Rutland the movie

Independent filmmaker comes home to expand her career
By Pamela H. Sacks


Growing up in Rutland, Andrea Ajemian dreamed of breaking into the movies in Hollywood.

She left for Tinseltown in November 1997. Her big break came this year.
Where did it happen? Right in her own hometown.
Not that she hadn’t made progress on the West Coast. She had been an extra in a bevy of TV sitcoms — “Beverly Hills 90210,” “Sabrina the Teenage Witch,” “Gilmore Girls.”
Then, more recently, Ms. Ajemian was an extra in a movie, and the director took note of her thick dark hair and dazzling smile. He tapped her for a speaking part. Her line: “Hey, Johnnie!”
A small step, perhaps, on the road to being “discovered.” But Ms. Ajemian, who is 26, vivacious and congenitally optimistic, soon discovered the power of taking matters into her own hands. Just like superstar Sandra Bullock, she decided to produce her own films.
“It’s not about the talent,” Ms. Ajemian said of the Hollywood scene. “It’s about your look, who you know and how you mingle. I like to think I’m a good schmoozer, but going on auditions and waiting all that time just to smile at the camera, well …
“I moved to Hollywood to act and realized that reaching my goals as an actress will happen by producing the movies I act in,” she said by phone from her apartment in North Hollywood.
And that’s how a zany, dark comedy called “Rutland, USA” got made.
Ms. Ajemian is a driving force behind the indie film, which was shot with a crew of four and a budget of $4,000. Filming took place in Central Massachusetts over three weeks last October during the height of foliage season. The movie features local talent. It will premiere at the Bijou Cinema on May 3.
Ms. Ajemian’s partners at Ludicrous Productions, Jon Artigo and Chad Meserve, wrote the script. She is the producer and also plays a lead role as a quirky reporter for a news show on a cable access channel.
Initially, Leslie A. Courtney, who owns the Bijou, had intended to show the film once, on the opening night of the theater’s upcoming film festival. But buzz about “Rutland, USA” got so intense by early this month that Ms. Courtney decided to show it in two theaters simultaneously on May 3 and twice again on May 5, in the afternoon and the evening.
“People wanted to order 50 or 70 tickets,” Ms. Courtney said.
The folks at Ludicrous Productions say their film “pushes comedic boundaries.” They describe the story line like this: “Nothing ever happens in the small New England town of Rutland. But everything changes one autumn day when two high school students disappear and a dead body is discovered in the woods. This quiet community is turned upside down while inept local authorities attempt to put all the pieces together. Will the struggling cable access reporter crack the case? Can the school janitor’s dead father help him find the deerheaded man? Is the crusty detective ever going to get over not being chosen for grand marshal of the parade?”
There is much more to the story, and some of it is a bit off-color, but many viewers will no doubt be doubled over laughing as the scenes progress.
“We are going to have a little line at the end saying the characters and situations are fictional and the characterization of the Rutland Police Department is not accurate. Please don’t arrest us,” Ms. Ajemian said with a laugh.
Apparently, the final product reflects the madcap process of its creation. Bob McCracken, who plays the “crusty detective,” is a veteran of many local theater productions, but he had never done film. The most challenging part was trying to get his lines out while other actors in the scene laughed uncontrollably.
“They had to shoot the scene without those people there,” said Mr. McCracken. “It was a blast.”
Mr. McCracken was among about 120 people who responded to announcements of auditions that appeared in local newspapers late last summer. Ms. Ajemian and her partners held the tryouts at the Rutland Public Library. They set up a few scenes, brought in six people at a time and let everyone have a chance.
“In Hollywood, you send your head shot in,” Ms. Ajemian said. “They just get hundreds of head shots and they weed people out that way.”
Mr. McCracken, who is 69, responded to the call, despite the fact that he had the impression the producers were looking for someone no older than 60. “I thought, `I’ll just give it a shot anyway,’ ” he remembered.
At that point he had not seen the script. The filmmakers knew immediately that they wanted him.
“He looked at the script and came to us and laughed and said, `Well, there’s a few things I can’t picture myself saying, but I’ll do it,’ ” Ms. Ajemian said. “By the end, he was just adding his own things. It was hilarious.”
Ms. Ajemian and her partners went with the flow. Shannon McAuliffe was only 13 when she auditioned for the part of Christine, a lead character originally written as a 17-year-old. Nonetheless, Shannon got a callback.
“They had me put on makeup and Valley Girl clothes to see if I could look 15 or 16 and work with the script,” Shannon said.
The Ludicrous producers liked her so much, they rewrote the part and made Christine 15 years old.
Shannon’s mother, Gayle McAuliffe, said she and her husband had some concerns about the bawdier parts of the script, but she was delighted with the way the filmmakers protected her daughter.
“Our main concern was that she not be in those scenes that were off-color,” Mrs. McAuliffe said, adding that they even went so far as to dub in swearing afterward. “They were wonderful about it.”
Shannon, who is a dancer and has been in numerous theatricals, viewed the script as college humor and was delighted to get the part. She is in the eighth grade at Bancroft School, which was used as a backdrop for the fictional Rutland High School, and some of her friends were extras.
“I had an awesome time,” she said. “I’ve always wanted to be in a movie. I never really thought it could happen.”
None of the actors had done film before and none got paid. Their professionalism astounded Ms. Ajemian and her partners. The budget went for plane fare, tape for the digital filming, lighting and sound equipment and the fee for the cameraman, Matthew Talesfore.
“What was crazy is if we cast this in Hollywood we would have had so many more problems,” Ms. Ajemian said. “Everybody knew their lines and was right on with energy.”
The crew stayed at the Rutland home of Ms. Ajemian’s parents, Ed and Evelyn Ajemian. Rehearsals were held in the basement. Mr. Ajemian has a part in the film, as does Ms. Ajemian’s brother, Mark. Mrs. Ajemian is an extra.
Filming was also done in public buildings and at area parks. The crew engaged in what Ms. Ajemian referred to as “guerrilla” filmmaking, meaning permits were not obtained for every scene. The filming was done within weeks of the events of Sept. 11 and created something of a stir. Every week the cast and crew would show up in the police log, printed in the local newspaper: “Strange people with camera down by lake.”
Ms. Ajemian had graduated from Elmira College in New York and had spent a year as an admissions counselor at Anna Maria College in Paxton when she and a friend, Marlene Perry, decided to head to Los Angeles.
Four years later, she has an interesting observation: “The two most gratifying Hollywood experiences I’ve had since I’ve been here, neither of them occurred in Hollywood.” One of them has been her part in the making of “Rutland, USA.” The other is a project with Ms. Perry, a road-trip documentary about women and friendship.
All of this has caused Ms. Ajemian to reflect on — and adjust — that long-held dream.
“People take me so much more seriously now that I am an independent producer and an actress, rather than just an actress,” she said. “As you get older, your dreams change. I will continue to act and produce. I would love to produce movies in New England.”