Years ago, as he struggled to secure funding for his first feature, Alexandria filmmaker Todd Rohal decided he’d be willing to pitch his script to just about anyone who had money. His networking eventually led to a 2003 sit-down with a friend-of-a-friend named Jack Abramoff. The then-unsullied K Street lobbyist had written and produced the 1989 Cold War blow-’em-up Red Scorpion. Abramoff told Rohal that he usually commanded several hundred dollars an hour for his consulting but that he’d be willing to dispense some Hollywood-insider advice pro bono.
Rohal, affecting the crusty voice of a wheeler-dealer, says Abramoff stressed above all the importance of having visual support: “‘You gotta make a poster and get buttons. Everybody’s gotta wear your buttons!’”
“It was kind of old-timey advice,” says the 29-year-old Rohal. Only slightly more up-to-date were Abramoff’s tales about “the ups and downs of shooting a film with Dolph Lundgren in the remote location of Namibia.”
Rohal enjoys telling bizarre little tales. And he strings them together throughout The Guatemalan Handshake, the feature he’s finally wrapped with Silver Spring–based Brainbox Productions. Without availing himself further of Abramoff’s services, Rohal managed to round up enough investors and charitable friends in D.C. to get his project off the ground. Screening Jan. 21 at the Slamdance Film Festival in Park City, Utah, Handshake follows the aimless but oft-intersecting lives of a half-dozen or so characters who live in the shadow of Three Mile Island.
The central figure—a demolition-derby driver named Donald, played by indie-rocker Will Oldham—inexplicably absconds from home in the film’s first 10 minutes. From then on, he’s seen only in the flashbacks of his girlfriend, a pregnant aspiring derby driver; his best friend, a 10-year-old girl named Turkeylegs; and his distant and clueless father, who takes more interest in his outdated electrical car than in his son.
In one flashback, Donald catches his father and two friends cackling at an album full of his awkward childhood pictures. “They’re laughing at my baptism photos,” he fumes.
“You farted at your baptism,” his father shrugs. “It was funny.”
“I kept coming up with short short stories, different character sketches, trying to find the story within a lot of other little stories,” says Rohal, who rewrote the script three times, having previously done only short films. As he was pitching to possible investors a movie that he himself couldn’t explain, Rohal resorted to meaningless descriptions such as “Days of Heaven meets Kentucky Fried Movie.” Even today, he has trouble summarizing the film.
That’s not surprising, given that he conceived the story more through its details than through its arc. His characters seem stuck in their narrow lives—a stasis outwardly expressed in the ’70s- and ’80s-inspired props Rohal selected. “This is taking place today, but no one has bought anything since 1984,” he says. Rohal shot in the small, vistaed towns outside Harrisburg, Pa., and in one scene, he places his characters at a contemporary suburban roller rink, only it’s ’80s tunes such as the Jets’ “Crush on You” that spin with the mirrorball. The effect is as oddly melancholy as it is funny. “[The characters are] stuck in that kind of era,” says the filmmaker.
Rohal will probably never make a film as direct as, say, Red Scorpion. He’d rather make his audience work a bit and let them leave the theater with a sense of mystery.
“That’s what a good movie should be,” he says. “You walk out and you can’t sum it up.”