The city that acts
Portland plays a starring role in filmmaking brothers' thriller
The actor walks forward gingerly, stoops down and, with a quick glance at the ashen-faced figure in the sleeping bag, helps himself to a bag of cold french fries.
The movie location is a patch of dirt under Interstate 5, in the spaghetti junction that snakes off the east end of the Fremont Bridge. The dirt belongs to the Oregon Transportation Department - it's next to where they park their street cleaners - and the lead actor's day job is catering manager at Papa Haydn restaurant.
What with the lunch gazebo, the RV and the crew standing around in snow pants and stocking caps, it looks like a standard Portland movie shoot.
But there are two major differences. One, it's a homecoming film of sorts for one of the city's most talented creative duos, the brothers Jacob and Arnold Pander. They describe 'Selfless" as a 'sexy psychological thriller about the corrosive nature of ego and obsession.' It's about a swinging Portland architect who becomes the victim of identity theft at the same time his perfect life starts to unravel.
Which brings us to the second difference from the moviemaking that occasionally blocks our streets and reimagines our city. In 'Selfless,' Portland is an integral part of the story, more of a character than a backdrop.
'We grew up in Portland, and we wanted to deal with the visual environment here,' says Jacob (pronounced 'Yakob'), the elder of the brothers at 42. Given the gleaming new office towers and condos in the South Waterfront and Pearl districts, it made sense to make the lead character an architect.
'We wanted to shoot Portland in a manner that is not like we know,' he adds. 'Not the city of old brick buildings but from the vantage point of all this glass and steel, so the city becomes unrecognizable, this supermodern Portland.'
When asked which films capture the essence of Portland, Jacob mentions Gus Van Sant's 'Mala Noche' and 'Drugstore Cowboy.' Other movies filmed and set here, such as 'The Hunted,' left him with 'no memorable image of the city.'
This is partly the brothers' inspiration. This is an opportunity.
The Panders had sufficient repute in this town, through their work directing commercials, penning comic books and making experimental movies, that the 'development community,' as Jacob Pander puts it, was supportive when the brothers finished writing 'Selfless' last summer.
A condo sets the scene
Developer Jack Onder is building the Westerly condo tower behind the Uptown Shopping Center at Northwest 23rd Place and West Burnside Street. In February, he allowed the Panders to shoot in an empty part of the Strand building at RiverPlace.
'They called me, though I'm not sure how they got ahold of me,' Onder says. He didn't ask to see the script, although he's aware the filmmakers told him 'just enough to get what they wanted.'
He adds: 'They said they liked the architecture, and we always want to help people in the arts. They have a good reputation.'
Stephen Domreis of GBD Architects (the Brewery Blocks) advised the Panders on the lifestyle of a contemporary architect. Further scenes were shot at the offices of Holst Architecture near those other icons of Portland taste, the Jupiter Hotel and the Doug Fir Lounge.
Laury Emerson, Holst's office manager, dealt with the three-day shoot.
'In the story, the architect works for a green building firm, and our aesthetic fit what they were looking for,' Emerson says.
Having worked in production companies in Hollywood and Portland, she was pleasantly surprised at how professional everyone was. And how they left no trace of their presence.
Josh Rengert, 36, the caterer who plays the young architect Dylan Gray, says the Pander brothers 'are like a symbiotic creature; they finish each other's sentences and they complete each other's creative process. Yet I've never seen them clash.'
On the set, they pore over the monitor after every shot, fine-tuning their instructions.
We're not in L.A. anymore
In the story, Gray's demise begins at Sea-Tac Airport, just after he's won a bid to build a large tower in Seattle. He has a chance encounter with a man who has lost it all, and whose loss prefigures Gray's own.
'He lives in this protected ivory-tower world of wealthy developers and designers, where everything is controlled and protected and worked out,' Jacob Pander says. For instance, the architect lives in the Louisa condos in the Pearl, by Whole Foods.
From the airport, 'he goes home to his beautiful fiancée and his beautiful life and the (stuff) hits the fan,' Jacob says.
However, the movie is not a reaction against the concrete-and-glass environment in some 'we hate the Pearl' way.
'Portland's new visual environment hasn't really been seen. It feels very original,' Jacob says.
Filming here is partly born of necessity. With a budget of $175,000, the movie has investors who have a hope of getting their money back. But as Jacob points out, his brother lived in Los Angeles for three years, and he would fly down to join him, pitching their various scripts and comic-book properties to the studios.
'We had carrots dangled, some $5 million projects that fell through at the last minute,' Jacob says.
Up and down the I-5 corridor
Eventually they decided it was better to come back home just to get something made - something to hit the festival circuit with that might eventually make it to cable, DVD or even theaters.
'Portland is of that scale where you can do this. Los Angeles is more of an all-or-nothing town.'
Of the main character, Jacob says: 'When he falls, he's cast out into a world he's not equipped to deal with.'
That world is symbolized by countryside as Gray walks from Portland to Seattle, on some vague pilgrimage to the site of his unbuilt building. It's a mixture of nature and nasty surprises such as the dead kid under the bridge, which here stands in for an I-5 overpass somewhere north. Actually filming on the freeway is too difficult.
Even shooting in the Seattle Library was beyond them, according to Arnold Pander, 39.
'They wanted $500 an hour,' he says with a smile. 'As a producer and writer, I'm always battling time and realities but trying to maintain the integrity of the story.'
Perhaps because they are home and have many friends, both remain cheerfully optimistic. Asked whether such a small-budget film can make an impact, Jacob cites 'Blood Simple,' which in 1984 launched the careers of Joel and Ethan Coen - perhaps the contemporary model of fraternal creativity. And Christopher Nolan, whose 'Following' led directly to his 2000 breakthrough hit 'Memento.' Like 'Memento,' 'Selfless' is about one man's shattered ego.
Such are their dreams.
The movie should be edited by the end of the summer. If the Pander brothers pull it off, Portland's built environment will deserve some of the credit.