Boy meets girl meets zombie
It is perhaps the ultimate pop culture wisdom for our times: vampires might come and go, but there will always be zombies.
While this aphorism was not the creative determinant for filmmaker Daniel Lee White, it hovered comfortingly in the back of his mind while he conceived, nuanced and fought to make his debut feature film, "Cost of the Living: A Zom Rom Com," which premieres Thursday in New London's Garde Arts Center.
In the movie, the undead have risen and can be tamed to co-exist with the living. But, as with actual real-world situations, society splinters into two camps, those who support such integration and immigration, and those who do not.
"Basically, the way to describe the film is to say it's a romantic comedy that just happens to have zombies in it," White says. "I'd been thinking about the zombie phenomenon for about seven years, and I always wondered: what realistically happens after a zombie apocalypse? I mean, we have to carry on. We have to incorporate them into society. So immediately we have immigration and social issues."
In "Cost of the Living," White says he takes no sides, but definitely wanted to explore such push-button and timely issues.
"The zombie element was a fun component, and they provide a lot of the film's humor," he says.
The romantic tension comes when Andrew and Emily - who have opposite viewpoints on zombies in society - meet and fall in love. Meanwhile, the third principal character, Brian, becomes a zombie.
"Basically, it's a social/political satire, a story of struggle, and a romantic love story all wrapped into one," White says.
A Providence resident, White grew up in Niantic and spent his freshman year at Norwich Free Academy before transferring to East Lyme High School, where he graduated in 1996. His father and stepmother, Randi and Maureen White, own the Book Barn in Niantic, and his mother, Maggie Vanasse, lives in East Lyme.
After high school, White got his bachelor's degree in film and theater from Franklin Pierce University in New Hampshire. He says he knew from childhood he wanted to act and make films.
It's a not unfamiliar childhood fantasy and, as with most who dream of Hollywood-style success, it's not easy. White has worked dozens of jobs in all contexts of the biz: acting, directing and producing in short, industrial and major films, theater, and television and commercials. White says he did any and all jobs eagerly - the better to learn the industry from top to bottom, as well as to meet like-minded actors and technicians.
"My biggest dream, my ultimate goal, was to make a feature film. My mother and my father and stepmother have always been incredibly supportive, so I felt it was always possible. In fact, my mom did a lot of the art department stuff on the film," he says. "And Thursday, at the Garde, it will officially happen. It was an insane amount of work and involved a lot of sacrifice. I haven't had much of a social life outside my career."
White came up with the story for "Cost of the Living" with his pal Michael Skeldon, then wrote the screenplay himself.
"There was a lot of zombie research; what exactly are the rules of zombie movies? Then the hardest part was sitting down and writing it," he says.
Gradually, he was able to assemble a professional crew based on contacts he'd made over the years, and then put out a casting call to secure actors. After Kevin Killavey and Sarah Nicklin were cast as the romantic leads, and enough parts were cast to start shooting, the work progressed in self-supporting stages.
As they went along, White and his crew attacked such incidentals as a budget and marketing. Thinking like savvy and creative members of the Internet generation, they'd make short, in vivo videos about "Cost" and post them on the film's Youtube page to create buzz. Plus, the energy attracted volunteers and donations.
White says, "People would come up and say, 'I heard what you're doing and it sounds cool. How can I help?' And even when there might not be a particular part or technical job available, I'd tell them, 'No, no - don't worry. We're gonna get you in there one way or another.'"
Shooting took place all over New England, from New Hampshire and the Boston area to Rhode Island and, in particular, New London.
"... I grew up in the New London area," White notes, "and the entire town was so friendly and eager to let us work. We shot at Campus Pizza in New London and Crown Pizza in Waterford; the Oasis Pub and the El 'n' Gee - which was perfect because these were all clubs where my friends hang out or restaurants we actually patronize."
White met with the Connecticut Film Commission at a Garde Arts Center event and was introduced to Jeanne Sigel, the Garde's developing and marketing director.
"Jeanne loved the idea of the movie and was just really good to us," White says. "Plus, she thought it would be fun to have the premiere showing at the Garde, and what a great place to get to screen your first movie."
"I was impressed with his passion and single-minded focus on getting his screenplay from the written page to the screen," Sigel says. "And whenever we can, the Garde welcomes the opportunity to give new talent a forum for their creative development."
The company shot at any and all hours of the day or night - whenever a host location would let them in. There were several times when they'd shoot "day" scenes in the dead of night, working from when a restaurant might close in the evening until they opened their doors for the next day's service.
"Our only rule was to leave the places even cleaner than when we found them," White says. "They were going out of their way to help us, so we literally would take photos when we went in at night to ensure that even the salt shakers would be in the same place when we left in the morning."
After the Garde screening, life will return somewhat to normal for White. He teaches in Rhode Island and plans to spend the next year trying to successfully enter "Cost of the Living" in film festivals. The idea, obviously, is to get the film picked up for distribution by a major company.
Failing that, he'll go to plan B, which would be to market and distribute it on his own.
"Either way, and whatever happens," he says, "the whole experience was pretty wonderful. Early in my career, I learned to choose to work with good people. ... There are over 190 people who worked on this movie, and they were all people I wanted to work with and am proud of. I don't feel like I made a movie. WE made a movie."
IF YOU GO
What: World premiere of New London County native Daniel Lee White's first feature length film, "Cost of the Living: A Zom Rom Com."
When: 8 p.m. Thursday; doors open at 6 p.m., and the band Waking Elliot performs at 7 p.m.
Where: Garde Arts Center, 325 State St., New London
How much: $20
For more information: (860) 444-7373, gardearts.org, lovethyjob.com
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