For those who love “Mad Men”, “Breaking Bad” and early 1960’s film noir, your long wait is over. My latest feature film “The Tiki War” has just completed shooting in Minneapolis. Set in a tiki bar in 1961 Chicago, this latest addition to my canon, which also includes the Russ Meyer tribute “Vixen Highway” and the German expressionist “Made in Berlin”, is slated for completion in fall of 2014.
“The Tiki War” was shot in February at the Red Dragon Restaurant and Bar in Uptown. The late 1950’s exotica wall-paper, Naugahyde booths, Polynesian decor and Chinese stained glass, struck me as evoking the perfect look for The Tiki Room, the struggling tiki bar and show lounge where the story is set. Over one busy, bloody night before John F. Kennedy’s inauguration as President, three night club owners and two luckless entertainers battle over territory, honor, heroin and Cuba’s most potent rum.
“The Tiki War” stars Guy Messenger as Stan Ridgeway, co-owner of The Tiki Room A work-horse number-freak who shoulders most of the burden of running this tropical anti-paradise, Stan’s chain-smoking and compulsive coffee drinking have made him look older than his 35 years. This is on top of the sexually transmitted disease he acquired while serving in the 24th Infantry during the Korean War.
His business partner and fellow 24th Infantryman, Ray Conniff (Scott Carson), on the other hand, spends most of his time drinking, gambling, chasing women and, especially, keeping up with illegal side businesses that keep the club afloat. This includes dealing heroin, with his biggest customer – and guinea pig for sampling new shipments – being Dionne Belmont (Rachel Grubb), a singer at a rival club, The Cha.
An atmosphere comparable to the state Dionne is in pervaded the real-life production at Red Dragon – though definitely not due to consumption of illegal substances (at least, on my part). This was thanks to the graveyard shift that I, as director, along with the cast and crew were forced to shoot the entire film on over the course of a week, between the establishment’s closing and opening times.
After the first long, bleary night of shooting, we walked out to the sun-drenched parking lot, rubbed our eyes and found everyone’s cars had been towed. On the second night, lead actress Rachel Grubb rubbed her eyes to find that they were three times their normal size, the result of an allergy to her character’s hair dye. This lead to my having to cancel the third night, which was followed by the cancellation of the fourth, thanks to the biggest, iciest snow storm of the last ten years. I added extra time to the shoot to make up for the lost days, Rachel’s eyes returned to their normal size, and the production came to its conclusion at a professional, if still punch-drunk, pace.
But the mis-haps, mayhem and murkiness added verisimilitude. The story, after all, begins at three in the morning, long after last call at The Tiki Room. The film opens as Ray is trying to convince his partner, Stan, to leave the week’s accounting behind and head home, so Ray can give his guinea pig a shipment that just arrived. But he receives a call from his wife that his son, Bobby, has ended up in the hospital following a car accident, forcing him to ask Stan to keep Dionne distracted till he gets back from the hospital.
As a result, Stan – who has no idea about Ray’s drug dealing, pimping or other illegal activities – must deal with the scratching, paranoid, rapidly withdrawing chanteuse. He must also confront her lover and piano accompanist, Dominic Frontiere (Steve Wothe), who barges in, accusing the clueless Stan of selling Dionne horse. To make matters worse, the owner of The Cha, Ruby Delgado (Helen Chorolec), arrives to take her fiance – none other than Dionne’s lover, Dominic – to the airport. They have seats on a morning flight for Washington, where they are to attend the inauguration of Ruby’s old friend from the glory days of mob-run Havana.
As the Cuban mob widow Ruby Delgado, Helen Chorolec wears a shimmering blood-red evening gown and a striking brunette hair-style that make her look like a cross between Michele Bachmann and Dracula. Helen has played roles of many shades, sizes and political leanings on stage, television and film, including a stage production of “Dracula”. She is currently starring in Day Trippers Dinner Theatre production of “Always a Bridesmaid” and in Patrick Coyle’s latest feature film, “The Public Domain”.
Bursting at the seams as drug-dealing, hard-pimping and hardly-working Ray Conniff, Scott Carson – who starred in my last movie, “Citizen ‘Caine“, as a coke-head dad madly searching for his missing teenage daughter in Los Angeles – turns in another live-wire performance. Scott also played Felix in a live rendering of “The Odd Couple”, and one of Ma Barker’s boys in the 1920’s gangster flick, “Spirits of St Paul”.
Another Barker boy was played by Steve Wothe, cast as piano maestro Dominic Frontiere. Among his many stage and screen turns, Steve has appeared in The Coen Brothers’ “A Serious Man” and “The Uprising of 1979”, where he portrayed Elvis … Jorgensen.
Dionne, whose year-long heroin habit has been a source of concern for Mr. Frontiere, has her high-heels filled by another “Citizen ‘Caine” veteran, Rachel Grubb. Her role in that piece – adult-film and home-maintenance star Martha Sunset, whose expertise with food processors have inspired devoted fans and countless recipes – is a notable contrast to Dionne. But Rachel has been a chameleon in her many film roles, including Desiree Diamonds in “Strip Club Slasher”, the Bride of Frankenstein in “Night on Has Been Mountain” and Lynette Squeaky Frohm in “Lie”.
Likewise, neurotic, STD-stricken Stan Ridgeway is just the latest role in the thirty-year career of theatre, TV and film veteran Guy Messenger. Much of this career has taken place in New York City, where he had recurring roles in “Law and Order: Criminal Intent” and “As The World Turns”. Guy is also a voice- over artist who is a master of nearly thirty dialects, including Russian, Arabic, Hindi, French and several flavors of British.
My flavorful feature, my experienced cast, and my exhausted crew have now left the belly of the Red Dragon. “The Tiki War” is now in the hands of my editor and sound mixer Kevin Milloy. Completion of a final cut is aimed for the premiere at a major local film festival this fall. For updates on post-production, screenings, dvd and stream availability, go to www.thetikiwar.com.