High hopes for low-budget movies Two local young men try their hands at writing and directing feature films

September 09, 1991|By Lan Nguyen | Lan Nguyen,Evening Sun Staff

SUMMER'S BEEN rough on Russell Farmarco. The 22-year-old Towson State University graduate and fledgling director has been putting in 12-hour days and enduring sleepless nights, thunderstorms and obscurity while trying to finish shooting his movie.

He and about 30 colleagues have pooled their technical skills to film "Permanent Damage" with the hope that the 85-minute suburban gangster flick will do permanent wonders for their careers. They've just wrapped up production on the movie, filmed in Pasadena and elsewhere around the Baltimore region.

"Permanent Damage" is about four straight-laced suburban friends who shun their somewhat middle-class lifestyle, turning to petty street crime for thrills. Their little heists throughout the film culminate in the "big one," which disastrously falls apart after internal dissent destroys the gang.

The film is a home-grown product, one of two feature-length films shot here by Marylanders this year, according to Jay Schlossberg-Cohen, head of the Maryland Film Commission. He said he's seen an increase in efforts by local filmmakers to produce small-budget films, despite the difficulties many have finding distributors for their finished products. He's hopeful that more will be successful. "I see people here saying we can do it."

The other movie, "The Weekend It Lives," is a horror-comedy produced, directed and written by Michael Mfume, 22, son of Rep. Kweisi Mfume, D-7th. The younger Mfume said his movie follows in the slasher tradition of the "Friday the 13th" thrillers, but with an all-black cast.

"There weren't too many black filmmakers, and there are no horror movies with black people in them," said Mfume, who'll be previewing his movie to Los Angeles-based distributors and producers later this month, he said. Mfume, who declined to discuss his film's budget, said he hopes to release his movie on the big screen.

Farmarco, meanwhile, hopes to make a hit for the little screen, the home video market -- or at least cover his expenses.

Little is certainly the key word for his movie. Little, as in a skeleton crew and cast of fewer than 30 people and earning salaries of less than $200 each per week. And little, as in a budget of less than $65,000 to make an 85-minute feature film (Hollywood-produced motion pictures average $25 to $30 million, according to Schlossberg-Cohen).

"If you've heard of a shoestring budget, then this is a kite string budget," said Farmarco. But the stakes are high.

Farmarco and company have raised $40,000 for equipment rental, film processing and other costs through families and friends. They estimate they need $20,000 to $25,000 more for post-production expenses. It's a lot of money for a bunch of young college graduates to contemplate.

"You're asking people to invest a lot of money," Farmarco said. "What happens when the bottom falls out and you have a lot of people mad?

"What we're trying to accomplish is to give ourselves a stepping stone, do a showcase for everyone involved," he said. "We're also trying to make something marketable for people to enjoy."

Farmarco teamed up with Jeff Howard, writer, and Andre Owens, cinematographer, to form J.C.A. Film Partners to make the movie. They knew one another and took film and acting classes together.

"Russell made the only student film I saw and liked," said Howard. "He didn't like writing and I didn't like directing, so we got together."

Many of cast and crew members, who are all in the twentysomething age range, just graduated from TSU.

"I've never worked with a gang like this before," said Patrick "P.J." Johnson, who plays a violently jealous mob member who kills his girlfriend's male acquaintance. "There's no ego. Everyone helps out."

Johnson says the hard part of making the movie was sleeping on the floor. Half the cast and crew were staying at Howard's house in Pasadena, 10 minutes away from the shooting location in an Anne Arundel County townhouse development.

In addition, they filmed at sites including Friendship Park near Baltimore-Washington International Airport, Snyder's Willow Grove on Hammonds Ferry Road, and in Baltimore at the Kid's Diner on East Saratoga Street and in front of a townhouse on St. Paul Street and 22nd Street.

They started filming in early August, their schedule revolving around two actors who had to go back to college -- Andrew Rothkin, who plays "Slim," the mysterious outsider, and Jackie Underwood, who plays "Christine," a promiscuous girlfriend. Despite rain interrupting their shooting schedule, Farmarco reported no major snags in shooting the movie. They are now editing and adding voice-overs to the film.

"I think they have a great chance of doing very well with it," said Greg Faller, a TSU assistant professor of film studies who taught some members of the cast and crew. "The script is strong. They know what they're doing, and I think they're going to pull it together."

Scott Boswell, executive producer, said they're scheduled to talk with a New York company in early October to discuss distribution of the movie. "Things are moving faster than we expected," said Boswell. "It's very good."

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