If you're looking for an unparalleled thrill at the movies, you can forget summer's special effects bonanzas. Superman stunts and Star Trek warps can't match the exhilaration of recognizing someone or something from your own life up there on the silver screen. Case-in-point: In 2008, a sizable crowd turned out at the Eureka Theater for the local premier of Humboldt County, a mediocre pot dramedy. About 15 minutes in, when a road sign reading "Humboldt County Line" flashed onscreen, the crowd went nuts. For a road sign.
Maybe it's narcissism and maybe it's local pride, but I have yet to meet the local who can resist the urge to say, "Oh, you're watching Outbreak? Hey, did you know that was filmed in Ferndale?"
With that human impulse in mind, this may be the most exciting week of the year for Humboldt County moviegoers. This Thursday, May 30, the big-budget Hollywood sci-fi film After Earth opens with a sneak peak screening and reception at Eureka's Broadway Cinema. Starring superstar Will Smith and his son Jaden, the movie was partially filmed among the ferns and trees of Humboldt Redwoods State Park.
The very next night, at the Arcata Theatre Lounge, comedian/writer/director Bobcat Goldthwait will personally present his latest film, a found-footage-style Bigfoot thriller called Willow Creek. Yes, the movie was filmed in and around the Humboldt County town, and it features cameos and supporting roles from numerous locals (including Journal alum Andrew Goff, who was on assignment for his Sept. 13, 2012, cover story "Rural Bar Crawl" when he bumped into the film crew at The Forks bar.)
The former film is the bigger deal money wise. With a reported budget of $130 million, the After Earth crew spent nine days here in Humboldt, drawn by the pristine, otherworldly beauty of our redwood forests, which, according to a location manager quoted in the L.A. Times last week, "evoke that sense of what the Earth would be like a thousand years after man has left."
Cassandra Hesseltine, the Humboldt-Del Norte County film commissioner, said that despite a year of trying she can't be sure exactly how much of that mega-budget was spent locally. Sony Pictures, the studio behind After Earth, claimed it dropped $5 million here, but Hesseltine figures it was probably between $2 million and $3 million in direct dollars and significantly more when you include indirect spending, like crew visits to local restaurants, bars and stores.
But it's the latter film, Willow Creek, that might have more appeal for locals, especially those who believe in a certain reclusive bipedal mammal. Goldthwait has been fascinated with Bigfoot since age 9, when he first saw the famous Patterson-Gimlin footage, that shaky video from 1967 that purportedly captured the creature loping across a river bed. The footage was shot near Orleans, and Goldthwait came up with his idea for a movie while on a 1,400-mile personal pilgrimage to famous areas in "California Squatchery," he told the Journal in a phone interview last week. He went to Santa Cruz, the Sierra Nevada, "and then I ended up in Willow Creek, which is kind of the mecca, the daddy of all sightings," he said.
For those not familiar, Goldthwait made his rather unique name in the 1980s as an acerbic stand-up comedian with a demented screech-shout delivery and a punk rock attitude. (He opened for Nirvana on tour and once set Jay Leno's chair on fire during a taping of The Tonight Show.) He's had bit roles in several Police Academy movies, the 1988 Bill Murray comedy Scrooged and more than 30 TV shows. With a leg up from friend Jimmy Kimmel he made a successful transition to directing, with two of his movies premiering at the Sundance Film Festival.
On the phone Goldthwait's voice showed no trace of the tremulous squeal it once had onstage. He said that he's long wanted to direct his own Bigfoot movie, in part because most previous ones have been condescending and exploitative. Goldthwait somewhat reluctantly admitted to believing in the mythic beast, and he said that he relates to the hard-core fanatics.
"I'm always for the weirdos and the outcasts and the fringe people," he said. "I understand those — I am those people, so I'm not about to start making fun of 'em."
His film, which he describes as part documentary, part "Blair Squatch Project," was shot entirely on consumer-grade electronics, partly to give it a sense of realism and partly to allow the crew to be a bit reckless with the equipment, he said. The story centers on a young couple played by Bryce Johnson and Alexie Gilmore (both of whom will join Goldthwait at Friday's screening). Johnson plays an enthusiastic Bigfoot nut and Gilmore is his skeptical but supportive girlfriend — characters that Goldthwait based loosely on himself and his wife. They visit various local sites of Bigfoot lore and kitsch before venturing into the woods, where things go sideways.
During production Goldthwait was dogged about finding just the right locations. He sometimes drove hours down dirt roads to find the perfect stretch of riverbed or patch of forest. His stars sometimes mocked this commitment to proper authenticity, pointing out that a scene inside a tent may as well be shot in a parking lot. But Goldthwait couldn't restrain his enthusiasm for Bigfoot country.
Here's how he described an evening on location: "Alexie and Bryce are standing by the fire warming up and I'm running around like a wild man in the woods in a pair of shorts, jumping in the river and stuff. ... I really liked it out there a lot. I think it scared my wife. She was like, 'No, we're not moving.'"
But he and his stars are coming back for a visit, driving the scenic route from San Francisco north through the Avenue of the Giants on their way to Friday's screening in Arcata.
See our Calendar section for details on both the After Earth sneak peak/reception and the West Coast premiere of Willow Creek, featuring a musical performance by Bigfoot singer/songwriter Tom Yamarone.