Rett Terrell is playing the title character in the Oklahoma-made short film “The Grave.” [Photo provided]
Perched in a tall chair and dressed in a snazzy suit, Rett Terrell sits still as makeup artist Krystal Rose McKinley dabs thick layers of black greasepaint around his eyes.
Only the actor’s mouth is moving as he cracks wise through preparation for the lengthy final day of location filming on The Grave, an Oklahoma-made short film he waited two years to bring to life.
It’s definitely the eye makeup, Terrell jokes. No, when I was a kid, I grew up reading comic books and everything about this story spoke to me.
Dressed in the olive-drab uniform and wide-brimmed hat of a World War I doughboy, Collin Place awaits his turn in the makeup chair, scanning his script as strong late afternoon sunshine beams through the wide windows of PhotoArt Studios in the Plaza District.
I’m supposed to be his best friend from the war who he couldn’t save. So his guilt from his death weighs on his shoulders and that’s a lot of his motivation to become The Grave,’ Place says.
My dream was to be Rett, he quips, but for this project, he settles for haunting his co-star and pal.
You need to dream bigger, my friend. Aim higher, Terrell replies.
It may be a small, homegrown project, but Place says he’s excited to finally reunite with Terrell, director Kyle Roberts and screenwriter (and The Oklahoman features editor) Matthew Price, of the award-winning Oklahoma feature film The Posthuman Project, for The Grave, a film-noir comic-book movie set in 1920s Oklahoma City.
With Posthuman’ we made all those great connections and great friendships with people. Just being able to get back together and get back into the craft with the people you love to work with is one of the greatest things about doing this, Place says.
I just think it’s awesome to be able to bring a period piece like this to life, because you really don’t see a lot of that nowadays, especially in Oklahoma City. I think it’s unique.
The black makeup sets off the skull mask and black hat Terrell has donned for the title character of The Grave, a journalist and WWI veteran named Walter Crim who takes up the mantle of a vigilante.
It’s kind of our version of Batman in a way, but he’s not a millionaire, Roberts says. Through Oklahoma City in the ’20s where we’re located there was a lot of smuggling and crooked cops and other stuff going on because of Prohibition. And he’s basically taken it upon himself to go after these guys.
The Grave is out cold and bound to a chair as Roberts barks action! on the first take of the day.
Better wake up. If you don’t wake up, you’re gonna end up like me, Place’s Ross yells, snapping in the unconscious hero’s face.
Tied up next to the masked man, good cop Sgt. Stone (Stephen Goodman), stalls for time as a nattily dressed baddie named The Torch (Jacob Ryan Snovel) and two other thugs converge menacingly. Suddenly, The Grave is awake and in full heroics.
Cut! Nice, Roberts says. Guys, that was awesome. Let’s go again.
It takes a few tries, but with an escape, a gunshot and a punch, the film’s action-packed opening scene is in the can.
Of course, getting that point of actually rolling camera on the project wasn’t so easy.
Hoping to follow up the success of his teen superhero feature “The Posthuman Project” with another indie Oklahoma superhero story, Roberts kicked off a Kickstarter campaign for The Grave in fall 2015. Although the project raised $22,000 of the $30,000 goal, it fell victim to Kickstarter’s all-or-nothing rules.
It was still a lot of money, but you don’t get any of it when you don’t raise the full amount. With the heartbreak of that, it’s just like, Is this dead or what?’ Roberts said.
Last October, he resurrected The Grave, launching his own online crowdfunding campaign, which didn’t raise as much but brought in enough to get the project off the page and into preproduction.
In some ways Posthuman’ was superpowers as a metaphor for adolescence, and this is kind of a metaphor of adult life. When life gets you down and kicks you around, what do you do? Really, that’s parallel to what our last four months have been, the director said.
The good thing and it was the same thing with Posthuman’ and filmmaking in general is that in Oklahoma people are very loving and supportive of each other.
For Goodman, another Oklahoma actor, The Grave was the most fun he’d ever had on a film set.
This is a short comic book, and it also is a short film. To fit everything we have done with this that’s why Kyle can always round up the best crew, in my mind, because everyone works off of everyone, he said. We’ve gotten to do action stuff that I don’t know how we’re pulling off, to tell you the truth.
The night is shrouded in full darkness and Goodman is dressed in full police uniform as he walks into the lot behind PhotoArt to film his last scene. His vigilant officer is called upon to step out of a vintage patrol car, draw his gun and pursue a mysterious noise on foot.
Goodman said his cop, the title character and the story’s main antagonist, Groom (Adam Hampton), all have been shaped by their wartime experiences.
Groom said, I should be owed something for fighting.’ We can see what happened to Walter, putting on the mask of The Grave. … And I think Sgt. Stone said, Well, it’s just time to put on another uniform,’ he said.
Steve Mathis, the gaffer in charge of lighting the dark parking lot and the rest of The Grave, has worked on more than 80 films, including major movies like Back to the Future, Moulin Rouge! and the new Power Rangers. Although he left Oklahoma for Hollywood as soon as I could, he moved back to his home state in 2013.
One of my goals is to impart some of the experience and knowledge that I’ve accumulated over 40 years of doing this here, he said.
I do find myself getting ready to do something and realizing I don’t have what I would normally have. But the politics are smaller on a small film; the politics are huge on a big film. And I wouldn’t do it here if it wasn’t fun, because I don’t need to.”
He said he particularly enjoys working on period pieces like The Grave, which started as an original character Price invented. The writer based the film on his comic book originally illustrated by Hunter Huskey and Jerry Bennett. Roberts is making it as a new media project.
Essentially, it’s a short film, but it’s kind of a pilot, Roberts said. The plan is to do festival stuff and then, of course, pitch it wherever we can and get it online somewhere to where it’s not just like we post it on YouTube but to have someone pick it up.
It’s close to midnight as Terrell tosses and turns in the bed in the corner of the art studio, where his character awakens suddenly from a nightmare and sees his dead pal in the mirror.
Put on the mask, Place’s Ross orders, urging Walter to seek justice as a vigilante.
The last scene to be filmed for the project reflected reality for Terrell, who appeared in publicity photos as The Grave back in 2015 and stayed with the project because he couldn’t imagine anyone else playing the role.
I didn’t sleep the night before. Usually you get a job and then you’re on set. I’ve been attached to ‘The Grave’ forever it feels like, and the night before, I was like, We’re really gonna do this.’ It was like my first project all over again. It was like those butterflies and then being giddy and excited. Then we show up, and I’m not sure, but I think maybe my first line, my voice cracked, he said with a laugh.
But then you take a breath, you see the people that you’re around, that you trust, which is the reason that I’ve stuck with a project like this this long, with everyone involved. And then you kind of relax. Now I’m in cruise control, more or less, in work mode. I’ll probably have another little weird moment once it’s all done. We did it. I can’t believe it.’
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