Veteran Detroit screenwriter and teacher Harvey Ovshinsky likes to say Detroit is the Saudi Arabia of stories, and all an aspiring filmmaker needs to do is go out there and grab one. Certainly, many have been taking his advice; documentaries set in and around Detroit have exploded in recent months, prompting the Free Press to outline no fewer than 15 in a story last month.
Of all the problems envisioned by Salt Lake City filmmaker Andrew James, now raising money for post-production work on his own Detroit doc, "Street Fighting Man," getting lost in the crowd wasn't one of them.
"(When we started) there were only a few docs going on, and we were one of them," said James. Now they're everywhere. But he thinks "Street Fighting Man" is different, in that "we're not focusing on hipsters or artists. We're focused on real people."
By which he means: Longtime Detroit residents far from its few slowly gentrifying neighborhoods.
"Street Fighting Man" tells the intertwined stories of three men -- James "Jack Rabbit" Jackson, a retired Detroit police officer who has taken responsibility for keeping order in his neighborhood, patrolling in a hulking pickup truck; Luke Williams, a former real-estate investor who lost everything in the economic crisis and is now rebuilding a single house for himself; and Deris Solomon, a high-school dropout with a girlfriend and young daughter, trying to claw his way into a respectable life.
James has been shooting their stories, traveling back and forth from his Utah home, for more than two years. But with the end in sight -- if he can raise another $20,000 -- he's starting to think film festivals, at which he believes "Street Fighting Man" will stand out from the crowd.
"I am really sensitive to the plight of working people in this country," he said. "There are a lot of stories that don't get reported on, especially in films."
Film crews are generally huge, traveling in trucks and trailing a great deal of expensive equipment in their wake. James shot "Street Fighting Man" almost as a one-man band, using a small digital camera and concentrating on Jackson until he realized he wanted to expand the story to include others. That's when he brought in Detroit commercial photographer Joe Vaughn, who worked as a second-unit cameraman and ended up signing on as an executive producer (which is to say, he offered financing). Vaughn said he was drawn by James' dedication to his subjects, and his insistence on quiet observation of their lives, rather than having them sit for interviews.
"I've had some success, and I can make money decisions. He sacrificed so much as an artist, and I gave him some money," Vaughn said.
In an ideal world, James said, a film like "Street Fighting Man" would have a budget of $300,000-$400,000. The bare-bones project he's crafting will cost about $100,000, and then the film-festival campaign starts. He has the advantage of experience, having steered his first feature documentary, "Cleanflix," into an official-selection spot at the prestigious Toronto International Film Festival in 2009.
"We're going to shoot for Toronto again," he said.
James' Kickstarter campaign for post-production costs continues for another month or so. A trailer for "Street Fighting Man" can be seen below: