Sacramento Film: Scenes From a Scene

I highly, highly recommend this weekend’s extraordinary Sacramento Bee expose about Carissa Carpenter, a would-be studio mogul who has spent the better part of two decades persuading people to believe she had the juice to build a multibillion-dollar entertainment resort and production facility in the region. She didn’t, she doesn’t and she never will.

Filmmakers and officials in Sacramento have known about Carpenter for a while. She’s distinctly symbolic of the phenomenon I often picture vis a vis the Kings: A city that has struggled desperately to reconcile its imagined self with its real identity. That struggle is reflected in the saga of someone like Carpenter, who has managed to charm some of the region’s most impressionable leaders and unscrupulous developers alike, and who claims to be on a first-name basis with George Lucas. It’s a story of a reeling psyche in a small, choppy pool better known as the Sacramento film community.

The Bee’s story took me back to 2003, when I first learned of Carpenter as an undergraduate studying journalism at Sacramento State University. My final piece for my advanced reporting class covered the film scene — or the fragments of a film scene — growing up, like me in Sacramento. It was never published. I revisited that piece today and present it as-is (or as-was) below.

I’m sure that despite Carpenter’s unrelenting delusions, plenty else has changed in 10 years. But plenty else has not. I enjoyed looking back on the other side of the story of filmmaking in my hometown, which is like any place else: Some people talk, some people do.


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Sarah Kreutz is up early for a Saturday morning.

She says she consumed one pot of coffee at her home in El Dorado Hills before making her routine trek into Sacramento for the day. Later in the afternoon, she’ll rush off to yet another meeting at her workplace near Arden Fair Mall.

Her frantic schedule notwithstanding, Kreutz’s eyes are alive with soul, her smile shining with patient satisfaction. She blends honesty with disarming storytelling, contrasting her days as a Paris runway model with a half-decade’s worth of intensely personal work that will culminate this summer.

She’s hardly full of secrets, but this morning, it’s clear her mind is obviously somewhere else.

Such is the disposition of an independent filmmaker.

“I was editing last night until late and I was like, ‘How did we do this?’” she says, palms upraised. “Knowing that you’ve made a film, there’s so much in there at first where you just have all this baggage and you can’t look at it purely.”

After spending years writing, planning and finally shooting, Kreutz admits that she is now able to view her debut feature, Elsa Letterseed, from a moviegoer’s perspective. The reward, she believes, is finally tangible.

In Sacramento, the sentiment is more common than many locals may imagine: Kreutz is just one filmmaker among dozens who comprise a loosely arranged film community in the region.

Some filmmakers have earned livings as professionals, while others have made a worthwhile hobby of cinematic craft. Others toil in the Sacramento area every day with little more than a digital camera, a crew of friends and their own unbounded ambition.

Then there are politics. Several individuals have met with mixed reaction—and even litigation—after proposing movie studios and soundstages to be built in or near Sacramento. Money talks and personalities clash in quintessential Hollywood style.

“The same things that go on in L.A. go on this town, only to a lesser degree,” says writer-director Frank Casanova, who owns and operates a Sacramento media production facility. “We’re not talking about millions of dollars worth of projects. We’re talking about $1.95.”

Despite a series of ongoing personal and professional conflicts, most area filmmakers agree that their projects’ smaller budgets inspire greater collaboration within the community as a whole. The popular Sacramento Festival of Cinema annually commissions ten short videos to comprise part of its programming, to which many film enthusiasts—novice and professional alike—often volunteer their time.

Kreutz says she utilized a mix of volunteers and paid professionals to help produce Elsa Letterseed. She hired one of Northern California’s most well-regarded commercial cinematographers to shoot her project on film, and her $100,000 budget allowed her additional time and latitude to achieve the professional look she sought.

“If you’re talking about serious filmmaking, there’s little pockets of serious filmmaking,” says filmmaker Matt Perry, who served as Kreutz’s assistant director on Elsa Letterseed.

“If you’re talking about a scene of all these little people making short films, that’s where the real Sacramento scene is happening.”

FROM WHAT, TO WHERE?

As the owner of The Studio Center, a full-service media production facility in the north part of Sacramento, Frank Casanova provides both technical support and professional advice to filmmakers with varying levels of expertise. He says he has worked with local neophytes on numerous film and video projects since the early 1990s.

“There’s a universal consciousness trying to break out,” Casanova says.

While his collaborations are frequently programmed with other area efforts in the Festival of Cinema, he says his business frequently serves aspiring visual storytellers who are eager to take advantage of the latest technological advancements available.

He says when you combine digital video footage with any number of inexpensive computer editing applications, suddenly, budget-minded moviemaking is accessible to just about anyone.

All you need are a lot of time and a little light.

“I’ve done a total 180 on digital (video),” Casanova says. “When it’s planned out and when you light it right, I absolutely can’t tell the difference between that and 16 millimeter (film). It’s really amazing.”

As advanced as the cinematic medium has become, however, Sacramento boasts a history of filmmaking that some say is unprecedented: It was at a downtown racetrack in 1872 that pioneering photographer Eadweard Muybridge established his first experiments with moving pictures, taking a series of still pictures of Gov. Leland Stanford’s horse as it ran along the track.

According to a myth that has since been discounted, Stanford had wagered against an acquaintance that as the horse ran, instants occurred during which all four of its hooves left the ground simultaneously. The governor enlisted Muybridge’s expertise to help him prove his theory.

The British photographer contrived a system of low-laid tripwires that would trigger individual still cameras as the horse charged down the track. The primitive arrangement provided unsatisfactory results, but served as the prototype to Muybridge’s epochal series of photographs that became the first-ever motion picture in 1878.

“But,” says Sacramento-based cinematographer and filmmaker Mark Herzig, drawing an analogy, “just because the Kitty Hawk flight was 100 feet doesn’t mean Kitty Hawk’s not the birthplace (of aviation). This came first.”

Herzig—in demand from San Francisco to Los Angeles—appreciates Sacramento for the relaxed environment that has made the city an appropriate backdrop for several of his award-winning short films. But he also refers to the city with unapologetic regard as “the birthplace of motion pictures,” a place in which popular cultural history is rich with names, faces and talent that actually predate more publicized, contemporary local efforts.

“Just because,” Herzig sighs, considering the city’s recent brushes with celebrity, “Clint Eastwood and John Travolta have been here a couple of times and shot for a couple of days, I don’t think that makes Sacramento a film town. Buster Keaton shot here. That heritage isn’t valued by the community.”

Big names have indeed converged on Sacramento in recent years. Parts of three John Travolta projects have been filmed around the region since 1996, and aerial shots of East Sacramento stood in for the anonymous suburban idyll of 1999’s Oscar-winner, American Beauty.

According to Kathleen Dodge, who oversees the El Dorado-Tahoe Film Office in Placerville, film projects shot on location in her jurisdiction pump anywhere from $1 million to $6 million annually into the local economy.

“I don’t think you can put (the impact) in nickels and dimes,” she adds. “The feeling a community gets being chosen from countries all around the world is a feeling you can’t put a monetary value on.”

Herzig says that mainstream film producers select the Sacramento region for projects mostly because of desirable exterior locations, as well as the availability of some experienced crew around the area. Beginning in 1997, however, several area businesspeople—including well-connected developer Angelo Tsakopoulos—assembled their own tentative plans to lure the film industry north on a permanent basis.

The most conspicuous proposal involved Declaration Studios, a $450 million facility that had settled in the agricultural reaches of Sutter County after migrating west from its original site in El Dorado County.

Tsakopoulos applied for permits to rezone 140 acres of land near El Dorado Hills for studio sound stages and offices. Later, he committed more than 3,000 acres sprawling across both El Dorado and Sacramento counties for the studio’s back lot.

But within months of the studio idea going public, El Dorado County residents voiced their outrage over a surge in what they believed was unchecked development. By the end of 1997, citizens groups’ lawsuits had effectively shut down negotiations to build the project in El Dorado County.

When Declaration Studios CEO Carissa Carpenter re-emerged in 2000, she told The Sacramento Bee that her revised studio plan included a European-style resort and spa, restaurants, hotels, and a golf course on 1,670 acres in Sutter County.
The Sutter County plan also disintegrated, however, leaving many area filmmakers suspect about how legitimate the project ever was.

“People end up fooling themselves,” Casanova explains. “When you start saying, ‘movie studio,’ people say, ‘Let me take this little pixie dust and throw it in my eyes. OK, I’m blinded by all the klieg lights.’

“They end up buying into something because they want to. They pull the wool over their own eyes.”

Herzig says he never had any expectations that the studio would be built, and remains stunned that anybody took the project seriously in the first place.

“It was nothing but a harebrained real estate scam,” he says. “It’s just unvarnished horseshit. It had nothing to do with film in Sacramento.”

(Carpenter did not respond to interview requests for this article.)

Even as Declaration Studios disappeared from the scene, local writer Ernie Cabral began spearheading another film studio effort at McClellan Park in North Highlands. When completed, Cabral says Longboard Studios would house at least 10,000 square feet of office space and 65,000 square feet of on-site production facilities.

“One small movie production brings millions of dollars into the local economy,” Cabral says. “We’re looking at having about four productions. We’re talking to studios from Warner (Bros.) on down.”

Cabral faces an uphill battle, though. He says the Longboard project will cost $250,000 to get off the ground, but he is still working on securing official production commitments from major Hollywood backers that most observers say would validate the studio in the first place.

Cabral says that he and two satellite studios have signed leases at McClellan Park, but a McClellan executive discredits Cabral’s assertion, instead explaining that Longboard Studios has yet to lease any space in the complex.

“He’s not a tenant yet,” says Matt Marks, McClellan Park’s Vice President of Marketing and Leasing. “That’s a path we’re still trying to work down.”

Marks also distances his organization from officially endorsing Cabral or any large-scale Sacramento studio project.
“Ernie is the pursuer, I would say,” Marks adds. “The type of project Ernie’s planning, I haven’t seen a huge demand for in this area.”

Worse yet, Cabral has met with a chilly reception even among those in Sacramento’s film community. Few in the community admit having faith in Cabral—either because of his unproven track record, or because of personality clashes that have alienated many around him.

“When you get guys like Ernie Cabral,” says producer and Sacramento film veteran Leon Corcos, “who’s been talking about all this bullshit for 10 years—about how he’s going to do all of this stuff when he hasn’t done so much as a commercial—it’s like, ‘Ernie, give it up. I don’t know if you’re trying to get pussy or what, but it’s not working.’”

Herzig recalls a recent meeting of local film enthusiasts during which he says Cabral publicly snapped at a writer who pitched a screenplay idea for Longboard to produce.

He says the incident was just one example of how Cabral makes enemies as readily as he makes allies.

“I just don’t care for the guy,” Herzig says. “It comes back to, ‘What do you want from us? Do you want donations? Do you want volunteers?

“‘I mean, what are you doing except jacking off?’”

Cabral’s former producing partner, Michael Dryhurst, says he removed his name from the Longboard Studio plans when he saw the financial odds stacking against him and Cabral.

Nevertheless, Dryhurst maintains his best wishes for Cabral.

“I don’t want to damn Ernie’s aspirations,” Dryhurst says. “The fact that Ernie has done nothing doesn’t mean he shouldn’t try, because if he does pull it off, we all benefit.”

SHOESTRING SACRAMENTO

“Not to offend anyone,” shrugs 33-year-old Sacramento native John Jimenez, “but there’s only really a small group who I would actually say knows their stuff. Those are the people who are actually making a living off of it.”

Jimenez, however, isn’t pretending to be shocked at his own success.

As an 18-year-old fooling around with video cameras in the cable television studios at Access Sacramento (where he says his commercials run to this day), Jimenez spent several years teaching himself the essentials of visual storytelling. Before long, he began reading up on film technique, purchasing a few cameras along the way to practice his craft.

He broke into local media as an editor at News 10, where he helped tape and produce segments for the popular teen program Scratch. Jimenez then graduated to commercials and ad campaigns for local television stations, work which culminated in his award-winning first short film, 1996’s A Little Off The Top. That early experience cemented Jimenez’s vivid, fast-paced film aesthetic.

“I like the Robert Rodriguez type of style,” he says, referring to the shoestring cinema icon whose $7,000 debut El Mariachi made independent film history in 1991. “I fly, but the stuff looks good. I know what I’m doing.”

One of Jimenez’s best-known projects came in 1996, when his visceral camerawork helped define the tone for writer-director Joe Carnahan’s breakthrough picture, Blood Guts Bullets & Octane.

The film — a seedy, salty spree of comedy and crime shot in Sacramento for $9,000 — received festival acclaim from Sundance to Berlin, netted national theatrical distribution and a home-video deal from Universal.

Carnahan, who resides in Fair Oaks, went on to write and direct the recent Oscar hopeful, Narc. The film so entranced Tom Cruise that he not only signed on as an executive producer, but also recruited Carnahan to direct the next installment of Paramount Pictures’ Mission: Impossible franchise.

Jimenez himself hasn’t gone Hollywood quite yet, however.

He says he holds his 2000 Emerging Artist Award from the Sacramento Metropolitan Arts Commission in higher esteem than his work on Blood Guts Bullets & Octane. Most recently, he has been wrapping up post-production on the $100,000 action film End of the Law, his feature directing debut that was shot at dozens of locations in and around Sacramento.

And yet, while Jimenez’s six-figure budget couldn’t likely pay the caterer on a Tom Cruise film, the figure is relatively large by independent film standards.

Sarah Kreutz, among many others, has lived to tell the tale.

“The more I got into it,” she recalls, “it was deeper and deeper. I thought, I have a few credit cards, I have some savings. I’ll make a digital video. You know, ten grand. A backyard project.

“Then, when I started putting it together, it started growing and growing.”

Kreutz jokes that she stopped counting her maxed-out credit cards at seven or eight, but heavy borrowing is not that uncommon among beginning filmmakers. In some cases, the method works; among the most legendary stories involves writer-director Robert Townsend, who reportedly financed his acclaimed 1987 debut Hollywood Shuffle with $40,000 he had charged to 15 credit cards.

But for every Townsend, there exist scores of less successful filmmakers whose films never break even. Hearing such stories makes Jimenez cringe.

“If you don’t have $3 million,” he says, “you’re going to have to rely on friends and people in the production community. You have to tap your resources.”

Of course, Kreutz did that, also. But other filmmakers look around Sacramento and see a dearth of resources.

Blood Guts Bullets & Octane producer Leon Corcos looks back to his 1995 directing debut, Devil Takes A Holiday, which he says was one of the first—if not the first—union-driven, professional feature made in Sacramento by a Sacramentan.

The film was a commercial bust, but Corcos suggests that just seeing the film completed was a success in itself.

“In this town,” Corcos says, “you’re making films for two reasons: because you like to do it, or you’re hoping it’s going to lead to something else. Guys like Jimenez, that’s what they’re doing. They’re making movies because they hope they’ll get more work out of it, and because they like it.

“But they ain’t making shit on ’em, and I guarantee you he’s not paying anyone to work on them.”

If Jimenez’s $1 royalty check from Blood Guts Bullets & Octane is any indication, however, Carnahan’s unique Sacramento success didn’t line his associates’ pockets either.

Corcos isn’t making apologies for Carnahan (who did not respond to interview requests for this article), but rather explains the “guerilla” conditions under which the film was both conceived and produced.

“You find talented people who can wear 10 hats,” he says, “and you get six of them going, you’ve got 60 hats. We actually had a crew of maybe five people on our big days.

“You do things because you have to. You can make a $10,000 movie because you have to. You have to beg, borrow and steal."

Kreutz and her producing partner Mark Wells laugh that they tried “anything short of illegal” to raise funds for Elsa Letterseed. The pair met on the set of the short, Sac Noir, where they worked as production assistants for local writer-director Matt Perry.

After Kreutz completed her screenplay, she sought Wells’ interest in bringing her heroine to life. Wells agreed to produce the film, and within three months they had assembled a crew including Perry and commercial cinematographer Landy Hardy, as well as enough money to pay for the first five days of shooting.

“We went every road you could imagine,” Wells says, recalling garage sales and savings account raids practiced in tandem with general pleas for donations from folks in the community.

Kreutz followed a popular independent film financing model in early 2002 when she edited the unfinished footage into a trailer, or a film preview, as a means to generate interest in the project; she later screened the trailer for an invitation-only gathering of friends, family and area business people at the venerable Crest Theater. Of the 500 people who attended, Kreutz estimates, she and Wells secured significant financing commitments from two investors.

Kreutz shot Elsa Letterseed in locations all around the region, beginning in Folsom and working around to Carmichael, Newcastle and ultimately midtown Sacramento. Her approach was the direct opposite of Corcos’ and Carnahan’s stripped-down “guerilla” tactics; she credits authorities like Placer County film commissioner Beverly Lewis for working to accommodate her production, and Wells followed conventional procedure by filing for necessary permits before scheduling a full day of location shooting.

“We didn’t want to lose momentum in the process of making the film,” Wells explains. “The process of making money ebbed and flowed. We got some here and some there, but we did not want to stop that momentum. And we didn’t. We were successful in continuing that momentum to completion.”

Kreutz nods, glowing with recollection.

“We’d set a goal, and by the skin of our teeth, we’d make it at the last minute. Usually because Mom and Dad came and rescued us with a $100 bill.”

The short term is one thing, Jimenez says. Building a career is something else altogether.

“You either gotta have talent, or you gotta know people. It’s very political.”

BETTER SCENE THAN HEARD

Writer-director Matt Perry knows a thing or two about Sacramento film politics.

After immigrating to Sacramento in 1996 as a graduate of New York University’s renowned film program, Perry entered one of his film school shorts in the then-Sacramento Film Festival’s “Homegrown” competition. Judges awarded Perry’s submission first prize over a selection of other Sacramentans’ films and videos.

There was one problem: Perry had just relocated to Sacramento from the East Coast.

“People were pissed because I shot and (edited) in New York,” Perry says. “But I followed the rules. I live in Sacramento.”

According to Perry, the experience fueled grievances that carry over to this day—further fragmenting a filmmaking scene that has battled stunted momentum for years.

“Leon (Corcos) doesn’t want to make a community scene here,” he says. “Mark Herzig sure as fuck doesn’t want to make any kind of community scene. He just wants to do his own little thing.”

Corcos — who describes Perry as being “full of himself” — admits he does not take an active leadership role among area filmmakers, but is quick to note that cheerleading is not his business.

“I’m not trying to bag this town, because I really like this town,” Corcos says. “But I know there are so many people who are so full of crap in this town that it ruins it for the people who are legitimately trying. John Jimenez is legitimately giving it a shot. Mark Herzig is legitimately trying.

“But then there’s a whole bunch of guys who are legitimately full of crap, and when you get these few guys who are legitimately trying, it’s like no one believes them.”

Meanwhile, Frank Casanova reclines behind his desk at The Studio Center. Like a chatty, down-to-earth uncle, Casanova segues cheerfully from topic to topic, waving his hand down a bookshelf loaded with video tapes of his productions: from work he shot on 8 millimeter film during adolescence (“And I’ll tell you,” he half groans, eyes narrowing, “I think my stuff when I was 12 is better than Steven Spielberg’s stuff when he was 12…”) up to his most recent projects, including the shorts Sweet Tooth and Broadway Romance.

He hopes to turn the latter video into a feature-length movie, and seems loaded with ideas for future projects.

“We can make the movies inexpensively,” he says, “but we still haven’t figured out what we’re going to with them after we make them. Nobody talks about that.

“And that’s because I don’t think many people know. They don’t know what you do with it, other than the film festival circuit.”

To that end, Sacramento has made considerable strides. Corcos still squirms at the thought of the original Sacramento International Film Festival, which he organized, programmed and promoted in 1988, only to welcome a total of six paying customers.

But since that time, community cable channel Access Sacramento has re-established the annual Festival of Cinema as a popular fund-raiser featuring the work of filmmakers from around Northern California. Organizers round out each October’s festival with “A Place Called Sacramento,” a series of videos that establish the event as the only film festival in the U.S. that commissions and sponsors parts of its program.

Access Sacramento administrator Martin Anaya credits his channel with cultivating the area’s filmmaking community with low-cost video production training as well as various exhibition opportunities. He speaks proudly of Joe Carnahan, who honed his visual storytelling and editing skills in Access Sacramento’s control room.

“Here,” Anaya says, “you learn practical skills, and we require that there is a practical result. The same skills you’re going to learn to put your ‘Wayne’s World’ on public access are the similar skills you’ll use to put together your independent film.”

Despite the standing-room-only turnout at some of the Festival events, Casanova senses a stagnation within the film scene. He appreciates the community as a whole, but is not ashamed to want something more.

“If you define success as, ‘We had a great time at the Crest (Theater) at the Festival of Cinema, and everybody gave pats on the backs and accolades,’ then we were very successful,” Casanova says.

“If you define it as, ‘Show me your bank account,’ it’s not even close to success.”

Perry is just thankful that Access Sacramento provides a resource around which Sacramento filmmakers can rally.

“For the first time in the film scene here,” he says, “there are people who are working together and cooperating instead of being competitive. And that’s the way it’s been in the past. There have been a lot of petty jealousies.”

And from those jealousies and failures, suspicions and successes past and present, stories emerge.

Mark Herzig will occasionally ride his bike along tree-lined 20th Street to the birthplace of motion pictures. Frank Casanova may solve the distribution puzzle. Leon Corcos could team up with Joe Carnahan again in Hollywood.

And Sarah Kreutz is up early for a Saturday, if only because it’s a part of her life now—her story, her work, her dream.

“I love cinema,” she says, honest as a heartbeat. “I don’t know if I’m a filmmaker. I just know I love cinema.”

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