E.J. Vilche thought the young folks shooting video at the sub shop near his Takoma Park apartment last summer might have been doing a school project. Until one of them asked whether he wanted to play the role of the heavy in their feature movie.
“She said, ‘Can you do a mean face?’ So I gave her the mean face,” recalled Vilche, 22, a busboy at P.F. Chang’s in Rockville. “I thought about my ex-girlfriend, and I used every muscle in my face.”
You’re in, said the woman.
“I didn’t even know it was an audition,” he said, “and I got the part.”
Vilche went on to spend the next month enmeshed in the making of “American Milkshake,” a small-budget teen comedy about race, class and basketball in 1990s Takoma Park. Created by a 1997 graduate of Montgomery Blair High School who is now based in Los Angeles, the project grew into a kind of townwide enterprise in the summer of 2012. The film was shot in area schools, actors bunked with local families, and Internet mailing list callouts provided the extras even as producers scoured neighborhood driveways for period cars.
But the little local project has gone bigger than its many volunteers ever imagined. The film was selected for the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year and, after being picked for distribution by independent-film guru Kevin Smith, will open Friday in limited theatrical release and become available on video-on-demand systems at the same time. (In the Washington area, Comcast and iTunes will both carry the title.)
“I’m going to get my friends and pop some popcorn and watch it on the first night,” said Vilche, who has seen only the theatrical trailer so far. “I had no idea it was going to be this big a deal.”
Neither did Martha Bergmark. When her son David Andalman asked whether he could borrow the family house for a little movie project, she and her husband, Elliott Andalman, said sure. They were thinking of the modest short films their cinema-loving boy had been making since he was a student.
“It never occurred to us that we’d have 25 or 30 people wandering around our house for a month, not to mention the enormous panel truck that spent the night in our driveway,” said Bergmark, a civil rights lawyer who splits her time between Takoma Park and Hattiesburg, Miss.
The blue frame house on Montgomery Avenue became studio central, with wardrobe racks in the living room, sets built in the attic and daily shooting schedules lining the dining room table each morning by 5 a.m. The basement became the art department, crammed with mid-90s props, from boxy computer monitors to vintage video games. Bergmark shared her home office with rows of massive hard drives where the crew would back up the day’s digital footage each night.
“It was a madhouse,” she said, “like summer camp on steroids. But it was a blast; how often do you get to watch your adult son work?”
The movie, which Andalman wrote and then directed with Mariko Munro, is loosely based on his own experience as a teenage Takoma Parker negotiating the racial and sports cliques of town and high school, one of the most diverse in the Washington region.
Andalman was a varsity basketball player, and the film’s main character is eager to make the team largely to claim some of the cool vibe of the black players. Under the not-very-watchful eye of permissive parents, the young man seeks ways to swap the “geek” culture of his math-science magnet class for the “gangsta” culture of hip-hop and rap.
“This was the era of Dr. Dre and Tupac and Snoop,” Andalman said by phone from California. “I do think some of the kids from the rougher neighborhoods were at the top of the totem pole in terms of being cool.”
In the film, those neighborhoods are symbolized by the “Maple Avenue towers,” the real-life apartments near the Takoma Park Town Hall. That is where the filmmakers did a lot of their sidewalk casting. Soulie Kondeh, a 22-year-old Blair grad who lives six floors below Vilche in the Essex House, found himself playing one of the basketball players. They often shot at Peter’s Sub Shop, which is a hub of Maple Avenue action in both the movie and real life.
“I had to wear these baggy ’90s clothes, huge jeans and stuff,” said Kondeh, a rapper and Starbucks barista. “My friends were coming by and clowning me for that.”
The producers brought in professional actors, too, but asked them to stay with volunteer families. Ellie Hamburger (who is married to Washington Post reporter Tom Hamburger) said a Silver Spring neighbor asked whether they could put up two young performers. Over evening meals they learned that one, Shareeka Epps, had won an Independent Spirit Award for her role in “Half Nelson.” The other, Georgia Ford, turned out to be Hollywood aristocracy.
“She said her mother was a screenwriter,” Hamburger recalled. “I said, ‘Oh, anything I might have seen?’ And she said, ‘Well, ‘E.T.’ was one.’ ”
Ford’s mother is screenwriter Melissa Mathison. And her father? Actor Harrison Ford.
Epps, a Brooklyn resident, said she was so taken with the town that she put Takoma Park on her list of “places I could live.” She was surprised by the number of mixed-race families she saw. (Epps plays the black daughter of white parents in the film.)
She did notice a lot of speed humps, and lot of talk about speed humps in the city council and among residents. “You guys really go hard on the speed humps, don’t you?” she said with a laugh. “First of all, in Brooklyn we call them speed bumps, and we don’t talk about them so much.”
To cast other roles, Andalman and Munro called local high school drama departments and community theaters. The father of Andalman’s boyhood best friend played the hero’s father in the movie.
“I have lots of experience with being a father of children in the ’90s,” said Richard Lorr, a retired government lawyer.
Lorr has already seen the finished film, having traveled with about 20 friends and neighbors to see the Sundance premiere. Beholding his own face in billboard dimensions was a shock, he said.
“There’s a bit of cognitive dissonance seeing yourself from the outside,” he said. “It’s like seeing yourself in the mirror without expecting to be there.”
The school exteriors were shot at the old Blair High School, which is now a middle school. The new Blair, built in 1998, was too modern and bright for the movie’s period feel, Andalman said. So they filmed the interior classrooms, locker room and gym at Wheaton High.
Munro, who grew up in Hawaii and lives on the West Coast, got a crash course in Montgomery County bureaucracy when she went to get permits for the filming. There were reams of forms, and she and Andalman had to take a two-hour course in the rules governing use of county facilities.
“There were a lot of hoops, but at least you knew what they were,” Munro said. “We always had a contact person; they always showed up on time. I could tell this was an area that was all about government.”
To round up the dozens of extras and scores of props, Andalman knew to turn to Rhonda Kranz, who lives across the street from Andalman’s parents. “She seems to know everybody,” he said.
Kranz put out the call for bodies, eventually producing enough teenagers to fill the Wheaton stands and again to create satisfying pandemonium when the gym is evacuated at the sound of gunfire.
“For that one, we were pulling people off the sidewalk: ‘You want to be in this movie?’ ” said Kranz. She also wrangled cars of a certain age; her own 1994 Toyota got prominent screen time.
“It was a hoot to see my little Tercel up there with several large basketball players coming out of it,” she said.
In the end, the involvement of so many local folks helped make a better movie, the filmmakers say. The setting remains largely unchanged, Andalman said, although they had to shoot around updated street signage. (And there are more speed humps. Or bumps.) The crew also got a chance to spend time with the kind of liberal, activist parents whom they lovingly lampoon in the movie.
“I think people got the vibe,” Andalman said. “I mean, they are living with Takoma Park residents.”
For Andalman, who studied film in college and is now working on raising money for his second feature, it was a chance to return to his roots.
“It was incredibly humbling,” he said. “You’re surrounded by all the people who watched you grow up. You can’t hide from who you are in that kind of setting.”