Director Quincy Perkins was scouting locations in Homestead for his short film Swingers Anonymous when he came upon a large field with brightly colored buses parked along an access road and Haitian workers feverishly harvesting the crop by hand, row-by-row.
“This was the shot I wanted,” Perkins said. “And the 200 extras would be great.”
But to secure permission, he had to first convince the field boss sitting inside the 2014 Chevy Silverado that he was not an undercover immigration agent.
Perkins, 33 and still boyish-looking, got his field scene with a story of his own: “I said I was a student at the University of Miami making a film.”
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A few weeks later, on a sunny Wednesday morning in March, Perkins arrived at a field of green beans that soon would be filled with farm workers overseen by the man in the Chevy Silverado. This time Perkins brought a small production crew, writer Jonathan Woods and the usually clean-cut actor Tom Frank, who after months of not shaving for the part looked like a cross between a homeless Jesus and a member of the Duck Dynasty.
“Here we go,” Woods said with excitement as the first scene was shot — and the written story conceived from his warped imagination was being transformed by Perkins into a cinematic, black-and-white film noir with a twisted sense of humor.
Swingers Anonymous tells the story of Frank’s character Bill, an ordinary man who goes to a swingers party at the home of the newest member, big-busted Pauline, and ends up inheriting a gigantic problem: two dead bodies and $20,000 in drug money.
Bill does not handle this problem well. His life quickly spirals out of control, albeit humorously, with the femme fatale’s breasts taking on a life of their own.
“It’s a story I relate to Edgar Allan Poe’s, The Tell-Tale Heart, with the character never quite getting away with a crime,” Perkins said. “Even if you may cover all your bases, you might not cover your psychological base. That’s the hardest one to bury.”
This is the third collaboration between Perkins, a Key West native and self-taught director who has worked on several Hollywood feature films, and Woods, 66, a Key West resident who a decade ago left his job in Dallas as a globe-trotting attorney for a high-tech company to pursue his lifelong passion of fiction writing.
Their first project together was a two-minute trailer for Wood’s second book, A Death in Mexico. It turned out so well that they collaborated again last spring during The Tropic Cinema’s 72-hour film challenge, in which they created an eight-minute movie called Assbackwards.
“The premise was the gay world was normal and the heterosexual world was outlawed,” said Woods, who wrote the script.
The film, which opens in front of the Monroe County courthouse with people protesting heterosexuals, includes a hilarious scene at a secret meeting for heterosexuals who were in the closet to friends and family.
“It was very ambitious for the short time we had,” Perkins said. But it was well received, and chosen to be shown at the Key West International Film Festival.
For their third collaboration, Woods suggested his new 20-page short story Swingers Anonymous, which was published in November by Akashic Books as part of the Dallas Noir anthology and also will be in Wood’s new book, The Phone Call from Hell & Other Tales of the Damned, being published by New Pulp Press in April.
“I thought it was very visual and just a great little plot, too,” Perkins said. “I thought it also was manageable, as opposed to something that has lots of gunshots and explosions. … So I said, ‘Let’s try this.’ ”
To raise the majority of what turned out to be a $15,000 film budget, they used the website Kickstarter, netting $11,300 from backers as far away as Canada. When a deal fell through with a Miami company that supports independent filmmakers to provide matching funds and produce the film, Perkins reluctantly halted production in February.
He asked his cinematographer, Jonathan Franklin, for suggestions for a new producer. They landed freelancer Peter Ebanks, who in turn got Miami-based Florida Film House to provide production help and art direction.
“Usually movie sets run about 150 people, but we’re doing this entire thing with closer to 15,” Ebanks said. “This one we’re going a little bit gorilla. We’re a small crew with people wearing multiple hats.”
With money short, Perkins and Woods kicked in the rest themselves. Woods joked that his wife would let him contribute only if Miss Pinky, their Shih Tzu, would get a cameo. And she did.
Most everyone involved with the project worked at cut rates or volunteered their time. Perkins said it would have been difficult to get the support of the experienced professionals were it not for Woods’ “solid script.”
That script is what lured Frank, 32, an actor born in France and now living in New York, to take the lead role of Bill despite no pay and the requirement to grow his beard and hair as long and straggly as possible.
“I couldn’t put it down, turning page to page,” Frank said. “This is the kind of role you dream for as an actor. It’s completely over the top, deliciously gratuitous.”
During the first scene shot, Bill is startled by what he sees in the dirt next to a row of green beans: a pair of breasts. In another scene, he hits his girlfriend over the head with a toilet seat.
Frank had a small role in an episode of the TV show Dexter as the cop who discovered Rita’s body in the tub in the premiere of the fifth season. But when the episode aired, he had been cut out and turned into an extra.
“I just ran by in the background,” he said. “But then they cut me into the next episode, so I started receiving residual checks for two episodes of Dexter. That job has paid more than any other job I’ve done.”
Frank said playing Bill is an investment in his career: “I feel like it is ground-flooring a relationship with this director.”
After hiring Frank, whom Perkins met through a mutual friend, further casting was a challenge. Perkins called around to talent agencies and sent out hundreds of emails before he came up with a cast that both looked the part and could act.
Gema Calero, a Nicaraguan living in Miami, plays Suzie, the girlfriend of Bill. “I needed a female who could pull a gun and do it honestly,” Perkins said. “Man, she pulled that gun like she had done it before. Suzie also has a lot of lines, and they are fast. I needed someone who could really act. She is a brilliant actress and has a very film noir attitude already.”
Finding someone to play Pauline was the most difficult. “She’s topless for the entire part,” Perkins said. “She never puts a shirt on.”
But they got lucky when an actress with the burlesque stage name Bambi Lafleur showed up for a cold call. “Bambi is just bizarre,” Perkins said. “I could sit and watch her do anything for an hour.”
The film was shot in black and white, bringing back the feel of the 1940s and ’50s when film noir — stylish crime dramas filled with cynicism and sexual motives — was in vogue.
Perkins said his parents used to show him films by the five-time Oscar winning director Federico Fellini, who was known for his distinct style that blends fantasy and baroque images with earthiness.
“Film noir is just a little more dramatic in black and white; it makes you think of Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca,” Ebanks said. “I like the idea with this being a thriller comedy in this weird twilight type of thing. The mood of black and white with harsh shadows fits.”
The 42-scene film was shot at eight locations in and around Homestead, including the outside of the Park Motel on Krome Avenue.
“I asked a policeman where the Park Motel was, and he said, ‘Do not go there,’ ” Perkins said. “I was like, ‘Well now I have to go.’ ”
“There was a Vietnam vet with his leg cut off sitting in a wheelchair outside. A crack deal was definitely going down. A prostitute was walking through with a friend. It was the real deal, nothing fake about it.”
Filming turned into a five-day marathon session with the last scene shot at a tomato field where Bill is burying the two bodies wrapped in garbage bags, at 5 a.m. on a Sunday. “We got some shocked looks,” Perkins said
Franklin shot with one camera called the Red Epic. “It looks cinematic and doesn’t look digital,” Perkins said. “The files that come off are massive, and it’s a very complicated workflow once you get into post production.”
Now they are taking the rough footage and putting together an assembly cut and a trailer. They also are back on Kickstarter to raise another $8,000 or so for the post production, which will include special effects, sound and rights to the music for the soundtrack.
Perkins was having drinks with a friend at his bar Blackbird Ordinary after location scouting, and his ears popped up when he heard the band that was playing: Ketchy Shuby.
“They have a song called Devil & A Gun that is perfect for the film,” Perkins said. “They have a very noir-ish, country, Homestead feel to them.”
The 20-minute film is expected to be finished by early May, when they will being testing the waters for the film festival circuit. Said Perkins: “Our hope is to go to one of the big film festivals. As a writer you want to be a produced writer, and as a filmmaker you want the exposure.”