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The last time I saw Chris Fuller, the 26-year-old writer-director-actor reminds me on a recent afternoon, was at a viewing party for the final episode of The Sopranos, in the Las Vegas hotel suite of famed producer’s representative (and Big Lebowski inspiration) Jeff “the Dude” Dowd. It was during the opening weekend of the 2007 CineVegas Film Festival, where Fuller premiered his debut feature film, Loren Cass, a microbudget drama shot in his hometown of St. Petersburg, Florida, and set in the aftermath of the city’s 1996 race riots (sparked when a white police officer gunned down an unarmed 18-year-old African-American suspected of driving a stolen vehicle). Some festival movies screen in a relative vacuum; others set off love-it-or-hate-it shock waves that reverberate for days afterward. Loren Cass was one of the latter, reportedly dividing the members of CineVegas’ dramatic-competition jury and earning a rave review from Variety critic Robert Koehler, who deemed it “a starkly radical film debut of uncommon power and artistic principle.”
Having grown up in neighboring Tampa a few years ahead of Fuller — during which time the Burt Reynolds vehicle Cop and a Half was the ne plus ultra of local film production — I approached Loren Cass with considerable curiosity and came away reeling from the force of it. A roundelay of oxygen-starved adolescent lives — a garage mechanic (played by Fuller himself under the pseudonym Lewis Brogan), a skinhead punk (Travis Maynard) and a waitress (Kayla Tabish) in a late-night diner — Fuller’s movie seemed the uncompromising, coolly assured vision of an original artist speaking in his own highly original language, from its willfully fragmented narrative to its densely layered voice-over narration and its steadfast refusal to explain away its title (seen as a tattoo on one character’s arm), or very much else. Then there was Fuller himself, at the time only 24, and cutting a decidedly outsider figure onscreen and off, a scrappy vagabond poet in ragged T-shirt, designerless baggy jeans and worn-out sneakers.
Fuller still seemed very much the same when I caught up with him last month, during a break from his day job as owner/operator of the Meatman, a gourmet St. Petersburg meat store with a thriving local and mail-order business. The primary difference: Loren Cass now has a distributor, and Fuller himself has been signed by a bigtime Hollywood agency, the just rewards of two long years of pounding the festival pavement and refusing to take no for an answer. While CineVegas and subsequent festival appearances opened some doors, as did a 2007 Gotham Award nomination for “Best Film Not Playing at a Theater Near You,” more than a year after its premiere, Loren Cass remained unreleased in the U.S., and Fuller’s contract with the film’s sales agent had expired. That’s when the director decided to take matters into his own hands, drafting a 17-page marketing proposal that outlined his plans for self-distribution and niche-marketing possibilities, which he in turn sent to all of the companies that had initially passed on the film. It was enough to convince veteran art-house distributor Kino International to take another look.
“I feel lucky, because we seem to be coming right at the tail end of everything,” says Fuller, framed by cases upon cases of exotic beef and game in the Meatman showroom, a few weeks after Kino opened Loren Cass in Manhattan to more rave reviews (including one in The New York Times). “When I started writing this film in the mid-’90s, Sundance was the thing, and when we were sending the film out to film festivals in 2006, everybody told me, ‘Ten years ago, this would have been a Sundance movie.’ From our point of view, that was kind of what kept happening. Sundance — we missed the boat on that. Distribution — missed the boat on that. I’m happy to be having this experience, because I don’t know that a lot of people with films of this size will get to have that in the future.”
He also seems to feel at least a tiny bit vindicated. An autodidact whose words tumble out in a slurry stream, Fuller carries himself with such intense conviction that, when he tells you Loren Cass is a project he’s been working toward his entire life, you believe him. “I was born for this in some way,” he says. “As far back as I can remember, I’ve always been gearing up for that first film. It’s just always kind of been a part of what I was trying to do.”
After dropping out of the University of Central Florida following “a semester or two,” Fuller set about putting together the movie’s $110,000 budget, raising funds from private investors and working a series of odd jobs, including car-wash attendant and door-to-door salesman. The 14-day shoot in 2006 was “a life-changing experience. We didn’t sleep, we barely ate. With a film this size, with the budget and the shooting schedule, one of the biggest worries is whether people are going to show up and be willing to take the abuse we’re gonna dish out.”
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