Despite challenges, West Michigan filmmakers pursue their passions

Despite what some might perceive as a lack of glitz, glamour, or available funding, West Michigan filmmakers are making great stuff, pursuing filmmaking in underrepresented genres like thriller and horror, and celebrating their work in a tight-knit community.
"There are more quality filmmakers here now than there have ever been," says Chris Randall, filmmaker and owner/operator of Fulvew Productions. Working in film in Grand Rapids for the past 18 years, Randall has witnessed the ups and downs of the industry, including the adoption—and eventual termination—of Michigan's tax incentives for outside filmmakers.

Despite what some might perceive as a lack of glitz, glamour, or available funding, West Michigan filmmakers are making great stuff, pursuing filmmaking in underrepresented genres like thriller and horror, and celebrating their work in a tight-knit community. Technology and changing distribution models have too allowed for easier access to filmmaking tools, allowing even young, bourgeoning filmmakers to experiment and learn about the craft while creating entertaining, polished pieces.

Chris Randall, who attended Grand Valley State University to study film with friend and later colleague Keith Golinski, was obsessed with thrillers and adventure stories like "Raiders of the Lost Arc," "2001: A Space Odyssey," "Poltergeist," and "Ghostbusters." "That's everything that inspired us to get into film," he says.

Cutting their teeth on a hunting and fishing show that ran on an outdoor channel for four years, Randall and Golinski founded Fulvew Productions in 2001. Working on everything from videos for websites, to broadcast commercials like an ad for the Grand Rapids Rampage that ran during the Superbowl, the pair completed their fair share of commercial projects before deciding to pursue their true passion: adventures and thrillers.

Randall's most recent project in this genre is the four-part series thriller series, "Local," which features four thrilling short films that were shot in West Michigan by West Michigan filmmakers. With the primary goal to "promote the film production community of West Michigan to a national and international audience," Randall and premiered the series on May 31 at Celebration Cinema, and on June 6 on WKTV. WKTV will also show one episode each week during the month of June.

Working with local filmmaker and West Michigan Film Video Alliance President Anthony Griffin, Randall also founded the Thriller Chiller Film Festival—an international film festival held each year at Wealthy Theatre—in 2006. "We tried to cover everything from local filmmakers to international," says Randall. "We had films from all over the world." Curating films that represented the fun and adventure—and sometimes even the obscure or the grotesque—of the films that Randall and Griffin grew up with, the pair sought to bring an entirely new type of festival, one that was welcoming, acceptable, and casual, to the West Michigan audience.

Anthony Griffin and his wife Shirley Griffin help make the Thriller Chiller Film Festival happen every year.

"It's been a fantastic learning experience," says Griffin, who has been filmmaking in GR for 15 years with his company, UnSafe Film Office (UFO). Witnessing the slow growth of the festival over the years, Griffin brought on his wife, Shirley Griffin, a writer and marketer, into the fold for her business acumen. "She essentially saved the festival and turned us into a business," says Griffin. "She turned us into professionals."

Unlike Randall, Griffin came to filmmaking later in life, teaching himself the craft before returning to school to earn his MFA in screen writing. Serving in a variety of capacities including cinematographer, director, and photographer, Griffin experimented with short and feature length films while making connections in the industry and learning the craft.

As the cost of technologically sound cameras decreased in the early 2000s, Griffin began making films on his own—without the support of big financing. At the time, he often thought "Why not just make something? Why are we waiting to find someone who will pay us to do it?" This scrappy attitude inspired others in the community to pursue narrative filmmaking in West Michigan, according to Shirley.

"I think that's the interesting thing about Tony," says Shirley. "His DIY attitude and his natural ability as a story teller has made him curious to just go out and do it."

Of course, as time went on and Griffin mastered his craft, the money and projects did come, helping him to become the director of photography for feature-length films like the recently released "Two Steps from Hope" and the upcoming "Diane." But even as a seasoned filmmaker, Griffin insists,

"If you're a good storyteller and you have the skills to create an interesting concept that can be made into a film or a web series or something that's marketable…you can go and find your financing…and you can make a film anywhere these days."

This commitment to ambitious filmmaking inspired Whitney Hemmes, a student in Griffin's producing class at Compass College of Cinematic Arts, a local, Christian film college. Hemmes is currently working with Compass and also former Thornapple Kellog classmate Heather Rolison on the latter's stoner comedy, Bud's TV Show, which will begin filming this July.

"We have a lot of restrictions with what we're allowed to make at school, so we wanted to branch out and try something new," says Rolison.

"[Stoner comedy] been done before but not very well," she continues. "I wanted to do something that would reach an audience of my age, that deals with issues that we deal with." Currently fundraising and finalizing their crew, Rolison and Hemmes plan to release the series on Amazon Prime once it is complete. "Amazon Prime is a pretty relaxed streaming site," says Rolison, who explains that the process to release films on this sales and content giant is relatively straightforward.

As for the future of these two budding filmmaking careers? "We're both planning to go to LA once we graduate," says Rolison, who plans on pursuing a writing internship in tinsel town. "I'm really interested in the producing aspect of film and TV, and you can't really produce a whole lot anywhere other than LA."

"I would love to come back and work here but the films incentives in Michigan aren't great anymore," she adds. Hemmes also would like to return to Michigan after earning her stripes in LA, and notes that she would love to pursue a passion project in her home state after making it big.

While many filmmakers like Hemmes and Rolison choose to leave the area, others, like Randall, Griffin, and horror extraordinaire Dan Falicki, decide to stay, opting to cobble together local resources or tap outside funders for their local projects. Falicki, who owns a warehouse for props and shooting on 36th street, has released several films on Amazon Prime, including "Accidental Exorcist," which was released at the Edinburg film festival Dead by Dawn, and on "Thirteen Demons," on Netflix. Passionate about the genre and dedicated to the West Michigan scene, Falicki jokes, "I guess horror is the only genre of movies where you can get away with just having a bunch of unknown actors."

Another local filmmaker, Joel Potrykus, relocated to Grand Rapids in the late '90s to pursue filmmaking. Drawn by the the film "Hardcore" by GR native Paul Schrader of "Taxi Driver" and "Raging Bull" fame, Potrykus worked on his own feature film, as well as "mockbuster" (or low budget, direct-to-video films), for California production company The Asylum.

Joel Potrykus

"I think West Michigan is great for independent filmmaking, mostly because we have access to limitless resources. We don't need permits or expensive sound stages," says Potrykus.

Griffin echoes this sentiment, saying "Everything here costs a lot less. And there's a lot less gatekeepers you have to cope with in Michigan, particularly in West Michigan."

Of course, there are drawbacks to being a filmmaker in West Michigan. No matter where you are, if you're not in Hollywood, you're not in the center of the action. However, those located here and invested in the community are still making a living in film, whether that means producing commercial projects, contracting with national companies, or simply working within the community to piece together a diverse collection of pieces.

"Definitely someone can live here and making a living if they put all those people together," says Griffin. And, just like in other creative industries, networking and relationships are key. "The video production community itself supports itself very well," says Randall.

Perhaps Falicki says it best when he advises up-and-coming filmmakers to "constantly be friendly" and "go to premiers."

"It's better to have a big network of friends than to do it alone…especially around here."

Photos by Adam Bird of Bird + Bird Studio.
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