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Fifty-two-year-old Terry Michael King has had a lot of jobs: He’s been a suit at a major movie studio, a grip at a public-access cable station in Arlington, a stunt double, and a newspaper reporter in Mississippi. But he still has some issues with his current gig, as an independent filmmaker.
“I’m used to working on a television show, and a week later, the country sees it instant gratification,” he says. It’s taken him 13 months, by contrast, to write, direct, distribute, and get the word out about his film Urban Ghost.
The 27-minute short had its debut in January on Arlington Community Television, Channel 33, which has scheduled Thursday midnight screenings for the rest of this month. The film consists of an interrogation of a mental patient, played by local singer-actor Pete Papageorge, who thinks he’s a ghost. (Michael Dudzik is the Questioner, the otherwise nameless shrink who grills the delusional Klein.) King says half a dozen public-access channels across the country have expressed interest in airing it.
King made Urban Ghost with frequent collaborator Bruce Geisert, whom he met a year and a half ago while learning film production at Channel 33. The two are at work now on their first documentary, about the Godless Americans March, which drew roughly 2,400 atheists and their allies to Washington in November 2002. “I’m not an atheist, but Bruce is,” King is quick to point out. “We’re yin-yang…that way.”
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Despite its supernatural premise, Urban Ghost, King says, is partly autobiographical; it references his memories of growing up on Southern Avenue SE and his days as a reporter. King says he’d had snippets of dialogue and other elements of Urban Ghost rattling around his head for 30 years, but didn’t know what form they should take. “I knew it wasn’t a short story or a novella. There wasn’t any kind of literary convention” that fit what he wanted to do, he says. “Then I had the idea to make it a question-and-answer session with a patient and a psychiatrist. The rest was a piece of cake.”
Making the film took four months, in part because King had a hard time finding actors willing to work for free. But he’s pleased with the talent he got: Besides being an experienced voice-over actor, Papageorge is a regular performer at the Irish Times pub on Capitol Hill. (He also wrote “Everybody Loves Kickball,” the official theme song of the Washington Adult Kickball Association, as well as an instrumental that aired for a month in 1998 on the Weather Channel.) Dudzik has performed on D.C.-area stages, including with the Arlington Players.
Making movies isn’t what King thought he’d be doing when he graduated from the University of Maryland. His first job, he says, was as a writer for the National Security Council. That led to a career in daily journalism, but he quit the newspaper business one night when he’d been up for 36 hours, working on deadline; King looked up at an old-timer writing headlines on wire copy, he recalls, and thought, This guy isn’t making much more than I am. There’s no future in this. A friend in Los Angeles convinced him to move West, and once he arrived, “it was ‘Hotel California’ syndrome. I thought I’d stay for a few months, and I ended up staying for 17 years.”
Starting out as “a gopher for a gopher,” he worked his way up to TV syndication-manager slots at Paramount and MGM/UA. Later, he dropped the desk jobs for on-set gigs including lighting technician and movie extra. Once, he says, he was a hand double for Christopher Walken in a typing scene. He’s worked as crew or extra, he says, on the “first season and a half” of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, the pilot for The Practice, episodes of Cheers and Seinfeld, and the film The Wedding Singer, among others.
King says he didn’t try making his own movies in Hollywood because he couldn’t afford to. And even the public-access market was crowded, by the sound of it: Everyone he knew had “mortgaged the farm on a pet vanity project, and when it didn’t work out, they went back to Des Moines.” Five years ago, King went back, too, returning to Arlington with his wife and daughter, but he still keeps a professional hand in the movie business and works on his own projects on the weekends. “I want to showcase the talents of my actors and my talents as a writer,” he says. Annys Shin