By Julie Lawrence Special to Published Sep 26, 2007 at 5:25 AM

While attending film school in Milwaukee, Andrew Gorzalski fell victim to an epidemic. Like many young, creative professionals of that time, he wasn't sure if ambitious youth culture could thrive here -- that perhaps there just wasn't enough happing in this city to sustain it.

Like several of his peers, he left after college and headed out to Hollywood to get a job in his field.

Though his time in L.A. was fruitful -- he ran a successful visual effects studio and helped with some major motion pictures -- it was inevitably a film and commercial production company in Milwaukee that has since offered him his dream job as well as the chance to help grow the industry here in his hometown.

Now, as an executive producer at Milwaukee's Purple Onion, the 31-year-old is back in the Third Ward and loving every minute of it.

"Had I developed my career in n L.A. I'd probably be holding a walkie talkie or carrying a cooler of water for Alec Baldwin," he says. "Here everything is much more accessible and I can be mentored by a lot of talented people."

Although Milwaukee's collective film consciousness is arguably somewhat newly developed, Purple Onion's stake in independent film is anything but. Celebrating its 20th birthday this year, the company began producing commercials in 1987, back when there was virtually "nothing like that going on" in Milwaukee, says Gorzalski.

"Now, everyone who has a competitive production company here in Milwaukee -- and there's probably six or seven that bid on a national level -- has passed through these doors. It was a place that really pushed it forward."

In under six years, two owners / directors, Steve Farr and Barry Poltermann, were representing nationally and directing Coca Cola and Turner Classic Movies commercials.

By 1994 they were the first filmmakers from Wisconsin to appear at the Sundance Film Festival. Civilian Pictures, a film-financing company under the Purple Onion umbrella, presented "Aswang" that year -- the first horror film ever screened at Sundance.

In 2006, Purple Onion executive produced "The Life of Reilly" -- a character piece / documentary about '70s gay TV icon Charles Nelson Reilly that screened at last year's Milwaukee International Film Festival -- as well as the Wu-Tang Clan reunion documentary, "Rock The Bells," now distributed worldwide by Warner Brothers.

"One of our presidents, Dave Dahlman, who lives in Bay View, paid out of pocket to get this Wu Tang movie off the ground," says Gorzalski. "A lot of the other competitive film production companies here in town have a high profit margin, but not much is going back into film or art. But this collective of guys is pretty invested in that and invested in moving Milwaukee forward in that sense, and they always have been."

This year, Purple Onion's film festival focus is "The Pool," the latest from local filmmaker Chris Smith. The film takes place in India and follows Venkatesh, a housekeeper who daydreams of living a luxury-filled life and struggles to deal with the impending class gap.

"Chris Smith is right across the hall from us -- we bought him film for 'American Movie,'" says Gorzalski. "Maturing the film community here has been Purple Onion's goal since the beginning -- maybe to make it something more like an Austin, Texas."

One advantage Milwaukee maintains is its relatively small market, rendering any and all film ventures that much more specialized. Basically, there's a bigger buck to be made in film here in Milwaukee than in places like L.A. where the economics are driven way down from market saturation.

"It's a sexier job out there, but you work harder for less money and it's thankless 15-hour days. People have this perception about the industry out there but the reality is that it's just too many people, it's a glut, and it's harder to discern talent. The good people really stand out here and they're rewarded for it."

And as for that flee-to-the-West-Coast epidemic? Gorzalski says he's seeing a major curb.

"This place is infinitely cooler than L.A.," he says without a hint of sarcasm. "I think a large part of that (creative youth) population is staying now and contributing positively to the city."

Julie Lawrence Special to staff writer Julie Lawrence grew up in Wauwatosa and has lived her whole life in the Milwaukee area.

As any “word nerd” can attest, you never know when inspiration will strike, so from a very early age Julie has rarely been seen sans pen and little notebook. At the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee it seemed only natural that she major in journalism. When offered her an avenue to combine her writing and the city she knows and loves in late 2004, she knew it was meant to be. Around the office, she answers to a plethora of nicknames, including “Lar,” (short for “Larry,” which is short for “Lawrence”) as well as the mysteriously-sourced “Bill Murray.”