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.”

That abuse extended to several hyper-realistic street-fighting scenes — one of the myriad ways in which the movie’s characters release their pent-up aggression — for which Fuller and other members of the cast hurled themselves into the fray with professional fighters cast from the world of Mixed Martial Arts. “People have been punching each other in the face since the dawn of time, and something we always wanted to do was portray that realistically,” Fuller says. “So it seemed silly to represent that in a film and be afraid of getting hit in the face a little bit. There’s a lot about traditional filmmaking and simulating things that isn’t all that necessary; it’s just about how devoted you are to your work. I’m not saying, ‘Somebody’s getting shot, so shoot ’em for real,’ ” he adds with a chuckle, “though the thought crossed my mind.”

The goal, Fuller says, was “to kind of get inside the head or the heart or the soul of these kinds of kids at this particular place and time — youth and sort of being born into fire, so to speak. I mean, it’s a unique time and experience — mentally, emotionally, physically — and kind of horrifying on a lot of levels, too. I was just watching a documentary about Coppola and Apocalypse Now, and he’s, like, ‘This movie’s not about Vietnam — it is Vietnam.’ And that’s kind of how I feel about Loren: It’s not about adolescence — it is adolescence.”

On the subject of his own coming of age, Fuller is more reticent, telling me his father is a local St. Pete attorney but that, “for the interview, [say] I was actually raised by wolves, in the swamps.” He cautions against reading Loren Cass as autobiographical, while adding, “Obviously, art should have a pretty deep relationship to the artist. At its core, there’s a lot about [Loren Cass] that’s pretty personal.”

And though he shies away from citing his cinematic influences — “It’s hard to see something you like or appreciate without it influencing you, so I kind of got to the point where, ideally, I don’t think I should ever watch a movie ever again,” he says — Fuller does mention such unlikely bedfellows as Jack Kerouac (whose home on St. Pete’s 10th Avenue North provides one of the film’s locations) and Arthur Schopenhauer as being among Loren Cass’ literary patron saints.

Now, with his new representation at CAA, Fuller is busy readying his next project — make that two projects, one from an original script and the other an adaptation of a novel his agents are acquiring. Neither film would be shot in Florida, but that doesn’t mean Fuller will be packing his bags for the West Coast any time soon. “Then you’re socializing with the same people, you’re in the same environment, going to the same places, doing that whole Hollywood business thing,” he says. “I don’t know: How does that not sap some of your originality? I understand I’m going to have to travel a lot and be in L.A. and New York a lot, which is all well and good. But I think it’s important to stay here, or wherever I want to be, and keep myself in reality.”

Loren Cass opens on Friday, September 11, at Laemmle’s Sunset 5. See new reviews.

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