Like the thousands of actors who toil away in obscurity while paying their dues, Matt Whittaker might’ve guessed that appearing in a series of bank commercials for a regional bank in Nebraska wouldn’t amount to much.
“That’s when I got a text message out of nowhere,” said Whittaker, who took time away from his day job now teaching film theory at Salt Lake Community College for his first starring role in “Ryan Baxter: Reenactor,” a feature comedy currently raising completion funds on Kickstarter before a December 8th deadline.
The text message came from Brandon Haberman, a director of photography on such television series as “The Celebrity Apprentice” and “Ice Road Truckers.” But before becoming a go-to cinematographer for reality shows, Haberman and Whittaker had known each other during their high school years who had lost touch until Whittaker’s older brother passed along those commercials to Haberman’s wife after bumping into each other at a concert.
“I was fascinated by what must be the subtly soul-sucking world of a reenactor that knows nothing will come of their performance,” said Haberman, a self-proclaimed “huge fan” of History and Discovery Channel documentaries. “I hadn’t fully developed the character of Ryan Baxter yet and it was all just rocketing around in my head until I saw his performance and those simple commercials fully solidified the character for me.”
And what a character Ryan Baxter is. Petulant and finding his inclination to perform diminished as friends around him find success, Baxter’s disappointment begins to seep into his roles, leading to inaccuracies at an inopportune time since he’s being followed around by a camera crew.
“His idea of a big break is transitioning from cable to network TV,” said Whittaker, who had to slip on many different costumes as Baxter, ranging from Sasquatch to the uniforms of soldiers in the Revolutionary and Civil Wars during a 21-day shoot last August in Utah. Naturally, the film itself will be a bit of a send-up of the documentaries that helped inspire it in the first place, shot in a mockumentary style that will take advantage of Haberman’s considerable time in the trenches of reality TV where he says he’s been able to hone the “quick pans and subtle reveals” that will make it not only a funny and occasionally heartbreaking journey, but also an unpredictable one.
“Traditional films with swooping jib shots and creeping dolly shots have a sense of a preordained path with a determined beginning and end, while I feel that the mockumentary style adds a true sense of what can happen next purely by the uneasiness of the camerawork,” said Haberman.
As for what will happen next to “Ryan Baxter: Reenactor,” it remains to be seen. Haberman financed much of the film out of his own pocket, but has turned to Kickstarter for help with the sound mix and getting it out into the world. Like Baxter’s own path towards cinematic immortality, it hasn’t been easy. The filmmakers rushed a cut of the film out to festivals shortly after production wrapped, but have since gone back to tighten up the film’s pacing and sharpened the humor. Whittaker, who happens to run a festival himself as the co-director of the Salt Lake City Film Fest, believes a test screening of the film vastly improved the final product before he and Haberman start on that route again. Now, they’re bullish on the prospects of “Ryan Baxter,” so long as it’s not bullied in the process.
“Putting the finishing touches on your first feature is like sending your first child off to Kindergarten,” joked Haberman. “You hope he learns something and no one beats him up.”
To back this project and see the trailer and the filmmakers’ personal pitch for “Ryan Baxter: Reenactor,” visit the film’s Kickstarter page here. And follow the film’s progress on Facebook, Twitter and its official site.