If you’re driving north on Mathewson under the highway, just north of 11th Street, you’ll drive by a two-story white house and an empty lot filled with mud, a few tall trees and a lawn that hasn’t been mowed in months.
Those who miss it can be forgiven for not recognizing one of the oldest and most unheralded movie production locales in Wichita: R.G. Studios.
Nick Pope, director of the Tallgrass Film Festival for the past 13 years, first heard about the studio last year when he received a copy of “Double Digits,” a documentary film about R.G. Miller, the lone artist behind the studio.
“I know people who have been making films in this community for decades,” Pope said. “And nobody knew of this guy R.G. Miller and what he was doing and how inspired he was.”
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He passed a copy of “Double Digits” to the other festival organizers, who gave it a prime evening slot. It was rare to have a movie in the festival about someone from Wichita, Pope said, and unprecedented to have one about a Wichita filmmaker – let alone one who has made dozens of films and has been working since the 1970s.
The movie was so packed for the showing on Oct. 15 at the Scottish Rite Center that the festival opened the balcony. Indiewire, an independent film publication, selected the movie as one of Tallgrass’ 10 best. The director, Justin Johnson, received the award for best new filmmaker. And the festival created a whole new award category to honor Miller’s singular dedication to pushing the boundaries of filmmaking: The Golden Strands Vanguard Award.
But when Miller’s name was called at the closing gala, two nights after the movie’s screening, no one in the Orpheum stood up to receive the award because, as the supervisor of dishwashing at Ourr’s Family Dining, Miller had his arms submerged in suds.
II. Special effects
To get to R.G. Studios, you climb a stairway that is lined with old costumes and miniature action figures, at the end of which, hovering above the kitchen doorway, hangs a skeleton with bulging eyes, exaggerated fangs and a tongue sticking out.
The studio also is Miller’s apartment. His fridge contains TV dinners, but the counters and cabinets are layered with years of paint residue. Lighting instruments are stuffed in one corner, and in the other sits a desk with a computer. There is just enough room for Miller to swivel between his computer and the counter.
The walls of his bedroom are covered in old comic books and memorabilia: The old pistols from his sweeping Western and the Gatling gun he fashioned together with a toy rifle and a tin of cookies hang above his bed.
In 2008, Miller tried to get his work on an indie film website. Johnson, the director, worked there and had developed an eye for spotting unconventional filmmakers. When Johnson saw Miller’s “Ace Thunder Ace,” he loved it so much he screened it for his Good Bad Movie Night series in New York. Miller’s work was perfect: It was a weird disaster of a film, Johnson said, but it was also ambitious and interesting.
“It’s surprising how he solves all these cinematic problems,” Johnson said.
Johnson kept in touch with Miller over the next couple of years, and he hoped to make a film about Miller’s life. But Miller didn’t fully believe that Johnson would show up until he received a call when he was just around the corner, driving up to his house.
One of the only things Johnson knew about Miller was that he often talked to himself while he made films with tiny action figures. “I wasn’t sure if I was going to be filming a guy who was unstable and had some kind of issues,” Johnson said.
Within an hour of meeting him in 2012, Johnson said he knew Miller’s story could work for a full-length film.
“When you film an actor or a star, there is a certain kind of energy they put out; something about the camera just made (Miller) light up,” Johnson said.
But Miller was not convinced. “I was thinking, OK, how is this going to be exciting?” Miller said. “You know really there is no plot to this story. It’s just a documentary about a guy’s life, about my life. There were no special effects or nothing like that.”
III. Growing up
Miller keeps a black-and-white picture of his mother, who died just after he was born in 1963, taped to the wall above his computer. He was raised by his grandparents in a house full of brothers and cousins. There were three boys in his room, and they created fantasy worlds together.
As a teenager in the 1970s, Miller was far more fascinated with a book he found about filmmaking than about school. So he saved up his money and bought a Super 8 camera.
It cost $10 for three minutes of film, according to Miller, which he would pay for by cleaning up after his brother’s dogs and waiting tables after he dropped out of high school.
The first film turned out all black because he didn’t realize he had to provide his own lighting. He used dolls to animate the silent films and only later figured out how to try to use a tape recorder to match sound to the picture.
He took over his grandpa’s shed and started writing scripts more than an hour long. He drafted friends, neighbors and family to play roles in his films, when he could, but when he could not, he used dolls or even filmed half the scene playing one character and then spliced it together with another shot of him playing the other character. He projected the films in his grandpa’s shed and let friends come watch for free.
But by this point, Miller was descending into a harmful spiral that would bring his filmmaking career to an early end. He started drinking as a kid and never stopped. He married, but he said his wife was like a limb he grabbed onto on the way down: she helped but could not stop his descent. He was eventually arrested for trying to recover money from her house, despite a restraining order, and then was thrown in prison for four years after getting caught at a drug den.
The last film he made, before going to jail, was called “The Law and the Order,” about a police officer who arrests a drug dealer and then tries to convince the dealer to go on the straight and narrow.
When Miller went to prison, he lost touch with most of his friends and family, and the big chest of films that he’d spent his life making was thrown away when his grandparents’ home was demolished.
IV. The process
Miller’s artistic process looks a bit schizophrenic, Johnson said, but that’s because Miller, unlike most filmmakers, works almost entirely alone.
He buys props, designs sets and fashions costumes that he as an actor wants to have tweaked. He is the actor who didn’t put enough effort into the shot that he as the director wants to redo. And Miller is the location scout who accidentally chose to put a fence in a scene that cut Miller the actor’s hand.
So Miller talks to himself as he works. According to Johnson, he is both a perfectionist and sloppy. He wants to keep working until things look right but wants to see roughness in the final product.
When Miller shoots scenes with action figures, he’ll typically shoot against a small backdrop on the counter in his kitchen, but for the human shots, he’ll shoot in front of the green screen he hangs on the garage or in the vacant lot next to the house.
Miller’s 97-year-old landlord lets him film in her backyard as long as he doesn’t make a mess or if he cleans up after bursting a balloon full of fake blood.
Johnson calls Miller’s films “impossible blockbusters” because the scope of their ambition should make them impossible for one man to make. His most recent films include “Rio Comanche,” an hour-long John Wayne-style Western epic, and “War at Red Rock,” a science fiction feature that starts with an American apocalypse in which Miller travels into the future and cuts off the arm of his brother, who plays a villain with an eye patch.
Miller said he was inspired by the King Kong and Godzilla films he saw growing up, and most of his fans have been neighborhood children. He didn’t know how to get his films in front of an audience, so he started leaving copies of his DVDs in neighborhood convenience stores. Miller said kids would come in to collect them.
He’s had a harder time reaching an audience online. The title of the film “Double Digits” comes from the fact that Miller considers any of his movies that have had 10 or more views on YouTube a success; anything in the single digits is a sign that he’s done something wrong and made a bad film.
So Miller couldn’t see in his own life story the heroic journey that Johnson saw over three years, until Johnson let him see an early version of the film. “It brought a tear to my eye,” Miller said. “I told him on the phone, I said, ‘Justin, I can hit you, Justin. You brought a tear to my eye.’ But it was in a good way.”
When Miller got out of prison, he didn’t want any part of the past. He didn’t drink anymore, he didn’t do drugs, he said, and he stopped making movies. His ex-wife kept a small collection of his old films, because she knew how important to him they once were. But he’d lost most of his old films and equipment.
Miller would wake up around 1 a.m., ride his motorcycle to a job in the jailhouse kitchen and then come home. Repeat.
He sometimes bought a leather hat, in place of the money he used to spend on alcohol, but mostly he just saved his $320 weekly pay.
But a decade after he stopped making films, one of Miller’s brothers called and asked him if he would help his son, who was on holiday from elementary school, make a movie.
So Miller spent the next couple of weeks researching digital cameras and bought a camcorder at Wal-Mart.
Miller saw the boundless energy of his nephew, who was so eager to enter a fantasy world, and remembered the games he used to play as a child, the joy of making something he loved without all the ego of wanting to be someone important or famous that had dragged him down the first time.
Now he combines the creative freedom he had as a child with the craftsmanship he picked up over the years as an adult. He talks in strange voices with action figures, and then swoops in with backgrounds, special effects, voice distortion and corrective edits – but not too much.
These are cheaply made “Internet art films,” his new movies proudly proclaim in the opening credits.
“Double Digits” has already played at a small festival in Europe, will play soon in Charleston, S.C., and will receive the top documentary prize at an independent movie festival in Brooklyn. The movie will be released on iTunes in December.
At a festival after-party, Miller talked to a makeup and special effects artist who saw “Double Digits” and wants to collaborate on his next vampire film. Another director said he was desperate to get a cameo in an R.G. Studios production.
Working with Johnson on “Double Digits” re-inspired Miller to collaborate with other people again, including cameos he’ll now sometimes write for friends and coworkers.
Miller now has over 500 followers on YouTube, and most of his films that previously had only a dozen views have more than 100, including thousands for “The Mask Man,” in which a masked superhero fights robots, dinosaurs, skeletons, Frankenstein and even an evil Muppet.
The Tallgrass festival is in the early planning stages to show some of Miller’s own films next year and display some of the R.G. Miller Studios costumes and props.
Miller is planning to use the miniature figure on the trophy he won from the festival as a character in his next film. He and the trophy will play competing adventurers in search of the same treasure, but the trophy will die after the first 10 minutes.
Miller has found that, in his other films, such as “Shark II: Wicked Beast,” his fans don’t seem to care that a character who died in a previous film is unexpectedly alive and even more powerful in the sequel.
BEST OF R.G. STUDIOS
Both R.G. Miller and Justin Johnson selected “Shark II: Wicked Beast” as their favorite of his recent Internet art films.