The filmmakers of “Subterranea” have cast western Montana’s documentary-friendly scenery against type, making it the setting of a psychological mystery drama with a hint of sci-fi.
The movie, in production right now, began as Mathew Miller and Brandon Woodard’s MFA thesis projects in the University of Montana’s Media Arts program.
Miller, a fan of British progressive rock band I.Q. and its 1997 concept album, “Subterranea,” began adapting it for film several years ago.
“I always knew it was very cinematic. It told a story from beginning to end,” said Miller, the film’s writer-director. After he had a script he was satisfied with, he sent it to the band and got the green light.
“They’ve kind of jumped on board and championed the project,” Miller said. “From there we’ve just kind of reworked it, redrafted it. It’s been about two years working on that process to get us here. And now the band’s going to be doing the score for the film.”
It tells the story of a nameless protagonist who was held captive in a darkened cell his entire life without seeing or interacting with another human being, Miller said.
Once on the outside, he discovers he’s at the center of an “orchestrated social experiment,” and begins to investigate his troubled past. That journey sets him on a collision course with those responsible for his captivity.
Starring in the lead role as “The Captive” is Bug Hall, perhaps most famous as Alfalfa in 1994 version of the “The Little Rascals.” Nicholas Turturro, younger brother of John Turturro and a veteran of “NYPD Blue,” flew in from Los Angeles to play Remy, a homeless man the captive meets. Rounding out the cast are William Katt (“Carrie,” “The Greatest American Hero,”) and a who’s-who of local talent including Amy Mason, Lily Gladstone, Amy Peacock, David Mills-Low and Howard Kingston.
Miller said the involvement of Hall and Turturro was a snowball effect from I.Q.’s endorsement and the enthusiasm of its fans, which led to New Jersey-based producer Eric D. Wilkinson and a long casting process.
With a mixture of funds raised online and through private investment, they began filming about a week ago. The ambitious list of locations includes at least 60 spots. They’ve shot downtown, at Blue Mountain, in various alleys, private residences, and at a small set built in McGill Hall on the UM campus. They also plan on visiting the Daly Mansion in Hamilton and Sun Point at St. Mary Lake in Glacier National Park.
There have been some struggles with permitting, but in general have had a good experience around the city and with its residents. “You tell them that you’re filming a movie and they’re just thrilled and people want to be involved and do whatever they can,” Miller said.
The two have directed shorts and some larger projects, but they’re aiming to take their work to another level technically for “Subterranea,” which is being shot with professional equipment.
Woodard, the cinematographer, has been experimenting with lighting and camera lenses, aided by the script’s dark tone.
“With our lens choices and all that, it provides ample opportunities for creativity with the look,” Woodard said. The Captive needs a different point of view than the other characters, because he and the audience are “seeing” the world for the first time.
Getting that look inspired some handiwork Woodard would never apply to his own gear – or any new gear for that matter.
“We were actually taking apart old lenses, taking different glass elements out and putting them in at weird angles, things that you would never really do on a big film because a pristine image is always what you try to go for. But we’re indie filmmakers, we can do what we want,” he said.
Once the filming and editing are complete, the two will aim for the crown of the indie circuit: Sundance Film Festival in Utah. They also plan on submitting “Subterranea” to other indie festivals as well, and subsequent DVD, Blu-ray and Netflix distribution. A Missoula screening will be planned at some point.
“We’re only a week into it, but we’re already getting indications that we’re going to have something magical,” Miller said. “It really makes it worth it, because we’ve spent a lot of hours over the last year. We’ve both kind of quit our jobs and have been full-time in pre-production making sure that this film becomes as good as it can be. It’s paying off already, and we’re thrilled,” Miller said.