It’s the ultimate film geek fantasy: A hit-man becomes a movie usher; gleefully dealing with the drunks, loudmouths and seat-kickers that inevitably fill your local cinema. But Roger Leatherwood’s USHER is more than just some simple (though welcome) wish fulfillment. It’s a quiet meditation on life, goals, aspirations and finding contentment in your work, with echoes of Poe, and a beautiful theater as its central location. Since its release, both Roger and producer Gary Yap have been busy with a variety of diverse projects, but obviously hold a lot of affection for their nearly decade old film. The two reminisced with me about the difficulties of filming USHER, what they’ve been working on lately, and the project’s legacy.
Sweetback (SB): First I’d like to get a sense of how you got involved with the project. Were you there from the initial development, and did you have a previous relationship with Roger Leatherwood?
Gary Yap (GY): I’ve known Roger ever since … wow … 1990? 1991? We both worked at a Blockbuster Video together, with him as the Manager and myself as his (eventual) Assistant Manager. I would wind up following him from Blockbuster to the Sequoia in Mill Valley to the Grand Lake in Oakland, always playing the Chester to his Spike. Sharing a true love for movies of all shapes and sizes, Roger was instrumental in teaching me so much about the language of film and its various genres; its history, texts/sub-texts, etc. We could – and did – talk about film for hours. Fucker’s wicked smart. What few actual IQ points I have I pretty much owe to Roger.
As far as USHER, Roger and I had been looking for an excuse to do some kinda project together for years. Literally. Years. Once I started working on King of the Hill in 1997, I finally had the resources to realize some of our ideas.
SB: Can you talk a little about how the idea for USHER came about? Obviously the availability of the theater influenced the idea in some capacity. Was the Edgar Allan Poe influence in the script from the beginning?
Roger Leatherwood (RL): It began with that comment everyone seems to always make at their workplace – I’ve heard it at everywhere I ever worked – “this place is crazy, they should make a movie out of this place.” A movie theatre has a wide variety of people working there, most of them eccentric or outsiders and you always have a flow of new people coming in to create drama. The flash came when my co-worker Adam Aicher mentioned a take, what if a hitman in hiding worked as an usher? Now he would take care of the problem customers! With that idea the film almost seemed to form whole in my head for the first draft.
We also surveyed the resources at our disposal and since we all worked at a theatre at the time, including the photographer who was also a projectionist it seemed perfect to use the setting around us and all the locations. It was a controlled environment, we could do anything indoors without permits, and even though it was a “one-set” movie the theatre had a lot of variety; the backstage, the auditorium, the booth, the roof, etc, so it wouldn’t feel to claustrophobic. The Orinda theatre was a classic art deco age theatre so it also gave us instant production value, a beautiful place that people weren’t used to seeing much in films or shows.
The Poe thing – it seemed to present itself pretty early. You have a mad person in a place he begins to feel trapped in. The fact that the manager of the theatre (played by me) is called Mr. Roderick (as in “Usher”) is a clue that either he’s the real madman (to stay there?) or that Ash perhaps is going to end up in charge of the theatre, the new Scorpion King as it were.
SB: The IMDB trivia mentions a 12 week shooting schedule. That length is almost unheard of for a microbudget production. I imagine all of those overnight shoots eventually became rather grueling. What was the shoot like?
RL: Since the plan was to shoot mostly at night – after the theatre was closed and we were all night people anyway, the plan was to shoot Thursday nights through Sunday nights, 4 nights a week, for about 6 or 8 hours a night for 4 weeks. Like any independent production we underestimated how long it would take to get stuff on film – we were shooting on film in a large somewhat unforgiving location. Theatres are designed to be dark. Also our efficiency went way down about 3 or 4 am and we began to think about what we had to do tomorrow. The last couple of weeks turned into short days, often with only 2 or 3 crew members by that point, grabbing inserts. Good thing I scheduled the crowd scenes and the scenes that needed more people earlier when enthusiasm and energy high. I think we actually shot literally 28 or 30 days but it took a good 3 months by the time all was said and done.
SB: One of the things I love about the film is that you get to see the parts of the theater that usually remain hidden – the projection booth, the roof, the manager’s office. Were you all given free access to any part of the theater you wanted to shoot in?
RL: Like I said before, we knew the theatre held secret and visually interesting places people had never seen before. Of course the film is very much obsessed with how the theatre, as an art-space, as a kind of museum or church affected those who worked there, including Ash the main hitman who has to become an usher. Just as he is hiding his killer training for a while from his other co-workers, the theatre is hiding its nooks and crannies from the public until you go deeper.
The owner of the theatre, who was an independent exhibitor in the Bay Area, and it goes without saying was a big appreciator of the old movie palaces, completely understood our motive to capture, among other things, the beauty of the theatre. I worked there and I was a trusted employee. I don’t think he really read the script – I did give him an early copy, and I don’t think they realized we were going to be walking on the roof or jumping on the tops of seats near the end there. We were respectful of the place. We cleaned up all the fake blood.
SB: When the film was complete, did it end up having a screening at the theater it was shot in? Sounds like it must have been a surreal experience.
RL: One of the most satisfying outcomes of the process was to show the film in the theatre it was filmed at. All our friends and cast and crew came out for our first fundraising screening. It was very surreal. We’ve had a couple other screenings in other theatres but to be surrounded by those murals in real life while watching action play out on screen, possibly in the same seats up on the screen, gave it a very uncanny vibe.
SB: Were you surprised by some of the accolades the film received after its release? Raves in SHOCK CINEMA and FILM THREAT must have been rather validating for such a labor of love.
RL: Somewhat surprised and certainly delighted. But then, the film was intentionally aimed at critics, to perhaps a more patient, more jaded audience or critic who wanted more than just a slasher-in-a-movie theatre film. There’s a handful of those and it had already been done. We sent screeners to a handful of these publications and these guys, Shock Cinema and Film Threat are very smart and have seen everything. They picked up on what we were trying to do, an arty thriller that took place in a movie theatre in the age (early 2003 – 20054) when movie theaters, particularly the old palaces, were really starting to close down to make way for AMCs and digital. That’s one reason why the theatre in our film is so empty. It’s at the end of its life.
GY: I wasn’t surprised at all by the accolades the film received. Does that sound douchey? I certainly don’t mean it to. In my opinion, Roger is a helluva talent. I have ZERO doubt in the man’s abilities.
SB: Since 2012 the entire film has been available to watch freely on YouTube. What prompted this decision? I’m guessing that after eight years the film’s biggest benefit comes from just getting as much exposure as possible.
RL: We were caught in the time in which film was becoming harder to distribute, digital was coming in and the DVD business was starting to fall apart. We had a handful of companies who nibbled on picking up the film but we never got beyond the 2nd step as things like THE BLAIR WITCH PROJET and the straight-to-video craze had wound down. The film never graduated beyond the film festival circuit to reach a wider audience and Gary had extensive experience putting his stuff on YouTube and knew it was a valid way to get your stuff in front of people who might have heard of it somewhere and couldn’t get it anywhere else.
GY: I’m an IntraWebs Guy. For me – in this day and age (and that’s a BIG qualifier, BTW) – it’s more important that the art be seen than sold. You’re looking at (currently) over 6000+ views that never woulda happened otherwise. It’s also given our work automatic credibility, as being associated with a multi-award winning film certainly hasn’t hurt.
SB: Gary, you’ve had extensive experience in the animation industry, and in recent years have turned your attention to working as a storyboard artist. Do you find that sort of collaboration thrilling, or limiting?
GY: Personally, I love it. Granted, I’m sure the process is contingent upon the people you work with. I’ve been pretty fortunate to work with folks like Brad Bird, Greg Daniels, Paul Lieberstein, Wes Archer, and Dominic Polcino, among others. Recently, I served as the sole Storyboard Artist for a horror film called THE POM POM MASSACRE, where I got to work with Producer Curtis Andersen (Sabrina, the Teenage Witch) and Writer/Director Zeke Pinheiro (The Price). Phenomenal experience. They trusted me completely and – because of that – I think I wound up doing some of my best storyboard work ever on that film. Watch for it. If all goes well, I look forward to doing interview #2 with your site in the future.
SB: For those who want to check out more of your work, what’s the best way to do so?
GY: I would greatly encourage folks to check out my comic book – entitled ULTRAVIOLE(n)T – at www.ArtOverLifeStudios.com and lemme know what they think. I write it, draw it, letter it, color it, etc. Out of everything I’ve done, it’s the most ‘ME’ project out there. I would also be remiss if I didn’t put over www.TheLastPodcast.com, a podcast/professional wrestling company I’m involved with that’s trying to raise $5000 for the Cancer Aid & Research Fund.
As far as Roger, there’s his site – ‘On Or Around Roger Leatherwood’ at www.rogerleatherwood.wordpress.com. You can also simply search for him at Amazon, where much of his written work is readily available. In my opinion, one book of his in particular that’s a MUST-READ is FLIES: A NOVEL, which is a … hmm … well, I like to think of it as a ‘thematic sequel’ to USHER. Seriously. Great freaking read.
SB: Do you have any final words on USHER. What lasting influence has it had on you?
GY: I guess the final words I wanna stress are that in the end it’s all about doing the work; about finishing what you started. I can’t even count the number of people I’ve known throughout the years who’ve waxed philosophical about that comic book, novel, or film that they’re gonna do … (dramatic pause) … someday … that they never wind up doing for whatever reason, usually outta fear of failure. Believe me. I get it. However, few things compare with the actual COMPLETION of a project and – at least for me – what was even better than that was getting USHER out there online for the world to see. I’m also proud as fuck of Roger, who went above and beyond in creating something so uniquely ‘him’ and – in doing so – was rewarded with a slew of well-deserved awards, praise, and – fingers crossed – more films to come.
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