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Six men crowd into a back hallway of the Palm Beach Mall. It's an emergency exit, an employee entrance, and, with its nondescript concrete walls, the perfect place from which to stage a robbery. Dressed in black, the men are as burly as bouncers. They have guns tucked into their belts.
"I have a delivery for you," one of them says through the back door of a store that sells African art and clothes. When an employee peeks out, one of the bouncer-looking men thrusts a forearm into the other man's neck and slams him into an electrical panel. The gang of toughs quickly steps past the crumpled clerk, rushing the store, guns pointing wildly.
The boss of this operation, a smarmy gangster who goes by Miles, scans the scene with his handgun cocked sideways. "Thirty seconds," he commands, as one of his men rifles through the store's goods.
Out through the doorway, a wave of panic washes into the mall. Moms tug their kids past the store, and shoppers scramble off, ducking away from potential gunfire. Some onlookers gasp at the exposed guns; others just watch, riveted with curiosity, like rubberneckers ogling a highway wreck.
But wait. The robbers, with their professionally pressed suits or dress slacks and gym-muscled arms, have a manicured look that's too perfect, as if they've just stepped out of a dressing room. Their moves seem a little too tightly chore- ographed. And what's with the guy with the camera balanced on his shoulder, following the action like a bloodhound?
This robbery is as real as a Hollywood wedding.
The cameraman, his dreadlocks flailing above his pole-thin frame, is a whirlwind rushing through the store, pursuing the robbers. It's Gary Davis, West Palm Beach's resident moviemaker, would-be genius auteur, the man who always seems to be juggling a dozen film projects. Right now, he's shooting the scene from elbow-height, getting a bumpy, visual chronology of the robbery.
The rough, energy-driven roller-coaster view from the fast-moving camera -- that's just what Davis is looking for. He wants the scene to run nonstop. "I want this in real time," he had explained before he and his "robbers" stormed the store. "Like it's happening right as the audience watches."
Davis wants the scene so real, he kind of accidentally forgot to tell the mall management of his plans.
This is Davis' long-established modus operandi. He has carried the title of guerrilla filmmaker with pride since he started shooting films when he was 10 years old on a rundown urban corner of New Jersey. With a crowd of Palm Beach County Davis aficionados enthralled with everything he does, the filmmaker could probably get all the permission he needs to shoot anywhere in the county. But he relishes the danger of shooting scenes that, if he doesn't get in and out quickly, could end in his arrest.
It's a mark of pride for Davis, who regales you with stories of near escapes during past shoots. Once, he dragged a fake gunshot victim up the steps of a local hospital, having to explain to concerned medics who rushed out to assist that -- relax, guys -- it was just a movie. Then there was that debacle at a major transportation hub (no exact locations, please, because the cops could still arrest him for that one), where federal agents forcibly evicted him. "I probably should have asked somebody first before that one," he says with mock regret.
Eight years ago, Davis was shooting a spy movie on Clematis Street, West Palm Beach's downtown thoroughfare, early on a Sunday morning. Bad guys chased the movie's hero through the streets at gunpoint. Cops -- real cops -- were called, arriving on the scene to find... nothing. Davis had gotten the shot off before they arrived.
"Yeah, that was kind of crazy," Davis concedes now. "There were a lot of scared people who thought it was all real."
One reason for the occasional hassles with authorities could be Davis' appearance. "People think I'm a gangster, and that's why they always want to throw me out," he says. He's a chronically sloppy dresser, often in a worn-out T-shirt that hangs like drapery off his 170-pound, six-foot frame. His dreadlocks reach the middle of his back, and, though he's 50 years old, he looks 20 years younger. Fortunately, though, he seems to have the ability to talk himself out of, or into, anything. He pre-sents a barrage of ideas, a volley of sentences that rattle against one another like grapeshot. He talks the way he shoots and edits his movies, lightning-fast, to the point where his actors can barely keep up.
After 40 years of filmmaking, some say the Palm Beach County resident may finally have improved his craft to become something more than just a hit-and-run director. His next movie, a martial-arts flick called Jade and the White Tiger, is a bit more sophisticated than Davis' previous movies. Jade has the makings of a commercial tale about samurai honor. Filmed at an Asian-themed Orlando theme park, it's visually impressive and well-acted. For once, there's buzz among Davis' followers that this could be his big break.