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East County Filmmaker Makes Bid For Sundance

The Thane Of East County’ Gives Macbeth A Modern Twist

Filmmaker Jesse Keller editing

Photo by Nicholas McVicker

Above: Filmmaker Jesse Keller editing "The Thane of East County."

KPBS arts reporter Beth Accomando finds out what it takes to submit a film to Sundance by speaking with filmmaker Jesse Keller about "The Thane of East County."


San Diego filmmakers have a good track record at Sundance. SDSU graduate Destin Cretton scored twice with “I Am Not A Hipster” and “Short Term 12.” Now East County resident Jesse Keller hopes to get his film into Sundance’s January festival.

For independent filmmakers, Sundance is the Holy Grail.

“Sundance is the gold standard of film festivals and getting into that would be such a great jump up to the next level for a little film like ours,” Jesse Keller told me during a rare break from editing his film, “The Thane of East County.”

The film is about a modern day theater company in San Diego doing a production of "Macbeth."

“Who better to rip off than Shakespeare, you really can’t go wrong,” Keller said with a smile. “And I love Shakespeare rip-off movies, like Kurosawa’s 'Ran' is one of my favorite movies, and that’s taken from ‘King Lear.’

"I’ve always wanted to do an adaptation of Shakespeare in a modern story but I also love Shakespeare’s language and the text and that great drama of the actual plays so I decided to do both. The movie is set behind the scenes of a small theater production of ‘Macbeth’ and the actors’ lives start to mirror those of the characters. And they start killing each other off in the same ways that the characters in 'Macbeth' do.”

Scene from "The Thane of East County"

Keller’s been editing his film eight to twelve hours a day since shooting wrapped on August 22 in order to meet the Sundance deadline.

“I’ve been working like crazy on this thing,” Keller said at the edit bay he’s set up on his own. “I have four days until it has to be at the Sundance office in LA so there is an online upload or I have to Fed Ex a DVD. Sundance explicitly forbids filmmakers from showing up at their offices. I would love to just drive up and stick it through a mail slot on Wilshire Boulevard.”

Keller’s plan is to submit the film online on the morning it’s due.

“There’s one website, Without A Box, that’s the film submission website,” Keller explained. “So Sundance gets, I think they said 10,000 submissions a year. And I’m guessing a helluva lot of those happen at the last minute. So if several thousand people are all trying to upload a feature film on the same day. I hope they got the bandwidth for that thing, otherwise there’s going to be some people freaking the hell out.”

Last Monday at 7 a.m., Keller was one of those people freaking out as he explained in a webcam video he shot.

“I started submitting my online screener, woke up this morning, it has failed. The upload has failed. So I started again, it starts to upload my one gigabyte file and it gets to about 35 megs and fails again," he said, adding that a visit to an online help site shows a lot of other filmmakers are having the same problem.

"So something is totally wrong with this upload online screener service and there are a lot of very pissed off people that are discovering that their submissions for their films that they have worked on so hard for Sundance are just not going through at all. So I am burning a DVD right now and I am going to hop in my car, drive up to LA, and walk into the Sundance office with it. That’s my plan.”

As an independent filmmaker, Keller is all too familiar with having to resort to a plan B and be creative with problem solving. It also helps to have a crew truly invested in the project.

“My mom gets an executive producer credit on this thing because she was helping,” Keller said. “When we needed an RV, she got us an RV and got it delivered to the location the day we needed it, so it takes a village.”

That village included support from people who contributed $25,000 toward a total budget of $65,000 through a Kickstarter campaign, which ended just a week before shooting began.

“Watching that $65,000 come in and then just spiral out of the bank account in the course of like a month, that’s a pretty amazing sensation,” Keller said. “To watch it go from that down to nothing!”

Photo caption:

Photo credit: Jesse Keller

A scene from Jesse Keller's "The Than of East County" that gives a modern spin to Shakespeare's "Macbeth."

But as Keller assembles a first cut of his film he’s finally seeing where the money went. He’s pleased with the look of the black and white footage.

“There’s a heightened sense of intensity, it’s not quite the real world in black and white, it’s a heightened world,” Keller explained. “Black and white is still cheaper. Back in the days of film, shooting black and white film stock was cheaper but it’s still cheaper because of color correction expenses, and most importantly for the art direction.

"If you’re making a movie in color you really have to be careful of the colors of the things you are putting on the screen and that all costs money. If I have to buy clothing for every actor so that we’re controlling our color palette that’s going to send the budget right up through the roof, but in black and white we can go to their closet and go dark, light, dark, light, and we can select and have some more artistic control without having to spend a ton of money.

"I think it was [cinematographer] Gordon Willis who said if you don’t control color it looks like an explosion in a Sherman Williams store. And that’s exactly what we wanted to avoid. That’s just one of the examples of embracing your limitations and making it look great with a low budget.”

When I visited Keller he was adding music he had composed to the first cut of the film.

“Putting in music is such a sense of relief because you set everything up and with no music, everything feels so much slower,” Keller said. “So once you get that first assembly on the timeline and you watch it and you go, ‘Oh god, is it going to be too slow? Is this not going to work?’ But then you put in the music and you go 'oh that’s right, it’s totally going to work. This is great!'”

As footage plays on his computer, Keller is reminded of when cops arrived at one of his film shoots because someone had seen the plastic prop gun and called the police. Keller said that resulted from a “bad decision” to move the shoot from indoors to outdoors in an alley where they had no permit to shoot. The next time the cops came, Keller was better prepared.

“We didn’t have any fake guns so everything was cool,” Keller recalled. “We did have some dead rats, which were part of a witchy ritual. So the cops showed up and we had permits, and they said 'let’s see,' and we showed them our permits, and they said 'okay, have a good shoot.'

"So get permits kids! That’s my advice to you. If you’re in a situation where you’d be screwed if the cops shut you down, that is when you need permits.”

Photo caption:

Photo credit: Jesse Keller

The witches of Jesse Keller's "The Thane of East County."

Keller said his film is “a Cuisinart full of all the different things I love in movies. So there’s a little film noir, there’s a little Shakespeare, there’s even a little Kevin Smith, two dudes hanging out against a wall together, and also a little Sam Raimi’s ‘The Evil Dead.’ Basically it’s a movie that I love and believe in and I want people to see so the dream is getting it in front of eyeballs.”

Which brings us back to Sundance and getting “The Thane of East County” submitted for consideration. Keller found himself on the road last Monday after the online upload repeatedly failed.

“All right, it is done,” Keller explained in an iPhone video he shot in his car. “It is done and I didn’t even have to drive to LA to do it. I managed to get in touch with someone from the Sundance Institute, finally. After several calls, and some time on hold, they told me that I could submit it a day late because I am one of whole ton of people that are having that exact same issue with the online submission process.

"So I just dropped it off at a Fed Ex location and I am on my way home. It is all in the hands of Sundance now.”

All Keller can do now is wait to find out if his film will make the cut for the Sundance Festival coming up this January.


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