Cinema Purgatorio and the Weird World of Independent Filmmaking

With his latest film underseen while his rival packs the house, Neil and his actress wife, Liz, face growing disillusionment and despair at their dreams of being successful filmmakers. But when they hear of a nearby 48-hour film festival with none other than Bill Murray in attendance as judge, they just can’t resist. Mustering themselves once more, Neil and Liz wrangle up an oddball gang of the usual suspects for one last shot at celluloid glory.

This is Cinema Purgatorio, the latest meta-comedy from director Chris White, chronicling the ups and downs and inherent madness and masochism of independent film production and the pursuit of fame, and showing at this year’s Sarasota Film Festival.

Fittingly enough, Cinema Purgatorio was born out of production hell, when Chris and his co-writer and wife, Emily Reach White, hit a wall on a previous film. “It wasn’t going at the pace we wanted,” said Chris, “and we were starting to get frustrated.” Frustration turned to speculation and, being in Murray’s home state of South Carolina, they couldn’t help think that if they got him on-board, things would go much more smoothly. “We knew we were being goofy,” said Chris, “but still halfway serious.”

The Whites didn’t seek out Murray, but they did enlist the help of Geoffrey Gunn in writing the film that Chris would eventually direct and take the lead role in. “It was almost a strategic decision,” said Chris. “Because a lot of what the movie’s doing is playing this game about what’s true and what’s not.” By taking on the role of the filmmaker as the filmmaker, he hopes it may lead the audience to engage the film in a different way. Some of the events are “ripped form the headlines of our lives,” said Chris, “but much of it is made up.” Though he’d previously played small parts in his films, this would be Chris’ first time starring and directing.

“The only way I was able to successfully do both roles is I was surrounded by people I could trust,” said Chris, who brought in Scott Lansing for the final cut of the film, an editor who has spent the last ten years working extensively with Turner Classic Movies and, according to the man, does not often accept the independent roles that cross his desk. “I really could relate to the challenges of production,” said Lansing, on why he took on Cinema Purgatorio. “They took those nice little moments and the comedic aspects that I’d not seen developed before.”

“The first time I sat down with Scott, I remember this huge weight lifting off my shoulders,” said Chris. “The way he cut the scenes was like someone playing the drums. There’s a rhythm to it.”

Where that weight went, Lansing doesn’t know. It didn’t land on him. “That was hardly the case,” said Lansing. “It was so well-written, there were great characters and, to me, the pacing just needed to be tightened.” Taking a snippet here and adding a piece there, Lansing uses pace and rhythm to accentuate the big moments and speed along the slower ones. “That’s the job of the editor,” he said. “To get that vision.”

Shot primarily over the course of 13 days in South Carolina, the film was not without its challenges. “It was the largest cast we’d ever worked with and it was the most locations we’d ever worked on,” said Emily, who co-produced in addition to co-writing.

“Maybe some of that hurry is in it,” added Chris, who notes a couple things here and there that he may have done differently had there been more time and resources, “but maybe the energy comes through too.” As far as Lansing’s concerned, he likes the grit. “It actually accentuates what it’s like to be super-indie and what you’re up against.”

And while Bill Murray may not be on the judges’ panel this year, the Cinema Purgatorio crew remain excited at the prospect. “I’m really proud that we were selected and honored to be around the films we are,” said Chris, who also feels that Cinema Purgatorio is singularly well-suited for the festival crowd. “People who are fans of film like Cinema Purgatorio, but we also find this rich connection with filmmakers,” said Chris, adding with a laugh. “Because we all realize the ways in which we’re funny, and it’s even funnier to watch it happen to somebody else.”

With Cinema Purgatorio enjoying a successful festival run, the Whites are already planning their next venture – a road-tripping comedy about a traveling rock band sure to bring a bigger budget and higher stakes. “It’s important to be ambitious, to want to do something more than you did before,” said Chris. “There will be plenty of challenges.”

Pictured: (left to right) Traysie Amick, Geoffrey Gunn, Chris White filming Cinema Purgatorio. Courtesy of: Cinema Purgatorio.

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