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Slasher movies? Zombie flicks? They’re being made right here in the north state by independent movie-maker Rene Perez. He used his artistic talent to escape Oakland’s tough streets, and his independent nature to carve out a hard-working niche in a tough business.
Perez, 40, left Oakland, and “every horrible thing that can happen to a poor Mexican kid in the slums,” by way of an unlikely trip to the Dominican Republic provided by a music publisher, who was too broke to pay his salary but had some leftover reservations.
“I was 28. I’d never been out of Oakland before,” Perez said. “It was paradise.” He met and married his wife, a model, and stayed several years before coming back to the States. He moved to the Redding area five years ago after living in Los Angeles.
“L.A. is not conducive to the arts,” he said. “You need the absence of non-artistic people.”
Perez has learned some hard lessons. “Every side of the movie business is completely corrupt. They all cook their books. It doesn’t matter what they promise.”
He gets calls from people in the business. “No one calls me who doesn’t want to take advantage of me,” he said.
Perez, who didn’t finish high school and has no training, is an “independent” film-maker but works for a German distributor. Perez said the man is the most honest person he has found, but he’s in his sixties and might retire at any time. The distributor tells him what theme he wants to see in the film. Perez writes the script, obtains the actors, films the action, edits the film and sends it to the distributor. Perez also writes the musical score.
He makes four movies a year. If Perez takes a break, someone might replace him. He cites Variety Magazine, saying that in 2012, 5,000 low-budget films were started, only two percent were completed and less than one percent were distributed.
That’s what sets Perez apart from other independent film makers, Joey Bertschi, his only technician, said. Bertschi, who spent 25 years in L.A. as a cameraman and another 10 in Las Vegas before moving to Redding to work the cameras for Bethel’s television station, said, “If Rene says he’s going to do something, he does it.”
Perez can’t afford help, Bertschi said. “Everyone pitches in. There are no prima donnas here. Actors hold the lights and wash the dishes.”
I found Perez and Bertschi recently, inside a pine log and granite boulder lodge near Lassen National Park, along with three Hollywood actors, shooting the last scenes in his latest slasher movie, “Playing With Dolls II”. In this scene, actress Karin Brauns, a 25-year-old Swedish blonde, is picking up a bottle of liquor after thinking that she has survived the slasher and won the movie’s million dollar prize.
Brauns repeats the scene many times as she dances around the room so Perez can film from different angles. She’s not complaining. “Life is about adventure, about taking advantage of every opportunity,” she said later. She left Sweden when she was 18, and traveled around the world for several years before landing in Los Angeles, and immediately fell in love with the city’s “creativity.” She’s taken some acting classes, done some modeling and made some shorts. She’s not planning on leaving Hollywood. She loves the excitement. “People are so outgoing,” she said.
Perez completes his full-length movies in three months for $25,000 to $30,000, not including his salary. “I make the cheapest movies around that are put on store shelves,” he said. The movie will be released in Germany first and then here in the United States. His movies can be purchased at Walmart, generally. How does he make them so cheaply? He’s the first to admit that he takes advantage of actors.
“I’m hiring them and paying them peanuts.”
He can do that because actors are desperate. Andy Espinoza Long, 29, was going to San Diego State, majoring in political science and journalism, when he saw “Lord Of The Rings”, which inspired him to move to Hollywood, without a job or a car, sleep on a friend’s couch, bank on his good looks and desire to land an acting job. He went on Craigslist, Actors Access, and other websites, “willing to take any gig I could get.”
He’s been on Discovery Reenactment Shows. He’s modeled. But it’s like a friend of his says: “You’re not that special.”
A year ago he bought his own camera and looked Perez up because he wanted to learn how he does it. He’s not enthusiastic about monster movies but said, “I’m learning how to make a living as an actor.”
Colin Bryant, a 29-year-old former Arena Football League player from Minnesota, came to Los Angeles three years ago to be an actor. He’s done work on the Disney Channel and works security for a hotel. He’s been in two movies with Perez. Each one is a week-long commitment.
“It’s tough being bigger,” he said. “You get typecast.” He enjoys making movies but he is, at heart, a writer. He’s written two screen plays and is working on a novel.
We are all “scratching the itch,” veteran Redding actor John Welsh, said. “I work for gas money. I couldn’t buy my way into a part in Los Angeles. I’m not getting rich and I don’t have any dreams of getting rich or being discovered. It’s just the thing I do best.”
Welsh, who moved to Los Angeles in 1976 to act, “found out it was a business and it took the wind out of my sails.”
He spent 30 years there, working in information technology. He moved to Redding in 2010, found local acting opportunities, including working with Perez.
“I met him at a class and we hit it off immediately.”
Welsh has been in seven Perez movies, including “The Dead the Damned and the Darkness” and “Alien Showdown: The Day the Old West Stood Still”.
“If I say I’m available, he’ll mold me a part,” Welsh said.
Perez said that local actors are the ones he wants. “It saves me money, from having to fly actors up from Los Angeles.”
“I would love to see him move to the next level,” Welsh said of Perez. He credits Perez’s “discipline and calm” to his martial arts training. Perez has a life-sized martial arts training dummy in the office of the home he recently purchased in the oak woodlands south of Redding. He started out learning Kung Fu as a child and then Muay Thai, which he has been practicing for 20 years. He does it for fun, just like playing the piano.
“If I was a millionaire, I’d spend the whole day playing music and drawing. I have only one talent and that’s artistic. I can’t fix my car, do my taxes, balance my checkbook. I’m severely dyslexic. But I’ve reached a place of security, which for me and my ethnicity isn’t always allowed. Obviously no one would want to do this forever, but I would consider myself lucky if this was all I ever did.”
Perez gets nothing but praise from Marilyn Robrahn, a local actress who has been in four of his movies. “He works likes a mad dog, his shots are really good and he treats everyone with respect,” she said.
For now, the Redding area is where Perez makes movies. However, he keeps his eye open for opportunity and is exploring China.
“The Chinese market is generally blowing up for everything,” he said. “It doesn’t matter whether it is cars or clothes or movies. I’ll go wherever I have the most freedom and the most pay.”
Bill Siemer grew up on a farm in Lassen County, played basketball at Shasta JC, went to Vietnam, became a newspaper reporter and then a lawyer and now considers himself a champion of the story that needs to be told. He lives on the bank of the river and takes pictures.