James Westby’s latest tracks another cinephile in Portland
by: courtesy of Tigard Film Society, Director James Westby (from left), lead actor Melik Malkasian and producers Amber Geiger and Byrd McDonald (shown on the set of “The Auteur”) are taking their latest feature to the Tribeca Film Festival next week.

A stranger comes to town. The town is Portland. The stranger is European pornographer Arturo Domingo. This is the setup for “The Auteur,” a locally made film that will have its premiere next week on the far side of the country, at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York City. Writer and director James Westby gained some name recognition with his 2005 comedy “Film Geek,” which played in Portland at Cinema 21, and in a handful of other cities across the country. The story of a social misfit with an obsessive love for film, the low-budget “Film Geek” has a strange mix of humor that is at times bittersweet, at times pretty gross. Perhaps appropriately, its biggest success has been as a DVD rental. A core group of collaborators from “Film Geek,” including leading man Melik Malkasian, reconvened to create “The Auteur.” “With this movie, like any other movie I’ve had anything to do with, it starts with Melik,” Westby says. “It always starts with wanting to write a character for him and see what he can do with it. “ The 36-year-old Westby moved to Portland in 1992 to attend classes at the Northwest Film Center. When he began work on his first feature, he hung audition fliers at Portland State University, and Malkasian was one of the first actors to respond. Now, Westby is sitting in a booth at the Doug Fir Lounge on East Burnside Street, flanked by producer Amber Geiger and producer-editor Byrd McDonald. These two, along with Westby and Malkasian, form a tightknit group of filmmakers, all in their 30s, who have completed two features together and are working on the script for a third. They were at the Doug Fir constantly, they say, during the week they spent filming at the adjoining Jupiter Hotel, where the character Domingo spends the night. As with “Film Geek,” they say, “The Auteur” is, among other things, a tribute to Portland. “Portland is a really amazing place to be right now,” McDonald says, adding that it’s a great place to be a filmmaker. It’s affordable, he says, and the talent pool is deep. “There’s so many talented crew-people living in Portland, people who know their craft and what they’re doing,” Westby says. Self-funding seemed easier The money to make “The Auteur” came from the filmmakers themselves. They looked into seeking outside funding, Geiger says, but then they decided, “You know what, we’re just going to do it.” “People spend years raising money,” Westby says. “In terms of raising money,” McDonald adds, “unless you’re willing to write Hollywood schlock, with classic three-act structures and nothing even mildly offensive, you’re not going to get money easily. You could wait around and try to get money for your big, big film, or you can just make it with what you have.” Besides, he says, “This film could never have been filmed by a Hollywood studio. It has more full-frontal nudity, of men, than I’ve ever seen in a movie.” The main character is, after all, an adult film director, although one with unusually high standards. Westby says, “I’m a big fan of Scorsese and Fellini, and I tried to make him an amalgamation of those two guys — and Coppola.” He acknowledges, as an afterthought, that none of those legendary auteurs is known for his work in porn. “The character takes himself very seriously,” he explains. “I think that helps to make it funny.” A touching story, really Domingo comes to town to accept a lifetime achievement award from a local film festival. The journey becomes a time of reckoning when he discovers that the love of his life — his ex-wife — also is in town. Along the way, flashbacks tell the story of love gone wrong and offer glimpses of some of his salacious masterpieces, including “Five Easy Nieces,” plus several with unprintable titles. Some of Portland’s exotic dancers have roles as porn actresses, and Ron Jeremy, the notorious real-life porn king, makes an appearance. (He’s listed in the credits as a “technical adviser.”) Despite its pungency, “The Auteur” is a comedy rather than a stag film. “It’s a comedy, and a love story,” Geiger says. “It’s actually really sweet.” “I thinks it’s a sweet film, too,” McDonald agrees. “That’s the thing that doesn’t come across in a pithy blurb about it.” The film was selected to play in the Midnight section of the Tribeca festival. The festival, founded by Robert De Niro, is considered one of the top festivals in the country — one of the top five, according to McDonald. The Midnight segment has a reputation as a launching pad for genre films — it’s where last year’s “The Descent” and “Black Sheep” earned distribution deals. This year, “The Auteur” is the only comedy in a cluster of horror flicks, and the advance buzz is good. “We’ve definitely got interest from other festivals since we got into this one,” Westby says. Each member of the team, McDonald says, has done their time making films that played, basically, just for friends and family. Now, he says, “It feels like finally we’re getting some traction.”

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