The name Brad Ellis probably isn't as familiar to local film fans as that of "B"-movie auteur John Michael McCarthy or Blue Citrus Hearts director Morgan Jon Fox, much less Sundance-certified stars Craig Brewer and Ira Sachs. So you might be surprised to learn that Ellis is likely the city's most prolific filmmaker. At age 25, Ellis has directed a whopping nine features, including two winners of the Hometowner Award for best local feature at the annual Indie Memphis Film Festival. The most recent winner, the clever post-collegiate comedy Act One, will open Friday for a weeklong run at Studio on the Square. (See review, page 48.)
Ellis, a 1999 graduate of Houston High School, made his first feature in 1998, an unauthorized remake of John Carpenter's horror classic Halloween, starring friend and classmate Allen Gardner in a dual role as psycho killer Michael Myers and his psychiatrist, Dr. Sam Loomis. Soon after, Ellis and Gardner partnered with classmates Mark Norris and Matt Weatherly for a student film -- Day of Reckoning -- for their Houston High film and video production class. The foursome named their collaborative effort Old School Pictures. Half a decade and seven movies later, Ellis, Gardner, Norris, and Weatherly continue to make movies together.
And the Old School family has expanded. Ellis and his friends' high school film teacher, Joey Watson, now a film and video instructor at the University of Memphis, became mentor and partner early on, eventually co-scripting and co-directing 2002's The Path of Fear, which was Old School's first Indie Memphis winner. Watson brought in a couple of his own former high school classmates, John Moore (who co-scripted The Path of Fear) and Brian Churchill, who served as co-producers on Act One.
"In Joey's class, we'd break up into groups and do projects, and over the year we all formed a working relationship," Ellis says of the origins of Old School Pictures. "It became obvious that the four of us worked really well together. But that was our senior year, and it was time for everyone to split up and go their separate ways for college or whatever."
Ellis and Norris entered the University of Memphis' film and video program. Weatherly went to study broadcasting at Middle Tennessee State University. Gardner moved to Los Angeles to pursue an acting career. But despite spreading out, Old School kept getting back together to make movies -- comedies (Hustled and Hustled 2), thrillers (Means to an End), and another stab at Carpenter with Halloween 2000.
These movies were seen almost exclusively by family, friends, and classmates, usually at after-hours premieres at Malco's now-defunct Trinity Commons, where Ellis worked. It was a localized phenomenon but a phenomenon nonetheless: Old School screenings sold out, and the group was learning how to make movies. An East Memphis/Germantown film scene was emerging to rival those in Midtown.
"We didn't have much of an identity at that point," Ellis says. "We were genre-hopping. I've always loved horror movies, so my background comes from that kind of filmmaking, which I think is pretty cool because horror movies tend to be low-budget and that gives you the opportunity to experiment with things. But we didn't have a certain kind of film we would make."
Old School took a step forward with the atmospheric thriller The Path of Fear. But Act One is a giant leap, comparatively: bigger budget, better writing and acting, more polished production values. The movie also marks a slight change in what had become the Old School formula, with Ellis as director/cameraman, Weatherly as editor/post-production specialist, Gardner as screenwriter and actor, and Norris as actor and producer.
"With Act One we decided to shake things up a little bit," Ellis says. "I was the director, but I stayed away from the technical stuff and let Matt shoot the movie. He was the DP [director of photography] with assistance from John [Moore] on the lighting. And I was the primary editor."
Norris continued to serve as a producer and Gardner, who stars as Kevin Hanson, a young screenwriter struggling after his first Hollywood project bombs, supplied a sharp script that had good structure, comedy, and a convincing dramatic payoff.
"I think we got lucky with Allen's script," Ellis says. "He surprised a lot of us with how solid it was."
Gardner also helped bolster the film's cast by bringing a couple of actors home with him from Los Angeles. Adam Burns, Gardner's partner in his L.A.-based film-production start-up Hydra Productions, flew in to play Kevin's slacker roommate and comedic foil, Trip. Old School also cast L.A.-based actress Bettina Adger as Kevin's romantic complication, Kate, after Gardner put an ad on an actor's message board and got 300 responses overnight.
The Old School crew shot the bulk of the film over the course of eight weeks last July at a variety of Memphis locations, including an ambitious musical sequence shot at Theatre Memphis. Moore took a sabbatical from his job at Churchill's production company (Churchill Communications), where Ellis also now works, to concentrate on lighting the film. Other members of the crew quit their jobs to get the film finished. But even with all that, making last year's Indie Memphis deadline wasn't a given.
"I didn't want to rush the project," Ellis says. "We were always facing the Indie Memphis deadline and weren't sure if we were going to enter the festival, but obviously I'm glad we did." And now Ellis hopes the recognition from Indie Memphis and the opportunity of a full run at Studio on the Square can help Old School build a bigger audience.
"There are a lot of independent filmmakers in town and everyone kind of does their thing, but we've discovered we're a little more mainstream," Ellis says of the Old School sensibility. "I don't know if that comes from how we were raised or grew up, in Germantown, but we make pretty accessible films."
"I like the fact that we're a combination of indie and mainstream," co-producer Churchill says. "I think it's something to embrace, not look down upon. That's our identity at this point. We're low-budget mainstream."
"The whole purpose of these screenings is not so we can get our fans to see it again so we can make some money off of it," Ellis insists. "It's truly to expand our audience. There are a lot of hard-working filmmakers in town, and this is a tremendous opportunity Malco has given us. If it's successful, then this could turn out to be good for the filmmaking community in general."
Showing Friday, Feb. 17th-Thursday, Feb. 23rd
Studio on the Square