By Lovelle Harris
The Sacramento region has long played a role in the moviemaking business. From Buster Keaton’s Steamboat Bill, Jr., filmed here in 1928, to Rob Marshall’s 2005 release, Memoirs of a Geisha, which featured the railroad station in Old Sacramento, the River City has been regaled as the “Hollywood of the North.”
Looking to make good on this moniker, Sacramento independent film production company Mystery Zone Productions just released its latest short film, Dance Step of Death. Its members say they hope the film—along with an upcoming project inspired by life in Sacramento—will serve to unite the local film community into a movie-industry powerhouse.
Dance Step of Death screens Saturday, September 22, at Blacktop Comedy in Roseville; the film also airs later this month on the Davis Community Television and Access Sacramento cable networks.
The film, which premiered last month at the Sacramento Film & Music Festival, epitomizes the MZP ethos: Carved from the vast network of artists, performers, choreographers, hair stylists and designers that form Sacramento’s artistic community, the production company’s cast and crew is looking to prove that you don’t need to be in Hollywood to make quality cinema.
“I want A-plus players on my team to ultimately put a mark on Sacramento and say, ‘We’re doing films here,’” says Aaron “A.K.” Long, MZP founder, writer and director. “It’s crazy—this is the damn state capital. Yes, San Francisco and Los Angeles are big cities, but this is a big city, too, and there really needs to be a film culture here.”
He should know: Long relocated from Southern California to attend UC Davis in 2007 and says he instantly fell in love with the city’s gritty charm on his daily commute from Davis to his then-job in Sacramento.
It was on these trips, in fact, that Long found inspiration for his latest project Ambition, the studio’s upcoming full-length feature film, which draws heavily on the characters of Sacramento.
“I was taking the bus from Davis to Arden Fair every day when I was working at Apple, and we went through downtown, and I was like, ‘Whoa, this is rough!’ There [are] people everywhere,” Longs says.
“Then I started exploring the American River area on the bike path, and there [are] so many people down there, too, and I realized that Sacramento is broken in a lot of places, and it’s a little sad, but people are still soldiering on and really showing ambition.”
Long plans to film in Sacramento, and the project, as its name might imply, aims high in its scope. An ode to film noir and grindhouse flicks, Long’s vision involves weaving the story line of main character Roy Styllz, a detective in the tradition of such iconic fatalist characters made infamous by the films of Billy Wilder and Orson Welles, into two distinct films—one short and one feature-length. The shorter film, Roy Styllz in: The Shadows, will be released first and serve as a teaser to its feature-length counterpart in Ambition.
“[The short film] is basically the prelude in the book that the author is writing in [Ambition],” Long says. “The short is like the beginning of the story of who the detective is, [and] Ambition is a story of everybody I know—myself and the people who are here in Sacramento.”
After graduating from UC Davis in 2011, Long convinced college friend and filmmaking partner in crime, Sam Laughlin, to turn their longtime passion for movies and filmmaking into a full-on production studio. A few short weeks later in February, MZP emerged.
“It’s a learning process, so we’re all working together. It’s very open; we have different ideas, [so] everyone does what they’re best at,” Laughlin says.
Watching the pair work together on set, it’s clear the collaborative nature of their relationship is an exercise in patience and mutual respect.
“I’m mostly cinematography, so when the camera starts rolling, that’s when my job really starts,” Laughlin says. “I just try to get every shot that we’ll need and think about everything that the film’s going to need, and make sure that we get it.”
To say that the projects have been produced on a shoestring budget underplays the sacrifices made by the MZP family: All cast and crew members donate their time and talents sans pay.
While the films that have been funded under the MZP flag have largely been self-financed, the studio’s zombie short benefited from a budget Sacramento Metropolitan Arts Commission grant—to the tune of a whopping $210.
Even that small amount, however, proved crucial, Long says.
“The one thing that’s good about getting budgets, finally, on a film is that we can take time with meetings and preparation and getting props and having things together,” Long says. “More importantly, having the budgets allows me to give the people I trust the power to direct their own departments, so that I can worry about my direction of the actors.”
Dance Step of Death, written and produced by Ed Fletcher, a reporter for The Sacramento Bee, premiered in August at the Sacramento Film & Music Festival, and in the weeks before its debut, cast and crew scrambled to finish the flick’s remaining scenes.
For zombie-flick fans and Dance Step of Death extras Erika Brabec, 27 and Natasha Varner, 26, the chance to get ghoulish and shuffle around like zombies was a no-brainer.
“Erika [and I] were at a zombies-vs.-superheroes party … and heard about this movie,” says Varner, who made the trek from Santa Cruz to participate. “We tracked [Long] down in the crowd and [said], ‘We want to be zombies in your movie.’”
Long’s infectious spirit for filmmaking also convinced actress Jillian Leeman to move behind the camera for Dance Step of Death.
“I acted in one of his films … [but] when he found out I did stage makeup, he [asked me to switch],” Leeman says. “Now I’m backstage—which I actually like better. Watching it all go on is the best part.”
In the end, Long says, he’s been pleased by audience reaction to the film.
“When directing a comedy, your one goal is to make people laugh,” he says. “At the [festival], I got to hear some great ones.”
Now, with three shorts and a music video in the bag, a documentary in production and a full-length feature on the horizon, Long says he aspires to reach beyond Sacramento.
“The goal is to make feature films and to partner with a distributor, or other production companies,” Long says.
Eventually, Long and the rest of the MZP crew hopes the Sacramento film community establishes a national—if not wider—presence.
“I think there is an interest in movies that are about Sacramento made by Sacramentans,” Long says. “I’m doing a movie about real-life situations and real hard times that people need real ambition to overcome. That’s the story I’m going to tell about the streets of Sacramento.”