‘Oconomowoc’ hopes homegrown humor makes a hit

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There are big-budget Hollywood films. There are low-budget indies. And then there are no-budget films.

“Oconomowoc,” written and directed by Andy Gillies and produced by Joe Haas, is a small movie that’s making its way through the U.S. Gillies graduated from Lawrence University in Appleton, Wis., and “fell in love with the people.”

Not only is “Oconomowoc” set in its title city in Wisconsin, but most of the film’s cast and crew, including the lead actor, Brendan Marshall-Rashid, are friends or classmates of Gillies from the state.

He and Haas decided to create and fund the film themselves, with a script written to make the project manageable with a small crew. Though Gillies has written other movies, “Oconomowoc” is his first feature film.

“We decided to take the resources we had creatively and shoot this movie for nothing and see what the end project was, and then focus our money on distribution. So that was our main objective: to get it out to people no matter what,” Gillies said.

“It was basically shot for no money,” said Haas, who was director of photography, editor and composer for the film. “You’ve heard of low budget; well, this is pretty much no budget.” Haas graduated from Marquette in 2003, where he was a broadcasting and electronic communications major.

“Oconomowoc” is a comedy about Lonnie Washington, a 29-year-old man who moves back home with his binge drinking mother. In his confused state, Washington teams up with an old friend who has a t-shirt business, hoping to find some success.

Gillies says he drew inspiration from many filmmakers, including Wes Anderson, Tim Burton and David Lynch among others, as well as from different works of literature.

“A lot of it is based off experiences and conversations and taking them further,” Gillies said. “The characters aren’t based on real people, and neither are the circumstances. They are experiences that are highly fictionalized.”

The absurd situations the characters experience are exaggerated tales of communication gone wrong. Gillies discussed how he kept the plot loose in order for the movie to revolve around the interactions between the characters.

“The movie itself is about conversation,” Gillies said. “It’s about how we see ourselves and how we see other people, how loved ones see us and how much of what we talk about is lost in conversation. A lot of it is making fun of how all of us, regardless of our beliefs, believe what we think, and even though it’s wonderful, it’s somewhat absurd that we actually believe the things we say.”

Gillies said the screenplay was written in two weeks and was originally 140 pages long. After completing the script, he put it aside, only to later re-visit and re-write the story. Though pre-production of the film took more than two years, “Oconomowoc” was filmed in eight days in its eponymous town.

“We had to do everything, from me directing to Joe doing photography, then doing lights and sound, then having to cook food for the cast,” Gillies said. “It was quite a taxing, but exhilarating experience.”

The movie’s score was composed by Gillies, Haas and Marshall-Rashid. The three of them got together and improvised most of the music.

The production raised a small amount of money using a Kickstarter, a website that allows outsourcing of funds for projects, but the money raised wasn’t even close to the amount that went into distribution. After what Gillies called a “nightmarish” process, they were able to secure a nationwide deal resulting in the film’s release in cities across the U.S., including a week in New York City and Los Angeles.

“Oconomowoc” will be playing in Milwaukee’s Downer Theater on Thursday, April 25. It will play at the theater for one night before moving to the Majestic Theater in Brookfield, Wis., on April 29, the Rosebud Cinema Drafthouse on May 3 and several other locations across Wisconsin, including Madison and Appleton. Gillies and Haas attend every screening to hold a question-and-answer session at the end of the movie.

Gillies mentioned he has written other screenplays and that the team has several other projects in mind. He is grateful for the doors that are starting to open for him thanks to “Oconomowoc.”

Ultimately, Gillies hopes that after seeing the film, the audience takes away the message that “life is pretty complicated. You try to do the best you can. Overall, life doesn’t make much sense. Amidst all of this confusion, you can keep some sense of humor.”

The film has drawn mixed reactions, but it’s something Gillies understands and, in a way, was expecting.

“It’s the type of film that’s not going to be for everybody,” Gillies said. “It’s a very fragmented comedy. Not all people are into that stuff. It’s not a nicely tied together film, and we tried to get into something a little more odd. Reaction has been across the board. The people that like it, love it. And even people who didn’t enjoy the film still think it’s pretty cool. There are always going to be people who don’t like it but still have dug what we’re trying to do.”

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