We had the pleasure of meeting Kenneth R. Frank, the writer/director of Family Obligations, through one of our long time film contacts and I’m really happy we were able to connect. Kenneth has perfected not only the art of making indie films, but forging human connections through his films. He took us on a deep dive for his directorial debut Family Obligations, and his passion really shines through.

Who? 
Family Obligations is the second feature film from In the Garage Productions. I wrote the film, directed it, and shot it. My wife Shawna Brandle is our lead producer who handles budgeting, scheduling, paperwork, works as SAG liaison, and basically oversees all logistics for our projects. Her sister Brett Brandle also serves as a producer and does a lot of the design work on the films. Chris Mollica plays the lead in the film Peter Steele and was one of the editors. Kevin Wolfring was my assistant director on set who doubled up as sound man most of the time, as well as being the other editor. Those are the key people in our company. Chris and I have been best friends since high school, and we ended up married to a pair of sisters. Kevin is a former student of mine from my teaching days, so it’s a very tight-knit group. The only way I could have launched a film like this and got it made at the budget we could handle is knowing that I had these people along for the ride with me.

Of course, even with this core filling the biggest roles, a film still needs many more collaborators, and we were able to find so many great people to work with on this. In front of the camera, we cast Frank Failla to play Peter’s Uncle Frank, and he was perfect. Frank is a retired cop who I first saw doing stand-up comedy and learned he had been acting for a few years. He took to the role so quickly, and it was great to see him paired with Chris in these scenes. We saw our lead actress Chandler Rosenthal in a short film that Kevin had written and directed. She joined the cast to play Melanie, the single mother who lives in Frank’s apartment building that befriends Peter and starts a relationship with him. The rest of the cast is a mix of veteran actors in New York like Jerry Colpitts and Brian Silliman along with some new faces. My older daughter Eleanor plays Melanie’s daughter Mia, who has some fun scenes with Chris’s character. My younger daughter Peppa also appears in a small but important moment in the film. She was initially reluctant to be a part of this, but has since negotiated for more time on screen in future projects.

To fill out the crew, we were very fortunate to find our colorist Jan Klier before production began. I knew that getting someone very knowledgeable and experienced to produce the final image was critical. I had some very specific ideas on how I wanted to tell the story through color, but I also knew that I was shooting this myself and needed to work very quickly, so whoever handled this task would also be fixing a lot of my mistakes, so I needed to trust that Jan could deliver. Not only was he a great colorist, but he was so easy to work with that we ended up asking him to do our final sound mix and delivery of master files, as well. He’s going to be my director of photography on my next script that I’m directing, My Sister’s Wedding.

From start to finish, the theme of a successful film is finding collaborators you trust, and that’s also true in the distribution end of things. Family Obligations is available through MBUR Indie Films Distribution. We have dealt with a few distributors in our time, and MBUR has been the most communicative and transparent of any we’ve seen.

What?
The film tells the story of an isolated person who is finally drawn out of himself and into meaningful relationships for the first time in his life. It’s about the power and the pitfalls of involving yourself in other people’s lives. The main character Peter Steele, played by Chris Mollica, returns home to settle affairs after his father’s sudden death. Initially, he tries to push through everything as quickly as possible so he can get back to life as he knows it. He hits a snag when he discovers that his father was actually responsible for taking care of his own brother, Peter’s Uncle Frank.

Slowly, Peter realizes that taking care of Uncle Frank might be the second chance he didn’t have with his father. Frank, however, is a reluctant patient, and Peter finds him a challenge to relate to. Through Frank, Peter also meets Melanie and her young daughter Mia, who live in the same building. Melanie and Peter find some common ground, but Melanie seems to have wrapped her head around living with responsibilities for another person.

So the film is really about this man learning how to (& sometimes how not to) relate to people he cares about, not to see everything as transactional but as something that he actually allows himself to feel.

Where?
The film is set and filmed on Long Island, where my wife Shawna and I live with our family. In fact, much of it is in our hometown, even in our apartment building. We shot in the Chinese restaurant we order from. We shot in an office building across the street from the school where I taught for thirteen years. We shot in a laundromat around the corner from our home.

We made our first feature film The Mix out in Los Angeles, and that was a great experience working with an amazing cast and crew located out there, but we really wanted this to be a product of where we lived. I wanted to show the places I knew. I wanted to work with people around here. Incidentally, people were so kind to us in making this. It really felt like the community embraced us and helped in ways great and small. Some locations gave us a break on their rate or didn’t charge us at all.

People were generous with their time and knowledge. It was a great experience getting to make this out of our home.

When?
We shot the film at the end of 2018, played festivals throughout 2019, and released the film through MBUR in 2020.

The film is set in present day, but we did some conscious things to give the film a little “age,” if that makes any sense. First, we shot on a digital sensor the size of Super 16mm film, and our color grade emphasized those qualities with lots of grain and a general warming of the colors. Secondly, the settings for most scenes are older brick buildings with sort of outdated decor and design choices that hopefully evoke what would have been this character’s childhood. He has come back home to where he grew up, and I wanted it to feel like the places hadn’t changed since he left. There’s a throwaway joke about him having this antiquated cell phone in an early scene, and I think that a lot of this character is frozen in time when he probably should have been evolving out of this lonely state.

You’re also alone with these characters in this film. There are no real cultural references or intrusions from outside their lives. To me, that was very important. You, as an audience, needed to be inside the world of these kinds of lonely people whose lives go on, day by day, largely unaffected by pop culture moments around them. So, in a way, I hope that as the film ages, it would become harder to pin it to any specific time but you would instead just feel a mood of these characters’ world.

Why?
This film was a very personal expression for me. I’m someone who has always thought about and written about family in as many different forms and expressions as I could find. I think the fundamental question I’m always asking myself is how to situate my individual identity in the context of the people around me. Then, building off that, what are my responsibilities to that group of people and what are my responsibilities to myself? Hence the title, Family Obligations.

Ironically, when I’d get up on a stage for Q & A’s after screenings, almost every moderator would ask me if the events of the film were based on personal experience, and they’re not. After seeing the film, most people have assumed that I had a similar relationship with my father or uncle, and I haven’t. But the film’s story is a synthesis of a lot of things I’ve seen and thought about for many years: the misunderstandings across generations, how we take care of the sick and the dying, how we make peace with other people’s limitations, how we forgive others, how we forgive ourselves (hopefully). So I developed this story out of a desire to explore those questions I had.

What I hope is universal for people watching is the feeling of being pulled out of your own experience and into someone else’s life on terms you don’t get to dictate. At some point, I think we’re all called to serve some role in another person’s life that we don’t get to control. Whether that’s taking care of someone when they’re sick, dealing with a loss, helping someone through unforeseen difficulties of their own, or something else entirely, at some point we acknowledge that we don’t control all aspects of our lives. So what do we do then? What kind of people are we then?

How?
Family Obligations is available on Blu-Ray disc at many sellers online. It streams free on Tubi TV and Plex, and it is also available for rent or purchase at AltaVOD and Amazon. The movie just became available on HooplaDigital.

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Next week we will spotlight the indie horror flick Abandoned Dead in our 5Ws and How independent film series, but first lets take a look at the movie’s trailer!

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Abandoned Dead was directed by Mark W. Curran. The movie is the “tale of a security guard, trapped in a run-down inner-city medical clinic and terrorized by supernatural forces which threaten to overtake her.” The horror flick features Judith O’Dea, aka “Barbra” from the iconic Night of the Living Dead, and stars Sarah Nicklin, Robert E. Wilhelm, Ivan Adame, and Hannah Johnson. You can watch the movie on Tubi TV.

What is your book about? 
Rise of the Sidekicks is about a group of kids with superpowers and their fight against a nefarious villain trying to take over their city. At the start of the story, the kids are training to become sidekicks for the city’s elite group of superheroes, the Guardians, but when mysterious circumstances lure the famed heroes out of the city, a new threat emerges. A villainous man calling himself the Hero Smasher declares war on all supers, taking Nexus City hostage with his mind control abilities and an army of robots. With the Guardians out of the picture and time quickly running out, it’s up to a group of super-powered sixth graders to rise up and find the courage within to take on a super villain before their city is lost forever.

What inspired this story?
My family watches a lot of Marvel movies, so unsurprisingly superhero themes work their way into my writing. But in most superhero movies and books, the main hero (usually an adult) is the one that defeats the story’s villain. My idea for this book came about when I was thinking what if the main superheroes were somehow out of the picture and it was up to the sidekicks to save the day instead. I also pictured the sidekicks as kids, still coming into their powers and counting on the adults to stop the bad guys. The idea grew from there and I wrote it as a middle grade level book for my son, who the main story character is inspired by — Ethan Parker (Ethan, my son’s first name and Parker, the last name of his favorite superhero).

Tell us a little about you, who is Charity Tober?
As it is with many authors, I can list writing, reading, and an unhealthy love of coffee as some of my most defining qualities. Watching movies, doing puzzles, and visiting theme parks with my family (central Florida has no shortage of those!) are other ways I like to pass my time. And cats, I love cats, just ask my husband! Rise of the Sidekicks is my first middle grade novel and I’m working on several more, to be released later this year and next.

How can we read Rise of the Sidekicks?
Rise of the Sidekicks is available on Amazon (eBook, Paperback, and through Kindle Unlimited).

In the past we have spotlighted the trailer for Gabriel Rhenals’ For My Sister, a drama that focuses on depression and tragedy, and it is also apart of our #IndieFilm100 series on Twitter. We talked to the writer/director about his debut feature film and the process of putting it all together.

Who? 
I, Gabriel Rhenals, am the writer, producer, director, cinematographer and editor of my debut feature, For My Sister. I’m an award-winning, independent filmmaker based in Miami, Florida.

The central protagonist of the film is Evie Sorella, a young woman desperate to save her sister Tris from the grips of a serious and worsening depression. Evie is played by the staggeringly talented Stephanie Maltez, who I’d collaborated with before on two short films. The rest of the principal cast includes Cristina De Fatima (as Tris Sorella), Natalie Ramirez, William Guevara and Mireya Kilmon. The film also boasts an assortment of spectacular supporting players, nearly all hailing locally from South Florida. [Distributor] Indie Rights was responsible for securing the film’s present home on Amazon Prime Video and Tubi.

What?
For My Sister is about mental illness, its societal stigma and the testing of a sisterly bond. The story was inspired by my own personal experience with mental health issues and those of others I know. Miami-Dade County, where I live, has the highest percentage of people living with severe mental illness than any other urban area in the U.S. As such, I was compelled to make the film as much out of a moral duty than a purely artistic inclination.

Where? 
For My Sister takes place in a nameless city but the film was produced throughout Miami, Florida. The various locations were approached in guerrilla filmmaking fashion and included several apartments, a hospital, a university, an office building, a cemetery and the city’s rail-transit system. I feel the considerable number of locations add to the scope of the main character’s odyssey and gives the film an elaborate and unique Miami signature.  

When?
The script for For My Sister was written during the summer of 2018 and production began immediately after the script’s completion in fall 2018. Production lasted eight months with filming taking place primarily on weekends to accommodate the schedules of the actors involved. Filming wrapped in spring 2019. The post-production period was unusually brief as most of the editing was performed during the weekdays between the weekend shoot dates throughout the production schedule.

For My Sister was premiered at Coral Gables Art Cinema on June 29th, 2019. It was a well-attended premiere (which included several film critics and a Florida state senator) and easily one of the most important and memorable days of my entire life! A few other theatrical exhibitions took place before the film found a home on streaming services in late 2020.

Why? 
I made this film because I wanted to eventually make feature films ever since I started on my path as a filmmaker nearly 20 years ago! Prior to this feature, I had written, produced, directed, shot and edited 16 short films and written a few feature-length screenplays. After all that, I felt it was high-time for my entry into the feature filmmaking realm.

How?
For My Sister was filmed using my phone, Samsung Galaxy S9+, on a budget of about $6,000. There was no crew beyond myself. I believe productions like these represent a watershed moment in the world of independent filmmaking. There are literally no excuses anymore to write a script, get some creative personnel together and realize a vision. The times they are a-changin’!

For My Sister is available to rent or buy on Amazon Prime Video and to watch on Tubi (FREE with ads)! I would like to encourage anyone who sees the film to support indie filmmaking by leaving a review, brief or otherwise, on either Amazon Prime Video, IMDb or Letterboxd. The entire cast of the film and I would greatly appreciate it!

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What is your book about? 
Heart of Stone is about teenager Samantha Abraham, a picked on outcast at school who falls in love  with a strange new foreign exchange student named Joshua. He’s great at hockey, gorgeous, and might just be a golem. Together with her equally unpopular best friend Duckie, they navigate the social  hierarchy, dodge the mean girls, and try to uncover the truth about Joshua’s origins. The book is a little bit Sixteen Candles and a dash of Young Frankenstein with some paranormal/horror elements. 

What inspired this story?
I wanted to write an 80’s inspired teenage horror story that was both current and offbeat. Initially I was trying to write the most out there version of the Twilight style YA trend, taking the logical  progression of Dracula -> Werewolf -> Frankenstein. I thought, those kind of stories usually have fairly shell-like characters designed for the reader to imagine themselves in the role, so what’s more shell-like than a golem? I wanted this to be a parody, but loose enough that it can still work in a serious way.  The series builds as it progresses into more comedic areas, easing in more appearances from the crazy cop Frank Malone, who appeared in my movie The Killing Death, which Heart of Stone is set in the same  universe. 

Tell us a little about you, who is I. D. Russell?
I’m a bit of a jack of all trades kind of guy. Film buff, martial artist, Dad, indie filmmaker, author, gamer, retro pro-wrestling enthusiast, reader, collector, and YouTuber. I can’t sit still and I’m always either working on another book (I’ve got 25 more written in various stages of editing), writing a screenplay (lots on the go that will hopefully be up on screen in the future), reading five or more books at once, training in BJJ or Hapkido… you get the idea. I’m an 80’s child and that’s where my sensibilities come in terms of action movies, horror movies, comedies, etc. Everything I make blends a bit of what I came up with, like The Monster Squad, Police Academy, The Naked Gun, Bruce Lee movies, video games, and schlocky pulp books. Eventually I hope someone notices. 

How can we read Heart of Stone?
Heart of Stone is Book 1 of the “High School Hell” series. You can find the whole series on Amazon: 

The series is also available on the Ringo Jones website and in select stores in Winnipeg.

Today’s spotlight movie that you can watch online for free is a twisted dark fantasy that blurs the lines of reality.

The Berlin Bride was directed by Michael Bartlett and stars Miklos Koeniger, Brynmor Jones, and Bartlett.  

Official Description: A tale inspired by the silent film era, the writings of Poe and the German fantasist E.T.A Hoffmann. Two oddball Berliners discover the parts of a mannequin in a city park occupied by nude sunbathers.

With harrowing consequence, the men come to terms with their disjointed mate. A surreal vision of sexual evolution and misguided passion.

To watch The Berlin Bride, an “absurd and dream like adventure,” head to Tubi TV. And you can find more movies to watch online for free here.

Last month we learned more about Ian Russell’s debut independent film The Killing Death, a micro budget horror comedy. This month we chatted with him about his b sci-fi flick Cybernetic Showdown!

When “mutants invade the last city left on earth. Only one man stands in their way, but he’s running out of bullets.”

When?
Cybernetic Showdown was shot in 2007 over nine days at a cost of about $1000 (Canadian). The movie was in post-production hell for 12 years before finally being finished and released in October of 2019. It’s set in a post-apocalyptic future Winnipeg under attack from flesh-eating mutants.

The movie was made the summer following my previous feature, The Killing Death, using much of the same cast but with a bigger scope and ambition. This ambition, combined with a whole bunch of factors kept the movie on various hard drives for so long that I sometimes wondered if it would ever come out. It took Zellco’s interest in The Killing Death to provide the final kick in the pants to complete the movie and get it out there. But before you think that it was just laziness or distraction that delayed Cybernetic Showdown, I’ll present to you the photo of my flame damaged iMac as backup.

Cybernetic Showdown was supposed to have Sega CD FMV game quality visual effects, so much of what was filmed was deliberately done with a “add it in post” mentality. We didn’t bother with a lot of fake blood, we put green screen everywhere, and used some shoddy props, all in the thought that it would look great when finished later. The only problem was that we had no understanding of how long those kind of effects would take. An actor volunteered to do some of the work, but quickly came up against the reality of the monumental task before him. He had a life and a job and could only do so much. So I found help. Things were plugging along fine until the great computer fire that (I thought) wiped out everything done up to that point.

Needless to say I was pretty dejected. I didn’t want to have to re-edit the movie, let alone re-do the few effects that I’d done, but luckily the hard drive was able to be salvaged and work could continue. But time marches on and these things take time. A bit of work would get done but then a major life change would get in the way. Moving out, having a kid, buying a house, changing jobs (multiple times), having another kid, getting married, etc. I couldn’t very well come down on volunteers when this was mostly my fault. So, as YouTube tutorials grew and visual effects work became more intuitive, I learned what I needed to do and started filling in the blanks myself. But the reality is that I never would have been able to get this thing done without local whizkid Ryan Hill, who was paid in expensive vodka and deserved way more.

The movie played in a local theatre to a big audience that shockingly seemed to enjoy it! So, now you can watch it on Amazon Prime and hopefully soon on DVD!

What?
Cybernetic Showdown was a mishmash of inspirations, from the obvious (The Omega Man, Rocket Robin Hood, kung fu movies) to the less so (Jesus Christ Vampire Hunter). This was really my attempt at making a goofy 80’s action movie spoof a few years before 80’s nostalgia really kicked in. Some of what we did, like using the Nintendo Power Glove as a substitute for a robotic hand, having a video game themed animation sequence, would be used in other movies while this one was lost in the ether. I’d like to think that we were ahead of the curve, but the reality is that this movie is so tiny that most people would have never seen it had it actually come out when it was supposed to.

Taking what I’d learned from making The Killing Death, I figured I’d expand my vision for a follow up and threw everything I could into this one, all while keeping the cheapness factor foremost in my mind. That meant places I could use for free but looked like they might exist in a post-apocalyptic world.

The story is really meant to be a comedic version of the tough guy action hero trope, so much so that Jimmy is supposed to be knowingly portraying himself as that trope for what he believes is the benefit of the survivors and rookie cops. He’s a bit of a buffoon, but still competent. Every now and again, the armor comes down to show the person behind the eye patch, but not so much that the character isn’t still silly. I don’t know if that meta aspect of the story comes across or if people just look at this as a goofy parody, but as long as they’re laughing, I can’t complain.

Where?
The movie is supposed to take place in a post-apocalyptic Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada. It’s meant to be funny that the only city left on earth is Winnipeg, but we’re so isolated sometimes that it can feel like we already are. The film was shot in Winnipeg and the surrounding area, including an abandoned quarry, the ruins of a monastery, a dilapidated barn south of town, a local bar, an office, an artists studio, and a shockingly unsafe roof in the downtown.

This time I wanted to be more professional, so I secured a few permits, but that created new complications as it meant that we had much more pressure to get everything we needed on that specific day. It also meant that if something didn’t turn out, I had to roll with it. I’d like to think that considering the budget and what I had access to, I made the best of it, but a movie like this really needs a stronger setting established, and we just couldn’t do large scale crowd scenes or set dressing. You make do with what you have and hope the concept gets across anyway.

Who?
I [Ian Russell] wrote, directed, edited, produced, stunt choreographed, acted in, location scouted, etc., Cybernetic Showdown. Pick a job and I probably did it. This time around I wanted more of a “real” crew, and tried to keep people on specific jobs where possible, but things pop up that toss monkey wrenches into the best laid plans. I usually set up the camera and (when we used them) the lights, but a few others helped out as well. One interesting challenge came the day that nobody from the crew showed up! Whatever actor wasn’t on screen had to either hold the camera or the boom (or both!) That was a bit of a disaster, but we made it through. The scene was supposed to be much grander and more action filled but I didn’t have the manpower and had to drastically scale it down. What made it worse was that it was the opening of the movie! So much for the first impression.

Despite my intentions, when you’re relying on volunteers working for food, you have to accept that you’re going to get amateurs and people just looking to learn. Heck, we were learning too, so the whole project was much more laid back and lax than a “real” movie. Of course nothing turned out like I’d imagined. Some of it was actually better (the video game fight scene) but the whole thing was an incredible crash course and I learned so much from my mistakes that I hope I can correct on the next movie.

The visual effects were a hodgepodge of work from many different people. Tyhr Trubiak (the movie’s lead) did some, Ryan Hill did a lot, and I did a few as well. The ease of doing this stuff now versus in 2007 is night and day. There are so many more places to go for help today and the visual effects website Productioncrate was a life saver. I honestly don’t think the movie would have turned out half as well as it did had we been able to finish it in 2007, so maybe the delay was a boon in disguise.

The cast of this one once again rose above the material. The lead was played by Tyhr Trubiak who was just incredible. He was game for anything, from super detailed fight choreography that left him drenched in sweat (and maybe a few pounds lighter) to climbing sheer quarry walls, kissing scenes, getting splashed with water, endless Yop drinks, to even pounding back a Pepsi (which he hates). He was the face of the movie and without him, it falls apart. The rest of the cast were brought back from The Killing Death with Jeremy Dangerfield playing The Frank Computer, Darren Felbel playing the Keeper of the Lore, and Veronica Ternopolski playing the love interest. I loved working with so many great actors and great people and it made the whole thing more of a lark than a serious enterprise.

If you look closely, you’ll see me more than a few times in the movie. That’s because I was needed as a stunt performer. I’m a black belt in Hapkido (although I wasn’t then) and I used some fellow students to take break falls and try to give the fight scenes a bit more of a kick. Some turned out better than others and that was because I was still figuring out how to shoot and stage them as I went. In the years since, I’ve also taken up Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, so I’m pretty sure the next time I do something like this, I could really bring a few cool new tricks to the table!

Why?
Cybernetic Showdown was made because we wanted to make another movie after making The Killing Death! I learned so much on that project and made so many mistakes that I (naively) thought I could do much better the second time. I tried to avoid all that went wrong in the first movie with the second. In theory, that was sound, but in practice, it just meant that we made all new mistakes.

I had the camera and equipment already, I knew actors, and could get locations cheap, so why not make a movie? At the time, I saw no reason why I couldn’t be constantly pumping out features with that same group. I had more scripts written and ready to go and was all set to be my own little production unit of no-budget schlock. But then the delays happened and I told myself that I wasn’t going to start something new without finishing the previous project. If I’m being honest, that was just a way to avoid doing more. I thought that I wasn’t going to be like my hero Orson Welles and just leave an endless string of unfinished projects, I was going to be the guy who finishes what he starts, but instead I let that idea take over and didn’t make another feature in all the years that Cybernetic Showdown sat on the shelf. All those scripts are still sitting in my drawer and now that I have completed the long unfinished albatross, I hope to get back on track making more movies.

Unfortunately COVID hit and everything is on hold for now.

Cybernetic Showdown was supposed to be another step in my filmmaking journey. A bigger scope, a grander vision. It was supposed to be another learning opportunity for everyone involved. If things had gone the right way, it would have been a stepping stone to bigger and better things much faster. As it is, it’s a fun, if flawed bit of goofiness that I hope people enjoy without taking too seriously. There will be a novelization coming out in the future that is going to fix a lot of what went wrong, so stay tuned for that! Frank and Jimmy have lots more adventures in my books, so if you like the style of humor you see on screen, you may like those as well.

How?
I was about to film another feature before the COVID-pocalype, but that’s been put on hold until the restrictions lighten up a little here. In the twelve years that Cybernetic Showdown sat on the shelf, I was keeping busy publishing books, making YouTube videos, and writing new screenplays. Everything I’ve been doing all connects, so The Killing Death and Cybernetic Showdown are a part of the same universe, using the same characters. Frank and Jimmy have loads more adventures on the page and will soon (if everything goes well) have even more on the screen.

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