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Why Richmond's film industry is rallying around Megan Holley and her $100,000 dream

The Big Picture

Maybe it will unfold this way: "The Snowflake Crusade" wins accolades at the Sundance Film Festival. A Hollywood studio picks it up for distribution. Critics and audiences embrace it. The director makes more successful movies. She is the boon to Richmond that Barry Levinson and John Waters are to Baltimore.

It is possible.

One thing is certain: Before this can happen, Richmond filmmaker Megan Holley has to get her dream — and a $50 entry fee — to Utah by Friday.

Sept. 28 is the deadline for independent filmmakers to submit work to the 2002 Sundance Film Festival. Ready or not, it's show time for Holley and her first feature-length film.

Last year, 1,760 feature films were sent to Sundance. Of those, 114 were screened for festival-goers. Of those 114, only 16 were picked for competition.

The odds clearly are stacked against Holley. But strange things happen in the movies.

As far back as she can recall, film magazines have topped Holley's Christmas list. At age 35, she's read dozens of books about movies and the people who make them.

"It was a winding path to get to this place," she says.

Holley was born in Indiana. When she was a teen-ager, her older brother was the star kid. He was voted the future leader of Evansville, Ind., and the city printed and distributed a picture of him all over town. "I would go into a Pizza Hut and there would be a picture of my brother," Holley recalls. "They were everywhere."

In Holley's movie a character named Clive seems to be haunted by a portrait of his father. It seems to follow him wherever he goes. Just when he thinks he is free, a commemorative stamp is issued. "I can't say it's completely autobiographical," Holley says. "But sort of."

Holley graduated from Michigan State with a double major in communication and French. She lived in France for a year, then Chicago. She kept her dream of becoming a filmmaker quiet — mostly, she says, because she didn't have the confidence to pursue it. She moved to Richmond in 1992 to attend Virginia Commonwealth University to study sociology. It would help her, she thought, when and if she ever did documentary work.

But what first sparked Holley's confidence was Flicker, a gathering of local filmmakers eager to show off their work. She met some of them — including her two associate producers Kim Davenport and Katherine Leatherwood — and they inspired her. She bought her first Super 8 camera at a thrift store for $10. It wasn't long before Holley made her first short film, "Antonio Knows."

"I got psyched to do another," she says. "Ivan: Rigor Mortis Is Not a Big Deal" was a documentary montage of a local embalmer. The next step was to work with a crew. She enlisted Max Fischer to shoot her third short film, "7 Minutes Is a Lifetime in Cigarette Years."

Holley's current project, "The Snowflake Crusade," is set in the year 2045. An epidemic of infertility has hastened the popularity of cloning, but only DNA meeting the high standards of a governmental agency called The Registry is eligible. And only the very well-off can afford it. The world offers few comforts and freedoms.

"The Snowflake Crusade" is the story of Clive, a clone whose genetic father had been a Nobel Prize-winning scientist and who is wrestling with an identity crisis, and Marigold, a narcoleptic telemarketer. While Clive wrestles his internal demons, Marigold wrestles with other forces — like sleep. The two appear to exist on the outer edge of lost causes. Then their worlds collide. The numbness they feel toward society and their place in it begins to melt away. The question is: Can they fully awaken and sustain these happier versions of themselves?

Here in our world, with human cloning seemingly close at hand, Holley has chosen an apt time to consider where we have come from and where we might be going.

"This is the year for this story," says Holley. She believes in windows of opportunity.

A lot of people are hoping she's right. If "The Snowflake Crusade" does well, local film boosters hope it will help Richmond's efforts to become a hub of independent-film production. All the right ingredients are here. And it's precisely what the state and local film offices want.

"She works smart," says Kendall Thompson with the Richmond Film Office. "I wish I had 100 Megans." Plus, he adds, it's just a great story. "Here's a man who's a janitor and he falls in love with a marketer. Who's to say something like that couldn't happen in real life?"

Holley had another story in line for her first feature-length film, but she waited, she says. The screenplay was set in a funeral home. It's bizarre how closely it resembles the HBO drama "Six Feet Under," she says.

A year and a half ago, a friend asked Holley if she'd help write a series of one-act science-fiction plays. She had never considered the genre, but it sparked questions that Holley used to create the framework and characters for "The Snowflake Crusade."

What if you were the clone of somebody great but you were an underachiever?" she asks, recalling how she derived the concept. "What if that were the case for people who would otherwise be great artists and thinkers?" And ultimately, she wonders, "Taking someone out of time and place, Would they be different people?"

As she considered this, the character of Clive began to coalesce and the story came together. It took a year to write the script.

Holley, who works as an editor for the Virginia Office of Business Assistance, wrote, directed, edited and produced "The Snowflake Crusade."

She formed a limited partnership to sell shares of the movie. She and her associate producers held investor parties. Still, they didn't raise the $100,000 they had wanted to produce the film.

"I think a lot of the crew would be shocked to learn that when we started there was only $30,000 in the bank," she says with a smile. "I knew that eventually I would sell my house to make a movie."

And she's put it up for sale.

But what began a year and a half ago as the inner life of an idea, quickly became a collective effort, even before the 110-page script had been completed. One of the first people Holley called was Max Fischer.

Fischer, 28, is a professional camera assistant for TV commercials, music videos, "The West Wing" when it films in Washington, D.C., and movies such as "The Contender." Fischer also has been the director of photography for one of the short films that Holley has written and directed. So when Holley contacted Fischer in April with the idea for another movie, he wasn't surprised. Then he learned it was to be a feature-length film shot on 35 mm that Holley hoped to send to this year's Sundance festival.

"You can't put something together that quick," says Fischer. "I get calls 10 times a year from people saying, 'I've got this script and I'm gonna send it to Sundance,' and I think, yeah, right." With Holley, he says, it's different. "She's such a motivator, her gears are always turning. She's got that energy."

The project gave Fischer the chance to be the director of photography on a feature film. It also provided a much-needed release. "I was sick and tired of doing these jobs that had no value to them," he confesses. And while Fischer was paid for his primary role, many of the crew, professionals also, weren't, he says: "They're normally making $500 a day, and they either did it for free or for something like $100 a day. They just did it because it was fun, it was creative and it was not shooting a bank commercial."

You know you've entered a strange world when Innsbrook looks and feels like Hollywood. A film crew has engulfed every cranny of a vacated floor inside the headquarters of iXL, an Internet-consulting company.

By the looks of the set, you'd think "The Snowflake Crusade" is a big-budget movie. There are more than 30 crew members including a production design team, a wardrobe department, props coordinator, lighting and sound technicians, production and camera assistants. They carry walkie talkies and cell phones, and speak in a in a curt language that seems to contain only one- or two-word sentences: roll out; stand back; ready; sound speed; marker. Judging by the coordinated flow of things, it's evident they've worked on movies before. Perhaps the only thing missing here — excluding a humongous budget — is celebrity.

The film industry in Virginia has become an $80 million business in the last decade. And there's plenty of local talent from which movie scouts can draw when choosing a production crew. Last year, two big studio movies — "Hannibal" and "The Contender" — were filmed here, as were countless other short films, documentaries and videos. Work for locals in the film industry is steady. So why would anyone give up two to four weeks of their summer working anywhere from 12 to 18 hours a day to help make "The Snowflake Crusade"?

Spend a few days with the cast and crew and you'll understand. Watch the way their faces light up while they watch "dailies" of the raw footage they've created. Listen to them talk about how brilliant the script is.

And most importantly, see the way they respond to Holley, who has probably the least film experience of them all.

Trunk-loads of vintage clothes seem to be suspended like a pushed-up sleeve along the railing of a spiral staircase. Tentacles of cords uncurl in every direction. Ladders of various heights are propped in every available space.

Bold black letters on a wall spell out Debtco, the name given the debt consolidation business where main characters Marigold and Clive work.

An actor in a suit holds up his hands to show his wedding band. A Polaroid is snapped. The wardrobe department takes pictures of all the actors before film rolls. It's for continuity, explains a wardrobe assistant, so that each actor looks exactly the same if the scene has to be shot again or finished on another day. Scads of extras lounge in the break room where dollies are stacked with cases of Switch soda and bottled water.

Everywhere you look there is constant motion. And yet, the quiet of it all seems to drown out commotion.

A dozen or more people huddle behind Marigold's cubicle where the scene takes place. Eyes are fixed on the monitor. It shows what the camera sees. Holley stands directly in front of it. She is wearing khaki shorts, a blue sweatshirt turned inside out and her hair in a ponytail; there is nothing particularly commanding about Holley.

"Two minutes away, guys," the assistant director calls. It's the cue for the cast and crew to take their places.

I can't lose this light," calls Max Fischer, the director of photography.

"Clocking rehearsal. Quiet, please," says the assistant director.

In just three days "The Snowflake Crusade" has filmed at three locations: a pet store, a convenience store in the Fan and the cavernous, abandoned old state library. Today, the fourth day, will be at least 12 hours more of the same.

"We're doing the bulk of this on a two-week schedule. From start to finish, your main objective is to get the film in the can," says Kim Davenport, one of the assistant producers.

Davenport pulls aside the wardrobe coordinator to ask a question. "I can't do this right now," the coordinator says curtly. Filming is about to begin.

"It's overwhelming," explains Davenport, not the least fazed by the brushoff. "It's play but it's serious play."

t's day nine of filming. Clive and Marigold have just met and enter a bar. Clive is played by Scot McKenzie, a D.C. theater actor who most recently played Alex in a stage production of "A Clockwork Orange." Like Fischer, McKenzie was one of the first people Holley called. She had seen his work and knew he'd be perfect for the part.

Casting Leisha Hailey in the role of Marigold, says Holley, was sheer luck. Hailey has Hollywood exposure. She played a small role in the movie "All of Me" and was featured in the coming-out episode of "Ellen." She is the waiflike woman featured in a current Yoplait yogurt commercial. She's also the lead singer and bass player for the band Gush, formerly known as The Murmurs.

"I'm totally star-struck," says Holley. "Kim [Davenport] and I would conspire to talk to Leisha's agent. One day Kim just called her up, sent her the script, and she called back a few days later and said she'd do it. It was nerve-racking because Hollywood savvy is not my thing."

In the back silver room of the nightclub Fahrenheit in Shockoe Bottom, black lights are aglow and a huge disco ball flashes.

Holley and Fischer watch the monitor that is strapped to a tripod.

Clive and Marigold are at the bar. A burly bartender hovers there, too. Production assistants hustle about; and sound technicians holding microphones lean into the scene.

holding microphones lean into the scene.

"If we could have some impetus to smoke, it would be more consistent," says the script supervisor. She doesn't want Clive smoking in close-ups. The prop coordinator pulls a few cigarettes from a pack of Camel Lights and slides them into a fictitious box. Clive apparently smokes Morleys.

Fan Lager and Work Beer — among the movie's product placements — line tabletops. No Budweiser here, or Pepsi. Instead, there's a new fruit soda, Switch, another product placement. Holley's assistant producers, Davenport and Leatherwood, made the arrangements months ago. In return for being featured, sort of, in the film, many local retailers have donated their products, services or food.

Davenport and Leatherwood are boisterously outgoing. And their mission has been to tackle for Holley most anything that has required getting stuff — food, clothes, furniture, extras — free. And if not free, then close to it.

Davenport has savvy and Leatherwood has contacts. Leatherwood owns Fiat Lux Films, a local production company. They spent hours on the phone, they say, calling everyone they knew to help out. "We really drew from our friends," says Davenport. Throughout filming, every lunch and dinner but one that the cast and crew ate was provided free.

It's day 12. Lead actress Leisha Hailey has gone back to L.A.

At 7:30 p.m. the cast and crew, who have been waiting since 5 p.m. to do their part and go home, will have to wait a while longer. A handful of production assistants are still trying to get it to rain. From the roof they lurch over the door with a hose, a sprinkler, some lights and sandbags.

The scene calls for Clive to throw a rock — in the rain — through the front doors of a post office, in defiance of the new commemorative stamp honoring his DNA dad. The scene must be done in one take. There are two panes of glass in the door. McKenzie must break one pane with a rock, the other with a tire iron. Each pane of glass that breaks costs $250. "We could only afford two," Holley explains. So there is only one chance to get it right. McKenzie gets it right.

Mary Matthews Smith is the costume designer and wardrobe supervisor. She and her husband, Jason, the lead grip, live in L.A. Currently she's working on a film — "American Cool" with Ray Liotta, Farrah Fawcett and Harvey Keitel.

"What sets this apart is we all feel strongly about and want to be part of this," says Smith. "I feel much more attached to this. It's not about what money can buy. The process is essential. It proves you can have a quality product made with little money."

"It reminds people why they started doing this," says Katherine Leatherwood, one of the movie's assistant producers.

"Then there are the Disney paychecks that allow me to do projects like this," Smith says with a laugh.

Leatherwood and Smith joke about what it means to be resourceful. "Marigold is a narcoleptic who makes toothpick sculptures," she says. "So we had to go out and buy all these boxes of wooden toothpicks. We had all our friends and family making those sculptures."

There is one truck for 15 people. It carries props, wardrobe, set services, grips, crafts services. The grips have a burgundy van to themselves. The van is packed so tight everything has to come off the van in the beginning of the day before it can be used.

"We've been running the production offices out of my house," says Leatherwood. And the lead actors, she says, have stayed in the apartments and houses of friends.

The result of all their thrift, they say, is worth it.

"Megan doesn't have to compromise her script for Hollywood success or any big studio mandate," says Leatherwood.

"Still, there are hurdles," adds Kim Davenport, another assistant producer.

"We've created these characters," Smith says. "It's the culmination of production design. That's why stars are so appealing. I'm going to miss Marigold. I'm going to miss Clive. That's how I know I have a great script, if I'm going to miss the characters once they're gone."

olley sits at a Starbucks on a

Saturday morning in September.

It's been a week since the movie wrapped. Some of the cast and crew are taking a short break; others have already started other jobs. Holley has a new short haircut that hides her face when she's looking down, her nose in a film magazine. It's hard to tell if she's excited or nervous. Mostly, she just looks sleepy.

"There's tons of Marigold that I see in myself," says Holley. "The part about her sleepwalking through life, stuck in the motions." Marigold is transformed when she overcomes her narcolepsy. In a sense, Holley says, she had been sleepwalking through life, too. For years, her dream of wanting to make films had seemed out of her reach. "The whole having taken the leap, even if it's disastrous," she says, "something has changed in me."

Maybe it will happen that "The Snowflake Crusade" is a hit. Or maybe it won't.

Either way, it's made a feature filmmaker out of Holley. Before, she says, "I never had the confidence to think I could pull something like this off."

Holley has a good idea of the odds "The Snowflake Crusade" has to beat to make it to Sundance. But to get the exact numbers, she consults a thick book called "The Ultimate Film Festival Survivor's Guide." Her mother sent it to her for her 35th birthday, the day before. She thumbs through its index and flips a few pages. After a moment, she looks up. "I can't seem to find the numbers," she says at last.

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