It’s 42 degrees out, and Derek Stonebarger is trying to get people to party. The co-writer and director of local independent film I.M. Caravaggio has gathered a number of his closest friends and associates to serve as extras in a scene that takes place late in the movie, in which main character Ian Milano (played by Ryan Eicher) is tracked down and captured by bounty hunters while at a masquerade party. The extras are all decked out in fancy attire, and outfitted with Eyes Wide Shut-style masks. Some of the men have suit jackets on, but the women are clearly at a disadvantage in their party dresses. “Dance, so you get warm,” Stonebarger urges as a piano player starts up, and the scene begins.
Tonight’s shoot is being held at the memorabilia-filled home of neurosurgeon, former lieutenant governor of Nevada and well-known Las Vegas eccentric Lonnie Hammargren. Hammargren himself is dressed in regal finery to serve as a member of the party crowd, and has earlier in the day filmed a cameo as “Darius Hammargren.” Another Vegas kitsch icon, cult filmmaker Ted V. Mikels, is also on hand to lend his support as a background player; Mikels no doubt has sympathy for the needs of movie-makers when it comes to filling out crowd scenes on a low budget. Both got involved because Stonebarger simply called and asked for their help.
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About an hour before the party scene, Stonebarger is outside with his extremely small crew (just two cameramen) shooting a scene at the front of Hammargren’s ostentatious house. One of the camera operators pulls his car into an adjacent street and turns on the headlights to illuminate the shot. “We usually don’t use car lights,” Stonebarger explains apologetically, but it’s all part of the low-budget ingenuity required to make a movie like this.
Back inside, Stonebarger’s girlfriend, Dorian Martin, is doing makeup on one of the actors in the Hammargrens’ kitchen. Mikels is reminiscing about his days shooting a number of his own low-budget horror and sci-fi films at the Hammargren house. And Hammargren himself is regaling anyone who will listen with stories of his days bringing Hollywood film production to Nevada, when he was lieutenant governor. He relishes the tale of playing a prank on Will Smith during the shooting of Independence Day. “Now it’s more fun to look at girls,” he says, nodding to a pair of female extras practically busting out of their eveningwear.
Stonebarger runs the shoot casually but efficiently, finishing just about on time for the cast and crew’s traditional post-filming trip to LJ’s Bar & Grill, owned by Caravaggio executive producer and co-star Kent Johns. This is Stonebarger’s first feature film, but he’s been itching to make movies since picking up a video camera during his senior year of college. He’s been in Vegas since 2001, working for TV stations KLAS Channel 8 and KVVU Channel 5, and currently for Cox Communications. “I feel like I’ve been working 10 years kind of honing my skills to get to this point,” he says.
This point is the culmination of a fascination with Italian painter Caravaggio that Stonebarger’s had for the last decade; the movie is a contemporary thriller that connects back to Caravaggio’s work in the 17th century. Stonebarger anticipates six months before the movie is finished, although principal photography (which has occurred on weekends for the last three months) should be done by the end of January. He’s put everything he has into the production: His savings are gone, his credit cards are maxed out, and he’s even tapped his 401(k). “I’m gonna sell my car next,” he says, “but we’re almost done with the expensive stuff.”