Thursday, January 5, 2012

Local filmmaker prepares to release feature-length romantic comedy

Ever stay up at night wondering how a romantic husband might try to win back a frustrated wife with the help of a cynical baker, a gay green grocer and a bible-thumping psychopath? Then consider “The Little Red Book,” a new feature-length romantic comedy created by local filmmaker Lisle Hebert. More than three decades after its inception, the film is nearly ready for public viewing; the premiere, originally planned for this week, is set for early spring.

Filmed in Juneau over the past two years, the project features a cast of local actors including Ed Christian, Fred Weiler, Holly Cockerille, Brett Dillingham, Donnie Gott, Eddie Jones, Roald Simonson, Erika O’Sullivan, Dawson Walker, Elizabeth Lebert, and many others.

Though it’s been a long haul, Hebert said the process has been immensely rewarding.

“With film ... you’re building something. And you can see the pieces as it’s coming together as if you’re a carpenter building a house. And to me, that’s really satisfying.”

Hebert’s history: A life in movies

Hebert grew up in Juneau. Given the weather, he went to movies — a lot.

“Certain directors really moved me,” he said. “Like John Huston and Fellini. Like Bergman.”

These directors were true artists according to Hebert. He hoped to, someday, make something like their films. Films that made people feel real and important things. Films “where they’re photographing people’s hearts.”

When Hebert left college, he settled in Seattle. Working with the Northwest Filmmakers Coop, located in Seattle’s Capitol Hill district, Hebert learned the filmmaker’s craft. From Seattle, Hebert came back to Alaska in the 1970s and found work in a warehouse. He kept his rent to $100 a month by living in a cabin, and bought film equipment with his savings. In this time, he filmed political spots for Alaskan notables like Terry Miller and Steve Cowper.

Hebert spent much of the 1980s living in Los Angeles. The lack of a steady paycheck made L.A. a tough place to live. Yet, despite the hardship, Hebert was glad of the experience. An example was his job editing a series called “Explorer.” One day, an older fellow named Elmo Williams stuck his head into the editing room. Williams was head of production at 20th Century Fox when the studio made “Tora Tora Tora.” He knew everybody in the business.

“How’s it going?” Williams asked.

Hebert answered, “Why don’t you check it out.”

Thus, this Hollywood bigwig sat next to Hebert and advised him on how to edit an encounter between the “explorer” and a crocodile.

“No, no, you got the alligators over here and the explorer over here! You got to go back and forth between the alligator and the explorer. Cut to the alligator! Cut to the explorer! Alligator! Explorer! Build some jeopardy here, some tension!”

“I wouldn’t meet them here.” Hebert said of filmmaking experts, “I met them down there.”

Hebert came back to Alaska in 1991, figuring he would kick-start his filmmaking, but there wasn’t much work. He ended up working in the social services field.

“I needed a steady paycheck,” he smiled.

Even so, he’s been busy in film. Hebert created “Gold Town” in 1997, a 30-minute, locally produced film depicting Juneau’s founding, and opened the Gold Town Nickelodeon Theatre in the Emporium Mall to show the film. In 2002, he expanded the theater’s focus and began showing independent and foreign films and documentaries. He juggled his day job with nights and weekends at the theater until 2009, when he sold the business to current owner Mark Ridgway.

Now that “The Little Red Book” is out Hebert said he’s ready for the next project.

“I want to keep making films. It’s my job. It’s my real job.”

Art versus entertainment

Hebert’s not much of a fan of today’s movies (“‘The Hangover?’ It’s moronic.”), but he appreciates a good comedy. For instance, he loved Ben Stiller’s “Zoolander” and “Tropic Thunder.”

“I consider him (Stiller) an artist. He breaks through the boredom of life and he makes you feel joy.”

Hebert also appreciates uplifting films and films with an element of realism; for example, he has trouble with films where villains are purely diabolical.

“In real life, we’ve all got good and evil in us. If you can show the evil in a person who is in many ways good … an audience can see they’ve got that same thing in them. That’s enlightening.”

Hebert said he doesn’t consider “The Little Red Book” a work of art.

“The word artist to me is a sacred thing. It’s when you can touch somebody’s soul. “

So the “Little Red Book” is not going to be touching souls?

“No. And it wasn’t intended to. Hopefully it will entertain people. Lighten their load for an hour and a half.”

There are plenty of good filmmakers, Hebert said, just few artists.

“Artists wear halos around their berets, in my book.”

Low budget filmmaking in Juneau (or how digital filmmaking makes the impossible possible)

“The Little Red Book” took a long time to make. Back in the 1980s, a friend suggested Hebert script a film about a couple of guys working in a supermarket bakery. Hebert outlined a story and would refine the script with his friend over coffee on the Seattle public library balcony. Eventually, his friend lost interest, but Hebert kept revising it for years.

“I would read the thing and be amused,” he said. “I thought it was entertaining and would be fairly cheap to make. It’s not a period piece. There’s no big sets, no special effects required.”

Still, at the time, movies were shot on film. Film costs thousands of dollars no matter if the format is 35 or 16 millimeter. So Hebert never got to it.

The switch to digital made the project possible.

Hebert, self-described as a “caveman” with technology, went in on a digital camera with Alaska Robotics, using their technical prowess to help pick it out. As Hebert described, “It’s a computer with a lens on it.”

Today, digital technology allows a person to make films for fun and not worry about the gamble of money spent versus the small chance of getting your film distributed.

“It was the most fun I’ve ever had making a film,” he said. “You don’t hear a cash register going off every time you turn on the camera.”

Hebert figures he spent $3,000 on this film. By shooting digitally, using volunteer actors and crew, and getting props donated, Hebert’s biggest expense was music and sound effects. Buying rights to music was more expensive than anticipated. He looked online and used stock software for music. Eventually he approached local musicians for help.

“I wish I had relied upon my local musicians more,” he said.

Hebert had Steve Nelson provide music for a couple of scenes. Nelson would sit with his keyboard reacting to things happening on screen.

“You could just see the notes coming out of his fingertips. It’s really cool,” he said.

“The Little Red Book” was shot over two and a half years. In that time, Hebert would have had to remember people’s outfits, hair length, and other continuity issues. His actors had jobs and he’s probably lucky somebody didn’t move. But his biggest challenge wasn’t working around the schedules of actors and crew. It was just getting out of bed and doing the grunt work, like moving equipment and asking people to act.

Certain scenes were challenging too. To depict a car crash, Hebert bought a junked car, and had one donated. He had to store them before the time to shoot.

“One of them I had to tow around. That got kind of hairy. And finding a place to keep them and not getting parking tickets.”

Hebert juggled the cars for four months before taking them to the junked car disposal.

Other aspects of making the film were surprisingly easy.

“If I wanted to use a location, people would ask what I was doing. I’d tell them I’d need to use their place for a couple of hours some night, and everybody said, ‘sure’. It was great!” Hebert laughed.

When asked what he liked most about making “The Little Red Book,” Hebert doesn’t hesitate.

“I asked people to be in film who were fun to be around, who weren’t known as actors, who had a good sense of humor. I wanted to have a good time.”

“You don’t have to be Lawrence Olivier to play a role.”

With the exception of local theater performers Ed Christian, Donnie Gott and Eddie Jones, most actors in the film were untrained. Yet the cast surprised Hebert by doing such a good job. For a few scenes he went back and read the script after he saw it on the screen.

“I couldn’t believe I had written it because it seemed so real, and good.”

“The best thing about this whole experience was it inspired me to see how much ability people have that they don’t even use most of the time,” he said. ”We’re all actors some of the time. The fact they can act like characters in this movie and bring it off, I was pretty impressed by that ... All these people have their own talent, their own brains, their own hearts, and it comes through.”

You can see Hebert’s talent, brains and heart for yourself when the “The Little Red Book” opens at the Gold Town Nickelodeon this spring. Hebert might even be there to run the projector.