Weekly Wire
Nashville Scene Art Attack

Nashville filmmakers Coke Sams and Bruce Arntson fight complacency with the zany "Existo"

By Lisa A. DuBois

JUNE 7, 1999:  On the surface, Bruce Arntson, Coke Sams, and Clarke Gallivan seem like such, well, normal people. Obviously, that's a ruse.

Usually they don their young executive disguises and make music videos and commercials under the aegis of Studio Productions. For the past 18 months, however, they've morphed into indie filmmakers and immersed themselves in the production and promotion of their homegrown musical comedy, Existo. This movie wears its eccentricities like a badge of honor. Characters break out in song while skewering people all across the political spectrum.

Existo is set in a world, says co-writer/director Sams, where the conservatives are indeed the money-grubbing, Christian bigots that the liberals believe them to be, and the liberals are exactly the sexually perverse, radical heathens that conservatives imagine them to be. This is America as envisioned in our worst nightmares.

As the movie opens, the country is under the watch of Newt Gingrich and William Bennett, who've achieved godlike status. The iron-fisted televangelist Dr. Armand Glasscock (Mike Montgomery) monopolizes the airwaves, ensuring the American public that through prayer, he's just "diverted an asteroid from certain collision with our planet." Fed up with these right-wing crackpots, a group of guerrilla performance artists desperately call upon their former sultan of civil liberties, Existo, to lead the nation back to art and to a time when "condoms are dispensed with crayons." Unable to shirk his calling, Existo rises up from the ashes of live theater to lead an "all-out battle for the hearts and loins of America's youth."

Co-writer and composer Bruce Arntson, who portrays Existo as just this side of psychotic, says his character "is the poetic genius always on the edge of suicide. But he has that poetic charisma that gathers the masses and gets them to follow him."

With the aid of his girlfriend, Maxine (Jackie Welch), Existo flaunts his leftist agenda in subterranean nightclubs and whips together a revolution against family values. The melee grows so dangerous that a panic-stricken news broadcaster (David Alford) warns his viewers, "If you have to go out, and you see art, do not--I repeat, do not--try to interpret it yourself. Call 911 and let the Art Squad defuse it."

The right-wingers fight back, launching a scud attack on Existo with an irresistible Mata Hari, the sexy Christian chanteuse Penelope (Jenny Littleton). The rest of the cast is a veritable who's who from the local acting pool: Ray Thornton, Connye Florance, Denice Hicks, Matt Carlton, Brian Russell, Barry Scott, Mary T. Bailey, and Garris Wimmer. Also starring are Mark Cabus, Gailard Sartain, and Jim Varney (clad only in white body paint and a jock strap).

If Existo seems absolutely outside the grid of the commercial film market, the local production team accepts that risk. "This is a comedy with music for people like us," producer Gallivan shrugs.

Adds Sams, "This baby's going to be a hit or a miss. It will not languish in the middle. Bruce's temperament as a writer and as an artist has never been to seek the safe and sane. So he's to blame."

"I take perverse pleasure in the fact that this is not the type of film people expect to come out of Nashville," Arntson says. "Nobody has a Southern accent in the whole movie."

In fact, Existo is garnering the kind of attention that harks back to the golden age of indie filmmaking, when people crafted wacky, off-center, low-budget flicks to escape the formulaic mediocrity coming out of Hollywood. Several of these indies, such as Pink Flamingos, have now become cult classics.

"I don't see this as a cult movie," Sams argues. "It's a musical, which is an oddity now. Independent films are becoming bland. We're at the end of a cycle where indies have become little Hollywood movies. Indies used to be more provocative, daring, and innovative. That doesn't make them cult movies, that makes them exciting. We're not for everybody, but we're not for some 14-year-old glue-sniffer, either."

The show has its Nashville premiere as part of the Nashville Independent Film Festival. The production team is also taking the reel to film festivals in Georgia and Florida, and it's responding to interest from several national film distribution companies.

Back in April, Existo closed out the Los Angeles Independent Film Festival during the midnight time slot. Originally booked for a 150-seat theater, the show sold out so quickly that LAIFF organizers convinced the producers to switch to the larger, 600-seat main theater. Investor Joe Calloway flew out for the premiere and had friends from Chicago meet him at the screening. "When the lights went down, I suddenly got real nervous," he says, "And I prayed, 'Oh, please let them laugh.' "

Apparently, they did. Many in the crowd also stayed through the credits for the question-and-answer period. According to sources, some thought the movie was brilliant; others considered it "a mess."

Which is the kind of reaction any fringe movie that attempts to skirt the mainstream will engender. "Everybody's looking for the hook," Sams says. "So we decided to be big and loud and entertaining. If these actors were obscure British actors, you'd have a deal. Well, these are obscure actors from Nashville--so get over it."

Nashville physician Brenda Butka also flew out for the L.A. screening and hooked up with an old friend there, a former Nashvillian now living on the West Coast. According to Butka, after watching Existo, her friend left the theater shaking his head. "I don't know," he said. "Maybe the writing is a little too smart for Los Angeles. People in Nashville will love it, but it might be too clever for Hollywood."

Only in Hollywood is intelligence considered a roadblock to success.

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