September 03, 2003 News & Features » Cover Story


Action Heros 

With summer shooting behind him, a Richmond independent filmmaker gets down to the real business this fall.

Digital technology is slowly relieving aspiring Steven Spielbergs of the cost of 35 mm film, but that is a minor breakthrough in the film industry when you consider the logistics of locations, extras, costuming, catering, lights and scheduling it all. No wonder most young entertainment talents choose to start a band instead.

Yet a few independents still try to make movies. Past local success stories include Megan Holley’s “The Snowflake Crusade” and Jim Stramel’s “The Thrillbillys.” Dray’s production is this year’s talk of the town among local film and stage circles. The ambitious project — Dray hopes it will be “a live-action ‘Dragon Ball Z’” — was shot for around $20,000, a miniscule figure largely because of a Screen Actors Guild experimental contract signed by the cast and crew. Among other advantages, the contract allowed for deferred payment, sort of a legal way to work for free. Explains producer Stephanie Kelley: “If we make money, they make money.”

But that’s a long shot. Tackling an action film as your first feature-length project is kind of like painting a public mural in your first art class. Dray still seems a little shell shocked from long days spent under the blazing sun while actors attacked each other with mock weaponry, the water ran out ,and the large crew waited on his every instruction.

“I don’t know what the hell I’m doing,” Dray says he kept thinking. “But let’s keep doing it.”

“Hitiro” began as an original script by J.C. Lira. The local English teacher set his story in feudal Japan. Dray was exited by the work, but realized that even his active imagination could not dream of a way to shoot 14th-century Japan on $20,000. Instead, he went into script editing with the writer and modified the story to be set in modern-day America, under the assumption that Japan had colonized a portion of the West Coast. (Suspension of disbelief required, Dray admits.)

The plot follows Hitiro — played by the distinctly non-Japanese actor Keith Janssen — a samurai who forfeits his rank by refusing a command to attack a defenseless village. Recalling Kurosawa’s “Seven Samurai,” Hitiro eventually leads the village’s defense against army invaders.

Among the many plans Dray brought to the script, he staged action scenes using blue screens to add high-tech special effects later.

That’s a tall order for such a low budget, a fact of which Dray is well aware, explaining the that the project is currently in a “holding pattern,” awaiting final editing, which is awaiting further funding.

Now, Dray says, “we’re still looking for people to give us money.” Other local filmmakers are waiting to see if he can pull it off. S

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