Flick Fixation

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

The scene at the PBA office begins with the movie's lead, a leggy FBI agent named Gomez, walking casually down the hallway. The dialogue falls a little short of jaw-dropping. Gomez's boss, coming out of a boardroom, bangs into her with a door, spilling papers she was carrying onto the floor. (Davis added the collision for a bit of extra drama.)

"Hey, Agent Gomez," the boss barks. "I need you to go undercover on the Ramsey case."

"Boss, that's suicide," says the agent, pushing her cascading hair from her eyes.

Matt Pabon hopes the movie will make him a star.
Colby Katz
Matt Pabon hopes the movie will make him a star.
It's about the girls, filmmaker Gary Davis explains before the hot-tub scene.
Colby Katz
It's about the girls, filmmaker Gary Davis explains before the hot-tub scene.

"I'm not asking -- I'm telling," the boss says in an ad-libbed line.

At the end, Davis offers praise after the actors have run through the scene for the umpteenth time. "Now, wasn't that better? I know I made you do this over and over, but it got better every time." Most of them are used to Davis' demanding numerous takes. The woman playing the part of the junior agent, 20-year-old Shasta Rodriguez, owner of a Cuban café in Pompano Beach, undergoes dozens of repetitions in a scene that requires her to kick Pabon in the chest. Her first kick was weak, but by the fifth or sixth high heel to the ribs, she was nailing a flinching Pabon.

But most of the actors in the scene need little direction; they know how to play the part of cops because, well, they are cops. It's indicative of just how easy it is to find people who want to be stars. Even the law wants to be part of a guerrilla filmmaker's project.

The boss in the scene is played by Duke Walsh, a silver-haired, 65-year-old, retired robbery/homicide detective. He spent more than three decades as a cop, mostly at the Palm Beach County Sheriff's Office. "When you work undercover," Walsh explains in his brusque New Jersey accent, "you can get yourself killed if you screw up." He's been taking acting classes in his retirement, and A Sinner's Prayer will be his first movie. "There's a lot less pressure in this when all they can do is boo you instead of kill you."

In the next scene, the part of another FBI agent will be played by Jeff Jackson, a lieutenant with the Sheriff's Office. He's been moonlighting a bit as an actor. A few years ago, he had a part playing a bodyguard in the WWF. He strode into the ring with the Nation of Domination tag team. "The Rock and I actually got started at the same time," Jackson explains. He met Pabon while shopping for a suit at the mall. Pabon gave him his pitch about the movie. Built like a linebacker with strong features and a cleanly shaven bald head, Jackson fits the part of an action hero-to-be. He's wearing a silver suit with matching tie and handkerchief, all of which came from Pabon's store. "Matt is very good at what he does," Jackson says, brushing his lapel.

Before shooting the next scene, Davis enlightens the actors with a bit of wisdom. "My brother has a philosophy," he explains while kneeling on the floor. Davis rarely sits. He fidgets mostly, and he's rocking on bent legs, like a catcher behind the plate. "Everybody's one of the Three Stooges. Women want Curley, the guy with the sense of humor. Larry is the follower, and every job needs a bunch of Larrys. And then some people are the Mo. Mo makes sure everything gets done." Davis explains that after moving to Florida, he spent years as Mo, managing fast-food restaurants. It taught him about managing people at the lowest level. He ran a Church's, a Popeyes, and Taco Bells.

"OK, we gotta get this done," Davis says, interrupting himself. "I'm supposed to pick up my wife like an hour ago. She's gonna kill me."

He shoots the next scene in a spare three takes. Then he gets some cut-away footage from behind the actors, with close-ups of surveillance photos the FBI has on Pabon's character, and he plans for the next scene. It's coming up soon: a scene in which Pabon's character is running from a robbery and confiscates a cigarette boat. He's chased on the open seas by a helicopter. Pabon has a friend who will loan him a $100,000 boat for the scene. And the cops? "Gary knows somebody in the bomb squad," Pabon explains in the lobby of the PBA office. "We're going to get the police helicopter to chase us."

It remains to be seen whether Davis can pull that one off.

Being a black man from New Jersey with dreads down his back, Davis' home isn't what you might expect. He lives like a hillbilly, really, in a cottage across from an alligator-infested canal. It's down a dirt road near Royal Palm Beach in the rural Acreage development. He has cars in the driveway, under trees, and in the bushes. "I was born into poverty," he says, explaining away the cars, most in some form of decay. "So everything means something to me."

Inside, the place is nearly lightless, with blinds pulled tight. He has a jazz DVD playing loudly from giant speakers next to the TV. Below it sits a shelf of DVDs and videotapes. Jackie Chan movies are everywhere, interspersed with The Color Purple, Robo Cop, and Liar Liar -- enough commercial fare to make most indy moviemakers barf. "I just like watching movies. Anything," he explains. "I learn something from all of them."

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