Strata Productions takes off

Elaine Helm

Making an independent film may start with a great idea and well-written script, but it also requires something more elusive: financial backing.

“Forget about filmmaking,” said Terry Green, writer and director of “Almost Salinas,” which officially opens Friday in four Chicago-area theaters. “I spend 80 percent of my time trying to raise money or teaching other people how to raise money.”

Green founded Evanston-based Strata Productions three years ago with partner Anna Marie Crovetti to make the $1.9-million “Almost Salinas” and is currently about four months from beginning shooting for “Heavens Fall,” a historical drama set in 1930s Alabama. While the company’s success thus far has made fund raising easier, Green said, it is still difficult to get people to take him seriously as an independent filmmaker outside of Hollywood.

“There’s a certain arrogance in Los Angeles that if you’re not there, you’re not doing anything,” he said.

Despite that challenge Green doesn’t intend to leave the Chicago area any time soon. Michael Nehs, Strata’s managing producer, said people often praise Green, Crovetti and him for their Midwest work ethic — a stereotype that works to their advantage.

“One of the benefits is people look at us and go, ‘Oh, you’re not the Hollywood type,'” Nehs said.

“Almost Salinas,” Strata’s first film, stars John Mahoney as Max Harris, a man who owns a diner in a small California town near the site of James Dean’s fatal car crash that becomes the scene of a movie about Dean’s life and death.

Mahoney — probably best known as Martin Crane on the hit NBC series “Frasier” — and many other actors in the film, including Linda Emond, Virginia Madsen, Lindsay Crouse and Ian Gomez, are either Chicago natives or have done significant work in the Chicago theater scene. Green said the cast’s Windy City ties were no coincidence.

“We had a Chicago core of people,” he said. “I like to use Chicagoans as often as I can.”

Nehs said Mahoney told interviewers the film “was like a Chicago reunion.”

Green too has Chicago roots. He graduated from De Paul University’s Goodman School of Drama and was an original ensemble member at Evanston’s Next Theatre. “Almost Salinas,” which Green describes as a “soft-around-the-edges indie film,” will make a limited opening this weekend in Chicago to take advantage of its local connections. But if the release is successful, Green and partners hope to take the movie to other major cities in the future.

“Without having a large distributor behind us, I really feel it is much more difficult to run a grass-roots campaign,” Nehs said about the challenges of attracting an audience to the release.

Before Green approached any other actors about the project, he convinced a friend to give Mahoney the screenplay while the two were appearing together in a play at Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre.

Green got the idea for the script in the late ’80s when he was driving frequently between Los Angeles and San Jose, Calif., and he stumbled upon a small town near the Dean crash site. He poked around and took notes for the movie, which he then put in a trunk until about 10 years later when he was ready to tackle the project, he said.

The film follows Mahoney’s character as he struggles to come to terms with his past in the midst of the commotion surrounding the movie shoot and the probing questions of a Los Angeles magazine writer (Emond). The production team constructed the diner and gas station where most of the action takes place. Green said he chose the set’s location with care, looking for the right combination of rolling hills and a Y-shaped intersection of nearly deserted roads.

But weather conditions during the five-week shoot stretched the limits of cast and crew, Green said, with winds as strong as 40 miles per hour and temperatures soaring as high as 117 degrees. The set also was 42 miles from the hotel where cast and crew members stayed each night.

“It was not the most comfortable situation to be in,” Green said.

Still he sees things in the finished product that he would go back and change, which he said is typical for most directors.

“I don’t know any director who wouldn’t want to go back and re-make their first, second or even last film,” he said.

At 44 years old Green can’t imagine himself in the position of colleagues who are still peddling the same scripts today that they were when he began “Almost Salinas.”

“I wasn’t one of those to sit back and wait anymore,” he said. “I started late as a filmmaker so I want to spend time on the things that are close to my heart.”

“Almost Salinas” is playing this weekend at the AMC River East 21 in Chicago, Lake Theatre in Oak Park, AMC Barrington Theatre in South Barrington and AMC Northbrook Court 14 in Northbrook.