Friday | January 19, 2018
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A caveman and his chicken: Kona artists film movie entirely on Big Island

In an untamed, lawless wilderness, a man is left for dead and buried alive. After escaping his grave, the man treks across the pristine yet hostile landscape to be reunited with his family.

While this could easily describe the 2015 Alejandro Iñárritu film “The Revenant,” it could just as easily refer to a recently released award-winning family comedy about a caveman and his chicken companion.

“Spit: The Story of a Caveman and a Chicken” is the first feature film project by Kona artists and lifelong Big Island residents Jonathan Stimac and Ryan Johnston. Completed in 2013, “Spit” finally saw wide release in December when it was made available on Amazon Prime.

Stimac and Johnston, who have worked together for over a decade as members of the band Goodbye Elliott, were drawn to create their film production company, Big Island Studios, based on their experiences in the band, Johnston said.

“Music is often connected to film in some ways,” Johnston said, adding that the band was frequently in contact with filmmakers seeking to shoot a music video or feature the band’s music in a commercial. Johnston and Stimac themselves were no strangers to filmmaking, as Stimac had studied film in college, while Johnston had been involved with several low-budget projects over the years.

Shot entirely on the Big Island, “Spit” was a concept the two had discussed for years, Johnston said: a caveman film emphasizing the natural beauty of Hawaii Island.

“The initial idea of the caveman movie came from an episode of ‘Spongebob Squarepants,’ actually,” Stimac, the film’s director and screenwriter, said, explaining that an episode of the Nickelodeon cartoon featured live-action black-and-white clips depicting cavemen. “The look of it, of the cavemen, was something we’d never seen before.”

From there, the concept of the movie followed easily. Johnston, the film’s director of photography as well as co-producer, said the film was intended to tell a very simple story augmented by stunning footage of the Big Island’s natural beauty.

“It was pretty easy,” Johnston said. “The beauty of the island speaks for itself.”

In fact, very little actual speaking occurs in “Spit” at all. The protagonist — the titular Spit, a hapless caveman portrayed by Kona actor Jesse Logan — exists in a time before modern language and, like the rest of the movie’s characters, only vocalizes in grunts and mumbles. Aside from occasional narration by Johnston’s father, B.J. Johnston, the movie could very well be a silent film.

“I like to think of it as an Edward Scissorhands role,” Stimac said, comparing his star to Johnny Depp’s largely silent yet expressive role in the 1990 Tim Burton film. “It was tricky, but Jesse was really good. He watched a lot of old silent films to prepare.”

Logan’s costar is Puck, who is a chicken. Puck, one of three fowl to depict Spit’s traveling companion — also named Puck — is an equally silent protagonist, but no less talented, Stimac said.

“Puck was born to play this role,” Stimac said, estimating that about 90 percent of the movie’s chicken scenes feature Puck’s performance. The other chickens, Biscuit and Levingtine, were “horrible,” Stimac said, and constantly fleeing between takes, while Puck kept to his mark comparatively well, for a chicken, and developed a fond relationship with Logan offscreen.

In one scene, Stimac said, Puck falls asleep on Spit’s chest as he stares at the sky. “That happened naturally,” Stimac said. “They really formed a bond.”

In lieu of dialogue are the visuals: sweeping shots of verdant hillsides follow aerial shots of oceanside cliffs, which precede scenes of waterfalls, forests, lava fields and stony shores. Stimac said the island’s scenery allows the film to have the apparent production values of a much more expensive movie — the film was shot on an “ultra-low budget,” he said, but declined to provide a specific number, saying he wants viewers to judge the film on its own merits, not on its resources.

“We want to do for the Big Island what Peter Jackson and the ‘Lord of the Rings’ movies did for New Zealand,” Stimac said. Jackson’s J.R.R. Tolkien adaptations, shot entirely in New Zealand, created a tourism boom based on the trilogy’s dramatic landscapes.

“At the heart of it is, we want to show the island as a backdrop, but not be intrusive,” Stimac said. “We don’t want to disrespect the Hawaiian community.”

After finishing “Spit,” Johnston and Stimac presented the film to contacts in the film industry and submitted it to several film festivals, winning a Gold Kahuna at the Honolulu Film Awards in 2013. Stimac said they received several distribution offers following these appearances, but no deals were completed.

For about two years, “Spit” languished, largely unseen, before another distribution deal, this one from Amazon, presented itself. Finally, in December 2017, the finished movie saw a wide release on the online marketplace’s streaming platform. Amazon Prime subscribers can watch the movie for free, while others can rent it for $2.99.

Big Island Studios is currently raising funds for its next project, a sci-fi film also to be shot entirely on the Big Island, Stimac said.

In the meantime, Johnston said other Hawaii Island filmmakers have been inspired to create their own projects.

“It’s inspiring to see these really talented writers and cinematographers coming out of the woodwork here on the island,” Johnston said. “It’s really encouraging to see.”

Email Michael Brestovansky at mbrestovansky@hawaiitribune-herald.com

 

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