This is a simple story about a regular guy with a dream, a dream that cost him more than a hundred grand, 10 years of his life and 16 inches of his small intestine.
Stick It in Detroit is a labor of love in the purest sense, a sprawling chaotic comedy about a guy who discovers that his heart is where his home is, cobbled together by blood, sweat, tears, credit cards, masking tape, a few name actors and some help from friends and family.
Making a movie has taken more time and money and energy than this guy Robert Phelps could ever have imagined possible, yet despite every obstacle, every miscue, and every wearied look from his friends and family, he did it; the movie's in the can, on store shelves and at long last ready for its flashy red carpet theatrical premiere, and Phelps isn't done dreaming.
A crass, raucous, balls-to-the-walls comedy with hints of Kevin Smith, Judd Apatow and heavy doses of Animal House, the movie stars Phelps as average dude Todd Kennedy, a factory worker faced with accepting a lucrative gig out of town or sticking around with his loyal but anarchic crew of goofy pals. With a soundtrack stocked with terrific local music such as the Hard Lessons, the Muggs, Ben Cyllus, PAS/Cal, DJ Assault, the Nice Device, Audra Kubat and Saturday Looks Good to Me (full disclosure department: Metro Times managing editor Brian Smith was the film's music consultant), the
movie overflows with hometown made-in-Detroit flavor. Also, unlike a lot of indie low-budget comedies, it's actually funny. Sure, it's rough around the edges, a bit crude and clunky, but it's absolutely Detroit: blue collar, a little crazy and unabashedly ambitious.
Phelps is a young, good-looking charmer — an energetic smooth talker — if not mildly annoying in his contagious optimism.
He grew up in Rochester, graduated from Lutheran High School North, and even made a few short, loosely directed mini-movies with his friends, such juvenile "lost classics" as Billy the Butt Humping Bandit.
He went on to Michigan State where he studied theater, and directed a few productions, but bailed to be a "movie star" — an idea hatched after his lead role in a Clerks-like indie called Pizza Runner that was shot in Lansing. The part in the film gave Phelps the confidence quit school and move to Hollywood in 1998. "I grew up in a time when if you were good from Detroit you went somewhere else," he says.
He also wanted to be a director but he "didn't know how to go about doing it. I was real naive and I thought I would do the Ron Howard thing, you know, I'll go out there and get on a TV show and do that for a few years and see how it's all done and then slowly start directing."
Shockingly, after only a few weeks of hitting the audition circuit, his cockamamie plan began to actually come together. Sort of. Within two months Phelps had an agent. Within four months he had a show on the same network that gave us Baywatch.
That show was a pilot called The Kickboxer and the Kid, starring low-budget action icon Jeff Speakman. Phelps played the kid who did karate kicks and such, even though he didn't know the first thing about martial arts.
A demo episode was shot, and Phelps was two weeks away from moving to Vancouver to begin shooting when the series suddenly got pulled. He's grateful now.
"I was 23 playing a 15-year-old. I thought, no dude, I can't do this. I'd be that 15-year-old karate kid for the rest of my career. It wasn't 'til I started losing my hair that I stopped reading for high school stuff."
Complicating matters is that Phelps suffers from Crohn's Disease, an autoimmune malady that attacks the gastrointestinal tract, and can cause intense pain, inflammation, weight loss and all sorts of unpleasant side effects. Every few years the disease would flare up, and his weight would bounce up and down and, basically, wreck havoc on his career.
"An actor's strength is confidence and I just never had confidence. I was never able to seal the deal." Others might have been humbled by a bruising ride on the casting carousel, but the perpetually sunny side-up Phelps took failure as an opportunity. "I said screw it, I'm going to start writing."
Inspired by the big name stars he saw thumbing scripts at the Coffee Bean on Sunset, he began working on his own script, and enlisted his friends back home, Justin Rose (disclosure: Rose is a Metro Times employee), Shaun Mclean and Gaetano "GiGi" Aprea. Together they began writing gags, stitching together bits and sketches based on their high school classmates. They "assembled" a script (sometimes on the back of napkins), though each writer lived in different cities, a tough task in those early Internet days. Rose was in Grand Rapids, GiGi in New York and Phelps in Hollywood.
What at first seemed like a random collection of crass dick jokes began to take shape, about to be buoyed by an attitude change in the comedy world.
"American Pie — that movie really did kind of open the door for that kind of humor, but there was a period of time where the door was shut." Phelps says.
Phelps cites raunchy '80s faves such as Weird Science, Stripes, Animal House and Caddyshack as the basis for his comedic sensibility. Those madcap classics were more about attitude and incident than about story, which might help explain why Stick It has only the loosest definition of "plot."
As Phelps says, "I ask people: Tell me what the storyline of Caddyshack is? Well they don't know, and that's the point."
In keeping with those traditions the Stick It writers kept their plot intentionally thin, so as not to get in the way of the jokes.
"With ours, it moves just enough to move the story. It's almost like we wrote a bunch of sketches and wove them through the storyline, which I'm totally cool with as long as it's funny."
Convinced that his real-life old high school buddies were every bit as funny as the casts of mainstream teen sex comedies, Phelps and his friends wrote them into the script. One of the film's funniest characters is an I-Roc-loving, wannabe rapper idiot named Hot Rod (played by comic Brett Gelman), who, as cartoonish as he is, Phelps insists is based on a real guy.
"I don't know if I should say, because he's on my Facebook page," Phelps says. "He existed, but he's sort of a combination of people … regardless, he's a douchebag."
After six months, they thought they had a winner in hand, a funny script that would be their ticket to the big time.
Meanwhile Phelps had melted into the vast L.A. expat community, where legions of kids from the south, the Midwest and everywhere else wash up like flotsam.
Along with three Michigan pals, Phelps rented a huge house next door to actor Edward Norton, who was renting his then-girlfriend Drew Barrymore's house on Martel. (At one point, and to no avail, Phelps knocked on Norton's door with a script in hand.)
A L.A. pal of Phelps worked at a gay bar in West Hollywood, as the director explains: "He's straight but, great tips ya know? He killed it, made crazy money, $300 bucks a night in 1998, that was crazy money."
Oddly enough, one of the bar's regular customers was a writer's manager, and ever alert to opportunity. Phelps sent him a script. After a few anxious weeks, the man came back with this response: "It's awful. I hate it. This will never get made."
Phelps and his writers were rocked on their heels, crushed by the cruel sting of reality, and not sure what to do next. With all of his L.A. experiences, did it ever occur to Phelps how stupidly difficult it is to sell a movie?
"Some people told me, but I'm such an optimist that, whatever the challenge, I was ready to face it."
Even after getting multiple doors slammed in his face, Phelps stayed positive: "I thought for sure I'd get an agent, sell it to the highest bidder."
That didn't happen. So Phelps shelved the script and didn't do anything with it for roughly four years until around 2003, when inspiration hit again, after getting crushed like a bug. He had just finished auditioning for General Hospital; five painful months of testing for a character named, of all things, Lucky. It came down to him and two other dudes.
"They told me I 'wasn't leading man material.' It took them five months to figure that out? I was devastated. With that and the Chron's disease … I was approaching 30, and I said to myself, if I don't make this movie now ..."
So he sold everything he had — reducing his possessions to a single carload and drove back home, still thoroughly convinced that he, and this script, had better days ahead. Back in Hollywood, a line producer had told Phelps that he needed to raise $2 million to make a film with 30 different locations, some animation, and dozens of characters. He figured he could do it cheaper in Michigan. He began trying to raise the dough. "Big Boy had just invested in Austin Powers and made a killing, so I thought, hey, why not us?"
The actor-director had no luck. But after two more years — and with an economy that was starting to tank — he, with help from family, had cobbled together about $50,000.
One way he keeps expenses down is this simple philosophy: "You can have all the expensive fancy equipment in the world, but if your actors suck, the movie is going to suck. But I also knew you could shoot funny people on a store-bought camcorder and they would still be funny."
A failed plan to cast Kid Rock's actor sister Jill Ritchie for the film serendipitously lead to a chance meeting with New York casting agent Jennifer MacNamara (Boys Don't Cry, 30 Rock). She read the script and liked it enough to work pro bono.
After casting in Chicago and New York, they landed some rising improv talent, the likes of the aforementioned Gelman and Saturday Night Live writer and 30 Rock star John Lutz, along with lovely actress Susie Misner and character actor pros such as Gerrit Graham (from Laverne and Shirley to Law and Order). They even lined up a cameo by WRIF radio legend Arthur Penhallow. With a cast and script lined up, the cash flow issue began to get ugly.
The shooting began anyway.
"Even on the first day of shooting I still only had $50,000, and here I have a cast and crew that I'm paying and I knew that the money would run out fast. Each week we had to write checks."
So Phelps did what he does best: he hustled, pouring on the charm to friends, family, just about everyone he'd ever known, trying to squeeze just enough pennies to keep the project going for another day. Phelps worked the phones day and night, scrambling every possible second, in the wee hours of the dawn, at night after exhausting shoots and even sometimes during takes. He did everything short of a bake sale.
Phelps had to convince people that they wouldn't be throwing money away — including his own grandfather, who kicked in a sizeable loan only after seeing how totally committed his grandson was.
Slowly the money trickled in, and after begging, pleading and calling in personal favors, Phelps had amassed $115,000, every last cent of which ended up onscreen. "We spent on our film what most films spend on craft services."
Getting the money together turned out to be the easy part — Phelps still had to shoot the movie. As the writer, director, producer and actor, the pressure was intense, and the margin for error was perilously slim. The production schedule only allowed for two rain days yet, on the very first day, a downpour washed out the whole shoot. But after a soggy start, Phelps got it cooking.
For the big third act, the production rented a ranch house in Auburn Hills, which the principal actors and some of the crew had moved into for most of the shoot. Phelps slept in the basement on the floor with his cast, including the name actors (except the women, who "we put in a hotel room"), crashing on every couch, ottoman or beanbag available. Phelps calls the living conditions "deplorable, it was just awful, filthy. It looked like a nightmare frat house. But the actors were really cool. No one complained." His mother even came by between takes and cleaned up the mass of pizza boxes, Tubby's sub wrappers and cigarette butts.
The cramped quarters helped in a way: the cast became more cohesive, which led to a freewheeling on-set atmosphere that Phelps calls "organized chaos." It also helped to impart a team spirit in the crew, which had others besides Phelps thinking of cost-cutting solutions, and literally scrounging for extra change to help out. The cast wore their own clothes, the extras worked for free, the locations were free, some food was donated, but things were tight.
Phelps: "We literally returned beer bottles to pay for the next day's food, or to cover whatever we were doing the next day."
There were oftentimes when the tiny budget forced Phelps to scale back his grand plans. The opening sequence in Cass Corridor's celebrated music dive Alvin's shows the Hard Lessons as the hard-rocking house band. Phelps had envisioned it as a Scorsese-like tour de force, with one long, unbroken swooping steady-cam shot introducing all of the characters, shades of Casino and Swingers. But on the night of the shoot, only 20-odd extras showed up, forcing the filmmaker into a game of improv shuffling, trying to make the club look full. It worked.
By the end of the 31-day shoot, Phelps had lost lots of weight, and had a mild intestinal flare up, but he put his head down and plugged away.
Sure, the film was in the can, but it still took nearly two years of post-production — including animation and special effects — that came together through painstaking trial and error.
"We really didn't really know how to do animation," Phelps says. "We had to learn. We didn't have the money to hire the people who knew what they were doing."
With a finished print finally in hand, Phelps moved back to Hollywood to sell the film and used some of his old contacts to arrange a packed L.A. screening for potential distributors. Phelps claims that the reception was strong, the screening room rollicked with laughter, but afterwards the phones stayed silent.
In the meantime, after years of little or no treatment for Crohn's, Phelps' large intestine had become riddled with fibrosis, or scar tissue, and a large section of it simply shut down. "Anything I ate I threw up. It just went right through me. I lost 30 pounds. I ended up going 11 days without eating." Phelps was hospitalized, prepped for surgery to remove several inches of his damaged intestine, when suddenly the phone rang.
"The distribution deals we were getting were just shit. I would be lucky if we made our money back." Still, they were offers and, in the depths of a pain-medicated haze, Phelps considered taking one of the deals. But he was unwilling to compromise for quick cash; there was no way he could look his friends, family and investors in the eye and tell them he'd come up short.
So, one more time, Phelps dug deep and went all DIY.
Again, he came home from Hollywood. He took an Internet distribution course, and started posting clips and trailers online. He hoofed it to almost every independent video store, record store in the metro area, trying to line the shelves with his DVDs, and to get his little movie into as many hands as possible. He sent DVD copies of the movie to every English-speaking part of the world and the reviews have been positive.
Tenacity has paid off, and with buzz from bloggers and even legitimate reviews in print, Stick It In Detroit is picking up steam, finally.
The reviews, Phelps says, gave the confidence start his own distribution company. First he's focusing on Detroit and then the Midwest and, if the film does well, beyond.
Phelps was able to hire an experienced publicist, who has helped secure local screenings, with plans in place for a run of colleges and an "Unemployment Tour," which will involve free movie tickets to screenings and free accounts with a job-finding service called hiredonthe-spot.com. And, Phelps already has plans for the next script.
At the end of the day, maybe Stick It In Detroit is just a movie. A low budget comedy that's never going to light the world on fire or make anyone a fortune. But the movie's real, its completion a testament to people, and one man in particular, who did everything in their power to will it into creation. In that humble, never say die way, it's a reflection of the city it's named for, the kind of relentless seed that can grow in the brownfield of industrial ruins, proof that sometimes you hang on, take what you've got and make the best of it.
Stick It In Detroit advanced midnight screenings:
Friday, Oct. 16-17, at 11:59 p.m. at the Main Art Theatre, 118 N. Main St., Royal Oak; 248-263-2111.
It also shows Friday and Saturday, Oct. 23-24, at 11:59 p.m. at the Emagine Cinemas in Novi (248.468.2990) and Canton (734-721-3456).
The DVD of Stick It In Detroit is no longer available as the film is now in theatrical release.Corey Hall is a film critic for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected]