A New Portland-Made Comedy Is About Conversations With A Casket

"The Dead" premieres this week as part of the Oregon Independent Film Festival, where it’s already won Best Comedy and is up for Best Film.

(courtesy of Hellbender Media)

It all started when Edward Martin III needed a corpse.

The Oregon director was working on his 2015 zombie flick Flesh of My Flesh and needed someone who could fabricate a dead body for a prop. Amber Bariaktari, a production assistant who had previously worked on Gus Van Sant's Paranoid Park, was more than up to the challenge.

"Amber showed up on set and was perfectly willing to build a partially desiccated corpse using wire coat hangers, coffee filters and a gallon of fake blood," Martin remembers.

It was the first collaboration in a fruitful artistic partnership. Since founding the Tigard-based company Hellbender Media in 2011, Martin and Bariaktari have created four films, and now The Dead, a soulful, darkly witty chamber film that returns the pair to their corpse-based origins. It premieres this week as part of the Oregon Independent Film Festival, where it's already won Best Comedy and is up for Best Film.

Martin wrote the script around a story he co-wrote with Bariaktari, who also produced the film. The Dead chronicles the wake of a man in his 40s named Charlie, whom we never see because the majority of the movie is shot from a low angle that keeps most of the casket out of sight. Instead, we learn about him through the friends and relatives who pour out praise, musings and scalding resentments to his corpse. Strictly through dialogue, the film sketches a portrait of a man whose life was fraught with banalities—marital rockiness, daddy issues—but who also made his fair share of bizarre decisions, like choosing to hide snakes in his house for his friend Jeremy (John Branch), who attends the wake sporting a leather jacket and a sinister smile.

Shot at Martin's house in Tigard, The Dead is a modest production that lasts a quick 87 minutes and, according to Martin, had a budget in the $1,500-$2,000 range. Yet its form is wildly audacious. It may be confined to a single room and mostly to a single-camera angle, but it has a narrative grandeur that defies its claustrophobic setting. The Dead is consistently enthralling as the confessions to Charlie reveal nasty secrets and crushing heartbreaks—including Charlie's ex-wife (Brandie Sylfae) realizing he discovered she'd been unfaithful during their marriage but said nothing, and a neighbor (Tara Walker) revealing that Charlie once made a call to the police that saved her from her abusive father.

The narrative began percolating on a drive to Seattle. Martin and Bariaktari were discussing a potential project called The Dead Dead, No, Really, the Dead. "The idea was that we would set up a tripod with a camera on a casket, leave it up there for 90 minutes, and then finally have somebody come in, close the casket and leave," says Martin. His plan involved an ad campaign that would warn moviegoers not to reveal the "secret ending," and make the film available on Amazon for 99 cents.

But the cinematic gag led to more sober thoughts. Bariaktari says she and Martin starting talking about "the person who was dead…and what if people were coming up to that coffin and talking?" Questions about the attendees of the wake also began to emerge: "What would the neighborhood kids be like? What would the mom be like? What would the wife be like? What would the grandfather be like? And it just started growing from there."

What The Dead grew into was one of the most daunting productions of Martin and Bariaktari's careers. Martin finished the script in two weeks and was so busy prepping the film that he didn't sleep for 24 hours before shooting began.  When the cameras finally rolled, Martin shot the movie in a single day. "I think everybody laughed and was relieved when we said, 'Done,'" admits Bariaktari.

Bariaktari says that the shoot left Martin "wiped out." Watching the final product, it's not hard to see why. The Dead has long scenes with few cuts, and a Linklater level of realism. The movie references Martin's own experiences at funerals. There's a subplot about  a callous guest named Toby (James T. Price Jr.), who uses the wake as an opportunity to try and snag Charlie's car and, after his request is rebuffed by Charlie's lawyer, whines, "She didn't say yes, but she didn't say no either." The absurd scene was inspired by a moment at Martin's father's funeral when a possibly drunk guest asked if she could have his father's TV.

Martin and Bariaktari are already getting started on their next project: a web series called Doggy Style: Unleashing Your Inner Werewolf that will shoot next month and have as many as 75 episodes.

It's a big project to follow such a marathon production. But Martin doesn't seem particularly daunted.  "I just believed that once we hit our stride, we would blast through," he says about The Dead. "And we did."

SEE IT: The Dead is at Clinton Street Theater, 2522 SE Clinton St., cstpdx.com. 9:30 pm Friday, Sept. 22. $12.

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