Dean Hyers never actually says, "You can take the boy out of the business, but you can't take the business out of the boy"--but he might as well. After nearly a decade in the business world, the cofounder of the media communications company Digital Café has made the jump to independent filmmaking, and he has brought all of his aphorisms with him.
The driving force behind Bill's Gun Shop, which wrapped last month after shooting for five weeks in Robbinsdale, Edina, Lilydale, and St. Paul, Hyers is spinning his latest endeavor as both a return to his roots and a direct extension of his previous business success. The advertising influence is evident: After eight years of creating Web sites, screen savers, and computer games for A-list clients, the Denmark, Minnesota, resident seems preprogrammed for catch phrases. A day on the set yields: "We're getting feature coverage at an indie pace." "Work like dogs, play like children." "All I want is everything." "Responsibility leaves no wreckage." "I love business and I love art. I love art more."
The first time Hyers appears, in fact, he's showing off his new Bill's Gun Shop baseball cap. "This isn't what the actual hats are going to look like," he tells Bill, the actual owner of an actual store in Robbinsdale called Bill's Gun Shop, where Hyers spent time as an angry young man and where he's filming today. A week before the film has wrapped, and nearly a year before it's likely to debut in finished form, the director-entrepreneur and uncredited script consultant is planning merchandise. What's more, there's already a marketing superstructure in place, the scope of which soon makes it clear that this independent film is far from the charge-it-on-Mom's-card variety.
Although it's difficult to picture the goateed filmmaker as anything but buoyant and earnest--thirtysomething going on a well-behaved eleven--rumor has it that the hard-boiled Bill's Gun Shop plot stems from an episode in Hyers's own life. True, the rumor is his own, and he's stingy with details, revealing only that at one point in his late teens, he found himself aiming a gun at someone--an act he has spent the years since trying to either justify or understand. In his movie this penultimate scene is transferred to Dillon (Scott Cooper), a suburban college kid with a gun fetish who takes a job at a gun shop. In short order Dillon bangs his boss's wife, befriends a bounty hunter (Victor Rivers, who played the swordsman's brother in The Mask of Zorro), and tags along on a bounty hunt. A 20-minute rough-cut segment screened at the City Pages offices in June offered a series of quiet, character-driven scenes--Dillon's first day of work, Dillon scorned by the woman he has been dating, Dillon before a mirror doing a variation of De Niro's "You talkin' to me?" routine--before launching into a quick-cut action montage featuring guns, guns, and more guns, with escalating consequences. As Hyers would say: It's a mainstream plot with indie edge.
If Hyers has his catch phrases down cold, he also has a solid backstory: Grew up in St. Peter. Spent his teenage years making feature-length, Super-8 films with his brother. Defied the advice of his mentor, Dan Bacaner (executive producer of the Coen Brothers' Blood Simple), who advised him to embrace poverty and throw himself into filmmaking after college. Founded Digital Café with his wife Kim and college buddy Mike Koenigs as an attempt to earn enough money to make movies on the side. Found wild success. Sold Digital Café to Campbell, Mithun, Esty in 1998 for an undisclosed sum. Quit CME to make movies--just as new high-definition digital-video technology arrived to provide a low-cost format option. This meant that, first, the Digital Café partners' technological experience could be pitched as eminently transferable and relevant; and, second, that Bill's Gun Shop would be among the first independent feature films shot in the new medium.
If it all comes off as slightly too neat a package, asserting a tidiness and an orderly progression that's rarely demonstrated in life, it should also be said that Hyers's innate ability to spin is coupled with an absolute guilelessness and open sense of wonder. His movie set is friendlier than a church potluck, and more than one crew member pulls me aside to tell me that Hyers has been like a little kid at Christmas for the entire month.
For the moment, think of Bill's Gun Shop not as the artistic expression it will eventually become, but as a business venture in which the same people responsible for delivering a quality product are also responsible for selling that product. "A lot of people forget about the investors once they get their money," Hyers says. "I owe it to them to care about this a lot."
Look at it this way: Hyers had a marketing plan before he had a movie. The Bill's Gun Shop Web site (www.billsgunshop.com), which offers browsers the opportunity to sign up for a newsletter as well as various sweepstakes, has been up and running since early this spring. Just after shooting began, Minneapolis resident Kirstin Anderson won a role in the film. (Coincidentally, a news show was doing a piece on extras that very day, so, together with a full hair and makeup treatment and a day spent filming closeups, Anderson was also on television that night.) Five other sweepstakes entrants have won autographed copies of the currently incomplete movie.