Almost everything looks legitimate about the Panamanian detective's investigation. The seasoned investigator is standing in front of a squad car with all the required decals and tags found on a Policia Nacional de Panama vehicle, and the uniformed cops enduring the tropical humidity outside the studio fotografico wear all the proper identification.
But if that detective were to walk 50 paces west, he would be standing in the middle of Western Avenue. The photography studio is actually Istvan Gallery, a MidTown Oklahoma City art space featuring glass blowing, spoken word performances and live music. The Panamanian license plates are made of laminated paper, and the detective is really character actor Pablo Bracho, who recently appeared in an episode of TNT's “Dallas.”
That location shot for “Light from the Darkroom,” a new religious thriller being shot by director Lance McDaniel, demonstrates that, with a little creativity, Oklahoma City can be just about any place. McDaniel said that when he and producer Nathan Gardocki first met with screenwriter Kathleen Rooney about directing the film, he suggested that the film's story, which takes place in Panama, Oklahoma City and rural China, could be shot almost entirely in Oklahoma, a state with a wide range of topography, climates and architecture.
This idea was confirmed when Rooney, McDaniel and Gardocki scouted locations in Panama City, Panama.
“We went to hundreds of homes, went to every art gallery, every police station, every grocery store, just to see how different Panama City is from Oklahoma City. What we found out was that we could absolutely film it here,” said McDaniel, who is also executive director of the deadCenter Film Festival. “Unique spaces are unique spaces anywhere. This could be anywhere in the world.”
“Light from the Darkroom” is set in Panama and China, and features a mostly Latino and Asian cast. Former Miss Panama and telenovela star Patricia De Leon (“Magic City,” “Men of a Certain Age”) stars alongside Lymari Nadal (“American Gangster,” “America”) and Steven Michael Quezada of “Breaking Bad.” The story involves an appearance by the Virgin Mary in China and the efforts by two strong Panamanian women to uncover what really happened when Chinese troops massacred the faithful during a religious pilgrimage.
That kind of global storytelling within the Sooner State takes ingenuity. Director of photography Alan Novey said that the crew used a soybean field near Choctaw on Aug. 12 for a scene taking place in the Chinese countryside, but he has to be careful how he angles his camera. Oklahoma has a way of creeping into the shot, he said.
“We shot the other day at Oklahoma History Center, which was our airport,” Novey said during a break in filming. “It was probably the most difficult shot I've ever done. I couldn't really turn around because there's oil wells and the Governor's Mansion and flags. It only looked like Panama from one direction. It makes you think a lot more about how you're going to do something.”
But for Rooney, who is also executive producing the film with her husband, Manhattan Construction owner and former Ambassador to the Holy See Francis Rooney, it was important for the film to be shot in Oklahoma using a mostly homegrown crew.
“We think the film industry in Oklahoma is very special and we're thrilled to be in on it at this level,” she said. “We're from Oklahoma, and it just seemed right. We love Oklahoma and we love the people here, and we just were convinced.”
That level of confidence in Oklahoma and its talent is paying off for members of the crew. Sound engineer Brian Gilliland said his experience working on “Light from the Darkroom” led to another job offer on an upcoming local film production. The same thing happened to Caleb Wall, a graduate of the Oklahoma Film Institute at Oklahoma City Community College. Since he worked on “August: Osage County” last year, Wall has found work shooting episodes of “True Blood,” “Modern Family” and “The Bridge.”
“I got hired as a local on ‘August' and they asked, what are you doing with your life?'” he said. “And I said, ‘I'm not sure — I just graduated.' They said, ‘You should move to L.A.'
“Thing is, I really like working here,” said Wall, who will relocate to Los Angeles after “Darkroom” wraps, but plans to continue taking jobs whenever possible in Oklahoma. “The incentives and all that gave me a career.”
Those incentives refer to the Oklahoma's Film Enhancement Rebate Program, an enticement to bring film and music projects to the state. Under that program, a rebate of 35 percent is paid to a film project for all in-state production expenditures it makes in the state, or 37 percent if Oklahoma music is used on the soundtrack. On May 24, the state House of Representatives voted down a proposed extension of the rebate program, which expires July 1, a decision that, according to Oklahoma Film and Music Office Director Jill Simpson, has already cost the state some lucrative film projects.
But Xavier Neira, a commissioner on the Oklahoma Tourism Board and a board member at the deadCenter Film Festival, said he is hopeful that the rebates will return, and productions such as “Light from the Darkroom” are examples of why films should continue to be made in Oklahoma.
“We don't make excuses. We just get the work done. That's a great attitude to have and people in the industry really appreciate that,” said Neira, who is also the director of development for Rooney's Manhattan Construction. “I think it shows that our industry is growing, it's a viable industry and there are serious businesspeople that are interested. It's not just an experiment. It's actually happening.”
And word will spread about Oklahoma's moviemaking, McDaniel said.
“I feel like our Oklahoma crews are not only hard working and great, but they want this to be an enjoyable experience,” McDaniel said. “I feel like, because we have all these international cast members and people from L.A. and New Mexico coming, they're all getting a really good impression of filming in Oklahoma.
“They're all from Oklahoma, and they're all just crushing it,” he said.
De Leon, who stars as Dr. Carmen Hill in “Darkroom,” said she will be spreading the word back in Los Angeles about her experience working in Oklahoma City.
“It's been great — it's a small group of filmmakers, but it's just like any big production you'd have in L.A. It shows you the manpower they have here and that they could bring more productions here, which is great,” she said. “Hopefully Oklahoma can be one of those great centers where people will bring productions.”