Cult movie homage seeks glory in Phila. film shorts contest

September 30, 2010 in Uncategorized by admin

By Art Carey, Inquirer Staff Writer

When Michael Mercadante and Christian Klusman were in their 20s, they spent many stimulating hours at various Montgomeryville eateries, where they’d discuss their favorite cult films, critique current box-office fare, and stoke dreams of Hollywood glory.”We always seem to click with our strange ideas and weird tastes,” Klusman says.Today, both do creative work – Mercadante, 36, of Quakertown, runs a video production business; Klusman, 38, of Blue Bell, writes ad copy for a weight-loss company – but they still harbor cinematic ambitions.

So in the spring, when they heard about Project Twenty1, a locally based contest that invites filmmakers to craft a short movie (10 minutes or less) in only 21 days, they were eager to participate.

“I loved the artistic challenge of trying to do a film in such a short period,” Mercadante says, “and it was a chance to get my feet back in the water as far as moviemaking.”

The fruit of their collaboration, Immoral Desires, is one of 60 short films that will be screened as part of the three-day Project Twenty1 Film and Animation Festival that begins Friday at the International House in West Philadelphia. An additional 35 films, of varying length, selected from roughly 250 submissions from the United States and abroad, will be shown at the Philadelphia Filmathon, held in conjunction with the festival.

This is the fifth year for the festival, the brainchild of a trio of local artists and film buffs. The goal is to help fledgling moviemakers connect and collaborate.

“We wanted to create a platform that enabled artists to find each other so they can help each other,” says Stephanie Yuhas, the festival’s executive producer and one of the founders. “We also wanted to give them motivation by providing a deadline, a public screening, and potential distribution.”

The nonprofit, headquartered in Norristown, operates on a shoestring. Yuhas advances some of her own meager savings to meet expenses, hoping she’ll recoup. She describes Project Twenty1′s purpose with an acronym – EPIC (exhibit, promote, inspire, connect). “I know it’s cheesy,” she confesses, “but it helps people remember our mission.”

This year’s Project Twenty1 contest began July 31 with a launch party where the competing teams learned the “secret element” that all were required to include in their movies: “between the lines.”

Well before that, Mercadante and Klusman knew what kind of movie they wanted to make. It would be an homage to Doris Wishman, a pioneering female director and prolific filmmaker in the 1950s and ’60s. Her specialty was “nudie cuties” and “sexploitation” films, low-budget movies with noirish plots and plenty of gratuitous skin. They were typically shot in black and white with a single camera, often in Wishman’s New York apartment.

“They are bad movies, made sheerly to make money, but they have a certain gritty appeal and cult charm,” says Klusman. “Before serious adult entertainment, it was a cheap way for people to watch legitimate films with naked people in them.”

At the time, Wishman’s movies, with titles such as Bad Girls Go to Hell and A Taste of Flesh, were revolutionary and shocking. By today’s standards, they are tame, almost quaint.

“There’s an innocence about them because they only hint at sex,” says Mercadante. “They rely on the erotic power of the imagination and remind you of what cinema has lost: seduction and the tease.”

Before the launch event, Mercadante, the director, and Klusman, the screenwriter and assistant director, knew not only that they’d be making a movie in the Wishman mode but also the rudiments of a plot involving a love triangle.

Calling themselves and their collaborators Team CrackerHammer, they had chosen a title – Immoral Desires (a conflation of two Wishman films, The Immoral Three and Indecent Desires) – created a poster (“All Men Wanted Her, but No Man Could Have Her. . .”), and begun promoting the film through websites and aggressive media outreach (including inventing, later, a fake protest group, the American Morality Movement) in a bid for the festival prize for best marketing.

The day after the launch, Aug. 1, Mercadante and Klusman met at a diner in Montgomeryville. Six hours later, they had produced a seven-page script. The following Saturday, the shoot took place in the third-floor master bedroom of Mercadante’s townhouse on the outskirts of Quakertown.

The movie stars Mercadante’s wife, Erica, 25; her best friend, Becky Scheliga, 25; and Bill Ivory Larson, 39, whom Mercadante met when he worked at the Philadelphia Zoo. Erica also served as wardrobe historian, scouring thrift shops for ’60s-style clothes (“more Jackie Kennedy than hippie”), and making sure the furnishings, lighting, makeup, hair, and shoes were right for the period.

In true Wishman style, the film features two forbidden relationships – interracial and lesbian. In one scene, the character played by Erica clobbers the character played by Larson with an accordion – a six-second sequence that required 14 takes and an hour of shooting.

With a $200 budget, Mercadante had to shoot the movie with his digital video camera. In the editing studio, one of his challenges was to make the movie look scratchy and grainy, like 45-year-old film stock.

A dispute with the punk rock band that had agreed to provide the music suddenly left Mercadante with no soundtrack. But a band from South Jersey, The Devil’s Horns Kill the Matador, stepped in at the last minute to compose a substitute.

In the days just before the deadline, Mercadante was busy tweaking. Among his concerns: The music was too peppy; the reference to Wishman too obscure; the compulsory secret element too subtle. He devised fixes, and on Aug. 21, Team CrackerHammer submitted its nine-minute, 45-second masterpiece at 4 p.m., three hours before the deadline.

“I’m a perfectionist,” Mercadante says. “There are things I’d like to do differently, but overall I think it’s a fine little film and I’m proud of it.”

Immoral Desires will receive its world premiere Sunday between 5 and 7 p.m. just before the awards ceremony, which this year will include preening before and after on a real red carpet.

Mercadante and Klusman plan to enter Immoral Desires in other festivals and hope to qualify for Oscar consideration. The experience has left them itching to make a full-length feature based on a comic book they created in 1999.

For any producers who might be reading, the story is titled “Honey” and it’s about two women fleeing corrupt law in an 18-wheeler.

“It’s a cross between Foxy Brown and Smokey and the Bandit,” Mercadante says.

Contact staff writer Art Carey at 215-854-5606 or
Photo by DAVID M WARREN / Staff Photographer
(Left): As Mercadante (right) and Klusman consult over the script, Mercadante’s wife, Erica, slips into the role of seductress in “Immoral Desires.” She is also wardrobe historian