On March 16, Oakland slam poet Jamie DeWolf posted a MySpace bulletin to advertise an upcoming “feature film house party,” in which he planned to reshoot a scene from his new crime caper, Smoked. He described it in terms that would pander to all the rowdy partygoers in his Rolodex: “The scene is a house party that goes all kinds of wrong with guns and fire. We’ll be providing a keg and a cop piñata and will be filming you getting your drink on. You don’t have to be an actor, just willing to help us out. You’ll get drunk on us and have a wacky wild time.”
The following Friday a few dozen hipsters gathered for DeWolf’s party at a large two-story walk-up near Lake Merritt. The hosts had decorated the stoop with balloons and a sign pointing to the keg in back, where beatboxers Scissor G and Constant Change sat cross-legged on the ground, grunting into a microphone over an audio loop. Skateboarders and slam poets smoked cigarettes, while film crew members tramped around with their tripods and extension cords. DeWolf flitted through the house in a black leather jacket and black derby hat, gathering all his extras for steady-cam shots and quarterbacking his lead actors — namely, fellow poets Rupert Estanislao and Geoff Trenchard, who perform together with DeWolf as the Suicide Kings; his brother Asher, who plays an arsonist; and a guy named Bojo, whose arm is supposed to catch fire.
DeWolf is no stranger to fire and violence. As founder and host of the long-running Oakland variety show, Tourettes Without Regrets, he regularly presides over meat-hurling contests, phone sex bouts, and dirty haiku battles. His MySpace page shows a photo of him laughing his ass off as a blindfolded girl is about to drink a shot of urine during a recent performance at Merchant’s Saloon.
Now the erstwhile judge of Russian piss-Roulettes wants to recast himself as a filmmaker. This summer he plans to shoot Richochet and Reverse, which depicts the Columbine killing spree in reverse, and reflects on “what causes teens to kill, in general.” He and girlfriend Natasia Schibinger also have a sport-film satire in the works, about a conservative guy who enters a swearing contest to take on “the filthy-mouthed champions of the world.” DeWolf has produced some abortive scripts in the past, along with several shorts — including a dark comedy about sadomasochism called “Safe” — but Smoked is his first bona fide feature. Shot over the last two years on BART trains, in desolate Oakland neighborhoods, and on downtown streets where cinematic hit squads ran around shooting at one another with live blanks, it tells the story of three low-lifes, played by the Suicide Kings, who rob a cannabis club after their house is burned down — not realizing that the club is owned by local crime lord Tyrone Shanks (local slam poet Abdul Kenyatta). Mayhem ensues.
The impetus for Smoked came from an article about a real cannabis club robbery. “I love crime capers; I love heist films,” said the filmmaker. “I love the gray illegality of cannabis clubs in general. … If you robbed a cannabis club what would happen in terms of how would the cops respond?” Another prominent theme of Smoked is the tension between “Berkeley hippies and gun-blasting Oakland,” a class and culture war that has always fascinated DeWolf.
Shortly after reading the article, DeWolf pitched his movie to Joshua Staley, a Fortune 500 refugee whose four-year-old film company, Masters of Sight and Sound, does production and marketing plans for corporate clients while making indie flicks on the side. DeWolf said he “kind of lied over a beer” — the alleged script was actually just a free-floating idea at that time — but Staley bought it anyway. After three months of writing and another two months of pre-production, the two of them began filming with $70,000 worth of gear and a snazzy HD camera that Staley procured just six days before the first shoot.
In the two years that followed, DeWolf led his co-director into all kinds of precarious situations. They shot the first few scenes at Compassionate Caregivers Cannabis Club on 20th and Broadway, just months before it was raided by the DEA. DeWolf staged wild-west showdowns in broad daylight, usually with a camera chasing his amateur actors “El Mariachi-style” through the Netherlands of Oakland. He filmed a scene at Tourettes in which a freestyle rap battle goes horribly wrong, ending in a shoot-out that sends three hundred bystanders pouring into the street. He staged a “naked clown party” that becomes part of a killing spree. At the March 16 house party he and special effects man Cliff Brainerd had the brilliant idea of covering Bojo’s arm in a couple layers of anti-flame wrap (the kind that mechanics use on racing cars so they can withstand thousands of degrees of heat), dousing it with gasoline, and lighting it on fire. They shot the resulting conflagration six or seven times.
DeWolf is as surprised as anyone that he got away with half the stuff he got away with. He proudly admits to breaking one of the cardinal rules of indie filmmaking by assembling a huge cast of characters and taking the gun and gore sequences to such spectacular heights. But this filmmaker was never one to follow rules, anyway. A descendant of L. Ron Hubbard who rails against Hubbard’s Church of Scientology, DeWolf has a twisted sense of humor and a penchant for violating expectations. And like his character Tyrone Shanks, the filmmaker can push his way into any scene or subculture by sheer force of will.
Looking back, DeWolf and Staley both admit they probably should have kept Smoked more minimalist and simplistic. “There’s not much in this movie that is traditional, other than we try to build the characters through the traditional storyline,” Staley confessed. But now that they’re entering post-production, the two seem fairly satisfied with their product. After all, Staley continued, they weren’t trying to have a traditional moral compass or feel-good resolution: “We didn’t write a Breakfast Club movie, you know what I mean?”