The movie business is a funny business.
Francis Ford Coppola made his greatest films, “The Godfather” and “The Godfather, Part II,” unwillingly because he had to … he needed the money to feed his four kids.
No one knows more about the deprivations of the artistic life than Louisville independent filmmaker Mike Elsherif, who moved into to his parents’ basement while working two jobs in order to finish his latest project.
Elsherif’s film “City Strays” debuts at Flyover Film Festival Sunday in the 1:30 p.m. time slot.
We’re going out on a limb here, but this could be Flyover’s sleeper hit.
At 29, Elsherif has made a movie he says isn’t about Louisville, it is Louisville, down to scenes across the area including Germantown, Butchertown and Southern Indiana.
We’re waiting to see the film because this post is about Elsherif, not necessarily about “City Strays.” And we didn’t want to risk spoilers.
Here’s the synopsis from the Flyover website:
Childhood friends, Liza and Elliot, reunite and spend a day together with the mission of finding a lost golden retriever in their hometown. Along the way, the bumbling gumshoes discover unspoken feelings for each other, confront confusion about the current state of their lives, and rekindle a kinship that can only arise in quarter-life crisis commiseration. “City Strays” examines what it means to feel lost, and the many ways we avoid being found.
Comedian Zach Kleinsmith, a New York comedian originally from Louisville, plays a standup comedian.
Barrett Bell, who really is a teacher, plays one in the movie.
Louisville real estate developer Andy Blieden, who has acted in six films including Gill Holland’s “2nd Serve” last year, plays Manny, an agent who books comedians.
We do know this: Mike Elsherif’s personal story would make a great movie.
A slight, sunny guy, Elsherif is the most Louisville of Louisvillians you’ll ever meet down to having one of the rare Louisville native accents.
That’s when he speaks English.
He speaks fluent Arabic because he was born in Kuwait; his family moved to Louisville after the First Gulf War.
Elsherif said even in elementary school, he wanted to be an actor – until he was in his fifth grade class production of “A Christmas Carol.”
“I was terrible,” he said. His teacher gave him a book on writers and directors, “subtly telling me I wasn’t a very good actor.”
“Ever since, I just wanted to be a director.”
Elsherif graduated from duPont Manual High School, taking playwriting next door at the Youth Performing Arts School.
He also acted in plays at St. Francis School, where he later was to find one of his “City Strays” stars, Barrett Bell, who’s a St. Francis teacher.
Elsherif was working as a Jefferson County Public Schools teacher during the day and working at night waiting tables at Havana Rumba in St. Matthews when he started writing “City Strays.”
And it nearly killed him. Daytime as a substitute, nightime as a server.
He had planned a more ambitious project, but wrote “City Strays” because of the constraints on his time.
Finally, after getting frustrated by how little time he was working on the film, Elsherif quit his jobs and just started focusing on the movie.
Insider Louisville: In the trailer, which I love, I recognized the location for every scene.
Mike Elsherif: I like to say, “This movie isn’t about Louisville. It is Louisville.” I wanted to capture the spirit a lot of movies shot in Kentucky don’t capture. Every time you see a movie shot in Kentucky, it’s got to have, like, bourbon, horseracing and rolling fields. I wanted to shoot something that my friends and family see more often, which is more of an urban side to it. The art scene in Louisville. The hipsters.
Andy Blieden: The personality. So what better place to debut it than Flyover? That’s why we wanted to premier this at Flyover.
ME: But I want people in other places to see this and say, “Oh, I didn’t know this was shot in Louisville. It doesn’t look like anything else I’ve seen made around the same area.” What I really wanted to capture is how Louisville days are. Louisville days are different than days in other cities. It’s very tangental. Things go from one thing to another. It’s not as structured. I lived in New York for a while, and everything is structured. You have to be here at a certian time to catch the subway. You have to go home at a certain time. I wanted something different. I wanted something more freeflowing that captures the flow of the city.
IL: What’s the trajectory of this thing? You show it to your friends and they say, “We love it, we love it we love it.” Then you show it to outsiders, and they say, “Yea or nay”?
ME: For me, more than anything … it’s a calling card for me. To display my writing and directorial ability. To get my name out there. I went to film school, so I’ve had violent reactions to my films. Seriously, there was a teacher who got so upset, he pinned me up against a wall.
This was at film school? Where.
ME: I don’t want to say. It was in North Carolina. I said something [the teacher] really did not like hearing students say. He was trying to back me into a corner, literally. Finally, I said, “You know, other people see things differently. That’s your opinion.” That set him off. He had me against the wall. I had to have teachers pull him off of me. He thought I was just really arrogant. You know, sometimes in the arts, people have very violent reactions toward art. If someone says “I don’t like the movie,” I’m fine with that. As long as there’s no violence.
IL: I noticed the production values are a cut above most self-financed films. You use a lot of long lenses. Do you want to say how much you invested in “City Strays”?
ME: I don’t want to say the budget, but it was low. I’m glad you brought up the long-lenses thing. I’m a big fan of Robert Altman, and I wanted to use some of the techniques he used. Using long lenses as sort of a voyeur, watching people from a distance … having a fly on the wall feeling to the movie, which I really don’t see a lot in films shot around this area.
IL: The film is cinema verite?
ME: Yeah, sort of. But it’s got a real comedic element to it. I like to laugh, and with this project, it’s appropriate to blend the two things. The two characters … there’s a lot of awkwardness and uncomfortableness between them. Which is funny … and awkward. I wanted to highlight aspects of the city, because city really becomes a character. I love saying this is sort of a comedy, drama, mystery, art film.
AB: Yeah. But it’s not trying to do too much …. I thought Zach was really good.
ME: Yeah Zach Kleinsmith. And this guy. [gesturing to Blieden] He’s got real comic timing. We’ve talked about working together in the future. I think Andy is hilarious. He has great comic timing. He cannot remember any line. But the man can definitely be there in the moment. I tried to assemble a lot of people who are like that. They’re all local. Sarah East is local. She’s also in tons of commercials. She’s in all the Lottery commercials. Chris Anger … is really, really funny.
AB: He’s peculiar. He’s a one of a kind guy. I’m the second funniest guy in Louisville. He’s the funniest guy in Louisville, and I hate him. But the guy’s brilliant.
ME: He wants to do everything in two takes, though!
AB: He said, “My God, we’re doing it twice! I’m exhausted! Where’s my trailer?”
ME: Because he’s an improviser.
AB: (Elsherif) would say, “Okay, this is what we’re going for. This is what I want to convey in the scene.These are the lines I’d like you to say. If you can get the essence of this.” And he’d let us be in the moment. He’d let us go. Anytime the crew laughs you know you have something good.
ME: And for Andy’s scenes we had to put a lot of people outside of the set, they were laughing so much. I couldn’t fire them because it was so low budget.
IL: I know you don’t want to talk about money, but how much time did you spend on this?
ME: About two years. Basically, I taught during the day and edited [“City Strays”] at night. It was tough to be an editor; you have to be disciplined. And I am. But after dealing all day with 11 year olds, I could only edit about three hours, four hours a night.
IL: You have something going on now?
ME: I have a script I’m trying to get financing for. It’s a black-and-white comedy with the same actors. I’ve written the script already. But I learned I never want to self-finance a movie because it was very draining. You know people talk about suffering for art? It wasn’t like I was strapped down and someone was whipping me. But it was definitely exhausting. I had to live in my parents’ basement for a really long time. I had to work both those jobs, and I could’t spend any extra money on anything.
IL: So, now it’s time to cash in on this exercise and go to the next level where you’re going to get people to fund it, produce and market it? And you won’t live in the basement ….
AB: The thing I see with Mike is … an incredibly small number of people are able to accomplish what he did. To me, it’s having that fire. He was not, NOT going to make this movie no matter what. He had stuff where it would be another five grand here and three grand here and two grand there. When you talk about suffering for art, it’s not some Roman God thing where there’s no pain. I wouldn’t have it in me to do it. But to me, it’s what’s your commitment to your craft? How badly do you want it? That’s what was so impressive to me. He had dozens of roadblocks. Money makes stuff a lot easlier.
IL: I’m anxious to see these performances. Because in the trailer, all these scenes are intriguing.
ME: Thank you very much.
IL: So, did it turn out like your original vision?
ME: No, not at all. It’s a lot funnier, and it just has just a lot more life because of what the actors brought to it.
AB: Still the script was the script ….
ME When I went back, it was the same script. I know why. We improvised, and then we wrote everything down. So we had a very structured improvised script. I was surprised at how naturally the actors could convey the line.
AB: “City Strays” is not some romanticized drama … it’s life. What was there is what really happens. It is unfortunately what really happens.
ME: It plays early on like a romantic comedy, but it ends up being a tragedy. I love movies that twist genres. It starts off like it’s going to be a romantic comedy but ends up being about the real relationship between these two friends.
AB: And if that’s how your relationships are ….
ME: Past relationships ….
AB: It made me a little uncomfortable.
ME: Yeah, after Andy watched the movie, he told me, “The ending really upset me, and I’m really disturbed.” He got very depressed. I don’t see Andy as depressed. He’s very outgoing. But he told me he was depressed.
IL: Don’t give anything. Don’t make us have a spoiler alert …
AB: No, it’s just life.
IL: You didn’t pin him up against the wall, did you Andy?
AB: After he said it was my fucking opinion, I did!
Here’s the full cast of “City Strays”:
ZACH KLEINSMITH: elliot
Zach Kleinsmith is a New York based actor/writer originally from Louisville, KY. Since living in New York, Zach has been nominated for a Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Play for Unnatural Acts which was presented Off-Broadway at Classic Stage Company and which he co-wrote, co-developed, and workshopped. He has worked as a teaching artist for Classic Stage Company and Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival where he also appeared as an actor, and has worked regionally at Two River Theater and Actors Theatre of Louisville. Zach looks forward to future projects in collaboration with Mike Elsherif. BFA Otterbein College.
BARRET BELL: liza
Barret Bell is a Gender Studies teacher living in Louisville, KY. She currently teaches undergraduates at the University of Louisville, and high school students at St. Francis High School, her alma mater.
SARAH EAST: sandra
Sarah East is best known for hosting THE POPCRUNCH SHOW, a celebrity gossip show that entertained and offended hundreds of thousands of internet fans. Since leaving the show, she’s made her rounds doing local and national tv spots including the role of Laurie Dunhill in Season 6 of Lifetime’s ARMY WIVES. Sarah has performed in sketch comedy/ improv groups and as a stand-up comedian in venues across the East coast. She attended The American Musical and Dramatic Academy in New York City.
CHRIS ANGER: wallace
Chris Anger is originally from the San Francisco Bay Area. Based in Louisville, Ky for almost 14 years, Chris is Co- founder and Artistic Director of the Louisville Improvisors, and has been a professional actor working in improvisation for over 25 years. Louisville Improvisors are the host’s and executive producers of Improvapalooza, the longest running improv comedy festival in the Southeast. Chris heads up the Louisville Improvisors Training Center and facilitates both corporate and private workshops.
ANDY BLIEDEN: manny
Andy Blieden has played NPR talk show host Frank Hepburn in PAPER CUT. He has also played Mitch the Doorman in the movie KEEP YOUR DISTANCE and most recently played Patrick in 2ND SERVE.