Flick Fixation

Gary Davis' cinéma is so vérité, sometimes it brings the cops rushing to the set

But fame is something Davis seems only halfheartedly interested in. For years, he has been content to show his films once or twice to audiences in rented-out local theaters. While local papers have mentioned him 16 times since 1994, none has reviewed his movies. That hasn't stopped him, however, from developing a following. In recent years, he has packed screenings of his films. After the premieres, though, they rarely go much farther than a shelf in his cluttered, spare-bedroom office. He cranks out two or three movies a year, often shooting several at once. "I still don't take myself too seriously," he says of his work. "All I want to do is create. When I shoot, I'm back to being 10 years old again, shooting movies on my dad's camera."

Poised to give Davis his big break is Palm Beach County's staff of film enablers. The county hopes to become the next Austin, Texas -- a place to which amateur filmmakers flock. The county government has an office that helps producers with permits and helps to promote their movies. There's a new organization for local directors, the Palm Beach Film Society, that helps members organize premieres. And last fall, the Palm Beach Film School opened, offering a training ground for future directors.

"South Florida will never be another Hollywood," says Heath McKnight, president and founder of the Film Society. "But it would be great if we could create another place where people really want to come to make their movies."

"People think I'm a gangster," Davis (at left) says, "and that's why they always want to throw me out."
Colby Katz
"People think I'm a gangster," Davis (at left) says, "and that's why they always want to throw me out."
Close to arrest a few times for his don't-ask-for-permission action scenes, Davis uses real cops as actors for a scene at the Police Benevolent Association's office.
Colby Katz
Close to arrest a few times for his don't-ask-for-permission action scenes, Davis uses real cops as actors for a scene at the Police Benevolent Association's office.

These days, it seems, anybody can shoot a film, with a few hundred bucks for a camera and editing equipment that can be installed into any old computer. Unlike the rough, spliced-together films Davis and others made before video cameras were mass-marketed, computer editing can give homemade films a seamless, ready-for-Hollywood look. There's a growing crop of filmmakers like Davis, as indy films increasingly go mainstream. Actors and directors who used to dream of Broadway now aim for Cannes.

What about talent? The stars? Davis -- who is polishing up Jade while juggling three other projects -- has discovered that there are actors on every street corner in Palm Beach County. And they come cheap. Davis and his partners find volunteer thespians in the malls and on the streets. Just about every busty girl they invite to participate in a film project, with no promise of pay, says yes. Hell, yes.

The only scarcity is the specialty actor. Like, where do you find a crowd of kung-fu fighters? "Do you have any idea how hard it is to find Asian actors around here?" Davis asks.


Davis looks frantic. But then, he always looks frantic. He's always hustling to keep up. To pay the bills, Davis has been working part-time editing locally made shows at Palm Beach County's public television station, WXEL. Right now, he's shooting a soap opera that may appear on WXEL and filming another flick, A Sinner's Prayer.

Tonight, though, things threaten to come to a screeching halt because of a balky sound system.

It's August 13, premiere night for his film The Spanish Inn. He's standing between rows of seats at the back of a movie house in Boynton Beach, trying to figure out why he can't get his camera to work. Davis shoots his movies digitally and shows them by hooking his handheld camcorder directly into a projector. Hooking the contraption into the theater's audio system, however, is proving a little tricky. So far, he has figured out the video portion, and he's now showing previews of his upcoming films. In fact, he has them on a loop, so the audience that has begun to filter in has been watching them continuously -- without sound.

"OK," he says to a projectionist he hired for the occasion. Sweat trickles from his dreadlocks. He takes a few steps in one direction, then a few back. He repeats that motion several times. "You figure this out. I've got about a hundred other things to do."

He runs down the stairs of the theater, two steps at a time. He checks in with his wife, Sonia, who's dumping chips and salsa into paper bowls on a folding table near the entrance. "If I spill this on my dress, I'm going to kill you," she warns. Davis already owes her more than a new dress. He used her vacation money to film this movie. "You better put your tuxedo on!" she calls to him as he runs into the lobby.

Outside, the searchlight truck he hired has begun swirling light beams into the suburban sky. Davis spots an SUV rolling up to the theater. "Matt, my man," he says. Matt Pabon plays the lead gangster in the next movie, A Sinner's Prayer. He's the pistol-waving leader who commanded the robbery scene. "Matt, I need you to take me to Taco Bell," Davis says, jumping into the Mitsubishi.

Across the street in the parking lot of the fast-food joint, Davis finds his actors, women in evening gowns, men in costume from their roles in the vampire movie. There's a limo near the drive-through lane waiting to take the soon-to-be movie stars to the premiere. This is called limo-on-the-cheap. The actors have been told to meet in the parking lot so Davis won't have to pay the driver to pick them all up.

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