“I like to say I live between Art Bell and the brothels,” jokes Pahrump-based filmmaker J. Neil Schulman, whose second feature, Alongside Night, is pitched somewhere in that same middle ground. Based on Schulman’s own 1979 novel, which was praised by the likes of Ron Paul and Glenn Beck (but also A Clockwork Orange author Anthony Burgess), Alongside Night is an unabashedly political sci-fi thriller, a libertarian manifesto that recalls Atlas Shrugged—both Ayn Rand’s 1957 novel and the recent movie trilogy.
“Alongside Night is in many ways far more radical than Atlas Shrugged, and has roots in anarchism as much as anything else,” Schulman explains, although he’s happy to name Rand as one of his many literary influences (along with everyone from Robert Heinlein to J.D. Salinger).
Set in the near future, Alongside Night imagines a United States crippled by debt and hyper-inflation, where a rogue economist becomes a target for assassination, and his teenage son must escape the clutches of the power-mad director of FEMA. He does so by joining an underground resistance that has set up its own capitalist utopia, complete with unregulated guns, drugs and even nuclear weapons. For Schulman, the story is a response to the current political climate, both at the time he wrote the book in the 1970s and in the present day. And although he might advocate a more extreme political viewpoint, his movie fits nicely into the current trend of conservative-targeted films, including the Atlas Shrugged movies and the surprise box-office hit God’s Not Dead, starring Alongside Night’s own Kevin Sorbo.
“After your star’s movie earns $61 million at the box office, you tend to want to capitalize on that,” Schulman says. So far, Alongside Night has shown mostly at conventions and conferences and at private screenings organized through crowdsourcing website Tugg, with libertarian groups forming the core audience. Still, Schulman is eager to reach beyond the conservative base. “I would say we’re going for a younger demographic than the Atlas Shrugged movies,” he says.
Rallying libertarians behind a libertarian film might sound like an easy sell, but Schulman remains skeptical. “You would expect that a novel that has been praised by libertarians would turn into a movie which would be of interest to libertarians,” he says. “However, libertarians are ornery types. I would say that some of my worst criticism has also been from libertarians.”
At the same time, Schulman doesn’t necessarily want to reach the religious audience that has flocked to many recent conservative films (he says he turned down a distribution offer from a Christian film company). “I would say that Alongside Night wouldn’t necessarily be a movie which the markets for movies like God’s Not Dead would be appealing to,” he says, citing in particular a cameo by brothel mogul Dennis Hof, in which Hof praises pornography and prostitution as important parts of God’s plan.
Hof and Sorbo are just two of the many conservative and libertarian figures who helped Schulman finance and market the movie. The bulk of the movie’s budget came from Patrick A. Heller, recently retired owner of Liberty Coin Service in Lansing, Michigan, who first came onboard looking for product placement (and who has also created Alongside Night commemorative coins). Sorbo’s wife Sam, a conservative talk-radio host, plays his character’s wife. Books by Schulman’s fellow libertarian sci-fi author Brad Linaweaver show up frequently in the movie, and clips from Linaweaver’s web series Silicon Assassin play at an underground movie theater visited by the main character.
Thanks to Heller’s backing and Schulman’s own Hollywood connections (he has worked as a screenwriter and penned an episode of the 1980s Twilight Zone revival), he managed to snag actors like Sorbo, Star Trek: Voyager co-stars Tim Russ and Garrett Wang and celebrity scion Jake Busey. Shot mostly in Las Vegas, Alongside Night is highly ambitious for such a low-budget production, with extensive special effects and even a car chase that the crew coordinated in regular Las Vegas traffic via cell phones and walkie-talkies.
“This year is the year in which we intend to open up for a wider theatrical release, followed up by DVD, Blu-ray, video on demand, streaming, etc.,” Schulman says. He hopes to find a distribution partner, but is willing to go it alone if needed. At 61, Schulman isn’t exactly the typical fledgling filmmaker, but he hopes to make more features or even turn Alongside Night into a franchise. Like a true libertarian, though, he knows that the free market will dictate his future. “Obviously it’s going to be difficult for anybody to invest unless I can prove myself in the marketplace here,” he says. “If I’m going to be taken seriously for another project, I have to put some meat on the table on this one.”