Desert Companion

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Mike Jerry and Scott Thompson portrait
Portrait by Anthony Mair

Jerry, Mike, and Scott Thompson

The Thompson brothers set out to make a short fantasy film about a magic sword. It turned out to be the perfect commentary on 2020

Everybody’s happy with take 5, the dragon cave scene. The cameraman, the sound guy, Jerry Thompson, who’s cinematographer and codirector on this project — a short film called Sword Of! — and his brother, Scott Thompson, who’s playing one of the two main characters.

“That was good,” Jerry says. “We’re good.”

Everyone, that is, except a third brother, Mike Thompson, who isn’t so sure. “Let’s do one more, just for me,” Mike says.

No one argues. Besides playing the second of the two main characters, Mike is also the writer and codirector; he gets final say. On that “one more” take, Scott flubs a line. They have to do it again. Then, a spare camera battery has to be fetched from a car. The “cave” (a drainage tunnel near Angel Park off Durango and Alta) is dark, and Jerry starts mulling different approaches to lighting. While they wait, Mike and Scott chat about the tone of their characters’ exchange: “You’re getting quieter, because you’re losing this argument,” Mike says, “and that’s sad, ’cause you should win.”

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The more times they shoot the scene, the more they refine movements, dialog, camera position. It’s a small crew, and all of them appear relaxed in the way you get when you’re focused on something interesting. All chime in occasionally and pay attention when others do. They joke about not stepping on the used condoms in the drainage tunnel. It seems like a half-dozen buddies doing a project for fun on a Sunday afternoon, albeit with really expensive equipment. By take 10, the shot is perfect. They all agree.

This is how the Thompson brothers roll: collaborative, easygoing, yet professional. It’s why people in the Vegas film business know the brothers’ studio, Light Forge, can be relied on for good productions. Light Forge’s reputation fuels a steady stream of commercial work that funds artistic endeavors like this one. Sword Of! won’t make any money, but it will be creatively satisfying — and may even add to the pile of awards the Thompsons have racked up for similar work over the past decade.

Production Photo by Jennifer Autry

Quest without rest: The Thompson brothers with other crew members in various stages of shooting Sword Of!, including (above page) their father Gary Thompson, who plays a wizard in the short film. Production Photo by Jennifer Autry

All three brothers, Jerry, Mike, and Scott, can do all the jobs involved in making a film, but Mike is the driving force behind this one. He brings an adventurous energy to every scene, gamely donning each added layer of his character’s thrift-store sci-fi costume despite the unusually harsh mid-October heat, trotting up the drainage ditch to the mouth of the “cave” with a hint of the childish enthusiasm his character epitomizes as he charges into it, sword aloft, to slay the dragon. It’s partly because he’s acting, of course, and partly because the crew is on a tight schedule to make their goal of submitting the film to the Damn Short Film Festival by its November 1 deadline.

More importantly, though, the piece is genuinely meaningful to Mike. Sword Of! is very short — fewer than four minutes, including credits — and funny, but it’s also the product of the world in which it was made. Working on it was one small way for Mike to process the stress of 2020. None of us could slay the pandemic, political turmoil, or social unrest — but a filmmaker could, at least, turn them into a dragon, lurking at the back of a drainage ditch off Durango Drive, that’s no match for a guy with a sword made from a falling star.

Production Photo by Jennifer AutryProduction Photo by Jennifer Autry

‘The truth is broken’

Mike Thompson had Sword Of!’s underlying idea in his head for a while, but he actually sat down and wrote it just after the COVID-19 lockdown started in mid-March 2020.

“I had the time and energy,” he says. “So, I thought, ‘Man, I ought to finish this short!’ And it’s an easy short to shoot, but a very difficult short in post-(production), which is a good pandemic short, because every shot has a special effect, so we can do it at the desk.”

A plot summary will elucidate what he means. (Alert! Spoilers ahead.) Sword Of! is, essentially, a conversation between two friends, Steve and Carl, after they witness a heavenly body falling to Earth. Steve and Carl are archetypes: the former, all imagination and passion; the latter, science and reason. They interpret the fallen object accordingly. Where Carl identifies a meteorite, Steve sees a star — and the raw material for a glowing sword which, once made, opens the door to fabulous conquests. As their conversation progresses, so does Steve’s delusion. But the film humors him, its comedy/fantasy genre providing the dragons, wizards, and bat swarms needed to justify the magical weapon. In the end, Carl is forced to concede that Steve was right about the star. Well, at least, sort of … (get it?)

The piece’s compactness made it a good fit for pandemic protocols. Jerry, Mike, and Scott have all acted; you may remember Jerry as Thor, the title character in the Thompson brothers’ first feature film, Thor at the Bus Stop; Mike and Scott also acted in that one (and Mike and Jerry cowrote and codirected). Though the brothers hadn’t acted in a while, Mike felt Steve and Carl’s voices were a good fit for him and Scott. The Thompsons and Light Forge’s four other employees have maintained a work bubble since the lockdown started, so they were able to provide most of the crew. Risk was minimized for the few other, outside participants by shoots being outdoors and mandatory masks and distancing. The film had several locations, but each scene was less than a minute long. As Mike noted, the real work came at the end, when Jerry added the special effects, a job that he says took him five 10- to 15-hour days.

But it’s the content that makes Sword Of! a truly 2020 tale. Talking about the project in September, Mike described it in lighthearted tones: “The theme is how hard it is to argue right now, but it’s a fun version, and there’s no real resolution. It’s just two people who are really passionate and pretty sure they’re right.”

Production Photo by Jennifer Autry

Production Photo by Jennifer Autry

When we met on January 7, after the film had been officially accepted into the Dam Short Film Festival, it was impossible not to see things differently. That was the day after insurrectionists had stormed the U.S. Capitol building, heeding calls fueled by conspiracy theories and pursuing a foe that was no more real than a dragon in a drainage ditch. In outlandish costumes and brandishing fantastic weapons, a few of the insurrectionists became uncannily Steve-like social media celebrities. But the mob’s threats of hanging members of Congress on gallows improvised out of the scaffolding put there for incoming President Joe Biden’s inauguration weren’t funny; nor were the five deaths that occurred as a result of the riot.

Between the film’s conception and its final cut, Mike changed the characters’ names from Steve and Carl to The Voice of Reason and Joyful Ignorance. He says: “I think there’s this argument of logic and passion that’s always happening, especially right now, where your passion isn’t factual. It’s just passion. Passion is good, but logic loses to it, unfortunately. Logic will always be quieter and softer and less persuasive. … In the short, the truth is broken. The star is star-shaped, and it shouldn’t be. When logic sees that, it’s gut-wrenching for him, because he knows he’s right — the audience knows he’s right — but he appears wrong. To me, it’s beautiful and funny. Or, it’s depressing, and that’s how I deal with it.”

When he wrote Sword Of!, Mike didn’t foresee a bunch of angry, weapons-obsessed people storming the Capitol 10 months later. What he had in mind was more personal: the political arguments he’d been having with loved ones. Like with Thor at the Bus Stop, Passenger Seat, and some of Mike’s other scripts, Sword Of! pokes fun at a type of person he knows intimately, but it does so with affection, trying to capture their point of view.

And it portrays them as harmless. Joyful Ignorance embodies “the bliss of believing you know the answer without doing any real research, just feeling it and running with it at full speed,” Mike says. “You can’t prove them wrong, and they’re having the time of their lives.”

Words of wisdom: Mike Thompson consults the Sword Of script during a shoot.Production Photo by Jennifer Autry

Words of wisdom: Mike Thompson consults the Sword Of! script during a shoot. Production Photo by Jennifer Autry

‘Arguing always makes something better’

Sword Of! is classic Thompson brothers — poignant but fun. Almost all their work, both artistic and commercial, has a whimsical or silly feel, if it’s not straight-up comedy. This is no accident. Light Forge’s work culture helps to shape its work product. And that culture flows from Jerry, Mike, and Scott.

As he sits down at a large conference table in the back of company’s studio near the Orleans, Jerry describes how the business started in one small unit and gradually grew into four, taking over spaces from adjacent renters. His older-brother pride is not misplaced. If it weren’t for him, Light Forge wouldn’t exist.

While he was studying biochemistry at UNLV, Jerry took a job drawing caricatures at the Excalibur. “I started making adult-sized money doing that, and I realized I could make a living while enjoying my life,” he says. His senior year, he switched his major to film. It took an extra year to graduate — time well-spent.

Mike remembers watching his older brother edit films on Final Cut Pro. It was around the time nonlinear digital editing replaced the old cut-and-paste analog method, and he took to it immediately as a storytelling medium. While still in high school, Mike started helping Jerry edit films and attended UNLV’s Spring Flicks film festival, where he fell in love with the community. After graduation, he followed in Jerry’s footsteps, enrolling as a film major just as his older brother was finishing up. Scott, the youngest of the three, kept the trend going: apprenticing with his older brothers and then going to UNLV to study film, too.

The entire family isn’t in the business — there are two other brothers who aren’t filmmakers — but it’s not surprising three of them ended up there. Their father, Gary Thompson, is a retired photojournalist who spent 35 years at the Las Vegas Review-Journal (he took those iconic pictures of the 1980 MGM Grand fire). Jerry and his cousins, brothers, and friends would borrow other people’s video cameras to make movies until Jerry got his own when he was in high school. The brothers also acted, drew, and wrote stories growing up — all pursuits their parents encouraged.

It’s a family business in other ways, too, with various members playing supporting roles. Gary Thompson appears briefly in Sword Of!  (his second turn as a wizard in his sons’ movies); Jennifer Autry, Jerry’s girlfriend, was a production assistant on the shoot; Mike’s wife, Megan Wingerter, a violinist who plays with the bands A Crowd of Small Adventures and Dusty Sunshine, wrote the film’s original song with Eric Rickey.

Light Forge feels a bit like a brotherhood. As Mike and Jerry sit at the conference table going over the script to figure out staging, it takes them nearly 20 minutes to agree on how the opening scene, where the meteor lands, should look. At one point, Jerry suggests “a light rewrite” of Mike’s dialog would make better sense. Mike rebuffs a couple of Jerry’s suggestions for camera angles. But they don’t get frustrated or raise their voices. They’re just working out a problem. In the end, they go with a different idea than either of them had originally envisioned, and both like it better.

“On shoots, we might have disagreements about decisions,” Mike says. “There are a million decisions that have to be made. We all have our own thoughts beforehand, and it’s better to talk things out. Arguing always makes something better.”

This attitude extends beyond the core team. As the Sword Of! crew made its way to its fourth location on shooting day, two new people from the local film community showed up to help get full coverage of the meteorite shot. They didn’t just bring extra equipment; they also had fresh perspectives and opinions, which the Thompsons welcomed.

“Some directors get mad if you talk on set,” Mike says. “We’re not like that. If you have an idea, just say it. These things we’re making are for fun, so it really is about just collaborating with talented people and having fun and trying to make something fun, which you can’t do in a controlled environment.”

Production Photo by Jennifer Autry

Production Photo by Jennifer Autry

“That vibe is particular to them,” says local filmmaker and comedian Jason Harris, who says he collaborates with the Thompsons multiple times per year. “It’s one reason why I like working with them. There’s always a certain amount of chaos on a film, and people handle it in different ways, but Jerry is very calm about it, which lends itself to a better creative experience.”

Harris adds that the Thompsons stand out in the small Vegas film world by being a “soup-to-nuts” shop that can take a project from writing through post-production. As for what distinguishes each brother from the others, he says, “Any of them can do any other thing. But Jerry has been the director of photography for a lot of my projects … whereas Mike, I might ask him about a performance or how to move from shot to shot. Scott is an all-hands-on-deck kind of guy, welcome on any crew. He’s done everything.”

What’s more, Harris says, the Thompsons’ specialties, “move into each other.” Mike’s good direction is made even better by Jerry’s good cinematography. Jerry’s cinematography is improved by Scott’s good camera work. And so on.

Las Vegas itself, the brothers’ home, is also key to their style. It figures prominently in their artistic work — Mike discusses the desert and sunset as if they're characters in Sword Of!; Thor at the Bus Stop is like a guided tour of the Thompsons’ neighborhood. And their commercial reel features shots of Strip acrobats, Red Rock Canyon, Popovich Comedy Pet Theater, and boisterous real estate agents. These aren’t just local tropes, but also their clients, the reason Light Forge is so busy that it’s grown to a staff of nine.

Mike says working here comes with a certain freedom. “In Vegas, it’s so chill,” he says. “We shot a music video at a flower shop on Water Street in Henderson one time. We just kind of knocked on the door and were like, ‘Can we shoot here?’ And they were like, ‘Yeah.’ You can’t do that someplace like L.A.”

There’s no telling how long this might last — for Vegas or the Thompsons. Vegas hasn’t produced a nationally recognized filmmaker, like the Killers of the film industry … yet. But with external forces such as the pandemic and on-demand viewing putting extraordinary pressure on film, and Light Forge providing the Thompsons a steady stream of interesting work, the Thompsons are happy where they are.

“I love it,” Mike says. “Every day is different. … You meet a new person every day, go to a new place. At first it was a little stressful, but after you dive in so many times, nothing surprises you anymore. You just show up confident in your ability to make it good. You just show up to make art.”

Sword of! won best film in the "Best Nevada Filmmaker" category at the Dam Short Film Festival.

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