CORVALLIS — Sean Brown stands in the hallway outside the lobby of the Darkside Cinema, locked in a conversation, when noise of a loud crash comes pouring down the corridor.
It’s the kind of sound usually accompanied by the words “ouch” and “help.” Brown doesn’t flinch. He continues his dialogue with a reporter, assuming (correctly) no one was injured amid the ruckus.
It’s the biggest weekend of Brown’s career as a filmmaker, and his demeanor is such that you’d think he were strolling around Disneyland, lemonade in hand.
“I think this is the time where I should be the most nervous, but I’ve never been so calm,” he said later that afternoon, Saturday, Jan. 15. “It’s a good day.”
For all intents and purposes, “good” won’t be good enough this time. Brown is at the helm of a demo project called “Reality Crash,” a gig that, if all goes perfectly, will someday result in his direction of a feature-length movie filmed in Corvallis.
Brown is all-in, optimism off the charts, convinced to the core that all will go well.
“I could panic,” he says, “but I’m not going to. We’re going to make this happen.”
Eggs, bacon and a script
The e-mail from Brown came in early October, a short, cryptic message promising grand things:
I’m working on a project that is going to change filmmaking in Corvallis forever.
That glass-half-full approach is befitting a guy who left his home in Long Island, N.Y., for Corvallis on a whim at age 19 with some friends. Had any of them ever visited here before the move? Of course not.
“We were all going to start a farm and live off the earth,” says Brown, now 25. “It was the typical move-to-Oregon-from-New York dream. It was the best decision I ever made.”
But farming turned into filmmaking, a trade in which Brown has no formal training. It hasn’t stopped him from becoming a recognizable face on the local digital media scene, though. He’s now the technical director at Corvallis Community Access TV, and it’s his previous work that landed him the opportunity to become involved in his current project.
“Reality Crash” began in 1993 as a screenplay called “VR World,” written by a woman named Cyd Ropp, an Oregonian who teamed with her friend from Hollywood, Lou Grantt, to have it shopped around Tinseltown. It’s a sci-fi story in the vein of “The Matrix,” written six years before “The Matrix” revolutionized movies.
Long story short, “Reality Crash” never became a film despite some serious interest early on, and the authors made it into a novel in 2008. Fast forward to this past July, and Brown and his wife, Wendy Peterman, stayed at Ropp’s bed-and-breakfast, the Albion Inn, in Ashland. Over a meal one morning, Brown’s work as a director was mentioned, Ropp showed him a copy of the screenplay, and he soon thereafter paid $1 for a six-month contract to produce two test scenes.
Brown’s objective: Prove to the writers that he and his Willamette Valley-based crew are capable enough to earn the rights to the script and turn it into a low-budget film that can be successful critically and commercially.
“If you have the option to do something you normally would never have the chance to do, something completely out of the ordinary, you have to go for it,” Peterman said. “There is nothing to lose.”
Convincing the skeptics
After Brown sent the mysterious e-mail to the Entertainer, he quickly raised $3,000 and pledged $3,000 of his own in order to film the test scenes. The ability to quickly raise the money only served to heighten his belief that “Reality Crash” will someday be in theaters with his name in the credits.
He knows, however, that he hasn’t even touched the tip of the iceberg when it comes to raising funds. His rough estimate for a budget to do the film with his crew is about $300,000.
Ropp says that falls miles short of what she and Grantt believe it will take to make the movie.
“It will be terrific if Sean can make our movie his way, but it’s going to take some kind of a budget,” Ropp said. “It might not be $200 million, but it might be $5 million. I’m not sure if Sean can find the backers for that.
“If Oregon wants to back independent film, though, then he could do it.”
A cursory glance around the set of the demo scene in the building of the Darkside seemed to suggest the state’s film industry is onboard. Brown compiled a crew of accomplished, local professionals to work the two-day shoot. Even some of them needed to be convinced this wasn’t just a pipe dream.
“Coming in, people are skeptical in a way, and I wasn’t as onboard with it at first,” said Amy Hunter, the CCAT station manager who previously worked as a sound engineer for George Lucas’ Lucasfilm Ltd. “But now that the pieces are all coming together, you can start to envision the final product. ... The things we’re doing here are what separates professionals from amateurs.”
Brown also paid to have his friends bring their Hollywood-caliber equipment to film the demo scenes. Hillsboro resident Ryan E. Walters, who has worked as a cinematographer for the Travel and Discovery channels, brought his RED One digital camera for the shoot. It’s the same camera used by Oscar-winning director Peter Jackson in 2009’s “District 9.”
“All this stuff is so attainable nowadays,” said gaffer Ian Jennings, who worked for five years on TV’s “Northern Exposure” and the 1999 movie "10 Things I Hate About You." “It used to take a lot of money to do projects like this, but with the new technology you can do a lot more for a lot less and still make it look just as good.”
And for my last trick ...
Less than a week has passed since the shoot for the demo scenes, and Brown is knee-deep in the editing process. Post-production involves overlaying the images with music and incorporating special effects, a complex skill he has taught himself.
The special effects likely will be the difference-maker in whether or not the authors agree to option him the rights to the script. In sci-fi flicks, the visual element trumps all. If it doesn't look real, if it's not uber-cool, you're sunk.
That's why Brown spends day and night honing his skills on his first-rate home computer equipment, using his wife as his guinea pig.
"He's always following me around with a camera, taking videos. It's a little obnoxious," said Peterman, a soil scientist at the Conservation Biology Institute. "And the next thing you know I'm on Facebook or YouTube with laser beams coming out of my eyes or exploding into a million pieces or being lit on fire.
"He's really getting good at it, and I think that will translate well to this project, and the writers will like what they see."
The arduous post-production process will take three months to complete before Brown shows Ropp and Grantt the final product. He is unwavering in his belief that they will be anything but thrilled.
“The idea is to impress them, which we definitely will,” Brown said. “We’re going to make this feature in Corvallis. I guarantee it.”
Ropp wants nothing more than for Brown’s convictions to be validated, but she tempers her enthusiasm for a variety of reasons — mostly because Grantt is highly skeptical.
“Lou can’t imagine how it’s even possible for him to do what he says he can do. She just hears some 25-year-old kid has our script and says, ‘What’s he doing with our movie?’ ” Ropp said with a laugh. “I have more faith in Sean because I’ve met him.
“I’m an optimist; Lou is a pessimist. We’ll see where we end up, but optimism is a good thing to have.”
Brown couldn’t have said it better himself.