A Minnesotan ‘Werewolf’ in Utah

"Werewolf" director Sam Thompson
SBT Films
“Werewolf” director Sam Thompson

PARK CITY, UTAH — Young Minneapolitan horror filmmaker Sam Thompson, chilling in the Wasatch Brew Pub with screenwriting partner Tucker Dryden, confides they’ve been “living off sandwiches” during their sojourn to Sundance country.

“We went grocery shopping and bought enough lunchmeat and tomatoes and lettuce and bread to last us a few days,” Thompson reports. “Including yesterday, we’ve each eaten one to two sandwiches per day. So that’s like four sandwiches a day we’ve been taking down.”

It’s mid-afternoon — in-between sandwiches — and Thompson, 26, and Dryden, 23, are a half-hour away from the second screening of their 17-minute short at the Slamdance Film Festival, the dozen-year-old Sundance offshoot that now has corporate sponsorships and distribution deals of its own. The acclaimed documentary “Mad Hot Ballroom” famously sold for millions to Paramount after its sold-out Slamdance screening in 2005.

For now, Thompson and Dryden’s “There’s a Werewolf in My Attic!” — made for $100 “including tapes,” Thompson says, but not counting the $35 for “marketing and promotion”— still has them calculating lunchmeat costs. But their film is funny, shrewdly satiric, even a tad unsettling at times — and things are going extremely well for the pair in Park City.

Too tired to keep up with the buzz
“We were walking down the street, getting tired of promoting the movie,” says Dryden, whose quiet demeanor vaguely recalls that of Mike Schank in “American Movie,” the decade-old documentary about kindred Midwest horror film hustlers of which the Minneapolitans are affectionately aware. “We ran into this fellow Slamdance filmmaker and said, ‘Man, it’s been kinda tiring.’ He said, ‘Yeah, but you guys must be psyched about your article in Variety, right?’ We were like, ‘Huh? Just stop right there. Don’t joke about things like that.’ “

Thompson, who seems to channel the spirit of Milwaukee auteur Mark Borchardt from “American Movie,” picks up where Dryden leaves off. “He’s like, ‘Do you guys not even know your own buzz?’ “

The pair promptly made an Internet connection on Main Street and discovered its grand prize: a favorable mention in the influential trade paper for being among the “potential breakouts” of Slamdance.

Time to add a little cheese to those sandwiches?

“What the Variety article will do for us, I dunno,” says Thompson, his blue eyes looking not the least bit cynical or sad. “It’s a resume-builder, I guess. It makes us look official. It helps with investors. We want to turn ‘Werewolf’ into a feature, which will require actual money. And then I want to make an ugly, straight-up horror film about a mutant maggot-man who attacks inner-city residents. That one will be a serious movie. Gritty.”

A few minutes before showtime, Slamdance is packed. There’s a line stretching down the hall of the Treasure Mountain Inn, whose conference rooms serve as makeshift Slamdance theaters, and the mostly young crowd is chatty, caffeinated and stoked.

Sandwiched in for screening
Screening as part of the hourlong “Shorts Block 1,” “There’s a Werewolf in My Attic!” is the program’s third film of five — the meat in the sandwich, you could say. The 100 or so people in line all manage to get into the theater, which fills beyond capacity. A half-dozen people are sitting cross-legged in the aisles, the way one used to be able to do at Sundance.

An older gentleman, whose white hair would be distinguishing enough in this environment, lies down no more than two feet from the screen, using his parka as a pillow. Thompson stands just to the side of the man’s legs, raising a still camera above his head and trying without success to take shots of his audience.

A viewer near the front notices that Thompson’s shutter isn’t clicking properly and pipes up with advice. “You’ve got to hold the camera steady,” he yells supportively. Thompson self-effacingly shakes his head. “These things aren’t too intuitional,” he laments. When the lights go down, the tall and lanky director remains firmly planted near the screen. “Hey, down in front, guy,” urges an audience member — who happens to be Dryden.

Following “A Catalog of Anticipations” and “Bush” (not named for Dubya, by George), “Werewolf” proceeds to take its bite out of the crowd, which loves it. People are giggling, hooting, saying, “Ewwwww!” Spying the titular wolf-beast, playfully designed by Minneapolitan special-effects artist Mike Etoll, a woman behind me exclaims, “This is creepy!”

Slimy and snarling, oddly diminutive, looking like a rabid raccoon, the attic-squatting werewolf acts as the nagging conscience of the movie’s anti-heroic hosts — a pair of young white Minneapolitan hipsters (Lacey Prpic Hedtke and Joe Noreen) whose political correctness evidently doesn’t forbid them to displace the former tenants, a pitifully impoverished family of four. A scene set at Ron’s Market on 48th Street and Bryant Avenue alludes hilariously to a protest rally where animal-rights activists plan to toss raw chuck at passers-by. (A clip from the film can be seen below.)

A fang for the PC crowd back home
At the post-screening Q&A, the Slamdance shorts programmer who picked “Werewolf” from among hundreds of submissions asks Thompson and Dryden whether their film is meant to satirize their friends or themselves or some other subculture.

“Living where we do in Minneapolis,” explains Thompson, a Wedge resident who admits to eating tempeh as well as red meat, “we see a lot of people who are trying really hard to wear old clothes and eat correctly. I guess it seemed like these people should maybe get mauled by a werewolf.”

Earlier, at the brew pub, Dryden, who dropped out of college in Maryland before moving to Minneapolis and meeting Thompson via Craig’s List, put it this way: “In the movie, we have these hip counterculture people — they’re vegans, they’re pacifists, they dress cool, they eat at nice restaurants. But underneath, they’re pretty normal — just as materialistic and shortsighted as any of us, no matter how enlightened they are or think they are. When I got the call from the Slamdance [programmer] saying that we got into the festival, he told me that he loved the film’s message about gentrification. Which was great, because no one had ever mentioned that to us before. We had only talked about that theme amongst ourselves.”

When Dryden and Thompson recount their frugal adventures in big-bucks Utah, the ruthless Park City pecking order appears a mirror to their film’s own astute class critique.

Thompson, who moved to Minneapolis from Milwaukee after graduating from film school, takes bemused umbrage at the absurdities of Main Street festival fashion. “It’s crazy around here,” he says. “You see these Hollywood people driving their gigantic SUVs, pulling Y-turns on this steep, narrow, icy street. They’re gabbing on their cell phones, their fur coats are flapping. They’re slowing everything down.”

Hummer-dinger of a problem
On their first day in Park City, Thompson and Dryden — who hadn’t yet learned the tricks of free parking — plunked down $20 for a spot in a three-tier ramp. They parked their borrowed Saturn next to a black Hummer and left the lot thinking they’d find their wheels again easily. Who could fail to spot a big black Hummer? When they returned to the lot, though, they found the Hummer, but not their car. Had it been stolen? Towed?

“Turns out we were on the wrong floor,” says Dryden. “Our car was one floor down — next to the other black Hummer.”

At Sundance, which is something like a black Hummer compared to Slamdance’s borrowed Saturn, the two nearly met one of their all-time heroes, George A. Romero, whose new “Diary of the Dead” was playing at the Park City Library.

Dryden: “Just by chance, we walked into the library and happened to find ourselves right next to Romero. Sam and I looked at each other and both of us said, ‘Hey, there’s George Romero!’ We weren’t trying to meet him or get his autograph or anything, but the Sundance volunteers started hassling us. “Get away from him,” they said. “Don’t look at him!” We were walking away, and they were still yelling at us. I felt especially bad for this guy who was actually trying to get Romero’s autograph on a ‘Dawn of the Dead’ DVD. The Sundance people were like, ‘Yeah, well, a lot of people want autographs — too bad.'”

I ask Thompson: If ordinary fate or an outbreak of flesh-eating zombies had allowed him to vanquish the Sundance volunteers and commune with the master of undead horror, what would he have wanted to say?

“I would’ve just told him that he really screwed up my 4-year-old brain when I saw ‘Night of the Living Dead.’ Just to see how he’d react.”

Rob Nelson, a member of the National Society of Film Critics, writes about film for MinnPost. He can be reached at rnelson [at] minnpost [dot] com. Watch for his continuing Sundance coverage.


How to see ‘Werewolf’

“There’s a Werewolf in My Attic!” screens Feb. 15 at Stasiu’s (2500 University Ave. NE, Minneapolis) in conjunction with Troma Films’ 35th anniversary party. It’s available for rent on DVD from Cinema Revolution (23 E. 26th St., Minneapolis.), which also stocks Thompson and Dryden’s “Urine Trouble,” about lethal urinal cakes.

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