"George," I hear my stepfather, Nick, say to me in my mind, as I ride to the Phoenix Film Festival with my friend Maria, "your SAG card and a token will get you on the subway!"
The more I think of this as I sit crunched into Maria's tiny little Mini Cooper, the more furious I get. And cramped, too. My SAG (Screen Actors Guild) card is turning out to be useless. I'd earned it by having a role in Spike Lee's Summer of Sam, where I played Adrien Brody's best pal. But now it is worthless.
Anyway, this is racing through my mind as Maria and I head up the 51 toward the 101.
"Maria," I finally say, breaking the silence in the air, "do you think I'll ever be able to use my SAG card here in Phoenix?"
Maria -- who has lived in these parts for quite a while -- looks at me through her tinted sunglasses, then asks me what I mean.
"I mean, is Phoenix ever going to become a cultural center, or what? Is it gonna be the next L.A. or New York?"
After thinking deeply, Maria replies, "Not in my lifetime."
We talk more about this as we approach the Harkins theater where the festival is happening, and we begin to feel an electricity in the air. Or maybe we're just blinded by all the bright lights. Then Maria says that maybe in about 40 years this tumbleweed town could grow. But I feel differently. It may be a cowboy-and-one-whore town now, but I can tell change is coming.
As soon as we park, we search for the place to pick up our VIP passes for all the bars, films, bands, runway shows, celeb interviews, and whatever, and I find myself in a conversation with two women who are manning a tee-shirt booth. Pamela and Sue. They are volunteers here, and when I ask them why, they tell me about the whole spirit of the Phoenix Film Festival, and how it means a lot to them. That this place has been a desert town long enough, and finally some culture is seeping in, at least in the form of film.
Then Sue asks if I've ever been to a Regis Philbin live taping, since I told her I was from New York and all. I don't have the guts to tell her I'd rather have abdominal surgery. Again.
People out here just seem to be amazed by celebs. In New York, you see them so much you ignore them. Unless they cut in front of you at the supermarket, like Tony Soprano once did to me.
"Regis is just so honest," Sue explains. "He can be so silly, and that's so honest, you know?"
I just nod my head.
"And Regis' wife, she's the greatest," Sue continues. "She's so . . . I don't know the word for it."
"Regal?" I guess, having never seen her but taking a wild stab at what I've noticed people think of celebrities. For the most part, I find celebs boring and full of themselves. But maybe I'm just seeing my own reflection in their eyes.
"Yeah!" exclaims Sue. "That's it, regal!"
We then talk about Kathie Lee versus Kelly, and I keep my mouth shut about my daydream of Kelly, a can of whipped cream, and a billy goat.
Maria and I eventually get our passes, even though some guy named Zared forgets to put us on the list. We walk into a huge tent, and on screens around us is something called "Movieoke." It's all very cool, and the people around us look, well, urban.
Everyone is stylishly dressed -- even me, in my punk rock utility vest with the U.S. pins.
We check out some guy who looks like Willie Nelson playing on stage, then slither into the VIP area.
Where I hear it's like Girls Gone Wild.
Turns out that's not exactly the case.
"Kevin Bacon said it was the best margarita he's ever had," explains Shari, a schoolteacher-turned-seductress in a tight black dress, as she pours drinks for Maria and me. "And Tom Arnold," she continues, "is such a character. He was nervous because of a speech he had to make, so he had three Wild Cherry Pepsis! He was so first-class!"
I cover my mouth to hide my laugh, and Maria quietly slinks away.
A few minutes later, I run into the people I've been looking for since arriving at the festival -- the guys from the film Never Been Thawed. Or NBT, for short. The movie, which is hilarious beyond words, was shot and produced here in Phoenix, and is about guys who collect frozen entrees, then decide to take their rock 'n' roll/punk band and cash in with the whole Christian rock thing. It's clever, low-budget, and could very well be the next This Is Spinal Tap.
And it's so true to life that it walks that fine line between clever and stupid. Perfectly.
Anyway, I meet Sean, who plays "Shawn" in the movie. He looks as cool as Johnny Knoxville, and in person, he's even cooler. We talk about how he moved from here to L.A., but came back to make this movie with his pal Chuck, the producer. For all of 25 grand. Turns out Chuck is a firefighter and a huge film nut. He tells me most of the money went to "water and Gatorade for the crew."
We all have a few good laughs at Chuck's expense, because he lives with men all the time, but soon find ourselves jealous of just how many women firefighters actually get.
"It's the uniform," Chuck eventually tells me.
Sean I and look at each other and decide maybe playing guitar wasn't the cleverest of ideas.
After some celebrity hunting and talking to some folks from Moving Pictures Magazine, which just went local, we're feeling pretty good about film in Phoenix. But the icing on the cake comes from seeing Chris LaMont, the executive director and president of the Phoenix Film Festival. We run into him entirely by accident on the way back to Maria's clown car, and find him to be smart, charming, and someone who really knows his shit.
Turns out he made a spoof of Fight Club some years back called Film Club, and, as necessity is the mother of invention, Chris started this whole thing, which is now huge. He tells us, "You are not a real city unless you have a real film festival."
And he's right.
So I show him my SAG card and pop the question about it being worth less than a subway token.
After telling me I should register with so-and-so, he informs me that soon lots of films are going to be made out here, and even the governor is helping to lead the way.
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I imagine myself starring in a remake of High Plains Drifter, and wonder if I could grow the facial hair.
And then, for the first time since I've moved to this blast oven, I actually entertain the thought of going back into "the business."
Hell, I shouldn't be paying my SAG dues for nothing.