It's a Saturday night at the Buffalo Chip in Cave Creek, and things are hopping. The Pat James Band is onstage, tearing through a craggy, soulful rendition of Toby Keith's "A Little Less Talk and a Lot More Action."
Boots hang from the ceiling of the bar, under which a gentleman sporting a prospector's beard, a leather-fringed jacket, and a cowboy hat adorned with a long feather twirls an amused waitress. A woman with a plume of magenta hair done up in a beehive, wearing turquoise earrings and high-waist blue jeans, looks on ambivalently.
If the beers were cheaper, you might think the Chip was a place out of time.
In Queens of Country, the new film by writers/directors Ryan Page and Christopher Pomerenke, it's cast as one — the center of a fictional town called Dry Creek, where a young woman named Jolene Gillis (portrayed by rising star Lizzy Caplan, of True Blood fame) finds an iPod in a dirty gas-station bathroom. Turns out, the iPod is filled with classic country songs by the kind of women she idolizes and imitates: Tammy Wynette, Dolly Parton, Loretta Lynn.
Convinced that the iPod belongs to her soul mate, Gillis embarks on a strange, sexually ambiguous, and confusing journey that forces her to confront her deepest emotions. Her borderline-abusive boyfriend, Rance McCoy (Ron Livingston, whose many roles included one in Office Space and Band of Brothers), stands in her way, hiring greasy-haired ne'er-do-well Bobby Angel (rocker James Maynard Keenan) to pose as the owner of the iPod — deterring Gillis from continuing her pursuit.
Oh, and there's line dancing.
"Dry Creek is an imaginary town, but it's very similar to Cave Creek [the entire movie was shot in Cave Creek and Carefree]," Page says. "It's a place where country and country-Western are still alive and well, and Jolene is a small-town line-dance champion and beauty queen, and she lives her life as a 'queen of country.'"
Like Page, Pomerenke is an Arizona native, though they both are based in Los Angeles these days, and he traces his roots back to Texas and a grandmother named Twinkle Cash.
"My grandmother was born and raised on a farm in Wichita, Texas — a few hundred miles from where Johnny Cash was raised," Pomerenke says. "There's always been chatter in my family that we were related to Johnny Cash. My grandmother was kind of a queen of country music.
"When I saw Loretta and Dolly growing up, there was something very motherly about those female iconic figures. The big hair and tight waists and singing songs that are sympathetic, yet emboldened with strength. There's a Southern dialect, twang. It felt holy to us to tell that story or reveal that aesthetic."
It's easy to imagine that the Buffalo Chip is in the heart of Dry Creek. Mock mine lanterns hang from the ceiling, left over from the film shoot, and the clientele, even the scattered 20-somethings, seem content to imagine they're in the past. Patrons call the waitresses "darling," and they don't scowl.
"The Buffalo Chip is one of the coolest bars I've been to in my life," Caplan says. "I enjoyed all of Cave Creek; it manages to hold onto its funky weirdness while so close to Scottsdale, with the endless shopping centers and chain restaurants."
Helen Ori moved to Cave Creek in 1991. She's tended bar at the Chip for almost six years.
"They used my '65 blue T-bird in the film," she says. "The line director [Connie Hoy] came up to me and said, 'I need to know [who] is driving that blue Thunderbird,' and I started laughing."
Ori has a small part in the film as — what else? — a bartender. She says the Los Angeles stars and production crew had the community buzzing:
"The whole town [was] wondering what was going on."
Ori and some friends from the Chip have tickets to see the film's sold-out March 31 première at the Phoenix Film Festival. She's excited but notes, "Some people have said it's a weird movie."
With its masochistic ATV salesman, psychotic do-wop fans, and a heart-of-gold pre-op transsexual, weird only starts to describe the film. Though country-Western types will like the soundtrack, the movie's more John Waters or David Lynch than Urban Cowboy.
"[But] our film's not campy in the way that you might expect," Page says. "We feel pretty confident that we've stumbled onto a new tone."
You've seen Arizona in movies, though it's not always called Arizona on screen. The sands of Tatooine in Return of the Jedi are near Yuma and the "San Dimas" Circle K in Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure actually is in Tempe.
Ryan Page and Christopher Pomerenke considered setting the film in "hipper locations" — Portland or Seattle — but decided that the Cave Creek area was perfect.