Milwaukee native Bay Dariz always planned to get into making movies. It was the route, however, that came with a few unexpected detours and dead ends.
"My goal was always to go become a super successful musician and then parlay that into producing films," Dariz explained. "That was always the plan."
The band, a Milwaukee-based rock trio called The Mercy Kiss, came together, even moving out to Los Angeles together back in the end of 2003. As for the super successful part of his mission? "Never really panned out," he laughs, though they did tour around the country for a good bit. As it turns out, however, Dariz didn’t end up needing the whole successful musician middleman business, as he’s now mere days away from the release of his first feature-length film production, "Welcome to Happiness."
The indie dramedy follows a children’s book author, played by Kyle Gallner ("American Sniper," "Dear White People"), who discovers a special door in his closet that allows people to undo a mistake from their past. The movie hits theaters nationwide this weekend – including Milwaukee, where it’ll play at The Times Cinema at 7 p.m. throughout the upcoming week, with a special live in-person Q&A with producer Dariz and writer-director Oliver Thompson at Sunday’s screening.
"It really is a dream come true," Dariz said. "To bring it back to Milwaukee, to a lot of people that I knew back when I lived there that I still talk to and some I haven’t talked to in a really long time, it’s nice to be able show this and be like, ‘Look, I’ve been out here a long time; I finally did something that I’m super proud of. This is the beginning of our careers doing this’."
While it may not have taken off as he hoped, Dariz’s music career out in L.A. still put him on the right path, one that conveniently led him to his friend Thompson.
"We started doing music together, and then we just realized that we wanted to produce movies," Dariz recalled. "He was a screenwriter, and I wanted to be a producer. We just started collaborating that way instead."
About three years ago, the duo decided to officially change direction from making music to making movies. Like most fledgling screenwriters or creatives in Hollywood trying to make it, they had their share of false starts and dead ends – mainly with some scripts and ideas for horror movies, a common entry-level genre for filmmakers trying to make a mark in the industry without much, or any, of a working budget. Eventually, though, Dariz and Thompson decided to bet on themselves.
"We just finally said let’s go make a movie," Dariz noted. "I bought a camera; we made a few short films. There’s nothing stopping us from going and making a movie. We don’t have money, so it’ll be a very inexpensive movie, but let’s just go make a movie. And we decided that if we’re going to do this on our own, we might as well put something positive out into the world."
As a result of their revelation, the two ended up ditching the horror scripts they were previously pitching and instead began working on something inspired, according to Dariz, by the popular TV show "Lost."
"It’s a lot about characters getting redemption or struggling with things when they get there, and that’s really where the drama really comes in on the show," Dariz explained. "So Oliver was saying what if, instead of it being this magical island, instead it was just this guy’s apartment. OK, so what’s in this guy’s apartment? What if there was this magical doorway? OK, where’s it lead?
"And then we just thought that the thing that everybody can relate to is there’s always something that you look back on that you wish you could change – whether it’s something that happened to you or something that you did yourself. And that became the concept."
With a script, written by Thompson, and their set – an apartment – now on hand, the duo began to bring "Welcome to Happiness" into happy existence almost two years ago. They raised up some money and gathered together a cast, starting with Gallner and co-star Molly C. Quinn (Alexis Castle from the dearly departed TV show "Castle") – both up-and-coming actors and both friends of Dariz.
From there, the cast continued to grow with the kind of impressive names you wouldn’t expect from a small production filming in an apartment, including Keegan-Michael Key ("Keanu"), Francis Conroy ("Six Feet Under"), Paget Brewster ("Criminal Minds"), Olivia Thirlby ("Juno") and Ron Swanson himself, Nick Offerman.
"Actors want to act, they want to work and they want to do material that they really respond to," Dariz said. "I guess the way to get actors in your movie is pay them a lot of money – and that wasn’t in the cards for us – or give them something to do that they might not have been asked to do before. Every actor in our movie is doing something a bit different than they’re really known for."
The shoot took about a month, with another nine months for post-production and another year taking "Welcome to Happiness" to film festivals across the nation in the hopes of getting a distribution deal. And eventually they did, scoring a deal with indie distributors Orion and FilmBuff (who also helped distribute "The Russian Woodpecker," another film with Milwaukee connections) for a theatrical and VOD release starting Friday.
"I still can’t believe that all these people came to trust these two guys who never made a movie before and trusted us to do this," Dariz said. "It’s remarkable."
Of course, the journey to this point was still filled with hard times, roadblocks and devastating disappointments, but, according to Dariz, the final result turned out better in the end – the movie, the distribution deal, the ability to bring it back to Milwaukee, which was one of his original goals for his first film from the start.
"When I found out we were playing at the Times, I was so excited," Dariz noted. "I can’t overstate how thrilled I am to be bringing this to Milwaukee – and I want to go make movies in Milwaukee. I want to go out there and shoot something sometime."
As for Hollywood and the movie business, there’s plenty of question marks across the industry – from new VOD outlets continually cutting into theater attendance to new technologies to an overall economic outlook that’s more willing to support giant $300 million brand-friendly blockbusters than smaller, more personal projects.
Still, the industry is always changing, and according to Dariz, "if they didn’t, I don’t think we would’ve been able to do this."
The path has been uncertain, but considering his previous music star-to-movie mogul plan, Dariz would likely know better than most that it usually still takes you where you want to be.
As much as it is a gigantic cliché to say that one has always had a passion for film, Matt Mueller has always had a passion for film. Whether it was bringing in the latest movie reviews for his first grade show-and-tell or writing film reviews for the St. Norbert College Times as a high school student, Matt is way too obsessed with movies for his own good.
When he's not writing about the latest blockbuster or talking much too glowingly about "Piranha 3D," Matt can probably be found watching literally any sport (minus cricket) or working at - get this - a local movie theater. Or watching a movie. Yeah, he's probably watching a movie.