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Flying High
South Bend native's film comes to the Vickers

South Bend Tribune - South Bend, Ind.
Section:  Intermission (front page)

Filmmaker Keith Morris thinks he knows the secret to pulling the rug from beneath the big Hollywood studios.

"Hollywood is running scared," he says (with a wink), reflecting on what makes contemporary independent filmmakers like himself competitive with the big boys. "The only thing they have that we don't is star power, and we can get that, too, with a little effort.

Everything else we can work around, and they know it."

Technology is the secret that low-budget filmmakers have up their sleeves, and Morris has made the most of the available technology to produce cost-efficient films that lead experts to shoot far too high when they take a guess at his budget. Morris' latest film, "Flying Tiger," which will enjoy a sneak preview screening at the Vickers Theatre in Three Oaks on Wednesday, is a special effects-laden effort that pushes inexpensive filmmaking to the limit.

"It's empowering technology that we're dealing with here," says Morris, a South Bend native. "Every day I wake up with my head just buzzing about the possibilities. There's nothing more satisfying than hitting roadblocks and blowing right through them."

There seem to be few roadblocks left in front of Morris, a former Adams High School student, whose first film, "The Clinic," won the Best Screenplay award at the New York International Independent Film Festival and went on to a screening at the Cannes Film Festival. "Flying Tiger" is Morris' second film, part of a 10-films-in-10- years plan that could see Morris with a blockbuster on his hands before the decade is out. The writer-director has harnessed every bit of technology available, from digital video to the Internet, to make affordable movies that look as if they cost a lot more than they actually did.

"Flying Tiger" is not the type of project that one would expect an independent filmmaker to tackle, especially not as his sophomore project. The story of Seth, a flying high school football player -- that's right, a boy who can fly -- is a family-oriented drama that depends heavily on action and special effects; the story is anything but the modest, sedate project that comes to mind when one contemplates low-budget filmmaking. In order to pull it off, Morris used not only the latest technology, but some tried-and-true tricks as well.

"What I'm really excited about is our use of matte paintings," Morris says of a special effect technique used extensively in "Flying Tiger," a technique that's anything but high tech. "It's an old-school Hollywood razzle-dazzle technique that combines live- action footage with fantastic paintings and photo collages. When we do them right, you can't tell that it's not real. It was hilarious to see people's reaction at Sundance. Their jaws just dropped."

He's referring to the Sundance Film Festival, the prestigious showcase of independent film where the "Flying Tiger" trailer generated much positive buzz.
Drawing attention as the "one to watch" by producers' representatives at Sundance was actress Kendra Jones, who also co-produced the film (and who happens to be married to Morris). Jones, with the help of production coordinator Kirsten Overholt (nicknamed "The Glue" for her tenacity), was instrumental in orchestrating the shooting of the film in her hometown of Stockton, Mo. The production came off without a major hitch, despite the fact that Stockton had been nearly leveled by a tornado just two days before shooting was scheduled to start. That's not to say, however, that the shoot was fun for everyone involved.

"We (crew) all lived in one tiny house together, 12 of us, I think, with one bathroom that occasionally worked," recalls Blake Gingerich, the crew's gaffer (that's film-talk for "electrician"). "We shared it with 10,000 ticks and a whole lot of big bugs.

"The cast and crew were both amazing, so we somehow managed to pull this thing off and get out of there with no serious injuries."

Gingerich, a Valparaiso, Ind., native and current New York University student, is part of an Indiana connection that Morris keeps alive despite his escalating career success and his New York address.

"I left New York City and lived in South Bend for a year while we prepped the film," says Morris. "Some area college students got class credit for working on the film. I want to always support filmmakers from Indiana because New York and L.A. shouldn't get all the work, right?"

Morris picked Greenwood, Ind., native Sean Ripley whom he had met at a filmmakers meeting in South Bend, to be his director of photography, and Ripley called the brother of one of his friends, Gingerich, when the crew needed a gaffer. The two were part of a network that Morris had formed following a talk at the University of Notre Dame, where he told students about his experience at Cannes with "The Clinic," and while teaching at Ivy Tech (along with Jones).

As he put together the crew for "Flying Tiger," Morris saw the opportunity to help out aspiring filmmakers in Indiana who were in the position he was in himself not so long ago.

"I remember moving back home after college and saying, 'OK, now what?' " he explains. "It was scary. Well, we answered that question for a group of kids this year. Now they know how to do what we do, and probably better."

If Morris was able to give something back to his hometown, though, South Bend was also able to make its own unique contribution to the production of "Flying Tiger." When Morris needed some footage of television journalists for the film, he called WSBT-TV videographers Phil Patnaude and Josh Taylor.

"I met Keith during my time at Ivy Tech college, where he taught some classes," recalls Taylor. "Phil also knew him from Ivy Tech, but on the teaching end of it. Well, one day we were talking to Keith, and he said he needed some stuff shot for his new film. He sent us what he needed, and Phil and I shot it for him. He needed an anchor reading some lines, so we used Mike Collins, and he also needed a reporter, so we asked Ed Ernstes to do that part."

Because of the tight bond between Morris and South Bend, it is perhaps not surprising that the filmmaker would give "Flying Tiger" a sneak preview in Michiana even before it plays to an audience of 30,000 at San Diego's First Night festival on New Year's Eve.

"We want to sneak preview the film to show it to the crew and cast from the area, and anyone interested, to build a buzz for the real release," says Morris. "The cast and crew haven't seen it in its entirety yet!

"We're rolling out the red carpet for families because this is a family film. Because it's a real sneak preview, we're going to do it like they do it in New York. We'll hand out ballots, and you'll get to vote on your likes and dislikes. Then we'll go back and make changes that we agree with. And there will be a roomful of cast and crew members for a Q&A to follow. And some swag too."

When it came time to choose a venue for the event, Morris knew the theater he wanted. Notre Dame's DeBartolo Performing Arts Center will be fantastic when the time is right, but for now, the Vickers Theatre in Three Oaks is where Morris wants to be.

"Jon Vickers is the man. He and his wife Jenn support indie filmmakers, so we want to support them. He gave my wife and me a tour of the theater last year, and we fell in love with it. It's straight out of 'Cinema Paradiso' -- a gem! Plus, it's a little more out of the way; we want film nuts like us to come."

The next project in Morris' 10-year plan is "a comedy that asks this question: 'What if you could completely control everything about the one you love?' " but his most important goal is that he keeps doing what he loves to do.

"My uncle Ray Bennett said I'll either be real poor or real rich someday," Morris jokes. "I just like making movies and teaching others. Any money I make goes right back into the films. If one hits, fine. If not, it doesn't matter. I found the secret to happiness -- shoot, shoot shoot. And share your secrets."

Credit: Tribune Correspondent


'Flying Tiger' soars at movie's premiere ; Independent film features a bold look
South Bend Tribune - South Bend, Ind.

Start Page: 1
Section: Home
Text Word Count: 768

THREE OAKS -- There was no red carpet at Wednesday night's sneak preview of "Flying Tiger," the new film from writer-director and South Bend native Keith Morris, but there were plenty of flashbulbs and at least one feather boa.

The evening's three screenings at the Vickers Theatre in Three Oaks drew large and enthusiastic crowds made up, in large part, of the friends and family of the film's cast and crew, many of whom are Michiana natives. No one seemed to mind, as Morris emphasized during a question-and-answer session between screenings, that the film is still a work in progress in need of further audio mixing and color correction. Any of the film's remaining rough spots were easily overlooked in light of the production's impressive polish; true to Morris's promotional pitch, "Flying Tiger" is a good-looking film, with a cinematographic luster that belies its low budget.

"Flying Tiger" tells the story of Seth Fairchild, a boy who, for reasons mysterious and mostly unexplored, is able to fly. Seth's father discovers his son's fantastic ability early on, and, keeping the secret from everyone -- including Seth's mother and sisters -- he moves the family to rural Missouri, where he buys up huge tracts of land in the hope that isolation will keep Seth's talent under wraps. Seth grows into his teenage years and becomes the star of the local high school football team (his amazing agility makes him a natural at the game), and all seems to be going well despite the boy's secret quirk.

Conflict enters the story, however, from several directions. First, there's the interference of Gene, a sickly yet devious boy who resents the monopolization of local real estate by Seth's father. Gene hates Seth, and he uses his ill health to win the sympathetic attention of Seth's girlfriend, Sherry, and to undermine Seth's reputation in the small town.

Then there's Jimmy, a slightly off-balance hunter of American Indian artifacts, who stumbles onto Seth's secret and becomes obsessed with capturing the flying boy on video. Finally, there is a group of paleontologists hot on the trail of an exciting new find who descend on Seth's hometown, complete with military backup, hoping to get to the bottom of the area's strange goings-on.

With "Flying Tiger," Morris has taken advantage of up-to-date technology and the considerable talent of his young crew to make a film that is, at times, almost breathtaking. The work of cinematographer Sean Ripley, in particular, is often stunning, saturated with color and awash with light. The Missouri exteriors are especially impressive. The actors are surrounded by lush settings that are sun-dazzled yet never washed-out or overexposed.

Coupled with Morris' crisp, authoritative direction and editing, Ripley's camera work allows the film to stand confidently beside a project with a budget 10 times bigger (according to the film's promotional material, it was made for less than $1 million).

With the addition of the special-effects paintings of Nate Ferrone (which are, ironically, successful enough to be virtually unnoticeable), "Flying Tiger" threatens to leave its indie film heritage behind.

The film's acting performances range from competent to effectively engaging. Brian Schany and Abby Wathen, as Seth and Sherry, are attractive enough to be big-time Hollywood stars, and Schany is convincing as a boy with a dark secret, never pushing his brooding angst over the top.

The show-stealing performance, however, is Casey Clark's Jimmy, a whacky, wild-eyed comic turn that provides a few solid laughs.

If "Flying Tiger" has a weakness, it's in the story's complex web of a plot that often feels a bit out of control. The convergence of high school bullies, artifact hunters, fossil hunters, news reporters, and soldiers is somewhat confusing and detracts from the warm-hearted kernel of the film: a fable about an unusual boy and a father who will go to great lengths to protect his son. Charming plot points -- such as Seth's plan to pull off an amazing feat in order to impress Sherry -- are given short shrift in order to provide room for threads that add little to the narrative.

Yet "Flying Tiger" is fun to watch. Morris's screenplay is amiable and accessible, and the performances of Schany and Clark alone are worth the price of admission. Most significantly, the film is a visual treat, and one cannot help but feel that Morris got his money's worth and a whole lot more from his equipment and his crew.

Credit: Tribune Correspondent

FLYING TIGER --- 3 and 1/2 stars by Michael Ferraro (reviewed at Film, Un-rated, 120 Minutes, UFO Tech -

"Flying Tiger" takes a relatively familiar storyline and pumps it full of fine acting performances and graceful cinematography. That familiar storyline I am speaking of involves a boy with the incredible gift of flight, living in a small town and trying to keep it a secret from the local residents (and even some members of his family). Sounds and feels a bit like television's "Smallville" but has more of an independent filmmaker's touch. Here, the characters are more interesting and thankfully, his flying ability isn't used to try and create the only attention-grabbing element of the film.

Mark Fairchild (Purkeypile) discovers that his son has a unique flying ability at an early age. In an effort to keep it a secret from the world, he moves his family out to a small town and purchases acres and acres of land so that his son can practice his gift. As Seth (Schany) enters his teenage years, he finds his skill a little bit harder to disguise.

Mark does his best to keep his son out of sight, he even finds himself constantly driving through his land looking for trespassers that may accidentally see this miracle. One day he stumbles upon Jimmy, a wacky and bearded artifact hunter, seeking Indian relics in a pond and throws him out of his land. Jimmy returns curiously, pondering what it is exactly that Mark is trying to hide. Jimmy then begins an unending quest to return to the property and sooner or later, he finds clues about Seth's secret identity.

As "Flying Tiger" begins, you almost expect some superhero happenings, yet, they never come into fruition. This isn't a story trying to label Seth as remarkable; it is simply one of those stories about someone a little different than the rest of us. Sure that may sound like the average family friendly fare, which it is, but it doesn't spew out all of the cheese, sentimentality and moralization the genre is known for.

The editing may not be perfect but the film has a lot of good going for it. One of the best shots of the film is an early matte painting showing a fossilized dinosaur in the clearing of an archeological dig. It's huge and the director knew what he wanted to show and it was done without compromise. Matte paintings were used all throughout "Flying Tiger" and thankfully, it's hard to tell.

Another fine element is the performances, especially the character of Jimmy, played by Casey Clark. He does an admirable job of mixing enough unique traits to a somewhat clich├ęd character--the wacky and annoying scientist type--to keep you thoroughly entertained each time he hits the screen.

"Flying Tiger" also has one more thing going for it--director Keith Morris chose wisely with his preference of never actually showing the boy fly. Doing too much would just take away from the rest of the story, and doing it cautiously may also distract the viewer's attention. Perhaps that this choice was due to budgetary concerns but nevertheless, it worked so much better because of it.


Above is a behind-the-scenes video from a photoshoot for "A Fighting Chance" (renamed Gutter King).  We had a competition to find the best makeup artists in Florida, and shot the 3 finalists for each main role in fun magazine-style spreads. The photos were used in promotional material to raise the budget for the feature.

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