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'Melvyn's Clock' can't be beat for speed

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Posted: Tuesday, February 26, 2008 11:41 pm | Updated: 9:04 pm, Fri Oct 7, 2011.

Camrin Richardson didn't get paid for his last job as a private contractor, but that doesn't bother him. After all, how often does an 11-year-old get the chance to star in his own feature-length motion picture?

The Gilbert youth was one of approximately 150 local actors and extras recruited by Tennessee-based filmmaker Jon Russell Cring to appear in "Melvyn's Clock," a low-budget drama shot over two weeks earlier this month throughout central Arizona. The movie - edited at a whiplash clip - will premiere Thursday at Pollack Tempe Cinema.

"It was a great experience," Richardson says of his film debut. "But it wasn't as fun or easy as people say. We worked really long hours. It was tiring."

Indeed, long hours come with the territory for Cring and his wife, Tracy, who serves as his co-director, cinematographer and editor. Last year, the couple launched the Extra/Ordinary Film Project, an ambitious gambit to shoot "12 feature length movies 12 months," all across the country. "Melvyn's Clock" is the ninth film in the series; the 10th, "Has Been," will be shot next month in Sacramento, Calif.

Tempe businessman and part-time actor Lanny Rethaber, who plays the title role in "Melvyn's Clock," was astounded when the Crings' cinematic road-show first rolled into town.

"In 15 years of acting, I've never heard of anybody making movies this way," he says. "It's extraordinary to say the least."

In the movie - a day-in-the-life drama similar in construction to "Friday" and "Falling Down" - Rethaber plays Melvyn, an aging gadfly whose daily ritual of roaming the streets near his home takes a violent and unexpected turn. His young co-star, Richardson, plays one of Melvyn's neighbors, a boy jeopardized by his divorced father's suicidal impulses.

Like all of the Extra/Ordinary productions, "Melvyn's Clock" is based on a screenplay by the director's father, Jonathan Richard Cring, a professional writer and musician who also composes the soundtracks. By any measure, the elder Cring's rate of productivity is astonishing - it takes him only "eight to 10 hours" to dictate a 100-page screenplay, according to his son.

Such on-the-fly creativity might seem suspect, evoking comparisons, perhaps, to the wily amateur Spielbergs played by Jack Black and Mos Def in "Be Kind Rewind." But leading man Rethaber swears the Crings know what they're doing: "It was very quick-paced. I was very impressed. So often on movie sets you're just sitting around - the industry is notorious for that. But it wasn't the case here."

Jose Rosete, who plays the suicidal father, agrees. "The crew was small, but they were all on the same page. They all had exactly the same thing in mind. It was really efficient."

So Cring knows how to shoot a movie. Why 12 in 12 months?

"It started as a dare," he says, while putting the finishing touches on "Melvyn's Clock" at the production's temporary headquarters in Queen Creek. "I challenged my dad to try his hand at writing screenplays, and he found that he had a penchant for it. And then he challenged me to direct them."

Weary of toiling on low-budget horror movies for a Tennessee-based production company, Cring decided to partner with his family and hang his own filmmaking shingle. "I was sick of my job. Zombies don't talk. We wanted to make movies where dialogue was king again."

After shooting eight films in Michigan and Tennessee - including a period thriller set in the 1960s and an all-puppet family movie - Cring decided to move the project westward to Arizona, for the "bigger market" and camera-pleasing wintertime scenery. Working on a bantamweight budget of under $5,000, Cring cast "Melvyn's Clock" with unpaid actors and scouted locations across the Valley: a hot dog vender in Gilbert, a chiropractor office in Queen Creek, Beihn Park in Guadalupe, in addition to street scenes in Tempe and Scottsdale. Portions were also filmed in Phoenix and Prescott.

Audiences who attend the Tempe premiere would do well to diminish their expectations. Post-production on a Hollywood-style feature is an expensive and time-consuming process: Foley sound effects, computerized color correction, digital effects and the like. There's simply no way that "Melvyn's Clock" will look or sound as slick. (It would be impressive if the movie looks like it was shot for $100,000, as Cring claims.)

However, the limited budget does make for fun anecdotes. Cring humorously notes that the crew only had one "squib" - the explosive charges that simulate bullet wounds - for a pivotal shooting scene in a borrowed home. Flailing, the squibbed actor accidentally knocked a hole in the drywall. Cut, print. Before leaving, the crew patched the hole.

The low budget also forced the cast to improvise. As Melvyn, Rethaber had to play "old" - the character is at least 10 years older than the actor himself. With expensive make-up out of the question, Rethaber used a slight hunch to convey the Melvyn's decrepitude. Cring concedes that the movie is unlikely to make its money back during the Tempe screening or anytime soon after, but notes that "movies have a long shelf life." Insiders speculate that the Crings might try to sell their entire Extra/Ordinary catalog in totem to a distributor, instead of piecemeal.

To some extent, Cring is relying on the 12 month/12 movie mandate ("gimmick" seems too harsh) to promote "Melvyn's Clock." He laments Hollywood's fixation on "flying weapons and talking polar bears" and offers his character-driven films as novel alternatives. (Oscar-nominees such as "Juno" and "The Savages" have shown the soulful, character-driven movie is hardly dead in Hollywood.)

For the unpaid cast, the experience was an opportunity to explore their dramatic capabilities, and limits. The young actor, Richardson, may yet evolve into his generation's Olivier, but during an emotional scene that called for tears, he found himself unable to muster.

"I couldn't get up any tears, so they had to go to the store for Visine," he recalls, with a sheepish grin.

Don't worry, dude - that's the way they do it in Hollywood, too.

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