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John Waldron never got high telling jokes.
"Back when I was doing stand-up comedy," Waldron recalls, "the other comics would come off stage and they'd just be high as kites from the laughs they'd given the audience. They couldn't sleep for hours. I never had that."
But when Waldron heard another comic get laughs with jokes he'd written, he got goosebumps. "I started thinking about writing for other people," he says. "And that turned into wanting to write a movie."
That movie, Locker 13, debuts on pay-per-view and in limited release in theaters on Friday, March 28. Set in an Old West amusement park somewhere in the Southwest, Locker 13 is an anthology, with each story built around a mysterious locker bearing the number 13. In one, a has-been boxer (Ricky Schroder, one of the film's co-producers) is given a pair of murderous boxing gloves by a shadowy stranger whom no one else can see. In another, a fellow who's about to toss himself off a skyscraper is interrupted by someone who appears to know an awful lot about him. In the most harrowing of the anthology's stories, a hit man abducts three women and demands to know why each of them hired him to kill the same guy.
Waldron, who'd been working as a stand-up comic for years in Phoenix and Los Angeles, met the film's producing partners, Adam and Donovan Montierth of Brothers' Ink Productions, in 2007 at a festival where one of his shorts was being screened. The trio began mapping out a feature. "We wanted a recognizable cast but had a low budget," Waldron recalls. "Once we signed Russell Carpenter, who won an Oscar for Titanic, as our cinematographer, it was easier to get the ball rolling."
In order to drum up interest in their movie, which was partly funded by a Kickstarter campaign, the filmmakers solicited scripts from screenwriters around the world via writing websites and in social media screenwriting circles, asking for Twilight Zone-type stories with a supernatural bent built around a mysterious "locker 13." Six months later, they had nearly 200 script submissions from all over the globe.
"Some were good," Waldron says, "and some you could tell the writer had dusted off something old and stuck a locker 13 into it. We kept all the scripts, because we thought the film might be a good pilot for a TV show. Or maybe, if we shot a sequel, we'd have material to choose from for that."
The filmmakers, who shot their movie in Los Angeles, were determined to sign recognized talent. Schroder is the biggest name in the film, which also includes performances by Jon Gries of Napoleon Dynamite fame, The Young and the Restless' Tatyana Ali, and Coen brothers mainstay John Polito. Waldron says he and his producing partners got to these actors by ignoring Hollywood etiquette and going straight to the players themselves.
"We called agents, and they'd say, 'My client isn't interested.'" Waldron says, laughing. "So then we would send the script to the actor privately. Actors want to work, and a lot of the time they'd contact us and say, 'I love this script, I want to do it!'"
After shooting wrapped in 2012, several of the Locker 13 shorts hit the film festival circuit. "Down and Out," the one featuring Schroder as a boxer, won a couple of awards. Meanwhile, Waldron and the Montierths set about turning their pile of shorts into a feature-length movie.
There were challenges. Each story was shot by a different director, and each has its own filmic tone. Waldron needed to create a through-line that would tie the stories together. Screenwriter Jason Walters crafted a story set in a bus station, about an old codger training a young ex-con he's just hired as a janitor.
Waldron, who worked as a carpenter before becoming a film writer, had recently built a full-scale Western town for a friend with money who could afford such things. ("Some people play with model trains or collect old cars," he says. "My friend wanted an entire Western town on his property.") He rewrote the janitor story, setting it in a fictional Old West amusement park where strange things happen after hours.
The completed film offers a tightly paced 90 minutes. The blood and violence are kept to a reasonable level, although the boxing scenes are brutal for anyone not accustomed to watching the sport. The sleazy bad guys who turn up in each of the stories are distinct, and the writers do a good job of sculpting heroes of a fairly human scale. Special effects are kept to a minimum, turning up briefly and convincingly in the final sequence about the ex-con janitor who stumbles on Locker 13's dark secret.
Waldron is a fan of the new technologies that allowed Locker 13 to be made and distributed. "But the whole movie game has changed," he admits. "Direct-to-DVD used to be a bad thing," Waldron acknowledges. "Today, it's the norm. The audience is changing, too. People are watching movies on their Kindles and their iPhones. I read recently that 40 percent of all movies are now watched on devices. All that cinematography you pull your hair out over, when you're making your movie, is reduced to a three-inch screen."
Waldron says he's excited about the release of his movie, but that the process of getting it sold was occasionally disheartening. "We took our movie to a really respected distributor, hoping he'd sign us," the filmmaker recalls. "He watched about 60 seconds, and then he fast-forwarded, and watched another 60 seconds. He kept doing that, and then he said, 'This is a good movie, I can sell this.'"
Waldron admits he was thrilled at the news. "But then my next thought was, 'No! No! You can't fast-forward through our movie! You have to watch the whole thing!'"
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