Filmmaker is trying to dig up support

Horror: JT Petty, who made the fright film `Soft for Digging' on a shoestring, is doing a little shmoozing at Sundance.

January 18, 2002|By Ron Dicker | Ron Dicker,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

PARK CITY, Utah - JT Petty eats the same burrito for three days.

"I'm pathologically frugal," the Severna Park filmmaker said at the Sundance Film Festival this week. "It impresses everybody but my girlfriend."

But Petty might have outdone himself in writing and directing Soft for Digging, a horror movie that made it to Sundance on a measly $6,000 budget. The actual tally on his receipts was $5,700, but Petty said he was just being conservative.

He shot the movie for his New York University film school thesis three years ago in the woods near Elkton. Petty said he was scared by the inevitable comparisons to The Blair Witch Project because his movie is so different. Blair Witch, another low-budget horror film set in a Maryland forest, became a cult hit that mushroomed into a mainstream success.

But the makers of Blair Witch probably have nothing on Petty's ability to scare up resources. As a film student, he got free film stock and free access to editing facilities. He persuaded Baltimore-area businesses to donate money and restaurants and markets to donate food. He did not have to pay for the locations and basically paid the main actors with the promise that if Soft for Digging ever got distributed, they would earn a little something.

Soft for Digging has little dialogue, relying on images and the expressive face of the elderly lead actor, played by Chevy Chase's Edmond Mercier. The 81-minute feature sprang from a 22-page script that Petty shot in 10 days.

Mercier's Virgil Manoven follows his runaway cat into the woods and sees a child murdered. Ominous events lead to a Catholic orphanage. Petty uses the old man's isolation to ratchet up the creepiness. The comforting rhythms of coffee percolating and eggs boiling provide a counterpoint to the upheaval Virgil experiences.

"I've always loved being frightened, and I've always loved frightening people," Petty said. "I remember seeing Invasion of the Body Snatchers with Donald Sutherland when I was way too young and being terrified by that."

Petty, a graduate of Severna Park High, now lives in Brooklyn, N.Y., and makes a living by writing scripts for video games. If Soft for Digging does not find a buyer, Petty hopes the project will impress enough people to enable him to produce his next script, Skin and Teeth, a scary movie with more comedic elements.

Petty doesn't like to talk to strangers, but he's doing his best to schmooze in what is essentially a snow-covered Hollywood.

True to form, he is not sipping martinis in a ski lodge with a hot tub. He's staying at the producer's mom's house in Salt Lake City, about 35 minutes away. Still, he's just glad to be here.

Said Petty: "There's no way that I could have expected that while we were making lens filters out of Dixie cups, that some day we would be projecting this at Sundance."

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