Beverly Poppe / Special to the Las Vegas Sun
Wednesday, June 10, 2009 | 2:30 p.m.
Jerry and Mike Thompson just might be the nicest guys in the Las Vegas filmmaking scene. The brothers — who wrote, directed, shot and edited CineVegas entry "Thor at the Bus Stop" — have been central figures in the world of Las Vegas movies for years. Both graduates of UNLV’s film school (Jerry in 2001, Mike in 2005), they’ve made numerous short films, which have shown at past CineVegas festivals as well as the Dam Short Film Festival in Boulder City. "Thor," based on a 2003 Thompsons short, is the brothers’ first feature, shot on weekends over three months last summer. In addition to the original Thor short, it incorporates and expands on the Thompsons’ 2008 short "Passenger Seat."
Talking about their experiences making "Thor," their ambitions as filmmakers and their collaborative process, the Thompsons frequently defer to each other and make every effort to praise one another’s skills. Although Jerry, the older brother at 34 to Mike’s 27, tends to dominate the conversation, there’s no sense of competition or tension between the two. “We pretty much agreed on everything eventually,” Jerry asserts about the process of making the movie.
“With brothers, you can say things in a way that’s much more efficient without the risk of damaging a friendship,” Mike says, but it’s hard to imagine these two saying anything potentially damaging to each other. “We don’t fight on set,” Jerry says, and then pauses for effect. “In front of people. Much.” It’s a joke, because these guys are clearly perfectly in tune, crafting a quirky, clever film with a singular vision, a synthesis of their agreed-upon influences (the Coen brothers, Wes Anderson, Guy Ritchie’s "Snatch") and a uniquely skewed approach to the weirdness of the suburban sprawl known as Las Vegas, where both brothers have lived their entire lives.
“I really, really wanted "Thor" to capture that really bizarre, like, Mars suburb quality that we have, where on one side of the street it’s blank desert, and the other side is these sticks holding up trees, and perfect sprinkler systems keeping this weird little ecosystem alive,” Mike says. “Everyone thinks Vegas is one street,” adds Jerry.
That one street is conspicuously absent in "Thor"; its only presence is an accidental appearance by the Stratosphere in the background of one shot. Instead, this is a movie about the surreality of the Vegas suburbs, via a series of interconnected stories: The title character (played by Jerry) sits at the title location, lamenting his unsung fate as the savior of the world; a man with a yield sign through his chest wanders around looking in vain for help; an overly accommodating guy gets carjacked and driven out to the desert; various other threads weave in and out of the movie’s oddball tapestry.
The whole project came together quickly; after "Passenger Seat" showed at the DSFF in 2008, the Thompsons started talking to UNLV film professor David Schmoeller, who encouraged them to take the plunge and make a feature, offering to produce and even put up the budget. “I just thought they were ready,” says Schmoeller, who taught both Thompsons at UNLV and had long been an admirer of their work. “We always thought this was this big huge mountain we had to climb,” Jerry says. “And then Mike said, ‘Let’s just do a feature, screw it. Learn how to do a feature by doing a feature.’”
The scripting took a couple of months, aided by the fact that about a third of the material was from existing sources. The real breakneck pace came when the Thompsons decided to edit as they filmed, each taking a scene shot on a particular weekend and putting it together during the week before the next shoot. In order to make the submission deadline for Sundance, they had a rough cut ready three days after shooting wrapped, something that’s virtually unheard of. “We were kind of dumb,” Jerry admits now; all of the rushing didn’t help them get in to Sundance, and they’ve cut 10-15 minutes out of the movie since then, for a tighter, more polished version that will play at CineVegas. “They will admit it now, that they took on too much,” Schmoeller says. "Thor" co-star Jason Harris, who’s a filmmaker himself (under the name Jason Leinwand), puts it bluntly: “To do that, you’re just asking to torture yourself.”
But for all the intense effort that’s gone into the film, Jerry and Mike are still laid-back, content guys. Neither expresses a desire to move to Hollywood and join the film-industry machine, and with Jerry’s production company Light Forge Studios, they’re able to work full-time shooting commercials and promotional videos while honing their craft and making time for their own projects. “I don’t like asking for permission for things,” Jerry says. “I don’t like knocking on a door and saying, ‘Please let me make a movie.’ I’d rather be captain of my own tugboat than work in the engine room of a battleship.”
As for what they hope to gain from the festival, the generous filmmakers most want to pay back all the people who helped them. “Some people really devoted a lot of time, so that would be the most satisfying thing of all, is to be able to write them a check,” Jerry says. “I think it’s going to be a really good calling card for them,” says Schmoeller, clearly proud of his former students. “If this gives them an opportunity to make a movie for a little more money, and a little more time, and that they don’t have to break their backs getting it done in time, then that to me is considered a success,” Harris says.
One thing is for sure: There will be no shortage of people willing to lend their support, and there may also be an expansion of the family business: Younger brother Scott, 24, worked on "Thor" as an actor, camera operator and associate producer, and has been embraced as a de facto third member of the Thompson filmmaking team. That’s much to the chagrin of the two other Thompson brothers, both electrical engineers. “They really thought they were going to get Scott, but we beat ’em out,” Mike says. A little familial competition is healthy, but as with everything the Thompsons do, it’s purely friendly.