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Reality Budgets

“Independent” means different things at the Byrd's annual festival.

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There's a little bit of Hollywood-style magic in even the most independent-minded movie. Vincent Sweeney's first feature, “Blue Ridge,” which screens at the Virginia Independent Film Festival on Feb. 28 at the Byrd Theatre, seems like a model version of any independent film.

A writer-director endeavor, it was assembled with 16 mm film, performances by newcomer and veteran actors, contributions from friends and relatives, and one bit of special-effects work that might have been most essential: a vacuum cleaner.

“We had to hire a cleaning crew,” Sweeney recalls about the real-life mobile homes he found and hauled from a trailer park in nearby Bedford to his location: rolling Roanoke hills within eye-shot of the mountains.

“Blue Ridge” is about a young man (Eric Sweeney, Vincent's brother) and his wife (Audra Smith), whose plans to flee their rural habitat are thwarted by their landlord (Sean Gullette, whose credits include “Requiem for a Dream”).

An adviser told Vincent he needed to make his own sets, with missing walls to allow freedom of movement and special lighting. But Sweeney, a 36-year-old cinematographer, didn't have the budget, and was thrilled to find the real thing. The only problem, he says, was that they were too real. The previous occupants had left them filthy, which, Sweeney recalls, was helpful only to a point. “I couldn't make the actors sit around in dog hair,” he says.

The third annual festival, co-produced by the Virginia Film Office and the Virginia Production Alliance, offers an afternoon of a dozen documentaries, shorts and features, finalists culled from entries to the office's Virginia Independent Film Competition, comprising subjects including things as varied as African-American burial grounds and Muslim head coverings. The films are diverse in form as well as content, from five-minute amusements to researched reports to (relatively) big-budget action spectacles.

Richmond scored several entries, including a short about bored kids and their ticks by Megan Holley, who wrote the recent Amy Adams-Emily Blunt drama “Sunshine Cleaning,” and another short by relative newcomers Shawn Hambright and Joey Tran called “Santo Diablo!,” a comedy about a man (Matt Hackman) driven mad by paranoia and guilt after he steals his roommates' last can of chili.

“Santo Diablo!” runs a little more than 18 minutes. “I'm surprised I got so much material out of such a flimsy premise,” says Hambright, the principle writer of the collaborators. The movie was shot in digital and demonstrates the impact technology has had on the independent filmmaker. The chili may look comically phony, but the professional appearance of the film, available on the Vimeo Web site, might surprise some.

“I think that the independent film community is underestimated,” says Kathryn Stephens, industry relations manager with the Virginia Film Office. She says most of the submissions, close to 80 films in all, are high-quality work as well as “passion projects.”

“You think it's some guy who ran out with a camcorder,” Stephens says, “but you've got guys who worked with Steven Spielberg.”

Finalist Shane Felux, a veteran sci-fi filmmaker, received backing from Disney/ABC, or at least its media-focused wing, Stage 9. Bankrolled compared with most of his competition, the 38-year-old Bristow resident received $250,000 after pitching three ideas, one of which resulted in “Trenches,” available on the Crackle Web site. Containing elements of “Aliens” and “Pitch Black,” “Trenches” required more than 400 effects shots, Felux says, “green screen to live-action composite to pure 3-D animation.”

Felux downplays the money, however, noting how much sci-fi action features usually run. But his relative thinking probably echoes the sentiments of most of the independent filmmakers in the festival, no matter what their budgets. “We have to build and fabricate everything,” he says of the funding. “That's like some earplugs and Tylenol in the afternoon for Michael Bay.” S
 
The Virginia Independent Film Festival comes to the Byrd Theater, 2908 W. Cary St., Feb. 28. Filmmakers will be on hand for question sessions after many of the individual screenings. Tickets are $5 per series ($2 with student ID; $10 for all three). For a full schedule of screenings, go to film.virginia.org or call 353-9911.

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