MCN Columnists
Gary Dretzka

By Gary Dretzka Dretzka@moviecitynews.com

In “Oconomowoc,” living in the shadow of the ‘Wizard’ isn’t such a bad place to be

Seventy-four years ago, come this August 12, MGM executives beat a path to the Strand Theater in the tranquil lakeside town of Oconomowoc, Wisconsin, to stage the first publicized showing of the final, edited version of “The Wizard of Oz.” Although no one is quite sure why it was chosen for the honor – perhaps, because composer Herbert Stothart and Munchkin coroner Meinhardt Raabe were local lads — it’s still recognized as one of the most exciting events in Oconomowoc history.

Next week, when the movie “Oconomowoc” debuts in Wisconsin, it will be at Milwaukee’s venerable Downer Theater. The Strand was torn down a while back and the city no longer has any commercial screens on which to exhibit Hollywood movies. To mark the 70th anniversary of its Oconomowoc debut, back in 1939, an outdoor presentation of “The Wizard of Oz,” had to be accommodated on giant inflatable screen. The closest “Oconomowoc” will come to Oconomowoc will be theaters in nearby Delafield and Brookfield, which, while nice towns, aren’t Oconomowoc.

If you grew up in Wisconsin, as I did, repeating the word “Oconomowoc” several times in the same sentence inspires as much delight as reading the names Gitchee Gumee, Nokomis, Hiawatha and Minnehaha, in the epic poem by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. Cool names for their cities are yet one more thing white settlers stole from native tribes.

Not knowing what to expect from a movie named “Oconomowoc,” I mistakenly guessed it might be an attempt to capture the same lightning in a bottle as the Coen Brothers had in “Fargo,” especially the characters’ wonderful accents.  Anyone who’s ever spent any time in the Upper Midwest could watch “Fargo” and enjoy it simply for Marge, Norm, Wade and Jerry’s “Minnesota nice” mannerisms and singsong dialect, a blend of Nordic, Swedish, Germanic and other northern European speech patterns.

Ironically, in “Oconomowoc,” the characters – the vast majority of whom are played by actors native Midwesterners — sound as if they just stepped off a train from southern California. Longtime residents of the state might find the proper use of English somewhat disconcerting.

“We didn’t ask anyone to lose their accents or add one,” reports Andy Gillies, whose name appears alongside that of co-producer/editor/cinematographer Joe Haas on nearly all of the film’s credit lists. “I grew up in Florida, but moved to Appleton to attend Lawrence University. Almost all of the people involved in the movie attended Lawrence or grew up in Wisconsin or Upper Peninsula.

“After college, I decided to stay in the state. The people are truly nice and so much more community-oriented than other places I’ve been. Everyone says hello to you or offers to buy you a beer.”

Gillies wrote the much-longer first draft of “Oconomowoc” in Oconomowoc and shot the film in and around the city, which once served as a summer destination for swells from Milwaukee, Chicago and St. Louis. In winter, of course, ice-fishing and cross-country skiing compete with the downing aber gut (a shot of brandy with schnapps, often set ablaze, on top) as the local pastime. There’s nothing more fun than sitting in a bar and betting tipsy visitors that they can’t spell “O-C-O-N-O-M-O-W-O-C,” even if they’re spotted three of the O’s.

For the record, the city’s name derives from the Potawatomi word, “coo-no-mo-wauk,” which means “waterfall” or “where the waters meet,” depending on whom one asks.

Anyone who goes to see “Oconomowoc,” expecting to hear jokes about guys who wear cheese-head hats to church, tip cows when bored or use deer-hunting season as an excuse to spend more time with their drinking buddies, is going to be disappointed. The movie barely registers on the Richter scale that measures such things as condescension and irony. Like the accents, it speaks to the universality of life in small-town America.

In his first feature role, Brendan Marshall-Rashid plays a young man who moves back to Wisconsin after rejecting every job that would require him to show up for it. The home in which Lonnie grew up is now populated by his voluntarily bed-ridden father, who’s “on sabbatical” from life; his bitter, alcoholic mom; and a friend his age, Todd, who is his mother’s “in-home boyfriend.”

Ostensibly, Todd designs lingerie for a living, but he mostly hangs out at home in his underwear and a polka-dotted robe, occasionally sporting green-felt antlers. Despite the similarity in their ages, Todd desperately wants Lonnie to accept him as a father figure who occasionally dispenses the kind of advice a dad normally would be expected to provide his son.

“He’s the elephant in the room wherever he goes,” Gillies quips.

Lonnie hopes to help his other buddy, Travis (Gillies), resuscitate his struggling t-shirt business. Travis’ primary competition comes from a middle-school student who steals his designs and undercuts him on prices. The possibility for love is on Lonnie’s horizon, as well, but it’s even money that he’ll blow that opportunity, too.

“These kinds of characters could and probably do exist in small towns around America, not exclusively in Oconomowoc,” Gillies suggests. “There always are some goofballs – goofballs with potential – who always manage to shoot themselves in the foot while pursuing their dreams. I thought that the unpronounceability of the title would convey the ambiguity of the characters’ absurd ideas. ”

The first draft was significantly longer than the finished product, Gillies says, but the usual impediments to creating an indie film whittled down the original vision to 78 minutes. As it is, the eight-day location shoot was financed using personal credit cards and the kindness of the residents of Oconomowoc. Its success, of course, will depend on positive reviews, social networking and word-of-mouth.

Fortuitously, too, Gillies was able to conduct staged readings in his acting class in Los Angeles. From there, he decided to cast promising newcomer Cindy Pinzon, the only non-Midwesterner on the team. In a movie largely populated by slackers and oddballs, her gainfully employed receptionist, Mallory, truly is a ray of sunshine.

The early consensus opinion, as recorded on the movie’s tongue-in-cheek website, is that “Oconomowoc” is “it’s pretty good.” By Wisconsin standards, “pretty good” is high praise, indeed.

Besides finding the money to make the movie, one of the largest roadblocks faced Gillies and Haas was getting the movie seen … anywhere. These days, too many indie pictures go straight from the festival circuit to DVD, where the demands of marketing are so much less harsh.

Gillies admits to being ecstatic when he heard that “Oconomowoc” was be picked up by more than 20 On Demand cable outlets, beginning on May 1. It opens in theaters New York and Los Angeles on Friday and will roll out throughout America’s Dairyland a week later and, possibly, from there, into bigger cities and college towns through the summer.

If it does really well, maybe someone will rent the inflatable screen and show “Oconomowoc” in the park as half of a double-feature with “Wizard of Oz.”

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