Take 2

CASTING A WIDE NET | Paris, Texas’ Ash Christian scored a stellar comedic cast for his low-budget, North Texas-shot indie film that includes John Waters, Jennifer Coolidge, Leslie Jordan and Heather Matarazzo.

Gay Texas filmmaker Ash Christian’s second movie encountered death and cast changes on its way to its debut this week — in his home state

CLICK HERE TO SEE MORE PHOTOS FROM THE SET OF ‘MANGUS’

ARNOLD WAYNE JONES  | Life+Style Editor
jones@dallasvoice.com

It is New Year’s Eve 2009, and Ash Christian is ready to unwind a bit — probably for the first time in a month. In a few hours, after a haircut and a disco nap, he will be out partying at Dish in the ilume. The wine will flow freely that night, and at midnight he will ring in 2010 to the strains of Black-Eyed Peas’ “I Gotta Feeling.”

Ash Christian certainly is feeling something that day, and that is stressed. He had returned to North Texas a few weeks earlier for what was supposed to be a quick two-week trip to scout locations and raise money for his independent film, Mangus, which was supposed to finish filming before it had actually begun.

But as with a lot of what happens in Hollywood, things did not go as planned. Christian had an enthusiastic backer in Friley Davidson, a well-off Dallasite who had pledged a big chunk of the budget for Mangus. But Davidson died unexpectedly just before Christmas … and before he had cut the check for the film. (Several months later, Marty Hershner, owner of the Tin Room — Christian’s favorite gay bar in Dallas and the set for one of the climactic scenes — dies, devastating Christian.) It’s been a scramble ever since.

Christian is used to it by now. Although it’s only his second film, and he was only 24 when he started on it, Christian is already a veteran of the indie filmmaking scene and all the potholes that dot the road. He was 20 and about to shoot his first movie, Fat Girls, when civic leaders in the town of Canton, where photography was supposed to take place, pulled the permits a day before production was set to start because they didn’t like the gay content in the script.

ON THE SET | Jennifer Coolidge’s improvisation of a breadstick to look like a penis cracked up Heather Matarazzo during the last day of filming on ‘Mangus.’ (Arnold Wayne Jones/Dallas Voice)

“I don’t know why we even wanted to film in Canton anyway,” he says years later. Christian found a replacement quickly in Waxahachie, and the final product became well-received on the festival circuit, praised for its quirky charm about a gay, musical-loving Texas boy and his chubby best friend (Ashley Fink, now on Glee).

Although not a financial hit, Fat Girls got Christian noticed in Hollywood. He “took a lot of meetings,” as they say, discussing big-budget projects studios wanted him to helm. But nothing seemed to fit. Whatever they wanted him to make isn’t what he wanted to make.

“You need to believe in your vision,” he said earlier this week over chicken flautas at Komali. “You have to be comfortable with your vision not being totally mainstream.”

That devotion has paid off in little ways. This week, Mangus gets its world premiere in Christian’s home state with two screenings at the Dallas International Film Festival.

“I’m happy it is premiering here, because so much of the crew was based here. It’s great for them,” says the Paris, Texas, native. “We already have some distribution offers, too, so we’re in a good place.”

It’s been a long journey from that day 15 months ago when I met Christian, one of his stars, actress Heather Matarazzo, and her girlfriend, Caroline Murphy, at Taco Diner in the West Village, where we discussed the film over fish tacos and quesadillas. There was a lot of excitement that day, as filming was about to start. They toasted with Diet Coke.

But things happen quickly and unpredictably in the universe of indie cinema: Sometimes things go smoothly and sometimes not. Christian was lucky to get Matarazzo to do the film — he wrote it with her in mind even though the two had never met.

(Originally, Christian had written a leading role for himself, until he got too old to play it. He doesn’t appear in the final version of the film at all.)

“I went to the premier of Saved [in which Matarazzo starred] and I came up to give you…” Christian begins, before Matarazzo interrupts.

“Was I nice?” she asks. Yes, he responds.

“I remember exactly where I was. He said I wrote this script for you — people say that all the time but this happened to be true,” Matarazzo said. He told her he wanted to film it in North Texas, which just happened to be where her girlfriend was from.

Murphy and her brother ended up writing music for the film. Then Matarazzo scored another coup for the film.

“Heather got Alan Cumming to take a part!” Christian gushes over his most recent casting decision. “She just sent him the script and he agreed to do it!” (The two had worked together on The L Word.)

But things are fluky. Within two weeks, Cumming will drop out, only to be replaced by Leslie Jordan. Jennifer Coolidge, who has been tapped to play the mother of the small-town kid Mangus, was still onboard though, as was Matarazzo, whose costume of Daisy Dukes, a blonde wig and hooker shoes “make you look like Jessica Simpson,” Christian observes. (That’s her character’s name in the film, too.)

Shooting was delayed, as was the fundraising to produce the damn thing, but it eventually proceeds. Even that, though, was not without its drama. It’s Feb. 10, 2010 — the last day of filming — and an unexpected snowstorm has all but ruined the final shots of the script. Overcast skies make the lighting all wrong for the scene, where Mangus’ mom welcomes him home. It doesn’t help matters that Christian is hopped up on antibiotics; he’s been fighting a losing battle against the flu all week. But there are no sick days when you’re making a movie in three weeks.

“This is my day, just sitting around,” Christian says with frustration on the set, waiting for his cast to get into costume. But a year later, he’s singing a different tune.

“Directing is my favorite part,” he says. “You learn a lot. [The final film] isn’t what I thought I was writing. Actors bring their own interpretations to it. Leslie is kind of amazing in the movie. Coolidge is great — she’s really, really funny. Some of the stuff they come up with is funnier than anything I could have written.” For instance, Coolidge suggests arranging the breadstick on a plate to resemble a penis; she keeps breaking up Matarazzo with her adlibs, necessitating numerous retakes.

Christian has learned some practical lessons as well to help him negotiate the minefield of moviemaking. He’s just wrapped on his third feature, Petunia, starring Oscar winner Christine Lahti and David Rasche, the movie he fully expects will usher him into “the next level” of filmmaking. And a new financial angel has just given him half a million dollars to put toward his next picture. (This time, he got the money in hand before something happened to the backer.)

And as always, things seem to work out. Eventually, John Waters even joined the cast of Mangus to play the part of — wait for it — Jesus Christ.

“I sent him word I would like him to be in my movie and a few minutes later I get this call, ‘Ash, this is John Waters. Can you send a script to my apartment?’ I wasn’t even sure if I needed to deliver it myself or send a courier or what. But he read it and quickly said, ‘I’ll do it; call my agent.’” They ended up shooting Waters’ scenes in Provincetown in front of a green-screen to be digitally inserted in the final product. He can’t wait for his local friends to see it.

Christian, who has lived in the Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood of Manhattan for years, says he fully expects to end up back in North Texas eventually. He likes Dallas, he says: The people and how much cheaper food is … and, presumably, the reaction he gets here to his movies. But until the screening, it’s across the street to drink sweet-tea vodka martinis and stare at the dick dancers at BJ’s. Hey, there’s a time for movies and a time to relax.

For additional information, visit MangusTheMovie.com.

Also of interest at DIFF:

In addition to Mangus!, some other films that came up on our radar at the Dallas International Film Festival include:

Boy Wonder — a psychological thriller about a comic book fan who witnesses the murder of his mother, becoming a vigilante by night as a super hero. Screens at AMC NorthPark on April 1 at 7 p.m. and April 2 at 10:15 p.m.

Lucky — A comedy about a fledgling serial killer (Colin Hanks), who wins the Iowa State Lottery, enabling him to pursue his hobby. Also stars screen legend Ann-Margret, who will receive an award from the festival. Screens at the Magnolia Theatre, April 1 at 7 p.m. and April 2 at 12:30 p.m.

More to Live For — A documentary about the quest for bone marrow donors (a procedure which holds the promise of becoming a cure for AIDS). Directed by Noah Hutton, the son of Debra Winger and Timothy Hutton. Screens at AMC NorthPark on April 3 at 9 p.m.

Rainbows End — This Texas-based documentary, which we profiled last week, tracks a kooky gay man from East Texas, pictured, as he sets off for L.A. to get Internet lessons from the gay and lesbian center there. Screens at the Magnolia Theatre April 1 at 10 p.m. and April 3 at noon.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition April 1, 2011.

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