For indie publisher Two Dollar Radio, small film budget fuels big creativity

Jesse Tigges, Columbus Alive

The cast and crew of "The Removals" is racing to Dublin's "Field of Corn" sculpture to shoot a scene before the thunderstorm hits. As lightning pierces the horizon and claps of thunder boom, Nicholas Rombes, director of "The Removals" - a micro-budget film project from independent boutique book publisher Two Dollar Radio that branched out into film production in 2013 - guides actor Jeff Wood, who plays the film's male lead, Mason. Though the crew never intended for this scene to take place during a burgeoning, violent storm, it turned out to be one of the film's best.

"There was a storm coming - a really brutal one," said Eric Obenauf, editorial director for Two Dollar Radio and producer on "The Removals." "We were all rushing there, and Nick, [cinematographer Mike Shiflet] and I figured out the shot we wanted to get. This huge cloud is rolling in from the distance, and we just knew it was going to be massive. It was so dark and ominous, the wind is crazy and there's lightning in the distance. That was one of the coolest shots we filmed. That's something that Hollywood would have to CGI in, and do it in front of a green screen, and have big fans blowing. That's one of the advantages to traveling light."

What Obenauf means by "traveling light" is Two Dollar Radio's approach of micro-budget filmmaking, using minimal equipment and a small cast and crew. The independent book publishing company produced its first film, "I'm Not Patrick" - which had its Columbus debut recently at the Wexner Center for the Arts and is available for rent or purchase on the company's website ( - over a year ago on a shoestring budget of $2,500.

"The Removals" wrapped 18 days of filming - in Columbus locales like the basement of Spoonful Records downtown, during Fourth of July celebrations and at the legendary North Campus Blood Bowl - last Saturday and had a budget of $7,000. The combined cost of producing both films would make up a small percentage of the craft services costs on most Hollywood film projects.

While filmmaking on this monetary scale presents its own set of challenges, it also inspires - even requires - the filmmakers to capitalize on of every opportunity and work in a circle-the-wagons collaboration. Obenauf, Rombes and all involved in "The Removals" found that aspect particularly stimulating and exciting.

"Working with a team in Two Dollar Radio was really invigorating. It was intensely collaborative and gave a lot of creative fuel to the process," said Rombes. "That level of collaborating … was very refreshing for me [compared to] the solidarity of writing." An English professor from Michigan, Rombes published his novel "The Absolution of Roberto Acestes Laing" through the Clintonville-based publishing company and also wrote the screenplay for "The Removals."

"I think that's a big part of micro-budget filmmaking - trusting other people and their intuition. As the director, I felt like I was just part of a team. We each brought something different to the production. I felt like I had the overall concept of how I wanted the film to end up looking. Everyone else brought in their own collaborative way of making that happen. You need to be open to creative problem solving as it's happening. In this case, we got really lucky with the crew and actors, because almost everything suggested helped move the film forward."

Another case of "creative problem solving" took place during a shoot at a greenhouse in Delaware, where, you guessed rain was an issue. As Columbus was besieged with rain during the late June/ early July production - turning many of the film's outdoor shoots into unexpectedly soggy occasions - the crew found ways to use the inadequate weather to their advantage.

"The Removals" is an intensely visual film - Obenauf referenced Shane Carruth's "Upstream Color" when discussing the film's aesthetics - where recurring colors (red and black), shapes (cones and squares) and visual cues flesh out the often enigmatic, elliptical dialog. For the shoot at the Delaware greenhouse - on a muggy Thursday afternoon with heavy grey clouds and a near-constant drizzle - a red umbrella became an unexpected element that fit ideally with the film's visual metaphors. That same red umbrella would play a crucial role for the pre-thunderstorm shoot in Dublin.

"The Removals" has a script that's intentionally mystifying from a narrative standpoint. It's essentially the story of Mason (Wood) and Kathryn (Milly Sanders), two revolutionaries fighting against a dystopian, Big Brother future imprisoned by drones and nefarious radicals. But there is so much depth in this science fiction, dissecting notions of individuality versus group thought, originality versus duplication and the complex sentiments in the development of a loving relationship. These ideas coalesce in recurring symbols, like the red umbrella which only became a keynote prop because it was coincidentally on-hand during that greenhouse shoot, yet fit ideally with the imperative color palette of "The Removals."

"One thing that really stood to me was this relationship between all the shapes and colors in the film," said Wood, a Central Ohio native who now lives in Germany working as an artist, writer and actor. "The way those relate to the content and story of the film, and this conspiracy or movement that's really obscure or abstract. I think that's really interesting, [and] it immediately reminded me of the Russian abstract art movement from the [early 1900s] called Supremacism. This art movement was about the idea that our reality is dictated by symbols that shape our perception … that our reality is actually determined by our perception of aesthetics and there's a language to that."

"When I read Nick's script I thought, holy crap, this manifesto of shapes and how that effects our reality almost to a violent degree … is really far out and calls up [many aspects of] science fiction," said Wood. "But it also connects to this history of intellectual movements and aesthetic manifestos, which is really fascinating. I love discovering things like that in the script, because it's a rare occasion. It makes it so you're not just an actor. You get to be a cosmic detective for a little while, and get to be in the living Phillip K. Dick-type universe."

Wood's co-star Sanders was able to develop her character Kathryn, by discovering the humanity in the role, brought about by the meditation on falling in love in Rombes' script. This development also happened during the filming process, and again highlights the dexterity required by all involved in a micro-budget project.

"It's interesting because Nick wrote a line in there that was great. We stayed in the same apartment [during the filming schedule], and he would rewrite lines for me on his typewriter at night. We'd get back [from the day's shoot], and he'd be over there clicking away, and then he'd slide it under my door. The line was, 'Can you recreate the moment when you first fall in love?' What I took away from our conversation was this is what the whole script is about for him. It's interesting because I did get the love story between Mason and Kathryn, but it was curious that it was about that first moment. That made a lot of the other lines in the script echo for me and stand out," said Sanders during a phone interview from Los Angeles where she lives and works as an actress, producer and writer in short films and indies. "Again, this film is very mysterious and there are lots of [complex] meanings there, but it's probably pretty personal when you come down to it. You have to go into this film and get your own meaning because there's not a clearly stated thesis statement, and that's what I like about it."

Both Sanders and Wood got involved with "The Removals" because they were enthusiastic about the unpredictable DIY approach inherent to the filming process. For Sanders, it was her first exposure to Two Dollar Radio and its film division, and she was highly impressed by the "talent and expertise" of the crew, but also the ability to bring her own ideas to the film.

Wood echoed Sanders statements, while also adding it was nice bonus to be back in his hometown making a movie. The two leads also found Columbus to be a city defined by the community's willingness to support creative projects, something both Obenauf and Rombes said is crucial to a producing a successful micro-budget film.

"I can't imagine making this movie anywhere else. Everyone was so open-minded, supportive in town and willing to let us go into their basement or cabin or open their bar (Bourbon Street Café) at 9 a.m. that doesn't normally open until 7 at night," Obenauf said. "If we were in a place like Los Angeles or New York City, people would be like, 'fuck you,' and want thousands of dollars to [shoot at a location]." Obenauf added that all of the cast, crew and locations were paid for "The Removals" - just not at the high price-point common in commonly associated with moviemaking.

"The thing I discovered while I was in Columbus - and I hadn't spent a lot of time there [previously] - was that I was really impressed with the kind of creative vibe down there," said Rombes. "Every location we went to film … people were very inviting and curious about the project. And they all had their own stories to tell about their artistic endeavors. So I felt really at home and welcomed by the whole environment there."