeing in reality today. I always felt that at the end of the day we should be able to say this was based on a true story that's occurring in reality today. It's all just a little bit exaggerated."

Raising money to make a small independent movie, particularly your first one, is challenging, to say the least. "We had that tiny chunk of dough to begin with," Jared said, "which allowed us to go out to people we knew saying, 'Hey, we're making this and do you guys want to be a part of it? If you do, that's great, if not that's fine too because we're still doing it.' We could say that with confidence because we were going to make it. We were crazy to do it, but we were going to do it. That (approach) really opened up quite a few doors for us. So few filmmakers actually really stick their foot out there and go for it. Because of that, certain doors began to open and we could get the script places that we couldn't before and we could actually get people to pay attention to us. Fortunately, people responded to the script and the script was received well by those people."

Through that process they ended up getting the screenplay to Jory Weitz, who became a producer on the project with his company Purple Sage Pictures. Weitz had been an executive producer of the 2004 indie blockbuster 'Napoleon Dynamite.' "As soon as we got him involved," Jared continued, "we went back to the people who had already invested a little bit of money and said, 'Hey, guys, what can we do here?' Jory just really brought a level of credibility to the project and pretty soon we had another $20,000 rolling in and then that person went out to people he knew and it really just ended up being a culmination of friends and family and friends of friends and friends of family until at the last minute we (only) needed an extra $200,000.

"We had our actors attached. We had everything going for it. We had our shooting dates. We already had a big chunk of money at that point and we were able to go out and solicit some real help from the film industry. And that's when Mayfly Films (and its founding partners) Kurt Dalton and Henry Lowenfels got involved and brought in the last chunk of dough for us."

Production was done on a lightning fast 18 day shoot in 35mm with another four days of high-def shooting of footage seen on television screens in the film. "It was really quick," Jared agreed. "We had about two and a half weeks of prep. Luckily there's not a lot of locations in the film. The script was 112 pages long, but some of the scenes were doubled because we had this stuff that appeared on television so we had to cover those scenes on 35mm with the people watching the TV, but then we also had to shoot the material for the television. So we were moving quick. We (mostly) shot two takes. If the actors were really lucky they'd get three takes. They'd come on set and they knew they had to (nail) it right away. We had to cut two days out of the schedule the week before we went into production because we were already running out of dough. We really had to adjust on the fly."

They lucked out with the weather, Jared added: "We shot the film in Seattle in the fall and over those four weeks it didn't rain once, which is like absolutely unheard of in the Northwest. We were calling on every single favor we could possibly call on in our hometown (of Snoqualmie, Washington). We had our family here to kind of help out and support however they could."

Now with the film finished and about to be shown in Seattle and Las Vegas, the Drakes are looking to do a domestic distribution deal. "We haven't reached out to any distributors yet," Jared noted. "We're hoping to gain some traction with that through these festivals."

Looking ahead, they're already working on plans for their second feature. "The landscape's a little bit different," Brandon said. "The goal was to make a movie when we were writing 'Visioneers' and now we've made a movie so you know more people and you can set your sights a little bit higher. As a writer 'Visioneers' is hands down my best script yet. I know what it took to write it so I feel like I can't really cheat myself the next time around. But luckily I've been able to knock out a draft and Jared is up here now in Seattle and we're polishing it together. Hopefully, people will see 'Visioneers' and they'll like our sense of humor and they'll want to see more."

"Ideally, we can find a way to keep making our own movies and doing them our way," Jared added, explaining that they don't want to make "a Hollywood movie" as their next project. "Hopefully, (we'll) make a little money on our next one so we can survive and continue to do this."

Martin Grove hosts movie coverage on the broadband television channel