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Bainbridge studio shoots independent film | Kitsap Week

David S. Hogan stars as Detective Steward Hinsley in an independent film produced by Honey Toad Studio on Bainbridge Island.  - Courtesy of Honey Toad Studio
David S. Hogan stars as Detective Steward Hinsley in an independent film produced by Honey Toad Studio on Bainbridge Island.
— image credit: Courtesy of Honey Toad Studio

Within a year of landing in Kitsap, Honey Toad Studio began making viral waves with its hit 2012 web series “WRECKED.” Now, the independent studio is taking that momentum to the big screen.

“We made ‘WRECKED,’ we had a web series and it was successful, but now we are doing something that is more ambitious,” said Nathaniel Buechler with Honey Toad Studio.

“Anyone who watched ‘WRECKED’ can expect a step above,” he added.

That ambitious “something” is an indie film, made locally with regional talent. Honey Toad aims to truly embrace the independent credo, producing the project itself without the larger film industry’s influence, and with a $75,000 budget.

“There’s very little, truly independent films being made,” said Executive Producer Liz Ellis. “There’s people making $2,000 movies on their phone, and then there’s studios making movies with a lesser budget than their big films, but really, there aren’t a lot of indie films being made.”

The studio knows a thing or two about the power of independent filming, and garnering financial support for it. “WRECKED” made its first season on a shoestring budget, then sought online support for the web series’ second season. A Kickstarter campaign brought in $32,012 for the season two project, overshooting its $30,000 goal. Despite its newcomer status, Honey Toad earned considerable nods from the film scene. Aside from rave reviews, the adult-oriented web comedy took in awards at the LA Web Fest, and the Indie Series Awards. In fact, it was the most nominated show at the 2014 Indie Series Awards.

Honey Toad has secured partial funding for its current film project, which has already begun shooting in a Bainbridge Island studio, but it is still seeking investors.

“It’s an exciting project and people can be involved,” Ellis said.

But Ellis makes a note of being honest and upfront about the investment. Investing in such a project is more about supporting the local economy and the arts, rather than making huge returns, she said. Honey Toad has packages for investor circles, such as invitations to cast and crew events.

“If your thing is that you like to support he arts, and people do, then this is for you,” Ellis said.

Honey Toad aims to complete filming by September, and then continue with post production through to the end of the year. The movie will be sent through the film festival circuit, and will begin screening in 2015.

Force Play

The film itself is currently untitled, but is based off of a little-known play called “Force Play,” originally performed in Massachusetts on a Hampshire College stage.

The story takes place in a slightly-altered reality.

“There is this sort of corrupt, inefficient dictatorship in which the story takes place,” Ellis said.

From there, multiple elements interact to create the plot of a comedic, sci-fi farce.

“Colonel Theodore Pelk’s three children are kidnapped. He turns to the detectives of Woodsend Park Semi-Secret Police Station and Interrogation Center to get them back,” said Nathan Whitehouse, director of the film. “What is a totally obvious case quickly becomes complicated, however, as personal motives and secrets become entangled with the investigation.”

An investigation into the incident could easily retrieve the colonel’s children, but also likely expose his extramarital affair. This causes the colonel to become more entrenched in the case than he normally would be, moving players around to protect his indiscretion.

“It’s about him bumbling through the investigation,” Buechler said. “It’s a comedy of errors. The audience is always in the know.”

But the story has a few more elements and surprises than that. When discussing the film, it is clear that Honey Toad members are holding back — with a smirk — additional, intriguing aspects of the movie.

“The script is all about these little details and throwaway lines which end up being relevant later, long after you’ve forgotten about them,” Whitehouse said. “It’s full of twists and turns, but the groundwork for every twist was carefully laid earlier in the plot.”

From east to west, to the screen

What would become Honey Toad’s indie film began at Hampshire College in 2012, where Whitehouse first encountered it.

“A good friend of mine at Hampshire College named Mike Lion wrote the play, along with a friend of his at Yale named Ethan Wilcox,” Whitehouse said.

Now directing the film, Whitehouse acted in the original run of “Force Play.” It only ran one weekend, but the story never left him.

“Everyone who saw it really enjoyed it, and it was a piece that people would spontaneously bring up months after the show had closed,” he said. “Which, to me, was an important omen suggesting ‘hey, maybe this could go somewhere.’”

After graduating, Whitehouse moved out to Bainbridge Island in 2013, where fellow Hampshire alumni were in the midst of producing “WRECKED.”

He wanted to do something with “Force Play” with fresh West Coast audiences, and brought it to Honey Toad.

“When I first brought up Force Play it was actually with the intention of trying to put the play up again somewhere out here,” he said. “I hosted a reading out here and, to my surprise, everyone suggested adapting it into a film.”

With writers Lion and Wilcox’s blessing, Honey Toad embarked on a new, bigger project and Whitehouse began the work of converting a play into a film.

“Building up this world, its technology, and its fashion, and all the little details that couldn’t appear in a zero-budget college play, has been one of the great joys of adapting this story for film,” Whitehouse said. “Much of this work was done by our costume designer, Aidan Vitti, and our production designer, Taylor Crockett. We’ve also had great help from Alex King and Kayla Rabe of Bainbridge Performing Arts.”

A local project

So far, with six months of preparation and nearly a month into filming, the play is making the crossover to film well, according to the crew.

“One of my hardest jobs is to not burst out laughing,” added co-director of photography Ben Ausmith. “They are bringing it to life in a way I never thought possible.”

From renting filming locations, to pumping money into local businesses for film-related activities, to even stopping in at the Ale House on Winslow as crew are en route to the ferry, Honey Toad feels that beyond being an indie film, it is an injection of commerce into the local economy.

“Every cent, other than for the actors, goes into the Bainbridge economy,” Ellis said. “And we’re hoping to screen the movie for Bainbridge audiences. It’s really a local project.”

“We’re shooting the entire thing on Bainbridge Island,” she added.

Then there are local sound technicians, cameramen, and so on.

“People get in the spirit of it, and they go extra miles when it’s a community thing,” Ellis said.

Actors are sourced from the region, largely from Kitsap and Seattle.

“Everyone involved in this is local. We haven’t flown anyone out from anywhere, we have people here and the Seattle area,” Buechler said. “When its finished, it’s going to feel like a good ensemble of local talent.”

“We held auditions and there were a few parts that we struggled with to nail down who it was going to be,” he added, noting that the cast for the film is, he feels, spectacular. “We found several people that are just amazing. They are fantastic. I think this is something that an audience can look forward to.”

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