The Song of Pumpkin Brown

Thurs. Feb. 22, 7 p.m., 8 p.m., and 9 p.m.

$15 adults, $12 students

The American Theater

446 King St., 953-5474

It’s hard to have a conversation about making movies with any up-and-coming filmmaker in which the name Robert Rodriguez does not come up. Rodriguez has been legendary in filmmaking circles ever since the now-famous Mexican director made his first feature film, 1992’s sleeper smash El Mariachi, with a total budget of about $7,000. He accomplished this by producing, directing, and writing the film himself. He also served as editor, director of photography, camera operator, composer, production designer, visual effects supervisor, and sound editor. He used amateur actors and shot the entire feature in a small, obscure, dirty Mexican border town.

Professional filmmakers like Mt. Pleasant-based Brad Jayne of Osprey HD are in awe of what Rodriguez accomplished because they know exactly how far $7,000 doesn’t go in making a movie these days.

On Thursday evening, Jayne will premiere his own most recent effort, a 30-minute short film called The Song of Pumpkin Brown, funded completely by the state’s new S.C. Film Production Fund and created in collaboration with Trident Technical College, the Charleston Jazz Initiative, and the S.C. Film Commission. Jayne was one of two South Carolinians the Film Commission selected in its first year of underwriting independent film projects, an initiative which began in March 2006. The price tag on Jayne’s movie: a cool $100,000.

A lot has changed since 1992, of course. But one thing that hasn’t is that filmmaking is an expensive and logistically tortuous commercial art form. Thursday night’s three screenings at the American Theater will display for the public the first of what the Film Commission and state film advocates hope will be plenty more such projects, all serving to shine some much-needed light on the local creative and technical resources that could make S.C. a force in the national moviemaking industry.

Three years ago, state legislators agreed to set aside one percent of the general fund portion of the state admissions tax to distribute to collaborative efforts between local filmmakers and the film schools at Clemson University, USC, and TTC — an attempt to create an indigenous crew base and promote collaboration between independent producers and public institutions. With a total of $300,000 to award to projects in its first year, the Film Commission chose Jayne’s Pumpkin Brown proposal as one of two they funded last year. With the film’s public debut just hours away, it remains to be seen how happy Commission officials are with their investment. But they have every reason to be satisfied.

The Song of Pumpkin Brown is a fictional story based on the very real historic Jenkins Orphanage in Charleston, which in the early and mid-20th century became famous for its jazz band. That largely African-American band toured Europe and much of the East Coast, and several members went on to become well-known performers on the national scene. In the movie, local actor Khari Lucas plays the 10-year-old Pumpkin Brown, an Edisto Island youth who’s sent to the orphanage when his father, a preacher played by Micheal L. Nesbitt, dies.

“Pumpkin Brown is a fictional character who’s very much inspired by other real characters and what happened to them,” Jayne says. “In the film, he comes to Jenkins Orphanage and discovers jazz and goes on to make it big, and that actually happened to several of the people who were at Jenkins.”

Jayne wrote the script and directed the film, but Pumpkin was a broadly collaborative effort. The commercial production company Jayne works with, Osprey HD, teamed up with film students from TTC (as per the grant’s requirements), Jack McCray of the Jazz Initiative, and local percussionist Quentin Baxter — who, in addition to scoring the film, is credited as a producer.

“Quentin and I had always talked about doing something together,” Jayne says. “He was crucial not just in creating and arranging the score but with acquiring instruments and locations and organizing all the musicians. The project wouldn’t have been possible without him.”

To be sure, the movie’s as much a musical creation as a cinematical one. Jazz suffuses almost every frame of the beautifully-photographed period piece (shot in Charleston locations in a high-definition format), all of it performed by local musicians including Baxter, Charlton Singleton, Kevin Hamilton, and music students at the Charleston County School of the Arts, many of whom also appear in the film.

“There are lots of connections between the music and the true story of the orphanage,” Jayne observes. “All the music in the film has some real connection to Jenkins. Every scene in the film except one or two has background music in it. And that’s such a powerful part of any film, especially this one. We wanted it to really sell itself as a music piece.”

A lineup of almost exclusively local actors also raise Pumpkin‘s local street cred. The primary cast includes area stalwarts like Nesbitt, Henry Clay Middleton, Sylvia Jefferies, Wanda Johnson , and Johnny Ali Heyward. Two members of the CSO Gospel Choir sing a goosebump-raising version of the hymn “Precious Lord” (“It’s in the public domain,” the budget-minded Jayne assures), and Pumpkin himself is played by the doe-eyed Lucas, a Charleston Stage student and son of Ayoka Lucas, Style Editor at Charleston Magazine.

But the most valuable local investment, at least as far as the Film Commission is concerned, came from the Trident Tech connection, which stands as the ostensible point of the entire undertaking.

“We basically crewed like you would any production film set, but with students in every department,” says Jayne. “We had professional department heads, and they each had one or two student assistants. Several of those students have gone on to get jobs on Army Wives now.

“The program does exactly what it’s meant to do,” he continues, “which is to put students in a position to get real-world experience. And there’s no replacement for that. I really believe you get more experience working on real sets for one year than you would going to film school for four years.”

After Thursday’s screenings, Jayne says, Pumpkin Brown will be broadcast at some point on SCETV’s Southern Lens series. He’ll submit the film to as many of the bigger independent U.S. festivals as he can, and he sees several additional local screenings in the works, including at least one during Piccolo Spoleto in May.

“But from a more selfish standpoint, it’s going to show the kind of filmmaking talent that South Carolina has,” he says. “That’s part of the reason why there’s a ceiling on filmmaking here, because people expect that the creative talent has to come from outside the state. Places like Austin and Wilmington are successful centers for filmmaking because they have the directors and the writers there. And this film demonstrates that there are directors here, too.”

With the new Production Fund, the state of South Carolina is essentially funding independent films. “And any time the state is gonna put money into the arts,” Jayne says, “it’s a good thing.”