The lights dim and the crowd grows quiet as the whir of the projector lights up the screen, filling it with the magic of filmmaking, where drama unfolds, bad guys get their comeuppance, and heroes are made. Most Americans love movies, but cinema takes on added layers of meaning for members of Adventure Club SLO, a day program for adults with cognitive challenges, who work together to create original films, the newest of which—Revenge of Blue Harbor—will see its world premiere on Sunday, Dec. 6, at the Palm Theatre in San Luis Obispo.
- PHOTO BY GLEN STARKEY
- THE DIRECTOR: Adventure Club SLO leader John “Johnee” Gange (left) works with his cast at No Slack Studios on their new film "Revenge of Blue Harbor," premiering Dec. 6 at the Palm Theatre.
More than a year in the making, the film is a black and white film noir—a sequel to the group’s 2010 film The Curse of Blue Harbor—about a trio of detectives looking into strange behavior among the residents of the fictional oceanside town of Blue Harbor. They soon uncover an evil plot to brainwash residents through a phone app, leading the “phone drones” to empty their bank accounts and bring the money to a team of criminals. But the film is more than a great detective yarn with a sci—fi twist and social commentary on the ubiquitous use of cellphones and how they’ve led to antisocial behavior—it’s also therapy for the participants, who increase self—confidence, improve interpersonal relationships, and gain an unforgettable experience.
This is the group’s 10th large—scale production, facilitated by John “Johnee” Gange, an autism specialist who’s served neurologically different SLO County adults for more than 25 years.
“For a lot of these guys, filmmaking is a new experience, and it’s an experience that builds self—esteem and helps them learn to collaborate,” explained Gange, who’s done some theater acting and is an avid surfer. “While we’re on hikes and out in the hills, we’ll do some improv—you’re cowboys and you’re bandits—and that can lead to ideas for our films.”
Creating these films is all about participation, something people with disabilities are sometimes excluded from.
“Some of these people are very rigid thinkers,” Gange admitted, “and this kind of work can get them to open up. We might improv for months as a build—up to the creation of a new film, see if any of the bits we come up with feel good, see if they’ll work, and we go through a lot of ideas before we settle on something we like. The actors develop their characters, come up with the story, which rises organically from the group working together. Yes, I guide it and help craft it, but they really create it, which gives them ownership over the process and the finished product. By the time the film is finished, they have so much invested in it.”
Of course, these are non—professional actors, which can make the process even more challenging.
“Film is a magical medium, and it can be edited,” Gange added. “We can do take after take and put it together—the best line from this take, the best line from that take. Powerful acting can happen because we’ve compiled the best bits.”
Adventure Club members also get the added bonus of working with big Hollywood stars. Big Sur resident Timothy Bottoms (The Last Picture Show 1971; The Paper Chase 1973; The High County 1981; The Girl Next Door 2004) and Santa Margarita resident Ted Levine (The Silence of the Lambs 1991; American Gangster 2007; Shutter Island 2010; the TV series Monk 2002 to 2009) have both guest starred in Adventure Club SLO films.
In fact, Levine appears in Revenge of Blue Harbor, screening this Sunday. These are both busy, working Hollywood actors. Why do they devote their time?
“It’s really fun to work with Johnee and his troop,” Levine explained via email. “That’s what is at the core of any performance worth watching: fun. That’s what I get out of it: good medicine. The one thing I find myself consistently saying to young actors is, ‘We’re telling a story together.’ Once you get that in your head you can get over yourself and get the job done.”
In Revenge, Levine plays a townsperson who hasn’t succumbed to the phone app, and like a deranged madman, he’s carrying a sign and screaming for people to put down their phones.
“It’s sort of like standing next to a hurricane, he has so much power,” Gange said of Levine’s performance.
The current film is a big step up from the group’s earliest works. According to Gange, the first films were “fully improvised.” In fact, they shot their very first film, The Tales of Galimera, in two days with a camcorder.
- PHOTO COURTESY OF ADVENTURE CLUB SLO AND 3:33AM PRODUCTIONS
- HOLLYWOOD HELP: Ted Levine (left), who’s appeared in blockbuster films such as The Silence of the Lambs and Shutter Island, volunteers his time to help with Adventure Club SLO film productions.
Now they have professional equipment and lighting, thanks to a raft of volunteers and donations.
One integral member of the team is Norman Pillsbury, who puts in a ton of volunteer hours as cameraman and editor. Why does Pillsbury do it?
“As a retired Cal Poly professor—with less time than ever—I allocate hours to organizations that support worthwhile activities, and hopefully my involvement adds value and fun,” he said via email over the Thanksgiving break. “If my efforts bring greater recognition to existing programs, then I am satisfied. Adventure Club SLO’s movie making program is phenomenal, and I’ve often said, ‘It’s the best kept secret on the Central Coast.’ I’m proud to be a part of it.”
Like everyone who’s worked with members of Adventure Club, Pillsbury has seen firsthand what it means to them.
“The response Adventure Club members have to our movies is most heartening. It gives them a chance to create something of value to themselves and our community—and be somebody special on the big screen. Such opportunities are few and far between for persons with special needs. It’s a huge esteem—building exercise,” he said.
Gange calls Pillsbury the most detail—oriented person he’s ever met.
“Norm spent three and a half hours editing a 2.5 second clip,” Gange said. “He could be a watchmaker. He’s the most meticulous person I’ve ever met—type A—plus! I’m more of the creative right—brain type, so we complement each other.”
Likewise, Pillsbury also sees their roles as complementary.
“This is where Johnee really shines,” Pillsbury said. “Imagine filming a scene in a 50—foot—long cave after an hour—long hike with 25 actors (including family members), movie staff, equipment, and food. Getting there on time, keeping everyone organized, dealing with occasional meltdowns from frustration, shooting take after take while coaching the actors and multitasking with family and crew and keeping the objective of a quality film in mind is a most daunting challenge. His ability to pull this off may be his greatest talent.”
Both men aren’t willing to rest on their laurels, and thus they continually challenge themselves. For this film, they decided on a film noir look. What additional challenges did it pose?
“Johnee is an amazing director and leader of Adventure Club SLO, and it was his idea to create a noir look to the film,” Pillsbury noted. “However, while running the camera it’s difficult to ‘see’ the end result in black and white, yet doing so is necessary in order to arrange the set and lighting properly. From an editing perspective, it’s more challenging to maintain the story and energy without color. Using tones of black and white to convey a variety of moods can be tricky, but the noir look definitely puts this film in a class of its own.”
Barely controlled chaos
Gange has his cast and crew assembled outside a SLO warehouse location, donated by No Slack Studios. It’s time for a quick powwow before they go inside to shoot a scene in the Bank of Blue Harbor, in which phone zombies file in, take bags of money, and file out while a trio of evil men control them through their cell phones.
Once inside, Gange offers direction to his cast, demonstrating what he wants them to do.
“Stare blankly at your phone. Type blankly,” he says. “You zombies, look at your phones. One other rule: Don’t look at the cameras.”
- PHOTO COURTESY OF ADVENTURE CLUB SLO AND 3:33AM PRODUCTIONS
- HELLO, STRANGER: Other Hollywood stars, like Timothy Bottoms (fifth from the left)—star of "The Last Picture Show" and "The Paper Chase"—have worked on other Adventure Club SLO films, such as "Hello, Stranger."
It’s barely controlled chaos, with about 30 to 35 people on the set, but everyone’s cooperating and having fun. During breaks, the actors sit in director’s chairs, and it feels just like Hollywood.
“I stuttered a little bit,” said James Holloway as the detective Frank Hollister, asking for another take.
Holloway, 28, has been an Adventure Club member for about seven years, and on a break in filming he talked about what filmmaking has meant to him.
“I’m having a blast,” said Holloway, whose previous acting experience includes “small stage stuff for my church, but that was years and years ago. This is completely different.”
“He’s done three or four Adventure Club movies, but this is his biggest part,” Gange added.
It’s got to feel great to see himself up on the big screen. How does he keep his ego in check?
“I try to keep myself humble,” Holloway said. “The way I see it, I’m a small part of something bigger.”
Peter Davies, 19, started with Adventure Club in June of 2008, and he plays Rookie, the detective who figures out what’s going on before the older detectives.
“I figure things out but the older detectives don’t believe me at first, and then they do,” said Davies, who’s been a member of Cuesta’s College Choir.
He loves to sing, and at a later meeting he spontaneously breaks into “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” from Mary Poppins. How’s he taking to acting?
“I’ve been listening to Johnee and following his direction,” Davies said.
“Peter has an uncanny ability to completely mimic anything I show him, and he’s perfect for the role of Rookie because of his youthful innocence,” Gange said.
Why does Davies do it? It’s simple. “For the fun of it!” he said.
Nicholas “Nicky” Bailey, 23, is also having fun and recalls vividly the first time he saw himself on screen.
“It felt magnificent and dramatic. I loved it,” said Bailey, who plays Mouse, an evil henchman who’s actually a sweetheart.
Bailey’s made seven films with Adventure Club. Does he see his acting improving?
“Yes, absolutely,” he said. “I’ve been seeing my craft improve. Before we shoot, we do a lot of improv.”
Robert Broughton, 26, has been in Adventure Club for eight years and plays a police officer in this film.
“I love Adventure Club,” he said. “It’s fun making movies—really fun—but it takes a long time to do.”
“Filmmaking is tedious, slow, and a lot of these folks have short attention spans, but they learn to collaborate,” Gange added. “They learn patience. It’s movie therapy.”
The adventure of filmmaking itself can also make a lasting impression.
For Revenge, Gange tried to work with the Morro Bay Power Plant to let them shoot inside, but he couldn’t make it happen. For past productions, he’s also tried to pull the proper permits for shooting in the county, but the process is expensive and burdensome. While he’s found many generous people to offer indoor locations, he’s sometimes had to resort to guerilla filmmaking.
“When the power plant wouldn’t let us shoot inside, we just all showed up in the parking lot—about 30 cars—and pulled out the cameras, boom mics, and reflectors and just started shooting,” Gange recalled. “I was looking over my shoulder the whole time, but trust me, no one’s having a bad day. It’s exciting, and these types of experiences create deep ties between people. ‘Remember that time we filmed a scene together?’ ‘That day filming in Morro Bay was so fun!’ No other program is doing what we do. We fully encourage artistic participation. For many of these folks, attending Adventure Club is the happiest day of their week, trying new things, being successful in connecting with a community, learning to express themselves. Many of the actors have stated the film premieres are the most exciting day of their lives.
“Most of the participants in our program tend to hang out by themselves,” Gange added. “They don’t necessarily have many friends, so one thing we try to have them do is interact with each other and communicate. They get such a big boost at the end, and it really helps people to connect with one another through creativity and collaboration. It’s a unique way to help people with neurological challenges to become more connected and to create meaningful lives.”
Soon it’s time to get back to work, and Gange reminds his crew of the cardinal rule: “Stay away from the camera. If you tip it over, it’s all over.”
It takes a village
“We’re a non—traditional day program,” Gange explained of Adventure Club SLO, “a nature—based program. We’re out in nature every day. We’re also community—based, and we try to interact with the community, so we might go to Steynberg Gallery, the SLO Museum of Art, or community gatherings and just hang out.”
About 50 people participate in Adventure Club, some as many as three to four times a week, others just once a week. Gange, who currently owns the program, is investigating making it a nonprofit.
“Until then, I can’t give people a tax break on donations, but that hasn’t stopped people from donating generously.”
- PHOTO COURTESY OF ADVENTURE CLUB SLO AND 3:33AM PRODUCTIONS
- THE CAST: Members of Adventure Club SLO, a day program for neurologically different adults, shoots a scene near the old Morro Bay power plant.
In fact, the organization’s passenger van, which drives participants to their adventures, was donated by a patron.
“The films are in part funded by the actors because we want them to be invested in them,” Gange added.
Most of their films are made for as little as $2,000, but they’d cost much more if Gange and editor Pillsbury didn’t volunteer literally hundreds and hundreds of hours, not to mention volunteerism from camera operator Harrison Harbers and soundman Colin Moynier.
In the last seven years the group has done nine screenings at The Palm, with the endless support of theater owner Jim Dee, who donates the theater for the night. Dee’s found the events to be very popular.
“Oh, it’s packed because of the kids’ parents and family,” Dee said. “The kids are so sweet and they take it very seriously, and the films are charming, very well done, with great acting. The progression of how the films look has been amazing—the professionalism has accelerated at an amazing rate. I don’t want to be maudlin, but it’s really enjoyable to see how much the kids appreciate it. I’m sure it put them on cloud nine to be on screen with Tim Bottoms.”
In addition to being self—funded by the actors and through private donations, part of the funding comes from the Tri—Counties Regional Center, which services San Luis Obispo, Santa Barbara, and Ventura Counties.
“We have many programs that provide excellent support for the people we serve,” said center manager Joe Hoeflich. “The Adventure Club is especially unique in how they utilize the arts. Through immersing individuals in the art experiences of filmmaking, they’re able to help participants grow in a truly meaningful way. These activities not only build self—esteem, but they create relationship—building opportunities—producing great art in the process.”
Adventure Club hopes to expand their services to Santa Barbara County some time in the future, and currently some members come from as far away as Nipomo.
The big show
The films have become “a yearly surprise for the group,” Gange explained, and the anticipation as the actors await the final product can be excruciating. “I’ve been in edit for three months, but the real thing is all about building up to this premiere and being able to put a giant exclamation mark on all their work over the last year.”
There’s a real feeling of success when Adventure Club members go to the Palm Theatre and see themselves on the big screen, and it’s something they don’t soon forget.
“For people with neurological differences, they sometimes need a bit extra to get something to stick in their memories, and we try to encode that as we highlight their successes,” Gange said. “Watching them watch the film can be amazing. ‘That’s me. I’m acting up there on screen,’ they think. And after the film, the clapping and cheering and talking to the audience—it’s something they remember. ‘Yeah, I’ve acted in seven movies. I’ve worked with Ted Levine and Tim Bottoms.’ What’s going on here is a shot in the arm that many of them never got before. They can say, ‘I’m a creative artist. I’m an actor.’”
As much as Adventure Club members get from working with actors like Timothy Bottoms, the Hollywood actors also benefit in other ways.
In a phone interview, Bottoms said: “I’ve been through some difficult times in my life and found that giving of my time made me feel better, and I felt so good about myself sharing my knowledge with these kids letting them know that they could be movie stars and that acting was something they could do too. I got to know them, and they’re some of the most nonjudgmental, kindest, happiest people. God, I mean, they’re so appreciative and so grateful, which, as you know, is rare.”
Like Ted Levine, Bottoms encourages them to succeed.
“I just try to give them confidence in themselves,” Bottoms said, “to praise them in everything they do. If they say, ‘No, that was no good,’ I tell them, ‘No, it was wonderful.’ I just try to keep it positive. Some of them, they have trouble with their bodies and their minds, but each one has a special gift to give. And they crack me up. They laugh so much. They always have a smile on their face. We can learn a lot from them. They’re so happy, and they make me happy.”
Bottoms recalled the first Adventure Club opening he attended for their Western Hello, Stranger.
“They were just so excited. They’re basically living and experiencing what they’d seen on television. It became reality for them, like they were movie stars. They were being photographed and applauded and appreciated for being successful in their adventures in movie making. That first premiere, we got a spotlight and a red carpet. We hired a limo and picked them up. There were roses—the whole deal just like in Hollywood, and they were dressed up and with their parents. I appreciate every single one of them. And Johnee, I’m very proud of him and all the work he’s done for these kids. Working together helped me get over some of my own problems I’ve been facing through their kindness and generosity and the unconditional love they gave me.”
Added Gange: “The tough thing is, all this work, and it’s one night only. However, the movie will be on Vimeo forevermore [https://vimeo.com/johneegange] and hopefully be part of some film festivals as well.”
In the end, Adventure Club SLO and their films like Revenge of Blue Harbor premiering this weekend are about the power of community, about people coming together to help one another, and about inclusivity. We’re all people with something to give, and Adventure Club’s films are a way some marginalized members of our Central Coast community can feel a part of something bigger.
“Let’s inspire the world,” Gange said. “Creativity is healing work for everyone involved. This is authentic interaction. We play music together, take hikes together. I feel so fortunate as a guide and filmmaker with Adventure Club SLO. I have a wonderful life.”
Glen Starkey is a New Times staff writer. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.