When Boise filmmakers Stephen Heleker and Cody Gittings read Alan Heathcock’s “Volt,” a story collection about the denizens of a fictional town, they were struck by the story “Smoke.” It’s a tale about a young man whose father forces him to help him dispose of the body of a man he murdered in a fit of rage.
“It was so beautifully contained, with just a few characters and locations, but the scope of it encompassed these huge moral questions and ideas,” Heleker says. “It was perfect for a short film.”
They approached Heathcock, who was immediately signed on. They collaborated on the screenplay with Heathcock, co-directed the film and — in 2014 — shot for a week and a day at various locations in Idaho with a cast of actors from Los Angeles and Boise.
The moody literary film made its world premiere at the Sun Valley Film Festival and screened at Filmfort at Boise’s Treefort Music Fest a few weeks later.
Now the public can see “Smoke” for free online via Vimeo.com.
“We just wanted to get it out there for people to see,” Heathcock says — especially because Amadeus Serafini, one of the stars of “Smoke,” is now starring as Kieran Wilcox in MTV’s “Scream the TV Series.”
“He’s got a lot of fans now who will want to see it,” Heathcock says.
Putting it out there for free — rather than look for a distributor or go the on-demand route — felt like the right thing to do for the community that sprang up around the project, Heleker says.
“We had so many friends and family who backed the film, it didn’t feel right to turn around and say, ‘OK, now, pay to watch it,” he says.
Gittings and Heleker, both 28, met in the honors college at Boise State, where Heathcock taught at the time. Gittings lived across the hall from Heleker’s twin brother, Marcus, who also is a filmmaker. Gittings and Stephen Heleker worked on several shorts together before “Smoke.” It was the biggest thing any of them had done.
Heathcock grew up on Chicago’s rough South Side. He moved to Boise in 2000 after visiting his buddy from graduate school Tony Doerr, who is now a Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist for his “All the Light We Cannot See.”
“Volt,” Heathcock’s debut story collection, shot him into the national spotlight and earned him awards — and glowing accolades for his “spare and muscular yet poetic” prose (according to The New York Times).
Since moving to Idaho, Heathcock has become a vital part of Boise’s literary community.
He received his second Idaho Commission on the Arts Fellowship this year and also is working to finish his debut novel, “40,” about a contemporary American civil war.
For “Smoke,” the trio raised $21,000 on Kickstarter.com, then Heleker and Gittings maxed out their credit cards for about $6,000 each. The film’s budget came in at about $25,000.
Heathcock followed the process through post production, which is unusual for writers.
“That was pretty cool,” Gittings says. “It was exciting to be able to tap into Alan’s mind about what he was thinking when he was first writing the story.”
Heathcock’s grandfather told Heathcock a haunting story that stuck with him for many years after. His grandfather worked as a foreman driving the Oklahoma oil fields. One day, his truck came nose to nose with another on a narrow, impassable stretch of road. He told the other guy he had to put his car in reverse and back out. The guy refused, so he grabbed a tire iron and hit that man “until he went back from where he came,” Heathcock says.
“I thought about that story for a long, long time. If you hit someone with a tire iron, you’re that close to altering your life, the lives of your children and grandchildren, how you understand yourself,” Heathcock says.
That became the inspiration for “Smoke,” which tells a twisted imagining of the rest of the story that goes on an epic mythological bent.
In “Smoke,” Serafini plays Vernon, a teenager on the verge of manhood whose father (played by Joel Nagle) forces him to help him dispose of the body of a man the dad murdered in a fit of rage. Vernon struggles to keep his emotional footing by talking with an imaginary “Roy Rogers” (Boise actor Nick Garcia). The film also features Idaho Shakespeare Festival company actress Jodi Dominick.
Making this 43-minute short became a turning point for Heathcock, Helker and Gittings because it was the first big thing they had done. The process showed Heleker and Gittings that filmmaking was truly for them.
“Spending a week and a day on set, I felt that’s where I wanted to be all the time — on a set with people who are smarter than me,” Heleker says.
Heleker used “Smoke” as part of his application to the University of Los Angeles’ graduate film program, where he’s now producing a school film project with actor and UCLA alumnus James Franco. (By the way, his twin Marcus is at the University of Southern California’s graduate film program.)
Gittings is readying his next directorial project. He won the grand prize for a video contest from CheapCaribbean.com — a 4-night, 5-day trip for 16 people to an adults-only resort in Cancun, Mexico. Gittings is taking his film crew and two actors. With a loosely written script and lots of improv ideas, he plans to shoot a guerilla-style comedy on the trip.
Heathcock is now delving deeper into the world of film as another story from “Volt” heads for the big screen.
“The Staying Freight,” the opening story in “Volt,” is being developed into a feature film by Sycamore Pictures, a Los Angeles-based production company with films like “Begin Again,” starring Mark Ruffalo and Keira Knightley, to its credit.
“The Staying Freight” is about a man who kills his son in a farming accident and then actually walks out of his life into a world of violence as a bare-fisted fighter.
Heathcock, 45, wrote the screenplay solo.
“It’s been a pretty natural process,” Heathcock says. “I’ve been such a cinephile all my life, and I’m a pretty visual writer, so jumping to the screen has really been fun.”
Once he learned the formatting requirement for a screenplay, the biggest challenge in writing for the screen versus the page was time.
“You have to think of pacing,” Heathcock says. “For a story you just write what you want, but in a film you can’t have repeated dramatic action, or three characters when two would do, because you have to pay for actors and a crew. So, you can have nothing extraneous. It’s making me more disciplined as a storyteller.”
The executives at Sycamore are in the process of hiring a director and casting actors. Heathcock hints that well-known artists are involved but can’t name names yet.
“We should have some big news in the next month,” Heathcock says.