I Want to Be in Pictures
The Eddy: MN journal of the arts (Nov-Dec 2006)
Minnesota filmmakers Christopher R. Mihm and Josh Craig are bringing their film fest, their films and their moviemaking knowledge to Elk River’s Zabee Theater 11 am-11 pm, Saturday, Dec. 2 for the Twin Cities Underground Film Fest. The films are out-there, quirky, hard-to-find and never-seen-before gems that tap into what Mihm calls the digital film revolution. The duo will also be holding a free behind-the-scenes workshop 11 am-12:30 pm the day of the fest, and then returning to Elk River in February to teach a three-part “Filmmaking on a Shoestring” workshop through the ERAAA and Community Ed. (Call or email the ERAAA for more information, 763-441-4725 or firstname.lastname@example.org.)
by Britt Aamodt
I do. I want to be in pictures, but I don’t have the charisma, the connections nor, let’s face it, the talent. Which probably explains why last spring I found myself crawling into the Woodbury 10 Theater at 11pm (yes, 11pm) to watch a new film by Minnesota filmmakers Christopher R. Mihm and Josh Craig. I’d dragged my parents and friends along, and it was a good thing I’d mistaken the show time (I told everyone the movie started at 10pm, so we cooled our heels at Starbucks for an hour) because the place was packed. Packed. At 11 pm, for two guys I’d never heard of and a movie I’d only discovered from a flyer.
Before the movie got rolling, I thought I’d poll some of the audience members. “How’d you hear about this?” I asked the people in front of us. Oh, they’d heard about it from Sherri who does this stand-up routine at the Fringe. Or, yeah, their friend Lars was pumping it on his blog. Or, duh, anyone who’s anyone in the Minnesota film/theater community had it on his/his calendar.
Okay, maybe I’m exaggerating. But the truth is as soon as I stepped into the theater I knew I’d discovered something. Some might call it a phenomenon, the way people like you and me are taking film back from the suntanned and no-socks-with-loafers Hollywood crowd and returning it to the community. The way it was in film’s earliest days, when Hollywood was just an orange grove and any subject was worthy of screen time—friends at a card game, the local band on parade, morning calisthenics.
But Mihm and Craig’s two-hour feature film The Monster of Phantom Lake wasn’t a recap of Uncle Bart’s fishing trip. It was proof positive that ordinary folks with a good idea and lots of energy can script, produce, direct, edit, distribute and screen their own movie for under $2,000. Yep, two-thousand bucks. My pocketbook could handle that—anyway, that’s what I was thinking kicked back in the Woodbury 10, elbowing my mother and saying, “The movie looks like something out of Hollywood. How’d they get it to look so good?” I was thinking, hey, I can do this.
I never will. I’d rather dream of making a movie (with Russell Crowe and George Clooney and some choice others who might have the sense to fall in love with me) than roust my idle self out of the recliner and actually make a flick. Good thing Mihm and Craig don’t have a similar attachment to easy chairs.
Yet how did these high school pals, guys who stand in line at Cub Foods and pump their own gas, make that leap across the Hollywood dollar divide? How did they take what is typically a multimillion-dollar venture and whittle it to a manageable $2,000? And make it look good?
Digital technology, said Mihm. That’s the easy answer. Digital video cameras, inexpensive computers and editing software. Plus, Mihm and Craig operate with a serviceable skills set; Mihm once worked in public access cable and Craig is an actor.
But a lot of what they did to bring The Monster of Phantom Lake to the screen was learned on the job. Trial and error. Still the project had a quick turnaround.
“I started writing the script in February 2005,” said Mihm, “and the last day of filming on Monster was the last weekend in August 2005. I had the whole film edited by September 16.”
Mihm said he and Craig had been toying with making a film for years, but it was always too costly and too much work, and they were just a couple of Minnesotans with families and jobs and responsibilities. But in 2001, Mihm’s father George Mihm died of cancer. The elder Mihm had been a boy in the ‘50s, and had spent many a cold Minnesota afternoon camped in the town theater, cozying into the threadbare seat as the houselights dimmed.
The ‘50s were the era of It Came from Mars, The Day the Earth Stood Still, The Swamp Thing and Them! B-grade gems that mined the campy fringe of science fiction and horror. George Mihm never forgot those films, and reminisced about them to his son years later. Those cold winter days holed up in the local theater were some of George Mihm’s fondest.
Many works of art have their genesis in the creator’s desire to resurrect or memorialize. Dante Alighieri immortalized his Beatrice in The Divine Comedy. Mihm recalled his father in The Monster of Phantom Lake.
“One of the things about the movie is that it was made in honor of my father, who in all senses of the word didn’t really leave anything behind besides his children. And a lot of stories.”
Mihm is a tech guy. He runs a computer programming business. So, he keeps up on technology, all kinds. And when he saw a Panasonic DVX 100A digital video camera at a price he could afford, he snatched it up, and then sat down to write a script that would pay homage to George Mihm and the ‘50s B-grade horror he loved.
The Monster of Phantom Lake is a spoof. Filmed in black and white, it dredges up the tropes of ‘50s monster films and spins them out in a wilderness romp à la Blair Witch Project, yet a lot funnier. A group of teens decides to celebrate graduation with a sock hop in the forest. A transistor radio is produced and the fun begins, for all but the class nerd, who moodily twitches her cat’s-eye glasses.
Meanwhile, a war vet falls into Phantom Lake, polluted by a nearby factory, and emerges a monster dressed in what looks like crepe streamers. Needless to say, the two parties meet—lusty teens, trying to make it in the forest, and the monster, stalking wooden-legged into their party and mucking it up with his annoying habit of strangling everyone he meets. Co-producer Craig appears as Professor Jackson, a pipe-smoking scientist, who with his pretty graduate student tries to crack the riddle and save the day before every last teen is expunged from the face of the earth.
“I purposely didn’t want the film to be a straight-up spoof, where it’s like you know nudge nudge wink wink we’re making fun of this,” said Mihm, who is currently at work on the pair’s second feature, It Came from Another World, premiering this winter. “I told the actors, ‘Don’t play it for a joke. To these characters, this situation is deadly serious. Just act it as if you are 100 percent serious and let the ridiculousness of it take over.”
The Monster of Phantom Lake premiered at The Heights cinema in Columbia Heights in 2005, and has since played on screens across the United States, thanks to Mihm and Craig’s tireless efforts. This October, it picked up three awards (Director’s Choice, Honorable Mention: Best Horror Feature, and the Pro Budgeting Award) at California’s ShockerFest International Film Fest.
Mihm and Craig organized the Twin Cities Underground Film Fest, which will be held at Elk River High School’s Zabee Theater, 11am-11pm, Saturday, Dec. 2, to give other small independent filmmakers a venue to show their work, and to acquaint audiences with the explosion in “underground” filmmaking.
“The fest is nice because is shows audiences what a huge pool of talent out there. People are feeling empowered by technology to do whatever they want. And the underground amateur filmmaker can really do a lot and do it well for very little. You couldn’t say that 10 years ago.”
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