After Toad the Wet Sprocket broke up, bassist Dean Dinning decided he’d always wanted to be an actor. It wasn’t a sudden whim. “It’s a little-known fact, but that’s where the band met in the first place,” said Dinning over the phone from his Ventura home. “It was in the San Marcos High production of Our Town, I think.” Their teacher was the late Marjorie Luke, originally of Santa Barbara Junior High fame, who now seems officially responsible for every cultural advance here in the last 40 years, from the Bottoms boys to Rod Lathim, and now the Goleta post-punk renaissance.
Thespian Dinning was determined, though not desperate. “I decided to go it on my own. I didn’t have a manager, but then I heard from a friend that this guy was making this film and he was looking for musicians to do cameos or whatever. I’ve actually been in about 11 films and few of them are going to come out, I think,” he laughed. “But I sent my headshots. And that was it. He sent me the script and I loved it. He also told me he was going to be looking for music.”
“He” is filmmaker Joel Miller II-though formerly in the music biz-who was born in Cambridge, England, raised in the San Fernando Valley, and graduated from UCSB’s art history department. Miller got interested in screenwriting after crashing a course taught by the poet Paul Portuges, who teaches writing at UCSB’s film and media studies department. After graduation, though, Miller landed his first job as a roadie for the Stone Temple Pilots. “The funny thing is, I’d only been to two rock concerts in my life before I got the job,” he said.
The job was a crucible of fire, according to Miller. “I was by far the youngest roadie,” he explained. “Outside work, the other guys were great with help and advice. But on the job, I had to prove myself.” He worked like two people, but he also met a slew of rockers from that choice era-bands like Guns N’ Roses and Hootie & the Blowfish. He actually grew up across the street from Angelo Moore of Fishbone, who, by coincidence, was the opener on the first Stone Temple Pilots tour Miller worked. “My first day in the job, I saw him and he said, ‘What the hell are you doing here?’” laughed Miller.
Like Dinning, Miller dreamed about the movies. Despite penning a script, and hundreds of poems, which would later become songs for said script, making connections was not easy. “I was just looking for an agent. And you know, I’m a really, really, really good salesman on the phone. And I got nowhere,” he said. So Miller used his own money, hired his own people, and shot the film in three weeks.
He also called on his rock-star friends, including Dinning. “It wasn’t going to happen unless I made it happen,” said Miller, who thought the rockers would only add to the appeal of the project when it came time to get a distributor. Thus, Delaney Bramlett (Delaney & Bonnie & Friends; Derek & the Dominos), Sonny Mone (Crazy Horse), Dizzy Reed (Guns N’ Roses), Darius Rucker (Hootie), and Adrian Young (No Doubt) either appeared in the film or added musical support to this tale of a tortured young artist at war with his own idealism lost in art-world success.
With Van Gogh as a talismanic figure, Miller’s film recounts an odyssey of booze, lust, and rage played against a corrupt background of art in the marketplace. All in all, the film reflects (maybe only half-consciously) on the circumstances that brought it to life in the first place.
“It ain’t Batman, but it cost less than Batman’s cape,” laughed Miller, who is nonetheless serious about the film’s main theme of art and impermanence. He hit the film fest circuits hard and though the film had a big premiere in Hollywood, it never got a theatrical release. At the end of July, however, Miller got gold: a small-screen distributor, and now his DVD is on Amazon and at Blockbuster. In the era of big press for little films like Once (made for less than $175,000), he has some bragging rights. “If audiences like that fact, then they’ll love me when I tell them how much my movie cost,” he said, though modesty and the terms of his salubrious distribution deal sealed his lips against revealing the exact figure.
Dinning’s happy, too. Though his part-a snobby art critic-isn’t huge, he played a big role in adapting Miller’s poems into theme music for the film. Dinning would like to do more of both in the near future, but right now he’s proud of Miller. “If somebody put me in another film and paid me for it, I would love that,” he said. “But Joel took this from an idea and now all the way to a DVD, and you’ve got to appreciate that, man. It’s the American Dream.
For more information, see thestilllifemovie.com.