The private screening of a 100-percent, locally-made independent film was embraced with great attendance, loud laughter and great applause over the weekend.
On Saturday, Oct. 20, the Lone Pine Film History Museum’s 80-seat theater went standing-room-only at the premier of “The Starvation Proclamation,” a 30-minute Stainless Films western comedy based on Mark Twain’s political satire, “Cannibalism in the Cars.” Cast, crew, producers and friends and family were in attendance for the indie’s private screening. “It played like a professional film,” said Lone Pine Film History Museum Director Chris Langley.
The idea for “The Starvation Proclamation” was born three years ago, added Langley, which is when filmmaker Jesse Steele and actress Tanya Zaleschuk “shared their enthusiasm for the project with me.” Steele is the founder and creative director of Stainless Films production company. Zaleschuk is the film’s production manager. Eastern Sierra Community Film Project was formed under the umbrella of Stainless Films “based on the fact that more talented and exceptional filmmakers, musicians, artists, actors and all-around creative people live in the Eastern Sierra than anywhere in the world,” states www.stainlessfilms.com . “With so much natural beauty and landscape to draw from and inspire them … it makes perfect sense.”
That accomplished, Steele and Jason Crockett, both of whom wrote, directed and acted in the film, began filming six months ago. And it happened amidst ongoing rehearsals and performances of “Hello Dolly,” “Taming of the Shrew” and “Honk, Jr.” for Playhouse 395’s children’s theater workshop, explained Zaleschuk who was also involved in the plays as well as the film.
By 7 p.m. on Saturday night, the Lone Pine Film History Museum parking lot overflowed, guests poured into the museum, mingling with cast and crew – all awaited the 7:30 p.m. private screening of “The Starvation Proclamation.” And the audience just ate it up – eventually.
In a case of life imitating art, the event, expected to be about an hour long, ended up lasting about three times that, due to technical difficulties. However, no thoughts of cannibalism entered the movie-goers minds; the hors d’oeurve platters by Jen Simpson kept coming and the sparkling cider and champagne kept flowing.
At 7:30 p.m., the packed house viewed the museum documentary “Where the Reel West Meets the Real West.” Then, actor Zaleschuk, emceed the screening event, interacting with the audience, inviting cast and crew members to the stage and filling in with factual anecdotes about “The Starvation Proclamation,” from genesis to screening – all of which was met with ongoing audience applause, laughter and even frequent participation.
Mid-merriment, the audience got a first-hand taste of “the show must go on” when Zaleschuk announced that Steele was still editing and would be heading to Lone Pine at any moment. “They said it would take three weeks … Here it’s six months later.” (Langley later said that Steele had had to step in for the original editor who was unable to continue with the project mid-stream.)
Crockett, who is also the ESCFP director, talked about the genesis of the film. One day, “Jesse said ‘What can we do on a limited budget? What can we do in this area, using what we have here?’” he said. Crockett had recently read “Cannibalism in the Cars,” a political satire about a train full of politicians who become stranded in a blizzard in the Sierra mountain wilderness. And as weeks wore on and provisions dwindled to nothing, facing starvation, they start casting about for ideas about what they could do on their limited budget with what they had at hand. Voilà, the seeds of “The Starvation Proclamation.”
The film only alludes to cannibalism and with Twain’s notorious razor-sharp wit, two potentially fatal topics – starvation and the political process – were interwoven.
Crockett said the community devoured the opportunity to give their time, labor and love to the film. Everything was donated, said Zaleschuk. Filming took place at Laws Railroad Museum. Playhouse 395 donated costumes. Novice and professional actors alike gave freely of their time. Mill Creek Station owner Roger Derryberry brought professional film lighting equipment and his lighting expertise. Jason Fernandez wrote the score. And play director Crockett made his film directorial debut. He said the whole experience was a real learning opportunity, an eye-opening mixture of hard work and sheer joy.
As champagne and sparkling cider were served in the house, intern Abi Nabiha related the nearly 50-member cast’s experience with the “blistering hot” temperatures and “a lot of sweat and face powder” during the three-day April shoot inside Laws cars. Zaleschuk thanked “Bishop and Big Pine high schools for allowing us to share our craft by letting interns work with us. We love you, interns.” Portrait artist Angel Patten of Long Beach, via Ridgecrest and Bishop, received recognition for creating her first movie poster.
Zaleschuk also expressed heartfelt gratitude to Inyo Council for the Arts for all their support.
Suddenly, the emcee held up her cell phone and announced, “He’s in Lone Pine” and the audience cheered Steele’s impending arrival. The show went on with more banter between the folks on stage and the folks in the house at 8:35 p.m., when Steele burst through the house door, ran full tilt down the aisle, open laptop held aloft, to great applause. (The DVD was still being burned in the laptop at that point, Langley later explained.)
Then, the second wave of delays hit when the DVD wouldn’t sync with the theater’s projector – even though the morning’s trial run there had been successful, said Langley. Despite great effort, synchronization eluded the crew. At one point, Steele looked up from his laptop, grinning broadly. “I can see it here and it’s awesome.” The audience clapped and someone called out, “Turn it around,” to more laughter.
Hitting an optimistic note, Zaleschuk said Steele had opted not to show the film at this month’s Lone Pine Film Festival to avoid jeopardizing the submission of “The Starvation Proclamation” to Sundance Film Fest, which requires that all submissions have their public premier at the festival.
Eventually, Manuel Ruiz, Langley’s film intern who had worked with Hollywood writer/director Quentin Tarrantino on “Django Unchained” when it shot here earlier in the year, suggested a solution. The entire audience reconnoitered in the atrium where Steele ascended a ladder while museum staff furnished him with a DVD player, cables and a stack of museum gift shop hard backs. With the DVD player attached to the wall-mounted atrium TV and perched atop the books stacked on the ladder, the curtain finally opened on “The Starvation Proclamation,” a film that was long-awaited on various levels.
The credits rolled and the story was told. The witty screen play took the light-hearted, humorous tone so famously woven throughout all of Twain’s legendary works, states the film’s website. The story featured Samuel Clemmons (Steele) who pulled increasingly alarmed comic close-ups as The Gentlemen (Bob Struckman) relayed with great relish, the events of those long-gone days on that snow-bound train full of his peers, with little but an impromptu lottery system and one another for sustenance.
The cast delivered punchy dialogue and visual jokes that kept the audience laughing out loud when they weren’t leaning into the plot’s escalating tension. Against the Sierra backdrop, the authentic period costumes, train and town settings were so engaging that the rough cut’s few remaining green screen scenes were barely noticed and soon forgotten. And the PG-rated short only alluded to grizzly acts of survival; no cannibalism or gory images were shown.
Langley said he thought the film was really outstanding, “remarkably literate and really captured the humor of Twain.” It is difficult to do a story in a snowbound setting, he added, and the storm, shot in the Carson City area, was very convincing. Crockett was able to “scoop up enough talent” to cast the film with a range of talent from Inyo and Mono counties, trying to match the actors’ personalities to their characters, resulting in very natural performances, said Langley.
Even the rough cut revealed a film made to “a high standard of professionalism,” said Langley, “Jesse plans to tweak it, to make it tighter” in the final cut.
“They had a ‘do not surrender’ attitude,” in the face of much adversity, said Langley. The production crew and cast rose above the obvious financial, logistical and other constraints inherent in low-to-no-budget filmmaking.
Once the film ended, audience members gave feedback and Max Cox, the Death Valley car operator at Laws, said that he’d had his doubts when the filmmakers first approached Laws. But now, “If you ever decide to do another Spaghetti western, come to Laws.” Screen Actors Guild actor Brian Brummit, who played The Gentleman in his youth, expressed admiration and gratitude to Steele, Crockett and Zaleschuk. “They had the drive to overcome so many obstacles and handle them … seeing the project through, no matter what … like tonight.”
“It’s an amazing thing to be part of. We need to do more of this here,” said Steele of filmmaking in the Sierra. “I’m very proud of this film.”
Stainless Films’ next film is “The Diaries of Eden,” a comedy about the ups and downs of Adam and Eve’s relationship; it’s tag line is “Even the first couple had issues.” Zaleschuck said, “It’s the original Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus.” The production company is also in the process of creating a documentary on Laws to be combined with “The Starvation Proclamation” on one DVD, with all proceeds going to Laws.
For more information, to view trailers and/or to make a donations, visit http://stainlessfilms.com  or the Facebook page: Eastern-Sierra-Commuity-Film-Project-The-Starvation-Proclamation.