Drive-In Friday: First Time Directors & Actors Night

The criterion for this Friday’s theme night is simple: all of tonight’s films are by first time directors and actors who didn’t attend, or at the very least, complete their studies through, a theatre arts program.

First 50 cars get coupons for a free Eskimo Pie (2 per car only). Darn freezer’s on the fritz and I don’t want to throw them out.

Sure, we could revisit Kevin Smith’s Clerks and Troy Duffy’s Boondock Saints. But we’ve been there and done that with both of those films, and besides: the casts of both films featured formally trained actors. No, Quentin Tarantino doesn’t make the cut with Reservoir Dogs: while he had no formal schooling beyond his obsessive passion for film and working in a video store, he knew more about filmmaking that the four filmmakers we’re honoring this evening. No, Ridley Scott (Alien) doesn’t make the list either: while not a film school student, he graduated from London’s Royal College of Art and worked his way up the creative chain as a set designer for the BBC before making his debut, 1977’s The Duellists.

No, tonight we’re honoring indie filmmakers Rudy Ray Moore, Tommy Wiseau, Alex Kendrick, and Matty Rich — and while a diverse list, they have a lot more in common than you think. Each of them, along with their actors, possessed little to no film knowledge. But each had big dreams and unique purposes behind their respective films.

So hang up those speakers and lite the coils. Let’s get on with the show and enjoy Dolemite, The Room, Flywheel, and Straight Out of Brooklyn.

Movie 1: Dolemite (1975)

Rudy Ray Moore spent years struggling in the business as a musician, eventually finding his voice as a comedian by portraying a character called Dolemite. But his dreams weren’t over. He wanted to become a star of the silver screen. But even with his urban street cred as a comedian, none of the studios producing films in the then hot blaxploitation genre wanted to hire him or adapt his Dolemite character into a film.

Sure, Moore had a gift for a turn of the phase and rapping a prose, but he couldn’t act. And he had a potbelly and couldn’t fight. He’d never be a “Shaft” as he aspired. Oh, and he had no skills as director, writer, or producer. He didn’t know what a DP was or what a key grip or best boy did on a set. No matter. He spent his own money and took all of his non-industry friends along with him to make a movie.

So, taking the character of Dolemite from his Billboard Top 25 comedy album, 1970’s Eat Out More Often, he crafted a film about a pimp and nightclub owner granted an early prison release to work as an uncover agent to bust up a dope and gun-running ring operated by his old partner, Willie Green.

Is it awful? Yes. Is it Ed Wood-meets-Blaxploitation? Yes. Is it a charming picture overflowing with passion? Oh, absolutely. So much so you end up rooting for Rudy. And for his $100,000 investment in himself, he grossed $12 million during the film’s initial release. How loved is the life and oeuvre of Rudy Ray Moore? They made a movie about him starring Eddie Murphy: Dolemite Is My Name.

You can watch Dolemite as a free-with-ads stream on TubiTv. The VOD channel also carries the Dolemite sequel The Human Tornado, along with Rudy’s later films Petey Wheatstraw (be sure to read Sam’s review) and Disco Godfather.

Movie 2: The Room (2003)

Rudy Ray Moore always intended Dolemite to be an extension of his comedy albums and wanted to people to laugh with him. Tommy Wiseau, on the hand, set out — and failed — to emulate the works of A Streetcar Named Desire and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof penned by American playwright Tennessee Williams.

Today, Wiseau claims that his celluloid calling-card to the industry, initially intended to a be a “great American drama about love and betrayal,” was actually an intentional “black comedy.” Opinions vary on that assessment of his successful artistic disaster, and do we care? No. We love Tommy Wiseau’s Rudy Ray Moore-esque heart and tenacity in making his dreams come true.

The true beauty behind The Room is that much to the chagrin of Tommy’s harshest late night, D-List celebrity guests-cum-might Internet Warriors and purveyors of cinematic quality, The Room is still playing in theatres and breaking box office records 17 years after its release.

And, like Rudy, Hollywood made a movie about Tommy: 2017’s The Disaster Artist, which went on to win Golden Globes and Critics Choice Awards, and earned an Oscar nomination. So who’s laughing now, D-Listers? Who’s laughing now?

Surprisingly, none of the online PPV-VOD services offer streams of The Room, not even a free-with-ads stream on Tubi or Vudu. The free streams on You Tube come and go, so watch it while you can. Vudu does, however, carry Tommy’s two-part sophomore effort, 2018’s Best F(r)iends. The clips from the film abound on You Tube, so search and enjoy!

Intermission!

Back to the Show!

Movie 3: Flywheel (2003)

This feature film screenwriting, directing, producing, and acting debut from Alex Kendrick is not only my favorite film of this evening’s films: it is also the most technically adept “first” film of the evening. And, unlike Dolemite and The Room, each which had some assemblage of a semi-pro crew and a couple of trained actors on set, none of the cast and crew on Flywheel ever worked behind or in front of a camera. (Sans one actor: Lisa Arnold, a church member who worked in local theatre and did some local commercial work; she plays a news reporter who exposes the lead character’s dishonest business practices.)

Along with this brother, Stephen, Alex Kendrick oversaw the audio-visual ministry as the Associate Pastor of Sherwood Baptist Church in Albany, Georgia; their duties dealt with the recording and distribution of church sermons and other messages of faith. Not exactly what you would call filmmaking. And it’s a job they just picked up and learned along the way.

Now, while Rudy Ray Moore’s and Tommy Wiseau’s goals against their lack of experience to make their debut films were rooted in an earthly quest for fame, Alex Kendrick never aspired to be a screenwriter, director or actor: his filmmaking goal was purely spiritual. His was a quest to expand the audio-visual ministry of Sherwood Church and reach young people and teenagers. And young people and teens love going to the movies.

So with a Tarantino-inspired self-study tenacity and a budget of $20,000, the Kendrick brothers figured out how to write, produce and direct their own screenplay: a simple tale about Jay Austin (Alex Kendrick), a used car salesman with a crisis of faith. And that spiritual crisis has not only negatively affected his business; it’s damaged his marriage and his relationship with his son. And an acquisition of a classic ‘60s Triumph Roadster with a broken transmission flywheel becomes a catalyst to repair his own “spiritual flywheel.”

Once the Kendrick brothers’ film was completed, they released it “roadhouse” style, going from church to church across the state. And the response was overwhelming. So, to answer the demand, they four-walled two local theatres in Tifton and Columbus, Georgia. And the crowds kept coming. And they grossed $37,000. Then a distributor expressed interest. And the film opened across the country. Then it found distribution on faith-based television networks around the world. And it became one of the top-selling Christian films on DVD of all time, selling 300,000 plus copies. And the Kendrick brothers went on to make several more faith-based films (2006’s Facing the Giants, 2008’s Fireproof, 2011’s Courageous, 2015’s War Room, and 2019’s Overcomer)—each with an improved quality and even greater box-office successes. Their second film, Facing the Giants, was made for $100,000 and grossed over $10 million.

Is Flywheel a little rough in spots? Yes. Since neither Kendrick brother made a movie before, they made the usual rookie mistakes that all first-time filmmakers make—even the ones with formal training (and even the ones who have several other films on their resumes)—they forgot to film pick up shots, to create coverage, and inserts (all of the same mistakes Sam Raimi and Bruce Campbell* made with their little film about demons that everyone hails today in high praise as a “classic”). So, during the course of the Kendrick brothers’ debut film, you’ll notice a couple of scenes where the film quality changes. But make no mistake: Flywheel is not an Ed Woodian production that induces the guffaws of a Rudy Ray Moore or Tommy Wiseau production. It’s a film with well-drawn, complex characters that shine under the amateur thespians who volunteered their time to the production.

Now, if you’re just a movie fan, the faith-based aspect of the film will most likely be a turnoff and you’ll scoff at my praises for Flywheel. However, if you’re a filmmaker or actor and watch with those creative eyes, you’ll understand why this is a special film—probably the greatest first-time film by a group of cinematic novices ever made. Yes—even more so than the Sundance ballyhoo’d final film on this evening’s program.

Flywheel is widely available across all PPV and VOD platforms. But since this a Christian film you probably don’t want to gamble on—and we really want you to watch it—you can sample the film for free in two-parts on Daily Motion: Part 1 and Part 2.

* Bruce Campbell chronicled all of those mistakes in his biography If Chins Could Kill: Confessions of a B-Movie Actor.

Movie 4: Straight Out of Brooklyn

Filmmaker Matty Rich had it all: he had the start of a very promising career in Hollywood as a member of the “New Black Wave” alongside fellow filmmakers Bill Duke, Spike Lee, Mario Van Peebles, and John Singleton.

At the age of 19 Rich took Sundance by storm with Straight Out of Brooklyn, a film that he produced, wrote, directed, shot, edited, and acted in for $450,000 and, like Rudy Ray Moore before him, Rich brought along all of his friends. After winning the 1991 “Special Jury Prize” at the Sundance Film Festival and a 1992 Independent Spirit Award for “Best First Feature,” the film was picked up for distribution by MGM/Samuel Goldwyn Company and grossed over 2.5 million dollars in art-house box office. Rich’s debut was a vibrant, exciting and real story about a young man living in poverty in Brooklyn’s Red Hook housing project who concocts a plan to rob a drug dealer and change the course of his life—and it does: for the worse. It was an absolutely amazing film by a kid one year out of high school that left you feeling that same Kevin Smith-exuberance after watching his independently produced films, Clerks.

Sadly, as in the case with fellow first-filmmakers Troy Duffy (Boondock Saints) and Rob Weiss (Amongst Friends), Matty Rich believed he knew it all and knew it better than everyone else; studio executives couldn’t reason with him. Accepted into New York University’s famed Tisch School of the Arts—from where Spike Lee graduated and previously took Sundance by storm with his debut film, Do the Right Thing—Rich dropped out of the school because of its “racist” policies. And Lee—then the toast of tinsel town—called Rich “ignorant.” Rich countered Lee was a “middle-class third-generation college boy.”

Then the sophomore jinx hit Rich—and it hit hard: Rich’s first major studio-produced film, 1994’s The Inkwell—complete with a professional crew and actors and an $8 million budget—bombed. Chalk up its failure to the studio’s “racism” or Rich’s “ignorance,” but the magic displayed in Straight Out of Brooklyn was gone.

The Inkwell started to go off the rails during its pre-production, with Matty Rich’s university drop out accusing Andover and Stanford University graduate Trey Ellis’s script (based on his best-selling novel optioned by Walt Disney’s Touchstone Pictures) for “not being black enough.” Ellis countered the “screenplay wasn’t stereotypically black enough [for Rich] . . . a Stepin’ Fetchit black minstrel show for white audiences.” (The trials and production tribulations of the production were chronicled in a 1994 article published by Entertainment Weekly.)

And Rich hasn’t made another film since.

While The Inkwell is still widely available as a VOD on all platforms, Straight Out of Brooklyn is not. But we found a 10-part You Tube upload for you to enjoy. It’s a powerful film that, even with its rough edges, is a highly recommended watch.

Hey, if you missed them, be sure to join “The Francis” for our Drive-In Friday: Black & White Night and Drive-In Friday: Heavy Metal Horror Night, along with our Karate Blaxploitation, Musician Slashers, and Movies About Movies nights.

About the Author: You can read the music and film reviews of R.D Francis on Medium and learn more about his work on Facebook. He also writes for B&S About Movies.

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