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The dinosaur Ron Faris is using to edit his film Taillight is called a Steenbeck. The thing’s a metal monstrosity, all spinning steel spools, with a Lite-Brite type of screen for its heart. Faris sits at the clunky machine, surrounded by lengths of filmouttakesthat stream from racks, one after the other, like vines or snakeskins hung out to dry, working on Taillight’s soundtrack, trying to match lengths of film with appropriate lengths of sound. He moves like an octopus over the apparatus, timing sequences, marking x feet of film with a grease crayon, pasting in x feet of slug so that dialogue and moving mouths are in synch. He has misplaced his stopwatch, so he asks to borrow my watch.
Taillight is the short black-and-white film the 24-year-old Faris has spent the last two years of his life making. He wrote, directed, and produced it. On a Sunday afternoon a few weeks before its premiere at the Key Theater in Georgetown, he tells me the story of how an Andersen Consulting analyst who sometimes works 14-hour daysand who has never had formal artistic training of any kind, and who majored in financedecided to make a movie.
Really, he explains, his story begins with that of another Georgetown University studentEric Chase Anderson.
The two met in college, became friends, and talked about movies all the time. One film in particular interested them. It turned out that Eric’s older brother, Wes, made a 12-minute short about would-be robbers. It attracted Columbia’s interestso much so that the studio agreed to finance a full-length version of Bottle Rocket, which eventually went on to become a low-grossing but highly praised independent success in 1996.
Anderson the younger, also a budding filmmaker, told Faris about the movie he wanted to make in D.C.a mystery for kids called The Ant Colony. But it wasn’t all talk, all wishful thinking out loud on the roof of a dorm building after late-night cast parties (Faris and Anderson acted in college plays together). After graduating from Georgetown, Anderson pulled together a production team and started filming. For Faris, that was a much-needed wake-up call.
“I always had the impression of myself that I wasn’t the type of person who could make a movie, because I had chosen a pathas a finance major at Georgetown, working in corporate America just ’cause I’d been groomed for it from, you know, DNA,” Faris says. “But then I heard from the rumor mill, not even from Eric, that he was holding a fundraiser for his film, and I thought, ‘Omigod, he’s really doing it….Someone I know is really doing it. Jeez, I mean, if he can, I can.’ And the more I spoke to him about what it would take to make a film, the more I thought it was doable.”
Once Faris decided to commit himself (not to mention his time and money) to the idea of making a moviea real movie on filmhe went looking for the two things he needed to start: an idea for the plot and technical know-how. The first was no sweat. For Faris, the creativity’s always been there. In high school, he and some buddies made an hourlong movie on video called Urban Blues. He shot the gangster story in New York and even took a ride in a helicopter to get aerial shots. In college, he won a playwriting competition for Adamantium Dreams, a play about a boy whose family is so dysfunctional he pretends to be various comic-book characters just to survive.
Immediately, I perk up: “Which comic-book characters?”
“Wolverine. The X-Men. Mainly Marvel,” he tells me. I grimace; I’m a DC man, myself.
Throughout school, in between midterms and interviews, Faris always kept writing, finding inspiration wherever he couldlike during the dead zone of his commute to work just after joining Andersen Consulting in ’94, which is when the idea for Taillight sparked.
“I’m sitting in traffic at a red lightand I look in front of me and this car’s taillight is blinking, and I’m just kinda staring at it, and I realize its hazard lights are on. It wasn’t just his left blinker, and just…I dunno…I thought, ‘Wow, that would be a great opening shot for a filmjust the taillightand then wouldn’t it be cool if there was a bank robbery and that taillight was one of the blinking hazards of the getaway car double-parked outside?’”
But without Joe Bono, who owns the Arlington film and video laboratory where Faris developed his film and did some of its editing, there would be no Taillight.
“Basically,” Faris remembers, “I called Bono up point-blank and said, ‘I want to make a movie. How do I do this?’ And he just laughed at me, and he was, like, ‘What negative16mm, 35…?’ And I’m thinking, ‘I don’t know what the hell he’s talking about,’ so I picked one [16mm], and he started walking me through a budget, through everything, and he held my hand through it, and I realized he’s the best film school around. He’s the guyif he’s patient enough to talk to you.”
Bono, likewise, thinks highly of his protégé: “It’s the type of thing where Ronbeing a very bright young fellowyou only had to tell him something once or twice, and he had enough foresight that if he saw there was something he didn’t understand or wasn’t sure of, he didn’t make the mistake that a lot of young, aspiring filmmakers make. They go ahead and use their gut reaction and do something and find out they’re in trouble laterbut not Ron. Ron will kinda in a nice way drive you crazy until you got the point home where he fully understands what you’re talking about.”
Spending the afternoon with Faris, I know exactly what Bono means. Faris talks and talks and talks, and I’m almost swamped by his uncensored gushing. It’s difficult to take him seriously as a filmmakerthe Godfather II poster hanging in his living room, the Hitchcock on Hitchcock book on his night table, and his surging enthusiasm for movies all scream “wannabe”but thinking that would be a mistake. Faris is no fool.
Back in the middle of ’95once he’d completed Taillight’s screenplayFaris assembled a team of professionals and film-school amateurs and took out an $8,000 loan to jump-start production. The only person he paid was the director of photography, Nick Gardner, who also DPed Edge, a film scheduled to be screened during the Rosebud film festival this month. Everyone else, including producer Dana Plasse, who worked on both Homicide and Tim Burton’s Mars Attacks!, pitched in for free.
When that initial $8,000 well ran dry, Faris and his team held a fundraiser at the Rhodeside Grill in Arlington to raise the rest of the money neededfive grand.
Faris organized the fundraiser the way he did everything tied to Taillightobsessively. He never let his artistic impulses run wild over the business sense he’d sharpened at Georgetown. “You should never open a can of film until you know exactly what you’re gonna shoot, because then you’ll get lost,” he says. “Making movies is three things: It’s an art, it’s a business, and it’s a science.”
And all three are put in the service of wonder. “I’m going back to when I was a little kid,” Faris says, spinning a web. “One of the most beautiful momentsI’m 6 years old, and I’m in the crowd watching Superman, and Superman’s holding Lois Lane as he’s flying up the Daily Planet [building], and the helicopter falls down and he catches it, and then John Williams kicks in with this victorious overture, and I’m just sitting there with this chill going up my spine…and it makes me want to incorporate those little moments into the film I’m making.”
Selling that sense of wondergiving people an opportunity to work on something extraordinaryhas been the most satisfying aspect of making Taillight for Faris: “I have gotten peopleamateurs who do not do this for a livingto break out of the mundane, to break out of the 9-to-5 paying job and take a lot of time and do all this beautiful stuff for the cause.”
For the moment, at least, the cause is a 35-minute 16mm film that seems to owe more of a debt to Tarantino and his bastard children than to Spielberg or Superman. It’s a Twilight Zone-ish story about an average Joe named Hobbs who robs a bank to escape his crummy life and winds up getting into a heck of a lot of trouble.
When I mention the T-word to Faris (and that’s not “trouble”), he gets very nervous. When I point out the superficial similarities between Taillight and the “cool” crime movies glutting the indie scene right now, he gets downright defensive, claiming that his film is nothing like all these knockoffs. His film, he tells me, is not about cops and robbers.
“Taillight is about comfort. It’s about a man and his role in society,” he says. “I’m a big believer in Fate. For some preordained reason, someone’s gonna be born a rich kid, someone’s gonna be born in a shack. Everybody is slated into these parts of society, and here’s a guy [Hobbs] who’s slated to a piece of pie that he doesn’t really like. How far can he change it? How can
he change it? What action does he
have to take so that he doesn’t have
to be a plumber, so he can break
away from it?”
Unfortunately for Hobbs, his attempt to break out of the grindout of his preordained station in lifeis less than successful.
Hearing Faris talk about Hobbs and comparing his spiel to the way he speaks about his own lifeabout his being forced by his parents, his education, his background into the world of three-piece suits and corner officessimilarities emerge. Faris sounds as trapped as his anti-hero, born into an inescapable life: computer consulting first, then business school. He’s more optimistic than his screenplay, though, and says his chances are better than Hobbs’.
“I think I’m trying to refute what Taillight’s trying to say. Taillight’s trying to say that there is no escape, that Fate deals you a cardyou’re gonna be a computer programmer, and you’re gonna work for a consulting company, you’re gonna be a systems builderand that’s how it’s gonna play out, that’s how Fate wanted it to be. Making Taillight is my robbing the bank. It’s my way of trying to break freeexcept I’m gonna do it. I’m gonna get away with it.”CP
Taillight plays at the Key Thursday, March 13, at 8:30, 9:30, and 10:30 p.m.