PUBLICATION: Roanoke Times
BECAUSE CRITTERS have varying appetites, pet stores stock meal worms in two sizes: regular and jumbo. So when Charles E. Cullen walked into Warehouse for Pets last month and asked for a handful of live, wriggling meal worms, it was only natural for the clerk to ask: "What are you feeding?"
"I said, 'I'm feeding myself,''' Cullen recalled.
He got the jumbo and a side dish of questions, which is what you get when you film a movie - a Western - in the Roanoke Valley.
Folks just aren't used to seeing motion picture equipment set up at the Knights of Pythias lodge, the Fincastle jail or the Rockydale Quarry. They're not used to spotting Cullen's conspicuous fleet of vehicles, painted black and trimmed with orange flames, in dark alleys or near sunny, roadside fields.
Cullen has been doing this almost every weekend since April, though, and hopes to wrap up filming for "A Modern Day Western: The Sanchez Saga" in August.
The plot for this movie writhes the same way the meal worm did before Cullen chewed him up like a piece of bubble gum in the movie's opening segment.
Our story begins in West Texas in the 1800s, when Sheriff Jesse Lobo leads a band of outlaws to the gallows. Death isn't final. The meal worms (who offer stellar performances as tequila worms) give the outlaw ghosts the ability to slip through time. The outlaws stop in the 1970s to purchase new wardrobes and shove on into the 1990s, where they head toward Nashville to cut an album.
But Sheriff Lobo is heading through time after them, and assorted crimes in the 1990s have the modern-day police force looking for them, too.
Along the way, there's lots of tomato sauce, Karo corn syrup, food coloring and beef fat - that's blood and guts in the low-budget movie biz.
We'll keep the ending hush-hush for now, which may be just as well: Cullenhas left plenty of space in his script for plot changes.
Charles E. Cullen was raised locally - though it's hard to imagine what on.
He goes to the theater to see an average of one new movie a year, and finds most of them too boring for words. This year, he saw "Beavis and Butthead."
"I like older, '70s action movies, low-budget movies," he said. "I like to see action scene after action scene." He prefers "Cool Hand Luke," where actors steer the plot, to modern day flicks where computers do the driving.
Somewhere along the line Cullen saw "El Mariachi," filmed by writer/producer/director Robert Rodriguez for a mere $7,000. It was an inspiration, along with Clint Eastwood's earlier movies, for the picture that writer/producer/director/actor Cullen is filming now with the help of friends, volunteers, the Kroger butchers and a snake handler he met in college.
The saga's budget is $30,000 - a lot of money by most rights, but a veritable blue-light special when you consider that the soon-to-be-released "Titanic" cost $200 million.
Funding for the 16-millimeter "Sanchez Saga" comes from Cullen's savings account and three dumptrucks from the stone masonry business he sold last year after he hurt his back.
He has been making 8-millimeter films since he was 8, doing sound with a tape recorder that never matched the moving mouths of the actors.
"I've been in all of them," he said, including "Bogeyman," "Bogeyman II," and "Escape from Prison Block Three."
Cullen is 33 and a Cave Spring High School grad. His civil engineering degree from Old Dominion University hangs on his office wall, along with a certificate from an explosives training course and a few black-and-white photos of the Rolling Stones.
He paints, mostly pictures of mushrooms, and creates monsters out of papier-mach and plastic. (One sits in the back of The Grandin Theatre.)
Along with the stone work he has done for other people, Cullen has covered his tiny wooden house off Peters Creek Road with small, smooth stones, making it a perfect setting for a Grimm fairy tale.
On a flag pole outside, an American flag flaps in the breeze. Below that is black flag bearing a white skull.
In the cool darkness of the den he built himself, Cullen watches the dailies - take after unedited take of what he and camera man Grant Plaskon filmed over the past few months.
On a recent Wedneday morning, he paused during the black-and-white segment featuring the meal worm, captured in only one take.
"My mother hates this part," he said.
A June Saturday dawns hot and sticky, perfect for filming the prison break scene at Rockydale Quarry, just past the Wal-Mart off U.S. 220 in Roanoke County.
In the quarry's desert-like pit, where words echo once before fading into the dolomite walls, nine tattooed men are lined up along a rusty chain, pick axes in hand.
There are not enough handcuffs to hook feet to chain, so Cullen substitutes twisty ties, just another creative aspect of low-budget filming, says Mollie Baker, Cullen's assistant.
It is 92 degrees. Cullen had been hoping for slightly hotter because he wanted to capture the heat waves on camera, but the sun is shining hot enough to make the fake sweat Baker is spraying onto the convicts' backs redundant.
David Garst drives down the incline in his blue pickup truck and yells through the open window: "Your snakes'll be here in a minute."
Cullen nods as Baker sprays his hair with Vitalis, to ready him for the first scene of the day.
"The smell of Vitalis in a quarry just doesn't make it," says cameraman Plaskon, who is also a senior writer-producer for marketing at WSLS News Channel 10.
Later, Plaskon yells to the guy playing the sheriff: "Kenny, can you ask Charles where the guns are?"
The guns are for the prison guards like Judy Cox of Vinton, manager of a Salvation Army thrift store in real life. Cullen had her scanning the racks for '70s clothing all spring, saving him wide-collared shirts, polyester pants and wide-toed shoes.
"They didn't tell me anything about the snakes," she says, eyeing the wooden cases that hold them. Cox is devoting her whole day to thisscene; her next engagement is teaching the youngest children Sunday school at her church.
Time for the convict shot, appropriate here because this place was a convict camp until the early 1930s, when a jail was in nearby Clearbrook.
On Plaskon's cue, the shirtless actors will fall slowly back and the camera will zoom in on Cullen, the last of the convicts in line.
"Sound up," calls soundman Steve Sellers, who also does sound for Channel 10.
"Camera rolling," Plaskon answers.
"Sound one." Baker snaps the clapboard in front of the camera.
"Action," Plaskon finishes.
The pick axes hit the rock, chipping it away in small chunks.
Mike Beard, one of the prison guards, utters his only speaking line: "Sanchez! Let's go."
It is one of the few spoken lines during 10 minutes of shooting; music and the maraca sound of the rattlesnake will fill in the gaps.
The biker-types for this scene, most bearing tattoos and the occasional painful-looking body piercing, were rounded up by Randall "Hooter" Horton, a tattooist who met Cullen at a casting call.
"Hooter said leave it to him," Cullen explains. "You learn a lot about people in this business, what they say they'll do and what they'll actually do. That man did it."
When he needed rattlesnakes, he called an old college buddy, David Wright, who called a few of his own snake-handling friends.
For the next scene, the snake handlers are in the quarry, too, with two tanks of eight snakes that they "borrowed" from the woods about 4 a.m. earlier in the day. They'll return the snakes when the shooting is complete, says PaulVanover of Roanoke County, one of the snake handlers.
Snake hunting, Wright says, is "like going fishing except you don't have to buy a boat."
Scooch's, a Roanoke nightclub, serves as another location for this movie. Randy Scaggs, Scooch's owner, is one of the stars. "Me and Charles go back to junior high," Scaggs says. He has appeared in both of Cullen's "Bogeyman" movies, in which he played a victim and a doctor who brought the mayor back to life.
For a scene at the Botetourt County Jail, though, Cullen did not know the right man for the role: He was seeking a Mexican cell mate to give his movie more of a West Texas feel.
Driving along Williamson Road one week, he stopped some swarthy men who were working on a car and asked if any of them knew how to play guitar. They did not, but they had a friend (Colombian, not Mexican) who could.
A week later, Palo Perafan was on the set, crooning "Adios, amigo mio." He spoke little English, but it didn't matter. The scene was the best that's been filmed so far.
"He sings just like Julio Iglesias," Cullen says. "He was just perfect.We'll use him on the soundtrack."
Cullen gave Perafan the ability to travel through time, too, so he can show up somewhere else in the film.
|--| Cullen sits on the quarry floor and pulls on a pair of canvas shin guards.
With this protection, he plans to walk through five live rattlesnakes, coiled in his path to the getaway car.
He had been expecting shin guards made of something stronger, steel maybe.
Baker, Cullen's assistant, leans toward Scaggs. "Do you have your cellular on you?" she asks.
"Nine-one-one is why," she says.
The snake handlers wait for Cullen's instructions, which are: "If I make itthrough and they don't strike, that's fine with me."
Then he listens to their advice. "If one of the snakes gets caught on your jeans, keep walking."
"Don't get close to him if he's high off the ground."
Plaskon calls action, and Cullen walks through the mess of rattlers, not looking at the ground, but staring straight ahead. Minutes later, his short walk through the snakes will already be hazy, like a high school memory.
Plaskon calls cut, but it is Vanover who offers the criticism, "That was pretty good, but you flinched right there."
Take two. Cullen walks through the snakes again, this time without flinching.
Vanover nods his approval.
|--| This film is not yet rated.
There is no nudity or sex. There is a high death toll and "some pretty rough language," Cullen said.
One of the outlaws is shot in a papier-mach head filled with tomato sauce. And the sheriff gushes sauce and syrup when he's shot near a small creek.
"This is going to be one of the bloodiest movies ever made," soundman Sellers said during filming at the Knights of Pythias Lodge in downtown Roanoke.
Lodge member Charles Kennedy looked concerned for a minute, then smiled.
"He told me he was gonna clean up afterward."
Cullen spotted this room when he was shooting pool here with a friend. He liked the way the light came through the windows.
Most people he has approached about locations have been helpful so far, he said. So have friends (who brought sandwiches to the quarry) and local actors(there was a casting call at Scooch's that garnered interest from Showtimers and theater students). Folks have invested serious time in this film, but no money.
"I figured I didn't want to take anyone down with me if it didn't go," Cullen said.
If he has to, he will distribute copies of "The Sanchez Saga" himself. His plan, though, is to get someone else to pick it up for distribution. This fall, he will send videotapes to Miramax, Paramount and Warner Brothers and work his way down.
"Worst-case scenario, I'll be sitting in my basement watching a $30,000 movie," he said. "Even if I end up standing in the soup line downtown, I'll have a camera in one hand and my movie in the other."
He hopes to make another movie next year, maybe in black-and-white.
But "I have no desire at all to go to Hollywood," he said. "I would rather do 'em here."
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