With his Sundance-bound First Date, Gary Huggins discovers a new leading man.

Screen Test 

With his Sundance-bound First Date, Gary Huggins discovers a new leading man.

Ever since the Monday after Thanksgiving, when Sundance Film Festival organizers called to say they wanted to show his 20-minute movie along with work by directors Gwyneth Paltrow and Bob Odenkirk (of HBO's Mr. Show), Gary Huggins has been puzzled.

"How did I get in?" asks the 38-year-old part-time librarian. "I like my short. It's good. But I can't believe there wasn't anything better than that. It doesn't make any sense."

Kansas City film enthusiasts know Huggins as the man behind the Chucky Lou A/V Club, the name he gives his monthly screenings of offbeat gems such as Devil Fetus and Cannibal Holocaust at Screenland. In 1997, he discovered that the National Screen Service (a company that produced and distributed movie trailers and used a warehouse in Kansas City) had tossed out its collection of vintage trailers, movie previews for everything from Elvis vehicles to Star Wars to horror flicks to James Bond movies. Huggins dug them out of a garbage bin and compiled a DVD he called Trailer Trash.

A couple of years ago, his girlfriend, burlesque performer Rita Brinkerhoff, encouraged him to quit his job at the Kansas City, Kansas, Public Library and make a film. Huggins followed her advice and took a part-time job with the Kansas City, Missouri, Public Library. He shot the film cheaply, and the actors worked for free. The movie wrapped last August, and Huggins scrambled to get First Date ready for this year's festivals.

Since getting the Sundance nod, he has spent every waking moment trying to figure out how he's going to pay $4,000 for a week at a condo in Park City, Utah, at the end of this month. He used eBay to sell the Evel Knievel toys he had collected since he was 7 years old. And he started planning fund-raisers.

Then, in mid-December, he learned that First Date — a film about a desperate ex-con obsessed with a 16-year-old boy he meets in an online chat room — was one of only five U.S. films selected for the Clermont-Ferrand Film Festival the week after Sundance; the French confab is second in prestige only to Cannes.

Huggins may be baffled by the response to his film, but the Pitch has a theory about what's driving the interest.

Santiago Vasquez.

"I look evil, but I'm evil," the star said recently when he saw his character's image on a promotional postcard for the movie.

Vasquez was a strange man with a Fu Manchu mustache and long hair who hung around the KCK library. Huggins thought he was a drug dealer with an odd affection for Akira Kurosawa and Miyamoto Musashi films. The first time they talked martial-arts movies, Vasquez freaked out.

"You have Miyamoto Musashi?" Vasquez asked in disbelief.

"Yeah, we have all of his movies," Huggins told him.

"Ah, man. Ah, man," Vasquez yelled.

"It was, like, really scary," Huggins recalls.

After a big drug bust, Vasquez vanished. Later, though, he returned and revealed his true identity to Huggins. Vasquez had been working undercover as a drug dealer for the Kansas City, Kansas, Police Department.

"He's got all of these acting chops from working undercover," Huggins says. "The stakes there are really high. If you're a bad actor there, you'd get your head blown off. So he can act without a sweat now because what's the worst that can happen?"

Huggins wrote First Date with Vasquez in mind as his lead character. The film begins with the chime of a newly received instant message. A conversation unfolds on the screen. Kcmuscle, a 38-year-old man, and LuvOlder, his newly found 16-year-old friend (played by Tian Wei) make a date.

LuvOlder: top or btm?

kcmuscle: latin top

kcmuscle: ready 2 pop

LuvOlder: um

LuvOlder: what r u doing right now?

kcmuscle: paper work

LuvOlder: cum over

kcmuscle: tonight?

LuvOlder: yeah

kcmuscle: ok

LuvOlder: kewl

First Date was partly inspired by Huggins' library duties, which involved watching over patrons' shoulders to make sure they weren't abusing their computer privileges. Another inspiration was KCTV Channel 5's notorious sexual predator sting in February 2004.

"That was great," Huggins says of Steve Chamraz's perv-exposing series. "Terrible journalism, but what great television."

First Date is realistic — mostly because of Vasquez's acting. Huggins sent him into laundromats and bridal shops to play off everyday people. And the people went with it.

"They're interacting with him as the character, and they're brilliant," Huggins says. "They're not even looking at the camera."

The highlight, for Huggins, didn't make it into the movie. But he recalls Vasquez talking with a man running a taco stand in downtown KCK. Vasquez approached the stand's owner and asked to borrow his car.

"Naturally, they're like, 'No, you can't borrow my car,'" Huggins says. "He's like, 'But look, man, we've got the same color skin.' He's like, 'We probably have the same last name, too, but I'm not letting you have my car.... Take the Metro.' 'Ah, man, I'm not taking the fucking Metro.' 'I'll give you a quarter.' 'I don't want your fucking quarter. I want your car.'

"Wow," Huggins continues. "This is like the best improv ever, and these dudes work at a taco stand. It's like there's a whole city ready, just burning to be in a movie."

Huggins insists Vasquez is the next action hero — or, at least, a random machine-gun guy.

After eight years working undercover, the 41-year-old is now a community police officer in Armordale. Vasquez immigrated to the United States in 1982 and spent three years learning English. He says his mother always told him, "Son, please stay in school. Do not become a dog killer" — slang for police officer. He defied her wishes. When he joined the narcotics division, he listened to rap music to familiarize himself with street slang.

Undercover, Vasquez was known as Carlos Antonio Guevara. He took "Carlos" from Ilich Ramírez Sánchez — the mercenary better known as Carlos the Jackal; he swiped Antonio from retired major-league baseball player Antonio Armas; and Guevara for the revolutionary Ernesto "Che" Guevara.

"International drug traffickers put a price on my head; a substantial amount of money — $100,000 or so," Vasquez says. "And I got lucky. During one period of my career, I was fucking a lot of people. Taking a lot of drug traffickers' money."

What happened then? "One thing led to another, and we found a reasonable solution, a peaceful solution to the problem," he says without elaborating. "I'm still alive."

But, he says, "It got to the point that my family and I had to be physically removed from the city in order to protect our lives. This was over 10 years ago. I don't like bragging about it."

Vasquez admits he had reservations about the part. He says that in Latin culture, homosexuality is taboo. However, he explains, it's gay only if you're receiving, not giving. In First Date, Vasquez's character makes clear that he's not gay. But, Vasquez says, the film isn't about whether homosexuality is wrong. "It's the case that this man is a sick pervert, period."

Having played a drug dealer, an assassin, a wife beater, a drug dealer and a male prostitute, playing a sick pervert was easy for Vasquez.

"He was totally for it, and then he made it even dirtier and weirder than I would even dare," Huggins says.

Huggins is going to Sundance with low expectations, but he says he can't help but wonder what might happen.

"This could be one month of everybody looking at me like, 'Ooh,' and then I come home, and it's back to checking out books and showing movies like Devil Fetus, which isn't a bad fate," Huggins says. "But it'd be better if more things happened. Yeah, I really, really, really, really want to shoot a feature.

"Sundance will be my chrysalis," he adds, "and I will emerge from it a beautiful butterfly and not be a bottom-feeding scammer boy anymore."

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