Gary Huggins needs to raise $70,000 by April 3. The 44-year-old filmmaker's first full-length feature, Kick Me, hangs in the balance.
Huggins either reaches 70 large by 1:59 a.m. Tuesday or loses every dollar pledged. Those are the rules, Kickstarter-style.
"We can do it," Huggins says. "Everyone tells us that the money comes at the end." As The Pitch went to press, 135 backers had signed up to contribute $36,686. (And he could almost make the rest if he had a dollar for every instance of the word kick necessary to tell the story of his latest project.)
But with the end just days away, Huggins' confidence comes with concern.
"I've got a sick stomach every morning," he says. "It's gotta happen, so I'm positive it's going to. Huge pressure."
For their money, Kick Me investors would get a lot of movie.
"It's a nightmare action comedy about the violent indignities that befall a mild-mannered high school guidance counselor who has reached out to a troubled kid and ends up running for his life," Huggins explains. "That's the pocket version of it."
It is, he adds, a "total vehicle" for Kansas City, Kansas, police officer Santiago Vasquez. "I wrote it for him," Huggins says. "Santiago was created to be a star. He was made by God to be a star. Something is going to take him there, and I know this is going to be a vehicle."
"We're in the process of making the greatest movie ever made in Kansas City," Vasquez says. "This is the It movie. This is going to be the standard of filmmaking in Kansas City."
"It's going to be the Article 99," Huggins jokes, referring to the forgotten 1992 Kiefer Sutherland-Ray Liotta hospital drama shot here.
Kick Me is Huggins' second attempt to fulfill God's promise to Vasquez. The first movie he wrote for the cop was a short called First Date, in which Vasquez played an ex-con obsessed with a 16-year-old boy he'd met in an online chat room. The short took Huggins and Vasquez to the 2006 Sundance Film Festival, South By Southwest and Clermont-Ferrand and earned Huggins recognition as one of Filmmaker Magazine's "New Faces of Independent Film."
"I've been trying to put together a feature ever since [Sundance]," Huggins says. "This is the first one that's really come together."
Huggins co-wrote Kick Me with Betsy Gran. They were working on another script, a dark comedy about human trafficking in Kansas City called Ice Cream Slaves. They ripped the source material from then-current headlines — in 2006, Russian students were allegedly brought to Kansas City and forced to drive ice-cream trucks in 13-hour shifts without days off, for as little as 82 cents an hour.
"It's not funny, but it's so tragic that it has to be funny," Gran says. "To get people talking about human trafficking, it's got to be through narrative."
"We shopped it around and tried to get it made, but it was going to be way too big and beyond our abilities," Huggins says. "We tried to write something much smaller."
Trying to come up with a premise they could shoot more cheaply, they arrived at Kick Me. Finishing it, they say, would allow them to finally pursue Ice Cream Slaves.
"That is the ultimate Kansas City movie," Huggins says. "Ideally, this movie will get enough attention that we will then get money for the riskier project."
Huggins and Gran plan to begin shooting Kick Me in May or June if the Kickstarter campaign succeeds. Kim Sherman (You're Next and V/H/S) is their producer. Huggins says they will edit the film as they shoot so that they have something to submit to Sundance in September. They want to unveil it at the festival next January.
"I'm really confident about it," Huggins says of Kick Me. "It has more of a commercial motor. The producer looked at it and said, 'It reminded me of Die Hard.' And yeah, I can see that."
Huggins didn't need a casting call to find his Bruce Willis.
He met Vasquez several years ago at a Kansas City, Kansas, library where Huggins worked. There was no missing him, a mysterious man with a Fu Manchu mustache, long hair and a serious affection for the library's Akira Kurosawa and Miyamoto Musashi films. Huggins thought his new acquaintance was just another oddball cinéaste. He didn't know that Vasquez was working undercover as a drug dealer. After a big bust, Vasquez revealed his true identity. The two have been friends and collaborators ever since.
After First Date, Vasquez starred in a film called The Grass Grows Green, which also went to Sundance.
"I have the privilege of being the only actor in Kansas City, Kansas, who went to Sundance back-to-back," Vasquez says. "Nobody has ever done that. Am I being arrogant? Perhaps. But I can back up my BS."
Two Sundances in a row hasn't translated to stardom, though, so Vasquez also has something at stake with the Kickstarter campaign.
"After reading the [Kick Me] script, I believe if this isn't going to bring me any fame, nothing else will," he says. "After this, if nothing happens, I will retire." His statement sounds more like a threat than a promise. With his gleaming shaved head and his steely stare — and a laugh that cuts through the air like the maniacal kung-fu master of a pulp movie — the fifth-degree black belt gives off an organic menace. His forearms feel like granite, but he's not ready for stunt work just yet.
"By the time we start shooting the film, my body is going to be so ripped," Vasquez says. "I'm going to put Charles Atlas to shame."
Vasquez describes his character as a pacifist who is forced to fight for his life.
"I don't have a choice," Vasquez says. "I have to become more violent than my attackers in order to survive."
"It's more of an After Hours kind of feel," Huggins says. "Somebody gets involved in an episodic situation where they get taken down peg after peg after peg. And it ends in violence."
Vasquez plays a guidance counselor, which isn't a stretch. Four years ago, he became the school-resource officer at Bishop Ward High School (Huggins' alma mater).
"I see the dynamic of his character really often," says Gran, who is working on her master's degree in human-rights education at the University of San Francisco. "That dynamic of reaching out and helping people, and how complicated that can be when you're going cross-culturally and across state lines and sort of into unknown territory."
Huggins says Josh Fadem, who plays Liz Lemon's agent on 30 Rock, is slated to play a bad guy in the film. Fadem is in the process of posting a YouTube video challenging Vasquez to fight to the death in a fictional film.
"I'm not sure how we found him," Huggins says.
Huggins and Gran discovered the rest of the cast through open auditions.
"The casting call alone, we could have written 12 more scripts based on the people we met," Gran says.
"We got such an amazing parade of people," Huggins says, "from a woman who was the 1980 Iowa hog-calling champion to a former L.A. gangbanger who has the Last Supper tattooed on his back. A woman who had a cameo in the movie Blacula.
"After a while, I just told everyone, 'You're going to be in the movie.' There wasn't a single boring person that came through. One guy talked about being in a coma for a while. I go, 'How long were you down, exactly?' He goes, 'Here, I'll show you.' He rips open his shirt: the day he went under and the day he came up."
Huggins says he wants to be a Kansas City filmmaker making films about Kansas City. He doesn't want to celebrate the myths of New York or Los Angeles. "I want to stay in Kansas City and make movies that have a national presence — sort of like Alexander Payne and Omaha — that are about where I'm from."
He says other cities are immediately recognizable, thanks to television and film.
"Because of The Wire, people have an immediate sense of Baltimore," Huggins says. "What do people think of Kansas City? They think of stuff that was true maybe 50 years ago? Jazz? Cattle? There are so many amazing stories in Kansas City and so many amazing locations and people."
"We're filming a film in Kansas City that calls it Kansas City," Gran adds. "We're not saying it's the streets of New York because we're proud of where we're from. We're proud of the actors. We're proud of the stories."
Contributions to Kick Me don't go unrewarded, either. For example, pledges of $1,000 will return an 11-inch-by-14-inch oil portrait of your soul, courtesy of Vasquez, who has also promised to write a short verse in Spanish about your soul (a soul lifted by the more standard premium: an autographed Kick Me DVD). A gift of $300 gets you a 10-minute lesson from Vasquez, via Skype, in "top-secret kill techniques from [a] real life karate master."
Donations can be as low as $1, but come on.
"We've got all of these schemes and scams, all legal, to get it to $70,000," Huggins says.
Look for a couple of the schemes and scams this weekend at Tivoli Cinemas and the Brick.
The Tivoli (4050 Pennsylvania) is showing a night of Huggins' short films Friday, March 30, including First Date and Happy 95 Birthday Grandpa; the latter won the top prize in the Reel Shorts category at the South By Southwest Film Festival in 2009. The Tivoli program, which starts at 9:30 p.m., also includes shorts that inspired Huggins. He says there's a good chance that he'll show a recently discovered 16 mm treasure: the late Robert Altman's Modern Football.
Altman shot the 26-minute instructional movie in 1951. Sponsored by Wheaties, it may have been the KC native's first directing job. (The future M*A*S*H director also appears in a cameo as a sports announcer.)
"It's phenomenally rare," Huggins says. He doubts that anyone had seen the film in the 50 years before he discovered it in a pile of instructional videos he bought for $10 at the Boulevard Drive-In's flea market.
"Maybe I'll bring the print if people are curious," Huggins says. "Altman's an inspiration, for sure, but the short wasn't. If it would lure people out to that event, yes, I'd show it."
The Brick (1727 McGee) hosts a fundraiser for Huggins' project Saturday, March 31, beginning at 7 p.m. Home movies, shot on 16 mm Kodachrome in the 1970s by a Kansas City truck driver named Hulen Oliver, provide the backdrop for acts such as Mr. Marco's V7 and the People's Liberation Big Band. The reels include footage of a 1970 international expo (and its "World of the Future" exhibit) in Osaka, Japan.
Huggins is determined to make Kick Me, even if the Kickstarter campaign fails. He says he'll sell organs if necessary.
"Anything's possible," Huggins says.