Ground zero

Dec 20, 2006 at 12:00 am

It's a bitter 22 degrees on a Sunday in late November. Six actors in dark leather coats trudge up eight flights of stairs to what's supposed to be a rooftop shoot at the Russell Industrial Center in Detroit. One floor from the top they're told they're in the wrong place; the shoot is below.

An incident like this on typical movie set would elicit bitchy comments about the incompetence of the production assistant. Not this bunch. Giddy to work, the twentysomething actors spin on their heels, bounce back down to the parking lot and circle the monolithic warehouse to where filming is already in progress. Such mistakes are common on a low-budget shoot. With InZero they've had 10 months to get used to it.

Created, written and produced in Detroit, this 12-episode postapocalyptic sci-fi series is an ambitious labor of love that boasts impressive production values for a television drama created on a shoestring (less than $1,000 an episode). If the 300-plus people who gather monthly at Royal Oak's Main Art to view the latest installment are any indication, InZero may be headed for bigger things.

Set in the "broken" future, InZero follows the exploits of a ragtag group of couriers navigating their way through ravaged Detroit. An unexplained cataclysm has "vanished" two-thirds of Earth's population and left the remaining survivors sexually sterile. Worse, the laws of physics (and, sometimes, logic) have been thrown out the window — aliens, freakish monsters and magical sorcerers complicate the show's Byzantine plotline.

The show's co-producer Ed Gardiner sees Detroit as the perfect locale for InZero. "It's possible to do stuff very cheaply here because the whole city's a back lot. Plus there are a lot of hungry, talented people here looking for something cool to be a part of. A production like this could never fly in L.A. because no one would work for free."

Claiming Joss Whedon (Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Firefly) as his main influence, creator Jamie Sonderman took a 40-minute short he made several years ago and expanded into the InZero series. "The idea was to produce 12 episodes over 12 months so that we could learn what it takes to make a TV series. InZero is a mini film school of sorts; everyone involved is forced to master the craft of filmmaking on a really tight schedule."

A self-taught filmmaker and Northville native, Sonderman, 35, caught the film bug in 1995 when his five-minute short, The Empty Chair, nailed first prize for short video at the American Film Institute's Visions of U.S. contest. "The truth is, I really had no idea what I was doing back then. I came back from Hollywood arrogant and full of myself and ended up making a bunch of pretentious video-art installations. It took me like eight years to get my shit together and learn the basics of moviemaking, like how to tell a story."

Sonderman met Ed Gardiner and the two decided to form Thought Collide Productions. Gardiner produced education films in the '70s before moving to California for 20 years, where he worked in event planning. Eight years ago he moved back to Detroit intent on plugging into the local arts community and starting a production company. Since then he, Sonderman and partner Connie Mangilin — a former malpractice attorney — have set up residence and shop in their Detroit loft space. Living and working hand-to-mouth in the same location, their lines between work and life are blurred.

"I used to make a pretty nice living selling antiques and collectibles on eBay," Sonderman says. "After fours years of complaining customers I decided to ditch my apartment in Palmer Park and pursue Thought Collide full time."

Scraping by on fund-raisers, screenings and savings, the trio has fully embraced the "live your dream" self-help book mantra. "I really think the minimalist lifestyle keeps us all focused on what's important," Sonderman continues. "Plus, for me, a side benefit is how many people have said, 'Gosh, Jamie, you've really lost weight.'"

Thought Collide's very first project was the video feature film The Passenger, which won the Audience Award at the 2006 Planet Ant Film Festival. "It was really our first foray into film," Gardiner says, "and a total learning experience. With InZero we've evolved."

Still, the Thought Collide partners admit that their education is far from complete. "When we came up with the 12-episodes-over-12-months plan we knew the last chapter would look nothing like the first," Gardiner says. "The truth is, other than the screenings in Royal Oak [which fund each episode] we never intended the InZero shorts to be aired. Each installment has been an experiment. One's shot like a music video, another imitates Cops. The goal has always been to master different styles and techniques over time — and to have a kick-ass demo reel at the end."

But with nibbles of Hollywood interest, Thought Collide has been inspired to take what they've learned and remake the shebang from scratch, creating a brand-new two-hour InZero pilot. "We'd love to see InZero picked up by the someone like the Sci-Fi Channel and actually do this for a living," Sonderman adds. "But if it doesn't come together, that's cool. We've created an incredible team of people who will be working together for a long time."

Gardiner concurs. "Our first desire, of course, is a distribution deal. But we're also looking at Internet and Podcasting options as backup strategies. The whole industry is developing so fast, the options keep expanding. Every day is a new conversation."

Attracting more than 150 participating volunteers, InZero has inspired a lot of enthusiasm and good will. From costumers to actors to special effects artists to eager PAs, the cast and crew have signed on for more than the glory of appearing on screen; they envision Detroit becoming the next Austin, Texas. It's a vision that has attracted new, and needed, unsalaried Thought Collide partners. Trading head-writer duties and PR for a piece of the company, these new recruits give the group a professional sheen.

"Robert Rodriguez is our biggest inspiration," Gardiner says. "When you look at how he turned a $7,000 film (El Mariachi) into a multimillion-dollar film community, you can't help but be amazed. Each of our projects is part of Thought Collide's evolution rather than a means to an end. We want to build an industry here in Detroit."

In the early '70s, Detroit boasted a vibrant industry of commercial, corporate training and educational studios. Gardiner remembers a time when Grand Boulevard was dotted with film rental houses, production studios and color correction shops "It was a fun time to be in the business. Then it all dried up in the late '70s and '80s."

But Gardiner and his partners believe that Detroit has more than enough talent to launch a comeback. "It just lacks the infrastructure to keep it," Gardiner says. "We're taking our cue from Berry Gordy. I mean, he didn't create all those great musicians. They were here. He just provided them with the means for success. That's what we want to do."

The chain that binds Sonderman, Gardiner and their Thought Collide partners is a deep love of the Motor City. "I have an absolute commitment to Detroit," Sonderman insists. "It's an unfinished city where anything is possible, but also because we're determined to build a viable film center."

Gardiner agrees: "I see a real future for Detroit in art, film and music. We have talented people in all three disciplines. We just need to encourage them to stay. Since film brings together so many fields, Thought Collide has a real opportunity to help reinvent the city."

That reinvention, in the partners' minds, begins with establishing a physical presence for their industry. "We need a place where production companies and film artists can operate under one roof," Gardiner says. "This would send a message that Detroit's film community is ready to rise from its creative ashes."

"It's not a pie-in-the-sky dream," Gardiner claims. "I was chatting with the mayor a couple of weeks ago and he asked, "What do you need?" and I answered, "We're looking for a building." And he laughed, "Well, we sure got a lot of those."


Episode 9 of InZero screens Tuesday, Jan. 2 at Royal Oak's Main Art Theater (118 N. Main St., Royal Oak; 248-263-2111). If you're interested in performing as an extra in one of InZero's episodes, look for casting calls on DVDs of Episodes 1-6 are currently for sale.

Jeff Meyers is a film critic for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected]