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March 27, 2007 > A return to the past

A return to the past

PumpJam Productions LLC brings modern movie-making to historic Niles and the Belvoir Springs Hotel.

By Steve Warga

Less than four years before the dawn of the Twentieth Century, the Edison Manufacturing Company introduced a device called a "Vitascope" to patrons of Koster and Bial's Music Hall in New York City. Edison, himself, was not the inventor; that distinction belonged to two men named, C. Francis Jenkins and Thomas Armat, who introduced their moving picture projection contraption a year earlier in Atlanta. Still, Edison's company purchased the idea from Armat, adding that famous name guaranteed to attract the public's attention.

Less than ten years later, the silent film industry was firmly established and thriving with the likes of Charlie Chaplin, Bronco Billy, and countless other film-making folk. In 1912, George K. Spoor and partner Gilbert M. Anderson (aka Bronco Billy) established a movie studio at the mouth of Niles Canyon across the street from the Union Pacific Niles Depot. The canyon hills and other Bay Area geographical features proved ideal for the pair's signature westerns and other subjects they filmed. They combined the first letter of their last names to spell "Essanay" and used that as their company name. Over the next four years, crews, animals and equipment were seen all over the region producing hundreds of shorts and feature-length silent films, including the classic Chaplin film, The Tramp. Images and statues of Chaplin in his trademark bowler hat, cane and brush mustache proliferate throughout downtown Niles.

Like life itself, film-making has come a long way since those days of jerky, clattering projectors running thin strips of dangerously flammable, silver-nitrate film across a beam of light generated by high-temperature arc-lamp bulbs. Back then, projectionist literally risked their lives to entertain the masses. Today, however, many fully-equipped movie studios and production companies have dispensed entirely with "film" cameras, relying instead upon computerized digital devices, easily transported and operated. And beyond the well-financed companies, hundreds of lesser-known, but entirely dedicated production operations are busily filming independent, feature-length movies all over the world.

Local company, Pumpjam Productions LLC, is one of those independents (indies). They've chosen Niles and the Belvoir Springs Hotel (TCV, 12/12/06; "Historic gem lights Fremont hills") for most of the sets in their first-ever movie venture, Still Life. Producer Liz Peterson calls it, "A funny and quirky script." It's the story of a dot-com millionaire looking for something different in his life. He stumbles across an entire town for sale in bankruptcy proceedings in rural Utah. Paying the town's debts, he begins to visit regularly and learn to get along with the very, um, unique individuals populating the few homes and businesses there.

Presently, Still Life is not a low-budget project ... it's a NO-budget affair! Though not entirely lacking in talent or experience, an all-volunteer cast and crew comprise this production so far. Like indies everywhere, they hope to gain the attention of a distributor by entering their DVD in any number of film festivals devoted to indie productions. With the odds heavily against them, everyone involved is contributing time and talents, first, because they have a passion for film-making. Then, of course, they wouldn't be unhappy at all to score a win and see their efforts in "theatres everywhere," as the ad pitchmen like to shout.

A distribution contract means big bucks and a springboard to future productions. Still Life is Pumpjam's first project, but they're serious about making it the first of many more. Peterson admits to a long-time "passion and dream of producing movies." She even financed a sabbatical to Los Angeles a few years ago to attend a months-long class on film production. Her current day job is as a partner in Johansson Peterson Realty Group of Walnut Creek.

It was the girlfriend of Still Life's creator who first contacted Peterson. Due to his own day job, the creator wishes to remain anonymous for now, but as writer, director and actor, he quickly realized the need for a producer like Peterson. Since their agreement, she's devoted nearly all her weekends to the project, just like all the other principals. The pre-production and filming stages are nearly completed after some six months of after-hours and off-hours efforts.

Peterson is frank about the "glamour" of her present position. "Being the producer means doing things like getting one character's costume from the dry cleaners for today's filming. And I get to bring food to the set; coordinate everyone's schedules; help with auditions and casting; scouting locations; and so on. I guess my organizational skills are my strongest asset so far."

No complaints, though. Peterson says, "It's been a terrific experience, so far." She adds, "It's exciting as we get closer to a finished product."

That finished product is slated for end-of-summer release. There's talk of a premier at the Essanay Theatre, in part to acknowledge the cooperation and assistance of the entire Niles community, which Peterson describes as "so perfect for the script in so many ways."

She credits local merchant, performer and renowned Etch-a-Sketch artist, Michael McNevin with opening many Niles doors to the company, including the office and front rooms of the Belvoir Springs Hotel. McNevin also landed a role in the film.

Sitting in the cozy den of the hotel, Peterson's comments are interrupted, again, by a shout of "Quiet on the set!" Cameras roll and another take commences; just as they commenced thousands of times before, nearly a hundred years ago, on the very same grounds. Nile's storied past comes alive once more.

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