"There's no such thing as a big break," says Melik Malkasian. But if all goes as expected, he's about to be proven wrong—by his own movie.
Malkasian stars in Film Geek, the latest of several feature films he's done with Portland writer-director James Westby. But unlike most locally made films produced for a few thousand dollars, Film Geek, to the surprise of both its director and its star, was picked up for nationwide distribution last year by First Run Features. It opens Jan. 13 at Cinema 21.
The long road to theatrical distribution began over a decade ago in 1993 when Malkasian, oddly enough, was about to give up on acting. He'd been performing Shakespeare and going through Rocky-style training regimens to "make my body an instrument," he says, in preparation for an audition with the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in New York. When he got the bad news that he didn't make it—his dad read it to him over the phone—he figured he was done. "That was my last chance to be a serious actor," he says.
Malkasian was studying at Portland State University when he saw a bulletin-board ad scribbled in thick marker: "No pay, but great parts." He pulled off one of the phone slips and met James Westby, a Northwest Film Center dropout.
The film was Subculture, which Malkasian says "no one" has seen. Westby played the lead role himself. At the time, he had long, frosted hair and a brown goatee. "He looked like Sammy Hagar," Malkasian says. "It was savage. A savage, screaming head of hair. He's had a textbook history of haircuts."
Sitting with Malkasian at a the Savoy Tavern in Southeast Portland, Westby demurs: "Melik can dish out the apocrypha with the best of them. I clearly looked more like William Katt from The Greatest American Hero than I ever did Sammy Hagar."
Since their first collaboration, the duo has made three other films together, including the quasi-cult movie Bloody Mary. But with four feature films to their credit, success outside the festival circuit has eluded Westby and Malkasian. Whether Film Geek will be a breakthrough is hard to say, but the odds are good. It took the Independent Spirit Award at last year's Sarasota Film Festival and will open in New York next month, followed by a slow rollout across the country.
Film Geek is a movie lover's movie, made by, for and about the geekiest of movie geeks—people who keep endlessly revised lists of their favorite films, directors, cinematographers, key grips...and rattle them off at the slightest provocation. It's the sometimes surreal story of Scotty Pelk (Malkasian), a video-store clerk whose encyclopedic knowledge of film brings him first disaster, then fame and fortune.
Film Geek is also practically critic-proof. Westby's no dummy: He put the critics in the movie. The Oregonian's Shawn Levy, author D.K. Holm and WW's own David Walker all make appearances. "All three of these men are clearly closeted actors," Westby says. "I filmed about an hour with each of them, and their stuff is just about the only truly extemporaneous material in the whole film. I would just turn on the camera and start geeking out with them."
Geeking out about movies is one of the director's favorite pastimes. The story—or at least the character—is not too far from reality. In addition to his freelance day job of subtitling, Westby's on call at Videorama. "I get very excited when someone needs me to work for them," he says. "I truly love working in a video store." (Incidentally, Westby, Malkasian and producer Byrd McDonald all keep favorite-film lists on the Film Geek website, scottysfilmpage.com.)
Beyond its charm and its appeal to movie dorks, Film Geek has another important thing going for it: Westby's sheer determination and drive to make something happen. "I really don't think anyone who works that hard at something can fail," Malkasian says of his director.
Malkasian lives in L.A. these days, where he works as an animator on a Japanese TV show. He recently returned to town to do some last-minute audio work on Film Geek and participate in a reading of the script for Westby's next feature, The Auteur. Just as he did with Film Geek, Westby wrote the main character of The Auteur—Arturo Domingo, director of such titles as Gang Bangs Over New York and Five Easy Nieces —specifically for Malkasian.
On a cold Sunday afternoon in December, a motley assortment of actors and friends gathered at the Clinton Street Theater for the Auteur reading. Watching Malkasian's instant transformation from softspoken actor to seedy Mediterranean playboy was impressive enough. But then he kicked it up a notch: In a scene toward the end of the script, Malkasian-as-Scotty Pelk interviews Malkasian-as-Arturo Domingo.
Westby calls him the Armenian Brando. "He's extremely versatile. He can play just about anything. I think Arturo Domingo is about as opposite of Scotty Pelk as you can get."
It's clear, watching them interact, that Westby and Malkasian form the core of a tightknit and creative bunch, including producer Byrd McDonald and most of the Film Geek cast. Malkasian calls the atmosphere "euphoric."
"The main thing is that we're such good friends, and I love to tailor parts for him," Westby says. "His personality and what I know he can do [and our mutual interests] always inform the characters and the stories. With Scotty it started (seriously) with wanting to simply create a character who said 'actually' and 'basically' too much, because Melik and I have long been fascinated with that kind of superfluity."
"It's really a relationship based on the vicissitudes of hair," says Malkasian.
Which is further evidence that Malkasian is the Kinski to Westby's Herzog. But acting as a career, says Malkasian, doesn't appeal to him. "I'm just not serious about it." He's done what he calls some "hack TV work" but is generally disenchanted with the profession. Every time he makes a film with Westby, he says, "it's a fluke."
The director, however, begs to differ.
"I am convinced that his will one day be a name with marquee value," Westby says. "Besides, I have a lot on him and am not above blackmail in order to fulfill my directorial vision. So if he doesn't want to be an actor, fine. But he will be in my films. Plus, he's extremely excited about the Auteur script and has already signed on. And I have another Malkasian vehicle in the works that may prove definitive."
Top Five Ways to Spot a Film Geek
5. Loves All I Want for Christmas for its strategic importance in the Kevin Bacon Game: Bogart to Jennifer Love Hewitt in two quick steps!
4. Interrupts strangers on the MAX who say Steven Spielberg directed Star Wars.
3. Favorite dishes: Royale with Cheese, a roast that's very hot and awfully wet, and liverwurst!
2. Names bit players before a movie's stars: The Philadelphia Story with Virginia Weidler, not Katharine Hepburn.
1. Becomes aroused when "Nashville" and "original aspect ratio" are uttered in the same sentence.
(rated R) plays at 7 amd 8:45 pm Friday-Thursday, Jan. 13-19, at Cinema 21, 616 NW 21st Ave. Additionals shows 1:30, 3:15 and 5 pm Saturday-Sunday. $4-$7. For other films opening this week, see Screen listings, page 45.