The partners who run Carolina Filmworks have done just about everything backward.
First-time producers are supposed to make a no-name movie to get their feet wet. These guys corralled an Oscar nominee and TV and film veterans for their explosive action drama "Sinners & Saints."
First-timers are supposed to max out their credit cards. This foursome invested in its own debut but raised the bulk of the budget through other folks.
And beginners are supposed to tap into film festivals, then move unobtrusively to a humble DVD release. This quartet has already sold "Sinners" to foreign territories and is negotiating with North American distributors with an eye toward theatrical exposure.
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"Sinners" will play one theater for certain: The EpiCentre, where it makes its Charlotte debut Tuesday with a red-carpet premiere for the public.
Tom Berenger (the Oscar nominee), who plays a humane police captain, is expected to come up from his home in Beaufort, S.C. Brothers Costas and Louis Mandylor, who play immigrant villains from different countries, should also be there, along with director and co-writer Will Kaufman.
So will Filmworks partners Rodney Blair, Alfred De La Garza, Leon Dunn and Jayson Stamper. You'll know them by their wide smiles, but don't look for kids - these four range in age from 36 to 51, another way they stand out from most first-time moviemakers.
They met as security officers at Duke Energy's Catawba Nuclear Station. They had two things in common four years ago: military service (more about that later) and a love of action films, going back to the 1970s for De La Garza (the eldest) and "Lethal Weapon" for Stamper (the youngest).
"We were four guys on the night shift who decided to make a backyard movie," says De La Garza. "None of us knew anything about that industry."
Stamper began to research ways to form a limited liability company and shoot a film with inexpensive equipment. By winter of 2007, Carolina Filmworks was born, and the partners were making the down-and-dirty action flick "Shotgun Kiss" around Charlotte and Gaffney and Anderson, S.C.
Their whim now had wham. But as they were planning reshoots, Kaufman - whom they'd met through Facebook after watching one of his films - pitched a different idea: Why not invest in "Sinners," a script studios flirted with but wanted to take away from its creator?
"They didn't want Will to direct, and they didn't want Johnny Strong (who had small roles in "Black Hawk Down" and "The Fast and the Furious") to star," says Blair. "I was skeptical about it, but I read the script and loved it. We all did. So we put a hold on 'Shotgun.'"
A potent first outing
"Sinners" was shot mostly in 2009. It looks a bit like a grittily burnished Michael Mann film, with New Orleans - still struggling four years after Hurricane Katrina - seeming like a forlorn, burnt-out character.
Strong, a martial artist with a rugged profile and sympathetic screen presence, stars as an angry detective whose lifelong pal (Sean Patrick Flanery of "Boondock Saints") is on the run with video footage sought by Costas Mandylor's thugs.
The cast includes Jolene Blalock ("Star Trek: Enterprise") as the fugitive's drug-addled wife, rapper Method Man as a scarred gangster and Jürgen Prochnow ("Das Boot") in a cameo as a dapper mob boss. Kevin Phillips plays Strong's untested new partner; like Method Man, he'll appear in "Red Tails," an upcoming film about the Tuskegee Airmen produced by George Lucas.
"Making this was a trial by fire," says Stamper. "We had logistical nightmares, including a freak storm that dropped snow all over New Orleans for the first time in 27 years. We could have spent this money to go to film school and learn the craft, but this was our film school."
That's where their military experience helped. Blair and Stamper had been Army Rangers; Dunn was in the Air Force, De La Garza in the Navy.
"You're trained to make decisions in the field, under stress," says Dunn. "On a set, things come up constantly, and you have to think on your feet. We were prepared to do that."
How the team functions
They had already learned to perform as a unit under the Carolina Filmworks banner.
Stamper tends to be the guy who develops projects and serves as producer in the field. Dunn chases the money, finding investors and making sure deals are kosher with the Securities Exchange Commission.
Blair is the special projects manager who (among other duties) looks at ways to break into Charlotte's booming commercial market. And De La Garza, who jokes that his middle name is Catchall, handles anything from social networking to locations management.
"Really, we all back each other up in any area," says Stamper. "We're flexible and like-minded, and we haven't had any big disagreements so far."
The four now want to revise "Shotgun Kiss," because "Sinners" has raised expectations for any second release. (They expect to use only a quarter of what they've shot.) They're planning "Abomination," a horror movie about a violent prison escapee who meets something scarier than he.
They proved with "Sinners" they could supervise a production in multiple places: mainly New Orleans, plus a few scenes in Los Angeles and Texas (where Kaufman lives). Now they have a more ambitious goal: to lure such talent to the Carolinas on a regular basis.
Filmworks wants to establish a local production base with help from the Charlotte Regional Partnership's film office, linking the local crew base to the one in Wilmington.
"This isn't some turnkey operation trying to make a quick dollar," says Stamper. "We're committed to developing our own film community and investing in projects here."