Snakes and Ladders
'The Man From Orlando' team recalls the high stakes of making their lo-fi first feature
"It's all fun and games until you end up in a snake-infested lake having a nervous breakdown." If there are life lessons that can only be learned from making movies, actor Jason Newman has surely hit on one of them.
Newman, who plays the title character in the 2012 Austin-based indie comedy The Man From Orlando, describes the moment when his director and co-writer Craig Elrod waded into armpit-level water in order to drag uncooperative rowboats into position for one of the film's crucial scenes. "There were definitely water moccasins out there, and Craig's out there pushing the boat. There's just something about where we got to at that point. The stress came to a head."
After a long road that led through junkyards, porn shops, and, yes, snake-infested waters, The Man From Orlando will screen for the first time in Austin on Saturday, Jan. 12, at the Stateside at the Paramount. Although Elrod has been directing shorts since he graduated from the University of Texas in 2005, The Man From Orlando is his first full-length feature film. Elrod began co-writing the screenplay with Newman after winning a SXSW Jury Award for his short "Petting Sharks" in 2010.
In The Man From Orlando, Newman portrays a man saddled with the burden of repeatedly explaining that he is named Orlando, not from Orlando. Returning to his hometown of Priddy, Texas, after a stint with a ring of criminal off-duty lifeguards, Orlando confronts his past in the form of his dysfunctional family, his Olympic swimmer ex-girlfriend Virginia (Lee Eddy), and a gaggle of hapless volunteer firefighters. But Orlando's two pasts collide when his former partner-in-crime Kip (Alan Metoskie) follows him to town, resulting in a showdown that prominently features fanny packs, wayward rowboats, and a single handgun.
Elrod, who spent a significant part of his childhood on his father's farm in Elgin, shrugs off the close encounter with water moccasins. Still, the boat scene – the very first that Elrod wrote – seems to stand in for many of the challenges presented by the sheer scale of the film. With more than 40 locations and almost 100 scenes, The Man From Orlando is absurdly ambitious for a local film that, as Elrod states, was "made for the price of a used car." Producer Michael Bartnett (who is also the Chronicle's assistant webmaster) says that they could never have completed a film of The Man From Orlando's scale without the help of friends in the Austin film and acting communities. Elrod agrees, adding, "We had garage sales to raise money. Everyone was willing to let us overstay our welcome when we were shooting in their bar. None of the actors got paid."
About those actors. Although at its heart the film is a kind of buddy-pic love triangle between Orlando, Virginia, and Kip, a bevy of talented Austin comedians fill out a large supporting cast that features local favorites John Merriman and Byron Brown of the improv troupe Bad Boys. By turns a criminal caper, an updated Western, and a sweet romantic comedy, the film's wide-ranging plot provides plenty of room for big performances, including a profane, mulleted wild man named "One-Eyed Don," a semaphore-obsessed lifeguard, and a bartender who refuses to make anything but Long Island Iced Teas.
While this zany cast of characters provides plenty of laugh-out-loud moments, the locations themselves function like quieter punchlines set in the background of each shot: the cheap motel, the YMCA, the bar where locals park themselves under the same neon beer signs night after night. Even the half-finished houses on newly developed plots suggest perpetually deferred hopes of upward mobility in a small town; one belongs to Orlando's brother Romeo (played by Chris Doubek), who dreams of being Priddy's mayor, but seems doomed to be forever mayor pro tem.
It seems natural to attribute the film's keen use of local color at least partially to the writers' childhood experiences in small-town Texas; while Elrod was chasing greased pigs in Elgin (no, really), Newman was growing up in Gladewater, population 6,000. "I definitely think there's an awkward humor that runs through a lot of what we do," Elrod says. "There's a lot of funny stuff going on, living in Texas. They're a little backwards, but sweet in their way."
Newman qualifies this statement by saying, "I think people are ridiculous pretty much wherever you go." However, he admits that he is "familiar with that mentality, what isolation of a community does. Those personalities seem to be more believable in a small town, if there's people with these really quirky ideas about what it is to be a volunteer firefighter as opposed to a real firefighter, their nemesis. And then the coincidences, too. Just going to a bar and running into the girl that you dated 15 years ago."
While The Man From Orlando has screened at the Cincinnati Film Festival and the Lone Star Film Festival in Fort Worth, the film was a disappointing near miss on the Austin festival circuit. Looking for an in-town venue to screen the film, producer Michael Bartnett approached the Paramount's film programmer, Stephen Jannise, and was pleased when Jannise offered a sponsored screening at the Stateside.
Jannise, formerly a programmer for the Austin Film Festival, was particularly impressed with Newman and Eddy's work onscreen. "I think Craig got two really great performances out of the two of them, and that balances the film out and lets everyone else let their oddball flag fly while Jason and Lee keep it grounded in a story that's almost moving."
This undercurrent of intimacy keeps the film from getting lost in its own considerable quirkiness. Eddy, Newman, and Metoskie first met as undergraduates at St. Edward's University, which accounts for the rapport between the two men, as well as the added poignancy in scenes between Newman's soft-spoken slacker and Eddy's laid-back, easygoing tomboy.
Asked about the mostly male cast and crew, Eddy says, "Craig Elrod, he signed my marriage license. And Jason Newman performed my marriage ceremony [to fellow cast member Macon Blair]. ... These are my besties."
Eddy, who moved from Austin to New York several years ago, speaks movingly of her last day on camera, shooting a poolside scene with Newman in a YMCA. "It was really sad. I didn't want to leave. And at the same time, there was also something kind of magical about it, because it was so quiet and the water was so still, with the smell of chlorine in the air, sitting next to one of my best friends, Jason, getting ready to wrap it. There was a definite sort of correlation of moving on, not just for this character Virginia, but also moving for me. Like, that's a wrap, now you gotta leave Austin and you gotta leave this movie and dive in and swim your lap and try not to drown. You've got this one chance to get a good dive in. There's a metaphor there." She laughs, then adds, "Like a baptism of sorts."
Elrod's dunk in the lake could be seen as a baptism, too – not a quiet, peaceful one, but a messy, ritual induction into the chaotic world of feature filmmaking. The way he describes his directing experience sounds transformative at times. "I'm kind of an uncomfortable person. But once you get going into that kind of thing, you just kind of forget yourself. It's the only time I've been able to address crowds of actors. You don't even think about it anymore. I kind of forget myself."
Although Elrod isn't ready to talk about his next project yet, he has some ideas about directions he wants to go in. "I want to back off the dialogue a little bit and try and do something a little bit more ... not [about] a guy with a crazy job. Slow it down and do some relationship stuff." Pause. "Something without 90 scenes."
And presumably no boats will be involved.
The Man From Orlando's Austin premiere is Saturday, Jan. 12, at the Stateside at the Paramount. The 8pm show is sold out; due to demand, a 10:30pm show has been added. More info at www.austintheatrealliance.org.