This accidental cinephile is building a homegrown film industry, one frame at a time
The Motel Life is set in Northern Nevada. Based on the novel by Willy Vlautin, it’s a film about two orphan brothers fleeing Reno after a tragic hit-and-run accident. But this is no action flick about outlaws on the loose. Haunted by looming anxiety and the ghost of childhood traumas, it’s a bittersweet visual ballad conveyed largely through the gorgeous desolation of the Nevada hinterland: snowy mountains, rumbling trains, one-street towns and cinderblock motels. And to think the directors were this close to shooting most of the movie in ... New Mexico?
Oh, no. Chris Ramirez of Lola Pictures would have none of that. “The filmmakers called me to put together three days in Reno (for key location shots), and they were going to make the rest of the movie in New Mexico,” says Ramirez, who provided production services for the film. “I put my foot down. ‘Absolutely not. You have got to make this movie in Reno.’ I loved the script so much I couldn’t see it not being here.” Before directors Gabe and Alan Polsky had a chance to object, Ramirez gave them the hard sell: He could help with the crew, scout the locations, nail down the logistics, everything. “I always overpromise,” Ramirez says with a smile. “It makes you push yourself.”
The Polsky brothers were convinced. The result: a Nevada movie through and through. “We had been trying to figure out how to do it the least expensively, but we also wanted the film to feel authentic to Nevada,” explains Gabe Polsky. “The setting is another character in the film that conveys the mood and the feeling. Even thematically, in how the brothers are trapped in by the mountains, and there’s a sense there’s no escape.” The film received admiring reviews (Los Angeles Times: “atmospheric … a sad outlaw song”) and a handful of indie film awards. Afterwards, Ramirez made his production chops official by founding Downtown Films, an umbrella company that contains sister companies Silver State Production Services and Lola Pictures. Silver State contracts with studios to handle the nuts and bolts of scouting locations and securing local crew. Studio Lola Pictures develops scripts and finances films.
Ramirez’s passion for growing a film industry in Nevada is more than merely entrepreneurial — though Ramirez is definitely an entrepreneur. The native Las Vegan and Gorman High School graduate took a meandering path to the film business, operating a successful valet service and consulting for Indian casinos before agreeing on a whim to shoot a music video in 2004 for Vegas alt-rock band Slow to Surface.
“I borrowed my parents’ Sony Hi8 videocamera and went out and followed them for three months, taught myself how to edit and did a video for them. (When I started) I barely knew how to turn a camera on. But I really loved pairing up the visuals with the song, creating, hopefully, an emotional pull that’s tangible, that I can show you.” From there, Ramirez was soon using his connections and expertise to find work as a production assistant and location manager for commercials, documentaries and feature films set in Vegas. He worked his way from minding the set in goofball comedy Bachelor Party Vegas to supervising the entire production of About Sunny, a moody indie about a struggling single mom in Las Vegas.
That evolution reflects his desire for a more serious brand of cinematic storytelling about Nevada. A $300,000 seed investment by The Downtown Project certainly helped his Downtown Films get off the ground, but what really drives Ramirez is a philosophical imperative to put some local stakes in the countless silver screen stories that get spun about the Silver State.
“When we were in our 20s going out, me and my friends used to comment how people think of Las Vegas — all bachelor parties and girls with boas — whereas we had a sense of ownership and pride,” he says. “I carried that value to movies. Visiting producers made their Hangover or whatever, hired as few locals as possible, then left and took all the money with them, end of story. I’m here to tell them, ‘You can get that talent here, you can get equipment here.’”
He’s since overseen the making of eight films in Nevada. Most recently, in May, he wrapped up an untitled project by director Gerardo Naranjo starring Dakota Fanning. Ramirez proudly points out that it was created with 97 percent local crew, and with all local equipment — and with one of the first state tax breaks for film productions passed by the 2013 Legislature. Expect to see the Lola Pictures imprimatur on many a future Vegas film, and watch for Ramirez to become a high-profile evangelist for nurturing a serious industry in Vegas. Along the way, he’s undergone a bit of a conversion himself.
“The Motel Life was pretty life-changing for me. I lived up there for months while I was scouting all these little towns, Virginia City, Gardnerville, Minden. I fell in love with the state more than ever before. Before, I was a Las Vegas-centric kind of guy. Now I’m a Nevada kind of guy.”