Valley filmmakers court stardom with their Cave Creek-shot oddball feature.
Valley-bred filmmakers Ryan Page and Chris Pomerenke cast well-regarded Hollywood actors in their latest and most ambitious production, but the movie is hardly lacking for homegrown Arizona talent.
“You see those girls?” Page asks, pointing to the editing bay where the duo’s soon-to-be-unleashed cornpone comedy Queens of Country is getting a final layer of post-production polish. “Those girls in the scene? They’re hookers we found in the back of the Phoenix New Times. ’Cause where else are you gonna find hookers, right?”
Wrangling prostitutes isn’t exactly standard operating procedure in the indie film world, but these guys are by no means standard operators. Page broke into movies as the live-in producer of noted Hollywood madman Crispin Glover (Back to the Future). Pomerenke is one-half of the Valley psychedelic alt-rock duo Less Pain Forever, known for a year-long tour in which they lived in an RV and played free shows for perplexed shoppers in Wal-Mart parking lots.
The point being: They’re free-thinking fellows with a decidedly outré perspective. Their previous collaborations, The Heart is a Drum Machine and Blood Into Wine, were both informed by their quirky sensibility, and Queens of Country doubly so. Shot in Cave Creek and Carefree in the spring of 2010, the film is equal parts Raising Arizona and Urban Cowboy with a dash of nitrous-huffing David Lynch surreality. “People see the trailer and think we’ve made a romantic comedy,” Page says. “But we really haven’t. We’ve subverted the rom-com.”
It amounts to a love letter to Arizona from the co-directors – and, depending on the doors it opens for them in Hollywood, a parting gift, too.
The duo met in the ’90s on a hipster playdate of sorts. Page was living in Glover’s L.A. mansion and using his shmoozing skills to score free craft services and the like for Glover’s What Is It? – a notorious art film inspired by a script Page co-wrote while at Scottsdale’s Horizon High School. On a tip, he went to a club in Silver Lake where Arizona native Pomerenke was playing with his band. “Some mutual friends felt like we’d be like-minded,” Page recalls.
The prediction proved spot-on. Though outwardly dissimilar – Page is a self-assured and preppie-ish father of two; Pomerenke is edgy, expressive and a bit cosmic – the two shared a yen for the macabre. They were also hardcore music aficionados, which led to their first official collaboration: The Heart is a Drum Machine, a feature-length 2006 documentary built around the question “What is music?” Pomerenke’s art-rock cred helped the duo book interviews with music-biz royalty, while Page’s big-picture savvy – he produced the well-received rock doc Moog – put the project on solid creative footing.
While shooting Drum Machine, Page and Pomerenke interviewed Tool frontman and professional iconoclast Maynard James Keenan at his vineyard in Jerome. The filmmakers were immediately smitten with the rocker’s otherworldly mystique. “He’s kind of intimidating,” Pomerenke says. “We’d heard rumors about him getting a boob job, all the other legends. So we said to ourselves, ‘We need to collaborate with this guy.’”
From that meeting sprang Blood Into Wine, a self-distributed documentary about Keenan and his winemaking partnership with fellow Arizona Stronghold vintner Eric Glomski. Released in early 2010, the $500,000 production screened in 150 markets and represented a confident step forward on the career path envisioned by Page and Pomerenke. “We always had a plan,” Page says. “A small doc, then a bigger doc, which was Blood Into Wine; and then an indie feature.”
The feature is Queens of Country, conceived three years ago during the Blood Into Wine shoot. Set in the fictional town of Dry Creek, Arizona, the endearingly bizarre romp stars up-and-coming actress Lizzy Caplan (Cloverfield) as Jolene Gillis, an unlucky-in-love line-dancing enthusiast who embarks on a life-affirming transformation after discovering a lost iPod filled with songs by Dolly Parton, Wanda Jackson and other “country queens.” Ron Livingston of Office Space plays her domineering boor of a boyfriend, Rance, while Keenan – in his acting debut – plays troll-like mechanic Bobby Angel, who may or may not represent Jolene’s salvation.
After penning the script with local rock-music scribe Serene Dominic and nailing down the film’s $4.5 million budget (reportedly bankrolled by Cold Stone Creamery exec David Guarino), the duo set their sights on Caplan, a Debra Winger-esque sassy-good-girl type whose work they admired from the since-canceled Starz show Party Down. “She was getting a ton of offers, so we really had to charm her,” Pomerenke says, recalling their first meeting with the actress at Hollywood’s Chateau Marmont Hotel. “So we filled an iPod with country songs and had a waiter bring it to her and say, ‘Miss, you dropped your iPod.’”
According to actor Joe Lo Truglio (I Love You, Man), Page and Pomerenke ran a set that was as loose and free-wheeling as the Queens of Country script: line-dancing at Buffalo Chip Saloon, blissed-out Hank Williams fantasy interludes, and ironic ATV chases. “Their experience in documentaries was helpful in that they were able to observe a scene happening without trying to over-manage it,” says Lo Truglio, hilariously convincing as Dry Creek’s resident heart-of-gold tranny, Penny McEntire. “I was flattered in how much they trusted us in terms of acting and story structure. They have incredible style to their films and that attracted me – as well as it being the weirdest effing script I’ve ever read in my life.”
Working on Queens of Country also allowed the founding member of MTV’s groundbreaking sketch show The State to indulge a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. “I got to attend a rodeo in full drag, which was every bit as embarrassing as it sounds,” Lo Truglio says with a laugh.
With the movie’s Phoenix-based post-production complete, Page and Pomerenke now turn to sales: shopping the film to festivals and brokers in the hope of scoring a distribution deal. Page and Pomerenke say they recently signed with Hollywood power-broker William Morris Endeavor on the strength of their rushes, and seem on track to take the next step on their career path: a feature in the $15 million budget range. “We’ve successfully raised the bar on each film, both creatively and financially,” says producer Chris “Topper” McDaniel, a childhood friend of Page’s who secured financing for all the duo’s movies under his Semi-Rebellious Films banner. “We’re talking about going from $100,000 to $5 million per movie in a year or two, so clearly we are poised to make these jumps.”
The next jump may carry the Page/Pomerenke movie-making operation clean out of Arizona. Page moved to California last summer, and if their dream-project – a hush-hush biopic involving rocket science and the occult – gets the green light, his creative partner may follow suit. It will be a bittersweet separation. “Arizona always felt to us like an artistic void,” Pomerenke says. “But it’s also a state of mind that bleeds into all aspects of our art and always will. That desert air is hard to shake.”
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