It's Marketing 101 for any filmmaker, particularly those whose movies lack an A-list celebrity to hype: Hook potential moviegoers with a memorable title. In this respect, UNLV film graduates Jerry and Mike Thompson took the customary approach with their feature-film debut, Thor at the Bus Stop. But that's where convention ends.
"There's a movie structure that people are used to, and this doesn't have any of that," Mike Thompson says of Thor. "So if you're sick of that structure where two friends meet up and then get into a crazy adventure and then they get into a big fight and then they get back together at the end -- there's none of that in this movie at all."
From concept to storyline to budget to the filmmaking process, Thor at the Bus Stop breaks free from the Hollywood moviemaking formula. And with the exception of the budget -- What filmmaker wouldn't take more money if offered? -- the nontraditional approach was very much intentional.
Jerry Thompson was about 10 years old when he first gripped a video camera. It belonged to his cousins, and Jerry would lead the youngsters in the family in making "movies" whenever they got together. "We'd shoot them all the way through," recalls Jerry, who is 34 and the second in a line of five brothers. "If we screwed up, we just kept going. And we're talking about movies we'd finish in two or three hours. Then we'd watch them and just laugh."
In high school, when other kids his age were saving money for a car, Jerry was scraping together cash to buy his own camera. As a 17-year-old runner for a local advertising agency, he stumbled upon a new contraption to replace the two VCRs he'd rigged together to edit footage. "They had a linear editing system down in their basement," he recalls. "Nobody knew how to use it, but I read the manual and I made a movie [using] that."
At this point, Jerry's brother Mike -- the fourth of the five brothers and seven years Jerry's junior -- had caught the art bug. He was taking theater classes in junior high and "starring" in the Thompson family's homemade films. The first time Mike saw Jerry editing a movie, "I quickly realized [filmmaking] was something I had to do." But just as his younger brother's enthusiasm for a career in the arts was peaking, Jerry began to have doubts.
The Thompson brothers grew up in North Las Vegas in "not such a great neighborhood," Jerry says. "It always seemed like life was supposed to be hard if you were going to be successful. So I didn't think it was feasible to be an artist."
When he enrolled at UNLV, Jerry -- whose oldest brother already was an engineering major at the university -- passed over film for biochemistry and a future as a doctor. He spent his first seven semesters studying anatomy, but kept his artistic juices flowing by drawing the anatomy. In the mid 1990s while still a student, he was hired to do caricatures at several hotels on the Strip, including Excalibur, New York-New York, and the Venetian. He estimates he drew about 35,000 caricatures over a seven-year span. He taught that skill to Mike, who started doing caricatures right out of high school.
As the paychecks added up, Jerry realized "it wasn't being lazy or copping out" to pursue an art profession. With his core coursework complete, he spent the next two years taking nothing but film courses. He finished his degree about the time little brother Mike arrived on campus. There would be no second-guessing a major for Mike -- he followed his brother's footsteps once more.
By the time they graduated -- Jerry in 2001, Mike in 2005 -- the Thompsons had co-created numerous short films. They won multiple awards from UNLV's Spring Flicks and their films were accepted into other festivals, including CineVegas, the weeklong film festival staged every June at The Palms.
Two of the more accomplished "shorts" were Mike-inspired ideas, titled Thor at the Bus Stop and Passenger Seat. Thor won the Best Film award at the 2003 Spring Flicks competition and the Audience Choice Award at the Las Vegas Mercury Film Festival the same year. Four years later, Passenger Seat won eight awards, including five from the 2007 Spring Flicks.
At the 2007 Best Dam Short Film Festival in Boulder City, the Thompson brothers took the Best Nevada Filmmaker award and attracted renewed attention from a former UNLV professor. David Schmoeller, who was also honored for several works at the festival, approached his former students and told them he wanted to produce their first full-length feature movie.
"For the most part, I thought that everything they had done to that point was very unique," says Schmoeller, who had previously spent nearly three decades as a writer and filmmaker in Hollywood before joining the faculty in 2001. "I went more on blind faith and I just said, 'Let's make a feature, whatever you come up with.'"
The brothers kicked around several ideas, but Mike kept coming back to Thor at the Bus Stop, the first short film he wrote as a student. It revolved around the mythical Norse God of Lightning, who tries to save the world before his demise in a modern-day Las Vegas suburb.
"I always wanted to make Thor into a feature," says Mike, who cops to a longtime affinity for Norse mythology, "and I told Jerry that a couple of times, but he didn't seem totally interested." Jerry has a different take: "I was open to the idea, but each character has to have an arc and they have to have closure and things have to actually happen so it doesn't just feel like a random series of events. The story had to weave together in a way that's interesting and seamless and funny."
Ultimately, the brothers combined the original Thor with elements from another award-winning short, Passenger Seat. They presented the idea to their professor-turned-producer, who gave it two enthusiastic thumbs up. "Thor was the most original and promising short [film] the brothers had made," Schmoeller says. "It was really this giant fish-out-of-water story that had a lot of funny bits going on within it."
Schmoeller compares the feature film to Richard Linklater's 1991 cult classic Slacker "because there are a number of characters that keep weaving in and out and running into each other and multiple stories. But in terms of mixing a mythological character in with a contemporary setting, I don't know necessarily that that's been done."
Mike, who plays White Trash Chuck in the movie, describes it as a chain reaction with multiple main characters. "Everyone kind of thinks they're the main character but nobody really is. That's kind of the heart of the film -- that everyone is equally important and it's all kind of connected."
Jerry and Mike dove into the script in February 2008 and by June the cameras were rolling. The 6-foot-7, blond-haired Jerry took on the part of Thor per his brother's request. They completed Thor in 20 shooting days (all on weekends over a three-month span, and all in Las Vegas) with help from a cast and crew of 60. It was a UNLV project from start to finish with nearly every role on and off camera filled by a current student or alumnus.
With a shoestring budget, nobody received any monetary compensation. That included May May Luong, '06 BA Film Studies, who had a bit part in the movie and served as co-producer with Schmoeller. Luong also co-produced the Schmoeller-directed short films Wedding Day and Two Frenchman Lost in Las Vegas.
On Thor, Luong "pretty much handled all the logistics of getting everyone where they needed to be and had what they needed," Jerry says. "She organized the whole shooting schedule, which was a nightmare with all the people involved. Since everyone was working for free, we had to work around everyone's availability. With dozens of speaking parts, organizing them all was a fairly miraculous accomplishment. Mike and I didn't have to do anything but direct and shoot."
By October 2008, the brothers had completed a rough cut and sent it off for sound production, which took several months. In the meantime, Jerry submitted Thor for consideration for the 2009 CineVegas festival; the brothers had shown at CineVegas previously, but never with a feature-length film.
"Short films are awesome, I love them and I want to keep making them for the rest of my life," Jerry says. "But at film festivals like CineVegas, you kind of feel like a freshman who snuck into the prom. You have a badge and you get to go, but you [only] made a short, and all the feature directors are kind of looking at you like 'Oh, that's cute. I used to do that.'"
Thor was accepted as the only Nevada entry in the feature category, and it was shown on consecutive nights in June in a packed 400-seat theater. Local media coverage was all positive and more screenings followed, including the 2009 World Comedy Film Festival in Bangkok and the 2009 Singapore International Film Festival. Then in late August, The Palms' Brenden Theaters jumped on board once again, agreeing to give Thor a full-fledged theatrical release with a month-long stint that began in late September.
"If we have a good run [at The Palms], then it bodes well for the film," Schmoeller says. "I think it will get attention and we may continue to release it theatrically in a very small way -- going from one theater to another theater to another theater. Or we may just decide to try to sell it to a cable [network]."
As for what's on deck for the brothers Thompson as a creative team, a little bit of everything. Jerry has owned his own production company (Light Forge Studios) for several years and has multiple film and editing projects in the works. He often employs both Mike and his youngest brother, Gary Scott Thompson, who is finishing up his film degree at UNLV.
Mike and Jerry also have written two short films that they're hoping to produce, and they've signed on to co-write and co-direct an oddball feature film for Gregory Popovich, who stars six days a week in the family-oriented Popovich Comedy Pet Theater show at Planet Hollywood.
Beyond that, the brothers say there are no big-picture plans. The hope, of course, is that Thor is successful and catapults their career to the next level, eventually leading to another feature film. Regardless, they will continue to write, act, direct, film, and edit, and do so mostly together and mostly in their hometown.
"I think it's likely as time elapses -- and really, it's already started to happen -- we're going to have different interests," Jerry says. "There are going to be times when one of us is really excited about a project and the other isn't so much. But neither one of us has ever written and directed a movie without the other one. And I don't think we ever will."