Screenwriter Roger Hedden has got The List: a running sheet of human, scenic and other resources to exploit for his next project. Perhaps he has other lists brimming with new ways to inveigle old chums like Noah Baumbach (While We're Young, Frances Ha) and Quentin Tarantino into fresh cinematic adventures, but The List that led to his local directorial debut, Missoula Midsummer, must have been enough to reduce any Missoulian to freshwater inland tears of recognition and joyful belonging. It would have included the following: Horses. Rattlesnake Creek and the Clark Fork. Fly fishing. Shadows Keep. Fireworks. Lesbians. The UM Media Arts and Drama/Dance departments. Greg Johnson, David Ackroyd, Andrew Rizzo, Kendra Mylnechuk. And James Crumley.
Combine ingredients, shake well and let stand for 12 years. Hedden started making Missoula Midummer in 2002 and is just now finishing, in 2015. And, as the self-effacing opening title suggests, after all this time Hedden is almost loath to admit it is a movie.
"Oh, it's a movie," he concedes, happy and gruff, not quite concealing the diffidence of a man reflecting on the spoils of Pyrrhic victory. "I like to call it a video story, or a video valentine to Missoula. But yeah, it's a movie."
He should know. Hedden is one of that select class of local screenwriters and filmmakers with actual Hollywood experience who, somehow, has ended up here. Hedden, 54, is the writer of 1993's Bodies, Rest and Motion, based on his own play and starring Bridget Fonda, Phoebe Cates and Eric Stoltz; and one of six co-writers for Sleep With Me (1994), infamous for his pal Quentin's cameo as an intense party guest who literally pins another guest to the wall with a wonderful riffing rant on Top Gun as homosexual allegory. He's been to Cannes with a movie. He can still "get things" to both Tarantino and Baumbach, and presumably Eric Stoltz, who, according to Hedden, called in the executive money to make Sleep With Me a "real movie," saving the film from its apparent fate as a no-budget labor of love made on weekends.
That a writer with such industry bona fides would set up house in a town where art-house movies must routinely compete with things like "nice weather" for box office should strike you as either a sick joke or a minor miracle. On the other hand, Missoula turned out to be the perfect place for Hedden to make the kind of no-budget pet project he missed out on with a better-funded Sleep With Me. Cast mostly with amateurs, including actors with zero previous acting experience, filmed around day jobs and originally budgeted at around $500 for a leisurely summer of intermittent shooting, the story of Missoula Midsummer is pretty much the story of every abandoned Missoula feature, except that Hedden actually finished his. It just took him a dozen years and $14,500 more than he expected.
"The original motive was a couple of students looking to stay in Missoula for the summer instead of going home and getting jobs," Hedden explains. "The only requirements were, you had to live here and be free to shoot a couple of times a week. No one got paid. The budget was basically for pizza and beer. It was a fun thing that just kept snowballing."
Budget constraints dictated that Missoula Midsummer would be shot on digital video, which—gather round now, children—in 2002 had none of the advanced capabilities of digital video in 2015. Digital filmmakers in 2015 can choose from different "film looks" (Super 8, 16mm, 35mm) to make it look old-school. "Now my cellphone takes a better looking movie," Hedden scoffs.
Missoula Midsummer owes nothing to newfangled technology. Really, it kind of looks like a feature-length version of a local TV commercial; you halfway expect the opening Missoula montage to end after 20 seconds with a plug for your credit union. Yet for Hedden, there was never any question of digitally distressing the footage or adding artifact to make it look like anything but what it was.
"It looks distressed enough," he maintains. "Someone in the cast even suggested we rotoscope it, like [Richard Linklater's 2001] Waking Life. Come on!"
It's hard to say if the movie really suffers for its look—but then, it's also hard to think of another feature that could wear this look with such unself-conscious charm. Unlike Computer Chess (2013), with its celebrated early '80s camcorder look, Missoula Midsummer is a very lively, funny movie, replete with jump cuts, humorous inserts and no small amount of fourth-wall breaking. Until you get used to it, though, you might struggle with the niggling feeling you're watching a sketch version, a rehearsal for the real thing. Only this is the real thing.
The story has the classic feel of vintage film comedy, going way beyond the dated pop culture preoccupations of Tarantino et al. circa 1995 to a time when an entertaining story often meant characters simply falling in love with the wrong people. It's a classic romantic round-robin: Ashley (Larke Schuldberg) likes Molly (Amber Felker), who likes Larke's friend Alexandra's brother, Scotty (Michael Knight), who likes Ashley. In a separate love triangle, Martino (Rizzo) likes Alexandra (Mylnechuk), whose boyfriend is Ashley's half-brother Jake (Jesse Robinson) by a famous-actor father she has never met (Ackroyd), whose impending arrival in Missoula to scout locations for a new movie throws the local acting scene into mild uproar. Were it not for the Missoula connection, the lesbians and some of the language, one can almost imagine the same script crossing the directorial desk of Ernst Lubitsch. Or, more recently, the desk of David Mamet.
The acting is, to put it plainly, a little uneven—some of it downright wooden. Charming performances abound (a baby-cheeked Rizzo, for example), but the way the characters are linked by their romantic aspirations spells trouble when every other link is either a wooden performance or an unsympathetic character. One suspects that the mile-a-minute writing process ("They'd be handed the pages and we'd shoot the scene," Hedden says of the 2002 days) left little time to reflect much on motivations, or refine the necessary chemistry.
Even so, it's a credit to Hedden's List that nearly everyone onscreen contributed in other ways, accomplishing a lot with very little. Amber Felker did her own singing in the club scenes: According to Hedden, she lip-synched the singing scenes on camera to a cassette recording of herself on an off-camera boom box, which had to be re-synched because of the slight difference in playback speeds. The guy playing the (conspicuously well-dressed) panhandler, Hedden reveals, got the cameo because he furnished the production with a prototype mini-Steadicam.
The sudden impulse to finish Missoula Midsummer, Hedden explains, came from having a lot of time on his hands when he went sober in 2012. At that point, a whole new draft of Listees came aboard to help: Dale Sherrard was instrumental, Hedden says, (he hand-picked local animator Megan Toenyes, who contributed bluebirds), as was filmmaker Damon Ristau (The Bus Movie), and Montana Film Office director Deny Staggs, whose offices helped with the post-production budget (over $7,000 for sound alone).
Yes, it's a movie all right. And what makes it a movie—a real Missoula movie, with all the makings of a future local cult classic, but more importantly a Roger Hedden movie—is the consummate skill of its screenwriting. Largely improvised during what little rehearsal there was, Hedden's script is packed with razor-sharp dialogue and sweetly innocent interactions. If Hedden possesses, as some reviewers have suggested, a Mamet-like ability to place funny, philosophical dialogue credibly in the mouths of his characters, one of the reasons Missoula Midsummer is so funny is that it's suffused with a mild showbiz cynicism that sounds unlikely, to say the least, coming from aspiring Missoula actors playing aspiring Missoula actors.
And James Crumley? Hedden's old friend doesn't always appear to be "acting" in the same movie as everyone else, but in 2015 a belated film cameo by Missoula's late, great curmudgeon of letters is a thing beyond price. For his own part, Hedden says he's excited to watch his movie in an audience (with as many from the cast and crew as he can summon back) and then put it away for good. A new List is underway. Hedden acknowledges that this movie probably hasn't got an exhibition life beyond Missoula city limits, but so it goes. It is what it is, but at least it's ours.
"The flaws are part of the fun," he says, shrugging. "It's an entertaining story, kind of shabbily told, but with enthusiasm. Amateurish charm—that's what we've got for this. And I embrace it."
Missoula Midsummer screens at the Roxy Mon., May 18, at 6:30 and 8:30 PM.