No prophet is accepted in his own hometown, as the saying goes, and that’s certainly been filmmaker Justin Eugene Evans’ experience. Although the New Berlin resident is not native to the Milwaukee suburb, he credits his local address with preventing him from getting his award-winning film “A Lonely Place for Dying” shown on Milwaukee-area movie screens.
“I approached most of the Milwaukee theaters in June, but no one responded,” said Evans. “For whatever reason, we could book showings in five other states more easily than in our hometown.”
Could it be the kind of twisted case of snobbery that Groucho Marx had in mind when he quipped, "I don't care to belong to any club that would have me as a member?"
Evans' film has won 27 awards at film festivals across the country, including 18 for best picture. It's being screened in multiple cities in Idaho, Montana, Ohio, Oregon and Washington in coming weeks. Outside of Milwaukee, the movie has engagements in the Wisconsin communities of Chetek, Medford and Merrill, as well as a Sept. 7 date at the historic Al. Ringling Theatre in Baraboo.
And Evans himself will be on hand for a three-day, six-show run Sept. 14-16 at Madison’s Barrymore Theater. He’ll answer questions following each screening.
Evans, 39, has an impressive lifelong resume in his field. The son of former video store owners, he started his first theater company at 14 and began making films at 15. He graduated from New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, where he became the first undergraduate to complete a feature film while in school. He was the art director for an Albuquerque, N.M., video gaming company.
But despite those credentials, Evans has experienced his share of rejection. Seven festivals turned down his film before it landed its first slot. The reason that each festival gave was that, despite being an indie film produced for less than $250,000, “A Lonely Place for Dying” was far too “slick” with too much of a Hollywood action-flick quality to it.
Ironically, these backhanded compliments have since been the reasons for the film’s growing success.
Set in 1972, “A Lonely Place for Dying” is a spy thriller that pits a Russian KGB agent against a member of the American CIA – with dire consequences. Nikolai Dzerzhinsky (Ross Marquand) has a microfiche with photos of an illegal CIA-run bombing raid on Vientiane, Laos, during the Vietnam War. He is willing to trade the film to Washington Post editor-in-chief Howard Simons (Academy Award nominee James Cromwell, who also serves as the film’s executive producer) in exchange for asylum in America.
Dzerzhinsky agrees to a meeting with a Post reporter in an abandoned Mexican prison, but instead finds himself facing CIA agent Robert Harper (Michael Scovotti), who has been sent to kill him and retrieve the evidence. The majority of the film takes place in the prison, evolving from a running battle between the two operatives to an unlikely alliance when both men learn that they’re being hunted by the CIA.
Evans co-wrote, produced, directed and served as one of the cinematographers for the film, which was shot in its entirety in the former New Mexico State Penitentiary, a now-abandoned prison outside of Santa Fe. (In 1980, the penitentiary was the site of one of the most violent prison riots in U.S. history.) Special effects and back projections were used for the film’s early scenes in Laos and Washington, D.C., but the bulk of the action occurs within the confines of the decaying prison.
Evans, who also spent a decade as a freelance art director in Hollywood, China and India, got his original idea for the film from an unlikely source at the video game company where he formerly worked.
“One of the members of our technical department was ex-CIA,” Evans says. “We'd go out for lunch and he'd tell these amazing anecdotes about working for ‘The Agency.’ That's when I started thinking about making a spy film. His knowledge made it easier to tell an honest, realistic spy story.”
Evans’ video game experience also allowed him to capitalize on the film’s special effects capabilities and save money in the production process. Evans tapped artist Marc Leonard to create more than 300 visual effects – from gunshot wounds to enhanced sunlight pouring in through the prison’s barred windows. All those effects translate into one for every 20 seconds of screen time.
"When I joined the film as a visual effects artist I understood that I'd be doing muzzle flares and blood splatter, but as time went by it became clear that Justin wanted me to be an extension of his cinematography,” Leonard says. “I'd wrap up a shot and Justin would ask me to add more dust, add rays of light and animate the clouds."
Evans was fortunate to attract a talented cast. More than 10,000 actors submitted portfolios for the various roles. In addition to Cromwell, Liam Neeson and Tim Robbins expressed interest in the role of Simons, but were unable to commit for various reasons.
“If you have the ability to write compelling dialogue and craft a well-told story, then any movie star is accessible,” Evans says. “All we did to attract Cromwell was send him the script. It really is that simple.”
Now Evans, whose has 23 other scripts in development, hopes he will have as much success finding a hometown screen to show his film. The filmmaker plans to reach out to local real estate investor Lee Barczak, the owner of Bay View’s Avalon Theater and recent purchaser of Milwaukee’s Times Cinema and Wauwatosa’s Rosebud Cinema Drafthouse, in hopes that one of the classic theaters might project his work.
“I'd like to book a Milwaukee theatrical run immediately,” Evans says. “I'll sweep the floors, clean bathrooms and help with concessions. Whatever it takes!”
Chances are, after all Evans has been through to produce his award-winning film, his local aspirations won’t be disappointed forever.