Local filmmaker Jim Stokes fulfills his wildest dreams Downtown
The locally produced movie "There's Danger in Romance" parodies the behind-the-scenes happenings of a similarly named romance novel's publication. In this case, a cheesy love story surrounding the book's marketing inevitably leads to trouble.
The alternately humorous and dramatic flick is set against the backdrop of Downtown and Southwest Minneapolis, along with scenes filmed in New York City. It runs continually this month on Minneapolis Telecommunications Network (MTN) cable channel 17.
Rife with deception, chase scenes, imposters, the mob -- and of course, romance -- it follows the classic formula: a) character gets in trouble, b) character gets in more trouble and finally, c) character gets out of trouble.
The homemade, low-budget feature shot in black-and-white was six years in the making for writer/director/producer Jim Stokes and his cohorts from his nonprofit company, Naturalite Productions, based out of Stokes's Bryn Mawr home.
The story begins as down-and-out newspaper distributors Karl King and his brothers tread water, delivering papers in desperate time. The 67-year-old Stokes --who says of himself "you're not old till you're cold" -- portrays Karl, who yearns for something better. So, he writes a romance novel -- a sure hit with readers, but difficult to submit without a fancy literary r/sum/, he confesses.
Frustrated with the trappings of the romance-novel industry that's friendlier to women than men, Karl creates a fake ghostwriter, Sheila Sherwood, to help his G-rated romance novel gain notice from an editor.
His plan works, but not without some problems. The prominent Morgan Publishing house, which accepts the debut manuscript, won't pay for it until author Sheila Sherwood shows up in the flesh. Uh-oh. Gulp.
Where's Karl going to find a believable female romance novelist? Tension mounts. Pursuit of the mysterious writer ensnares the publishing house, investigator and even the mob. Stokes narrates the action-packed tale.
The latter role is a natural fit. Stokes spent 15 years as the voice for a classic music radio station (he was also a salesman and served in the U.S. Army Reserves for 26 years).
His radio experience is apparent in the sound of his voice, which possesses a carnival entertainer's allure. A big guy with a salt-and-pepper beard and mustache, black-rimmed glasses, a Western-style plaid shirt and a distinctive laugh, Stokes is a cross between Buffalo Bill and Santa Claus.
"There's Danger" wasn't filmed chronologically -- Stokes says he didn't start with a finished script; one reason the production "took so doggone long." Progress could be marked by his beard, which went through several different lengths during the movie's extended shooting.
Facial hair continuity concerned Stokes. Sometimes, he was forced to improvise to justify an awkward change. Near the film's start, he ad-libbed, "Look, I even trimmed my beard so that I'd look less like a mountain man."
Stokes's beard isn't the only thing that changed. In the pre-9/11 era, the cast ran around St. Anthony Main and even New York City with toy guns -- something that couldn't happen now without permission or other oversight.
The movie was shot on a Panasonic 456 shoulder camera and a mini-digial video camera. Some scenes were shot on location in Minneapolis and New York City, with many local areas easily replacing Big Apple landmarks.
For example, Theodore Wirth Park stands in just fine for Central Park. A snowy scene filmed in Cedar Lake is, "a dead ringer for old Hell's Kitchen," said Stokes.
"It's a lot more fun to film/tape dialogue in Minneapolis," he added. "You don't have to get on a plane to do it."
Stokes is not exactly a Big Apple guy. He punctuates his points with a jovial, "Ho, ho, ho." Proving his modesty, he politely asked if he was dressed appropriately for an interview, "Is it OK if I show up in Bermuda shorts?"
Filming close to home also allows him to keep other projects going, such as his freelance job writing for Sound and Communication magazine, an audio/visual systems insider rag.
One thing he won't be doing is penning a romance novel. He had never read one before embarking on "There's Danger," and after flipping through some, he admitted, "I could never write one."
The family business
Stokes's moviemaking became a family business, with his wife, children and friends performing main roles or cameos in many of the titles.
Each Stokes uses a stage name that rings of old radio heroes/heroines (fitting for an ex-radio host's movie): Stokes himself is "Hal Evans," his wife Sylvia becomes "Helena Armstrong" and daughter Tamara assumes the personality of "Marion Malone."
"Helena" plays editor Mary Morgan, who hopes to publish the romance novel. "Marion" portrays ghostwriter Sheila Sherwood, the supposed author.
Emphasized Stokes, "They're not professional actors. But when they act, they're professional."
In real life, Sylvia works at Target Corp., 1000 Nicollet Mall, while Tamara is a nurse-in-training at Minneapolis Community and Technical College, 1501 Hennepin Ave. S.
Stokes and Sylvia have an onscreen love affair in "There's Danger in Romance." It's not the first time they've paired up on screen. They were also an item in "Terror at Outlaw Creek," another Stokes cable-access movie about a fateful wilderness journey. (Stokes has produced a third cable film, "Beethoven's Tenth.")
Stokes and Sylvia have been together for 41 years. They met in a college English class. "[Sylvia] was the prettiest girl on campus," he said.
"Jim was wild," Sylvia grinned.
Ironically, he and Sylvia don't have cable, so when "There's Danger" first aired in September, they decamped to Tamara's MCTC dorm room to view it.
Stokes has no idea how much money he spent on "There's Danger in Romance," which he completed in July, or how many hours he spent on it. Cast and crew pitched in as actors, cinematographers and stage managers. They also supplied props and costumes. Furthermore, they helped set up and tear down.
The grassroots endeavor was truly a labor of love. Cast and crew squeezed in the filming during their spare time, between other full-time jobs -- in the evenings, weekends or on vacations. None of the actors was paid. Often, however, Stokes rewarded his cast and crew by taking them out to dinner.
Stokes's cinematic industriousness underscored MTN's role as a launch pad. According to MTN Production Specialist and instructor John Akre, "It's people like Jim who're using public access to make their dreams come true in a way that you wouldn't see on commercial TV, and who wouldn't want that?"
Akre portrayed a radio show host and a jittery doctor in "There's Danger in Romance." His brief appearance didn't require much preparation, except that he made sure to sport a vintage jacket. He read the script for the first time during the filming -- just as it would be in a live radio program.
Throughout that process, J.C. Bagdadi -- who works at MTN and appears as a game show host -- encouraged Stokes: "I kept telling him that he's not making a sandwich. He's making a gourmet meal. The charm is in the content, the message."
Bagdadi met Stokes years ago while smuggling political audiotapes into his native Libya during Ronald Reagan's presidency. When Bagdadi needed someone to record his impassioned Arabic-language speeches, he was referred to a guy with a studio in the basement of an American Lung Association building near Loring Park.
When the two old friends were reunited at MTN, Bagdadi helped Jim get acquainted with film equipment and packaged his movies to gain more exposure -- a relationship that's mutually beneficial for MTN.
Bagdadi said that MTN represents a cross-section of the city. "You get to see what Minneapolis will be 10 years from now. It's neat how connections happen. We don't do any outreach. It's done by people like Jim," Bagdadi said.
"MTN is no longer a secret; a lot of people watch," he adds. "[Some people] think of MTN as pornography -- a lot of people watch it, but nobody admits it. We have all kinds of people. For me, because of my background -- I come from complete darkness in Libya, media-wise -- this is the opposite."
Brian Johanson, a real-life bartender who played a bartender, was comfortable on camera behind the bar counter where he works -- at the Golden Valley American Legion post. Johansen, who's never been in a movie before, enjoyed it.
"It's a cute little movie, especially considering the budget," he said, adding, "People at the bar said that I did the best job, but then again, they're kind of prejudiced."
Johanson has already agreed to play in Stokes's next title. Stokes has no plans to retire from the business any time soon. To the contrary, he's just formed another production company, Urban Wild Pictures -- this time, for-profit. He'll continue to produce films through Naturalite, geared towards cable access audiences. Urban Wild will feature movies set in "wildly urban" places and will be family oriented.
Stokes will distribute the films for sale or rent VHS videotapes. He is currently filming a sequel to "There's Danger in Romance," called, "Sven and Sophia" to be Urban Wild's first film. Stokes couldn't reveal anything further about the movie because it's "bad luck to see the bride before the wedding."