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.
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."
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.
"The limo is taken care of," he says to the volunteer thespians. "But I need you all to buck up for a good tip. Really take care of this guy."
Pabon brings Davis back to the theater, which is now showing previews in both audio and video. "Oh, thank God," he whispers. "Once I see it on the screen and I can hear it too, I'll relax." Then he makes a confession. "I just finished editing this two days ago because of a whole list of personal things. I hope it isn't terrible."
By the time the movie starts, the theater is packed. An employee of the movie house, where some patrons are watching Alien vs. Predator, ducks in to tell Davis that both showings of his movie have sold out. He'll split the $10-per-ticket proceeds with the house. Like most of his movies, however, Davis will be lucky to come out even. For a self-described "no budget" moviemaker, the expenses of a grand opening can exceed those of the movie itself. After the limo, the light truck, the projectionist, the cost of his camera and editing equipment, Davis might walk away with dinner money.
Turning out bad movies has always been a seat-of-the-pants operation for Davis, who started out shooting 9mm short films on his dad's camera in Camden, New Jersey. In those days, he used his sister and four brothers as actors. Young Gary was known as the eccentric neighborhood kid who always had a camera in his hand. He ignored just about everything but his movies, often forgetting to comb his hair, which led to the dreads. The kids called him "Sole Man" because he wore shoes so worn out he'd have to tape paper to the bottoms. "I was poor, but I could afford shoes," he says. "I just didn't want to buy them." He majored in music at Glassboro State College and married Sonia, his childhood playmate. He went on hiatus from the moviemaking business when they had their daughter, but he got back into it in the early '90s.
It's his all-consuming passion now. Anything he owns can be dragooned into a film. Shooting a movie at his home in rural Royal Palm Beach, he once dismantled his deck to build teepees.
Davis has never joined the Film Society or used the services of the county's Film and Television Commission. The county is willing to help Davis set up the filming of his shots. But the county requires all filmmakers to carry a $1 million insurance policy in exchange for its help, something Davis isn't about to pay for.
Davis isn't the type to go through official channels, Film Commissioner Chuck Elder acknowledges. "Gary Davis is the definition of independent," Elder says. "He does this on his own, and that's the way he wants it."
As the opening credits roll, groups in the crowd clap for each name. Each actor, it appears, has a little claque of friends and relatives to bubble with enthusiasm upon seeing their hero make it onto the silver screen. The plot is this: A vampire-hunting samurai from Japan has come to Mexico and teams up with a local to hunt down the undead; they end up at a couple of brothels, where vampire prostitutes feed on unsuspecting johns; fighting ensues.
This time, the shoots were on the up-and-up. For The Spanish Inn, the owners of Alleyda's, a West Palm Beach Mexican restaurant, let Davis' film crews in during Sunday-morning downtime. The rough stucco interior of the place was perfect for the movie, which is set in 19th-century Mexico, but sometimes diners would start filing in as Davis was shooting a vampire scene in the back corner.
The movie is brilliant. In spots. Slow-mo action scenes speed up Matrix-like, and some of the actors pull off the simple lines like pros. Other parts aren't so good. One vampire dies three or four times -- a persistence that seems unusual even for a vampire. One of the stars gets knifed in the heart only to resurface a few minutes later. While it's supposed to be 1850s Mexico, in the background in a couple of shots, a plastic Corona blimp hangs off a wall.
Still, the audience's reaction is extraordinary. During the bloodiest scenes, the crowd erupts in laughter. Audience members cheer wildly when one of the main characters launches into an unexplained guitar solo for several minutes. When the vampires attack, the crowd howls at the overdone sounds of bloodsucking and a drawn-out dying scene in which an actor kicks his legs wildly inches from the camera. In the front row, a group of teenagers cracks up every time the main star mispronounces "bampire" through his Spanish accent. It's unlikely the suburban Boynton Cinema has ever shown a movie with as much vocal reaction.
The soundtrack is... unusual. Davis cobbled it together himself, as he does for all his movies, and it tends to veer off into the esoteric, with whistles and bells going off at odd times. Whenever money makes an appearance, there's an exaggerated sound of coins falling. Then hip-hop tunes cue to action scenes.
After the screening, Davis stands in the doorway as his fans, his actors, and their families file past. A few go by without a word, a sure sign they hated it. He says his worst insult ever was when a guy told him his hype wasn't worth his movies. But most congratulate him as if he just had a baby. They gush about the action scenes, swoon over the plot. They want to know how they can buy a copy and plead with him to show it again.
"All I want," Davis says between the praise, "is for them to get it. If they got the story, then it's a success, and I think they got this one."
As for another showing, it's unlikely. Davis has moved on. He has a new movie to shoot.
The girl has just changed into her bikini, its green straps sticking out from her low-rise pants, when Davis asks her to step outside with him. Usually, Davis is thinking faster than he talks. His sentences tend to run together in incoherent strings. He laughs about it because he knows his mouth can't keep up with his head. But for now, for a fleeting minute, he talks seriously with the beautiful girl. "This I'm going to say to you, and I'll say it to the other girl too," he says, with a fatherly hand on her shoulder. "You should steal the scene. You should steal the scene from him and from the other girl, and you should make it your own. This scene to me is about the beautiful girl. Sometimes it's action, but now it's about the girl."
Lindsey Mullings, trim and baby-faced at 19 years old, looks confident. "I'm not ugly -- that's good."
Back inside the apartment where Davis is shooting A Sinner's Prayer, he gets the pair of girls to slip into the hot tub. They sip champagne while Pabon, the lead in the movie, puffs on a stogie. At first, the girls were just supposed to be eye candy in the scene, but Davis wants more. "She needs to be working for his attention the whole time. Do whatever you would do to get a guy's attention. You want to make Tyra Banks look bad."
When filming begins, Davis inserts a new beginning to the scene. It was supposed to start with Pabon in the hot tub with the girls. Instead, Davis has Mullings enter from the apartment. His camera follows her as she struts across the patio. The camera pans up and down as she struggles to push her tight jeans over her hips while barely keeping her bikini bottoms from following. Then she slips toenail-first into the bubbling water.
These girls, the starlets who might even steal the scene, came about acting like many in Davis' movies. Mullings was working at a jewelry store at the mall when Pabon approached her. Using what sounds like a pathetic pickup line, he asked her to be in his movie. "I just go up and say, "You have a great look. I'm making a movie and you need to be in it. '" As most do, she said yes.
This movie is a dream for Pabon. He wrote it and stars in it, and, in fact, it's something of an autobiography. The movie is the story of a gangster who's being chased by the FBI as he pulls off bigger and bigger heists. As the end comes, though, he finds God and remakes himself. Pabon never got that deep into trouble, but back in his native Cleveland, he used to run a numbers operation -- underground lottery -- and got caught up in the street life before starting a born-again trip. Pabon now runs the Manhattan Suit City store in the Palm Beach Mall, and last year, he ran a commercial on a show Davis produces for WXEL. Afterward, he convinced the filmmaker to join him on the project.
At 28 years old, Pabon is spontaneous and likable. He's a celebrity at the mall. At the coffee shop, the guy at the register asks if he can be in his movie, and the girl frothing the milk offers her services. "I'm studying theater," she tells him. "Let me know if you ever need a grip." While working at the store, Pabon did some extra work in films shot in Miami. He appeared briefly in Any Given Sunday and There's Something About Mary. It got him thinking that maybe the moviemaking business wasn't so hard. "This movie's gonna blow people's minds," he says. "They'll see me selling drugs and shooting people, and then I find God in the end."
The actors -- dozens of them, mostly Pabon's mall discoveries -- sign contracts that they will be paid "what's reasonable" if A Sinner's Prayer goes big-time. Pabon wants to enter it in film festivals and dreams that a studio may pick it up. Either way, it's remarkable how many people want a part.
On a recent Thursday afternoon, Pabon arranges for Davis to shoot a scene in an unlikely spot. Using Pabon's mall connections, they take over the lobby and boardroom at the Police Benevolent Association's office in West Palm, bringing together a guerrilla filmmaker with a building full of cops.
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.
"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."
Davis and his childhood sweetheart, Sonia, eat salads from folding tables as they talk about his movies. She's as gregarious as he is, and they constantly compete to finish their stories. "He won't comb his hair; he won't dress," she says pouting. "I asked him to dress up for my birthday, and he still hasn't done it."
They talk about the old neighborhood, where Davis progressed from "Sole Man" to "The Professor," because he was always so serious. "I never considered myself a nerd. I was a very unique individual," he explains. As he speaks, Davis switches from his perch on the very edge of the couch to kneeling, squatting, and standing up quickly to gesticulate wildly or to get some prop -- a photo, perhaps -- to illustrate a story.
The conversation changes to casting. "I used to think you could just go up to anyone and make them an actor. But now I know those aren't the people who will show up every time." He made a spy movie series a few years back and had trouble getting his volunteer actors to sign on for sequels.
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Sonia says the reason they show up -- the pursuit of fame -- is simple. The mall where Pabon gets his actors is the epicenter of West Palm's poorest neighborhood. "Those people in that neighborhood," she says from experience, "are all looking for some way out."
After Sonia takes the folding tables away and Davis finishes his tea, he ducks back into the spare bedroom where he edits his movies. Props from his films sit stacked nearly to the ceiling in almost every inch of the place. An aisle dug out of the junk provides walking space to his workstation. He moves some prop swords from a chair so he can show off his editing software.
Davis plays the beginning of his masterpiece, Jade. It opens with panoramic views of an Orlando theme park called Splendid China. The place looks like a hilltop retreat in the Orient. Davis has overlaid classical piano on the opening scenes. "This is the best movie I've ever made. I've captured this movie." The plot is something of an unapproved prequel to Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. It's the story of how Jade Fox, the witch-like character from the Ang Lee movie, became so damn evil. He doesn't have a date yet for the premiere of the movie, though he has discussed distribution rights with Maverick Entertainment, a straight-to-video distributor in Deerfield Beach that makes mainly blaxploitation flicks. Some of his fans have been pushing him to enter Jade in film festivals.
As the opening intro fades into a scene with a young samurai entering the shrine of his master, Davis leans back and crosses his arms. "If I give this to Maverick, they're going to want to replace the piano music with hip-hop." Would that be... selling out? Davis doesn't hesitate. "I could care less."