Comicpalooza’s Dollar Baby Film Festival

May 30, 2013

One of the main attractions at this year’s Comicpalooza in Houston—in addition to appearances by the likes of Patrick Stewart, Michelle Rodriguez and Danny Trejo—was the three-day Dollar Baby Film Festival organized by Shawn S. Lealos.

What’s a “Dollar Baby?” It’s a short film based on a Stephen King story or novella. For decades, King has allowed people to acquire limited film rights to an available story for one dollar. The resulting movies cannot be released on the internet or shown at for-profit venues, which limits their availability to festivals like this one. The filmmakers can include their movies on clip reels as calling cards. King also gets a copy of the finished product. The quality of these adaptations  is all over the map, but the increased availability of affordable digital cameras and video editing software means that the community is growing by leaps and bounds.

During the Q&A session at the end of the third day, someone asked directors Rodney Altman, James B. Cox and Lealos how this benefitted filmmakers. Getting films accepted into film festivals can be difficult, they said, so having King’s name attached makes a particular submission stand out. If one of these films gains notice, it’s easier for the director to get work accepted at future events. Also, there have been Dollar Baby film festivals in places like Argentina and the Netherlands, affording these filmmakers the chance to have their films seen more widely than would normally be possible. The directors added that the comparative rarity of these productions binds them together as a community. Lealos, who is working on a book called Dollar Deal: The Stories of Dollar Baby Filmmakers, due out later this year, says that he knows of only seventy to eighty of these projects worldwide.

Some Dollar Baby filmmakers have found success as directors or showrunners. Frank Darabont’s 1983 adaptation of “The Woman in the Room” so touched King that he allowed him to option “Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption.”

The first day of the Comicpalooza film festival was plagued by technical problems. It took the convention organizers over 90 minutes to get the situation rectified, by which time most of the audience had moved on to other sessions. There was no screen that day, so the films were projected against a wall that added vertical black bars to the images. The computer refused to recognize certain DVDs so the program had to be juggled.

James Cole’s 1987 adaptation of “The Last Rung on the Ladder” opened the session. Shot on Super 8, its age shows, primarily in the poor sound quality. However, that doesn’t detract from the superb performances Cole elicited from his young actors—in particular Melisa Whelden as Kitty. “Lawnmower Man,” from the same year, stars an actor who resembles Tony Soprano crossed with Ralph Kramden. Andy Clark, who stands out as the title character, spends much of the film naked and seems delighted and not the least bit abashed by this. “Flowers for Norma,” adapted from “The Man Who Loved Flowers,” features cameos by William B. Davis, the cigarette-smoking man from The X-Files, and Tony Plana, who has appeared in numerous TV shows. It has terrific special effects in addition to excellent cinematography. Also shown on the first day were “Luckey Quarter,” “In the Deathroom,” and the creepy 8-minute “Paranoid: A Chant,” which holds the dual honor of being the only Dollar Baby based on a poem and the only one King allowed to be shown online in its entirety for a six-month period after it was finished.

By Saturday afternoon, the audio/visual problems were rectified and there was a screen. Attendance was also much higher. Cox’s “Grey Matter” started things off. While many Dollar Babies hew fairly closely to the source material, Cox used King’s story as inspiration, building an elaborate story that casts the son in the role of “the boy who cried wolf,” while his father becomes a disabled war veteran who is drinking himself to death—or worse. Tyler Patterson’s performance as the son is strong and the movie relies on suggestion rather than graphic visuals to create a sense of horror that pays off at the end. James Renner’s “All That You Love Will Be Carried Away” uses a compelling and inspired performance by Joe Bob Briggs to turn a highly internalized short story into a tragic drama. An adaptation of “A Very Tight Place” downplays the grosser elements of the novella. Lealos’s “I Know What You Need” expands upon the King story by introducing new characters and situations. Altman’s “Umney’s Last Case” has a scene-stealing cameo by Breaking Bad’s Mark Margolis as the elevator operator. This metafictional noir film predates the TNT adaptation starring William H. Macy and stands shoulder to shoulder with the television production.

The final day led off with the earliest known Dollar Baby, “The Boogeyman” from 1982, which has long been available on video paired with “The Woman in the Room.” Director Jeff Schiro has spent time in the editing room since then, cleaning up and enhancing the movie. The film does an excellent job of calling into question the protagonist’s reliability as a narrator. “My Pretty Pony” is an 8-minute film featuring an elderly narrator talking to the camera. “Willa,” from the same director, uses cartoonish crayon drawings and a voiceover to relate this purgatory tale. “Cain Rose Up” is a difficult film to watch, given recent events, but the story—inspired by the Charles Whitman shooting spree in Austin—only goes to show how little things have changed since King published it.

The final movie, “Maxwell Edison,” is another adaptation of “The Man Who Loved Flowers.” It is interesting to see how two filmmakers approached the same story. One scene—the purchasing of the flowers—plays out almost identically in the two shorts. Warren Ray’s 2012 movie looks like it was filmed in the 1970s, with gaudy colors, split screens, and jaunty music from Andy Williams and The Carpenters. There is also apparently a 3D version. However, it is marred by a final scene of gratuitous—albeit stylized—violence that goes on far too long.

These filmmakers are all King fans, and it is fun to discover all the Easter eggs they’ve dropped into their movies. “Umney’s Last Case” begins with a familiar quote from another King story. Renner’s film includes a bottle of Nozz-a-la, Blaine the mono’s map and a road sign announcing Exit 19 to Castle Rock and Gilead. The flower seller in “Maxwell Edison” is reading the issue of Gallery in which “The Man Who Loved Flowers” first appeared, and a character in “I Know What You Need” is always shown reading a King book.

The Dutch website Stephen King Short Movies (which will relaunch at the end of June) is an excellent resource to learn more about Dollar Babies.

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