by Lucy Leitner
Moby Dick is known for its nautical setting, insurmountable length, and distinct lack of action. So, local filmmaker and tattoo artist Brian Holton decided to turn the Herman Melville classic into a fast-paced short film that takes place on land. By removing the parts of the story that the easily bored and seasick find objectionable, Holton’s film is a welcome departure from the adaptations, sequels, and inexplicably popular practice of adding monsters to any piece of literature that has fallen into the public domain. AHAB is a film that stands alone as a modern interpretation of the eternal themes, goals, and archetypes present in Moby Dick.
In this age of micro-blogging in which this very post seems like a Russian epic, screenwriter/director/co-producer Holton realized that his beloved Moby Dick had to be shortened. All the way down to a 21-page screenplay.
“More people read about Moby Dick than Moby Dick itself,” Holton observed.
In the fall of 2011, Holton, the owner of Lawrenceville tattoo shop The Drawing Room, was experiencing a rather odd phase—mornings were devoted to listening to his 18-disc Moby Dick audiobook while his evenings were consumed by gangster movies like Donnie Brasco and Goodfellas. While watching Scarface, he became aware of the parallels between the 1983 Al Pacino classic and the Melville novel. Both anti-heroes, Captain Ahab and Tony Montana, were singularly obsessed with something just out of their reach, something unattainable, bigger than them that would eventually lead to their destruction.
And Holton had found his way to retell Moby Dick, a story that had fascinated him since he was assigned to read it in grade school.
But there were a few logistical issues. For one, Moby Dick takes place at sea, and as we’ve all learned from Waterworld, aquatic movies can be extremely expensive and far from a sure bet, so he opted to move the nautical tale to dry land. And his ideal choice of Daniel Day Lewis as Ahab was somewhat difficult to come by.
Luckily Holton’s neighborhood in the Bloomfield section of Pittsburgh has both an Atlantic and Pacific street, providing a seafaring reference to the now-landlocked tale. The white whale in Holton’s film is a person, Levi, a member of a rival crime family of Ahab’s equally malicious crew. The exact type of crime is irrelevant, Holton says, because the story is that of the human condition.
The script wasn’t yet complete when Holton made his first casting decision. While working at the Drawing Room, his friend Sean McCollum walked by and Holton thought, “That’s my Ahab.” McCollum, a bartender with a theater background, jumped right on board and into rather surprising method acting in which he was caught walking with a cane in Lawrenceville to practice Ahab’s limp. The rest of the cast’s enthusiasm mirrored McCollum’s. Maggie Vorum, a model and soon-to-be police academy student, offered to bleach her hair for continuity purposes. Cast members were getting together independently to run lines. Everyone was upping their trips to the gym.
“Everyone has this intense support and belief in him and the movie,” Holton’s girlfriend and AHAB co-producer April Gustafson said.
“When a movie really wants to get made, everything you need just falls out of the sky,” Holton added.
Adding to his eclectic influences, Holton learned from the books of the RZA in which the rapper wrote about the Wu-Tang Clan’s development of their own dialect, and opted to invent his own Melville-influenced slang for the dialogue.
Holton—who has served as a production assistant on commercials in Kansas City, MO and directed music videos—pooled all his resources in a manner that he describes as “bohemian,” casting a model as The Ocean, a break dancer Ron Chunn as Starbuck, and Megadef frontman Billy Pilgrim as Coffin, using their talents and comfort on a stage in place of traditional reels. Drawing Room tattoo artist and Tom Savini’s Special Effects Makeup Program graduate Angel O Conner handled makeup and effects while recent Pittsburgh Filmmakers grad Max Segal served as DP on the film and will work on editing. They filmed at friend’s houses in Lawrenceville, along with the Terminal Building and Winghart’s in the South Side.
Holton and Gustafson invested their personal assets to finance the entire film for less than $5,000, which led to making some concessions in the name of affordability. Originally reluctant to either include the Ishmael character in the script (the narrator in the novel) or to appear in the film, Holton eventually came to the conclusion that Ahab’s point of view was far too insane to serve as the filter and that reading the lines himself was simply more efficient than teaching someone else the exact vocal inflections.
Living up to his mantra “whatever gets the movie done,” Holton recorded the voice-over narration at Lawrenceville neighbor Ice House Studios, where artists like Wiz Khalifa and Mac Miller have also recorded. Independently from The Drawing Room, Holton traded ink for crew work and tapped into his connections at the artist collective Cosmic Mafia for merchandising, music, and lighting. Gustafson lent her knowledge from her film studies degree (Pitt, ’06) and experience working on Spike TV’s The Kill Point and interning on Mysteries of Pittsburgh and My Tale of Two Cities.
Though the wrap party was last weekend, the “wrap” part was rather pre-emptive as not only does the film need to be edited, there are still scenes to shoot. However, the film is on schedule for completion and ready for the October 12 premiere at 720 Music.
Holton and Gustafson recently launched an indiegogo campaign with the hope of breaking even, at least momentarily, until they reinvest that money in promoting the film and taking it to the festival circuit. Holton plans to submit the film to Sundance, among others and hopes to travel to festivals at which AHAB is accepted, to introduce his ambitious undertaking of reinventing a classic.
“I wanted to take Moby Dick and squeeze it into a can of Red Bull,” Holton said.