Friday, February 27, 2004

It’s not the economy: How a Portland movie-maker is helping unseat Bush

Published in the Portland Phoenix

With a restriction like "we’re not going to have any pissing or farting or burping in this movie," you might be wondering how anyone could make a film about George W. Bush.

But Matt Power, obeying his wife’s diktat, has set out to do just that. Working with Dale Phillips, a friend he met 20 years ago in the Society for Creative Anachronism — that’s the slightly loony but fun-loving group of folks who dress up like medieval knights and villagers and go at each other with double-handed battle axes — Power is melding timeless themes.

The story is one of a bumbling half-human upon whom falls — literally — a position of great power. This might seem boringly like The Lord of the Rings on something like one-quadrillionth the budget. Power has already anticipated that — and not just by adjusting the length of his work to about 20 minutes running time.

You will find in The Nine all of the familiar Tolkien themes — wise elves, capitalist Rangers, unionist dwarves, and "Democrats all sitting around the Rivendell Country Club," lamenting the state of the nation but powerless to fight the evil creeping over the land.

Except the evil is more like roaring over the land. And The Nine are the members of the Supreme Court of the United States. Robed in black, they wield great power without any viable opponents. They ride black snowmobiles through the pristine landscape of Yellowstone, which these nine decaying men and women, entrusted with the rings of lifelong tenure, reopened to motorized traffic.

That scene was shot last January in Mechanic Falls, shortly after Power finished a four-year effort making Throg, a feature-length movie about an "immortal idiot" who travels through time trying to escape his destiny — being eaten alive by a monster.

"We finished a feature film that holds together and has some really funny moments," Power says. He’s not waiting for it to succeed, though he’s submitting it to several film competitions and continuing to market it.

"We’re just going to be like pit bulls of persistence," making another movie with the experience he and the crew earned.

"For basically 35-thousand bucks, we all got a film-school education," he says. It helped that Power sold his house in the middle of production, to help cover the debt. He thinks the education was better than a formulaic approach to filmmaking: "You move your own lights" and learn "what doesn’t work."

Throg was filmed on a shoestring, with actors and crew working for a pittance, if anything at all. "In this project, pretty much everybody gets paid," Power says. "After you make your first movie, you can’t rely on goodwill anymore."

It’s still a cheaper effort than it might otherwise have been, because computers have made production easier. "We try to put all the money in front of the camera," Power says.

That puts the Nine — whom Power calls "the root of all evil" — right in the crosshairs, along with the man they installed in the Oval Office. "We all want to get rid of Bush," Power says.

He’s trying hard to remember that life is more complicated than that. "I want the audience to have to think a little," he says.

"There’s an awful lot of sameness in politics," he says. "We’re going after everybody," trying to get them to "snap out of it." Democrats take a beating, too, for pandering to special interests and for not standing up for their principles.

Co-writer Phillips says too many politicians make deals, not decisions, saying, "We can have this as long as I get my share."

The film’s set itself is an unusual place, with costumes and makeup going on in nearby corners, a dead bird (attention PETA: it’s fake), fencing foils and a miner’s helmet stacked next to oranges, and a key prop that looks remarkably like a Frisbee. (It’s the Seal of the President of the United States of America.)

As crew members watch, Shrub — Bush’s Gollum-inspired character — cavorts about in front of a bluescreen, one moment fishing for dinner in a pool of water and the next, well, you know what happened in Florida.

It’s Phillips who best summarizes the movie’s message of humor and hope, satire and scandal: "Life should be fun, but life should be interesting and you should have to think about it."

Phillips and Power will have you thinking about The Nine later this year.


• The Center Stage Players, a theater company for seniors, will present a theater festival on Friday and Saturday, March 5 and 6, at 2 p.m., at the 55 Plus Center, 6 Noble Street, Brunswick. The group, actors, directors, writers and storytellers, will perform a group of short plays, many original works in development for the past few months. Admission is by donation. For reservations, call (207) 729-0757.