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St. Petersburg filmmaker Chris Fuller brings edgy 'Loren Cass' back to where it all started

From the start, Chris Fuller knew this would happen. But at age 15, he didn't think success as an independent filmmaker would take so long.

Fuller's 26 now, and Loren Cass, his debut as a writer, director and editor, has been compared to the early, avant-garde works of Gus Van Sant and Harmony Korine. A theatrical and home video distribution deal is sealed. One of Hollywood's top talent agencies recently signed Fuller as a client, shopping around his future projects to studios.

"If you could condense everything down to a year or two instead of 11, it would've been exactly according to plan," said Fuller, living the indie dream in St. Petersburg, where teen angst led to ambition. "Everything takes longer than you hope, and everything's harder than you hope."

Creating Loren Cass began in 1998, two years after Fuller's hometown blazed with racial tension when a white police officer fatally shot an African-American man. Fuller was inspired to write a movie, not about the shooting, but about being young and nihilistic in the socially scarred city where it happened.

He titled it Loren Cass, an odd choice as nobody in the story has that name, and it's never mentioned. That's part of the dense, inscrutable drama Fuller fashioned, an abstractly structured primal scream that took another nine years to finance and produce.

The completed film hit the festival circuit in 2007, seeking a distribution deal that never came. Like countless other indie works, Loren Cass appeared destined for obscurity, admired by industry insiders for its unnerving, non-linear style but too commercially risky.

Fuller and co-producer Frank Craft repeatedly contacted potential distributors. They were always politely rejected until Kino International received their last-ditch, 17-page memo, detailing how Loren Cass could be marketed through its hard core music, alienation theme and young, unknown stars.

Persistence paid off. Kino secured a limited theatrical and DVD distribution deal. "Kino's got guts," Fuller said. "They saw the film for what is was, and were willing to take a chance on it."

Kino general manager Gary Palmucci said in a telephone interview that Loren Cass "fits into the groove of what we're trying to cultivate here.

"We've primarily specialized in foreign language, very auteur-driven, review-driven films. We're now trying to build up our portfolio of American independent films.

"There's this kind of Southern indie ethos, with filmmakers like David Gordon Green (George Washington) influenced by writers like Flannery O'Connor. Chris is part of that vein of Southern iconoclasm. We're in New York. We can't pretend that we know the territory. But that's what it looks like from here."

Kino's deal included a single-theater engagement in New York in July. That's when everything became, as Fuller said, "really strange."

Big Apple reviewers gushed about the debut. New York Times critic Nathan Lee wrote: "Some people keep diaries to deal with trauma. Others make art. A select few (like Fuller) start careers of singular, exquisite promise."

Such buzz caught the attention of Creative Artists Agency, a Hollywood talent agency representing Tom Cruise, among others. Now its client list includes Fuller, who's furiously finishing two screenplays —11 years after beginning his first and only.

Fuller declined to offer many details of those projects: One is an adaptation of a novel, the other an original story. Neither is set in St. Petersburg and won't be filmed here. "But they're bigger, to say the least; scope, budget, ambition, whatever," Fuller said.

"CAA is working to get the rights to the novel right now. Pretty much, I don't need to make any phone calls anymore. That's the best part of having that kind of muscle in your corner."

Loren Cass is slowly circulating through major market art houses; Los Angeles next month, Seattle afterward and Chicago sometime down the line. Kino will release the DVD version later this year. Fuller pushed for a hometown engagement beginning Friday at Beach Theatre in St. Pete Beach. It's the first time Loren Cass has been shown locally since 2006 at St. Petersburg's Studio@620.

That sold-out screening attracted several viewers who left frustrated by Fuller's moody impressionism, or shocked by its spasms of violence, including real footage of a suicide on live television.

"There were a few 70-year-old women and stuff, and it's not their cup of tea," Fuller said. "It's an aggressive film, for sure. As far as mainstream audiences go, you've got to open your mind a little bit, you know?"

Palmucci agreed: "Chris doesn't make it easy for you, and that's to his credit. Unfortunately, we're living in a time when a lot of audiences want to be spoon-fed, they want everything explained. Mood pieces are difficult for people to get their arms around."

For his part, Fuller doesn't intend to take a commercial detour, just to make moviegoers comfortable.

"But at the same time I don't think you should approach them with contempt," he said.

"What I want to do is stick to my guns, make my films my way. I can do that with $30,000 or $30 million. I have concrete plans for what I want to do artistically. Do I think there are ways to market them for wider release? Definitely. I'm not scared of painting it big, you know?"

Steve Persall can be reached at persall@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8365. Read his blog, Reeling in the Years, at blogs.tampabay.com/movies.

Fast facts

Loren Cass

Chris Fuller's indie movie opens Friday at the Beach Theatre, 315 Corey Ave. in St. Pete Beach. Visit the theater's Web site (www.beachtheatre.com) or call (727) 360-6697 for show times.

St. Petersburg filmmaker Chris Fuller brings edgy 'Loren Cass' back to where it all started 08/22/09 [Last modified: Saturday, August 22, 2009 5:31am]

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