Joel Paul Reisig is a live action example of practicing what he teaches about do-it-yourself filmmaking.
The Birmingham producer is nearly done editing his sixth feature-length movie — Mary's Buttons, based on a 1910 fatal shooting and trial in Macomb County.
The project came together after screenwriter Raymond Govaere, now 69, attended a two-day seminar in Birmingham last year titled Be Your Own Hollywood, which Reisig presents several times a year around the state. "Everyone who comes has a screenplay in mind or drafted," said the self-trained film executive. "Ray's story is one that appealed to me right away."
Several rewrites later, the seminar student is executive producer and principal financier of a drama about his immigrant ancestors in Mt. Clemens. And the teacher who inspired him brought the story from screenplay to post-production status as a nearly two-hour film.
It's Reisig's most ambitious project in a producing-acting career that began three years ago with Fraternity House, an 82-minute campus comedy shot for $50,000 and distributed internationally on DVD. Other work includes Scream King, recently picked up for domestic cable and video-on-demand screenings as a Halloween season thriller this fall, and Win By Fall, a 2010 high school wrestling drama awaiting a DVD distribution deal.
Antique fashions and props
The newest entry is longer, with a higher budget and more highbrow than its predecessors. "I never did a period piece before," said Reisig, who declined to say how much Govaere and a few others invested in Mary's Buttons.
Instead of shooting another story about pledges and pranks or coaches and cheerleaders, the indie producer this time worked with Model T Fords, a horse-drawn buggy, vintage costumes and a Flemish dialogue coach. And in contrast to makeshift sets of the past, Mary's Buttons locations are the 1846 Lapeer County Courthouse, the 1891 Holly Hotel, a Clinton Township cabin, a former jail built in 1906 and the Crossroads Village historic park near Flint.
What never changes is the need for a compelling story, which Govaere and his daughter Charlene reconstructed from family lore, official records and newspaper accounts of a headline-making case last century. Mary Govaere, the screenwriter's grandmother, was tried for murder after Macomb's sheriff was shot while serving an animal cruelty warrant against her husband, August.
A timely subtext
The family was Belgian, adding a subtext relevant in 2011. "Every generation, even Europeans, were viewed as outsiders when they came — bringing a different culture, jabbering in a different language," noted Reisig. "They were legal immigrants just looking for a better life" — as others do now, sometimes still stirring misgivings or exclusion.
Twenty-three days of shooting proceeded briskly during six-day weeks in April. "We couldn't afford any washout days or other delays," explained Reisig, who planned indoor scenes as backups each day in case the sky turned foul.
As in earlier films, the busy producer worked on both sides of the camera. Reisig, with performance training from Hope College and the American Conservatory Theater, plays Mary's defense attorney.
When the team hustled to shoot cameo appearances as prospective jurors by three time-pressed county leaders – L. Brooks Patterson of Oakland, Mark Hackel of Macomb and Robert Ficano of Wayne — Reisig scrambled to glance at his script lines during brief off-camera moments.
After a Toledo composer adds an original score, Reisig will submit the finished work to three or four top-rank film festivals, including Toronto's and Sundance. "I've never thought of entering before," he acknowledged. A showcase screening could interest an "art circuit" film distributor or cable network.
'Just a regular guy'
Whatever happens next, a three-year series of increasingly sophisticated films already puts substance behind the brash name on Reisig's film school business — Be Your Own Hollywood. His $395 two-day sessions, which have been held in Birmingham, Troy, Flint and Grand Rapids, cover the basics of going from premise to premiere: writing, financing, casting, limited-budget shooting and distribution.
"I never went to film school. I learned from doing," the grad tells website visitors. "I didn’t know anybody in the film business when I got started. I’m just a regular guy like you, I wanted to be a producer and I was willing to put in the work. I made a lot of mistakes along the way, mistakes I can keep you from making."
Reisig, who plans seminars this fall in Metro Detroit and Grand Rapids, now counts former automotive draftsman Raymond Govaere of St. Clair County as a star pupil. "He's the first one to deliver a full-length screenplay that went into production," the producer said on a back deck in the east-side Poppleton Park neighborhood where he grew up.
Up next are a pair of projects he wrote:
- Small-Town Santa, tentatively due to start shooting next January in Rockford, Mich., on the state's west side, where Win By Fall was made. Casting letters of intent are signed by TV actors Richard Karn (Home Improvement) and Sherman Hemsley (The Jeffersons), Reisig said.
- U.P. in the Wild, described as "a modern western" focusing on a 24-year-old professional musher in the Upper Peninsula who pursues vigilante justice against illegal dog fights.
Though none of Reisig's productions have reached theaters yet, the former standup comedian is committed to making movies in Michigan for practical and emotional reasons.
"There's no reason to go to L.A. as a producer," he explained. "Talented people aren't just in New York and L.A. We have plenty of actors, crew, locations and all four seasons here. I like Michigan – people here are more real" than on the coasts.