Get In on the Action: Students Gather Funds to Make MTSU Film Guild’s First Feature-length Film

Director: Warren Smythe
Producers: Chris Ranker, Jessica Henry, Scott Frost
Executive Producer: Henry Reed
Writer: Ross Wells
Director of Photography: Evan Caddell

Foreign mafia. Drugs. Prostitution. Gunfights. Two Average Joes caught up in the midst of it all.

Sounds like Tarantino.

Really, it’s the macabre brainchild, still in its preproduction phase, of some MTSU students, namely director Warren Smythe and producer Chris Ranker. Titled Juicy Mooshu, the film noir creation, whose script was developed by Ross Wells, rides the line between the “funny strange” and “funny ha ha” and is backed by the MTSU Film Guild.

The Film Guild is an SGA-funded student organization working to nurture careers in filmmaking and video production. But here’s the juicy bit: Juicy Mooshu will be the first feature film to come out of the MTSU Film Guild.

The fact that the SGA is providing any funding for the project is news. It’s a rare thing for even traditional film school students to receive monetary support for individual projects, simply due to a lack of funds.

Why Juicy Mooshu is getting a financial boost could be due to a combination of the crew’s enthusiasm and level of experience and professionalism.

Smythe’s major experience includes feature film Sound of Dogs, and he’s in the preproduction phase of another titled Neither Here Nor There. Ranker has produced a handful of small TV series on MTSU’s MTTV and directed Breather, a lengthy music video for three songs by local garage-punk duo Turtle Bangs.

The Murfreesboro Pulse recently got a chance to speak separately with the film’s visionary and head organizer, i.e. director and producer, to get a fuller grasp of the project from both sides. As they make plans to shoot this summer in Nashville and Murfreesboro on the professional RED Scarlet camera, the Juicy Mooshu crew is hunting for outside investors and local support. It’s been somewhat scarce thus far, but they’ve secured one donator outside of the Film Guild and are meeting with others.

As for their budget, the goal is a modest $20,000 to $30,000. But hey, Clerks was made for that much.

Chris Ranker (left) and Warren Smythe, photo by Jessica Henry

Chris Ranker, producer:
Where did the idea for this film come from?
I came up with the idea to make a movie with Ross and Warren over the summer sometime. I wanted to work with Warren Smythe for a while. I had heard about some guy that had made some really strange, strange feature screenplay, about 90 pages. It was a friend of a friend of a friend. It was the most bizarre story I’ve ever heard. It was about a personified deer who is hit at a deer crossing sign by a drunk driver and blackmails the driver to take him in until he rehabilitates and is able to walk again, otherwise he’s going to send the guy to jail. In the meantime, the deer just brings this guy’s life to shambles. (The screenplay is called X-ing). It was really funny, and I have no idea how anyone would ever come up with that idea. And this was before that Elijah Wood TV show, Wilfred, which is about a personified dog.

So I talked with Warren, and we worked on a lot of projects over the summer. Then I took this screenwriting class, and I was talking about that deer screenplay in class with somebody. A guy across the room came up to me when the class was over and asked me about the deer script. He said, “I wrote that.” It was the beginning of a great friendship [laughs]. That was Ross Wells. We wanted to get him to write the script, and after the first draft was done, we decided it absolutely needed to be a feature film, because it was so bizarre.

At first, you only intended to write a screenplay?
Yeah, at first we just met up behind Warren’s house a couple nights in August and just told stories about crazy stuff that happened to us. Ross is about 25, and he’s lived with some really crazy people and had some really cool experiences. We decided after telling all these wild stories that the best possible choice would be to put all of them together into one giant story.

Stories like what?
We’re trying to keep the solid story of this film under wraps, but the sorts of stories we were telling were a lot of drunken and just bizarre stories. I used to work at a Boy Scout camp, and I was on a rowboat, fishing, and we had way too many people in that boat anyway. And while we were out in the middle of the lake, this random houseboat was floating across the lake and crashed into the campsite. When we opened the door, it was in ruins, and all that was in there was a table saw, flipped over, and it was about thigh-high in motorcycle porn. So we had to tow it back to camp. That’s the kind of strange stuff we talked about.

A lot of Ross’s stories were about things that just happened to occur. There was nothing that really prompted them except . . . fate. So a lot of it was how to tie the stories in, if not directly, then thematically.

Can you go over what the film is about?
Two misguided sanitation workers in their 20s are hired by the government to clean out houses of dead people who don’t have any family. When they clean out the house of a hoarder, they discover this urn, which is not filled with ashes, but an ancient Chinese drug, shrouded in much mystery. It quickly pulls them down into a world of prostitution and foreign organized crime, and we just bring in all these bizarre circumstances. There’s a giant battle at a skinhead show . . .

What’s the feel of the film, or the mood?
We liked the idea of this dark comedy that makes a lot of people uncomfortable but is still accessible to an extent. We wanted very specific things. Warren wanted to make a story about two guys who go through this great transformation, as a director would. Ross wanted to make a story that somehow involved all these crazy drug situations. All I wanted was to have explosions in it. That was my only thing. The Film Guild hadn’t ever done anything with stunts of any kind, and I wanted to give us all a new, difficult experience.

Ross wrote the script, but did you all piece together the story?
Yeah, and we still are putting some of the finishing touches on it. That was one of the six-hour meetings we had the other day. It’s to the point now where we’re just tweaking dialogue. The other day, we had a couple guys at the script-development meeting that hadn’t read it in full, and they could not stop laughing, which is a great sign. Right now, it’s just over 70 pages. With the style Warren wants to shoot in, we expect it will be within 80 and 90 minutes.

What do you mean by the “style” he wants to shoot in?
A lot of directors, like our director of photography, Evan Caddell, really love Stanley Kubrick. They really like the style of Wes Anderson. Those directors oftentimes focus on something longer than anyone would. Whenever you’re writing a script, you can estimate that it’s going to be a minute per page. So if we’re at 62 pages, for most, that would be 62 minutes, but this is going to be a little bit longer. We’re pushing for 90 minutes, because that’s the most marketable for this type of movie, and that’s the indie feel that Warren and Evan are going for.

How did you get the filmmaking process started?
You gather funds. We met with (MTSU student) Nathan Mosher to design our website. He’s a very talented web developer. We’ve been working with Alex Cline, an artist from Knoxville, who’s been doing some commercial art for us. We want to get people as psyched about this project as we are, because it can really be a great, great opportunity.

The SGA funds the MTSU Film Guild, and this is officially through the Film Guild. They’re going to be giving us a portion of the money, but our budget is a lot higher than what we expect the SGA to give us. So, we’re going around to individuals around Murfreesboro and Nashville and asking for money. We’re shooting for $20,000.
Essentially, we need to pitch this as an opportunity to support local students and local art. It’s an educational opportunity that almost nowhere else in the world has. Even with film schools, typically you have to pay the expenses of your own films. The fact that we were able to do this through a student organization is really unique.

Because there’s not enough money for these things. The fact that the SGA gives us any money is really unique. I guess film schools, which MTSU is not, do get some money to create projects, but the only school I’ve heard of that’s done a project of this scope is NYU. They give $100,000 to one project every year. And that is the best of the best.

Will you be able to go any further with this film before you get what you need?
We have to.

What are you doing for music?
(MTSU student and SONY intern) Jimmy Sudekum is an incredible orchestrator with recording artists, composer, everything. He is the music guy to go to for film in Murfreesboro and the entire Nashville area. He and Warren went to high school together. Jimmy’s already figuring out what he wants to do with all the scenes. As far as I understand, he loves classical music, but he wants to tie in the film’s huge Eastern influence and have a lot of Chinese drums and flutes.

Have you done any casting yet?
We’re holding off on casting until we’re really ready. It’s difficult to find unpaid actors. One of the things we’re trying to do is get at least one recognizable person in front of the camera. We’re looking for someone that college-age kids would recognize, like an out-of-work TV actor.

What’s been the greatest challenge thus far?
Getting local support. Part of that is getting funds, but a lot of it is support from the media. This isn’t something students do, and this is the first interview that anyone has followed up on.

As of right now, the MTSU Film Guild is very limited to the EMC program, and it’s branched out to the Recording Industry program, which is great. We’re trying to get people from all over campus for this project, though. There’s a lot more to making a film than just being a film student or knowing how to run sound. We need a huge crew of artists, but right now there’s just a lack of support, and I don’t understand it. I guess people don’t realize that we expect this to be, if nothing else, something awesome to put on their résumés. I guess people don’t realize that film students don’t make feature films; they make short films, which are not marketable outside of film festivals.

What’s been the best part of the process, creatively, thus far?
It’s been so fun to see this through from the absolute beginning. Most of the projects I’ve participated in, I’ve come into them a couple days before we start shooting. This, I was involved since Ross started throwing out his stories. It’s just so incredible to see it through all these different stages. It will be quite a while until it’s completely done, and I can only imagine where it’s going. I have no idea. I could see this either being something impressive to put on our reels or something that someone in LA would want to buy and distribute. That’s the ideal course of action for this.

Is this the biggest project you’ve personally done?
It is the biggest project that I’ve been in charge of.

As the producer, what does your work entail for this project, and where did you learn the skills to do this?
The producer’s job is to get everybody in line, and find the people I want to work on the project. It was my job to find the other producers. It was my job to pitch the script with Warren to the Film Guild. Now my biggest jobs are finding more money, doing production scheduling for the next two months and budgeting.

I talked with this producer from Nashville, Nick Palladino, and he’s great and very supportive. I have no idea why he agreed to talk with me, but he said we could ask him anything. When I met with him, I would ask him how to do all these producer things. I asked him, “How do I know what to do? How do I know how to keep everything in line? How do I produce?” He said, “Just do it.” There isn’t necessarily a set way to do things; it’s just whatever helps you. I’ve worked on just over 20 productions, which has really helped me out. It’s helped me recognize all the different problems we could run into. I’m reading books [laughs]. There’s a book called Writing Movies For Fun and Profit: How We Made a Billion Dollars at the Box Office and You Can, Too! It’s by two really successful writers—successful in the sense that they made over a billion dollars making movies like Herbie: Fully Loaded.

Another thing that has really helped me out are my classes as a Film Studies minor. School helps. I was exposed to a lot of off-the-wall, offbeat styles. We were able to learn and borrow from people like Paul Thomas Anderson.

What are you plans for the film once finished?
Warren’s first film was featured at The Belcourt, and he sold it out. We’re hoping to pass ours off to some distributor. We plan to go through the festival circuit, and if people really like it, then someone could approach us.

Warren Smythe, director:
How were you able to gain the support and funds of the MTSU Film Guild? They granted this project a little more money than they typically grant an individual project.
I think the main reason is because we were excited about it and we are credible. We’ve done stuff before that was successful and people enjoyed it. And we had a good plan, and you put all those things together, and I guess people want to do it.

What is your goal with this film, as the director?
For this film, I really want to focus on the characters. I put a lot of focus on other things in past films I’ve directed over the years, but not really focused on characters. This film, even though it’s an action film, I really wanted to focus on their problems and their changing and how the little things can make the audience empathize with them. I felt like it was a great opportunity and a challenge because it is an action, and usually, if you want to do a character study, you do a drama; you don’t do an action film. Also, I’m really a drama and horror director, so this film is a challenge. It’s kind of thinking outside the box. Basically, I’m out of my element, and it’s exciting, because it forces me to make directing decisions that will possibly help me in the future.

Since shooting won’t begin until summer, what have you had to do thus far?
Before now, we’ve just been having production meetings together. I’ve been assisting everyone with my knowledge with filmmaking. Now, what Chris does is set up meetings for me, and I meet with individuals. I meet with the department heads, like the production designer, cinematographer, camera crew and casting director, and we keep having meetings that start off as general to get ideas. As we go on, each meeting will be more specific. By the end, we’ll be talking about details as small as what angle the light will be hitting the character’s face.

As the director, you’re sort of the film’s primary visionary. Is it difficult for you to manifest those visions for the film or work with others while you try to do so?
No. I say that because sometimes it is hard to communicate to people what you actually want, because you see it in your head, and it’s hard to say what you want. Tonight I had a meeting with the DP, and I sat with him for six hours and we just talked and talked and talked. He really got to know pretty much everything I thought on the whole movie and the mood and the subject. Just being with the person, you can make him perceive what you want. It’s not hard, and if the producer does his job right, he’ll set up meetings with people who need to know what I want. We’ll meet, and I’ll say what’s on my mind, and they’ll write as fast as they can and try to figure it out. They say it back to me, and I’ll say, “That’s exactly what I want.”

What kind of mood do you want for this film?
The first word I think about when I think “mood” and “genre” and “feeling” is “bold.” I think every element in this film should be bold, it should be strong, it should have a presence. I want every image to look like a piece of art, because every piece of art, there’s no space that’s not filled in. You don’t have any piece of the canvas that’s not painted. Basically, I want to paint every piece of the canvas with strong brushstrokes. I want things to be memorable, whatever they might be. That “feel” works with what the actors look like, what the production design looks like, what the cinematography looks like, how lines are said, how the story is plotted out. That one word has to apply to every creative aspect of this film.

What directors inspire you, particularly in the case of Juicy Mooshu?
Gosh, I never thought about that before. I’ve had influences in the past, but a lot of times, those influences influence me too much, to where I would be copying. I really want to make a piece of original film that’s bold and strong and does things other films don’t do. There are other directors I enjoy, but I don’t think they have as much influence that I consciously think about.

How do you look for those “focus spots” or the parts you want to draw out?
It’s all about the characters. The only time that you need to focus on something longer than average is because of the characters. You’re trying to show the audience that something about the character is important. In this action film, there is a subplot, and it relies on a small romantic interest between two characters. The only hint that you get of this romantic interest is “the look.” That’s what I call it, “the look.” Nothing is spoken, nothing is dwelled on too long. It’s just a look that a certain character has that can convey a world of feeling.

You have extensive filmmaking experience for your age. What do you know better the second time around, your first being Sound of Dogs?
Everything [laughs]. How important it is to have a strict chain of events. How important it is to really, really know your characters. I suppose those are the two biggest things. It’s all about the characters really. I’m also in the preproduction of a film called Neither Here Nor There. It’s a 1950s thriller, and I learned with that, whatever happens in the film, it’s just because of your characters. Without your characters you don’t have a story, you don’t have conflict, resolution, human mistakes that we can relate to, you don’t have anything. It will show in your film if you know your characters. That’s how you know if the director has done his work.

If you shoot in summer, how long does all the editing and stuff take? When’s the tentative release?
At the very, very, very soonest, end of summer. That’s really cutting it close. In fact, I don’t even know if that’s possible [laughs]. I don’t know, for this film, realistically, maybe end of the year, or even the beginning of 2013.

I do enjoy working with Chris. He’s very professional, but he’s fun about it, and he respects my vision. If he thinks differently from what I think, he’ll go with my opinion. All of the crew work so well together, and I think that’s the best part about it. We’re all so dedicated.

If you’re interested in donating to the Juicy Mooshu project, please contact Chris Ranker at chrisranker@gmail.com . Visit juicymooshu.com to learn more about the film.


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