Jarrod Crooks’ new indie movie played Saturday at Cosmo Theatre. In the coming years, you’ll likely see big screen adaptations of Stevens Point author Pat Rothfuss’ novels and Wausau-area native Tim Seeley’s comic book
Jarrod Crooks of Wausau was in the middle of making his latest film, Indie Guys, when he saw a chance he couldn’t pass up.
Jerry Springer was going to be at a nearby casino— the Jerry Springer, of the famed talk show where guests often started fights on set. If only he could get the TV star into his movie… that would surely help get the film into festivals and noticed by Hollywood.
Head to the Cosmo Theatre in Merrill this Saturday, May 13, to see Springer, along with familiar Wausau-area locations, in the showing Indie Guys. It’s the fourth full-length feature film Crooks has produced — all without a big budget, professional crews or paid actors, and made on a budget of about $5,000.
Jarrod Crooks’ (right) movie Indie Guys features talk show TV star Jerry Springer (left).
Like most of Crooks’ movies, it’s not likely to get much attention beyond Wisconsin. Still, it’s always fun to watch his projects—to see local landmarks, scenes, people in a professionally produced film, plus relish in the local filmmaker’s obvious glee (Crooks always appears in his movies, usually doing some fun action/fight scene, because he can.)
Everyone had that friend in high school who dreamed of being a movie star or a film producer. The 1990s kicked off the age of the independent film, and emboldened countless would-be auteurs to chase the kind of success that filmmakers who started small were able to achieve—such as the likes of Kevin Smith, Quentin Tarantino or Jim Jarmusch.
Crooks isn’t just a dreamer. With four feature length films and countless shorts later, at 31 years old Crooks is still at it. Those fun projects are his hobby. But his day job is filmmaking, too. He makes theater commercials that play before the films start, and he’s even starred in some commercials. Other than a short stint in L.A., and a few years in Madison, he’s pretty much lived and worked in Wausau his whole life.
His latest film is impressive, and a departure from his usual action movie theme. Indie Guys is about independent filmmakers making an action movie. It’s funny, action-packed and a riot to watch, both for the occasional glimpse of a Wausau location and its production values, which are pretty impressive for a guy on a small budget. It’s in part autobiographical, but also hilarious.
Crooks isn’t likely to get famous for movies like Indie Guys (but you never know!). So keep your eyes open for two other Central Wisconsin-related film projects that do have the potential for high-profile, national releases.
In the works is a film adaptation of Revival, a nationally-distributed comic book series set in the Wausau area, written by Tim Seeley, a D.C. Everest graduate in the 1990s, and drawn by Mike Norton. The comic, which ran July 2012–February 2017, was nominated for several Harvey Awards (like the Oscars for comics) and has sold about a million copies. The series depicted the Wausau area into a horror setting, in which confused (but not necessarily evil) zombies are infiltrating the community.
Seeley has been through a few TV and movie negotiations. Most of them didn’t pan out, but the latest arrangement with a Chicago production company looks promising. There’s already a teaser trailer for the film version, released recently, which casts familiar Wausau locations in a very ominous, dark tone. It’s a great book and the early film shots look even darker than the series.
Even more promising is a major film and TV adaptation of the acclaimed Kingkiller Chronicle fantasy novels by Stevens Point author Patrick Rothfuss. If you haven’t read or at least heard about The Name of the Wind (the first of the two books), you’re probably in the minority.
That’s being made into a movie too, as well as a TV series. And while the series is set in a fantasy realm, readers might recognize some local references, such as Abbotsford (Abbot’s Ford) or Old Main on the UWSP campus (“The Mains” is a building in the fictional university the main character attends, and the description is awfully similar.)
The Rothfuss projects are being produced by the major Hollywood studio Lionsgate, and guess who Lionsgate tapped to produce them? Lin-Manuel Miranda, producer of the Broadway smash hit Hamilton. The TV and movie projects are being produced side-by-side, and the multi-talented Miranda made the most sense for the project. It also helps that Miranda and Rothfuss are fans of each other.
Fear and loathing in LA
Crooks had big dreams when, shortly after graduating high school, he moved to Los Angeles with hopes of being a filmmaker and actor. He’d grew up making movies, from goofy little films made as a child where he quickly learned what works and doesn’t work in filmmaking, to making a serious cop drama at the age of 15. He remembers being so excited when his film was shown to his class. “Now I think, ‘I can’t believe they sat through that,’” Crooks joked.
In California he got an agent and a place to live, but quickly realized he couldn’t afford the rent. He moved back home after about a month, disillusioned with L.A. But he was still every bit in love with filmmaking.
He since has made four feature length films, and branched out from Wausau, finding willing actors in places such as Madison and Minneapolis. Shortly after returning home he got one of his first paid film jobs, as an actor and cinematographer, with a film company in Minneapolis. He was nervous. It turned out, he didn’t need to be. “I started to realize they’re all like me,” Crooks says. “They just want to do this. They love it.”
Crooks started making connections, finding actors, film workers and others all over the Midwest. It turns out, when you have a passion for what you do, others find you. He found steady work in that time too. One of his main jobs today is filming those commercials that play before movies. It’s his way of paying the bills while he pursues his filmmaking dreams.
That dream comes with everything from optimism to dashed hopes; perseverance to disappointment. Out of those emotions comes Indie Guys, his latest about a group of filmmakers from the Midwest trying to make a movie while working day jobs and balancing the rest of their lives. The characters also are dealing with the quirky personalities of the business, the realities of relying on unpaid labor, and sacrificing relationships to produce a creative piece of work no one else seems to understand.
“There are scenes in the movie that are word for word conversations,” Crooks says.
In the film, one of the characters asks about the fictional film they’re making, “So what is this for?” The character played by Gregory Kuper, of Madison, Crooks’ co-producer in real life and in the film, responds “It’s not FOR anything.”
The first thing one notices about Indie Guys is the level of cinematography. The film looks as good as one might expect of a Hollywood production. Plus there’s another of Crooks’ strengths, the fighting. Most of Crooks’ films involve fight choreography, and one might assume Crooks has training in some kind of martial arts. But those martial arts moves come from a self-study of stagefighting, and Jackie Chan, one of Crooks’ movie heroes. (A couple of his short films on YouTube have Jackie Chan-esque fights, such as one between him and a roommate over the last Dorito.) You’ll see that influence when you watch the movie. The whole thing feels delightfully over the top, especially in a knock-down, fight under the railroad bridge behind the Wausau library.
Crooks’ short films can be found on his YouTube channel. They’re fun to watch, as most of his movies are, for the chance at seeing familiar locations and possibly familiar faces. In one of the shorts I saw the sister of one of my friends, for example.
Crooks last year saw a chance to take his filmmaking to the next level when Adam Sandler announced a contest to be in his next movie. Crooks put together a clip of some of his best acting and martial arts scenes, and added some funny commentary. It was an impressive clip and took second place, losing to a guy in a propeller beanie. “It’s a popularity contest,” Crooks says. “Well, that’s the way it is.”
Crooks isn’t the only one to become disillusioned with Hollywood. Robin Zimmermann, who graduated from D.C. Everest in 1997, has lived in the Los Angeles area since 2014. Zimmermann is a composer, and has written scores for films, documentaries and video games. The Sundance Institute selected Zimmermann for a fellowship with its Documentary Film Composers Lab in 2010. You can hear her work in the award-winning documentary film The Big Lonely or the thriller Wind Walkers, among others.
Zimmermann already has a pretty good resume of composing work under her belt, but the line of work can still be a struggle. Working in L.A. means a lot of networking, and a lot of promises that never come true. Zimmermann can recount multiple times in which a producer excitedly talked about a project she could work on, only for nothing to come of it. “L.A. can be this fantasy land, and you can get hurt,” she says.
It didn’t take very long for Tim Seeley to become weary of Hollywood. Seeley discovered a lot of “hurry up and wait” for various projects pitched to adapt his many comic book series (Revival is just one that he has written). Revival became particularly annoying. He was approached by both NBC and Showtime, and had what seemed like a pretty solid deal with NBC but nothing seemed to ever come of it.
Revival is set in the Wausau area (one of the main characters is a female Rothschild Police Department Officer) in which people are mysteriously turning into zombies. But casting the series off as a simple actioner would miss the drama Seeley builds as the story unfolds. The story is less interested in the zombies as it is Wausau’s reaction in the aftermath. It’s how a small city responds to the crisis. For a story about zombies, the narrative contains a great amount of depth.
Started roughly five years ago, the series came to an end earlier this year. It was the latest in a series of successful comics for Seeley, including his other signature series, Hack/Slash. He saw the potential for Revival to hit the big screen, but he got a little sick of Hollywood.
So Seeley turned to moviemakers outside of California. “We decided if we’re going to do this, let’s do it like the comic book,” Seeley says. “We’ll guide it and own it, and do it the way we want to.”
The result so far is a two minute, goosebump-inducing trailer, shot in Wausau in January by Shatterglass Films in Illinois. The teaser is meant to help attract investors for the film, which they hope to start shooting next winter (it wouldn’t be Wisconsin without snow, right?).
Shatterglass is an established studio. They’ve worked on more than a dozen films, including a film on Emmett Till, and Slice, with Chance the Rapper.
One thing working in the film’s favor? Revival the movie won’t be a $100 million production. Revival is an independent comic book, so making it as an independent film only makes sense, Seeley says.
One book to rule them all
Stevens Point author Patrick Rothfuss has a deal with Lionsgate to produce his Kingkiller Chronicle novels The Name of the Wind and The Wise Man’s Fear into a major movie and TV series.
The biggest central Wisconsin film connection news is the project to adapt Patrick Rothfuss’ series. The first in the planned book trilogy, The Name of the Wind became a huge sensation when it was published in 2007. Part of the Kingkiller Chronicle series (the third book has yet to release) the book earned an editor’s pick on Amazon and eventually ended up on the New York Times bestsellers list, turning the former UW-Stevens Point prof into a star.
Production company Lionsgate earned the rights for both a feature film and TV series. Rothfuss favors the series, to provide time for more character development, he told an audience at the San Diego Comic Con shortly after the film and TV series were announced.
Movie deals don’t always pan out. But in this case there’s a big name behind the project: the multi-talented Hamilton producer and star Lin-Manuel Miranda. Rothfuss and Miranda are both fans of each others’ work. “Pat also writes about the act of making music more beautifully than any novelist I’ve ever read,” Miranda told Variety.
How to see their work
Jarrod Crooks’ latest film Indie Guys debuted at the Cosmo Theatre in Merrill at 5 pm, Saturday, May 13.
See many of Crooks’ short films on his YouTube channel by searching “Jarrod Crooks.” He is working on a way to sell his feature length movies through Amazon, but in the meantime Crooks says people can buy his movies through his actor page on Facebook.
The teaser trailer for Seeley’s Revival can be found on YouTube by searching “Revival teaser trailer.” The comic book and other Seeley works can be found in trade paperback form at most comic book stores or online at comixology.com.
Patrick Rothfuss’ The Name of the Wind and The Wise Man’s Fear can be found or ordered at most bookstores.