The War of Art
Minutes before he's supposed to shoot a pivotal scene for his latest feature film, local filmmaker Kevin Zinniel is keeping his cool, leaning against a brick wall and flipping a small rubber football between his hands. It's 9:00 a.m. on a Tuesday, and Zinniel is huddled along with his five-person film crew just outside Patrick's Cabaret off East Lake Street. Wearing shorts, a skateboard-shop T-shirt, and a sporty pair of shades, the 30-year-old independent filmmaker begins to chat with his producer about the day's game plan, looking more like he's preparing for a pickup football game than a day of rigorous moviemaking.
Zinniel and company will have a mere three hours in the small rented dance space: just enough time to put up all their lighting and camera equipment along with the set; speed through a few dry runs with the six unpaid actors, many of whom are meeting for the first time; get two to three takes on film; and then pack up and prepare to start the whole process over again at another location across town. Crammed into a ten-day shoot in mid-August, the cycle may sound maddening, but it's business as usual for this local indie film company, the aptly named Guerrilla Squad Productions.
"I have no idea if I'll be able to make sense of all this once I start editing," Zinniel says with sigh. "When you're talking about the kind of budget and time we have to work with, you just take whatever you can get."
Midway through the shoot of the film, currently titled Visions of a Misfit, the production is on track. But that's not to say that the squad is not constantly plagued by setbacks, most of which will require some last-second jury-rigging. For example, just as Zinniel was set to shoot a scene in a cast member's apartment, the landlord came barreling through the door and told the crew to pack up and head out. What preempted the creation of original film art? The landlord needed to sand the wood floors. In another incident, an actor dropped out of the film the day before a shoot. But all it took was a late-night call to Zinniel's mom to find an adept understudy.
Shot at dozens of locations around the Twin Cities, Visions of a Misfit concerns a young, angst-ridden artist who can't seem to get off the downward spiral to self-annihilation. In the scene being filmed at Patrick's Cabaret, the painting prodigy (Chris Carlson) is entering drug rehab after popping a few too many pills. The occasion for such despairing behavior, ironically, is a ceremony awarding the artist a scholarship to study in Italy.
As he goes through his own daunting artistic process, Zinniel seems like he might empathize with such a bittersweet moment. "I ask myself everyday if this is all worth it," he says. "But then something will just happen and everything comes together for awhile. And later I know I'll think about how I've met so many other artists and had such a blast. I can't help but keep going."
Though Zinniel's passion may be for film, his paycheck comes from cable television. Early in 1999, Zinniel formed Guerrilla Squad Productions along with two of his co-workers in the commercial-production department at Media One (now AT&T Broadband). The team filmed its first feature, Uprising: Revolution from the Roots, in August of that year. While Zinniel, like most novice filmmakers, took a financial loss on his first film, it was one of the more ambitious and politically progressive Minnesota projects to be produced in recent memory. The film follows a fugitive political activist who, after firebombing a Minneapolis federal courtroom and hiding out with Zapatistas in southern Mexico for seven years, returns to the Twin Cities for some unfinished business.
Despite its radical overtones and technical flaws, such as some porn-quality acting and rough segues between scenes, the film's spirit garnered recognition from the Minnesota Film Board, who nominated it for the D.L. Mabery Award, an annual prize the Minnesota Film Board grants to the best Minnesota-made feature and short. Uprising failed to find a theatrical release, but it played at a number of small local venues, and screened at the Fort Worth Film Festival and the Santa Monica B-Film Festival. Zinniel intends, however, to improve upon his noteworthy debut, with hopes of attracting greater national attention. "I wanted to take a different spin on this film from my first," Zinniel says. "I wasn't as preachy, but I still had some similar political viewpoints to get across." In this vein, Zinniel mentions that many of the lead character's paintings contain an environmental edge.
"Kevin really likes to take a chance on the films he makes," says Guerrilla Squad's co-producer and script co-writer, Mark Neuman-Scott, who is also Zinniel's boss at AT&T. "There's so much bubble gum out there in film these days. There are fewer and fewer films with any political vision, especially in the local scene."
Neither Uprising nor, seemingly, Zinniel's latest work expresses a particular political vision. While you may not be able to glean any clear message from his films beyond a thematic grab bag of leftist leanings, Zinniel does seem to capture a specific personal tension between political/artistic integrity and financial/social reality. In Uprising, the leading activist returns home to find that most of his formerly protest-happy friends have moved on to other endeavors, whether it be law school or booze.
Zinniel's current film deals with the commercial pressures a talented, aspiring artist must confront. Zinniel, who trained as a filmmaker at St. Cloud State University, may have found inspiration for this theme within the polar duality of his own career. Working simultaneously as a commercial producer for one of the largest corporations in the world and as a progressive, indie filmmaker could understandably split one's personality.
While he has maintained his sanity, a few days later at his paying gig Zinniel laments his company's transition from a local cable entity to a multimedia conglomerate. "Things have become more and more corporate around here, but I keep doing the commercials to pay the bills," he says from the massive, mazelike confines of the AT&T Broadband headquarters in St. Paul. "I guess I can just keep rolling the dice, though, and hope my filmmaking career takes off. Until then I'll just do my time in the cube."
Zinniel anticipates releasing Visions of a Misfit locally by the summer of 2002. For more information, check www.guerrillasquad.com.
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