Bayside resident Mark Metcalf is an actor who has worked in movies, TV and on the stage. He is best known for his work in "Animal House," "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" and "Seinfeld."
In addition to his work on screen, Metcalf is involved with the Milwaukee International Film Festival, First Stage Children's Theater and a number of other projects.
He also finds time to write about movies for OnMilwaukee.com.
In 2004, the film that opened the Milwaukee International Film Festival was called "Gettin' Grown." It was a packed house; the first time that had happened for the opening night film in the history of the festival. It was a short history at that time, only two years, but it had been a busy history.
"Getting' Grown" went on to win the Audience Choice Award that year. It's a wonderful story of a boy trying to do the right thing in a world full of dangerous distractions. Aaron Greer directed it in a very simple, straightforward way remembering always that story and the people are the forefront of any film. And it was made by people from Milwaukee, with Milwaukee money, and actors and people from this city starred in it and played all the parts, and it is about life in Milwaukee.
They should have called their production company "Homegrown Films" instead of Gettin' Grown Productions.
The State of Wisconsin has not been very interested in promoting the entertainment industry. Wisconsin has been content for years to have stood in for Cleveland in "Major League," to be home to "Laverne & Shirley" and "The Fonz" in "Happy Days," and to have provided the bridge to nowhere when John Landis needed to send the Nazis flying off one in "The Blues Brothers."
But the television shows were not shot here, and the films just came here for a day or a week in order to get footage they couldn't get in the real locations. Neither the state nor the city has taken much interest in pursuing either the dollars that the entertainment industry can bring in or the jobs that it can provide. Maybe it's a deeply seated German shyness or a near belligerent resistance to the spotlight but there has been, in the past, very little love expressed, in a business sense, for the cinematic arts, that is: movies.
Consequently, people with talent and desire in these fields have moved away to what are perceived to be the greener pastures of Los Angeles and New York, even Chicago. After the state cut all funding to its film office and abandoned the film commission, there seemed to be no future at all for an industry that, at the time, was the highest dollar for dollar export that the United States had.
But a few people of vision, who were able to imagine the future more accurately, decided they didn't want to let it drop so easily. They formed a group that is now called Film Wisconsin, to promote, independent of the state, what many are now calling the 21st century industry of entertainment -- not just movies and television but video games, commercials, any and all visual media.
They also convinced some people involved in state government, in particular Lt. Gov. Barbara Lawton, that this was important and they managed to get a law passed that gives filmmakers a tax break for every dollar they spend making their product. The law applies to any and all visual media. The law went into effect Jan. 1, and soon after Michael Mann started scouting locations for "Public Enemies," with Johnny Depp.
So, it's working. Thanks to the continuing efforts of Scott Robbe and Dave Fantle and a bunch of other people.
One is bricks and mortar infrastructure. By that, I mean sound stages. Warehouse space that is big enough to construct a set, high enough to rig lights and scaffolding for a camera for those Hitchcockian overhead shots, and office and editing facilities. The beginning version of that need is being met by Lightening Rod Studios in St. Francis. They even have a green screen stage and computer imaging equipment for making monsters come alive in your living room, if your living room is where you like them.
But for now the big pictures will go back to Hollywood, or to Chicago, or New Mexico, New Orleans, or New York, or North Carolina where there are sound stages already built and powered up to do the bulk of their work. But that's all right. These are the kind of potatoes you peel one at a time. The sound stages will come and if you build them, as the voice said to Kevin Costner in the cornfield, "they will come."
The other thing that is necessary to attract the big Hollywood movies is "people infrastructure" -- the crew and cast to get ‘er done. A movie company spends a huge portion of it's budget housing and feeding a crew that it has to bring all the way from Hollywood or New York, or Chicago or Dallas, where such crews already exist. Having produced a feature, I know that you are liable to spend $200 per man per day for a hotel room and $100 per man, per day for food allowance.
Now look at the credits for any big budget Hollywood movie and count the number of people on the grip, electric and camera crews alone. There are anywhere from 12 to 15 people, not including the key people, in those crews. Now if there were people here who knew how to light a set, move cable and dollies around, and focus and load a 35mm camera, the movie company could hire them and save all that per diem and hotel expense. That goes for actors, too. But if Johnny Depp lived here, no one would get anything done because they'd be down at the supermarket trying to get a sighting.
But there are some very good actors here right now who would be happy to take a shot at Depp as he runs from a bank robbery or what ever he is doing in "Public Enemies."
And this us back to "Gettin Grown." If the state and Film Wisconsin could bring a more passionate level of support to the small, independent, local filmmaker, like the people who made "Gettin' Grown," then that "people infrastructure" would begin to grow and exist here instead of draining away to the cities offering more work. And there are quite a few local, independent filmmakers and more and more throughout the Midwest.
I have worked with several in the few years I have lived here. And many of them work with me educating local high school students in the craft of screenwriting and filmmaking through the Milwaukee International Film Festival's Student Screenwriting Competition.
There is a lot of talent here and a real desire to share their knowledge and skills. But they need support. The Film Festival tries to support Midwest filmmakers with its Midwest Filmmaker Competition, which has grown tremendously in the three years that they have offered a cash prize.
They also focus on local filmmakers in their Milwaukee Shorts program each year, when they screen the short films of local filmmakers, or when they pick films like "Getting' Grown" or "Reeseville" or "Chump Change" to headline the Festival in September each year. All three of those films are quite good and my imaginary "Homegrown Films" production company could have made all of them. The latter two imported some actors, but "Gettin' Grown" is entirely home made.
Another reason why this film is important is because it takes place in the core, in the economically depressed part of town, the part that gets Milwaukee described as one of the most segregated cities in America. But it is not about gangs, not about drugs, not about broken homes, violence or dysfunctional people.
It is about family, about young men trying very hard to remember what the right thing is and to keep on track and do it. It is about parenting in the best way, with the awareness that there are distractions, and distortions and dangerous choices to be made that can change your life forever and that there needs to be eternal vigilance from a parent to guide and protect the child.
I think a lot about the walls between the races here in Milwaukee and applaud the people who are working to take down those walls, even if only brick by brick. The people who made "Gettin' Grown" are now developing a film called "Fruit of the Tree."
"Fruit of the Tree" is the story of James Cameron, who was lynched but survived in 1929 in Marion, Ind. He had been arrested and charged with a crime that he was only tangentially involved in, but men and women broke into the jail, took him and his two friends to a tree in the middle of town and hanged them. Cameron was the last to be hanged and someone interceded before he died and he was spared.
He went on to be a very active supporter of the NAACP, moved to Milwaukee, and eventually started America's Black Holocaust Museum just south of North Avenue on 4th Street. It is a very powerful story and one that I think all people of the United States should be aware of. As we can see by the current Presidential campaign, racism is not a thing of the past. It may have changed its shape a little, but it is still a force.
Fran Kaplan, the producer, and Aaron Greer, her son and the director of both "Gettin' Grown" and "Fruit of the Tree" have written a wonderful script that won some recognition at the Tribeca Film Festival and is now being read by well known film actors. It will be made soon and may well be the first film under the new tax legislation to be made in Milwaukee, by people from Milwaukee, about people who live in Milwaukee.
They are working very hard to make a truly homegrown or homemade product because they believe in this city and they believe in its people. All of its people.
Mark Metcalf is an actor and owner of Libby Montana restaurant in Mequon. Still active in Milwaukee theater, he's best known for his roles as Neidermeyer in "Animal House" and as The Maestro on "Seinfeld."
Originally from New Jersey, Metcalf now lives in Bayside.