Tell John Huckert and Mary Maruca about films that have been made on lavish budgets and tight production schedules, with "name" actors and highly skilled crews, and it would probably produce loud, disbelieving guffaws, maybe even a few tears.
"We really want to be local filmmakers. We don't want to go to New York or Hollywood; we want to stay here and make films. But unfortunately, that's very difficult to do," says Huckert.
Huckert, 31, and Maruca, 33, are the much younger looking producers of "The Passing," an independent "nongenre" science-fiction film that will receive its Washington premiere Friday as part of the Biograph Theatre's "Auteur" series. Just how difficult it was to do becomes abundantly clear: It was made on a budget of $80,000 to $100,000 over 7 1/2 years, with seven or eight different crews and nary a professional actor stepping before the borrowed equipment. And many of the locations were unexpectedly destroyed soon after the initial filming.
"Our house burned down, the bar we filmed in burned down, the building that the opening scene takes place in was knocked down the next day," says Huckert, "and we were freaking out because once we would film something there was no going back."
"It's not the way to make a movie," says Maruca, "but unfortunately it was the only way to make this movie."
This movie twines two thick threads -- one of youth and murder, the other of old age and friendship -- into a surrealistic shocker involving brain transplants ("rejuvenation" in the argot of the film) and a number of characters who might have leaped from the pages of a Vonnegut novel.
Besides directing and editing the film, Huckert plays the role of Wade, the young husband who comes home to find his wife (Lynn Odell) raped, revenges himself upon the rapist in a grisly homicide and ultimately lands on death row. The other, gentler story concerns Ernie (James Carroll Plaster) and Rose (Welton Benjamin Johnson), two elderly World War II buddies who have moved into Ernie's house after his wife's death. The retirees fill up their slow days with reminiscences, bottles of Wild Irish Rose and a few poignant escapades, one of which indirectly leads Ernie into a meeting with Wade. At the "Maryland State Rejuvenation Center," their final, bizarre destinies are revealed.
Huckert and Maruca gathered an equally eclectic cast. Plaster was a retired dairy chemist, working part time as a bank security guard. He died a few days after filming his last scenes. Huckert knew Johnson as a coworker at the Maryland Department of Public Works. During filming Johnson suffered a heart attack and was out of commission for months. Odell was, at the time, a singer with the New York punk band Cheap Perfume. Even Huckert's grandmother snagged a bit part.
And they employed strangers. "We went to a bar one night and tried to get people," Huckert remembers. "We had 20 people who were willing to do it. As we were walking up to the set, when they found out it wasn't a porno film, every single person refused to do it."
The two filmmakers met at the University of Maryland in College Park, where Huckert was a student in Maruca's English class. About a year later they began collaborating on the screenplays that would become "The Passing." Along the arduous path to cinematic glory, they wrote a few other screenplays, desperately tried to sell them to production companies and got a lot of rejections.
Although both agree that the film has been "a great struggle," success has not eluded them completely. The film has been shown at Dallas' USA Film Festival and the Houston International Film Festival, and the short feature, "Ernie and Rose," from which "The Passing" was shaped, aired on PBS.
Still, there have been complaints about the film, ranging from general confusion to disgust. A woman in Minnesota, who saw the film at the Walker Art Museum, told Huckert after the screening that he was the one who needed a "brain transplant. She said, 'You brought up all these problems, and all these situations, and you didn't resolve any of them.' "
It has been a long process for both of them.
"You get to a point where you've invested so much in something, whether you feel like it's good or bad, you feel you have to continue to say that you've done something," says Maruca.
"I feel like we're so much beyond this film," adds Huckert, "and yet, it's all we have."