On Nov. 22nd, RAW Pittsburgh, a monthly artist showcase featuring new and emerging local talent, held a semi-finals awards show to determine the best artists to represent Pittsburgh at the RAWards National Finals. Winners were chosen in the categories of fashion, music, visual art, performing art, hair, makeup, photography and accessories, but only one participant took away the RAW Artist of the Year for film.
Recent Pittsburgh transplant Jake Mulliken beat out the competition with his debut film Meltdown, a 30-minute zombie comedy shot on a budget of $1,200. He wrote, directed and starred in the short, which follows three Pittsburghers as they slash and shoot their way through a horde of radioactive undead. The film is the first project produced under Mulliken’s company Out Of Pocket Productions.
Mulliken spoke with Steel Cinema about his move to Pittsburgh from the West Coast, his influences, and his current project Ghost Hunt, a documentary about gonzo journalist and author Hunter S. Thompson.
Why did you decide to move to Pittsburgh?
It was a couple of things. I got swept up in the teacher layoffs when I was out in California, where I was teaching at a private school. A friend of mine was living here finishing up his doctorate at Carnegie Mellon. I always came out to visit and kinda kept an eye on Pittsburgh. It’s a great city, but the more I read about it and the more I researched it, it really seemed like, not just in film, but the city in general was just on this whole new upswing. And it’s really cheap to live here compared to the West Coast. So I figured what the hell, I’ll just go back and do film again.
Do you have formal film training? Or no?
No! No, no. I left Kentucky when I was 21, and I’ve always loved movies, and we’d goof around when we were kids with cameras and stuff. But when I moved, I had this harebrained scheme that I was gonna be an actor and a filmmaker. So I found myself in the middle of the desert and I got really involved there. I was on Breaking Bad and In Plain Sight. They filmed all that out in New Mexico. I was on the board of directors at the Santa Fe Playhouse for three years and we did about 14 plays. So I learned from watching people. I jumped in that world and watched people who were far more experienced and far more talented than me and just picked things up from there.
Where did the idea for Meltdown come from?
I guess I wrote it six years ago when I was living in Santa Fe. It’s one of those things that’s always been on the back burner and I never really had time to do it until I moved here, and everything just kind of fell into place. I knew I wanted to do a zombie movie because the genre always kind of freaked me out when I was a kid. I grew up to like it and I think there are a lot of things you can do with it. It was just a natural progression. I wanted to do something zombie-ish, but have it be almost like a spoof. Like a zombie flick on its own legs, but something kind of funny and intentionally cheesy.
And you want to expand it into a webseries?
Originally, we were going to do it as a feature, but I’ve been watching a lot of stuff online, and I think doing it as a series of ten minute episodes as opposed to an hour or half hour would be the way to go.
You cited Kevin Smith as one of your influences, and I definitely see a similarity between Meltdown and Clerks. I was just wondering if that was intentional.
Oh yeah, Clerks was a major, major influence. When I first wrote the thing, I had seven or eight movies playing constantly – Clerks, definitely, High Fidelity, Shaun of the Dead. One thing that always kind of bugged me about the zombie genre is that a lot of the characters are really over the top, especially the modern ones. And even if you do get emotionally invested in a character, they fucking die in the end anyway. It’s like you spent two hours on them and then they’re dead. But I think a lot of the characters are really hard to relate to in some sense, and what I really love about what Kevin Smith did in Clerks and about High Fidelity is that they are about these really mundane, normal, everyday people. There’s the depressed guy that runs the record store, there’s a guy who’s stuck behind the counter at a convenience store. So I really wanted the characters to kind of be like that. I thought Shaun of the Dead did a great job doing that.
One of your locations was the Bloomfield Sandwich Shop. What was it like filming in that space?
Oh yes indeed, Mike and Ros (owners Michael Miller and Rosalyn Dukes) are very good friends of mine. Logistically, it was interesting at some points because the place is so narrow, so it definitely called for some creative camerawork. They gave me the keys, and they close at 3 p.m., so we would come in at 4 p.m. and filmed until we were done for the day. The only stipulation they had was that Mike got to be zombie Santa Claus. That was all he wanted was to be a zombie in a Santa outfit, and he horrified the hell out of a bunch of my neighbor kids.
Your next project is a documentary on Hunter S. Thompson. Could you expand on it a little bit?
The idea for the documentary came from one of my seniors. The school I taught at was a school for high functioning kids with language-based learning disabilities. And in the film class I taught, one of my seniors had Asberger’s, which is the highest functioning form of autism. And he was a huge Hunter fan, and when we started jiving, we realized that we were both huge Hunter fans. The idea kind of blossomed from … there’s the persona, the drug-crazy Fear and Loathing Hunter, but then there’s this brilliant political analyst, journalist, social activist and writer. So the goal of the documentary is to peel away the layers of the persona and highlight why Hunter S. Thompson is an important modern literary figure and why he deserves to be that. So it’s really more of an academic approach focusing on gonzo journalism, and how he changed the face of journalism by inserting himself in the story, his work on campaign trails, his own run for sheriff in Pitkin County in Aspen. Just really focusing on his achievements and not his extracurricular activities.
I know he’s been the subject of other documentaries, including the 2008 film Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson. How would Ghost Hunt compare?
It’ll be really different. Those are more following the timeline of Hunter’s life from Louisville, KY to when he killed himself. You’ll see people in my film that have either said no to other films or have never even been approached, like people who were with Hunter when he ran for sheriff, helped with the campaign, and his closest friends and neighbors. I’ve interviewed his ex-wife, his widow, a lot of his close people. It’s just really focusing on specific moments that highlight his importance, not only in his time, but why he’s relevant today. I guess that’s pretty much the whole point of the documentary is to highlight why he’s relevant. When you talk to college kids about Hunter S. Thompson, they always say, oh, he’s that guy that did all those drugs raised all that hell, but there’s a lot more to it. In the 80s, that fame and that persona took him over. And that’s what he was the last 30 some-odd years of his life.
I know you’re still working on the documentary, but do you have any other projects in the works?
There are a lot of things. I’m working on a comic book with a friend of mine from back home in Kentucky. We got the first 12 issues done by the first of this year. And the goal with that is to try to pimp it out as a comic book, but we’ve also talked about possibly just jumping the gun and doing it as a television show. There’s another documentary that kind of stems from the Hunter one about George McGovern and the 1972 election between him and Richard Nixon. Those are the things that are the most hashed out. It’s interesting, because stuff like Meltdown and the comic book are projects that I’ve been working on for years, and just never really had time to finish. I was either acting all the time or teaching, and now I’m resolved to do this full-time.
RAW will announce the national winners on Dec. 16th. Watch Mulliken’s entry Meltdown below: