When Fort Worth's Andrew Disney was in a screenwriting class at NYU, he was torn between whether to write a script about George Washington or one about zombies. After all, he is a history buff and a horror-movie fan.
But his professor persuaded him to try something else.
"My teacher looked at me and said, 'I think you need to come up with a comedy,'" Disney says. "I think he was partially bored. There were so many dramas being written in the class, and nobody was writing comedies."
The result, which Disney also directed, is Searching for Sonny, a mystery-comedy that screens Saturday night as part of this year's Lone Star International Film Festival, after having its world premiere at the Austin Film Festival in October. It stars Veronica Mars' Jason Dohring as Elliot Knight, a 28-year-old loser who gets drawn into a murder mystery along with a couple of slacker cronies while attending his high-school reunion. Things get even weirder when the characters realize that the mystery resembles a play Elliot was in during high school -- and nobody can quite remember how the play turned out.
After graduating from NYU in 2007, Disney took a cross-country road trip with a friend, then decided to get serious about making the movie when the economy declined in late 2008. He shot a trailer in Fort Worth in 2009, then began working on the film in earnest in 2010, using locations such as Rockwood Golf Course and Ol' South Pancake House.
"Whenever I leave Fort Worth, I get really homesick," Disney says. "I really miss Texas, so I decided the way I'd deal with that was, what if my three best friends were back in Fort Worth and were in a murder mystery?".... The nice thing about shooting in Fort Worth is we could do it all for very cheap or free. We were able to shoot at Spinks Airport and just borrow a plane. I could never do that in New York or L.A."
Disney was born and raised in Fort Worth, and spent all of his pre-college school years attending Trinity Valley School, which he used for several locations in Searching for Sonny. During a DFW.com photo shoot, his celebrity at the school was apparent, as everyone from faculty to middle-school girls recognized him and said hi.
He is part of the famous Disney family, but he describes his relationship to Walt as "super, super distant" -- it has to do with the entire Disney family having their roots in the French town of Isigny. "I usually tell people I'm related but not close enough to get tickets to Disney World (or funding for my films)," Disney says. "All I really knows is that we came from that town in France where they make delicious butter."
Still, the Disney name didn't hurt when it came to developing the film, says Greg Beauchamp, one of the movie's producers.
"Financially, it helps," he says. "With his name and the credibility of knowing who he is and knowing who the Disney family is. And [filming locally] sort of removed a layer of complexity to any conversation that we might have. Everyone felt really comfortable [that] we were upstanding individuals in the community and we weren't going to waste their money."
Beauchamp works for Red Productions, a company with offices in Fort Worth and New York that does a lot of commercial work and has produced two features, Sonny and Dallas filmmaker John Venable's Karma Police. You won't hear any Robert Townsend-esque stories of financing an entire movie with credit cards here, because the commercial work helps Red Productions finance the features.
"It puts food on the table and gives us a little bit of extra cash at the end of the year that we share back with our employees," Beauchamp says. "Then we carve out another piece of that and put it into projects that we really love and are excited about.... This essentially enabled us to spend some of our own time and some of our own resources to getting the project to a place where we could then go out and pitch it to other investors." (Beauchamp declined to discuss possible post-fest distribution of the movie.)
But it was Disney who pitched the actors, assembling what was for him a dream cast. During the past five years or so, he has become a huge TV geek, so he went after -- and got -- actors from his favorite shows: Along with Veronica Mars' Dohring, the 95-minute film features Friday Night Lights' Minka Kelly, Heroes' Masi Oka and Battlestar Galactica's Michael Hogan. Clarke Peters, of The Wire and Treme, narrates, lending a little extra subject to the jokes about The Wire in the movie.
"For our whole film, if you're in any way a TV junkie, you're going to be in heaven," says Disney, who sent videos to each of the actors telling them why they should come to Fort Worth and be in his movie. The videos, which aren't available to the public yet but will likely be extras on Sonny's DVD release, are as clever as Sonny itself; for instance, the one sent to Hogan features a Sonny crew member doing a one-man re-enactment of a Battlestar scene.
But then, there are a lot of pop-culture references and "meta" jokes in the movie, which bears the influence (which Disney cops to) of some of the Coen brothers' lighter fare, with its offbeat mystery and quirky characters. Not all of it works, but the movie occasionally hits a bull's-eye and has such an infectious spirit that it's prime indie film-festival fare -- except that thanks to the polished cinematography of Jeffrey Waldron, it looks much better than its low budget might indicate. And although it's fun to play "spot the location" in a Fort Worth-shot film, Disney never gets so self-conscious about using the city (which isn't named in the film) that it gets in the way of the story.
"You do some regional films where it's like, 'We're here in Fort Worth!' We didn't do that. But I'm inspired by the environment I grew up in.... It's Fort Worth noir, where instead of a dark alley, the deals are happening in a country club or a shady cul-de-sac."