Aug. 20 2014 01:02 PM

Holding a brief candle to a locally made modern thriller

Jesse Keller
Thane of East County writer / director Jesse Keller stands behind the camera before a shoot.
Photo by Julia Richardson

"Roll sound."

"Scene 64, Take 2." 


The camera's tight on young actor Carr Cavender in the midst of Macbeth, Act 2, Scene 2. "Macbeth does murder sleep," he says. "The innocent sleep, sleep that knits up the raveled sleave of care."

It's a midsummer afternoon's film shoot inside the 101- year-old Victory Theater in Grant Hill, near 25th Street and Imperial Avenue. The theater-turned-church-turned-home to the experimental Technomania Circus is the site of the second day of production on Thane of East County, a super-indie project with a cast of 17, a core crew of 10 and a $60,000 budget funded by Kickstarter and believers who bought $400 shares in the movie.

"Go get some water and wash this filthy witness from your hand," recites actress Molly Beucher, taking two "bloody" daggers from Cavender. A lone camera operator, a sound man with a boom mic on a pole and the director crowd around the co-stars of Thane, a play-within-a-film that's heavy on bloodshed—both Shakespearean and contemporary.


 Cavender and Beucher relax, but it won't be for long. The film, written and directed by San Diegan Jesse Keller, is on a tight, 16-day shooting schedule, and every minute matters.

Keller, 36, a graduate of USC's noted School of Cinematic Arts and whose first film, The Ritual, screened at the 2012 San Diego Film Festival, calls Thane of East County an "ultra-low-budget thriller set behind the scenes of a small production of Macbeth where the lives of the actors begin to mirror the characters they're playing."

Cast and crew will shoot inside an apartment in Fallbrook and on location in the desert near Borrego, but the first six days of filming are in and outside the old Victory Theater, the exterior of which is made up as if presenting an actual production of Shakespeare's Scottish play.

"Macbeth is so rich with themes and psychology that all you have to do is pull on one little thread and you can come up with something compelling," Keller says. "It lends itself really well to being ripped off," he adds with a smile.


Jesse Keller (far left) confers with members of his production team.
Photo by Julia Richardson

Less than a month before the start of shooting, Keller hosts his cast and  crew members in the living room of his San Carlos home. The table reading will be the first out-loud run-through of Keller's 79-page script. It's also the first time that some in the production company meet, and Keller begins with a "get to know you" game with all participating, including Beucher, Cavender, Saverina Scopeletti (recently seen in Intrepid Shakespeare Company's killer production of Arthur Miller's All My Sons), and snowy-haired Danny Morris, who reveals that he was in a production of Richard II 60 years ago at what is now San Diego City College.

Introductions over, Keller announces: "Let's take out the friggin' scripts and dive into this thing."

Cavender, 26, and Beucher, 28, who are playing James and Jen, the actors in Macbeth who fall prey to their characters' inner demons, sit side by side on the couch as the script reading proceeds. All the earlier joking and noshing of snacks in Keller's kitchen is replaced by dead-seriousness. Making Thane of East County is going to be fun, but it's going to be hard work.

That's familiar territory for Cavender, who's spent the past three years in Los Angeles playing roles in short films and plays, being part of a film collective and producing his own projects. Thane of East County is "the biggest thing to happen in my acting career yet," he says.

"The project is so layered and interesting. It's a theatrical production within a film, so you've got two mediums at work. One is modern, and the other is this genuine classical text that is always finding a way to be relevant."

The character of James Cuthbert, an actor playing Macbeth, is, like Cavender himself, a lover of Shakespeare's work. But it's James' dark side that appeals to him.

"I am excited to play a character who has a big dream and a big heart, but becomes corrupted along the way and falls into the chaos of his passionate art," he says.

James' corrupter, at least to a degree, is fellow Macbeth actress Jen, who's playing Lady Macbeth.

Jen "is by all accounts a modern-day Lady Macbeth," says Beucher, who calls Keller's script "beautifully dark and precise.

"I have intensely re-investigated the story of Lady Macbeth," she continues. "The last time I studied the play was in high school, and I remember thinking how horrible and evil she was in her actions and scheming. This go-round, I have developed a bit of a soft spot for her. Surely we've all been driven to or at least have thought about doing dark deeds for ambition and/or love. It's part of being human."

When the script reading is over, everyone applauds and Keller beams. "I made the right decision on every damned one of you," he tells his ensemble. "This is going to be great."


Co-stars Molly Beucher and Carr Cavender
Photo by Joelyn Brickner

The sun's gone down on Day 3 of production, and the team is shooting a night scene outside the entrance of the Victory. Cars whizz by on Imperial, and a few pedestrians negotiate around the crew and its equipment, but the Thane of East County principals are in their own world, a realm of playful fantasy and precise professionalism. Script supervisor Deb Montoya proclaims with pride that production is ahead of schedule. 

Cavender, in T-shirt and jeans, and Beucher, in a lacy white mini-dress, are the focus of Scene 14, an early moment in the script. It depicts an as-yet-unhaunted James and a flirty, cigarette-smoking Jen before they succumb to their characters' unbridled passions. The bespectacled Keller, as always, is presiding with a calm, cool demeanor.

That's not to say he's making this movie just for kicks. 

"We're aiming for the festival circuit, hoping to raise the profile of the film and get the best distribution possible," he says. "Of course, we'd love to premiere at Sundance, get bought by the Weinsteins and get a theatrical release. But we get that that's kind of a long shot. We're going to do everything in our power to get it out there."

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