Politicians turning into rats? Maybe not so hard to believe.
But Oklahoma City standing in as Moscow? Guthrie acting as the Russian capital? Now that sounds like science fiction.
Leave it all to the special effects guys. In today's high-tech movie world, everything's possible in postproduction.
And when the final cut is in the can, “Higher Mission” will hold a special place in state filmmaking history.
“It's in 3-D,” producer Gray Frederickson said. “First 3-D movie ever shot in Oklahoma.”
The sci-fi thriller — financed, written and directed by Russian architect and businessman Vladimir Uglichin — has been filming during the past month at various locations including the state Capitol, the mansion of Stephen and Cheryl Browne, residences in Gaillardia and Nichols Hills, the Temple of the Scottish Rite of Freemasonry in Guthrie and a farm near Mustang — all being passed off as Moscow locales.
The story focuses on young U.S. Sen. John Perryman (Casper Van Dien, “Starship Troopers”) who travels to Russia to give a speech before the Parliament, and through his dreams is given a mission from otherworldly forces.
“He starts having dreams that politicians — crooked politicians — are going to turn into rats if they don't clean up their ways,” Frederickson said. “When he stands up in front of Parliament and warns them that they're going to be turned into rats, they boo and hiss and throw him off the stage.
“So he's wandering around Moscow, stranded there because they won't have anything to do with him because they think he's crazy, and all the politicians start turning into rats. They start growing whiskers and their ears start going up ... and they want the antidote, and he says ‘All you have to do is give back the money you've stolen.'”
Perryman soon finds himself pursued by criminals, military and cops alike.
Meanwhile, the sight of men in official-looking Russian uniforms and emergency vehicles with Russian lettering stenciled on the sides has made heads turn on the streets of Oklahoma City and Guthrie.
Tuesday afternoon, two police cars and an ambulance — all with Russian markings — were parked outside of a building on NW 58 east of May Avenue that director Uglichin had selected after perusing an entire block of structures.
Several men in Russian military and police garb also were standing around, watching people in civilian clothing positioning the complex-looking 3-D camera and various equipment carts at the entrance of the building.
“He's getting arrested right now,” Frederickson said, pointing out the handsome, dark-haired guy in the suit and tie. It was the film's star, Van Dien. “This is where the police finally catch up with him in front of these girls. He meets a couple of hookers at the airport and they take him in and try to protect him. And he's coming out of the door of the hookers' apartment and they arrest him.”
The man dressed as a Russian police officer standing next to Van Dien was Peter Zhmutski, the Russian-born Oklahoma resident and filmmaker who first brought the project to Frederickson.
Frederickson is an Oklahoma City native, Oscar-winning producer of the “Godfather” trilogy, and artist-in-residence at Oklahoma City Community College, where he teaches filmmaking.
When Uglichin consulted Victor Kruglov, a Hollywood agent specializing in Eastern European talent, about getting his film made economically in the U.S., Kruglov introduced Uglichin to Zhmutski, who in turn brought his fellow Russian to Frederickson.
“He's wearing like 15 hats,” Frederickson said of Zhmutski. “He's the (co-) producer, he's the assistant director, he's the translator, he's an actor, he's rewriting the script in English, because it was all written in Russian and the translation is weird ...”
And clear translation is essential here, since the director speaks no English. So Zhmutski — also known as “Peter Z.” — is an important man on this shoot.
“I consider Oklahoma my home now,” Zhmutski said. “I'm from Russia and I lived in L.A. and Florida and everywhere else, but my wife and I came here to raise a family and make movies because it's cheap number one. Number two, we have best producer here in Oklahoma, Gray Frederickson, who I love working with, and it's just so filmmaker friendly. People love to make movies in their backyard and their houses and so it's very different from Los Angeles.”
Whether Oklahoma will pass for his native country remains to be seen.
“I've looked at photos of Moscow, and the photos of our locations, and they're interchangeable,” Frederickson said. “You can't tell the difference. And I said, well, what about the cars? And (Uglichin) said, ‘Ah, same cars as we have.' The world is getting smaller and everything is looking more and more alike. They've got KFC and McDonald's and Burger Kings in Russia.”
B2FX, the company which creates the creature effects for the NBC series “Grimm,” will be making the rat faces look real enough, and Frederickson said friends of his with the Syfy Channel are reviewing “Higher Mission” for possible U.S. exhibition.
The finished product, he said, will end up costing a very reasonable $3 million, a production cost that would be hard to beat elsewhere. And that's without using the 35 percent Oklahoma Film Enhancement Rebate Program administered by the Oklahoma Film & Music Office.
“They gave that all away on “August: Osage County,” Frederickson said, referring to the film adaptation of Tracy Letts' Pulitzer Prize-winning play which was filmed in Bartlesville last fall.
“There's none available right now, and (Uglichin) doesn't really seem to care about that. He was going to go to Louisiana because they had a rebate. He wanted me to go to Louisiana, and I said I think you can do it cheaper here without the rebate than you can in Louisiana with the rebate, because Louisiana has become a very sort of sophisticated movie center, and all the unions are there, and they're going to climb all over it, and I think it's going to end up costing you more.”
As production was ending last week, the director seemed happy enough. And so did the star.
“Well, you know, I've been wanting to work with a producer of this caliber for a long time, so I feel really honored to be working with Gray,” Van Dien said. “He's amazing and Oklahoma should be proud. His films are the reason I was inspired to even be in this industry, so I'm lucky. This is my first 3-D film. And I have a wonderful lovely, co-star (Victoria Summer) who's just amazing and just the greatest crew and the people on here have been lovely and it's been a lot of fun. I'm waiting to do a 3-D western with Gray.”
As for the “Higher Mission” plotline, Van Dien grinned and said, “Politicians as rats? Who'd think that?”