Franklin filmmakers ply their craft on the southside
By Joe Shearer
Indiana once welcomed big studio films, including “Eight Men Out” and “A League of Their Own,” with budget-helping tax breaks as incentives. Some may say that the end of those tax credits has canceled any reasons for filmmakers to head to the Hoosier state. When you think “filmmaking hotbed,” the southside of Indy and Johnson County might not be the first place to pop into your head, but rest assured, the area does boast its own filmmaking community.
Franklin-based filmmaker Bill Dever scoffs at the idea that Indiana’s only cinematic resources are tax breaks. “It’s just an amazing environment just to innovate and to create,” he says. “People don’t realize the resources that exist in Indiana. It’s an amazing, vital, beautiful place. We don’t do enough to celebrate the beauty of our state and the ability of our state to provide a backdrop for good stories.”
Amy Howell is the director of Film Indiana, an organization that serves as a key resource for film and video production in the Hoosier state. Film Indiana provides location scouting, community/government liaison and other support services. For Howell, Indiana is a “production friendly” state, with an abundance of natural resources from rolling hills to shoreline to rural and urban environments, all of which appeal to filmmakers.
Howell says showcasing homegrown talent and locations to filmmakers around the country can be a boon to the economy. A major film production can “attract businesses and show off the talents and locations we have to offer,” she says.
Though the resources to support filmmakers are here, the state has a dearth of filmmakers. “We need to hone our homegrown talent, from college students and independent filmmakers,” Howell says. “We want to keep them here.”
That’s not to say that there aren’t talents making movies in Indiana. The two filmmakers profiled below have found success with lights, cameras and plenty of action, right in Johnson County.
It came from Johnson County
Bill Dever’s Internet Movie Database biography makes no bones about his specialty: low-budget B movies.
“A lifelong movie fan, William Dever has been involved in lower budget feature filmmaking since 1988. He has fulfilled the role of director, writer and producer and if the budget is particularly tight, even acted (he works cheap).”
The founder of The B Movie Celebration and editor of bmovienation.com, a site dedicated to shining a light on genre filmmaking, Dever’s films follow his passion. He’s the auteur behind schlocky opuses “Gila!” “Camel Spiders” and “Sharkansas Women’s Prison Massacre.” They are movies full of giant lizards, killer spiders and assorted monsters you wouldn’t want to encounter in real life.
Dever pulls off this moviemaking magic from the comfort of his home base in Franklin. A Canadian by birth, he moved to Franklin in the ’80s. His wife was from the area and wanted to move back to be close to family. “I’ve never regretted it,” he says. Dever arrived at filmmaking early. He was 12 when he stumbled upon a Brownie movie camera in his father’s closet. He bought a roll of regular-8 film and made his first movie, a one-off “The Six Million Dollar Man.” He also paid homage to “Un Chien Andalou,” director Luis Buñuel’s savage collaboration with surrealist Salvador Dali.
“I filmed a flower, then ran it over with a lawn mower,” Dever recalls.
His first commercial work was co-writing and producing “Personal Exemptions,” the 1989 comedy about a woman about to retire from her job as an IRS agent, only to find her family coming apart at the seams.
Dever found his niche in B movies. “I’ve always found B movies to be powerful stories with powerful messages,” he says. “I was really affected by the ability and the freedom that the real low-budget filmmakers had for evocative filmmaking, powerful filmmaking, but at the same time commercial filmmaking.”
As for what people might perceive of the quality of his films, Dever says they retain some of the sensibilities of movies made in the 1980s.
“There’s a sense of whimsy and a sense of innocence and a sense of wonder about those movies,” he says. “It’s hard to make films, and it’s really hard to make good films. I think that I go back to the time where people still thought movies were neat, they were special.”
It’s the equivalent of sitting around the campfire listening to stories.
In true guerilla fashion, on set Dever has worn many hats. He’s served as writer, director, producer (or executive producer) and cinematographer, and has even appeared in two films as an actor. In recent years he has taken to making movies in Indiana, calling the state “probably the best place in the country to do business.”
As one of Johnson County’s biggest boosters, Dever targets locations in the area. Johnson County Park is a favorite spot when his movie needs isolated roads, woods, cabins and water, and he’s also used quarries in the area. He’s shot in Franklin (“I don’t know how many scenes I’ve shot at the Artcraft Theatre,” he says), used Edinburgh to double as northern France in one film, and other parts of Johnson County, through Dever’s lens, stood in for Norway.
“Johnson County is an amazingly beautiful place,” Dever said. “It’s a matter of knowing what you have in your own backyard.”
In recent years he has collaborated with The Asylum, a like-minded group of filmmakers who create schlocky science fiction and horror films, most famously the “Sharknado” films. They also create “mockbusters,” films that, depending on your perspective, parody, pay homage or rip off established films.
Dever’s most recent Asylum collaboration is “Dunkirk!” a mockbuster of Christopher Nolan’s upcoming war film.
“I know that no one is going to give me $40 [million] or $100 million to make a big film,” he says. “But I can work with the Asylum and widen Indiana’s crew base, provide people with much-needed experience and also contribute in my own small way to the body of cinematic art.”
The bigger picture
For Gordon Strain, filmmaking is all about art.
An associate professor of theater at Franklin College, Strain has long been immersed in his town’s art scene, working in assorted creative mediums.
A group of his old college friends, including writer and director Paul Schulberg, were thinking about making a movie in Indiana. Schulberg, who helmed “Walter” (which was filmed in the Hoosier state and starred William H. Macy and Andrew J. West), wanted to film in Bloomington. They approached Strain to be the production designer. Strain, who had been involved with theater, had never worked on a film. That didn’t stop him.
“The big thing I’ve learned in my career is to not say ‘no,’” he says. “When people ask me to do something, I say ‘yes,” then I can figure it out. Had I done a huge movie? Nope. But could I figure it out? Sure.”
The movie he signed on for was “The Good Catholic,” a 2017 release starring veteran actors Danny Glover and John C. McGinley.
Although the actors tied to “The Good Catholic” were relatively big names, the film was an independent production that didn’t have the budget for a large crew. That means the people at the top, including Strain, had to fill in doing less-than-glamorous grunt work.
“I helped setting up locations, building scenery,” he says. “Essentially (I was) just getting everything ready and looking the way the director and director of photography wanted.”
Much of making a movie is preparation, which means a lot of location scouting, asking people for help and finding leads on good places to shoot with a focus on Bloomington; the filmmakers found hospitality in Franklin, including production help from area businesses and churches, who consulted on the finer points of Catholic ritual.
New to the filmmaking experience, Strain learned that there are some stark differences between putting on a play and making a movie. “In a play, the audience can look where they want,” he says. “With a film, the camera is going to choose where the focus is, and the audience is being told where they have to look.”
Strain also saw what’s behind the curtain, so to speak. “Movie magic” blends the two pieces so that the audience can’t tell the actors were in two different locations. “It’s more of a real experience in terms of what the audience can take away from it, but the creation of it is a different kind of fake than the theater.”
“The Good Catholic” premiered to California audiences on Feb. 3. Strain has another production in the works with the same group later this year, once the publicity blitz for “Catholic” is complete. Until the next film shooting commences, he will stay busy with his day job at Franklin College, as well as his art gallery, named the Franklin Department of Public Art, and his theater work.
“I just want to keep building a community of creative people who are willing to try things,” he says. “It’s having the presence to sort of put a different lens on your community and the way it is perceived.”