Star-Bulletin Features

Friday, June 11, 1999

Terminal USA
Harsh lighting and gloomy sets characterize
Jon Moritsugu's films.

When it comes to
filmmaking, he’s
a one-man show

By Burl Burlingame


JON Moritsugu makes movies with titles not easily printed in a family newspaper. One of them is "Fame Whore." One sort of sounds like "Mod Truck Explosion" (the middle word was changed to protect the innocent). They are "underground" reelers with deliberately arch over-acting, scabrous close-ups, prison-yard lighting and gloomy, claustrophobic sets.

The characters do all the boneheaded things you warn your kids not to do. The films are not for the easily shocked, or for those of delicate sensibilities.

On the other hand, they're not as deeply weird or bone-core jaded as some of the zillion-dollar products out of Hollywood these days. How sick was "Batman and Robin" anyway? Some of Moritsugu's stable of performers, such as wife Amy Francis, or a chap called "Victor of Aquitaine," actually skirt dangerously close to being real actors.

His films are notorious on the alternative art-film circuit, becoming faves of the black-lipstick, fishnet-stocking and nose-ring crowd.

But that's all besides the point.

Moritsugu's films are cheap. Not cheap-looking (they are, but that's deliberate). Nope. Most were made for less than what you'd pay for an SUV. He'll be sharing the deep secrets of true film cheapness at "No-Budget Feature Filmmaking," 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday and Sunday at Krauss Hall 012 at the University of Hawai'i at Manoa. It's part of the university's ongoing New Media Workshop. The cost is $150. Find out more at 956-7221.

Making a movie is more than cell phones and doing lunch. Moritsugu's subjects include pre-production planning and permits, scripting, rehearsal, production on location and in the studio, editing, scoring, releasing, promotion and distribution.

You can do it all yourself. Moritsugu does, after all.

It's a homecoming of sorts. After metamorphosing from a quiet nerd into the class wiseacre at Punahou, Moritsugu picked a college as far away from Hawaii as he could manage. "By the time I was 17, I realized I had to get off the rock and go, go, go," he said long-distance from San Francisco, where he and Francis have set up shop.

"There was nothing like an alternate subculture in Hawaii, which I was interested in, but which only exists in mainland cities. The mainland was ... big, different and white. Ironically, I find now that I miss many things about Hawaii."

His college of choice was Brown in Rhode Island, where he suffered through "film theory classes, just to get my hands on the cool filmmaking equipment."

The limitless density and magic-light quality of film appealed to Moritsugu, as well as the mix of imagery, sound, music and storytelling into the prime mythic vehicle of the 20th-century. That, plus the snotty energy of punk and alternative rock. "I try to use the attitudes of rock 'n' roll in that era into my films, the energy and the ethos."

He and Francis first locked eyes at a Rhode Island School of Design mixer and she's been his leading lady ever since.

"I just think she's terrific. She's an actress, a designer and an illustrator and we play in the band Monster Golonka together," enthused Moritsugu. The band is named, not after the "Mayberry R.F.D." actress, but after a Polish word for "choicest hunk of meat." (Rotting meat also becomes part of the integral art design in Moritsugu's films -- go figure.)

He has a completed script at the moment and is shopping for financing. "It'll be 35mm, so the budget will be big. Maybe six figures."

Despite the subject matter of his films, Moritsugu proceeds in a traditional manner. Moritsugu the scriptwriter pens a story. Moritsugu the director rehearses the actors and stages the action. Moritsugu the producer keep costs down and cuts corners. Moritsugu the editor cuts the film on a traditional clipping desk, eschewing fancy digital editors for the tactile feel of film-snipping. Moritsugu the composer cranks out some music. Moritsugu the distributor prepares the film in reels and tapes. Moritsugu the publicist provides press materials and fields phone calls from Hawaii, although his sucking-up-to-journalists technique could use a little tweaking. ("Hey, I used to read your column when I was a little kid!")

He's appalled by big Hollywood productions that begin shooting without a completed script. What's up there on the screen is all Moritsugu, who subscribes to the auteur theory of filmmaking. "The director is definitely at the center of things. That's the only way to have a coherent vision. You can't make the films alone -- it's a democratic process -- but the buck stops with the director."

Despite the one-man show, Moritsugu's films aren't completely vanity productions. "They have actually repaid themselves, slowly, over the years. It takes screening, video sales, rentals, speaker's fees -- and it all adds up," said Moritsugu.

He's not making frequent trips to the bank. Several of his films were originally financed by a worker's compensation accident that almost severed his arm a decade ago. (Kids, don't try this yourselves.)

So, making them cheap isn't an option; it's the only solution. The trick is simple, said Moritsugu -- prepare, rehearse, have a completed script and cut every corner you can. That's it. It ain't magic. It's work.

You taking notes, Hollywood?

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