Volume 13, Issue 38 ~ September 22 - September 28, 2005
Nestor Serrano as Seth Collison being held at gunpoint in the local independent film 21 Eyes.
Local Film Plays Pasadena’s Jumpers Cinema
With 21 Eyes, former Homicide director gets a new ball rolling
by Mark Burns

A glass explodes against antique tomes. Blood spatters across a white wall. The report of a gun echoes as a light bulb shatters in the socket of a careening table lamp. A video recorder captures it all.

“We were down in the basement with a .22 shooting lamps,” says Lee Bonner, of Annapolis. “It was a hoot. We had a good time. The big thing was to make sure that we backed it up enough that we didn’t shoot through the wall.” Bonner took safety precautions, building backgrounds to absorb shots. But things still got messy. “We shot some things for blood spatters. One of them was just ungodly, all over the house, on the ceilings and all.”

His basement shoot-out wasn’t just for kicks. He was making a movie.

Life Behind the Camera
Bonner is a veteran television and commercial director with episodes of Homicide: Life on the Streets to his credit. The recent melee in his basement, it follows, was purely for show, touch-up material for 21 Eyes, which he considers his first real feature film. It’s a movie concocted by Bonner and Sean Paul Murphy, editor and co-screenwriter. With the help of mutual friend David Butler, the film’s producer, they brought their idea to production in only seven months, shooting scenes over the course of four days in Baltimore and Annapolis, including Maryland Hall as a police station. With just four tapes of footage, they wrapped after one week in the summer of 2003.

Butler entered their movie, then called Replay, into film festivals across the country. “It went to one screening in Annapolis and people laughed at all the right spots,” says Bonner. “It received a wonderful response.” But reaction was mixed at other screenings. “It took 15 minutes before people knew what was going on,” Murphy recalls of the first cut.

So they tinkered. On the advice of Homicide series director Barry Levinson, the filmmakers set to work last fall on a new opening montage to hook their audience. Thus Bonner wound up cleaning fake blood from the walls and ceiling of his basement.

High Concept, Low Budget
The security camera peers through a grate onto the spiral staircase directly below, it’s a monochromatic view devoid of action. There’s a ruckus off screen; a spray of machine-gun fire sparks off the railing and shreds a bouquet of flowers. A body slumps into view, a bullet-holed man collapses on the lower stairs. Shrieking, a woman dives for him, flailing his chest with her fists in a desperate attempt to resuscitate.

It’s a voyeur’s perspective as the film plays out on hidden security cameras, seen through the eyes of two off-screen detectives who offer their own banter and insights as the footage rolls. Tape after tape is played, replayed and rewound in the search for clues, the fragmented timeline gradually coming together in their quest to decipher the truth.

“It is very different in that you see the crime happen, then you are along with the police looking at the surveillance tapes that have captured the crime,” explains Butler, describing the concept. “The police think it’s an open-and-shut case, but they soon realize the thieves know way too much. They start looking at the tapes, looking at who might have been the inside man, seeing new clues.”

Conceptually, this movie stands apart. “It’s not a mainstream movie by any stretch of the imagination, but I think it appeals to people who like puzzles,” says Bonner. “When the detectives start seeing things you didn’t, you get into the game.”

The filmmakers’ concept was born of frugality. Bonner and Murphy had collaborated on screenplays before that were too ambitious to see through; their hunger to actually make something happen spurred them to write a script for videotape, a story told entirely through stationary, low-grade security cameras. “We liked the idea of video cameras and obsession,” says Murphy. “We wanted an idea no one had done before.”

The original approach brought its own complications, though. “Being shot from eight different angles all at once, it was very stressful for people to shoot,” says Murphy. “It was more important that they be at their mark than whether they got their dialogue correct.”

The shoot went forward in single takes, and the constantly rolling security camera format meant Bonner and Murphy couldn’t cheat it, splicing scenes to compensate for botches. “Normally you have enormous flexibility,” says Bonner. “With editing, you have the ability to change the timing totally. There are invaluable tools you can use. But here we just had to let it play out.”

The Reel Rolls On
The scenes played out, and the movie plays on. “The big surprise is actually trying to get it out there,” says Butler.
“We spent as much time trying to make the movie as we did getting it out to festivals.”

But it’s worth it. The festival tour has at least turned a few distributors on to 21 Eyes, and producer David Butler is busy striking deals. Murphy, a freelance editor and screenwriter, has already won two more paid screenwriting assignments, one directly because of 21 Eyes’ festival screenings. Bonner, meanwhile, hasn’t seen any direct effects as yet, but looks forward to the next project — on which nobody’s giving up any details.

The newly tweaked 21 Eyes has seen screen time at two other film festivals, most recently the D.C. Independent Showcase two months ago. Now it’s ready to roll out for its theatrical premiere in a week of showtimes at Pasadena’s Jumpers Cinema. Murphy, for one, is excited to see the film as much as possible and gauge audience reactions.

“I’ll probably be there every day,” he says.

Check out the film for yourself as 21 Eyes makes its theatrical premiere with a week-long run at Jumpers Cinema, September 23-29, 8120 Jumpers Hole Rd., Pasadena. $2.50: 410-768-9999.

© COPYRIGHT 2004 by New Bay Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved.